Looking Back, Looking Forward: Discussing the History and Future of the Field with Craig Howes

In preparation for this summer’s IABA regional conferences, SNS interviewed Professor Craig Howes about the history, present, and future(s) of the field.

Student and New Scholar Network (SNS): Now that a number of the originating voices in the field of life narrative studies, as it’s now called, have retired or are in the process of retiring, how does a retrospective of the field appear to you? How might a retrospective of the IABA community appear to you as well?

Craig Howes (CH): Well, for starters, I suppose I should probably think about retiring myself, because I didn’t know that we had shifted from life writing to life narrative studies. But given the increasing interest in graphic texts, virtually everything online, and the intense engagements with different kinds of representative hybrids, I heartily approve of the new label. (Although to be bothersome, I wonder about “narrative,” partially due to Lauren Berlant’s call to us at the IABA International conference in Sussex in 2010 to think more about the “life” part of our terms, and partially due to my own questions, stimulated by Marlene Kadar’s earlier work, and Anna Poletti’s more recent thoughts, about how much sequence is actually necessary for something to be a “narrative.”)

As for my retrospective gaze, I came into the field in between points of origin. Although the journal Biography started publishing in 1978, and prophetically as an interdisciplinary quarterly, the body of work that coalesced into a recognizable life writing field in North America was primarily being developed by those who came to be associated with the journal A/B: Auto/Biography Studies, and in Europe and elsewhere with path-breaking scholarship on working class autobiography, testimonio, diary studies, sociological approaches to narrative, and so on.

In my opinion, the initial impetus was unquestionably feminist theory, which provided many of the premises and much of the vocabulary for what came to be known as cultural studies, and the well-worn “race, class, and gender” trilogy of shared concerns that became so pervasive and contentious in literary studies. So the development of life-writing studies paralleled a much larger narrative that affected the formation and development of many fields. (Smith and Watson’s collection Women, Autobiography, Theory has the best account and examples of those shared assumptions.)

When Miriam Fuchs and I took over the editorship of Biography in 1994, we were aware of these developments—Miriam more than me. And of course, the submissions we received were increasingly approaching life narratives from these perspectives. So we responded, though thanks to a 2 ½ year backlog in accepted articles, the journal didn’t fully reflect these changes until 1997, the first year that the articles we published had been selected and developed by us.

The IABA community was essentially created by two events—the initial International Biography and Autobiography conference held in Beijing in the summer of 1999, and the conference on Life Writing and Changing Identities, held in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 2000. Zhao Baisheng managed to get a number of us to the first conference, and near the end of it, a meeting was held whose sole purpose was to create an international organization. I’ve written about my recollections of that meeting in a number of places, including my essay in the recent tribute volume to Philippe Lejeune published by the European Journal of Life Writing. Other founders, including Alfred Hornung, Margaretta Jolly, Tom Smith, and Lejeune himself have written about this as well. These are archived on the IABA website.

It’s an odd organization, because we decided from the start not to have members, an executive, or a budget. Two conclusions we did draw at that meeting have informed everything that has happened since then. First, that it would be a good idea to have a listserv to share information about conferences, publishing opportunities, and new publications (remember, this is in the relatively early days of e-mail, so this decision was somewhat bold). I agreed to start IABA-L, and if the organization has an identity, it is probably that subscriber list, with the accompanying IABA website, now run by Julie Rak. Second, that the organization should strive to be truly international—and not only in terms of its subject material, but its methods, and its languages. The last area has always been the hardest to implement, but we’ve continued to try.

At the time of the Beijing gathering, the Vancouver conference had already been completely planned by Susanna Egan and Gabriele Helms. The three of us actually agreed in a beautiful garden in Beijing that Biography would publish a special issue drawing on the papers given at the event, and the table of contents for that issue is a roster of not only some of the “originating voices,” but also those who would raise their voices powerfully in the immediate future. Smith and Watson, Andrews, Lejeune, Eakin, Dow Adams, Couser, and Porter represent the former; Whitlock, Gilmore, Jolly, Haverty Rugg, and Rak the latter.

Beijing created the organization; Vancouver set it fully on its feet. When Richard Freadman held the 2002 conference in Melbourne, IABA was a functioning entity, and to a certain degree we’ve been unfolding the pattern ever since. The looseness of the original organization has paradoxically led to a proliferation of institutions, publishing ventures, related conferences, and so forth. The Europe, Americas, Asia Pacific, and African divisions and SNS itself have all developed through participant initiatives rather than top-down mandates. This has been astonishing and very welcome for those of us involved from the beginning, and although it’s placing increasing pressure on the logistics of conference planning and other matters, it reflects, I think, the wisdom of creating an organization that did not take on the task of determining how it would grow.

SNS: Also in relation to life writing’s origins: what concepts were most closely examined initially and why? What were some of the original goals and how have they shifted? What apprehensions emerged, if any, as the scholarship began to coalesce and grow?

