Afterword: A Matter of EmPHASis: Literacy Narratives and Literacy Narratives

by James Phelan


As a narrative theorist who cut his teeth on traditional literary narrative (the print novel and short story) and who has subsequently been influenced by the Narrative Turn to bite off additional kinds of narratives, I find much to chew on—and savor— in the previous exhibits of Stories that Speak to Us (hereafter STSTU). As these exhibits interweave literacy narratives with trenchant analyses of them, they offer insights about issues ranging from the acquisition of literacy to multilingual literacy, from ludic literacy to the digital divide, from deaf and hard of hearing literacy to claiming one’s authority as an African American woman in spaces that have traditionally not granted such authority. Furthermore, the exhibitors skillfully draw on a wide range of narrative theory—important work by Jerome Bruner, Michael Bamberg, Martha Nussbaum, Richard Kearney, and others—and put it in productive conversation with other theoretical perspectives and with their own fresh thinking. In these ways, the exhibits constitute both a major contribution to literacy studies and a cogent case for the continuing value of the Narrative Turn. In light of these judgments, I am less interested in contesting or quarreling with the work in the exhibits—though I do want to suggest a revision to one aspect of their framing—than in finding a worthwhile complement to it. I start with a simple observation: the richness of STSTU depends on the contributors’ decisions to give substantial weight to the last two terms in the title of the DALN—literacy narrative—and to give the greater weight to literacy.1 My narrative theorist’s question, then, is what additional insights might we gain if we shifted the emphasis and gave greater weight to narrative? My narrative theorist’s question, then, is what additional insights might we gain if we shifted the emphasis and gave greater weight to narrative?I pursue the answer, first, by assessing the fictional status of these specific narratives (are they fictional or nonfictional?), and, second, by reflecting on the consequences of a paradox in the nature of narrative in general for the ways we analyze individual narratives: By its nature, narrative can lead its users to develop thick descriptions and to paint the big picture. More specifically, I shall argue that we can gain additional insight into the power of the literacy narratives in STSTU by recognizing them as nonfictional rather than fictional and by attending to the ways they signify that are inadequately captured by our scholarly thematizing of them.

Fictionality, Nonfictionality, and Referentiality

These claims about fictionality rest on an underlying binary opposition: constructedness and fiction line up on one side, while objectifiable truth and nonfiction line up on the other.

In “Narrative Theory and Stories that Speak to Us,” Cynthia Selfe and the DALN Consortium offer two claims about the fictional status of the narratives in the Archive: (1) “Given the constructedness of literacy narratives on all levels—micro, medial, and macro—we also acknowledge that these stories blur the boundaries of fiction and nonfiction.” (2) “We do not . . . understand literacy narratives to be simple reflections or recountings of an objectifiable truth. All narratives are, in part, fictional.”  These claims about fictionality rest on an underlying binary opposition: constructedness and fiction line up on one side, while objectifiable truth and nonfiction line up on the other. From my perspective, this binary—and thus the claims—need to be revised. Here’s why.

At least since Hayden White’s post-structuralist argument that historical narrative typically conforms to genres of fiction, narrative theorists have engaged in a spirited debate about the fiction/nonfiction distinction. For some, the distinction is untenable because all narrative is inevitably fictional, since all narrative relies on the same underlying processes of construction. Whether a storyteller works with material from her imagination, with the raw data of experience, the findings of researchers, some other sources, or some combination of all these things, she must shape these phenomena via selection, ordering, emphasis, and other exigencies of plotting into a story that has a meaning absent from the unshaped phenomena. For these theorists the apt description of such shaping is fictionalizing. The first claim I have quoted indicates that Selfe and the DALN Consortium want to be counted among this group.

