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2014 Banff, Canada

Auto/biography in Transit

Sponsored by the University of Alberta, York University, the University of Waterloo, and the University of British Columbia

May 29-June 1, 2014

Want to know more? Download the final conference programme at the bottom of the page.
The IABA 2014 Team
from left, Linda Warley, Julie Rak, Laurie McNeill, Eva Karpinski


Conference for the International Association for Biography and Autobiography (IABA)

Auto/biography in Transit 

May 29-June 1, 2014

Banff Centre, Alberta, Canada 

 Autobiography in Transit – and theory on the front line. How IABA 2014 is sounding out new depths in life writing scholarship

 by Seraphima Kennedy, Goldsmiths, UK

 ‘I’m going to let you finish,’ wrote one IABA 2014 delegate on Twitter, ‘but #IABA2014 literally has the best people of all time.’ I could write another piece about the high quality of the papers presented, the cutting edge explorations in the field, the barnstorming presentations and top-of the-Richter-scale scholarship served up over the course of three days at the Banff Centre for the Arts from 29 May – 1 June 2014. Or I could write about the staggering mountains, elk, deer, the excellent experience created by the Banff Conference Team, the amazing facilities (including pool, jacuzzi, queen-sized beds), the jaw-droppingly-delicious three course meals. Most of it would sound like an exaggeration and none of it would do justice to the actual experience, or do much to evoke the dynamism and friendliness of the scholars present.  What I can say is that IABA 2014 is likely to go down in auto/biographical scholarship history not only as the place with the best view, best banquet and best wildlife, but also as THAT conference where THAT theory was first propounded. ‘IABA has ruined me for future conferences,’ wrote one of the delegates in an email a week after the event. She was not just talking about the buffet.

 What made this different from other conferences? The welcome of the organizing committee for one, headed up by the wonderful Julie Rak, Laurie McNeill, Eva Karpinski and Linda Warley. The approachability of eminent scholars and the absence of academic hierarchies, coupled with a focus on improving skills for new scholars and graduate students through a dedicated workshop for new scholars run by some of the biggest brains in life writing scholarship. The awareness that life stories are valuable, subtle areas for dynamic research into theory and practice. This was reflected in the choice of readers and keynote speakers: Carolyn Miller, Rocio Davis, Fred Wah, and poets Sharron Proulx-Turner and Patrick Lane. 

 The opening words from Elder Tom Crane Bear, Caretaker of the Land and a member of the Siksika Nation, highlighted that we were here to investigate a particular form of creative scholarship: ‘We came up through the southwest where the chokecherries grow,’ he said, speaking about the history of his people the Blackfoots. What may have been a consciously novelistic turn of phrase felt like an acknowledgment that in Canada, and in particular on the land on which we were standing, one narrative was always laid crossways over another. How and why we pay attention to those narratives, and how we can respond to the stories of others were the questions on the minds of assembled scholars.

 Yet this was a conference as much about looking forward as back. There were panels on Theorizing Human Rights, Representing Islam, Digital Futures, Nineteenth-Century Women’s Narratives, Neoliberal Stories, and Comics and Justice, among many others.  In her keynote address ‘Memoir, Blog, and Selfie: Genre as Social Action in Autobiographical Representations,’ Carolyn Miller treated the audience to a history of the self-referential portrait, linking genre expectations, social structures and Lejeune’s ‘autobiographical pact’ with James Frey, Oprah, and the ‘fifteen types of selfie.’ Could selfies be seen as a form of life writing? A lively debate set the tone for a stimulating and at times controversial conference, while the Twitter-sphere saw the emergence of a new kind of selfie – the IABA 2014 selfie. This proved a popular genre among assembled scholars, and provided much entertainment over the course of the conference (look for #iabaselfie2014 on Twitter, or scroll through #iaba2014 to see some of the best of these).

 IABA 2014 was marked by a burgeoning interaction with technology. For the first time, a committed cohort of bloggers (codename: ‘Tweetbots’) took over the Twittersphere,  blogging to interested followers in the UK, US, Canada and Australia, with some scholars following the conversations for many hours and contributing questions direct to panel discussions. This created an intriguing, private-yet-public meta-IABA, with information being shared across panel sessions in a virtual web of intercultural reference.

 The use of technology allowed us to chart simultaneous currents in auto/biographical theory and practice, but it wasn’t only in cyberspace that scholars were throwing out new lines of enquiry. There was a growing awareness of new auto/biographical writing outlets produced by new media, visual cultures, memes, blogspots, video and data-driven forms of life writing analysis.  Meg Jensen (University of Kingston) discussed the complexity of human rights work in semi-autobiographical texts, closing a discussion of paraeidolic life writing with a discussion of meme. Anna Poletti opened up new ground by querying the role of the life writing text in zines about suicide. Over in ‘Self-Branding,’ questions of gender and agency came to the fore as K.J. Lee explored memoirs by Canadian women writers, Emma Maguire looked at the video blogs of Jenna Marbles, while the use of science, cognitive sciences and memory also pointed the way to Liz Rodrigues’ paper on ‘Life Writing as a data driven form.’

