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Personal Accounts Title



The form of a personal account influences its meaning and our understanding. Was this record of a person’s life experience written formally and for public consumption? Or does it come from a secret cache of private musings that the subject never intended for public display? Is the account handwritten or typed? Will this affect its length or breadth of detail? Was the account part of a larger work with broader perspectives, or is it a consideration of a particular moment in time?


How will women’s narrations differ from those of men? How do their views and roles in life affect their sense of freedom to write? Do men have a greater sense of obligation to record their life stories for posterity? Do they have greater access to education, writing materials, and publishing sources? Will the answers to these gender-related questions differ depending on the historical period? Socioeconomic status?


If the account was written directly by the subject, what was the format? What was the influence of the format on content? For many, literacy will determine the form of the account. For example, a personal account by a slave during the early American colonial period would have been written painstakingly, perhaps with a quill pen, on paper that was expensive and not readily available. In addition, there would have been precious little leisure time in which to write—assuming that the individual had experienced the luxury of having learned to write in the first place. What would such an individual write about? The issues that drove such a personal account would likely have been serious and pressing matters relating to social history or the impact of politics on personal welfare.

Personal Account of Phyllis Wheatley, Ex-Slave


By contrast, the e-accounts of a 21st-century college student dealing with life away from home, also historically relevant, would reflect many years of education and self-reflection, a presumption of access to resources for the recording of personal accounts, and could more easily be limited to internal reflections rather than a struggle with political and social constraints. Thus the form of a personal account can tell us a great deal about the circumstances of the writer and his or her historical context.


The account’s voice reflects a choice that suits a particular audience and indicates motivation on the part of the narrator. The author is always speaking to a particular audience. Sometimes that audience is the self because some accounts are never meant for other people’s eyes. When other audiences are in mind, it may be readily evident in the language itself. Colloquial language indicates a desire to connect with a common audience, while formal language demonstrates the need to lend credibility to an account for public consumption.


In Islamic contexts, the personal account is a specific style called the tarjama, which dates to the 10th century. Although written by the subject, it uses the third person to evoke a sense of objectivity. Furthermore, the tarjama includes specific features and leaves out others. A person’s tarjama includes a genealogy, a description of formal education and Qur’anic memorization, the names of teachers, books and subjects studied, examples of the student’s poetry, and dates to verify and set in context the life story. The tarjama clearly is an account of all that matters: education in a spiritual context and place in the learned community.


This kind of writing, taking account of one’s life, reflects an individual’s character and piety rather than consisting of an internal monologue. In addition to the limiting nature of the tarjama itself is the gender bias found in some Islamic contexts. In Iran, for example, it has been rare to find a personal account by a woman because the nature of gender roles requires a woman to remain veiled, both physically and metaphorically. The personal accounts that do exist from this culture are, by virtue of their public nature, reflective of women less respectable than those whose stories remain hidden in the privacy of the domestic domain. While this is not true in every Muslim community, it can serve as a warning that what is written and told publicly is not necessarily representative of the whole community.1


1 Dale F. Eickelman, “Traditional Islamic Learning and Ideas of the Person in the Twentieth Century” in Martin Kramer, ed., Middle Eastern Lives: The Practice of Biography and Self-Account (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1991), p. 39


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