Biography, vol. 24, no. 1 (2001)

SPECIAL ISSUE: Autobiography and Changing Identities

Editor’s Introduction, ix
Guest Editors Susanna Egan and Gabriele Helms
Welcome to the Conference, xxi
Martha C. Piper


Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson
The Rumpled Bed of Autobiography: Extravagant Lives, Extravagant Questions, 1

Two recent works, Tracey Emin’s installation “My Bed” and Dave Eggers’s memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, exemplify the provocative self-presentations in diverse media that are “rumpling” the procrustean bed of autobiography and raising intriguing theoretical questions about autobiographical acts. Are these presentations of “life” embodied materiality, “authentic” citation, or exploitation? Are these violations of norms of gender and class “sincere” self-disclosure or transgressive excess? How do such performances both maintain and breach the autobiographical pact? And how do the performances of “bad girls” and macho “boys” call upon critics to remake theory?

Mary Jean Corbett
Performing Identities: Actresses and Autobiography, 15

Autobiographical writings by the late Victorian actresses Irene Vanbrugh and Elizabeth Robins enact old and new conventions for feminine identity, with a vocabulary drawn from theatrical performance that also governs their textual production. Imagining autobiography itself as another part to play, each actress differently develops conceptions of both femininity and autobiography as performative acts that challenge even as they affirm conventional norms for womanhood.

Antje Lindenmeyer
“I am Prince Jussuf”: Else Lasker-Schüler’s Autobiographical Performance, 24

This article explores “Prince Jussuf,” the fantastic autobiographical “I” created by the German-Jewish poet Else Lasker-Schüler. Brought into being through performance, “he” forms a link between body and text, masculinity and femininity, enabling Lasker-Schüler to create a mythical autobiography that is, for her, more real than “real” life could ever be.

Bina Toledo Freiwald
Becoming and Be/longing: Kate Bornstein’s Gender Outlaw and My Gender Workbook, 35

Introducing herself as a post-operative male-to-female “transsexual lesbian whose female lover is becoming a man,” Bornstein renders questionable—indeed untenable—the hegemonic grids of sex, gender, and sexuality. The essay reflects on the ways in which Bornstein’s narratives, while flaunting and advocating sex/gender fluidity, are also profoundly concerned with those relations of belonging that are necessary for the material, epistemic, affective, and social survival of the self.

Timothy Dow Adams
“Heightened by Life” vs. “Paralyzed by Fact”: Photography and Autobiography in Norma Cantú’s Canícula, 57

This essay discusses interrelations between photography and autobiography in Norma Elia Cantú’s Canícula: Snapshots of a Girlhood en la Frontera (1995), using the words and images in this text as one way of getting to the heart of the paradox inherent in the presence of photography within autobiography: the photographs’ tendency to simultaneously document and yet undercut the narrative. In Canícula Cantú uses photographs to present a significant reconstruction of her childhood self as a Chicana, living in both Mexico and the United States, by displacing her bicultural identity (Mexican in Mexico, Chicana in the United States) with a more fluid one, a life lived not in two separate cultures but on the border. Her sense of a borderland self is celebrated in a text that is itself on the border between fact and fiction, an autobiography made out of fiction, a book that contains photographs that both reveal and conceal.

Linda Haverty Rugg
“Carefully I touched the faces of my parents”: Bergman’s Autobiographical Image, 72

Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman’s films and writing revolve around the complex nature of selfhood, with particular reference to his own life and the lives of his parents. This essay explores the possibility of cinematic autobiography, using Bergman’s ideas on selfhood and photography as a basis for discussion.

Jill R. Deans
Performing the Search in Adoption Autobiography: Finding Christa and Reno Finds Her Mom, 85

Adoption autobiographies often revolve around the search for “origins,” appearing overtly foundationalist and biologist, affirming the unity of self and the authenticity of “blood.” Two films, Finding Christa and Reno Finds Her Mom, resist this trend by depicting the search as a performance, destabilizing assumptions about the identities of birthmothers and adoptees even as they tell their own stories.

Philippe Lejeune
How Do Diaries End?, 99

The end of diaries is analyzed along three lines: the end as expectation (contrary to autobiography, the diary is an experience of writing without an end, or against the end), the end in its relationship to the four possible purposes of a diary (expression, reflection, memory, creation), and the end as a reality (death agony diaries, suicide diaries).


Paul John Eakin
Breaking Rules: The Consequences of Self-Narration, 113

Self-narration is a rule-governed discourse, embedded in a constraining social and cultural environment. The rules for identity narrative function simultaneously as rules for identity. These tacit rules are most clearly displayed when broken. Self-narrators have been called to account for misrepresentation of biographical and historical truth, infringement of the individual’s right to privacy, and failure to display normative models of personhood. Consequences for breaking these rules may include public condemnation, litigation, and (potentially) institutional confinement.

Leigh Gilmore
Limit-Cases: Trauma, Self-Representation, and the Jurisdictions of Identity, 128

In the midst of the 1990s boom in memoir, an alternative way of representing the self and trauma arose in limit-cases. The controversy surrounding Rigoberta Menchú’s testimonio sharply exposes how the legalistic constraints on truth-telling in autobiography open some writers to harsh judgment. Texts by Dorothy Allison, Mikal Gilmore, Jamaica Kincaid, and Jeanette Winterson are adduced as limit-cases that denote an alternative jurisdiction through their extra-testimonial representations of the self and trauma.

