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.


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. Continue reading “Looking Back, Looking Forward: Discussing the History and Future of the Field with Craig Howes”


Deviant Women: An Interview with Lauren Butterworth and Alicia Carter

Lauren Butterworth and Alicia Carter, hosts of Deviant Women podcast, discuss collaboration, the podcasting community, and the importance of women’s stories.

You can thank us later, because we’ve found your new favourite podcast. Deviant Women is created by two Australian writers, Lauren Butterworth and Alicia Carter (pronounced A-liss-ee-ah, not A-lee-sha), who are highlighting the lives and stories of extraordinary women in history and literature using the aural medium of the podcast, which is seeing a surge in popularity as well as critical and scholarly attention.

Deviant Women is a “chumcast”—a style of podcast “in which two experts or pals riff on a theme” (McHugh 105). In this case, Alicia and Lauren are both experts and pals. Alicia is currently completing her PhD in creative writing, and Lauren is an early career researcher in literary studies and creative writing. Both of them research representations of femininity in history and stories, and they also create their own representations in their fiction.

We were lucky enough to ask Lauren and Alicia about how and why they started the podcast, their strategies for functional and fun collaboration, and what they really mean when they use the term “deviant” to talk about women’s histories and representation! Continue reading “Deviant Women: An Interview with Lauren Butterworth and Alicia Carter”


On Mentorship and Godparents: An SNS Interview with Lisa Ortiz-Vilarelle

Lisa Ortiz-Vilarelle, Associate Professor at The College of New-Jersey, discusses life after the PhD, the transition to the professoriate, and the expectations set on emerging scholars, but most of all, on continuous mentorship in academic lives.

Maria and Orly first met with Lisa when the three presented on a panel at the IABA Americas Conference in 2015. The energizing, generous, caring, and committed energy of that panel stayed with us, to the extent that for the next two years we kept thinking together. Maria and Orly are wholeheartedly thankful to Lisa who agreed to share parts of the following conversation which was threaded in different locations across the Atlantic.

Resonating Conversations

Our interview with Lisa Ortiz-Vilarelle began on a walk in Nicosia (during IABA 2016 in Cyprus). That walk sparked a conversation between Maria and Lisa about life after the PhD, the transition to the tenure track and professionalizing demands set on emerging scholars (during grad school as well as the tenure track). 

Lisa: During that conversation, Maria shared her deep concerns over the academic job market as well as her struggle through a health crisis the year before. This led to the question of personal obstacles. She asked me to elaborate (if I was comfortable doing so) on what I faced when I was ready to graduate and was curious about how I identified and worked through these obstacles. Continue reading “On Mentorship and Godparents: An SNS Interview with Lisa Ortiz-Vilarelle”


Beginnings: IABA Asia-Pacific, An SNS Interview with Kate Douglas

In a conversation with Kate Douglas, an Associate Professor at Flinders University of South Australia and member of the IABA Executive Group, we discuss Locating Lives: The Inaugural Conference for the IABA Asia-Pacific Chapter. We recently got the chance to ask Kate about the conference, the new Asia-Pacific Chapter, and what she’s been reading!

IABA Asia-Pacific Chapter

SNS Network: Flinders University is a hub of auto/biography scholarship—can you tell us a little bit about some of the activities that the Flinders Life Narrative Research Group has organised, and any upcoming events?

Kate Douglas: The research group grew because we had strong scholars to build it around. Kylie Cardell and I were very fortunate to have a wonderful group of postgraduates (including Emma Maguire and Pamela Graham) who were keen to engage in research and professional activities with us, and also strongly support the teaching of life writing at Flinders. So, we’ve held events (for example, the “Telling Tales: Autobiographies of Childhood and Youth” symposium in 2012) and worked on publications (including a special issue of Prose Studies and an edited collection for Routledge) and the field of study goes from strength to strength which is super exciting for us. Continue reading “Beginnings: IABA Asia-Pacific, An SNS Interview with Kate Douglas”


Wellness through Womyn’s Circle

In this post, Tala Khanmalek and Maria Faini discuss wellness, self care, safe spaces, discourses on ability, and political praxis made possible through a co-creative healing circle.

Womyn's Circle Image.jpg
Cover image of the book collection emerging from Womyn’s Circle (Artist: Michelle Robinson)

Wellbeing: creating Womyn’s Circle

Maria Faini (MF): What originally led you to form the womyn’s circle? What needs (graduate school or community related) compelled you to begin the process and what did you originally imagine for the circle?

Tala Khanmalek (TK): I was diagnosed with a brain tumor after my first year of grad school. I opted out of pharmaceuticals in hopes of a more holistic treatment plan and immediately encountered two major problems: student health insurance doesn’t cover “alternative medicine” of any kind and regardless, student health centers aren’t equipped to address health issues that require specialized care. I was in a situation where I was dependent on the university for healthcare services yet it totally and completely, not to mention disgracefully, failed to be an adequate provider. I might have taken a leave of absence if I wasn’t also dependent on the university for health insurance and financial aid, both of which I desperately needed now that health-related expenses were a part of my everyday life. With my wellbeing on the line, I needed a solution quick and fast. In addition to scrounging for community-based resources in the East Bay as well as learning about and becoming involved in the local healing justice movement, I decided to gather the community of womyn I already knew. While I originally imagined for us to simply share experiential knowledge about self-care, the sheer and incredibly palpable necessity of the exchange led me to host and eventually create a loose structure for a monthly meeting at my studio apartment. What started because of a personal crisis immediately transformed into an urgent community-care demand, if you will, which (of course) inevitably led us to consider the social factors impacting our wellbeing, especially since womyn of color comprised a majority of the group. Continue reading “Wellness through Womyn’s Circle”


Current Tides: Reflections on Trends in Life Writing Scholarship, An SNS Interview with John Zuern – Part 3

In this final section of the interview, John Zuern responds to our prompt “the future of life writing in relation to…” and shares his thoughts on curation, post-humanism, interfaces, land, and unsettling.

