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

IABA Americas Conference Website: Registration, Travel, and Accommodations

If you’re attending the 2019 IABA Americas Conference in Kingston, Jamaica in June, you’ll want to check out the conference website, which includes information about conference registration, travel to Jamaica, Kingston accommodations, and local attractions. Note that the Early Bird registration deadline is April 30. 

Check the website frequently for more conference updates!

Additionally, we’re still seeking proposals for our Interdisciplinary Roundtable. Please email us your proposals by April 20.

We can’t wait to meet you in Kingston in June!


Apply for the TDA Travel Grants to the 2019 IABA Americas Conference in Kingston, Jamaica

In the autumn of 2014, the life narrative community lost an exceptional scholar and a great friend, Tim Adams. Tim was one of the founding editors of a/b: Auto/Biography Studies and his outstanding scholarship—including the two books, Telling Lies in Modern American Autobiography and Light Writing and Life Writing: Photography in Autobiography—have had a lasting impact on the field. As a way to honor his life and work, the editors of a/b created the Timothy Dow Adams Award. This prize supports emerging and underrepresented scholars in the field with mentorship and small grants.

Beginning with the 2018 IABA Brazil Conference, a/b extends this award through the TDA Travel Grants. These travel grants have been designed in collaboration with the IABA Student and New Scholar Network, and will be made to support graduate students; independent scholars; and, contingent, underfunded, and underrepresented faculty members attending an IABA global conference.

The application packet should be emailed to and they should include:

  • A cover letter explaining how your research, scholarship, and previous experiences support and extend the themes that year’s conference, as well as how these attributes contribute to diversifying the work of the event;
  • Your biographical note;
  • A copy of your accepted conference abstract from the conference; and,
  • A copy of your conference acceptance letter.

Applications for the TDA Travel Grants must be filed by April 5, 2019.

Donations to support and expand this effort are very welcome and information regarding tax-deductible contributions may be found on the a/b webpage at


Call for SNS Roundtable Proposals: Interdisciplinary

Interdisciplinary: An SNS Roundtable Series

Following the “Collaboration” roundtable series, the SNS team continues to be intrigued by what it means to work in a field that is inherently relational — what commitments it demands, the kinds of opportunities it encapsulates, and the challenges those create. With our 2019-2020 Roundtable Series, we focus on auto/biography studies as an interdisciplinary field.

The interdisciplinary nature of our field is a requirement for scholars and practitioners who explore multifaceted subject-matters as selfhood, identity, truth, memory, and the processes by which life stories are conceived, constructed, and consumed. This interdisciplinarity emerges, in part, from the intellectual and ethical traditions that have shaped our field as one situated at the intersections of scholarship, creative practice, and political activism. Additionally, it responds to contemporary academic cultures which value multiplicity, versatility, and experimentation. It is easy to take for granted the freedom that comes with being part of an interdisciplinary field. But our field has been demanding that we remain attuned to the ethical stakes and political efficacies that are embedded in modes of working across and between categories.  

This is why we want to explore the concept of interdisciplinarity as it pertains to the study of the auto/biographical. Interdisciplinarity is intended as an inclusive practice: it values different ways of approaching the same problem and is invested in producing knowledge between sites. But inhabiting such spaces of transition, we must ask: what are unexplored spaces that we have yet to open up?

Questions we want to ask include, but are not limited to:

  • Who gets to decide what “counts” as an appropriate interdisciplinary approach?
  • What challenges does interdisciplinarity pose for scholars of auto/biography? What benefits does it have?
  • How do we practice and model interdisciplinary research?
  • If we work across fields, what intellectual communities are we committed to? Who benefits from our work?
  • How do specific theoretical frameworks offer practical approaches that serve to re-shape our ideas of disciplinarity or interdisciplinarity?
  • What are the limitations or failures of interdisciplinary work? Who or what is excluded?
  • How do we foster inclusive research methods and practices while being wary of appropriation?
  • How do we encourage scholars, activists, and artists to work across disciplines? What does working across disciplines look like?
  • What interdisciplinary methodologies inform your work?

This roundtable is to be one of a series in conjunction with the 2019 IABA regional chapter conferences. it will have five panelists and one moderator. Panel members can be students, emerging or established scholars, activists, or practitioners. The moderator will be an SNS representative. Each panelist will give a five-minute presentation; a moderated 30-minute discussion will follow.

Please submit a 150-word presentation pitch and a 100-word biographical note to Languages other than English are welcome; please email to inquire about non-English submission criteria.

If you’ll be attending the IABA Americas Conference (June 13-15 in Kingston, Jamaica), please make the subject line of your email “Interdisciplinary Roundtable – IABA Americas” and submit your proposal by  April 20, 2019.

If you’ll be attending the IABA Europe Conference  (June 19-21 in Madrid, Spain), please make the subject line of your email “Interdisciplinary Roundtable – IABA Europe.” Deadline: May 10, 2019.

If you’ll be attending the IABA Asia-Pacific Conference (October 25-27 in Shanghai, China), please make the subject line of your email “Interdisciplinary Roundtable – IABA Asia-Pacific.” Deadline TBA.


