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

Exploring New Territories During Lockdown

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 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 (doi number: 10.15457/frictions/0013)

We want to thank the editors of Frictions for granting permission to re-publish it here.


Review of The Book of Sarah, by Sarah Lightman

Olga Michael reviews Sarah Lightman’s recently published The Book of Sarah (2019), a brilliant graphic memoir about (“failed”) motherhood, family bonds, Jewishness, belonging and exclusion, trauma and survival, mental illness and healing.

Women’s autobiographical comics first emerged in the US counter-cultural underground scene with Aline Kominsky-Crumb’s work (see Chute 20-27). During the turn of the twenty-first century, we have witnessed a maturation of the genre through the circulation of such texts in book form, and their re-branding as women’s graphic memoirs. Alison Bechdel, Phoebe Gloeckner and Lynda Barry are three among many brilliant female cartoonists, whose works display each artist’s negotiation of issues like problematic intergenerational family relations, parental neglect, sexual and other forms of trauma, and the survival of such traumas. With her recently published graphic memoir, The Book of Sarah (2019), Sarah Lightman, a London-based comics artist and scholar, has established herself within this continuously expanding group of brilliant women cartoonists, whose valuable work can help readers better understand distinctly female experiences of (“failed”) motherhood, belonging and exclusion, trauma and survival, and mental illness and healing.

Continue reading “Review of The Book of Sarah, by Sarah Lightman”

The Ethical Complexity of Collaboration: An SNS Roundtable Review – IABA Europe 2017

Ana Horvat reflects on the SNS “Collaboration” Roundtable at the 2017 IABA Europe conference.

This year’s IABA Europe conference focused on the intersections of life writing and new media in European and global contexts. The conference featured diverse takes on new media including diaries and Instagram, the digital footprints as memoir, migrant subjectivity and smartphones, and digital biographies of literary figures. The issue of collaboration most prominently came up in several presentations on migration and refugee life narratives and this focus continued in the the Life Writing Graduate Student and New Scholar Network (SNS) roundtable on collaboration (see full list of the roundtable’s abstracts and speaker bios here) which was chaired by Emma Maguire (Flinders University). Some of the issues raised were life after the PhD and the necessity of collaboration among young academics and more established professors, collaborative memoir-writing, negotiating translations of life stories, and collaborative making of refugee narratives. Continue reading “The Ethical Complexity of Collaboration: An SNS Roundtable Review – IABA Europe 2017”


Re-evaluating the Politics of Collaboration: An SNS Roundtable Review – IABA Americas 2017

Amanda Spallacci reviews SNS’s “Collaboration” roundtable at the 2017 IABA Americas Conference. 

The International Auto/Biography Association 2017 Americas conference honoured Marlene Kadar, who has been instrumental in establishing the field of life writing, particularly, by nuancing issues around gender, genre, trauma, archival methodologies, and transnationalism. Much of Kadar’s research and publications are co-authored and co-edited, from Photographs, Histories, and Meanings with Jeanne Perreault and Linda Warley to Tracing the Autobiographical with Susanna Egan, Jeanne Perreault, and Linda Warley; and so, it only seemed natural that an overarching theme investigated throughout the conference was collaboration.

Continue reading “Re-evaluating the Politics of Collaboration: An SNS Roundtable Review – IABA Americas 2017”


SNS Roundtable: Collaboration (2017-2018)

Each bi-annual cycle IABA SNS hosts a series of roundtable events at regional and global IABA conferences. The series invites emerging or established scholars, activists, and practitioners to engage in a key-word-based multi-disciplinary discussion. Participants share a 5-minute presentation that takes up the keyword from a theoretical, methodological, creative, pedagogic, or political perspectives.

Following the success of “Unsettle,” SNS centred our second roundtable event around the notion of “Collaboration.” The discussion series took place during the 2017 regional IABA events (Americas, Europe, and Asia-Pacific) and will culminate at the next IABA World conference in Brazil in 2018. Continue reading “SNS Roundtable: Collaboration (2017-2018)”


Locating Lives: The IABA Asia-Pacific Inaugural Conference

Emma Maguire reviews Locating Lives, IABA Asia-Pacific chapter’s inaugural conference.

