Autobiography as a Space for Political Discourse:
A Discussion of Edward Said's Memoir Out of Place

by Zlatina Sandalska

For most of us memories are moments frozen in time. We believe that every time we look at a photograph we will see the same silly birthday face, the same exciting college graduation, the same funeral tears. But in "Autobiography, Identity, and the Fictions of Memory" Paul John Eakin argues that our memories are subject to constant revision. He writes, "…memory would be not only literally essential to the constitution of identity, but also crucial in the sense that it is constantly revising and editing the remembered past to square with the needs and requirements of the self we have become in any present" (Eakin 294). We know that memory is fundamental for understanding in what ways our personalities are unique. Eakin’s claim is intriguing because it argues that memory–of particular events, places, people, things–constantly redrafts and upgrades according to where we are in life at the moment of remembering, who we have become and who we want to become. In other words, memory is a dynamic construct, subject to constant revision and interpretation. To examine these ideas in more depth, I look into Edward Said’s memoir Out of Place.

Edward Said’s memories are fragmented and scattered. Yet they are pieced together in a coherent narrative to create a book, thus inserting fictive connections between the fragments and even leaving some episodes out. The memoir then becomes the author’s deliberate and colorful invention and in some sense, a literary story. Said also shows that his identity has contained a continuous aspect throughout the years, that of constantly being "out of place." But this, I argue, is a literary choice. And this choice is undertaken in order to insert a political perspective on the historical events that Said experienced in his childhood, in particular the creation of Israel, the loss of Palestine.

The author begins the first chapter of Out of Place by saying:

All families invent their parents and children, give each of them a story, character, fate, and even a language. There was always something wrong with how I was invented and meant to fit in with the world of my parents and four sisters. Whether this was because I constantly misread my part or because some deep flow in my being I could tell for most of my early life" (3).

Personal history, a delicate issue that we all discuss with mortal seriousness, is labeled an invention. Our lives are (exciting or boring, comic or tragic) narratives constructed by our parents, siblings, lovers and of course, ourselves. Our highly valued history of origin, that first time we supposedly said "Mama" (though it was probably a confused combination of incomprehensible baby sounds easily mistaken for that word), is an invention. Even Said’s subtle use of the word "misread" implies that his life is merely a matter of interpretation (that he performed poorly).

In the first chapter Said tells us the history of his father Wadie. But he does not recount it in a conventional way, with emphasis on historical facts of when and where Wadie was born, who his parents were and so on. He tells it in a series of short and at times unreliable narratives. One of these stories is about how as a young and enthusiastic Palestinian man Wadie came to the United States, signed up for the American Expeditionary Force, and then "the scene shift to France, where he did time in the trenches" (9). But many decades later, after Wadie’s death, Said attempts to recover his father’s army documents and is stunned to discover that his heroic father is recorded as having participated in no known military campaigns. Said states that this was probably a mistake since he believes his "father’s version" (10). This example is placed in the first chapter as if to establish right away that history and memory are contingent upon beliefs. Nothing about the history of his father is certain. It is used to show how the issue of personal history is simply a matter of interpretation–and of choosing a side in a debate.

The basic split between Said’s first name Edward, which is English, and his Arabic last name, Said, is also discussed in the beginning chapter of Out of Place and is a continuous presence throughout the pages of the book. "Thus it took me about fifty years to become accustomed to, or, more exactly, to feel less uncomfortable with, ‘Edward,’ a foolishly English name yoked forcibly to the unmistakably Arabic family name Said," he writes (3). This alienation is so intense that he is unable to have a full sense of self: as a child, Said explains, he regularly refers to himself "not as ‘me’ but as ‘you’" (4).

Perhaps this is why he continuously writes "Edward" in quotation marks: because he actively resents the foreign English name that reminds of the oppressive colonial powers, the ones who have made him feel like an outsider much of his life. But there is a another reason for this peculiar punctuation: the quotation marks distance the present Edward from the childhood self. "Edward" becomes a concept that the present self, however perceptive and willing, cannot fully understand. He is only able to remember vaguely and can therefore reconstruct "Edward" only as an obscure and remote mystery. Said cannot penetrate "Edward" ’s thoughts or private desires, though he persistently tries to. Hence "Edward" becomes a literary construct, a fictional character.

