Autobiographies are a powerful form of testimony. Somewhat carelessly filed as a sub-genre of non-fiction, these personal narratives, confessions and reflections (amongst others) function as platforms that operate across intensely personal, political and social intersections. It is within this myriad form that those whose voices are excluded or marginalized are given the space to articulate their own experiences in their own voice, uncompromised by another’s version of the truth.
Below is a list that includes some well-known and some classic reads: some may be new to readers, not because their content hasn’t been celebrated as worthy, but simply because they haven’t been circulated in the public domain; others are enjoying a resurgence in popularity. Be brave, take a risk and spend some time in a world other than yours.
Autobiography of an Unknown Indian by Nirad Chaudhuri (1951)
Written by Duff Cooper Memorial award winner, and now regarded as a classic in Indian literature, this is an unflinching and insightful analysis of Indian history, culture and British rule. An avid admirer of British culture, he made his home in Oxford at the age of 70 (he lived till 102) and was given the order of merit by the Queen (CBE).
The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X (1965)
Described by the New York Times as a ‘brilliant, painful and necessary’ text, this collaboration between Malcolm X and Alex Haley is an absolute essential text to engage the philosophies of the 1960s, many of them centering on black pride and black nationalism. Numerous criticisms about the book have arisen in the past ten years, but it remains a bestseller.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (1969)
The first in a seven-volume series, this carefully crafted semi-confessional narrative has become a touchstone for thousands of African-Americans. It showcases with humor and poignancy the resilience of an individual in the face of trauma, adversity and xenophobic paranoia.
Halfbreed by Maria Campbell (1973)
Hailed a “biography with a purpose”, this is a landmark text in modern Canadian Aboriginal literature. It chronicles the journey of a young Métis woman as she battles against the poverty, exclusion, violence and oppression that has stifled the voice of Indians, particularly Métis women. Written with éclat and passion, this foray into personal histories provides a wealth of knowledge, sometimes shameful but necessary, on the institutions in Canada that have had a profoundly detrimental impact on the Aboriginal population.
Final Truth: the Autobiography of Mass Murderer/Serial Killer Donald “Pee Wee” Gaskins by Donald ‘Pee Wee’ Gaskins and Winton Earle (1992)
Written by author-journalist Winton Earle, this is a graphic account, replete with gory and gruesome details. Not for the faint-hearted, it offers an unflinching portrayal of a killer’s mind and how the fundamental traits of empathy, guilt and morality can cause far-reaching, tragic consequences. Not for children, but a worthy read for those with an interest in psychology, forensics, law and crime.
Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance by Barack Obama (1995)
There continues to be increased disgruntlement with the Obama administration (and, of course, it is easier to blame the person who is left to clean up the mess). The current US president’s memoir was published while preparing to launch his political career in a campaign for an Illinois office, five years after being elected as the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review.
Falling Leaves: Memoir of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter by Adeline Yeh Mah (1999)
Beset with the challenges of growing up in a wealthy family in China during the 1940s, this is more than just a typical rags-to-riches, Cinderella story. Suffering emotional abuse from a French-Chinese stepmother and a bevy of stepbrothers, the author’s compelling and, at times, clearly painful recourse into the past, ultimately presents a triumphant story of success in the face of all odds.
Lucky Man by Michael J. Fox (2002)
A fabulously funny, yet immensely touching excursion into the life of a man who decided that having Parkinson’s Disease was not going to stop him from living. Reflecting upon his childhood, his over-night rise to fame, and the unconditional support from his family since his diagnosis in 1998, this is a finely written piece, and a genuine appreciation of life and the importance of living.
Queer Lives: Men’s Autobiographies from Nineteenth-Century France. Translated, edited and with an introduction by William A. Peniston and Nancy Erber (2008)
At a time when legalisation of gay marriage continues to be a prominent topic (here’s looking at you, Australia, catch up please), this collection of autobiographies, written by eight different men, is important and relevant reading. Rather than indulging in the nonsensical notion that we live in an age of supposed promiscuity, these vignettes, each individual and unique in their story, speak to a collective experience of struggling with a biological orientation and an imposed political affiliation.
Am I Black Enough for You? by Anita Heiss (2012)
Deeply personal, this is a sharp, funny and moving account of the challenges faced by an urban-based Aboriginal woman growing up in Sydney. Laced with wit, integrity and passion, Heiss’ journey reflects the increasing need to acknowledge the diversity of Aboriginal identity in Australia.