Elements of Literature nonfiction: Just the Facts? Fiction and Nonfiction: What's the Difference?

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Elements of Literature

NONFICTION: Just the Facts?

Fiction and Nonfiction: What's the Difference?

Would you find it odd if someone called a dog a noncat? or vegetables nondessert? It may seem just as odd to call a kind of writing nonfiction. However, that's the only name we have for it right now!

Sometimes it's hard to see the difference between fiction and nonfiction. Fiction is supposed to be made up, and nonfiction is supposed to be based on fact. Yet, historical fiction deals with real, historical events. Many fiction writers show their made-up characters mixing with historical figures. Likewise, nonfiction writers use many of the elements of fiction: characterization, suspense, descriptions of thoughts and feelings. In fact, some of the nonfiction narratives in this book may seem just like short stories to you.

A Writer on Fiction and Nonfiction

"Like most writers, I intermingle fact and fiction. ... I have occasionally used an incident that actually happened as the germ, the starting point, or the climax of a short story.”

-Ann Petry, author of "Harriet Tubman" (page 557)

An Audience of One?

Most fiction is written for a wide audience, but nonfiction is often aimed at a much narrower audience. Some nonfiction is written for an audience of only one. A journal (or diary), a daily record of the writer's experiences and thoughts, is often meant to be read only by the writer. Letters are usually addressed to one person. (Letters to the editor are an exception-they are published in newspapers or magazines.)

Diaries and historical letters are sometimes published and read by many people. An example is the diary kept by Anne Frank during her years in hiding from the Nazis.

Some nonfiction, such as articles in specialized magazines or journals, is written for a specific audience. The audience for nonfiction of this type can be extremely small. A paper written by an astronomer who studies a particular kind of star, for example, may be intended only for other astronomers studying the same kind of star. An article written for a magazine about fly-fishing would be geared to a specific audience that is into fly-fishing.

Nonfiction for Everyone

The nonfiction you're likely to see in a local bookstore or on a library shelf, on the other hand, is written so that most people can understand it. Writers of nonfiction for a general audience avoid jargon (special language used by people engaged in a particular activity or occupation) even when they write about specialized subjects such as psychology and medicine. Their goal is to make the information understandable and interesting to the average reader.


Getting Personal: Subjective Nonfiction

Writing that presents facts without revealing the writer's feelings and opinions is said to be objective. Journalists who report on current events for newspapers usually write in an objective style. Their readers want the facts; they do not want to hear how the events affected the reporter. In newspaper editorials and some feature articles, the writing is subjective: The writer uses a personal tone and deliberately reveals opinions and feelings.

A popular kind of subjective nonfiction is the personal essay. Personal essays are usually short reflections on something that interests the writer. Books of humorous personal essays are often on the best-seller lists. For example, Bill Cosby writes humorous personal essays about kids and family life. Today even doctors and scientists write personal essays, combining personal anecdotes with facts about topics like sports injuries and warts. Richard Feynman wrote many popular personal essays about his "adventures" in science.

Telling Lives: Biography and Autobiography

Among the most popular forms of nonfiction today are biography and autobiography. In a biography the writer tells the story of someone else's life. In an autobiography the writer tells the story of his or her own life. Writers of autobiographies have the advantage of being very familiar with their subjects. When we read an autobiography, we hear about the subject's experiences, thoughts, and feelings from the person who knows them best. Biographies have their own advantage, though: They should provide more objective accounts of their subjects' lives.

Oral histories combine elements of biography and autobiography. Writers of oral histories conduct interviews, which they record (usually on tape) and then put into written form.

In all its many forms, nonfiction has lately achieved a surprising position: It is now more popular than fiction!


Before You Read


Make the Connection

A Nation of Immigrants

The United States is often called a nation of immigrants because almost every family has roots in other parts of the world. Do you know any stories about the journey of an immigrant to the United States? If you like, share one of your stories with the class.


Draw a line down the middle of a page in your notebook. On the left, list reasons why families come to the United States. On the right, list some of the difficulties you think they face.

Elements of Literature


As you read "The Circuit," think about the tone the narrator uses in describing his experiences. Is he sad? happy? angry? nostalgic? something else? What word would best describe his tone?

Tone is the attitude a narrator or writer takes toward the characters and events of a literary work or the work's audience.

For more on Tone, see the Handbook of Literary Terms.

Reading Skills and Strategies

What's the Writer's Perspective?

Perspective is a long word that simply means "viewpoint" or "position on a topic." If you say "See the situation from my perspective," you mean "Try to see things from my point of view." As you read "The Circuit," think about the writer's perspective on his subject-migrant farm workers in California. The first thing to remember is that Jimenez has based this fictional story on his own experiences as a child.


