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24 ways to interact with life-writing texts: A summary of Smith and Watson


How does an author “writing back” to hegemonic institutions/dominant narratives allow her to gain agency?


Who does the text address; are there multiple audiences? What kind of reader does the text ask you to be?


Is the narrator authoritative? Does the narrator defer to an established authority figure to give clout to their story?

Authorship/Historical Moment

What is the historical context of the author’s position at the time of publication/creation? What cultural meanings was the text assigned? Was the text influential? Whose autobiographies get published today?

Autobiographical “I”

How can a reader distinguish between the historical (historical social position), narrating (narrator’s tone), narrated (personas/versions of author), and ideological (ideology of personhood) “I”s of the text?


How does the medium of the graphic novel/comic book influence how a story is told?


How is the body represented in the text?


Is the narrative cohesive? Is there closure?

Collaborative Autobiography

How much power does a collaborator (editor/ghostwriter/transcriber) have?


Are any ethical boundaries transgressed by writing candidly about real people? How can readers engage respectfully with someone else’s stories, particularly their trauma, without being spectators to their pain?


How does the author identify (ie. racialized, gendered)? How do these modes interact/conflict?


Does the author attempt to know herself better via the writing of the text? Does she engage in knowledge production or is knowledge transmitted to the audience?


What types of memories are privileged? How are they represented? Is there attention called to things forgotten? Are memories accessed through public or private documents (museum exhibit vs. family album)?

Narrative Plotting/Modes

What is the structure of the narrative (ie. poem, essay)? Does it follow the structure of a typical autobiographical mode?

Online Lives

How does a person self-narrate via online content? What aspects of themselves are they performing?


How does the material inside and outside the text frame and contextualize a narrative (photos, cover illustrations)? Does this influence how we interpret it?


Who else is in the text? What is their role (ie. lover/family)?


How is the story positioned geographically, or within geographic ideological space (ie. urban, domestic)? Does the story engage with borders, contact zones or other trope of spatiality?


Is the narrative moment decipherable? Does the narrator talk about the actual writing of the text? How is the past/present/future organized? Is it chronological?


Does the author use non-verbal strategies to deal with trauma? Does she reference the narrative as therapeutic?


Does the narrator have multiple voices? When do they emerge/disappear? How do they interact?

Smith, Sidonie and Julia Watson. Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives.  Second edition. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 2010.



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