However, for a different set of theorists (see, for example, Ryan, Cohn, Lehman), the fiction/nonfiction distinction is not only tenable but extremely productive because it captures something significant about a recognizable difference in how storytellers design and audiences receive two different kinds of narrative. For these theorists, the key variable is not constructedness but referentiality: fictional narrative makes no global claim to refer to events and people external to the textual storyworld, while nonfictional narrative makes such claims. Consequently, nonfictional narratives are contestable by their audiences in ways that fictional narratives are not. If I write a novel and set it on the campus of the Ohio State University in 2011, I have the liberty to construct an alternative version of that campus, a possible rather than an actual OSU. In this alternative version, I could, for thematic purposes, move Ohio Stadium and the Schottenstein Center, the shrines in which the Buckeye faithful worship their football and basketball teams, miles and miles off-campus. In addition, for other thematic purposes, I could move Bricker Hall, home of the University’s central administration, to the periphery of main campus, while relocating Denney Hall, home of the English Department, to a central location in the heart of campus, the Oval. A reviewer who faulted me for my inadequate knowledge of campus geography would be misreading because he would miss the point that I am exercising my fictional license to represent a possible rather than the actual OSU.  On the other hand, if I were to write a historical account of the major events occurring at the Ohio State University in 2011 and if I were to locate the campus buildings in the places I do in the novel, then a reviewer would be justified in finding fault with my geography. Furthermore, my account of the events could easily be superseded by that of another historian whose geography was accurate. (Of course other factors would be involved in any such comparisons of the historical accounts but many of those would also involve questions of referentiality: did I distort events, did I portray the irrepressible President E. Gordon Gee as a dour pessimist?)

Described this way, the debate about the fiction/nonfiction distinction appears to set up a strict either/or choice, but a closer look at another aspect of “Narrative Theory and Stories that Speak to Us” reveals that the choice is not so strict. Selfe and the other members of the Consortium persuasively contend that literacy narratives play a significant role in the storyteller’s conception of his or her identity. To be sure, this corpus of narratives shows a diversity of links between literacy and identity—Lennard Davis’s account of his experiences as a child of deaf parents suggests a different link from the one in Karl Fredal’s account of his experiences as a child of a deaf mother, and both of these are different from the links in the stories of Valerie Kinloch, Beverly Moss, and Elaine Richardson about growing up African American and female in the USA—but just about wherever we go in the corpus we find these links. Do we want to conclude either that the referential dimensions of these narratives wholly determine their shape or that the link between narrative and identity exists independently of these narratives’ referentiality? To put the question more starkly, do we want to conclude that Beverly Moss (or any of these storytellers) is locked into this particular version of her narrative and therefore could not ethically revise it for a different occasion and a different audience? Do we want to conclude that it makes no difference to Lennard Davis’s identity (or to our understanding of what is at stake in his narrative) whether his parents were actually deaf or whether he invented their deafness in his narrative act? I didn’t think so.

I propose, then, that we shift from the rigidity accompanying the strict either/or choice to the flexibility of a both/and response—without falling into the Slough of the Wishywashy. We can make the shift by rejecting the binary opposition underlying the claims of Selfe and the Consortium and revising the second claim. “All narratives are constructed (or to introduce a term I will return to below, synthetic), but some are constructed as fictions and others as nonfictions. Those constructed as nonfictions make the global claim to refer to events and people of the extratextual world, while those constructed as fictions make no such global claims.”2 Referentiality puts genuine constraints on the storyteller’s construction of the narrative, but within those constraints the storyteller has the freedom to select, order, emphasize and otherwise shape her story. From this perspective, the narratives in STSTU and, indeed, in the whole DALN, depend for their effectiveness on both the plotting that Selfe and the Consortium so ably discuss and on their referentiality. Referentiality puts genuine constraints on the storyteller’s construction of the narrative, but within those constraints the storyteller has the freedom to select, order, emphasize and otherwise shape her story. This move toward the both/and simultaneously keeps us out of the Slough of the Wishywashy because it restores the viability of the fiction/nonfiction distinction and views the narratives in the DALN as nonfictions. Nothing wishy-washy there.

So what? First, this conclusion helps us see the purpose(s) of these literacy narratives more clearly: the storytellers seek to come to terms with their experiences with various forms of literacy as a way of understanding who they are now, why they did what they did and do what they do, what they might do next, and so on. Indeed, what’s at stake for these storytellers is precisely the act of understanding the effects of events, people, places and other phenomena that they encountered rather than invented. That these acts of understanding inevitably entail interpretations rather than objective recordings highlights narrative’s capacity to make sense of experience. That the same storyteller might revise her narrative does not render both versions fictional. Instead, it underlines the point that understanding one’s life and one’s identity is itself an evolving process.