The treatment of the memoir as a literary construction is further aided by the author’s frequent interweaving of literary works with his personal memories. Said juxtaposes literature with reality to create comic situations, horrific moments or fantastical worlds. An example of this is the following recollection. The school’s director, Mr. Keith Bullen, whips the eight-year old "Edward" as a punishment for some wrongdoing (Said does not remember what). Many years later, Said discovers that Mr. Bullen is a part of a group of minor British poets known as the Salamander poets who lived in Cairo during the Second World War. But Mr. Bullen’s verse, according to Said, is at best bathetic. Said then mocks his former principal by mixing the literary world of poetry with the actual life of the person: "For me the poem’s first line–‘Bring me the cup of gold’–suggested a weird cartoon revision of my caning experience with Mr. Bullen: Could Keith have uttered those words to his wife as she opened the door to bring me in for the caning, ‘in perfumes violent… Our love may still unfold’?" (44). Here, Mr. Bullen’s own creation–his sentimental, kitschy poetry–enters the memoir to attack him bitterly.

Another example of the interaction between personal memory and literary elements occurs when Said recalls the emergence of a new self at his new American boarding school: "…it was the beginning of a new independent strength that I sensed as I swam fifty laps during swimming practice… it marked the beginning of my refusal to be the passive ‘Ed Said’ who went from one assignment or deadline to the next with scarcely a demurral" (236). The author claims that he sensed a sudden change in his character. But normally, a self evolves. It is only in fictional narratives that a person’s character might change drastically in the matter of the time it takes to swim fifty laps.

Another example is when "Edward," a lonely and repressed child, escapes the constant nagging emanating from teachers and parents by embarking on fantastical journeys:

A red-headed woman I saw one afternoon seemed–just by walking by–to have persuaded me that she was a poisoner and (I had without specific comprehension heard the word recently) a divorcee. A pair of men sauntering about one morning were detectives. I imagined that a couple standing on a balcony overhead spoke French and had just had a leisurely breakfast with champagne (37).

On several occasions in the book Said claims that he has very good memory. However good it might be, he surely is not able to recall these childhood fantasies with such vivid details. Here, once again, we see the crafty penmanship of a creative writer.

As a scholar and cultural critic who frequently discusses memory and history on the personal, national and even global scale, Edward Said knows that these concepts are not static treasures that remain deeply buried until some curious person unveils them. Memory is a dynamic and active entity, a vivid creation of our imagination, a fabrication, capable of exerting influence over an audience. Furthermore, memory can have a political function. In "Invention, Memory, Belief" Said writes, "The invention of tradition is a method for using collective memory selectively by manipulating certain bits of the national past, suppressing others, elevating still others in an entirely functional way. Thus memory is not necessarily authentic, but rather useful" (179). In the same article he also argues that "the art of memory for the modern world is both for historians as well as ordinary citizens and institutions very much something to be used, misused, and exploited, rather than something that sits inertly there for each person to possess and contain" (179). I wonder what might be hidden behind Said’s own remembrances.

In "Autobiography, Identity and the Fictions of Memory" Paul John Eakin writes: "As makers themselves, autobiographers are primed to recognize the constructed nature of the past, yet they need at the same time to believe that in writing about the past they are performing an act of recovery: narrative teleology models the trajectory of continuous identity, reporting the supreme fiction of memory as fact" ( 301). The autobiographer understands the constructed nature of the past and therefore of his work. Yet, his committed intent is to show a continuity in his identity that endures heroically through all these incomplete, ambivalent fragments.

This is what occurs with Out of Place as well. As we have seen, Said knows the fictive character of memory and history, yet he embarks on the strenuous and not exactly joyful journey to recall it. Firstly, there is Edward the baby who is so bright and talented that at age one and a half learns thirty-eight songs and nursery rhymes and whose ability to read simple prose is developed by age two and a half (27). There is also the self on which the book focuses: the "delinquent … ‘Edward’ of punishable offenses, laziness, loitering, who was regularly expected to be caught in some specific unlicensed act and punished" (42). This "Edward" is also insecure, both psychologically–because his mother’s warm intimacy and giving love suddenly and frequently evaporate into the cold orders of a martinet–and physically–because he performs badly at sports and this angers his father. He is the creation of Said’s parents, someone fortunate (because he is born into an upper class bourgeois family and also because he has the mother who loves him) and "hopelessly miserable" (because he is constantly under strict regimes imposed by his parents and by the oppressive institutions of the colonial forces in Egypt). This "Edward" is continuously repressed and sad and despite his well-established intelligence is not an excellent student. There is also the Edward (or as he becomes known to his classmates, Ed) who, at age 16, goes to boarding school in the United States and becomes a brilliant student, a skillful athlete and, towards the end of his last year there, even mildly successful with the girls from the all girls boarding school across the Connecticut River.