Locating Lives, the inaugural conference for the IABA Asia-Pacific chapter took place in Adelaide, South Australia from 1-3 December, 2015. The conference was co-organised by Associate Professor Kate Douglas and Dr. Kylie Cardell, both of Flinders University, and featured keynotes by Professor Gillian Whitlock (University of Queensland), Professor Craig Howes (University of Hawai’i), and Australian author Benjamin Law. Continue reading “Locating Lives: The IABA Asia-Pacific Inaugural Conference”


Pedagogical and Methodological Ruptures at IABA Americas

Maria Faini and Orly Lael Netzer review the SNS “Unsettle” Roundtable discussion at the 2015 IABA Americas Conference.

Emily Johnston began the Americas roundtable by situating POP!, the performative and experimental phenomenon of male pregnancy, as an autobiographical performance that troubles the idea of bodies as truth-telling and natural. She explained that POP! reveals pregnancy to be a fiction. Engaging queer theory, Emily looked at the ways the performance of achieving desired bodily changes challenges more normative ecocritical and environmental justice discourses on biopollutant exposure.

Following Emily, Eva Karpinski spoke about the part-time, contractual struggle in the academic workforce and its implications for a right to education as a practice of active citizenship. She focused on the graduate instructor strikes during the winter term of 2015 at the University of Toronto and York University, reflecting on the radical pedagogical potential encompassed in campus labor activism. She outlined ways that the students of UT and YU turned a political strike into both experiential education–for example, through ethnographies of strike participants–and performance art as reenactment. She considered both pedagogical and performative strategies necessary for practices of citizenship. Continue reading “Pedagogical and Methodological Ruptures at IABA Americas”


SNS Roundtable: Unsettle (2015-2016)

SNS hosted its first roundtable series at the 2015 IABA regional chapter conferences, with the discussions culminating at the 2016 “Excavating Lives” IABA World Conference in Cyprus.

We chose to focus on the term “unsettle,” as it is understood in the works of settler-scholars Roger Epp and Paulette Regan who address Indigenous-settler relations in Canada. Epp and Regan challenge non-indigenous people, including scholars, to name and transform the settler-colonizing cultures, policies, and legacies within their professional and personal practices. Continue reading “SNS Roundtable: Unsettle (2015-2016)”


LitFest Part 2 – Re-Writing Grief

Karla Comanda on reading through grief and writing from grief in texts that are created in the slippages between fiction, life, and death.

When Glass Buffalo editor Matthew Stepanic sent out an e-mail to the magazine’s contributors, asking if they wanted to be part of Litfest’s CBC Centre Stage Spotlight on Rudy Wiebe, I immediately jumped at the opportunity – nevermind the fact I was mainly writing poetry and had always associated nonfiction with prosaic stylings. However, Matthew assured me that poetry can also be nonfiction, so I was completely on board after that. As an immigrant, I admit that I wasn’t too familiar with Rudy Wiebe’s works and his influence on Alberta’s literary landscape – in fact, that was only the second time I came across his name – so I thought that participating in the event would also be a great learning experience about one of the province’s great authors.

Reading Rudy Wiebe’s new novel, Come Back, proved to be a hard task for me. Loosely based on Wiebe’s personal tragedy, the story follows Hal as he continues to deal with his son Gabe’s suicide through his journals and letters almost 30 years after the event. I first opened the book in early October, which was the same month that my father passed away many years ago; this made identifying with Hal much easier for me although the circumstances of our losses could not be more different. I had to take long breaks from reading the novel because grief was such a prominent theme and because the way Hal dealt with his son’s death – sifting through his words, searching for tangible reminders, recollecting through triggers – hit too close to home for me. Continue reading “LitFest Part 2 – Re-Writing Grief”