Second, this conclusion clarifies what is at stake in these narratives by helping us recognize the consequences of violating the constraints of referentiality. If Lennard Davis’s parents were not deaf, then his literacy narrative would not suddenly be transformed into a fiction since the narrative would still claim to refer to his parents’ actual disability. Instead, the narrative would become a seriously flawed nonfictional account because one of its central referential claims would be false.By recognizing the nonfictional status of the DALN, we clarify some of the criteria by which to evaluate the efficacy of its individual narratives. Whether Davis or his audience could ultimately justify such a misrepresentation on ethical grounds would depend on multiple other factors (was Davis mistaken or deliberately misrepresenting his past, what are the motives of that misrepresentation, what is gained by it in terms of understanding his identity, etc.). The larger point, however, remains: by recognizing the nonfictional status of the DALN, we clarify some of the criteria by which to evaluate the efficacy of its individual narratives.

Third, this conclusion identifies an area for further inquiry: is it possible to draw the exact borderline between the constraints of referentiality and the freedom of plotting? While we can easily recognize some exercises of freedom as going over the line, what about such things as the construction (rather than the transcription) of dialogue? Are some constructions ethically appropriate and others not? How would we decide? My own hypothesis at the moment is that these questions need to be answered on a case-by-case basis.

The Paradox of Narrative

The recognition that all narrative is constructed helps illuminate a paradox in both the nature of narrative and in its appeal. Both the narratives in STSTU and the analyses of them in the various exhibits add another layer to that paradox, and in so doing, help us get further inside it. On the one hand, narrative is appealing because it lends itself to thick description. It can offer concrete details about characters, events, settings, and about the web of connections among these elements. This thick description has the potential to give us a richer understanding of the big picture painted by the narrative. On the other hand, we want that big picture, and, indeed, the effective storyteller’s shaping of the material is designed so that the big picture will emerge powerfully. The paradox can be expressed this way: narrative both thickens and thins; it adds complexity even as it strives for explanatory power. Its appeal is to be found in both the concrete and the abstract.3

In my work on fictional narrative, I have tried to capture this paradox by proposing that fictions evoke three kinds of readerly interest: the mimetic, the thematic, and the synthetic. The mimetic, which refers to our interest in fictional characters as possible people and fictional worlds as like our own, lends itself to concreteness and thick description. The thematic, which refers to our interest in fictional characters as representatives of larger groups (in Jane Austen’s Persuasion Frederick Wentworth as an exemplar of the new class of men who earned rather than inherited their fortunes) or general ideas (Austen’s Benwick as the exemplar of the idea that men recover from losses in love more easily than women), lends itself to abstraction and the big picture. The synthetic, which refers to our interest in the elements of narrative and the narrative as a whole as artificial constructs with certain designs on their audiences, lends itself to a focus on the relation between the concrete and the abstract in any one narrative. My larger claim is that the relations among the mimetic, thematic, and synthetic components of our interest can fluctuate both within any one fictional narrative and across any group of them as particular narrative progressions put greater or lesser emphases on each component. By looking at the concreteness of the mimetic component, we can more readily tap into the affective and the ethical dimensions of these fictions. By looking at the abstraction of the thematic, we can more readily tap into the ideational takeaways of these fictions. By looking at the larger artistry of the synthetic component, including at times the artistry involved in keeping it in the background, we can more readily tap into the aesthetic dimensions of these fictions.4

How might this schema be adapted for the nonfictional narratives of STSTU and the DALN? The key once again is referentiality, which in effect mediates between the mimetic and the synthetic components of nonfictional narrative. If the term mimetic in fiction refers to the narrative’s imitation of a possible person, a possible world, and a plausible shaping of the narrative’s events into a plot, the term mimetic in nonfiction refers to the representation of an actual person, an actual world, and an actual sequence of events, while the term synthetic refers to—and thus, reminds us of—the constructed nature of those representations. Again, even as the nonfictional storyteller respects the constraints of referentiality she may choose to emphasize certain aspects of an actual person (including herself) rather than others, to focus on these dimensions of the storyworld rather than those, and to link the events in this way (with, say, this chain of causality) rather than that one. As in fictional narrative, these choices can exist in a feedback loop with the thematic component of the narrative: that is, the storyteller’s thematic interests can influence the mimetic and synthetic choices just as those choices have consequences for the development of the thematic component.