But all these colorful Edward personages share a common theme: each of them constantly, continuously and most dramatically feels out of place. This is concisely expressed right in the first paragraph of the book, where the author writes:

Sometimes I was intransigent, and proud of it. At other times I seemed to myself to be nearly devoid of any character at all, timid, uncertain, without will. Yet the overriding sensation I had was of always being out of place" (3).

And we detect this sensation throughout the book. When he is in elementary school Said feels out of place because all the other kids are British and he is not. In the American school, he does not feel American enough. When he begins Victoria College, British prep school, he once again is out of place amidst the British, Egyptian and Jewish kids. Said attempts to show that there is a continuous element that has remained fixed and inherently his over the melancholic years of displacement and exile: being permanently out of place, never at ease. Earlier we saw that Said puts the book together very much like a fictional piece. Therefore, he must actually make the literary choice to present "Edward" permanently out of place.

Related to this sensation of not fitting in is Said’s constant fear of displacement. As a student at Mount Hermon, a boarding school across from the Connecticut River, he goes to visit his aunt and cousins in New York City for the Christmas vacation and takes both of his large suitcases, thus uncomfortably carrying all of his belongings for a winter trip only several-weeks long. "I could have left them over at school but I neurotically and categorically refused to go anywhere without all of my belongings," Said recalls (237). Even now, after more than forty years in this country and more than twenty in the same city, he does the same. When he leaves his New York apartment to go downtown, Said takes much more luggage than he will need. Analyzing this, he concludes that he has "a secret but ineradicable fear of not returning" (217). The reason for this fear is his understanding that the geographical landscape he inhabits can be subject to drastic and sudden transformations. Essentially, Said is afraid that his current home will become another, completely different and alien place, the abode of someone else who does not welcome him.

This notion of the geographic as an entity that undergoes constant shifts and transformations is another recurring theme in the book. Said spends the summer of 1948, his first visit to the United States due to his father’s need for a kidney surgery, in a camp for boys in Maine. Years later, he revisits Camp Maranacook only to discover that "all that was left of any habitation were the deserted cabins, which had become a motel, then a retirement colony of some sort, then nothing, as the elderly Down East caretaker told me. He had never heard of Camp Maranacook" (138). Most of us think of geographical locations as static and permanent places that we can always revisit. But this summer camp, which serves as a temporary summer home for boys, is obliterated with no trace left. In Said’s text the same is true for whole provinces and countries, including the one he calls home, the only place where he felt in place.

A more profound instance of a transformed geographical landscape is Palestine, of which the author writes:

Even now the unreconciled duality I feel about the place, its intricate wrenching, tearing, sorrowful loss as exemplified in so many distorted lives, including mine, and its status as an admirable country for them (but of course not for us), always gives me pain and a discouraging sense of being solitary, undefended, open to the assaults of trivial things that seem important and threatening, against which I have no weapons (142).

The author deeply laments the loss of his homeland. This further explains the idea that the geographical landscape shifts and changes according to the way those in power direct. For Said, the geographical landscape is colorful and constantly in transformation, like a kaleidoscope turned by the hand in political authority.

All of this gives Said a new way of perceiving and experiencing time. When he sees his first opera, the author is enthralled, but at the same time he is forlorn because he knows that the musical experience will never be repeated just as it was–enchanting, capturing, beautiful.

When I saw The Barber of Seville for the first time at age thirteen, I was riveted by the performance, and curiously forlorn at the same time; I knew that what I was witnessing–Rossini’s fecund gaiety and irreverence, Tito Gobbi’s wit and authority, Ettore Bastianini’s mock-solemn "La Calunnia"–would not soon recur in any form (100).

