Blog, Reviews

Conference Review: Remembering Contentious Lives

A Conference Report by Verena Baier (University of Regensburg) and Vasiliki Belia (Maastricht University)

“Remembering Contentious Lives,” 12-14 September 2022, was organized by Duygu Erbil, Clara Vlessing and Ann Rigney, researchers in the project Remembering Activism (ReAct) based at Utrecht University. The project studies the role culturally mediated memories of social movements play in civil resistance today. The conference’s main theme was life narratives. It brought together scholars from diverse (inter)disciplinary backgrounds to consider the role of life stories in the “memory-activism nexus” (Rigney 2018), asking: how life stories can bear witness to injustice, give voice to dissent, and represent a collectivity; how they can change the memory of social movements; how they shape political belonging and activism today. As Ann Rigney stated in her introductory remarks, one function of cultural memory work in life writing is to bridge the collective and the individual level by creating sense and affect through storytelling. This bridging requires a constant interaction between following the movement and following the activists’ lives, an interplay between the broader processes and the microlevel of activism, a constant need to keep the collective in mind while working at the level of the individual.


“Narrating Feminist Lives in the Backlash”

In the first keynote “Narrating Feminist Lives in the Backlash” Margaretta Jolly (University of Sussex) introduced “Sisterhood and After: The Women’s Liberation Oral History Project,” a project to remember the UK’s formative feminist generation’s lives in times of backlash, when the ever-moving tides of the feminist movement are falling. In discussing further cultural productions on the feminist movement that address different audiences – for instance the mini-series Mrs. America – Jolly demonstrated how the Right has developed similar activism strategies to the left, for instance drawing on rhetorics of being oppressed or forgotten.” She further suggested that, while remembering contention can disrupt the consensus of present times and life stories of activism can inspire future activism, the message always depends on the form of mediation.

“Can the Monster Speak? Ventriloquism and Voice in Trans Activist Life Writing”

In the second keynote “Can the Monster Speak? Ventriloquism and Voice in Trans Activist Life Writing”, Anna Poletti (Utrecht University) discussed Paul B. Preciado’s latest book, a published version of a lecture he gave at the École de la Cause Freudienne’s annual conference in Paris in 2019. In that lecture, Preciado, presented himself as a contentious subject forced to speak to an assembly of people whose profession sees him as a mentally ill person. He ventriloquized Red Peter, the talking ape from Kafka’s ‘A Report to an Academy’, presenting to the scientists his development of human subjectivity as a cage rather than emancipation from animality. Poletti posed the question: what is the use of ventriloquism in testimonial discourse? Looking at Preciado’s life writing as a creative and speculative practice, they investigated the use of Red Peter and a variety of other intertextual references, such as Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs, Lorenza Böttner’s Handicapped and Susan Stryker’s take on Frankenstein. They argued that speaking through others’ voices, Preciado expresses the voice of a subject in the making, in transition, who has not yet occupied a subject position from which to speak.


Circulating Contentious Narratives

The first panel foregrounded the role which the mediation and circulation of autobiographical writing can play in its constitution as a form of activism. Rosanne Kennedy’s (The Australian National University) presentation “The Contentious Lives of Guantanamo Diary: from Moving Testimony to Cultural Memory,” traced the transnational travels of Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s memoir from Guantanamo  through writing, publication, reception, and its afterlives in the cultural memory of the American war on terror. Bringing together life writing, cultural memory and human rights studies, Kennedy read the work as a hybrid genre which functions as ‘moving testimony’ across various platforms. She studied the ways the Guardian animated documentary Guantanamo Diary and the BBC film The Mauritanian present Slahi as a true witness of torture or a reconciled victim whose innocence is proven by the fact that he was not morally damaged by morally by the injustice he endured. Sophia Brown’s (Free University of Berlin) presentation “Mediating Palestinian Dissent for an Anglophone Readership: Raja Shehadeh’s Life Writing,” focused on how Shehadeh’s The Third Way: A Journal of Life in the West Bank (1982) and Where the Line is Drawn (2017) have presented Palestinian resistance to a non-Palestinian audience. Brown argued that, as the mediation becomes increasingly focused on the narration of a friendship between Shehadeh and an Israeli citizen in the books, the works are seen more as narratives of resilience rather than resistance. The two presentations addressed the ways in which the texts’ circulation in different contexts has affected the ways they are perceived, from testimonies of violence to narratives of reconciliation. 

