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
Blog, Interviews

Telling Stories Differently: An Interview with Clare Hemmings

Professor Clare Hemmings works in the Department of Gender Studies at the London School of Economics. At a recent event in Amsterdam, Duygu Erbil and Clara Vlessing from SNS got the chance to ask Professor Hemmings a couple of questions about the relationship between her work and life writing.

Professor Hemmings

Student and New Scholar Network (SNS): The International Auto/Biography Association and New Scholars Network (IABA SNS) is a community of students and early career scholars interested in life writing practice and scholarship.

We wondered, how would you position your work in relation to the study and theory of life writing?

Clare Hemmings (CH): Thanks for interviewing me for the blog! I guess the first thing to say is that I come out of literary studies as an undergraduate and then I moved into feminist studies. So, I’ve done quite a bit of work on life writing in one way or another but that’s not my main area of focus.

The main area of overlap for me is in the question of storytelling, memoir, and histories of thinking about gender, sexuality, race, and class. Where life writing comes into that is though my interest in the contradictions that form the fabric of anybody’s life narrative, not as something that needs to be ironed over or in some way straightened out, but actually as the stuff of a life worth attending to and as the nature of how storytelling works.

I’m interested in the tensions between a mode in which the contradictions of memory all crowd in on you in one go, and the demands of narrative which push towards coherence. The demands of the form are at odds with the ways in which we experience our own stories, or the ways in which we experience other people’s stories. My particular interests then – in thinking about how we tell stories about changing gendered habits over time, for example – draw on that difference between contradiction and form. I tried to make this difference central to what I say in Why Stories Matter, where I argue for telling stories differently.

SNS: In your recent blog “In Praise of Revolutionary Feminism” for the LSE UCU Strike Archive you draw on Emma Goldman, Angela Davis, and Leslie Feinberg as revolutionary feminists who have lived, what some might call, “exemplary” lives.

Through our own work on memory and activism, we often encounter a debate between those who promote stories of exemplary lives to inspire activists, and concerns that such stories risk reinforcing a “great men” version of history and cannot give meaningful insights about -or direction to- collective political practices.

What is your reaction to such debates? How would you frame your own use of feminist lives?

CH: I’m so happy that you’ve seen that blog! It came out of a strike action at the London School of Economics and a group of people teaching in the Gender Department wanting to do teach-outs, where we introduce students and each other to lives and work of revolutionary feminists. What was interesting about that was the attempt to kind of narrate the ‘extraordinary life’ and the realization that you can only do that through examining the intersections between different causes – so in Feinberg’s case thinking about the links between left and union activism and trans activisms.

The most exemplary lives that I can think of within that framework are those that attend to at least two aspects of social transformation. I suppose even in that framework you have to multiply what people are specifically interested in, in order to see the complexity. Emma Goldman has a similar kind of set of contradictions that she takes with her everywhere.

There is something about the pull of exceptional lives that is very affective for people like me who just live ordinary lives. There is something about the inspiration they provide that isn’t about expecting to be like that person but is actually about a production of affect: like an awe or a yearning or a kind of wonder that produces an ethical relationship to politics. That isn’t only about what’s possible to do strategically but what’s possible to think. Even if it can’t be. How do these extraordinary lives enable us to think differently?

SNS: Both in Considering Emma Goldman and in today’s lecture, you turn to creative life writing to supplement your analysis. Elsewhere in your work you use the term “stories” to cover both fiction and non-fiction.

Why blur the fictional and non-fictional (both in your work and in your terminology)? What are the benefits and limitations of creative writing in academic work?

CH: You know I think there is something about failure… I think so many academics (and I think I’m probably one as well) have actually wished that they were novelists or think of the novelist as the absolute example of genius: being able to tell something in a way that doesn’t require persuasion but requires or invites immersion in another world.

