chapter  2
32 Pages

Understanding Autobiographical Writing and Identity

Looking back, I realize that the process of learning to write in English is in fact a process of creating and defi ning a new identity and balancing it with the old identity. The process of learning English composition would have been easier if I had realized this earlier and consciously sought to compare the two diff erent identities required by the two writing systems from two diff erent cultures. (Shen, 1989, p. 466)

Literature has long shown this to be true: Autobiographical writing, entailing the important gesture of backward gaze, can be a powerful way to challenge fi xed ideologies in people’s lives, pointing to alternative understandings or possibilities (Luke, 2008, 2010). Yet Shen’s testimony suggests other dimensions to consider: Can autobiographical writing in an additional language be used in a similar way? Can it challenge language learners’ sense of self as writers? What eff ects does it have on their language ideologies? What about their other social identities? In this chapter, I fi rst argue for the need to research possible connections between EFL autobiographical writing and identity work. The use of English L2 autobiographic narratives as data in L2 research is reviewed, which reveals a gap of knowledge in the ‘Expanding Circle’ (Kachru, 1992, p. 3) or the EFL context about whether and how EFL student writers may use autobiographical writing in English to do identity work. As a point of entry, I defi ne autobiographical writing as writing about any aspects of one’s own life. I then argue that a postmodern notion of identity needs to be further widened by (1) seeing identity as work; (2) foregrounding L2 learners’ agency in shaping their existing identities through the mediation of English writing; and (3) distinguishing two kinds of identities: English-writing-mediated identities and writer identity. I then draw on narrative practices to develop a narrative perspective on identity work. Last, I adopt a critical dialogical perspective on autobiographical writing and identity work.