 Testimony remained a complex and potentially dangerous business: speaking for others or attempting to bestow rights through articulation was as fraught as ever. Cynthia Franklin (University of Hawai’i Manoa) problematized Dave Eggers’ use of the story of Zeitoun, and queried whether Eggers’ narrativisation underscores rather than challenges the stereotypes it seeks to disturb. Terri Tomsky (University of Alberta) presented a fascinating investigation into memoirs of lawyers representing Guantanamo Bay inmates. Her rich analysis complicated the ways in which legal narratives unpick the ‘us vs. them’ dyad, yet somehow still legitimate ‘us’ as beholders of rights that can be bestowed on others.  Janice Williamson (University of Alberta) continued the theme of justice, habeas corpus and the law in ‘Life Story Versus Law story: Omar Khadr’s Imprisonment 2002-14,’ concluding with a discussion on proxy narratives in life writing and life writing structures that both help and hinder academic inquiry into real life narratives.  As our resident poet Sharron Proulx-Turner put it, 'The way to meet cultures is to witness the culture rather than manipulate for a western 'I'.

 What life writing scholarship means in the field, and how scholars engage with both texts and subjects, was a key area of concern.Laurie McNeill gave a valuable critique of one university’s pedagogy of decolonization in relation to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee, asking whether we could encourage an ethical awareness for students to productively engage with these issues. How can instructors create awareness without allowing testimonies to be simply consumed? This was a practical, as well as an ethical concern. In the panel on ‘Liminal Memory,’ Sidonie Smith, Janice Hladki and Bina Freiwald all used autobiography and visual biography to explore notions of shadows and border-crossing, as well as desolation and betrayal in the lives of their subjects. Smith’s account of the “State of Exception Exhibit,” became a text written on the bodies of those involved with it through the use of tattooage. Bina Freidl’s work on Jewish Women’s writing demonstrated how stories of collective identities could subsume individual identities. In her presentation on Kent Monkmann’s video art, Janice Hladki raised important questions about memory and affect, with Monkmann’s video interrogating the ways that countermemorial artworks can reclaim/recast dominant narratives of nation-state celebrations of white settler histories.

 A significant focus of the conference was on interdisciplinary work, with several scholars calling for new methodologies of reading, looking outside of the arts and humanities and using new methods to place the body within the text. Great emphasis was placed on multimodal life writing narratives – on comics, digital objects, the visual and the sonic. There was more internationalization and intercultural exchange, mobility and transit of texts and scholars. Leigh Gilmore’s paper ‘Getting a Handle on Pain’ crystallised a repeated scholarly preoccupation with ethical methodologies of reading. Looking over her shoulder at Sontag, Gilmore complicated verbal-visual interactions in the graphic novel. What meaning takes place in a text and where? How do verbal and visual texts instruct us in interpreting pain? What does paratextual imagery in memoirs of illness actually do? Questioning the use of metonymy to invite the reader to identify with the source of pain, Gilmore ended with a call to look at the methodologies and critical tools we use in our encounters with auto/biographical texts.

 This deconstruction of the verbal-visual matrix echoed Miller’s injunction to scholars to think visibly (vis à vis the selfie), while pointing forward towards Julia Watson and Candida Rifkind’s separate papers in Comics and Justice. Candida Rifkind’s paper on ‘Graphic Biography and the Half-Lives of Robert Oppenheimer’ encapsulated some of the key themes that we were beginning to see develop. Rifkind argued that ‘atomic graphic biographies’ open up new ways of seeing a familiar scientific context with their triangulation of instability. Julia Watson - always at the cutting edge of method – asked us to think about how we read and how we are engaged by texts. Creating a taxonomy of the first person in comics, Watson reinterpreted narrative tropes in Parsua Bashi's Nylon Road, arguing that the auto/biographical act becomes an occasion for evaluating who the narrator is across national borders. Watson went on to consider the opportunities provided by multimodal A/B acts. What are the affordances of comics for holding disparate moments in productive tension?

 This sense of tension holding together ideas and selves – of the text as an arena in which things simultaneously do and do not fall apart –was echoed in John Zuern’s  paper on US memoirs written after the economic crash of 2008. Pinning down the idea of post-crash memoirs as transitory texts, Zuern highlighted the transits of the memoirist’s self into pre-written narrative modes, and argued that austerity had led to a ‘precarization of the self’ in which the centre does not hold. In Emily Hipchen’s paper on the construction of Steve Jobs in Walter Isaacson’s memoir of the same name, Hipchen commented productively on the ways in which Jobs’ life is narrated in orbit by his status as hyper-capable human, traumatised adoptee, and ‘supercrip.’ There was a lightbulb moment in the discussion between Hipchen and Craig Howes in the discussion when the relevance to the Superman story was noted. This was the kind of electricity that the best intellectual discussions are made of.