Yes, it was that time of year. When I opened the front door to the shack, I stopped. Everything we owned was neatly packed in cardboard boxes. Suddenly I felt even more the weight of hours, days, weeks, and months of work. I sat down on a box. The thought of having to move to Fresno and knowing what was in store for me there brought tears to my eyes.

That night I could not sleep. I lay in bed thinking about how much I hated this move. A little before five o'clock in the morning, Papa woke everyone up. A few minutes later, the yelling and screaming of my little brothers and sisters, for whom the move was a great adventure, broke the silence of dawn. Shortly, the barking of the dogs accompanied them.

While we packed the breakfast dishes, Papa went outside to start the "Carcanchita." That was the name Papa gave his old '38 black Plymouth. He bought it in a used-car lot in Santa Rosa in the winter of 1949. Papa was very proud of his little jalopy He had a right to be proud of it. He spent a lot of time looking at other cars before buying this one. When he finally chose the Carcanchita, he checked it thoroughly before driving it out of the car lot. He examined every inch of the car. He listened to the motor, tilting his head from side to side like a parrot, trying to detect any noises that spelled car trouble. After being satisfied with the looks and sounds of the car, Papa then insisted on knowing who the original owner was. He never did find out from the car salesman, but he bought the car anyway. Papa figured the original owner must have been an important man, because behind the rear seat of the car he found a blue necktie.

Papa parked the car out in front and left the motor running. "Listo,"4 he yelled. Without saying a word, Roberto and I began to carry the boxes out to the car. Roberto carried the two big boxes and I carried the two smaller ones.

Papa then threw the mattress on top of the r roof and tied it with ropes to the front and rear bumpers.

Everything was packed except Mama's pot. It was an old, large galvanized pot she had picked up at an army surplus store in Santa Maria the year I was born. The pot had many dents and nicks, and the more dents and nicks it acquired the more Mama liked it. "Mi olla,"5 she used to say proudly.

I held the front door open as Mama carefully carried out her pot by both handles, making sure not to spill the cooked beans. When s e got to the car, Papa reached out to help her with it. Roberto opened the rear car door and Papa gently placed it on the floor behind the front seat. All of us then climbed in. Papa' sighed, wiped the sweat off his forehead with his sleeve, and said wearily: "Es todo."6

As we drove away, I felt a lump in my throat. I turned around and looked at our little shack for the last time.

At sunset we drove into a labor camp near Fresno. Since Papa did not speak English, Mama asked the camp foreman if he needed any more workers. "We don't need no more," said the foreman, scratching his head. "Check with Sullivan down the road. Can't miss him. He lives in a big white house with a fence around it."

When we got there, Mama walked up to he house. She went through a white gate, past a row of rosebushes, up the stairs to the front door. She rang the doorbell. The porch light went on and a tall, husky man came out. They exchanged a few words. After the man went in, Mama clasped her hands and hurried back to the car. "We have work! Mr. Sullivan said we

4. Listo: Spanish for "Ready."

5. Mi olla: Spanish for "My pot."

6. Es todo: Spanish for "That's all."


detect v.: discover; perceive.



Cesar Chavez: Organizing Farm Workers

Thousands of migrant farm workers in California have experienced ' hardships like those described in "The Circuit." Among them was ' Cesar Chavez (1927-1993). Like Panchito, Chavez traveled with his family from region to region and worked long hours picking crops in the hot sun for very low wages. He was able to go to school only when the harvests allowed, and he had to quit after seventh grade.

Chavez believed that migrant farm workers needed a union to help them get fair wages and working conditions. In 1962, he organized the National Farm Workers Association (later called the United Farm Workers of America). The union's five-year strike against California grape growers drew support from around the country.

After some workers resorted to violence, Chavez went on a twenty-five-day fast to demonstrate his belief in nonviolent methods. "Our struggle is not easy," he once said. "But we have our bodies and spirits and the justice of our cause as weapons."

can stay there the whole season," she said, gasping and pointing to an old garage near the stables.

The garage was worn out by the years. It had no windows. The walls, eaten by termites, strained to support the roof, full of holes. The dirt floor, populated by earthworms, looked like a gray road map.

That night, by the light of a kerosene lamp, we unpacked and cleaned our new home. Roberto swept away the loose dirt, leaving the hard ground. Papa plugged the holes in the walls with old newspapers and tin can tops. Mama fed my little brothers and sisters. Papa and Roberto then brought in the mattress and placed it on the far corner of the garage. "Mama, you and the little ones sleep on the mattress. Roberto, Panchito, and I will sleep outside under the trees," Papa said.

Early next morning Mr. Sullivan showed us where his crop was, and after breakfast, Papa, Roberto, and I headed for the vineyard to pick.

