What feeds our imagination: the lives of others or our own lives? My impulse is to say a healthy dollop of each, but it is always interesting to see what someone else has to say. Poet Nikki Giovanni says,
I want to be clear about this. If you wrote from experience, you’d get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy.”
In contrast the Dominica-born British novelist Jean Rhys wrote five stunning novels milked from her own life. Autobiographic elements are even in Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys’ post-colonial drama in which travesties of racial inequality, patriarchy, displacement and assimilation are themes. This book, a much-lauded prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, evolved from Rhys’ dissatisfaction with Brontë’s treatment of Antoinette Cosway, from Rhys’ own life experience of rejection and emotional turmoil, and from her observation of and distress with how the people of Dominica were viewed and treated by colonizers. The book is her (re)vision of Antoinette Cosway, a Creole heiress, married for her money to an unnamed English gentleman who changed her name and pronounced her mad. Antoinette does not fit in with the Europeans or the Jamaicans. In her own life Jean Rhys never felt that she fit in.
Jean Rhys was an astute self-observer, scrupulously honest. She worked hard to avoid both self-pity and self-aggrandizement or congratulation. If you’ve read her work you know she largely succeeded.
In one of Rhys journals she imagines herself in court:
It is in myself.
All. Good evil, love, hate, life, death, beauty, ugliness.
And in everyone?
I do not know everyone. I only know myself.
I do not know them. I see them as trees walking.
Counsel for the Prosecution: There you are! Didn’t take long, did it?
Clearly Jean Rhys felt her own life was what she knew best, the podium from which she could speak. She did what she felt called to do, what was natural for her. By being careful and conscious she avoided the pitfalls of self-pity and self-aggrandizement. Certainly to one degree or another writing is therapy. Most of us agree on that. At its best, however, it doesn’t read that way.
© 2016, Jamie Dedes