- Laura BrowderLaura BrowderUniversity of Richmond Department of English
Impersonator narratives exist at the intersection of literature and history; they serve as interventions during flash points in history. Impersonation takes a number of different forms, but in all cases it is contingent on reader reception. There are narrative impersonations in which reader and writer are willing collaborators and in which readers feel little to no discomfort with an author’s assumption of a voice far from his or her public identity; any novel written in first person is in a sense an impersonation. Yet even when author and reader agree that the work is fictional, this compact between fiction reader and writer can become disrupted when readers question the author’s right to assume a specific voice.
There are literary hoaxes, which generally (although not always) involve a body of work whose author is supposedly dead (and thus it is impossible for any actual impersonation to take place). The most analytically productive for textual scholars, however, are the most committed impersonators—those who (at least part-time) inhabit the literary personae they have created.
For this last group of impersonators, as is true for some of the others, success depends on having a readership with fixed ideas about the identities the impersonator chooses to inhabit. The impersonator succeeds through a deep understanding of stereotypes and, through his or her success, further imprisons his or her readers in caricatured thinking about race and identity. Yet the unmasking of the impersonator offers the possibility of liberation to readers, in that it forces them to consider the preconceptions that led them to believe in these false narratives, no matter how implausible.
Impersonation can be a means for its practitioners to escape historical traps, or identities that no longer work for them; it can be a way for practitioners to put a historically understood label (Holocaust survivor, AIDS victim) on their private, uncategorizable pain or trauma. Impersonation is meaningless without the underlying belief in an authentic voice. And these authentic voices are usually from speakers outside the literary canon.