AWP20: Unmasking the Masked Self: The Complex Role of Persona in Memoir.

Panel Participants: Daisy Hernandez, Sue William Silverman, Dinty W Moore, Ira Sukrungruang, Jill Christman

AWP20 ThumbnailDescription:  The use of a constructed persona in the essay hails from Montaigne, but persona in memoir is more complicated. If memoirists are telling the honest truth of ourselves, is it ever truthful to hide behind a mask? How can a memoirist be honest and artful at the same time? This panel of award-winning memoirists will explore the intricate braid of voice, style, point-of-view, emotional authenticity, and narrative design to see if we really can tell the truths about ourselves, and if so, how.


Moderator Dinty W. Moore begins the panel by quoting from Michel de Montaigne:  “Painting my self [two words], I have painted my inward self with colors clearer than the original form.” Moore points out that painting oneself is the work we do in both personal essay and memoir. “Persona,” he says, “is the embodiment of self, tidied up, constructed from the truth, but not containing every ounce of the truth.” After listing numerous Dinty selves, he argues that he can’t bring each of these selves to any one essay—it would confuse the reader. The essay that attempts to convey each of these selves would, in his words, “say almost nothing at all.” The reader likes “a steady hand…a sense of control.” Persona gives voice to a self that can then speak on the page and make meaning of a subject.

Moore, however, complicates these foundational ideas with a question: “When does the persona become an act of deception?… Is it something for a writer to hide behind?” At that point, he turns the panel over to his panelists.

Jill Christman

Jill Christman begins with a story about an undergraduate who resisted writing a personal essay—she said she had nothing to write about. She also was troubled by the notion that something should be at stake in her essay, a concept Christman had reviewed in class. In conversation, Christman learned that the student was “overwhelmed by the possibility of telling the whole truth, and the certainty that she will leave out some aspect of herself in the essay.” Christman talked with the student about persona: Choose a mask and project your voice through the mouth hole. “The ‘I’ in memoir and personal essay,” she says, “is something we try on when we first learn to speak our stories. We swap our personas like Greek theater maps… or puppets…. The idea of accessing a range of personas is woven into the very fabric of storytelling.” Christman points out that memoir is no exception.

Christman found that the answer to the student’s issue was the letter “I.” She says: “The I is not you. You can try to make it you, a version of you.” Christman reassured the student that she did not have to say everything about her subject in this one essay. Working with persona enabled the student to write her essay and submit it well before deadline.

Christman finds that students have two primary questions: “Can I say this?” and “But how do I say this?” Writers can find both answers by reading other works of memoir and personal essay. Christman points out memoirs that choose to fragment themselves so they can play with different personas: Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, which she calls “a memoir in verse,” Abigail Thomas’s Safekeeping: Some Stories from a Life, and Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights. On the latter she says, “He calls them essayettes, but the task he set himself is to write a delight every day. It becomes a memoir in a year.” Christman argues that Gay is employing many selves.

Ira Sukrungruang

Sukrungruang wants to talk about how we fracture ourselves. “Who should be the one telling the story?” Sukrungruang asks. Fatherhood has him thinking about personas and personalities. His toddler shapes himself into various versions of Sukrungruang, and this sparks Sukrungruang’s reflection. Is there even such a thing as a true self? “I like to imagine I carry … lots of different types of Ira’s … in my stomach.” Sukrungruang offered titles for his various fragmented selves—Buddhist Ira, Spoiled Ira, Judgmental Ira, Pseudo Intellectual Ira, and so on—each accompanied with quotes of how this self might speak. “Fuck you,” says Southside Chicago Ira. By offering often hilarious quotes from each persona, Sukrungruang illustrates how interwoven the various selves are with their particular languages. “There are so many Iras, a plethora of Iras….. Where did all these Iras come from? Why so many?” Sukrungruang connects his many personas to his identity as an immigrant’s son. “The examination of the self is an examination of how we fracture the self,” he says.

Sukrungruang argues that a memoir often pits these versions of the self against one another. Implied in his idea is the argument that memoir need not maintain a singular voice. For illustration, Sukrungruang mentions Lidia Yuknavitch’s fragmented memoir, The Chronology of Water. He reads from a chapter about how to ride a bike and examines the many selves operating in the piece. He holds up the text and points out how the prose visually changes on the page, as the “voice here is not just represented in syntax but in shape.”

Sukrungruang then pivots to how these ideas shape his teaching. In particular, he describes an assignment where he asks his students to list “five languages within them,” and then write one story in three different voices. He conceded this is not an easy assignment. “Sometimes a story will resist a voice,” he says, which means the voice might not be right for the story. Some students like this assignment, others find it difficult because they insist they have only one voice. Sukrungruang pushes back on this, ending his talk in the same way he addressed his student: “How is it possible to have only one voice!?” After hearing his talk, the audience knows it’s not.

Lina Maria Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas

Lina Maria Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas describes her original plans to present on complex theories that would interweave research on Rescue Anne, a CPR doll that was derived from L’Inconnue de la Seine, a famous death mask from the 1880s. She had to scrap those plans this morning, though—she tells the audience—because they no longer felt relevant. She wrote something else this morning instead.

