In part two of a three-part series, Seraphima Kennedy reports back from ‘Autobiography in Transit,’ conference of the International Association for Biography and Autobiography in Banff, Canada.
Biotexts, Justice and the Metonymics of Pain
By the second day of IABA 2014, standards were already high. The Banff Centre, tucked into one end of the Bow River Valley, delivered stunning views of ice-capped Rocky Mountains from each of its lecture rooms. A lunchtime walk meant bumping into dainty groups of white-tailed deer emerging from the forest to nibble roadside grass. The breakfast buffet was a destination in itself and, this being Canada, the swimming pool came with a hot tub.
Of course it wasn’t all about the buffet. Many of those assembled were international scholars at the top of their game, and new themes quickly emerged. The conference was marked by a focus on ethics, the interplay between verbal-visual matrices, comics, the internet, geography and new methodologies for reading and writing life narratives.
Leigh Gilmore’s paper, ‘Getting a Handle on Pain,’ took up Carolyn Miller’s challenge in the first keynote to extend life writing theory from the verbal to the visual. Examining the use of metonymy and synecdoche in memoir book jackets, Gilmore showed how stories of chronic pain often use images of body parts to stand in for a frailty that’s also a punishment. Following Susan Sontag, Gilmore argued that, as readers, we need to hold ourselves accountable for how we look and read, ending with a call to develop new critical tools.
Sidonie Smith raised similar concerns around ethics and methodology in her paper ‘Auto/biographical Transit on the United States – Mexico border.’ Smith used the skills associated with close reading to critique a form of visual practice by artists in the ‘State of Exception’ exhibit, noting how in this exhibit (and in real life), undocumented migrants pay the price of transit with loss and even death. This paper reflected the concern of many academics at IABA that the practice and critique of life writing should not just be theoretical.
What was at stake in life writing, for many of those present, were the real world implications of individual and collective transits. Dynamics of space and geography were also important for Alfred Hornung, who discussed the Chinese management of Tibetan autonomous prefectures. Hornung explored a coexistence of different forms of life writing on Tibetan land, ranging from Han Chinese attempts to impose bureaucratic processes through inscriptions on hillsides and stone markers relating to the Long March, to Tibetan prayer flags and evidence of sky burials.
For this writer, the panel on ‘Comics and Justice’ provided a high point: Candida Rifkind, Eleanor Ty and Julia Watson all gave insightful analyses of very different forms of life writing practice.
Julia Watson’s presentation on Iranian writer Parsua Bashi’s Nylon Road took up the challenge of life writing in the verbal/visual matrix. Watson looked at ‘the affordances of comics for holding disparate moments in productive tension,’ and argued that the graphic memoir can ‘help us sharpen our notion of what transnational memoirs can do.’ The inherent instability in comics, she argued, produces ‘both confusion and new possibilities for autobiographical subjects in transit.’ This was thrilling stuff.
The second keynote speaker of the conference was Fred Wah, Professor Emeritus in Poetry at the University of Calgary. Born in Saskatchewan in 1939 to Chinese- and Swedish-Canadian parents, Wah grew up in a succession of cafés and restaurants, the memory of which heavily influenced his most famous collections of poetry, Waiting for Saskatchewan (which won the Governor General’s award) and, more recently, the acclaimed Diamond Grill.
Wah slipped between the academic and poetic, weaving extracts from his ‘biotext,’ Diamond Grill, into notes on the history of the long form poem in Canada and the discourse of multiculturalism. Emphasising the use of the cadence in Diamond Grill, Wah said that he aimed to challenge the ‘tyranny of the sentence’ as a closed measure of thought. Like Michael Ondaatje, Wah’s writing embodies a formal hybridity and playfulness that seeks to transcend its immediate environment.
For Wah, the idea of ‘place’ becomes ‘a crucial and dynamic term for how we negotiate our literature.’ Yet ‘place’ is not static: there is a sense of movement between and across nations, and through fluid identities. Wah’s sense of place is defined by the swinging door in his parents’ Chinese café, an open metaphor operating throughout much of his work. This allows him to locate himself within the ‘swinging door’ of the hyphen, which is also the space between Chinese and Canadian.
This kind of formal innovation is the best kind of theory in practice, emphasizing the ways in which life writing can be used to broaden the stories in our cultural archive. ‘My foot registers more than its own imprint,’ Wah said, while through the big picture window in the lecture theatre two young deer hopped through the clearing between the mountains.
Next week: Crash! Fictional Transits, Neoliberal Stories and Indigenous Representations