"A memoir," writes Gore Vidal,* "is how one remembers one's own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked."
Memoir isn't a bald truth, but rather the
remembered truth of an experience (memory and experience are both
remarkable for their pliability and unreliability). Fiction is a truth
too, the truth of individual subjectivity being something fiction can
represent better than any other genre.
The Cat's Table is a "novel" by Michael Ondaatje. Its protagonist is named Michael, like the author. As a young boy the fictional Michael travels from Ceylon to London by boat in order to be reunited with his mother; the author undertook a similar journey, at a similar age, for the same reason.
Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight is a memoir by Alexandra Fuller. She is the protagonist (but goes by her nickname "Bobo" which makes her sound like a fictional character). Its chapters are crafted around key images: the dogs, the come-back baby, chimurenga. They read like well-wrought fiction, careful in its deployment of adjectives, in creating juxtapositions, and in providing the reader with amusing punch-lines.
Ondaatje is a TCK (Ceylon, the UK, Canada).
Fuller might be one by virtue of travel (The UK for a scant two-year period as a very young child, then Rhodesia, Malawi and Canada for college), disorientation (Rhodesia becomes Zimbabwe), and dispossession (a white African nurtured in a white expat world which is conquered by black Africa).
In both texts, characters are nationally disenfranchised. Fuller writes "My soul has no home. I am neither African nor English nor am I of the sea" (36).
Her past reads like a fiction, a dream. This dream is set in a place which doesn't even exist any more: "Rhodesia has more history stuffed into its make-believe, colonial-dream borders than one country the size of a very large teapot should be able to amass in less than a hundred years, without cracking" (149).
Ondaatje writes a pivotal moment in The Cat's Table as dream-like. Traversing El Suweis at night on board The Oronosay "turned out to be our most vivid memory of the journey, the time I stumble on now and again in a dream" (127-128).
Here's my theory:
TCK personal history feels unreal. It is hard to substantiate because, moreso than for most people, the past lies a substantial geographical distance away. We can't prove it in conversation with others because so few (often only immediate family) shared experiences of movement, transition, travel, and re-adjustment with us. Places, acquaintances, pets, houses, foods and experiences are long gone, and are often incommensurate with where we have wound up in life. The truth of the past sounds like a fiction. The past feels like we dreamt it.
Thus Fuller's memoir (which reads like fiction) and Ondaatje's fiction (which reads like memoir) occupy a hazy liminal zone which reads as fiction but expresses a truth about TCKness and dislocation. The books share a style which seems, perhaps, magical realist (but isn't) while it documents a past which seems, to non-TCKs, impossible.
(*Is Vidal a TCK? He is a military brat whose father taught aeronautics at West Point. H e very briefly attended school in France, aged 13, just as the war was beginning.)