In order to see how this revised schema can complement the work of the exhibits in STSTU, we need to notice one important consequence of the way those exhibits make literacy the most important term among the terms in the title of the DALN: the exhibits all give the greatest importance to the thematic components of the narratives they analyze.  Let me just quote some representative statements in the abstracts. Valerie Kinloch, Beverly J. Moss, and Elaine Richardson explain that:

we critique our literacy narratives in order to theorize intersections of place, race, and gender as grounded in the histories of race relations in the South, of Black families during the Civil Rights era, and of educational practices within racialized, classed, and gendered spaces. In this way, our digital literacy narratives and this curated exhibit contribute to a larger understanding of the struggles of many Black women to assert their cultural, familial, and community identities alongside their rich literacy practices in spaces that have historically denied their presence.

Genevieve Critel in “Remixing the Digital Divide: Minority Women’s Literacy Practices in Academic Spaces” notes that:

this paper argues that the technological literacy experiences of these successful young women were shaped by four key considerations: the speed at which technologies develop and how teachers address such changes in the classroom, the discomfort and anxiety that often occurs when students are asked to use unfamiliar technologies, the possible sources of resistance that students bring with them to classroom experiences involving composing technologies, and the nuanced and complex understandings of technology that students in our classes often develop outside classroom contexts.

Jamie Bono and Ben McCorkle in “Ludic Literacies: Mapping the Links between the Literacies at Play in the DALN” design their exhibit in order:

to make visible the multiple literacies required to traverse the complex terrain subtending games and [to] raise critical questions about the relationship between ludic literacy practices and ‘traditional’ semiotic domains such as print.

The projects are different but the analytical moves with the narratives are very similar: the analysis takes the synthetic for granted and regards the mimetic as a preliminary step toward the ultimate payoff of thematizing. Again I find these analytical moves wholly appropriate: they are the moves of sound scholarship, the means by which we go from the particularity of thick description to the generality of a big picture that we can call knowledge.

Foregrounding the Mimetic I: The Narratives of Ruth Peterson and Jacqueline Jones Royster

But if we give greater emphasis to the second term in the phrase literacy narrative, we can add another dimension to our knowledge of these narratives. Shifting that emphasis means that we ask what happens if we put the mimetic components of the narrative on a par with the thematic, and the most general answer is that the narratives signify beyond their thematic meanings. The exhibits are full of examples, but I will focus on just two telling cases here: (1) the narratives of Ruth Peterson and Jacqueline Jones Royster embedded in the exhibit “Claiming Our Space on the Flo(or): Black Women and Collaborative Literacy Narratives” by Valerie Kinloch, Beverly Moss, and Elaine Richardson; and (2) the narratives of Jane Fernandes embedded in the exhibit by Jennifer Clifton, Elenore Long, and Duane Roen on “Accessing Private Knowledge for Public Conversations: Attending to Shared, Yet-to-Be-Public Concerns in the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing DALN Narratives.” I chose these two because they are significantly different—dual storytelling v. single storytelling; elaborate narratives v. cut-down ones; adult literacy issues v. acquisition of literacy issues; and more. I also chose these two because in each case the literacy scholars’ commentary points toward aspects of the narrative that seem to call out for more analysis even as the scholars’ focus on thematizing means that they do not respond to that call.

Ruth Peterson and Jacqueline Jones Royster's Literacy Narrative

Kinloch, Moss, and Richardson thematize the Peterson/Royster narratives (along with their own literacy narratives) as follows:

The Royster-Peterson collaborative literacy narrative demonstrates that historical moments are not isolated, discrete moments. Their stories show the power of literacy narratives to move significant historical moments from history books to the canvas of lived experience. … Facts and dates are contextualized within the political, social, and ideological contexts within which they occur, presenting them as racialized, classed, and gendered spaces. … We noted … the richness of the experiences of the students in these black spaces. This richness is rarely evident in history books.

