Translating Self and Difference through Literacy Narratives

Soliday, Mary.  “Translating Self and Difference Through Literacy Narratives.”  College English 56 (1994): 511-26.

This article introduces key elements of literacy narratives:

  • self-definition
  • self-representation
  • contact zones: social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power (512)
  • making everyday life “tellable”; embellishments are routine, conventions of tellability
  • (example of the irish father) (513)
  • autoethnography (519)
  • seeing experience as narratable is crucial to literacy narrative (520)
  • use of interviews a good way to get at contact zones, at differences
  • literacy narratives wrestle with the kind of relationship to dominant discourse the writer wants to imagine for herself (520)
  • defamiliarize ordinary language use and perform imaginative acts of self-representation (522)

Strong paragraph, p. 514, emphasizes “interpretation of past events from the vantage point of a particular present”; dialogic account rather than chronological report; life stories can be composed of deliberately constructed renderings of experience (514)

Hoggarth’s “scholarship boy” summarized: between two worlds (515; cf 519)

provides example of her own african-american student who can identify three englishes she speaks: frozen, cool, and warm (516ff)

community as mutual and dynamic: students being transformed by, and transforming, school cultures (522)


I took these notes 10 years ago, when I was last teaching Advanced Writing Workshop.  I was pleasantly surprised when I re-read this article, much like Gee’s article, by how fresh and relevant this piece of scholarship still seems. This article also re-enforces much of what Gee and Brandt say: the student who switches between frozen, cool, and warm is aware of Discourses, as is her mother who asks her why she talks like a white girl sometimes.  “Scholarship boy” was definitely in the business of acquiring a new, secondary Discourse for his economic gain.  And how about the negative sponsorship? Felt bad for the Irish father who was beaten at school. Powerful account of how violence shuts down education.  What’s not here are the narratives of computer or “new literacies” but that absence can again help you understand why Selfe and Hawisher did their research on “literate lives in the information age;” they were also pioneers in the area of developing “technological literacy narratives.”


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