A workshop report by Verena Baier and Tamara Heger (University of Regensburg)
We all thought life would go back to “normal” in 2022 – or at least the pre-pandemic “normal” we were used to – after having survived a hectic year and having juggled the many challenges and obstacles the COVID-19 pandemic has caused for us PhD candidates and young researchers. Yet, here we are again, in January 2022, still haunted by the same uncertainties and challenges, still trapped in the same time loop of our very own Groundhog Day-experience.
While we do feel frustrated about this, why not also celebrate and learn from what went well during the lockdown? Why not look back at the positive experiences the pandemic has given us, experiences that would not have happened without the interruption of the “normal” we were used to?
Therefore, during these first dull months of 2022 that already seems so dreadfully familiar to us, we want to share our story of hope from 2021.
Like many scholars in life writing studies, we trace our “academic upbringing” back to Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson’s work. In 2017, they announced that while life writing had been a “rumpled bed” in 2000, it “is now a messy multi-sensorium, teeming with the potential—and the pitfalls—of vibrant self-presentations across media, geographies, and worlds” (Smith/Watson, Life Writing in the Long Run, 2017, xlvii).
So, what would this messy multi-sensorium look like now, in 2022? How would self-presentations be connected and entangled across media, geographies, and worlds?
Meanwhile, our own lives as young scholars in 2021, amidst a seemingly never-ending pandemic lockdown, did not seem very vibrant; let alone teeming with academic encounters or entangled across geographies other than our own office spaces. Rather, we found ourselves poring over our books on our own – not the ideal situation for critical reflections and progressive debates.
But – as we would later learn during the workshop – crises often point toward new paths and open up new perspectives, which is why we decided to use the pandemic lockdown, with its turn toward virtual spaces, in our favor. If we could not leave our offices and living rooms, we could at least try to bring like-minded scholars in there…virtually that is.
Using the Pandemic in Our Favor
During the dullest months of the ongoing pandemic, we – that is Verena Baier and Tamara Heger, doctoral candidates in American Studies at the University of Regensburg, Germany –felt the urge to break the isolation of the long-lasting lockdown. As both our dissertation projects are situated in the field of life writing studies, we decided to organize a virtual workshop on the topic. The aim was not only to resume much missed conversations with colleagues from our area but to bring together an international group of like-minded scholars, who, despite coming from very different academic fields and disciplines, all share an enthusiasm for life writing.
On Thursday, 13 May and Friday 14 May 2021, we kicked-off our two-day workshop “Narrated Lives, Remembered Selves: Emerging Research in Life Writing Studies.” We welcomed fourteen early-career scholars from the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic, Austria, Spain, Canada, the United States, Chile and Germany, spanning several time zones from Bavaria’s CET to Hawaii’s HST. Despite remaining in our very own office spaces or living rooms, we soon found ourselves deeply entangled in conversations with other young scholars and experts in life writing studies from all around the world.
Of course, we were not alone in this endeavor, but supported by the expertise of three great scholars and role models: SIDONIE SMITH (professor emerita at the University of Michigan), JULIA WATSON (professor emerita at Ohio State University), and MITA BANERJEE (Professor and Chair of American studies at the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz), who not only gave us great insights into their ongoing work during the workshop’s two keynote lectures, but also took the time to discuss our projects with us, helping to improve our work immensely.
In this conference report we will look back at our two-day workshop which highlighted the enormous diversity in the field of life writing studies, the boundaries of which are still being pushed in new directions.
What insights can we gain from crises?
SIDONIE SMITH and JULIA WATSON opened the workshop with the first keynote lecture titled “Narrated Lives after 2020: Emerging Life Stories in the United States,” in which they gave insights into their current research project. They not only elaborated on the basic principles of reading life writing – common ground for all participants – but also pointed towards future directions for the field and offered encouragement for emerging research. They specifically pointed out how crises, and an awareness of crises, have not only inspired new stories, but also new ways of telling stories. In other words, how new forms of life writing are created under the influence of crises, narrating not only the past and present, but also diverse visions of the future. Crises thus had a particular influence on who got to tell their stories and whose stories would be heard.