What I love the most fiction-wise is where I am so completely immersed in that world that I’m not aware of being continuously drawn in. That feeling of pleasure in the voice of the fiction writer is something that I have always loved to read but I’ve also thought was missing from a lot of academic work: in terms of the craft of writing that engages an audience and has the capacity to hold the person, and help them imagine another world. People like Lauren Berlant or Gloria Anzaldua or Judith Butler are able to somehow do that – either without any form of fiction or in Anzaldua’s case with combining fiction and academic narrative.

Feminists of colour, queer writers (who are very influential for the fields I work in) are often in and out of academic, poetic or fiction writing. I’m thinking historically of Audre Lorde, as well as Adrienne Rich. That was hugely influential for me as an emerging queer feminist scholar. How do you generate a world that you invite other people into, even if it is only temporary? Because of that I’ve always thought of theory as also a form of storytelling.

So, it’s almost the other way around: I think of the generic – of talking to one another or writing – as always a question of storytelling. I think of theory as a way of trying to tell a story from a level of analysis. In that sense I like to think of high theory as fictionalizing because of the way in which it tells a story that you’re asked to enter into and suspend your disbelief. Some of the most persuasive philosophy does that, like the beginning of Gender Trouble: “Ok let’s imagine that gender does not emerge from sex, but that sex is an effect of gender”. It says, “I know you don’t believe me but let me tell you a story so that what I’m saying becomes plausible”. There is something very pleasurable about thinking about story as a way to engage with other people’s ideas that isn’t only about critique, that is also about generosity.

SNS: In the past few months, you’ve been involved in strike actions with the UCU. The increasingly precarious state of academic jobs is a problem around the world (including in the Netherlands where we are currently), particularly affecting new scholars. 

Following on from your work on “memory archives”, where would you locate the memory archives of the academic labour struggle? Are there particular stories in the struggle against the neoliberal university that other generations might not be aware of?

CH: That’s a great question and a tough one! Isn’t it awful the ways in which academic casualisation, inequality, precarity, erosion of pensions and security and so on, is now the norm in academic institutions? Of course, it’s not surprising because that’s one of the things that happens with the feminisation of any sector. So somehow this fantasy of “it used to be better” is also a very appealing fiction.

Well to some extend that’s true. But, of course, that was partly based on academia being ‘minority’. The kind of benefits of professional academic life were largely predicated on it being a white male profession. The moment you open access up you also end up with this increased precarity. Both because of the devaluing of gendered, of colour, working class labour, but also because of the expansion of higher education without increased resourcing.

I think some of the earlier critiques of neoliberalisation of the academy remain pertinent here. And of course, the critiques of the academy by black feminist theorists: Gail Lewis and Paul Gilroy in the UK, Francoise Verges in France, Gloria Wekker in the Netherlands and so on. These Black feminist critiques are also of the ways in which academic practice is so restricted and limited that it can’t necessarily accommodate difference or diversity, from an intersectional perspective.

One thing that is very difficult is drawing on those old critiques to say that we don’t just want a university that isn’t precarious. We want a university that also challenges disciplinary boundaries, methodological reductionism and histories of hierarchy. Because it’s those restricted understandings of knowledge that are also challenged by the expansion of higher education and unless you make those challenges you end up with a reduced workforce that’s just put-upon and abused.

What is really heart-warming around the current generation of activism, within and outside of universities, is the refusal to except its ivory tower thinking (in terms of disciplinary divisions and knowledge production), and focusing too on other sites of engagement as important for knowledge generation. Sites like activism, but also artistic and visual culture, use of social media, different forms of poetry and prose and so on. I think increasingly with the cost of higher education and the fact that it’s incredibly precarious, that people are looking to other areas for being able to do innovative, interesting work.

For those of us fully institutionalised in academia like me, that’s also a really important lesson: to not always think that where change is going to happen is going to be where you are. Academic production on climate change, for example, is decades behind the activist knowledge about that. One can learn from activists but also learn from the people who have always straddled those areas of activist, poetic, academic production, which has challenged those disciplinary boundaries as well!

We need a fuller challenge to the ways in which higher education works as a whole, and I think the decolonising movement – lead by dissatisfied and politicised students – has been raising those questions most forcefully in the UK.