Valerie Raoul
Women’s Diaries as Life-Savings: Who Decides Whose Life is Saved? The Journals of Eugénie de Guérin and Elisabeth Leseur, 140

Eugénie de Guérin (d. 1848) and Elisabeth Leseur (d. 1918) both wrote post-humously published journals in which they are seen as sacrificing themselves to save a beloved male. The success of their diaries is attributable to their usefulness as models of pious, altruistic femininity. Yet ambivalent financial images of investment and returns reveal a simultaneous desire to survive themselves, through their diaries, as the saviors of the apparently dominant male figure. Whose life is ultimately to be “saved”? And who decides which version, and whether/when the diary should be discarded?

Jeanne Perreault
Chain Gang Narratives and the Politics of “Speaking For,” 152

“Chain Gang Narratives” takes up the issue of the right to speak when the speaker is from a different subject position than the spoken for. While recognizing that the ethical correctives identity politics have demanded of scholars serve a useful purpose, the article urges socially concerned academics to reconsider identity and experience as an absolute principle of honorable scholarship. Comparing the writings of two white men who published critical narratives of Georgia chain gang experience, I present a case for relying on the values rather than the experience of the speaker to provide the reader with a sufficiently complex narrative.

Susannah B. Mintz
Writing as Refiguration: Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face, 172

This essay focuses on the relationship between life-writing, disability, and subjectivity. In her account of facial disfigurement resulting from jaw cancer, Lucy Grealy confronts cultural mythologies that signify corporeal difference as monstrous deviations, mapping new possibilities for female, embodied identity as well as for memoirs of illness and physical impairment.

G. Thomas Couser
Genome and Genre: DNA and Life Writing, 185

With the completion of the sequencing of the human genome, it is apparent that genetic research has important implications for life writing. DNA has begun to serve biographers as a definitive sign of identity, and geneticism will influence autobiographical genres as well. As Alice Wexler’s Mapping Fate illustrates, presymptomatic diagnosis and comprehensive DNA testing create a need for personal testimony of genetic conditions.


Gillian Whitlock
In the Second Person: Narrative Transactions in Stolen Generations Testimony, 197

The testimonies of indigenous Australians published in the Bringing Them Home report (1998) have been a reminder of the historical importance of testimony in processes of social justice and reconciliation. By focusing on the witness—the “second person”—in the processes of narrative transaction established by the testimony, the ways in which these stories work as a potent moral and ethical force in contemporary Australian society are considered. This essay argues that the dynamics of this cultural memory work depart significantly from those which are generated by Holocaust testimony, and suggest specifically postcolonial dynamics in the ethical work of testimony.

Lynn A. Casmier-Paz
Footprints of the Fugitive: Slave Narrative Discourse and the Trace of Autobiography, 215

This study positions theories of writing and signification in a paradoxical relationship to autobiography theory. By reading fugitive slave narratives as “traces” of an absent subject, and the authors’ proper names as problematic, the study concludes that the narratives challenge the fundamental ways that autobiographical identities are knowable.

Julie Rak
Doukhobor Autobiography as Witness Narrative, 226

This article discusses the prison narrative of Gregorii Soukerov, a Doukhobor living in Canada during the 1930s. Soukerov’s work is a “witness narrative,” a form which negotiates between Western and non-Western ways to understand subjectivity by focusing on the narration of a traumatic event rather than the subjectivity of its narrator.

Joel Martineau
Autoethnography and Material Culture: The Case of Bill Reid, 242

The Haida and Canadian sculptor Bill Reid created such monumental works as The Spirit of Haida Gwaii, displayed in the Canadian chancery in Washington, and The Raven and the First Men, displayed in the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. This essay applies Mary Louise Pratt’s theories of autoethnography to Reid’s works to assess the sculptures’ impact on the cultures they address.

Joanne Saul
Displacement and Self-Representation: Theorizing Contemporary Canadian Biotexts, 259

This paper explores the complex strategies of self-representation in “biotexts” that foreground their uses of a poetics of process rooted in the Canadian long poem of the 1970s. It suggests that such texts tell stories to claim experience, while foregrounding the effects of dislocation and alienation through a range of textual strategies of estrangement.

Sherrill Grace
“Hidden Country”: Discovering Mina Benson Hubbard, 273

In 1905 Canadian explorer Mina Benson Hubbard successfully completed an expedition through Labrador that enabled her to map uncharted territory and write about her experiences. Her story of this expedition exists in several forms, including her 1908 autobiography, but this study explores her self-discovery as much as her discovery of unknown Labrador.

Sarah Phillips Casteel
Eva Hoffman’s Double Emigration: Canada as the Site of Exile in Lost in Translation, 288

The conventional reading of Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation as an American immigrant autobiography has tended to neglect the Canadian section of the book. By retrieving the crucial distinction Hoffman draws between the Canadian and American periods of her life, we can shed light on the enigmatic status of Vancouver in her autobiography, and in particular on the interplay of memory, geography, and narrative in representations of double emigrations.

Roger Porter
Autobiography, Exile, Home: The Egyptian Memoirs of Gini Alhadeff, André Aciman, and Edward Said, 302

These three writers, having been raised largely in Egypt and living in the U.S., all write autobiography in a state of exile. Nevertheless, each discovers a more complex identity in the displacement, and their autobiographies negotiate between nostalgia and freedom. In the process they make literary capital out of loss, as memory becomes compensation and a source of renewed self-knowledge.


Excerpts from recent reviews of biographies, autobiographies, and other works of interest