Testimonies of Displacement: Online Panel

In the second panel, that traced testimonies of displacement, Gillian Whitlock and Phoebe King’s (University of Queensland) talk “Archiving and Activism: Protest Cycles in a Pacific Imaginary” focused on activists’ lives during Australia’s aggressive policing of its borders and a growing private industry of detention triggered by the Tampa Incident in 2001. This death of asylum, they argued, is resisted by the narrated lives of activists, as shown by a letter writing project between asylum seekers and Australian citizens. A second example focused on the life of former detainee Behrouz Boochani whose social media platform is read as an individual digital archive. These cases not only reveal powerful coalitions between asylum seekers and Australian citizens, but also create contentious life narratives and affirm “the life of activism.”

Resisting Institutional Memory

The third panel examined stories of resistance to institutional memory making. In their presentation on “Antifascist Life Writing: A Postwar Paradigm of Memory Activism” Máté Zombory (ELTE Budapest) and Zoltán Kékesi (ZfA Berlin) revisited the Western-centered canon of Auschwitz memoirs. They investigated memoirs by former Hungarian Auschwitz political prisoners, anti-fascist and pro-Communist activists, and explored how their afterlives reveal contrasting trajectories in the Cold War era. Thus, Zombory and Kékesi offered a new perspective on postwar antifascism and demonstrated how antifascists forged a link between activism and memory that is fundamentally different from today’s Holocaust remembrance. Their memory is a politicized one in which the past is remembered to protest the present. Such memory alone is not political and cannot mobilize, but has to be contextualized, instrumentalized and explained to become a tool. Peyman Amiri’s (University of Amsterdam) talk “Prison Memoir: Resisting Narratives” then explored prison memoirs of Iranian political prisoners of the 1980s. He explained that narrating the forcefully silenced stories of incarcerated lives has several functions which can be therapeutical, testimonial and legal, to expose human rights violations. These memoirs not only witness the life and suffering of the “narrating I”, but in their acts of witnessing also include the stories of other prisoners. However, the life narratives are also counter-discourses as they offer discursive practices that confront the dominant discourse’s will to maintain control over the meaning of the past, and therefore the understanding of the present. As such they become political instruments that resist the institutional memory produced and propagated by the oppressive state.

Co-producing Autobiographical Voices 

The fourth panel placed emphasis on the presence of intersubjectivity in the creation of autobiographical writing and oral history, as the autobiographical subject is in conversation with their interviewer, readers, and other autobiographical subjects. Alison Atkinson-Phillips (Newcastle University), in her presentation: “The Oral History Interview as a Site for Activist Reflection,” drew from the Mutual Aid Oral History Project to talk about the role of intergenerational storytelling in connecting past and present activism. An emphasis on intersubjectivity, she argued, helps one understand how oral history enables participants to understand their position within the larger historical context with more clarity, and how such projects inspire activist cross-fertilization. Jaber Baker’s (EHESS Paris) paper, “Political Prisoner’s Biographies and the Life of Prison Memory,” explored how individual instances of autobiographical writing from former prison detainees – Mufid Najm’s Ajniha fi Zinzana (Wings in a Cell, 2015); Mustafa Khalifa’s al-Qawqa‘a (The Shell, 2008), and the unpublished manuscript Khalfa Aswar Tadmur (Behind the Walls of Tadmur Prison) – weave  a collective autobiography of Syrian prisons. Diana Painca’s (Université Libre de Bruxelles) presentation “Acting Out the Past: Activism and Performance in Oral History Interviews on Communism” discussed the textual and narrative strategies employed by former partisans of anti-communist resistance in the Carpathians. These strategies, she suggested, turn their historical interview into embodied performances that catch the audience’s attention and invite them to action. All three presentations saw the intersubjective elements as enabling a deeper and more complex understanding of history and its effects on the present. 