CH: Although with more shared goodwill than has been the case in some other fields, the principal tension from the start within life writing as an emerging field has been between the literary and aesthetic as opposed to the cultural and political impulse. Most of the earliest people involved in life writing were in literary studies. The benefit here is that we have a lot of very fine close readers, and also a general interest and appreciation for modes of presentation and form, even when dealing with heavily charged political texts. This again was partly a consequence of feminist and related studies—“the personal is political” or “our history our way” could be the slogans for a great deal of early life writing work, and conversely, close attention to represented lives and previously muted or silenced voices was a natural and necessary response to the influences of cultural, decolonial, and Indigenous studies in a variety of fields. (The importance of such scholarship is again caught in the shift from “life writing” to “life narrative studies.”)

In the 70s, 80s, and well into the 90s, though, with the notable exception of Smith and Watson’s Getting a Life collection, most conference papers and articles in life writing tended to select one or two discrete written texts, and do primarily literary analyses of them, though these were often infused with the changing perspectives that literary studies was with some difficulty accommodating. This shift was something that the founders felt, and sometimes resisted. As late as 2006 at the Mainz IABA conference, two very noted figures in the field indicated that they had never finished reading the significant text they were talking about, because the writing was so bad. “I only want to work with good stuff,” one person remarked. Neither of these people was resisting the political or cultural implications of life writing texts in some naively binary way; in fact, that was why they were talking about this particular text. But the idea that aesthetic merit should be part of our criteria for selection of subjects has moved down the hierarchy of influence in terms of our approaches, both because the major pathways of investigation now focus on areas of mass popular culture where the vocabulary for articulating why something is effective, or interesting, or “good,” has to be radically different, and because the increasing visibility of formerly denied, ignored, or suppressed subjectivities, regions, communities, genders, and their corresponding modes and forms of writing, has demanded responses open to other standards of “value.”

SNS: Shifting to today, what newer developments or directions most interest you, and why?

CH: This question is hard to answer succinctly, since as an editor of Biography, I find that our submissions and special issues tend to draw my attention to new possibilities—and that this has been the case now for almost twenty-five years. The late George Simson, my predecessor and the founder of Biography and the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa’s Center for Biographical Research, always insisted that we “should run to daylight.” What he meant was that we should always be encouraging people to move into open or unexplored territory. Our special issues have often been attempts to point toward daylight, and the titles and the dates suggest that we have anticipated a number of emerging trends and fields of study: The Biopic (2001), Biography and Geography (2002), Online Lives (2003), Testimonial Uses of Life Writing (2004), Life Writing and Science Fiction (2007), Autobiographics (2008), Life Writing and Translations (2009), Personal Narrative and Political Discourse (2010), Performing Queer Lives (2011), Posthuman Lives (2012), Baleful Postcoloniality (2013), Life in Occupied Palestine (2014), Online Lives 2.0 (2015), Indigenous Conversations about Biography (2016), and Caste and Life Narrative (2017), with issues on Black Lives Matter and on Mediation forthcoming. Sometimes, though, daylight means new light on more familiar subjects—our special issue on The Verse Biography (2016), for instance, or our most recent issue on Interviewing as Creative Practice (2018).

I would say that even as it has become a highly-established area of study, the whole engagement with virtual and online life representation will continue to surprise us and drive our efforts. I’m personally intrigued by material culture—how objects are increasingly integrated into multimodal forms of life representation. But partially because of where I live, and partially because it is a worldwide concern, I’m especially interested in place-specific life narratives—whether on the part of indigenous peoples, or in a broader sense, by situated knowledges. Miriam Fuchs was anticipating this development in her special issue on Biography and Geography—at the time it didn’t seem to attract a lot of attention, but she proved to be prophetic.

SNS: For some time—through publications, conference locations, and other events—life narrative studies has been expanding its scope and reach to seek, include, and accommodate non-European and U.S. centered stories and sociopolitical struggles. What changes have you seen, particularly from your vantage point in Hawai‘i? What new efforts can life narrative studies pursue, and what critical methods does the field offer for engaging these varied stories?

CH: I’ll take the coward’s way out, and refer you to the keynote I gave at the inaugural IABA Asia Pacific conference, which has been published in Life Writing. Because life narrative is a central concern in virtually any sociopolitical struggle, the critical methods above all need to be specific to the location, the circumstances, the language or languages, and the culture or cultures of the subjects under study. I would therefore say that it’s not so much that the field offers new critical methods, but that the field is capacious enough to absorb and deploy existing critical methods, often with long genealogies and histories of practice, which have been ignored or suppressed by more traditional notions of scholarship.