The speakers identified six broad categories of current events, which are particularly productive in showing the relationship between crises and storytelling: pandemic precarity, the eco-crisis and survival, Black Lives Matter revaluations, the stakes of feminisms at the suffrage centennial, the plight of migrants and refugees, as well as the growing addiction crisis.
In our workshop, they focused on the BLM movement and the #MeToo movement. In examining life narratives in both realms, Smith and Watson’s core axioms and theories of contesting singular, stable, and fixed notions of autobiographical subjects proved particularly fruitful. This is because narratives of crises are embedded in collective responses to societal ruptures and frictions, and relate to current waves of activism. Smith and Watson argued that life narratives in the context of the BLM movement contribute to and are part of the struggle against injustices. For instance, the movement innovatively use traditional and new forms of life writing to denounce and challenge present inequalities. As such, they are crucial sources commenting on and actively influencing current debates on the movement. Narratives from the #MeToo movement in particular tackle existing gaps, ruptures, and absences as they try to evoke missing voices and creatively use silences to piece together lives. Smith and Watson stressed that with their new project they want to point to future possibilities in the field of life writing and inspire conversations.
How does life writing transform traditions?
On the second conference day, we had the pleasure of welcoming MITA BANERJEE, whose research has time and again shown the interdisciplinary potential of life writing studies. Looking at the intersections of disability studies and life writing studies, she challenged established notions of autobiography, biography, life writing and their connection to each other. Her keynote lecture on “Writing Life, Life Writing: Disability and Relational Autonomy in Jason Kingsley’s and Mitchell Levitz’s Count Us In” introduced a way of combining traditional and innovative insights of the field.
She did so through a critical re-evaluation of Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, which not only established the traditional concept of the genre with its assumption of an autonomous subject, but also paved the way for neoliberal standards of biopolitics, with an ideal of the physically strong and healthy body of a white heterosexual man. From a disability studies perspective, this ideal is particularly problematic and Banerjee explored what happens when “other” lives are written according to these standards. She introduced Emily Kingsley and her son Jason, who was born with Down Syndrome, and examined the tensions between their autobiographical and biographical texts. On the one hand the standards set by Franklin are both embraced and challenged by Count Us In. On the other hand, a closer look at the accompanying autobiographical and biographical texts demonstrates how autobiography and biography need to be considered as different, yet deeply connected, forms of writing lives.
According to Banerjee, Count Us In can serve as an example of how the genre of life writing can not only be inhabited but be transformed. At the same time, life writing can serve as a powerful model to address and reveal the structural inequalities raised by questions of gender, race, ability, class, and sexual orientation. Elaborating on the tension between life and writing in life writing studies, she also touched on issues relating to representationality and the ways different forms of narrative provide or withhold agency.Furthermore, Count Us In comments on questions of autonomy and relational autonomy, postulating that a life that is dependent on the assistance of others is not less autonomous than Benjamin Franklin’s. Re-configuring the entanglements of autobiography and biography, Mita Banerjee’s lecture not only sharpened the audience’s awareness of theories and genres, but also challenged societal ideals of healthiness and worthwhile lives.
What about life writing’s media?
As a concept, life writing has paved the way for exploring acts, forms, and media of self-thematization that have been overlooked in traditional autobiography studies. It thus offers an inclusive angle from which to analyze well-known forms, such as autobiography, letters, and diaries. It also enables the investigation of new arenas of self-presentation and autobiographical discourse, including those that are non-textual. The keynote lectures alluded to the vastness of the field of life writing and the fourteen workshop presentations from multiple different disciplines further underlined this.