This thematizing is excellent, succinctly capturing the political import of these narratives. But notice that the commentary twice makes the point that the “power” and “richness” of the narratives exceeds what we can typically find in history books. By foregrounding the mimetic, we can unpack some of the sources and consequences of that richness. First, we can value and take pleasure in the very texture of these narratives with their attention to such details as Peterson’s aunts and uncles writing her name on her hand; her reading the “salt box” at the kitchen table; Royster’s anger at age three at not being able to write back to Santa Claus; and her father bringing her the Sunday comics so she could read them in bed. We can enjoy and honor these details because these women themselves enjoy and honor them as part of their own literacy histories. They—and we—implicitly recognize that these details have played some hard-to-pin-down role in the larger trajectories of their life narratives. Yes, these details are part of the racialized, classed, and gendered spaces in which they lived, but these details are not fully accounted for by those dimensions of the spaces. The mimetic exceeds the thematic.

The point about Peterson and Royster enjoying and honoring these details opens up an additional consequence of foregrounding the mimetic. With this move, we can expand our attention not only to the mimetic and thematic components of the told (the events narrated) but also to the mimetic component of the telling (the action of narration itself). In other words, part of the pleasure and value of the narratives comes from Peterson’s and Royster’s rhetorical performances. And here the occasion of the narration stands out: Peterson and Royster take turns responding to the questions of their interviewers, Beverly Moss and Cynthia Selfe. But as each one speaks, the other is all ears. Furthermore, they take pleasure in each other’s telling, and each one’s story helps generate additional narration from the other. Furthermore, the skill with which they narrate their own tales and also compare, contrast, and otherwise respond to each other’s accounts adds significantly to the pleasure the viewer takes in their collaboration. Attending to the mimetic component of the telling leads us to combine our attention to the past with an awareness of the remarkable present: the African American girls who took their first steps toward literacy in pre-Civil Rights Georgia have become the accomplished women who are so skillfully recounting their pasts. Again, the larger point (and here I thematize my mimetic analysis) is that narratives exceed what the literacy scholars capture in their thematizing—and that’s a good thing.

Foregrounding the Mimetic II: The Narratives of Jane Fernandes

Jane Fernandes' Literacy Narrative, Part 1

Jane Fernandes' Literacy Narrative, Part 2

Clifton, Long, and Roen sensibly frame Fernandes’s narratives within the thematic rubrics of “Access and Deaf Culture” and “Access and Technology,” and they persuasively map the specifics of Fernandes’s telling onto these concerns. They incisively highlight the price Fernandes was willing to pay to gain access to Deaf culture: “constructing her own Deaf identity meant, in part, resisting the Hearing world in which she had participated for much of her life,” a resistance that takes its most dramatic form in her decision to switch the focus of her own academic work from French poetry to ASL. They also follow Fernandes’s lead in thematizing the capacity of the smartphone to “level the playing field” for the hearing and the deaf.  Furthermore, Clifton, Long, and Roen extend their analysis by thoughtfully linking their thematic points about “Access and Deaf Culture” to another narrative in which Fernandes was a central character:

As teachers designing curricula to draw upon critical incidents that take seriously issues such as cultural identity politics, we are both humbled and inspired by the serendipity of discovery that awaits committed engagement. For instance, in researching Fernandes's current institutional affiliation for the purposes of this article, we conducted a Web search that immediately brought us to blogs about a recent controversy at Gallaudet University at which both Fernandes and identity politics were front and center. In question was whether Fernandes, because she grew up in Hearing culture and didn't affiliate with Deaf culture until adulthood, was Deaf enough to serve as the university's president. On the one hand, the controversy is a testament to the hard-won political efficiency of Deaf culture—that students at Gallaudet were able to organize a protest of such force that it was able to block a high-level administrative decision. On the other hand, we can't help but wonder whether the protest came at acute personal and public cost and pain to Fernandes (even as she, perhaps, appreciated the energy and commitment behind the political mobility), for the protest questioned her ability to serve as an effective leader and spokesperson for Gallaudet's Deaf community due to factors outside her control and quite despite her notable credentials. We linger some now over the juxtaposition between Fernandes's literacy narrative for the DALN and the 2006 presidency controversy at Gallaudet University because the juxtaposition suggests that the identity politics that Fernandes raises as personal ones in the context of literacy learning as a doctoral candidate are still being negotiated. That is, identity politics that Fernandes names in her literacy narrative are still public and contentious, asking, who gets to decide who's in and who's out, who's Deaf enough? Do you get to name yourself as Deaf, or does someone else get to name you? What does access to Deaf culture afford? For whom?