There are of course identity and appropriation issues here; determining who is qualified, or has the right or responsibility to do such work, must be a constant concern. At the recent IABA International conference in Brazil, the SNS asked me to speak about collaboration, and the gist of my remarks was that such research has tremendous potential for important and effective scholarly and political work, but that there is no one-size-fits-all container for cooperative critical labor. Understanding the different positions people occupy in relation to the subject must always be a consideration. Both Linda Tuhiwai Smith and Alicia Partnoy have for example stressed the necessity of grounding research in the needs of the subjects, rather than the professional needs of the researcher, and the importance of the subjects participating directly in the public presentation of the resulting work. Autoethnographic research also raises its own methodological issues. I think life writing scholars at least potentially have a greater sense of the dynamics involved in determining who has the right to speak for and about others, and how. (I’ve written something about this issue in relation to Human Subject Research.)

SNS: In what ways do you see life narrative scholarship participating in the shrill discourse surrounding media integrity and the peril of language under the rise of global authoritarianism? What can life narrative studies add; how can its scholarship speak back?

CH: I’m not sure I can answer the first question, if you want me to describe in what ways life narrative scholarship is shrill. Maybe I’m attending the wrong sessions, or reading the wrong articles and books, but as a field, we seem remarkably modulated. (Is that perhaps a problem?) Certainly many scholars in the field compellingly communicate the urgency of their work in these times, and narratives by and about those who are threatened or persecuted by authoritarian forces are some of the most-discussed subject matter. And I do know that those devoted to the forces of suppression see our scholarship as threatening. Speaking only for Biography, our contents have provoked serious threats against our editors and attempted legal harassment.

As for additions, or speaking back, if hearing voices that have been traditionally silenced is one of the most important foundational political acts, then a field devoted to studying such voices and narratives is certainly speaking back to those forces who would prefer that such voices stay silent. Through its critical and theoretical work, life writing calls attention to these silences, whether through testimonio, or Truth and Reconciliation forums, or Black Lives Matter, or #MeToo, or through collections like Life in Occupied Palestine or Indigenous Conversations about Biography. I also believe that an uneasiness about the politics of representation embedded in life narratives leads to some of our best and most useful scholarship. Leigh Gilmore’s Tainted Witness: Why We Doubt What Women Say about Their Lives comes immediately to mind, since its appearance immediately before the 2016 American election led to a host of articles and public appearances focused on what her book had to say about the current political climate. (And the recent American Supreme Court nomination proceedings have only made the need for her work more obvious.)

Life narrative studies also can speak back because the subject material, and the critical and theoretical vocabulary, often seem relevant and useful to those marginalized in society and under-represented in the academy. Or put another way, smart and dedicated students recognize that “all lives matter” as a disciplinary foundation does not contradict the pragmatic fact that for them as specific scholar-activists, and for others engaged in the ongoing political struggles, Black Lives, or Queer Lives, or Palestinian Lives must matter more. And the fact that All Lives Matter, which should be a commonplace, All Lives Matter has been co-opted and weaponized to do specific silencing and politically repressive work speaks not only to the recognition by everyone of the power of life narratives in the public sphere, but also the desperate desire on the part of established authority to discriminate by self-righteously refusing to discriminate between the relative privilege enjoyed by certain lives.

This is of course a familiar paradox for life narrative theorists and historians. Dr. Johnson’s famous claim in Rambler 60 that “there has rarely passed a life of which a judicious and faithful narrative would not be useful” did not mean that the lives themselves were equally useful or important at certain times or in certain places, or that singling out any group of lives as in need of urgent attention and respect—or even the acknowledgment that such people mattered—represented an insult or attack on the value of the lives of others. From a life narrative perspective, the claim Black Lives Matter denies the value of all other lives is simply ignorant.

SNS: You have been co-editor of Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly since 1994. Looking back at the extensive amount of scholarship you have mentored in this role, how has Biography guided the field to where it is today, and in what ways does the journal continue to support, direct, and organize life narrative scholarship? Also, how would you describe the experience of co-editing a leading journal in the field; what have been the benefits and challenges?

CH: I’ve always co-edited the journal, so I have to acknowledge that Miriam Fuchs, Cynthia Franklin, John Zuern, and now Anna Poletti also have to be credited with, or held responsible for, whatever Biography has done for the field. I would also want to mention the guest editors of our special issues, since it has often been their initiative behind those issues that has had an effect on the study of life narratives.

It would also probably make more sense to have someone not involved with the journal assess our contribution. This has of course happened. On the one hand, we have won the Council of Editors of Learned Journals Best Special Issue twice in the last five years. On the other hand, Biography and me in particular have been accused of betraying the study of biography through a capitulation, starting with my editorship in 1994, to the seduction of race, class, gender, and general victimage studies. (You can’t please everyone.) These charges arise largely from historians, and from biographers heavily invested in the trade market for great and familar lives. I’ve written about this as well.