Our panel on life writing and intermediality, with presentations by Elisabeth Krieber and Megan Perram, purposefully addressed and innovatively expanded on two diverse new arenas of life narrative studies that reveal new dynamics and flexibilities. The first part of the panel focused on the entanglements of and differences between various medial representations of life writing. Drawing from her dissertation project, ELISABETH KRIEBER (University of Salzburg) talked about autographics – i.e. life writing in comics – and the adaptation of transgressive female autographic selves from page to stage and screen. Her corpus includes Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home and Phoebe Gloeckner’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl, which she investigated in light of the formal transgressions of comics as a medium. The medium enables transgressive feminist and queer identity performances that destabilize coherent and autonomous autobiographical subjects. Furthermore, Kriebner analyzed how these performative autographic subjectivities, and their transgressive potential, were affected by their adaptation into different media.
MEGAN PERRAM (University of Alberta) expanded the horizons of life writing studies by moving into digital space. Drawing on her dissertation project on literary hypertexts as illness narratives for womxn with hyperandrogenism, Perram elaborated on the coding of health liberation through literary hypertext technology: a form of rhizomatic digital story writing that calls on readers to participate in the narrative’s unfolding by selecting different hyperlinks. With her case study on Twine which allows users to write their own story, she investigated the value of the nonlinear digital storytelling tool for women with the gendered illness hyperandrogenism. Exploring the potential it offered for them to write their bodies and write interactive experience-based narratives with multiple, alternative, and non-linear plot lines which represent the disruptions, opennesses, and insecurities that illnesses create in life journeys. Thus, her talk investigated, from a digital humanities perspective, the practices of illness narratives destined to reclaim agency and voice, in particular for marginalized groups, and discussed what the future of illness narratives might look like.
How are queer lives composed?
Another angle of the workshop threw light on the production of memory in and through life writing. One approach focused on the question of how life narratives are composed in the interplay between written text and other media, fostering awareness of how they need to be analyzed in relation to each other.
Treading this path, LEA ESPINOZA GARRIDO (University of Wuppertal) discussed Laura Jane Grace’s self-life narrative Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist (2016). Her study not only demonstrated how Grace’s text challenges the traditional idea of queer life writing as a story of teleological self-development and identity formation toward the “coming-out” moment, but also highlighted the composition of the life narrative. Examining the multimedial and multimodal interplay between text, image, and paratextual apparatus – i.e., the co-written account as the main text and diary entries and added images –, reveals how the self is situated, produced, and constantly disturbed, and thus challenges the notion of a coherent self and story. Espinoza Garrido argued that the autobiographical text by Grace, frontwoman of the punk band Against Me!, who publicly came out as transgender in 2012 and is one of the first openly trans punk rock musicians, not only challenges the cis-male-dominated genre of music autobiographies, but also draws attention to queer life writing as a material, mediated, and performative practice.
KAROLÍNA ZLÁMALOVÁ’s (Masaryk University Brno) talk discussed identity negotiations in nonbinary memoirs, drawing attention both to life writing’s potential to challenge traditional notions of identity construction and to its visionary function in driving debates about future possibilities. She focused on the linguistic aspects of life writing to show how it has developed creative ways to write new identities, even where the lack of appropriate language to describe oneself and the presence of discriminatory language hinder such processes. Defining nonbinary life writings within the realms of queer life writing, she complicated the understanding of autobiographical texts as constructing coherent narratives and identities. She discussed three texts, Jacob Tobia’s Sissy: A Coming-of-Gender Story (2019), Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer: A Memoir (2019), and Akwaeke Emezi’s novel Freshwater (2018), focusing specifically on how these three texts negotiated identity in light of a lack of mainstream recognition, a lack of legal recognition and appropriate health care, and especially a lack of available language for nonbinary, genderqueer, genderfluid, and other identities. Zlámalová diagnosed that to counter this prevailing threat of abjection, the texts developed strategies of “writing back” in order to construct identities. These included the use of metaphors and alternative forms of language (‘shero’, Sissy) as well as processes of renaming and self-naming, but also the reclamation of slurs to strip them of their threat. Instead of avoiding the problems of formulating identities that cannot (yet) be named, the authors became forerunners in creative language and engagement in developing and exploring future possibilities of narrating lives.