Around nine o'clock the temperature had risen to almost one hundred degrees. I was


populated v. used as adj.: inhabited; lived in or on.


completely soaked in sweat and my mouth felt as if I had been chewing on a handkerchief. I walked over to the end of the row, picked up the jug of water we had brought, and began drinking. "Don't drink too much; you'll get sick," Roberto shouted. No sooner had he said that than I felt sick to my stomach. I dropped to my knees and let the jug roll off my hands. I remained motionless with my eyes glued on the hot sandy ground. All I could hear was the drone of insects. Slowly I began to recover. I poured water over my face and neck and watched the dirty water run down my arms to the ground.

I still felt a little dizzy when we took a break to eat lunch. It was past two o'clock, and we sat underneath a large walnut tree that was on the side of the road. While we ate, Papa jotted down the number of boxes we had picked. Roberto drew designs on the ground with a stick. Suddenly I noticed Papa's face turn pale as he looked down the road. "Here comes the school bus," he whispered loudly in alarm. Instinctively, Roberto and I ran and hid in the vineyards. We did not want to get in trouble for not going to school. The neatly dressed boys about my age got off. They carried books under their arms. After they crossed the street, the bus drove away. Roberto and I came out from hiding and joined Papa. "Tienen que tener cuidado,"7 he warned us.

After lunch we went back to work. The sun kept beating down. The buzzing insects, the wet sweat, and the hot, dry dust made the afternoon seem to last forever. Finally the mountains around the valley reached out and swallowed the sun. Within an hour it was too dark to continue picking. The vines blanketed the grapes, making it difficult to see the bunches. "Vamonos,"8 said Papa, signaling to us that it was time to quit work. Papa then took out a pencil and began to figure out how much we had earned our first day. He wrote down numbers, crossed some out, wrote down some more. "Quince,"9 he murmured.

When we arrived home, we took a cold shower underneath a water hose. We then at down to eat dinner around some wooden crates that served as a table. Mama had cook d a special meal for us. We had rice and tortillas with carne con chile, my favorite dish.

The next morning I could hardly move. My body ached all over. I felt little control over my arms and legs. This feeling went on every morning for days until my muscles finally got used to the work.

It was Monday, the first week of November. The grape season was over and I could now go to school. I woke up early that morning and lay in bed, looking at the stars and savoring the thought of not going to work and of starting sixth grade for the first time that year. Since I could not sleep, I decided to get up and join Papa and Roberto at breakfast. I sat at the table across from Roberto, but I kept my head down. I did not want to look up and face him. I knew he as sad. He was not going to school today. He was not going tomorrow, or next week, or next month. He would not go until the cotton season was over, and that was sometime in February. I rubbed my hands together and watched the dry, acid-stained skin fall to the floor in little rolls.

When Papa and Roberto left for work, I felt relief. I walked to the top of a small grade 10

7. Tienen que tener cuidado: Spanish for "You have to be careful."

8. Vamonos: Spanish for "Let's go."

9. Quince: Spanish for "Fifteen."

10. grade: here, hill.


drone n.: continuous buzzing or humming sound.

instinctively adv.: automatically; without thinking.


next to the shack and watched the Carcanchita disappear in the distance in a cloud of dust.

Two hours later, around eight o'clock, I stood by the side of the road waiting for school bus number twenty. When it arrived, I climbed in. Everyone was busy either talking or yelling. I sat in an empty seat in the back.

When the bus stopped in front of the school, I felt very nervous. I looked out the bus window and saw boys and girls carrying books under their arms. I put my hands in my pant pockets and walked to the principal's office. When I entered, I heard a woman's voice say: "May I help you?" I was startled. I had not heard English for months. For a few seconds I remained speechless. I looked at the lady, who waited for an answer. My first instinct was to answer her in Spanish, but I held back. Finally, after struggling for English words, I managed to tell her that I wanted to enroll in the sixth grade. After answering many questions, I was led to the classroom.

Mr. Lema, the sixth-grade teacher, greeted me and assigned me a desk. He then introduced me to the class. I was so nervous and scared at that moment when everyone's eyes were on me that I wished I were with Papa and Roberto picking cotton. After taking roll, Mr. Lema gave the class the assignment for the first hour. "The first thing we have to do this morning is finish reading the story we began yesterday," he said enthusiastically. He walked up to me, handed me an English book, and asked me to read. "We are on page 125," he said politely. When I heard this, I felt my blood rush to my head; I felt dizzy. "Would you like to read?" he asked hesitantly. I opened the book to page 125. My mouth was dry. My eyes began to water. I could not begin. "You can read later," Mr. Lema said understandingly.

For the rest of the reading period I kept getting angrier and angrier with myself. I should have read, I thought to myself.