CFP—IABA Asia-Pacific International Conference 2019: “Life Writing and Asia-Pacific Cultures”

October 25-27, 2019

Center for Life Writing of Shanghai Jiao Tong University (Shanghai, China)

Cultures and cultural change affect life writing and life writing gives impetus to cultural development. Global cultures have undergone fundamental changes in the 21st Century and the AsiaPacific region has attracted particular attention from the international community—particularly in relation to human migration and displacement, economic and technological growth, sustainability and the environment, and a host of other transforming events. Life writing has responded to these cultural developments with many different types of life narratives emerging across forms, genres, and themes. To achieve a better understanding of these culturally topical life narrative texts and themes in the AsiaPacific region, the Center for Life Writing of Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU) will host “Life Writing and AsiaPacificCultures,” the International Auto/Biography Association AsiaPacificRegion conference from Oct. 25 to 27, 2019. This conference will offer plenary sessions on the following topics and feature six experts who will give keynote speeches:

Confucian Culture and Life Writing
With a long history and vast area of influence in Asia, Confucian culture’s emphasis on the importance of character development and achievements has exerted a profound influence on the emergence and evolution of AsiaPacific life writing traditions. The plenary will discuss how Confucianism shapes the representation of the biographical subject’s character, and how life writing genres have responded into modern times.

Migration, Displacement, and Asylum Seeking
These global concerns have always been crucial in the AsiaPacific region, and for the life writing that has emerged within it. As perennial components of AsiaPacific life writing, such mobilities impact our understanding of family and memories; immigration and settlement; and individuals’ and communities’ struggles, successes, and failures to succeed.

Cultural Hybrids and Life Writing
The many historical and geographic overlays experienced by AsiaPacific cultures often result in multiple and uncertain cultural identities. Life writing often documents the tensions, conflicts, and achievements resulting from such cultural interchange.

Local Cultures and Life Writing
The AsiaPacific Region boasts rich and complex local cultures that have developed ways for sustaining their own identities and integrity, often in the face of extreme external pressures and even actual interventions. Life writing’s contributions to defining and preserving such local cultures will be the subject of discussion.

Other Issues in Life Writing Associated with AsiaPacificCultures
Further information about the plenary related to these issues will be forthcoming; this general area creates further possibilities for discussing other significant aspects of Asian-Pacific cultures and life writing.

We welcome papers that broadly consider aspects of life narrative in this region. Possible themes include:

  • Life narrative texts from or about the AsiaPacific region
  • Confucian Culture and Life Writing
  • Life Writing of migration, displacement, and asylum seeking
  • Regional life writing and local cultures
  • Creative/life writing in the AsiaPacific
  • Hybrid cultures and life writing
  • Life writing and digital media; social media
  • Archives, history, and memory
  • Family and personal histories
  • Methods for working with life narrative
  • Life writing and the politics of language and translation
  • Affect and the representation of emotions in life narratives

Attendees will register on our website: Scholars planning to give speeches at the conference need to submit abstracts online before Apr. 30, 2019. Formal invitations will be dispatched afterwards according to online registrations and submitted abstracts. Travel and accommodation costs associated with this conference will be covered by attendees. As for conference fees, attendees who register before Jun. 30, 2019, will enjoy an early bird discount of 180 US dollars or 1000 RMB; after Jun. 30, 2019, the fees will be 200 US dollars or 1200 RMB. There will be a half discount for student partipants.

Deadlines and Conference Schedule:
Deadline for Abstracts (about 300 words): Apr. 30, 2019
Notification of Acceptance: May. 30, 2019
Deadline for Registration: Sep. 30, 2019
Conference Dates: Oct. 25-27, 2019.

The working languages for this conference are Chinese and English; paper abstracts can be written in either language. We will provide translation service between the two languages. Papers will be considered for publication in our journal, Journal of Modern Life Writing Studies.


2019 International Conference on Narrative – Call for papers!

The call for papers is now open for next year’s International Conference on Narrative, held at the University of Navarra in Pamplona, Spain, May 30 – June 1 2019. The conference coincides with the IABA Europe Conference in Madrid. Hopefully many scholars will attend both!

Here are all the details:

We welcome proposals for papers and panels on all aspects of narrative in any genre, period, discipline, language, and medium.

Deadline for receipt of proposals: 15 January, 2019

Proposals for Individual Papers

Please provide the title and a 300-word abstract of the paper you are proposing; your name, institutional affiliation, and email address; and a brief statement (no more than 100 words) about your work and your publications.

Proposals for Panels

Please provide a 700-word (maximum) description of the topic of the panel and of each panelist’s contribution; the title of the panel and the titles of the individual papers; and for each participant the name, institutional affiliation, email address, and a brief statement (no more than 100 words) about the person’s work and publications.

Please send proposals by email in PDF or Word to:

All participants must join the International Society for the Study of Narrative. For more information on the ISSN, please visit:

The conference will be held at the University of Navarra, Pamplona (Spain) from May 30-June 1, 2019.

Plenaries will be given by Professor Rebecca Garden and Professor Julie Rak.

Conference organizers:

Professor Rocío G. Davis (
Professor Rosalía Baena (
Professor Anabel Martínez (
Department of Philology
School of Humanities and Social Sciences
University of Navarra
31009 Pamplona, Spain

For more details, see here.


Please note that conference dates have been updated from original announcement.