How do soldiers reconstruct their experiences and traumas?
BETTINA HUBER’s (University of Passau) talk demonstrated how life writing enables explorations into the making of memory discourses. Huber drew from her dissertation project on representations of trauma in self-life narratives written by US veterans who had been deployed during the War on Terror. She elaborated on the narrative representation of, negotiations of and challenges to, individual agency in light of prevalent imaginings of traditional masculine behaviors and the ideal of the (white) male soldier, as well as the diagnosis of PTSD and reintegration in society. She argued that the figure of the soldier is embedded in a perpetrator-victim discourse that needs to be investigated within larger institutional, societal, and political settings beyond the self-life narratives themselves. This approach makes it possible to fully grapple with the interrelations between the individual war veteran’s narrative and larger discourses of discussing and remembering wars in US society. Soldiers’ memory making is thus positioned at the intersection of multiple discourses in US society, for instance, on masculinity, the military complex, or US military involvement in foreign conflicts.
TAMARA HEGER (University of Regensburg) introduced another way of scrutinizing soldiers’ memories. Drawing from her dissertation project on life narratives by US-American soldiers from the Flossenbürg Concentration Camp Liberation, she demonstrated how a text’s social surrounding influenced the re-construction of experiences into meaningful narratives. She identified the text’s imagined audiences, the authors’ intended objectives and perception of their identity as liberator, as well as the temporal distance between the experience and the construction of the narratives, as the most influential factors in relating individual processes of meaning-making to complex discursive networks that transcend individual texts. She also elaborated on how to deal with misrepresentations of historical facts in life narratives, specifically with regard to politically loaded topics, which, in the case of her corpus, give insights into developing patterns of narration rather than constituting attempts to misinform readers.
How is (transnational) activism remembered?
Another approach highlighted the complex relationships between the remembrance of individuals and collective, societal discourses. This became particularly evident in DUYGU ERBIL’s (Utrecht University) presentation, which elaborated on the theoretical framework of her dissertation project focusing on the cultural afterlife of Deniz Gezmiş, the Marxist-Leninist student leader of the Turkish ’68 movement. She discussed ways of navigating different meanings of “memory” in light of the memory-activism nexus, which reveals interplays between memory activism, the memory of activism (i.e. the cultural production of narratives on Gezmis’ life and the broader 1968 generation), and the use of memory in activism as a symbolic resource constitutive of the collective identity of new political generations. Erbil called for a new focus on the memory agents who narrate Deniz Gezmiş’s life. Those remembering subjects serve as representatives of a new form of activist practice and transform both the memory cultures and the political culture in Turkey by challenging older definitions of activism.
VERENA BAIER’s (University of Regensburg) presentation explored how debates about one’s own society are led by discourses on other societies and guided by imaginaries of other places. Drawing on her dissertation project on life writing by US participants in the 1980s Nicaraguan Revolution and Contra War, she focused on the role of imagining Nicaragua in narratives that both bear witness to the Contra War and write themselves into the tradition of transnational activism. She thus examined the dynamics of how the authors entangle their own experience with an awareness of other experiences across national and generational geographies. Baier argued that a narrated Nicaragua, as well as the strategic positioning of the narrating self in space, are not only used to strengthen the collective identity of peace activists, but also make a bold call for action against the US government’s stance toward Sandinista Nicaragua during the Contra War. However, despite the criticism of US imperialism voiced by these life narratives, the texts also reveal diverse self-interests and personal agendas. Within the acts of remembering transnational activism, Nicaragua thus becomes a surface for projected self-identification and a background for the best version of the self. Nicaragua’s rewriting as the ‘Other’ also entails the writing of a new version of the narrators’ selves and at the same time connects the activism of the here and now with visions of the future.
How do ‘unusual’ spaces impact the writing of lives?