What happens to these analyses if we foreground the mimetic components of Fernandes’s narratives? Again, we can do more justice to the telling itself, bringing out not only the appealing ethos of Fernandes the storyteller but her broader character. These narratives give us a portrait of Jane Fernandes as a vibrant and compelling woman, who is also a powerful advocate for the literacy of the deaf and hard of hearing. Her character both emerges from and unites her impressive rhetorical (constructed or synthetic) performance that in turn draws on a highly expressive use of ASL and spoken English, animated gestures, smiles, looks of wonder, and other facial expressions. Indeed, Clifton, Long, and Roen themselves cannot resist responding to some aspects of this performance as they transcribe her narrative about getting access to a Blackberry: “Why deaf people love Blackberry? Why? Because we can talk. [Note especially compelling gestures here, as if to say, Isn't that obvious?! Do I have to spell it out for you?] Everybody ... all people want to talk with other people. That's a normal human tendency.”

As with the Peterson and Royster narratives, attending to the mimetic component here leads us to linger over the power and pleasure of the narratives themselves. But there is an additional payoff in connection with Clifton, Long, and Roen’s thoughtful reflections on the controversy at Gallaudet. Attending to Fernandes’s character reminds us that she is more than the sum of her identity categories and credentials, and that, therefore, these aspects of her identity are only a partial basis for evaluating her fitness to be President of Gallaudet. To the extent that the debate about her candidacy never went past those issues of identity categories and credentials, that debate was too limited. This conclusion does not lead to the judgment that the anti-Fernandes forces had it all wrong and that she should have become Gallaudet’s President, because, as Clifton, Long, and Roen indicate, the political issues attached to the appointment are significant, multiple, and complex. But this conclusion does suggest that an exclusive focus on those political issues would unwisely eliminate other aspects of Fernandes’s character and, thus, other aspects of what she had to offer Gallaudet.


For a final reflection, I return to the exhibit with which I began, “Narrative Theory and the Stories that Speak to Us” by Selfe and the DALN Consortium. In commenting on the freedom that the DALN gives to the storytellers who contribute to the Archive and in noting that different storytellers exercise that freedom in different ways, the authors conclude that “each story is, as Brett Smith (2007) might say, ‘out of control’ (p. 392), in that it permits multiple interpretations and for a wide range of reasons. Collectively, we hope, these stories form an unruly collection that escapes the control of our own limited vision.” In focusing on the nature of the narratives in the DALN and on the nature of narrative itself, and in offering some complementary interpretations of selected narratives, I hope to have provided some additional support for this view of the collection. At the same time, to the extent that I have succeeded, I realize that I have also pointed to the value of adding to—or even revising—the interpretations I have proposed. There is, in short, so much more to say about STSTU and about the DALN. Let the conversations roll on—in print, on-line, and in multiple media.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Persuasion. Edited by R.W. Chapman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963 [1818]. Print.

Cohn, Dorrit. The Distinction of Fiction. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. Print.

Lehman, Daniel. Matters of Fact: Reading Nonfiction over the Edge. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1997. Print.

Phelan, James. Experiencing Fiction: Judgments, Progressions, and the Rhetorical Theory of Narrative. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2007. Print.

_______. “Narratives in Contest: Or Another Twist in the Narrative Turn.” PMLA 123 (2008): 166-75. Print.

_______. Reading People, Reading Plots: Character, Progression, and the Interpretation of Narrative. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989. Print.

Ryan, Marie-Laure. “Postmodernism and the Doctrine of Panfictionality.” Narrative 5 (1997): 165-87. Print.

Smith, Brett. “The State of Art in Narrative Inquiry: Some Reflections.” Narrative Inquiry, 17.2 (2007): 391–98. Print.

White, Hayden. The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987. Print.