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.
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.’