EAMONN CONNOR (University of Glasgow) elaborated on shipboard passenger diaries and other forms of life narratives composed by passengers and workers on leisure cruises during what is known as the British ‘Golden Age’ of the ocean liner, from 1880 to 1960. In his talk, he enriched approaches from maritime studies with insights from life writing studies, arguing that the close reading of literary and cultural productions by passengers and crew can counter an overly narrow focus on the technological and economic aspects of leisure cruises and oceanic travel. He also questioned conceptions of ships as static and stable entities and, more broadly, fixed notions of space as a passive container. Connor framed the production of the life narratives as material-discursive practices, which inscribe present realities onboard cruise ships. Thus not only reflecting, but also (re-)shaping these realities. These manifold life narratives reveal diverse discourses around embodied experiences of traveling at sea that also take into account histories by hidden actors, such as ship workers. This approach reveals how passengers wrote themselves as actors of an increasingly connected and mobile Atlantic world, challenging and reconceptualizing prevailing notions of modernity.
JENS TEMMEN (University of Düsseldorf) drew attention to the phenomenon of posthuman life writing, which likewise challenges the role of human agency in and for life writing. He analyzed how emerging visions and recent imaginaries of human life on Mars, and a multiplanetary future of humanity, related to dystopian narratives of the climate crisis and its consequences. Narratives of Mars as a “back up space” not only become a site for ecocritical debates but also for narratives of a post-racial, postcolonial, posthuman, postcapitalist, and utopian multiplanetary humanity, which draw on traditional North American notions of exploration and tropes of imperialism. By investigating Mars rover missions through the lens of life writing texts and practices, Temmen called for a closer look at the interactions of science and literature, and advocated for the centering of non-human entities and materialities, as well as the fundamental connectedness of human and non-human life, in the realm of life writing studies
Writing the posthuman can also mean decentering the human perspective and allowing for a different angle. Which is what INA BATZKE (University of Augsburg) does in her emerging post-doc project on nature writing. She argued that despite the notion of nature writing, with its “man-in-nature” focus, as a traditionally anthropocentric genre that foregrounds humans as central, driving actors, nature writing can be useful for critical and productive debate on the disastrous impact of humans on the planet. Instead of decentering the human in the contemporary life writing of the Anthropocene, she pointed out the need to reveal human accountability in endangering the planet. For which the focus on the human self is ideal, as it automatically also negotiates human responsibility and morality, and therefore puts nature (life) writing at the center of contemporary ecocritical discourses.
What can we learn from transnational perspectives on life writing?
Probing a different notion of traveling, ISABEL KALOUS (University of Giessen) focused on Emily Raboteau’s autobiographical travel narrative Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora (2013) in her project presentation on African American travel writing. Searching for Zion is a “story of immersion,” showing not only the author’s literal journey from the United States to Africa and back again, but also revealing her emotional journey to finding herself and her home country. Something that was only possible in light of her often disillusioning experiences in Africa. Like the rest of Kalous’ corpus of African American and Black British travel narratives, the text is situated between the fields of life writing, travel writing, and Black diasporic literature. Kalous sees travel writing as a hybrid genre that highlights different positions and identities in relation to space, and is therefore particularly fruitful for African American and Black British writers as it can incorporate negotiations of key themes in Black diasporic literature – identity, origin, belonging, home, and homelessness and displacement – from a transnational perspective.
Life writing in the context of diaspora was also the topic of XIMENA GOECKE’s (University of Chile) reflections on what she identified as the Chilean-Jewish life writing boom in contemporary Chile, meaning the ongoing production of life writing centering on three recurrent topics: Shoah memories, migration memories, and genealogic history. Goecke argued that the Chilean-Jewish community experienced a growing tension between an identity that has acquired visibility in Chilean society, with the recurrent threat of assimilation, and antisemitism – as well as the experiences of transgenerational traumatic memory. In these negotiations, life writing becomes the medium of a collective voice and the expression of an undoubtedly transnational identity. Among other things, she elaborated on the dialogue between Chilean-Jewish self-referential writing and other traumatic regional or local memories of the military dictatorship of Chile, by drawing on Leonor Arfuch’s theoretical approach to life narrative as an act of witnessing trauma and violence.
