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What Is Autofiction?: Background information when reading The Book of Mother

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The Book of Mother

A Novel

by Violaine Huisman

The Book of Mother by Violaine Huisman X
The Book of Mother by Violaine Huisman
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2021, 224 pages

    Paperback:
    Oct 2022, 224 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Callum McLaughlin
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About this Book

What Is Autofiction?

This article relates to The Book of Mother

Print Review

Covers of My Struggle, Go Tell It on the Mountain, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time IndianAs a concept, autofiction can seem like an oxymoron. Short for autobiographical fiction, the term was coined in the 1970s by French writer Serge Dubrovsky, and it quickly became something of a buzzword in the publishing world. This blend of two seemingly disparate forms is best described as a fictionalized account of real-life events, heavily influenced by the author's own experiences.

While most of us are familiar with the notion of "writing about what you know," it may seem strange to some readers that an author would choose to frame their own life story as fiction, rather than simply pen a more recognizable memoir. Some have suggested that autofiction exists on a spectrum, from the heavily fictionalized to almost entirely true. This would go some way toward explaining why, despite the form's long history, it retains an air of mystique; its very definition and boundary lines continuing to blur and cause debate. Recognized examples of more specific types of autofiction include the following:

  • Author surrogate: Here, the narrative itself is almost entirely fictional but one of the characters acts as a mouthpiece for the author's own perspective and opinions on the themes being explored. One example of this type of autofiction is Stephen King's Misery, which uses the fictional scenario of a kidnapped writer to explore issues King was dealing with in real life, including addiction and pushback from fans about his work.
  • Self-insertion: This is similar to the above style, but is a more overt way for the author to place themselves within the story. Here, a character typically has the same name and backstory as the author, making it clear they are blending fact with fiction. In The Wrong End of the Telescope by Rabih Alameddine, the protagonist Mina meets a writer who is strongly implied to be the author himself while she is helping Syrian refugees in Greece.
  • Semi-autobiographical: Perhaps the best-known and most commonly observed form of autofiction, this approach sees an author exploring specific events from their life, fleshing out or tweaking details to form a more cohesive and satisfying narrative arc. Examples include Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain and Violaine Huisman's The Book of Mother.
  • Fully-autobiographical: This is in essence a more exaggerated example of the above style. Minute details such as names and dates may have been changed out of respect for others' anonymity, but the narrative follows the author's life more or less to the letter. Karl Ove Knausgård's six-part series My Struggle would be an example of this type. The books are a direct reflection of the author's life and relationships, and he has been sued by family members over depictions and revelations therein.

In short, autofiction presents the perfect solution for many authors who want their work to exist without the restraints of a more traditional novel or memoir. While the former may deny them the opportunity to comment explicitly on their own experiences, the latter may stifle creative flair. After all, few of us have lived a life that would adhere neatly to the structure and chronology that most readers expect from a book.

Violaine Huisman spoke eloquently of these freedoms when discussing the origins of her novel The Book of Mother with Vogue magazine. Though initially penning her mother's life story in a more straightforward manner, she revisited the manuscript with the concept of autofiction in mind: "I realized then that I had to distance myself from facts in order to give shape to my mother's story, to create a coherent narrative." She explained further: "… fiction is the imaginative power to give form to the real, to make sense of the chaotic nature of living … [It] has the ability to create logic where there is none, to give coherence and stability to the story in a way that feels very powerful and personal."

Filed under Books and Authors

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Book of Mother. It originally ran in November 2021 and has been updated for the October 2022 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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