Tag Archives: Banff

Guest Post: Review of IABA 2014 Conference, Part III of III

Seraphima Kennedy reviews the third day of the IABA Conference in Banff in this final installment of her three part guest post series.

Crash! Fictional Transits, Neoliberal Stories and Indigenous Representations

The Banff Centre emerged as a sparkling venue for a conference of this size, not only because of the spectacular scenery and great food. As well as a fully stocked library open to text-hungry delegates, the centre’s programme of residencies for emerging artists meant a quiet drink in the bar could be spiced up by a percussion performance, jazz guitar or saxophone solo.

By the final day of IABA 2014, delegates had encountered tranquil species of deer in the surrounding grounds, and some had even seen bears in the national park. We watched an elk swim from one side of the river to another at the same time as new areas were opening up in the field of life writing and creative practice.

Elk crossing the river_post 3

bridge_post 3

 

Much new work was pulling auto/biography into uncharted territory. Delegates extended their analyses away from the academic ‘ivory tower’ to the real world implications of memoir’s life writing cousins: the fourth wave of human rights narratives (Margaretta Jolly), the unique human rights work accomplished by semi-autobiographical texts (Meg Jensen), zines about suicide (Anna Poletti), testimonies of child soldiers (Kate Douglas), and narratives written by legal representatives of Guantanamo inmates (Terri Tomsky).

An awareness of place returned on day three, as critics examined the relationship between mainstream Canadian culture and Indigenous Literature. Laurie McNeill presented a valuable critique of one university’s pedagogy of decolonization in relation to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission directives. How can instructors create an ethical awareness without allowing testimonies to be simply consumed? This was a practical, as well as an ethical concern.

For Caitlin Elm, the critical tools available for reading indigenous texts were insufficient. In the current framework, she argued, indigenous texts are inevitably colonized in their very production. There was a lively discussion from the floor about whether acts of resistance can avoid being forced into a canon. ‘The way to meet cultures,’ said Sharron Proulx-Turner, ‘is to witness the culture rather than manipulate for a western ‘I.’

Janice Hladki’s analysis of visual artist Kent Monkman’s practice raised important questions about memory and affect, with Monkman’s video character ‘Miss Chief Eagle Testickle’ interrogating the ways that countermemorial artworks can reclaim/recast dominant narratives. Using elements of Hollywood melodrama and the Bluebeard saga, Monkman satirically deconstructed nation-state celebrations of white settler histories through the paradigm of an S&M relationship.

In the final keynote address, Rocio Davis reversed the analysis, looking at the embedding of fictive autobiographical narratives within contemporary novels rather than sifting representation for fictive constructs. Using Michael Ondaatje, J.M. Coetzee, Dave Eggers and Ruth Ozeki, Davis examined the transits between fiction and nonfiction in twenty-first century novels.

Davis went on to question the difference between a ‘sense of truth’ and ‘faking it’. Is it ‘truthiness’ rather than truth that readers seek in memoir? As Ondaatje himself said in an appearance at Wolfson College, Oxford earlier this year, wanting a ‘feel of memoir’ about your book is very different from writing an autobiography. The fact that an author’s presence slips in and out of a text does not mean the book is autobiographical.

This sense of narratives being made somehow more ‘real’ by authorial interventions moved in interesting directions in Davis’ discussion of Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. ‘I am writing this and wondering about you somewhere in my future,’ Ozeki’s story begins. Davis referenced a metatextual discourse in which cognitive pleasure arises from the reader’s understanding of narrative mechanics. Memoir and fiction are locked in productive tension, each providing a fundamental quality the other just can’t match.

This tension was foregrounded in John David Zuern’s dissection of US memoirs written after the economic crisis of 2008. Pinning down the idea of post-crash memoirs as transitory texts, Zuern highlighted the transits of the memoirist’s self into pre-written narrative modes, and argued that austerity had led to a ‘precarization of the self’ in which the centre does not hold.

Emily Hipchen gave a thrilling paper on the construction of Steve Jobs in Walter Isaacson’s memoir of the same name. Hipchen showed how Jobs’ life is narrated in orbit by his status as hyper-capable human, traumatised adoptee, and ‘supercrip.’ There was a lightbulb moment in the discussion between Hipchen and Craig Howes when the relevance to liberal ideology, the self-made man and the Superman story was noted. This was the kind of electricity of which the best intellectual discussions are made.

IABA 2014 showed that traditional genre boundaries can be inadequate when discussing life writing in the current moment. Beginning with Carolyn Miller’s discussion of genre as social action before moving through human rights, selfies and post-boom memoirs, delegates demonstrated the capacity of life writing in all its forms for ‘holding disparate moments in tension’ (Julia Watson). This was also the capacity to create and to consume, to allow unheard voices into the cultural archive, and to hold up the stories that are written down against those that are forgotten.

Literature is often placed in a different category from memoir on the one hand and autobiographical acts on the other. At IABA 2014, delegates asked how the three are interlinked. Do different ethical standards apply to a fictional rather than a life writing text? What are the transits between high literature and human rights testimony? How do we create new methodologies to respond to lives, narratives and other forms of self-representation that are constantly in motion?

Perhaps we can look to Ozeki’s text, in which the main character’s father finds an internet app that allows him to erase his daughter’s name from the internet. In light of the EU/Google ‘right to be forgotten’ case, this travelling concept illustrates the transits between fiction, life writing, and contemporary culture. As we interrogate life writing texts and practices, we can perhaps concur with Ozeki: ‘Life is full of stories – or maybe life is only stories.’

Guest post: Review of the Conference for the International Association for Biography and Autobiography (IABA) 2014, Part I of III

Hello life-writers!