Yet another dimension of transnationality and life writing was explored by HANNES KOBERG (Ruhr-University Bochum), who scrutinized the body and its relation to the nation by applying poststructuralist and phenomenological approaches to transnational life narratives that contest national ideology and decenter the national and autobiographical. In his workshop presentation, Koberg analyzed Audre Lorde’s Zami (1983), through the prism of Merleau-Ponty’s concepts of “body-subject” and “chiasmic flesh,” to complicate the relationship between body and mind. Koberg explained that Zami presented a performative body conception, as the narrator tried to break the physical boundary between herself and her lesbian lover by formulating the skin as a permeable organ, rather than the protective surface of a body, sealing it off from the outer world. He concluded that Lorde’s construction of the body, as a means to create a transnational identity, evoked the national narrative’s performative temporality and confronted the nation with its own inconsistencies.
Transforming the Messy Multi-Sensorium into New Territories of Thinking
The ways lives are written are as diverse as life itself, and so are our ways of studying them. The workshop, particularly the lively discussions following all presentations that continued well into the informal part of our virtual get-together after the regular schedule, have sharpened our gaze on the manifold opportunities that life writing studies offer. From historiography through literary and media studies to queer studies and more, life writing is a potentially fruitful umbrella concept for all projects that deal with the narration of lives. Multi-, inter-, and transdisciplinarity is in its nature and prevents us as scholars from either hiding or being trapped within the borders of one specific discipline.
We have seen that life writing also encompasses virtual and online spaces and, as such, keeps transgressing traditional forms, finding new medial representations for the narration of lives. Posthuman spaces that accommodate and highlight the non-human in life writing are as dynamic sources of autobiographical subjectivities as transnational entanglements of lives and memories, as well as place-specific notions. The common basis of challenging these autobiographical subjectivities and coherent storylines, is helpful for topics ranging from remembering activism to negotiating and envisioning queer identities.
Our conference has also sharpened our awareness of crises, breaks, and frictions when it comes to the writing and reading of life narratives. Crises not only offer new perspectives and often illuminate foremost marginalized lives and narratives, but also allow for a new assessment and expansion of traditional approaches – thus contributing to the inclusiveness and openness of the field.
Looking back, we are very proud of having managed to create our own space in the virtual sphere to do so, and to have ignited lively and fruitful discussions about fourteen exciting dissertation and post-doc projects that show the enormous versatility of life writing studies.
We are curious about the new reading practices that emerging research in life writing will bring to light, curious about which debates new approaches will set in motion, and which expansions and shifts they will encourage. If you want to learn more about the speakers at our workshop and their projects, we encourage you to visit our workshop website https://lifewriting.wixsite.com/workshop. We would like to thank everybody involved in the workshop for the great conversations we had and the much-needed escape from the isolation that the pandemic forced us into.
We believe that our workshop not only reflected the immense richness and diversity of the field, but also demonstrated how emerging projects are looking to explore new territories and open up innovative paths that will certainly shape and expand the current state of the “messy multi-sensorium” that is even more complex in 2021 than it was in 2017, when Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson identified it as such.
Authors’ Note: A similar version of this article was first published in August 2021 under the title “Workshop Report | Narrated Lives, Remembered Selves: Emerging Research in Life Writing Studies” on Frictions, a blogjournal discussing Europe and the Americas in the context of global transformations which is run by the Leibniz ScienceCampus Europe and America in the Modern World at the Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Studies (IOS) and the University of Regensburg at https://frictions.europeamerica.de/current-debates-baier-heger-workshop-report-narrated-lives-remembered-selves/ (doi number: 10.15457/frictions/0013)
We want to thank the editors of Frictions for granting permission to re-publish it here.