Malala Yousafzai by Michael Volpicelli



















Today, we're going to be looking at biographical writing:

Autobiography: the story of your own life, told by you.

Biography: the story of somebody else's life, not told by them.

A book can be biographical or autobiographical.

We use these terms for non-fiction books. Even though a fictional book might tell the life story of a character, we do not use these terms to describe the stories of people who do not really exist.

For example, Henri Nyakarundi's book My African Dream is an autobiography (it is autobiographical) because it is Henri's life story, written by him.

Whereas The Patient Assassin is a biography (it is biographical) because it is the life of Indian revolutionary Udham Singh, told by journalist Anita Anand.

However, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole by Sue Townsend is simply fiction. Even though it tells the life story of Adrian Mole, we would not call it a biography, because Adrian Mole is a fictional character. The same goes for Bridget Jones's Diary.

Autobiographies are usually told in first person, like a diary, whereas biographies are usually told in third person, like a report.

Memoirs are also autobiographical, but may be more of a collection of memories or reflections than a full telling of the person's life.

Relating to history, the oldest autobiography thought to be in the English Language is the Book of Margery Kempe  (1438) which documents a medieval  woman's travels and Christian visions. The first modern biography in English followed around 300 years later in 1791, detailing the life of poet and playwright Samuel Johnson, written by his friend James Boswell. So it appears that we were writing about ourselves before we were writing about other people.

We also mentioned, in the history of creative writing, the autobiography of Olaudah Equiano, who often went by the name Gustavus Vassa. His autobiography The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789) was highly influential in bringing an end to the slave trade in England.

We can be fairly certain that no one in upper-class England in the 1700s knew what it was like to be a slave or indentured worker. The magic of good writing is that it tricks the brain into believing that it has experienced what is on the page. The same areas of our brain light up when we read about an action as they would if we were doing that action, and reading a good story can continue to affect our behaviour long after we close the final page. So a good life story is a very powerful thing, because it really does let us step into somebody else's shoes.

And this is really the point with a good biography or autobiography - it allows you to live somebody else's life, if only for a short time. As the video on What is Literature For?  says, "[literature] gives us access to a range of emotions and events that it would take you years, decades, millennia to experience directly."


Suggested Reading


My African Dream by Henri Nyakarundi

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela

I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai

Me by Elton John

Becoming by Michelle Obama

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

Not My Father's Son by Alan Cumming

Malcolm X by Malcolm X

If This is a Man - The Truce by Primo Levi



The Patient Assassin by Anita Anand

Wild Swans by Jung Chang

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

When She Was White by Judith Stone

Red Rosa by Kate Evans

Three Women by Lisa Taddeo

A History of the World in 21 Women by Jenni Murray

Stuart: A Life Backwards by Alexander Masters

Genghis Khan by Jack Weatherford