His greatest fear is that he cannot return to the present moment, when the music still sounds: the piece is performed only once. Therefore, the geographical space for him becomes a sort of musical piece, where notes are performed, enjoyed and forgotten. This is the reason for which "Edward" is able to experience his sense of self only in the present tense:

From the moment I became conscious of myself as a child, I found it impossible to think of myself as not having both a discrediting past and an immoral future in store; my entire sense of self during my formative years was always experienced in the present tense, as I frantically worked to keep myself from falling back into an already established pattern, or from falling into certain perdition (19).

He is unable to understand the past and so he compresses it, along with the future he has not yet experienced, to one point–the present. And this is where he constantly lives, because it is safe. It is only in the present where the landscape remains the same and we are certain of where we are. His gruesome fear is that history will establish itself as a pattern, and once again, he will be misread, misunderstood, misplaced, displaced. In any given time, the maps of the world are redrawn. The author has an intense desire to conserve this fleeting geography and the history it entails, to make it last, to make it be heard–record it, remember it.

In the Preface, Said narrates his 1998 trip to Cairo and his encounter with his family’s former suffragi, who had served them for almost 30 years. He is genuinely moved by their conversation and is especially intrigued by the old man’s ability to remember minutely all members of Said’s extended family. Said writes, "And then, as the past poured out of him, … I knew again how fragile, precious, and fleeting were the history and circumstances not only gone forever, but basically unrecalled and unrecorded except as occasional reminiscence or intermittent conversation" (xi). So with this memoir, Said wants to recall the forgotten history and in such a way preserve the beautiful, elegant sounds of that first enthralling opera. He wants to assume the responsibility of remembering and recovering the past for the communities that now have no history.

Following his emotional encounter with the suffragi, Said writes:

This chance encounter made me feel even more strongly that this book … had some validity as an unofficial personal record of those tumultuous years in the Middle East. I found myself telling the story of my life against the background of World War II, the loss of Palestine and the establishment of Israel, the end of the Egyptian monarchy, the Nasser years, the 1967 War, the emergence of the Palestinian movement, the Lebanese Civil War, and the Oslo peace process. These are in my memoir only allusively, even though their fugitive presence can be seen here and there (xi).

In this passage–and throughout the book–Said claims that he is unveiling "personal" history. But he continuously interweaves the politics of the time with his personal experiences. He says politics is present in his exposition only as a backdrop. However, if we look closer into the text, we see that the author interweaves the political events and the subjective memories so delicately that he makes us unable to separate his life from that of Palestine and its history. Said writes, "All this had begun when we entered New York harbor on the Saturnia in early July 1948. Palestine had fallen, unbeknownst to us our lives were turning us toward the United States, and both my mother and I were starting the process of life and cancer that would end our lives in the New World" (133). For the author, the moment his family boards the Saturnia, they let go of their homeland; the moment they step foot onto American soil, he and his mother are welcomed by the ugly tentacles of cancer. But the fall of Palestine is not contingent upon his family trip to New York. It is something that happens independently. Similarly, the author’s and his mother’s illnesses are not organically linked to their arrival in America.

Through this interlacing of the political subject with the personal life, we are made to believe that the two are inherently linked and their relation is hopelessly united. Said could have told the story of his life against the background of his father’s death or his mother’s illness. His reference points could have been the birth of his younger sisters or his coming to study in America. But they are not. They are political and highly politicized issues subtly ingrained–almost fugitive indeed–within the text. The most obvious of these is the creation of Israel and hence the loss and forgetting of Palestine.

When reading a memoir, we hope to discover the person writing but that is impossible. Memory is simply a literary construct used to communicate a point of view or express an agenda. Furthermore, the memoir is a personal exposition and no one can object to the sentiments and ideas it constructs. The memoir then easily becomes a space for political discourse, which the author can use to promulgate his political ideas. It becomes a genre inherently related to politics, to the nation and its history, to its moments of weakness and fluctuating ideologies.

Works Cited

Eakin, Paul John. "Autobiography, Identity, and the Fictions of Memory." Memory, Brain, and Belief. Eds. Daniel Schacter and Elaine Scarry. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2001: 290-301.

Said, Edward. "Invention, Memory, Place." Critical Inquiry. Winter 2000: 175-192.

Said, Edward. Out of Place. New York: Vintage Books, 1999.


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