During recess I went into the restroom and opened my English book to page 125. I began to read in a low voice, pretending I was in class. There were many words I did not know. I closed the book and headed back to the classroom.

Mr. Lema was sitting at his desk correcting papers. When I entered he looked up at me and smiled. I felt better. I walked up to him and asked if he could help me with the new words. "Gladly," he said.

The rest of the month I spent my lunch hours working on English with Mr. Lema, my best friend at school.

One Friday, during lunch hour, Mr. Lema asked me to take a walk with him to the music room. "Do you like music?" he asked me as we entered the building.

"Yes, I like corridos,"11 I answered. He then picked up a trumpet, blew on it, and handed it to me. The sound gave me goose bumps. I knew that sound. I had heard it in many corridos. "How would you like to learn how to play it?" he asked. He must have read my face because before I could answer, he added: "I'll teach you how to play it during our lunch hours."

That day I could hardly wait to get home to tell Papa and Mama the great news. As I got off the bus, my little brothers and sisters ran up to meet me. They were yelling and screaming. I thought they were happy to see me, but when I opened the door to our shack, I saw that everything we owned was neatly packed in cardboard boxes.

11. corridos: Mexican folk ballads.



"The Events Were Not Experienced in the English Language"

Francisco Jimenez (1943- ) was born in San Pedro Tlaquepaque, Jalisco, Mexico, and came to the United States when he was four years old. At the age of six, he started working in the fields. The crop cycle took his family all over Southern California, where they picked strawberries, grapes, cotton, lettuce, and carrots. After many years, Jimenez acquired U.S. citizenship. Although he had great difficulty completing his public-school education (he failed first grade and was deported when he was in eighth grade), he went on to earn a PhD in Latin American literature.

Jimenez has won several awards for his short stories. About "The Circuit" he writes:

“The Circuit' is an autobiographical short story based on my experiences as a child growing up in a family of migrant farm workers. The setting is the San Joaquin Valley, a rich agricultural area in California, where my family made a living working in the fields.

The idea for the story goes back many years to the time when I was in Santa Maria High School. Miss Bell, my sophomore English teacher, encouraged the class to write detailed narrative accounts of personal experiences. Even though I had difficulty expressing myself in English, I enjoyed the assignments, and with much effort I wrote about what I knew best. Long after I left her class, I continued to reflect upon my life experiences and often thought of expressing them in writing.

I actually wrote the first version of the story in Spanish when I was a graduate student at Columbia University in 1972, and published it in a Spanish literary magazine in New York City. Later I expanded it and named it 'Cajas de cart6n' ('Cardboard Boxes'), which I then translated into English under the title 'The Circuit: I retitled 'Cajas de carton' 'The Circuit' rather than 'Cardboard Boxes' because 'Cardboard Boxes' did not sound right to me. It did not convey the same meaning. 'The Circuit' seemed to me a more appropriate English title.

I wrote the original version of 'The Circuit' in Spanish because it was the language in which the events I describe occurred. In fact, I had difficulty finding the exact English words to translate the story because the events I describe in it were not experienced in the English language. This is why I kept some of the Spanish words in the translation. I write in both Spanish and English, but the language I write in is determined by what period in my life I write about. Since Spanish was the dominant language during my childhood, I generally write about those experiences in Spanish.”




The Habit of Movement

Judith Ortiz Cofer

This speaker says she and her family were nomads-that is, people who were always moving around. Judith Ortiz Cofer came to Paterson, New Jersey, from Puerto Rico when she was four years old. Her father was a career Navy man, and whenever he went to sea, Judith, her mother, and her brother returned to Puerto Rico. When their father came back, they would return to New Jersey to be with him.

Nurtured in the lethargy of the tropics,°

the nomadic life did not suit us at first.

We felt like red balloons set adrift

over the wide sky of this new land.

Little by little we lost our will to connect

and stopped collecting anything heavier

to carry than a wish.

We took what we could from books borrowed

in Greek temples, or holes in the city walls,

returning them hardly handled.
We carried the idea of home on our backs

from house to house, never staying

long enough to learn the secret ways of wood

and stone, and always the blank stare

of undraped windows behind us

like the eyes of the unmourned dead.

In time we grew rich in dispossession°

and fat with experience.

As we approached but did not touch others,

our habit of movement kept us safe

like a train in motion-

nothing could touch us.

1. lethargy of the tropics: sleepiness; lack of energy caused by extreme heat.

17. dispossession: not owning property or possessions.



Reading Check

a. Explain why the family leaves the shack near Ito's farm.

b. Why does Panchito fall down in the field?

c. Why doesn't Panchito want to read in front of the class?

d. Why does Panchito consider Mr. Lema his best friend at school?

e. What happens at the end of the story? (What do the cardboard boxes indicate?)1

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