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A Sort of Preface

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“A Sort of Preface” is a short piece of prose written by Toni Cade Bambara, extracted from “Gorilla, My love”, which was published in 1984. It can be classified as narrative prose and is written in the first person. It consists of 3 paragraphs of varying length. The subject of this piece can be interpreted as to be one side of an argument on why not to write autobiographical fiction. The piece is set in Brooklyn, New York in the 1940s. According to the name of the author, the easy laid-back tone of the text, background information it can be assumed that the narrator is a black female.

From the way she speaks about her mother, it can also be assumed that she is either a teenager or a young woman. She starts off stating that it “does no good to write autobiographical fiction” and continues to elaborate on the consequences of doing so concerning trouble with her mother throughout the first paragraph. The second paragraph begins with the narrator suggesting the first possible solution to actually writing autobiographical fiction, but negating it immediately.

It continues describing the problems concerning autobiographical fiction occurring with friends. The last paragraph, being the shortest and the most direct, concludes the entire topic and basically states that the narrator’s family and friends are more important to her than writing autobiographical fiction. She mentions that it would “do no good” in any case since she claims that she lies a lot anyways, so her autobiographical fiction would end up as “straight-up” fiction. The reader is quite effectively and quickly made aware of the world that the narrator lives in.

Several obvious clues describe the setting to be Brooklyn, New York in the 1940s. The 1940s was one of several time periods, where black people had very few rights. This could be the cause for the lack of education for the narrator and therefore the crude and unpolished language. The fact that Brooklyn was never a wealthy area of the city, the tone and language of the narrator and several clues such as the mother having to go work three jobs to improve the quality of her children’s lives suggest that the narrator comes from the lower income class.

The values that she has are strongly emphasized, especially friends and family. She states that after mentioning a character in an autobiographical work, her friend assuming that she is talking about her, and not being too pleased about it, the least she could do is “spin off half the royalties her way”. Towards her mother she does not show as much reason as towards her friend. She treats and reports her mothers expected actions more cynical than serious and reasonable.

However, the last paragraph contains clear evidence that she does value her family. The atmosphere present in “A Sort of Preface” is created by the casual, crude, informal, but humorous tone. This tone and the absence of nearly any punctuation gives the reader the impression that the narrator is basically just talking ahead without much thought. Her attempts to make a point on why not to write autobiographical fiction result in short stories of what she has already experienced in similar situations, or what she expects would happen.

The language and word selection can be clearly classified as colloquial. This can be easily linked to her poor background. The narrator speaks very informally, basically as if she was speaking to somebody without thinking about sentence structure. This can be clearly pointed out by the small amount of punctuation, which is only present when it seems like the narrator is taking an extended breathing break. This lack of punctuation puts emphasis on the rhythm of the prose, which is well synchronized with the tone and language.

Each paragraph is actually only one sentence long. The vocabulary on the other hand is fairly sophisticated in contrast the sloppy sentence structure. The informality of the text can also be seen in the choice of words and figures of speech, of which many are uncommon to the formal English language. Examples of these are “cause”, “snatches”, “messin”, “have your ass whipped”, “your bell ain’t ringing”, and “spin off half the royalties her way”. Personally, I believe that this preface deliberately contradicts itself.

It becomes visible in the first paragraph, which starts off with the narrator saying that it is no good to write autobiographical fiction. Following this statement, the reader learns more and more about the narrator’s life. In the first paragraph we gain knowledge of her family, and in the second paragraph we learn of her friends. Essentially, that describes autobiographical fiction. The reader is not left confronted with a mystery on why she contradicts herself in this matter. The final clue is in the last paragraph: “I lie a lot anyway”.

This is mentioned in a different context, but the statement is a general one. The book that may follow from this preface may therefore be an autobiographical novel, it may be just an introduction to a “straight-up” novel, simply introducing herself, or it may be part of both. Since this preface has autobiographical information, she could be possible have “intended” it to be non-autobiographical, but could not stay completely consistent with not writing anything autobiographical. This could also justify why the title is “a sort of a preface”, and not just “a preface”.

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