Cabeza-Vanegas prefaces her reading by explaining that she volunteers at a clinic twice a month. She sits in a waiting room, and a medical professional passes her and shouts “Spanish!” and she jumps up to follow, having neither greeted nor been greeted. She reads an essay in which she translates between an English-speaking doctor and a Spanish-speaking patient. The essay consists mostly of the words she speaks, which are usually not her words but the doctor’s and the patient’s. The story unfolds to reveal not only facts about the patient’s condition and cold confusion on the part of the doctor, but the author’s presence as intermediary between the two, bridging the not quite bridged. What follows is a stunning, beautiful essay that does not recap in quite the same way as an expository, idea-driven panel, so this blogger won’t try. Suffice it to say, it was one of those magical AWP moments, and after her reading, Mad Creek Books ran out of her book, Don’t Come Back. (This listener grabbed the last one.)

Sue William Silverman

Silverman begins by describing her fascination with masks as a child. One mask transformed her from a timid girl into a “fire-breathing dragon.” She said she believed that mask helped her access a power already inside her, and yet once the mask was removed, “the power dispersed.” She raised another existential question, “Who was the real me?” She asserts that she has “real selves,” plural, rather than singular.

This story of a girl wearing a mask makes a larger argument: “Masks don’t conceal. Rather they are revelatory.” Silverman looks at her own work as an example of how she uses different masks depending on the subject.

Her first book (Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You) a memoir about an incestuous family, employs the voice of a lost girl. Her second (Love Sick), about sex addiction, is noticeably tougher. The third book, a collection of essays, takes an ironic stance because, as an atheist liberal Jew, she wanted a conservative Pat Boone to adopt her. Her fourth and most recent book, How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences, pushes that irony further because it’s an essay collection that asserts the belief that she can survive death.

“We generally wear many masks,” she states. In an essay collection, she says, the masks can shift. “Masks are paradoxical. By wearing any given mask, you can know X about me, but not Y. Masks do both reveal and hide.” “With every book we wear a different guise, rather than disguise, in order to be made flesh. A mask is the interface between art and lived experience.”  She mentions that she reveals a secret in the latest book of essays that she could never tell standing in front of this audience. And yet, a literary mask enables her to write it. “If you’re scared to reveal your truth, a mask is a perfect metaphor, or perhaps strategy.” She encourages writers to pretend they are slipping on masks when they write, or even literally wear one, and see what happens. “I know I am still exploring all of mine,” she concludes.

Question and Answer

Dinty W. Moore asks, Can you ever push it too far, the mask-wearing, the persona employing?

Christman says she tried on a persona early on in her first book that was much tougher than she was. “It actually began to ruin the book, because she [the persona] couldn’t be vulnerable in the way I needed to tell the story.” Christman advised to be aware of this pitfall.  She concedes that this tough persona might have helped her start the book, because she was terrified to write the material, but it couldn’t help her keep writing it.

Silverman said she tried a similar thing with Love Sick: She wrote many drafts in a tough voice, and it made for “a boring book.” She needed a more vulnerable voice. In The Pat Boone Fan Club, she gives a gefilte fish a voice during bridge sections. She uses a similar technique in “Surviving Death and Other Conveniences,” writing in the voice of Three Fates. She encourages writers to “really go out there” and experiment with voices that might work.

A participant asked about second person:

Cabeza-Vanegas has found both second and third person helpful in personal essay writing. She often writes about people who cannot write about themselves. But when she wanted to write about a person experience with a health issue, the subject felt both very significant to her, and yet not at all significant to the larger world. She was able to use third person to write about her experience because she can drum up more empathy for others than for herself. The third person enabled her to “other” herself.

Sukrungruang called the you “a character who does not want to claim responsibility with the I. Sukrungruang uses second person when he’s writing about a sin that the he doesn’t want to quite own yet… and yet calling it nonfiction, he says, is an act of claiming it. Second person helps him write material that he needs to write. Sometimes it sticks, and sometimes he changes it back to first person.

Another attendee asked, “How much of the persona or voice is premeditated, versus how much of it comes in organically in the process of writing?”

Silverman starts writing in order for the voice to evolve. Christman recommends experimenting consciously with different personas. She also writes herself into the voice, like Silverman. Using his experience growing up on the south side of Chicago, Sukrungruang encourages writers to look at setting, and how place might help people identify the right voice for their writing.


Heather Kirn Lanier is an essayist, memoirist, and poet. She’s the author of two award-winning poetry chapbooks, Heart-Shaped Bed in Hiroshima (Standing Rock, 2015), and The Story You Tell Yourself (Kent State U, 2012), winner of the Wick Poetry Open Chapbook Competition. Her memoir, Raising a Rare Girl, is forthcoming in the summer of 2020 from Penguin Press and Piatkus / Little, Brown UK.


Visit Assay for nonfiction conversations, syllabi, and more!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s