For this third and final part of our interview series with John we had a keyword exercise similar to what we find in American/cultural studies. The idea behind this format is to generate an associative response focused on where the field might be heading in terms of scholarly methods, approaches and questions, as well as how creative life writing practices are shaping the discourse.

Life Writing Keywords 


“The future of life writing in relation to…”

curate (or perform, or performance)

Like the preponderance of visual modes of representation in social media, the phenomenon of curation as a form of self-representation challenges conventional disciplinary conceptions of a “text” and the corresponding methods of reading and interpretation, so it’s a very fruitful domain for life writing scholarship.

I know Laurie McNeill is working on Pinterest and similar sites—she presented some of it at MLA in 2013. Curation is a kind of performance, as you suggest, insofar as meaning comes more from what curators do than from what they say, and the performances are sometimes captivating and even addicting. I admit that I check Twitter pretty much every day to see what Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings has on offer. One of her tweets once directed me to a scan of the program for the 1937 fiesta celebrating the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge, which I passed along to a friend of mine, the artist Allyn Bromley, who attended the event as a little girl. Continue reading “Current Tides: Reflections on Trends in Life Writing Scholarship, An SNS Interview with John Zuern – Part 3”


Current Tides: Reflections on Trends in Life Writing Scholarship, An SNS Interview with John Zuern – Part 2

In the second section of our interview, John Zuern reflects on methods, collaboration, and (inter)disciplinarity.

Read the second part of our interview series with John as we explore reflections on method, collaboration, and (inter)disciplinarity which inform our previous discussion on Digital Life.


On Precarity and Responsibility

 SNS Network: We are most interested in your recent work on post-2008 financial crash memoirs, particularly your focus on the intersection between exceptionality and exemplarity in crisis writing and its implications for more collective, transformative socialities. In what ways is the memoir genre especially generative for these transitions and emergent sensibilities (and is “sensibilities” the term you would use)? Following some of our questions above, what other methods of life writing as well as scholarship production disrupt or produce the possibility of departure from what you’re reading as neo-liberal selfhood?
John Zuern: I’ve already said some things about this project in my answer to the question about ethics, but I’ll try to respond to some of the specific points you raise in this one. I got obsessed with the financial crisis as it was unfolding and did a lot of initially random reading about it. I pretty quickly started to notice that a lot of the stuff I was finding fell roughly into the “life writing” category, whether it was a blog like Stephanie Alison Walker’s Love in the Time of Foreclosure or Mark Seal’s series on the Bernard Madoff scandal in Vanity Fair Continue reading “Current Tides: Reflections on Trends in Life Writing Scholarship, An SNS Interview with John Zuern – Part 2”

Current Tides: Reflections on Trends in Life Writing Scholarship, An SNS Interview with John Zuern – Part 1

John Zuern, co-editor of Biography, reflects on current trends in life writing scholarship, selfies, digital ethics, and the upcoming issue of Biography, “Online Lives 2.0.”

John David Zuern is co-editor of Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly and an associate professor in the department of English at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. With Laurie McNeill, he is currently editing a special issue of Biography titled “Online Lives 2.0,” which follows the journal’s 2003 “Online Lives” special issue. He has recently published on electronic poetry in Comparative Textual Media: Transforming the Humanities in the Postprint Era (2013), the life writing of Louis Althusser in Life Writing (2011), and a critical history of the networking company Cisco Systems in the volume Cultural Critique and the Global Corporation (Indiana UP, 2010).

Orly Lael Netzer, Maria Faini, and Emma Maguire have been fortunate to converse with John by email, reflecting on trends in life writing scholarship. Our correspondence has been so productive that we are happy to share it as a series, beginning with Part One: Digital Life. Continue reading “Current Tides: Reflections on Trends in Life Writing Scholarship, An SNS Interview with John Zuern – Part 1”


A Body Politic: An Interview with Virgie Tovar

Virgie Tovar is a woman of color feminist whose projects foster body-positiveTovar1 communities. Based in the California Bay Area, Virgie is an activist, scholar, and writer with a global readership, who regularly deploys personal narrative in her political work. Her edited collection Hot and Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion (2012) has served as a groundbreaking, foundational text for the body-positive movement; it includes personal stories about living in the intersections of fat phobia, racism, and sexism. Her recently launched “Lose Hate Not Weight” Campaign, which focuses on “unlearning self-loathing and practicing self-loving,” has continued to transform the politics and projects of fat activism.
We are drawn to Virgie’s work in part because we read it as political practice that posits life writing as a compelling tool. We have been fortunate to converse with Virgie over the past few weeks, our discussions happening through email and in person. Continue reading “A Body Politic: An Interview with Virgie Tovar”