We are delighted to bring you another three-part guest post series this summer.  Seraphima Kennedy, a PhD candidate at Goldsmiths, reviews aspects of the 2014 IABA conference in Banff.

———
Conference for the International Association for Biography and Autobiography (IABA)

Auto/biography in Transit
May 29-June 1, 2014
Banff Centre, Alberta, Canada 

‘Autobiography in Transit’ and Theory on the Front Line: How IABA 2014 is Sounding out New Depths in Life Writing Scholarship

Canada! Migration! Being and illness! Ethics, artists, comics! The ninth international conference for the International Association for Biography and Autobiography took place from 29 May – 1st June at the Banff Centre for the Arts, Canada, its mission to investigate all things Life Writing-related. Seraphima Kennedy swapped Goldsmiths for the Canadian Rockies to report back. 

Ever seen a bear being paintballed out of a national park? An elk swimming across a river? Deer leaping across the path on your morning run? Delegates got more than they bargained for at the at the IABA 2014 conference at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Alberta, a multidisciplinary institution in a spectacular setting surrounded by ice-capped mountains, fast-flowing rivers and seemingly endless grasslands. The conference programme was packed with some of the biggest names in contemporary life writing scholarship and practice. In a series of three guest posts, I will outline some of the key developments in the field, while focusing on a couple of papers in detail which may be of interest to OCLW readers.

The topic of the conference, organized by Eva Karpinski, Laurie McNeill, Julie Rak and Linda Warley, was ‘Autobiography in Transit.’ Papers were invited on transit and transition as ways of interrogating how lives, narratives and other forms of self-representation are constantly in motion. Over three days delegates attended to a range of questions concerning the practice and critique of auto/biography, representation and transits of the self, and new methodologies of reading. Uniquely the conference also created a high-voltage opportunity for new scholars and graduate students to engage with expert mentors, through a dedicated workshop with contributions from Sidonie Smith, Alfred Hornung, Craig Howes, Rocio Davis, and many others who were on hand to offer advice to early career researchers in the field of life writing publishing.

The conference proper began with a blessing from Elder Tom Crane Bear, caretaker of the land and a member of the Siksika nation. ‘We came up through the southwest where the chockecherries grow,’ he said, speaking about the journey of his people, the Blackfoots. Ideas of lives in transit, of movement both between and within life stories, were central to the conversations scholars would go on to have over the next few days during panels on Theorizing Human Rights, Representing Islam, Digital Futures, Nineteenth-Century Women’s Narratives, Neoliberal Stories, and Comics and Justice, among many others.

In her keynote address ‘Memoir, Blog, and Selfie: Genre as Social Action in Autobiographical Representations,’ Carolyn Miller treated the audience to a history of the self-referential portrait, linking genre expectations, social structures and Lejeune’s ‘autobiographical pact’ with James Frey, Oprah, and the ‘fifteen types of selfie.’ Could selfies be seen as a form of life writing? A lively debate set the tone for a stimulating and at times controversial three days, while the Twitter-sphere saw the emergence of a new kind of selfie – the ‘IABA 2014 selfie.’ This proved a popular genre among assembled scholars, and provided much entertainment over the course of the conference (look for #iaba2014selfie on Twitter, or scroll through #iaba2014 to see some of the best of these).

Elder Tom’s novelistic turn of phrase also pointed to an awareness of the links between critical theory and creative practice. This was reflected in the foregrounding of creative writers in the Life Writers Reading Series: Patrick Lane, Sharon Proulx-Turner and Fred Wah all gave stellar readings and keynotes that called into question the links between political and personal, national and international, domestic and public.

Sharron Proulx-Turner was generously sponsored by the journal a/b: auto/biography studies and Patrick Lane appeared courtesy of the Writer’s Union, bringing two of the finest voices in Canadian literature into the conference fold. The first day of the conference ended with a drinks reception in the stunning Tom Crane Bear Hall of the Max Bell Building, with views of the sun setting over the glorious Rocky Mountains. Métis poet Sharron read from a series of poems including ‘A Houseful of Birds,’ before talking about sealed records and the legacy of Canada’s Residential School system. ‘There was another story there,’ she read, ‘where a girl opened her mouth and inside was the universe.’ Sharron was a compelling speaker about the impact of trauma on her own writing, her methods of using autobiographical material, and a compassionate and singular presence throughout the rest of the conference.

Patrick Lane was just as frank with his discussion of the uses of autobiography, the writing process, fear of failure and his decision to start writing. Hinting at a combination of memory, experience and sense, writing for Lane was bound up with affect: ‘I can still feel those dark mountains, they rose like morning clothes from Kootenay lake.’ Somehow the act of writing coexisted with the fear of erasure, an awareness of not being fully represented: ‘’Canada did not exist, and neither did I. I wanted to exist,’ he said. These were powerful, intimate readings, highlighting some of the faultlines inherent in the theorization of writing about the self that would be plotted over the next two days. And, as Lane acknowledged, this was why we were there. ‘You guys are the academics,’ he said. ‘I’m just a writer.’

———

Next week: Leigh Gilmore on ‘Getting a handle on pain,’ Fred Wah on hyphens and the swinging door, Julia Watson on comics and justice.

Seraphima Kennedy is a writer and final year Ph.D candidate in Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London where she is also a Visiting Tutor in Creative Writing. Her practice-based research focuses on contemporary memoir and autobiography, with a particular focus on adoption memoirs. Seraphima writes poetry, fiction and life writing, and is currently writing her first novel.

Email: s.kennedy@gold.ac.uk

Twitter: @seraphimak