OCLW Visiting Scholars: ‘Life-Writing Operations’

For the first event of Trinity Term the OCLW welcomed its own visiting scholars who gave brief presentations on their current life-writing projects. John Bak started the seminar with a fascinating summary of his work editing Tennessee Williams’ Ur-Memoirs. Bak introduced his audience to the problems of working with this material by way of an analogy with a pile of dinosaur bones at the Pitt Rivers Museum: the material evidence is there, but until palaeontologists assemble it together, it is difficult to identify the creature one is faced with. The archives of Williams’ memories, dispersed in many locations and rarely collected in sequential order, are like bones belonging to different dinosaurs that potentially lived in different eras. Williams’ tendency to give manuscripts to friends or to sell them when he needed some money has meant that his papers are widely spread out. Bak’s work consists of identifying how all these pieces of paper may fit together. This endeavour is full of complicated challenges: how is the material to be ordered, matched together, or even dated? First published in 1975 and quickly becoming a bestseller, Williams’ memoirs have gone through many transformations before appearing in the public eye. Originally believed to have been written from 1972, it now seems as though Williams was working on them from 1959 onwards, and different versions with different titles further complicate any attempt at compiling the book Williams actually wrote. The greatest challenge lies in the composition of the final published version. Taped recorded interviews with Williams were compiled by his publishers and converted into manuscript form, resulting in an extremely edited version of Williams’ life-story. Bak’s work bravely attempts to give a more faithful version of Williams’ memories by tracking down and organising the writer’s extensive autobiographical work.

Lorraine Paterson gave an enthralling account of her biographical work on Nguyễn Văn Cẩm. Born in 1875 in North Vietnam, he was exceptional from a young age, reciting and writing poetry, and believed to have fortune telling powers. He was considered ‘the dragon under the mountains’, a reincarnation born to lead his people from oppression. Paterson showed woodblock prints that suggest his prodigious intelligence: one shows him surviving after being buried alive for three days. His great political status while he was still very young meant he was used at the front of a procession in an uprising against French colonial authority: people believed that walking with him would protect them. He was then 12 years old. Seeing him as a threat, the French took him prisoner and sent him to a French school in Algeria with the intent of shaping him into a French man. At 21, he returned to Vietnam allegedly to ‘grow a cash crop’, but the French arrested him, fearing her was planning another uprising instead (his poetry from that time suggests that he was). Authorities decided to exile him, and after some time in Tahiti, he was sent to live in the remote Marquesas Islands, mostly known for tattooing and cannibalism. Here he befriended Gauguin, and they became very close, even sketching the painter’s last portrait. Paterson explained how this friendship gave him the opportunity to re-write his own life. When the painters’ biographers asked him about his life, he invented it, telling them he had been a colonial administrator that, realising the injustice of the system, turned into a revolutionary instead. Even after his death, the narrative of his life is still a point of contention. Paterson exemplified the conflicting life-stories by showing us a photograph of the communal hall of his village in Vietnam where an image of Cẩm in his French school uniform hangs on the wall, still the spirit of his home town.

Jennifer Cooke’s presentation introduced us to her innovative work on contemporary women’s life writing. Her archive consists of young women writers, aged 25 to 45, many of whom are academic or academically trained. Working in a new academic field, literary intimacy, Cooke’s project questions how reading as an experience can be intimate. Her research focuses on experimental writing – Cooke is fascinated by how ‘making it new quickly turns old’. Life-writing may seem to offer fewer opportunities for experimentation, but the writers Cooke works on use this genre to be innovative and yet also authentic. Challenging literary and formal boundaries of autobiography and engaging in social and political issues, ‘audacity’ marks out their writing and secures their authenticity. Cooke’s writers publish accounts of what is seen as shameful, they ‘expose it’, engaging frankly on difficult issues. Cooke noted an ‘aesthetic of provocation and perversity’ at work in these texts, which can understandably make for uncomfortable reading. By making the account awkward for readers, these texts are exposing how public discourse treats victimhood. An emerging body of theory states that seeking authentic experiences is a representation of the cotemporary world being so mediated – we prefer ‘messy lives’ that seem more authentic. Cooke’s study is centred on norms of auto/biography and how writers challenge them. Her research raises many questions about form (genres bleeding into each other) and ethics of inclusion (who can you name?). While often on the cusp of a different genre, these texts remain within the boundaries of life-writing. Cooke contended that this is because they have a political intention: their feminism is ‘strident and impotent’. Their accounts also emphasise how female sexuality is not straight forward, questioning how this may fit in with feminism. Cooke’s reading of these transgressive biographies ultimately seeks to understand how contemporary women’s lives can be written.

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