Temporality in Alexie’s “Unauthorized Autobiography”

Sherman Alexie organizes the time line of events and narratives in his essay “The Unauthorized Autobiography of Me” in a non-linear fashion, touching on essential information spanning his entire life. Through this warped sense of time, Alexie highlights experiences which shape his autobiography, focusing the reader’s attention upon the importance of glimpsing specific moments of his life rather than coming to a full understanding of sequential, organized facts.

In order to give his readers a sense of the cultural period in which his autobiography is located, Alexie utilizes popular references, particularly to music. By focusing on the sense of place and time articulated by the majority culture as well as exact dates, Alexie emphasizes the role of American popular culture in the shaping of his ethnic and cultural identity. For example, following the opening scene, Alexie creates a sense of the time period by describing the music that plays in various places: the bar, the car, the house. The alternative measurement of time based on the musical background of Alexie’s memories presents an interesting perspective about what makes the past memorable.

Although Alexie artfully utilizes alternative measures of time, he also incorporates the dates of particular episodes in his autobiography. However, the interspersing of the contemporary episodes of his adult life breaks up the narrative, providing alternating views of the conditions of his early life and their subsequent influence upon his current character. In a sense, the dates themselves only contribute to the sense of division between past and present, as Alexie presents them as short, set-apart pieces of information, as in the following passage: “Her black hair combed long and straight. 1970. Often, she sat in her favorite chair…”. By breaking the narrative in order to insert the date rather than incorporating it smoothly into the other information, Alexie asserts that time and date provide only a limited background, while the other, more essential details provide a fuller picture.

The non-linear narrative structure of Sherman Alexie’s “Unauthorized Autobiography” creates an alternative view of the past and the present constructed through episodes that tellingly portray moments of importance to Alexie’s development. By interluding the past with the present, Alexie highlights the broken nature of his own perceptions of time and its effects on his reality.

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One Response to Temporality in Alexie’s “Unauthorized Autobiography”

  1. Anton Vander Zee says:

    I think considering temporality is key for this essay, and I’m glad you dwell on it here as we didn’t turn to it as fully as we might have in class. This, along with Allison’s post on embodiment, provide two key ways of addressing Alexie’s essay.

    I like how you describe the varying markers of temporality–the inclusion of pop-cultural details on the one hand, the often abrupt insertion of dates on the other. These are ways of marking time, but they also suggest a deeper significance as you carefully point out. Great post!

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