Transgressing Archives: Collecting and Collective Texts

The fifth panel was guided by the question of how collective voices can challenge the archive. Verena Baier’s (University of Regensburg) talk, “Archiving Hope: Remembering Activism in Collaborative Life Writings of the 1980s US- Nicaragua Peace and Solidarity Movement,” explored memories of U.S. activists participating in the Nicaragua conflicts of the 1980s when the Reagan government’s support of the Nicaraguan counterrevolution ignited direct action in different camps of US society. It investigated acts of witnessing, in particular collective witnessing, as one type of activism, and traced how their different temporalities not only turn acts of witnessing into powerful tools for future change, but also write the history of a movement and archive its achievements for later generations and as a kickstart for future activism. Furthermore, the talk compared practices of remembering social movements in the leftist peace and solidarity, and the rightist pro-Contra camp. In her presentation “Poetics of Displacement: Narrating a Life as Collective Resistance” Katrina M. Powell (Virginia Tech) investigated narrated lives of displacement in the context of the compilation of refugee intake ledger lines, which not only contain demographic information but are also used to manage and regulate bodies. Life writing counters and resist those enumerations, revealing hypertextual narratives behind the numbers. They thus encourage the recognition that the single refugee ledger entry, an institutional representation of displacement, cannot possibly document all aspects of identity. By providing alternative and hidden narratives not often included in historical archives, those performative autobiographical narratives resist a people-as-resources notion, and thus function as poetics of displacement. Dagmar Brunow’s (Linnaeus University) paper “Transmediating Hope: Remembering Activist Legacies in the Archive” offered a theory for the transmediation of audiovisual activist memories in and through the archives. Drawing on the notion of the archive as the producer, rather than as a source of knowledge, it presented recent findings from Brunow’s current research project “The Lost Heritage: Improving Collaborations between Digital Film Archives” (2021-2024). In her talk, she critically considered archives as incubators of social change and injustice, but also acknowledged the necessity of memory’s constant remediation, rather than its static storage.

Establishing Addressees

The last panel brought together papers that examined how life writing can mediate political speech and interpellate its readership into political subjectivity. In her presentation “Memoir as Reckoning: Arwa Salih’s The Stillborn,” Judith Naeff (Leiden University) read the different parts of the book as speech acts which aim to interpellate an Egyptian audience that include both Salih’s former comrades, who have failed her and her dream of liberation, and those who have lived through the Egyptian revolutions and counter revolutions of 2011-2013. She, then, analyzed literary and extra-literary references to the book from the 1990s and the 2010s as diverse, context-specific responses of this interpellation. Vasiliki Belia (Maastricht University), in her talk “Redrawing the Lesbian: The Relationship between Lesbian and Queer Feminism in Kate Charlesworth’s Sensible Footwear: A Girl’s Guide,” analyzed the representation of lesbian feminism of the 1970s and 1980s in a graphic memoir/documentary on the LGBTQI+ movement in the UK. She argued that the work invites its readers to take a position within contemporary debates about feminist belonging. Duygu Erbil and Clara Vlessing’s (Utrecht University) presentation, “[The Contentious Subject] Speaks: The Speaker as a Model of Radical Subjectivity,” discussed books that reframe past political speeches as autobiography. They examined, specifically, two examples of such books, Alix Kates Shulman’s Red Emma Speaks (1971) and Erdal Öz’s Deniz Gezmiş Speaks (1976), and showed how, their rhetoric of immediacy and authenticity establishes a rapport with their readership that allows the works to circulate as “portable monuments” to radical lives.


The conference “Remembering Contentious Lives” offered an opportunity for fruitful reflection on the different methodological approaches and theoretical frameworks for remembering activism but also on the interdisciplinary field of life writing studies. Presentations from all directions in the humanities and social sciences – including History, Translation Studies, Cultural Studies, Literary Studies, Film Studies, Sociology, Gender Studies and Migration Studies – demonstrated different focuses in their readings of life stories engaged in historical and contemporary social movements from around the world. They also revealed the great variety of media used to circulate life narratives. However, they all seemed to agree on the socio-political potential of lived experiences of dissent, as well as the powerful tools that memories of dissent can become. Remembering dissent not only fights against the forgetting of important moments within the rising and falling tides of social movements, but it encourages and kickstarts future activism(s). The conference’s participants took home new food for thought and great inspiration for their own projects, but also the conviction that the field of remembering activism is indeed a thriving and vivid one, that is to expect many future insights from early-stage researchers.

Remembering Contentious Lives Attendees

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