So what I can best provide is a statement of our intentions rather than our accomplishments. From the very beginning, as an interdisciplinary quarterly, Biography has aspired to be a forum journal. In pragmatic terms, what this means is our primary concern is to reflect the field as well as direct it. So, for example, our huge annual annotated bibliography of critical work on Life Writing has been a substantial resource for scholars for many years. To assist in making people aware of ongoing research, we also are committed to publishing as many reviews, from as wide a range of disciplines as possible, as we can. Most recently, John Zuern initiated the International Review of Life Writing, an annual collection of relatively short essays providing information about the principal trends in the field in over thirty countries. All of these regular features are very time-consuming to produce, but we think they provide an important service—in part because their existence means nobody else has to do them.

I think that our special issue symposia create collections of essays that are superior to most such volumes. Because we fly the participants to Honolulu for several days of collaborative work before the final essays come in, there is a coherence and a shared sense of importance that you don’t often see in other special issues or edited volumes. I would also say that through these symposia, and our interdisciplinary bent, we also bring other fields and scholars into contact with life narrative studies. Many of the participants in our special issues would not identify themselves as life narrative scholars—but we do, and often inform them of the fact.

The challenges are various. Sometimes it’s the loss of your physical space—that has happened twice, due to institutional planning. Sometimes it’s the resignation or retirement of your managing editor, or one of your co-editors. These have all happened. The potential effect of such changes, however, speaks to the greatest ongoing challenge for a journal—which is to be ongoing. Biographyis now in its forty-first volume, which amounts to one hundred and sixty-two issues so far—with no double issues. Getting out what is the equivalent these days of a monograph every three months is our basic responsibility, and over the years we have enlisted the help of hundreds to do that. So keeping that engine running smoothly, while at the same time taking chances, innovating, rethinking sections or formats, and keeping the contents and ourselves fresh, is the constant challenge.

The benefits? I’ve met many interesting people. Some have become good friends. I find the subject matter stimulating, and I’m always learning things. Like teaching, editing constantly brings you in contact with new, and for me now almost always younger people, and fresh perspectives.

And I would also claim that our work has over time benefited those who share our interests. Although George Simson would not have put it this way, we were the first life narrative studies journal, and the first center for life narrative research. (That’s after all more or less what “biography” means.) I’d like to think that our example, even if only as a bad one, has made it easier for other journals and institutions to establish themselves—and SNS is one of the most significant and gratifying examples of such initiatives. The result has been the largely cooperative development of an entire interdisciplinary field that does interesting and useful work in the academy, and oftentimes beyond.

By way of a coda, here is a list of brief essays and articles I’ve published that address in detail some of the questions I’ve responded to above.

“Asking Permission to Write: Human Subject Research.” Profession: 2011. Modern Language Association of America, pp. 98–106.

“For Philippe Lejeune.” European Journal of Life Writing, vol. 7, 2018, pp. 32–38.

“How’s life? Auto/biography studies thirty years from here.” “What’s Next? The Futures of Auto/Biography Studies.” A Special issue of a/b: Auto/Biography Studies, vol. 32, no. 2, Spring 2017, pp. 195–197.

“Pacifying Asia, Orienting the Pacific: What Work Can a Life Writing Region Do?” Special Issue on Locating Lives: Papers from the Inaugural Regional IABA Conference, IABA Asia-Pacific. Life Writing, vol. 14, no. 4, 2017, pp. 441–453.

“What Are We Turning From? Research and Ideology in Biography and Life Writing.” The Biographical Turn. Lives in History, edited by Hans Renders, Binne de Haan, and Jonne Harmsma, Routledge, 2016, pp. 165–175.

Craig Howes been a faculty member at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa since 1980, a Co-Editor of the journal Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly since 1994, and Director the Center for Biographical Research since 1997. He has served as General Editor of the Biography Monographs Series, in affiliation with University of Hawai’i Press, and as series scholar and co-producer for Biography Hawai‘i, a television documentary series. With Miriam Fuchs, he co-edited Teaching Life Writing Texts (MLA 2008), and since 1999, he has managed the International Auto/Biography Association list-serv. He was Vice President (1996-1997) and President (1998-1999) of the Council of Editors of Learned Journals, and was elected to a five year term on the MLA Executive Committee of the Division of Autobiography, Biography, and Life Writing. Howes is the author of many essays and reviews in the fields of life writing, literary theory, and nineteenth-century English and American Literature, and his book Voices of the Vietnam POWs (Oxford 1993) was selected as a notable academic book by Choice magazine. In 2010, he co-edited with Jonathan K. Kamakawiwo’ole Osorio the collection The Value of Hawai’i: Knowing the Past, Shaping the Future. A past President of the Hawai’i Literary Arts Council and a former board member of Kumu Kahua Theatre, he currently serves as President of Monkey Waterfall Dance Theatre Company and as a member of the board for the Hawaiian Historical Society.

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