 Banff emerged as a sparkling venue for a conference of this size, not only because of the spectacular scenery and great food. The centre is uniquely committed to the promotion of artistic endeavor in Canada. As well as a fully stocked library open to hungry delegates, the centre’s programme of residencies for emerging artists meant that quiet drink in the bar could be spiced up by a percussion performance, jazz guitar or saxophone solo, while the live music venues at the centre provided a space for delegates to swing their theoretical cares away.

By the halfway point most delegates had encountered tranquil species of deer in the surrounding grounds, eaten delightful meals looking out over the mountains, and even seen bears in the national park. We watched a male elk swim from one side of the river to another, at the same time as new areas were opening up in the field.

 This open ground was marked by a shift from interpretation to action. ‘Less about "me" and more about "you,"’ as Linda Warley put it. Much new work was pulling biography – and in particular biographies of the self as other – into new territory. Several scholars referenced field work in the production of autobiographical texts and their consumption, while still others focused on new media narratives, visual autobiography, the use of objects and three-dimensional representations of both individual and collective lives lived.

 Rocio Davis provided the final keynote of the conference, ‘Fictional Transits: Is there an Autobiography in this Text?’ Attending to Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being,  Davis looked at the transits between ‘fiction’ and ‘non-fiction,’ arguing that Ozeki’s signaling of creative processes illuminates a slippage which moves the reader to become the ‘you’ in the text. ‘I am writing this and wondering about you somewhere in my future,' the narrator says at the beginning. Davis argued that Ozeki complicates our relationship with the story and with the fictive and referential universe through layering, platforms, performativity, and acts of storytelling. As one blogger put it, ‘traditional genre boundaries seem inadequate when reading texts like this one.’

 A highlight of the weekend was the Life Readings Series. Sharron Proulx-Turner was generously sponsored by the journal a/b: auto/biography studies and Patrick Lane appeared courtesy of the Writer’s Union. The series brought two of the finest voices in Canadian literature into the conference fold. The first day of the conference ended with a drinks reception in the stunning Tom Crane Bear Hall of the Max Bell Building, with views of the sun setting over the glorious Rocky Mountains. Métis poet Sharron Proulx-Turner read from a series of poems including ‘A Houseful of Birds,’ before talking about sealed records and the legacy of Canada’s Residential School system. 'There was another story there,’ she read, ‘where a girl opened her mouth and inside was the universe.' Sharron was a compelling speaker about the impact of trauma on her own writing, her methods of using autobiographical material, and a compassionate and singular presence throughout the rest of the conference.

 Patrick Lane was just as frank with his discussion of the uses of autobiography, the writing process, fear of failure and his decision to start writing. Hinting at a combination of memory, experience and affect, writing for Lane was bound up with affect: ‘I can still feel those dark mountains, they rose like morning clothes from Kootenay lake.' Somehow the act of writing coexisted with the fear of erasure, an awareness of not being fully represented: ‘'Canada did not exist, and neither did I. I wanted to exist,’ he said.  These were powerful, intimate readings, highlighting some of the faultlines inherent in the theorization of writing about the self that would be plotted over the next two days. And, as Lane acknowledged, this was why we were there. ‘You guys are the academics,’ he said. ‘I’m just a writer.’

 The multimodal nature of much scholarly criticism was perhaps summed up by the second keynote address from Canadian poet Fred Wah. Wah remains at the forefront of Canadian literature in the post-postmodern era, citing Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan as influences. He purposefully broke with academic tradition, interweaving extracts from his critically-acclaimed book of poetry, Diamond Grill, with an outline of his thoughts on the constitutive indeterminacy of the ‘biotext.’ Wah discussed the limits of representing identity through a text, talking about his own experience of growing up ‘Chinese-American’ in Canada: how he existed in the blank space after racial origin forms, ‘living in the hyphen’ between two identities. This in-betweenness features repeatedly in his work –  the swinging door of his father’s Chinese restaurant in Waiting for Saskatchewan ‘continues to operate in my thinking about hybridity.’

 Perhaps the life writing text – looking forward as well as back – always embodies Wah’s swinging kitchen door, a then as well as a here and now, a transit between one way of being and another. What came out of IABA 2014 was a call for a new set of tools to talk about selves and identities in constant movement, at risk of being drowned out, forgotten or erased. Transits, orbits, hyphens, poetry, animals, ethics, theory on the front line – IABA 2014 reaffirmed the status of auto/biographical theory and practice as the preeminent mode of scholarship for our time. As Rocio Davis put it in her keynote, quoting Ruth Ozeki: ‘Life is full of stories – or maybe life is only stories.’ 

Julie Rak,
Aug 6, 2014, 10:11 PM