Conference for the International Association for Biography and Autobiography (IABA) Auto/biography in Transit (Part 1)
July 10, 2014 by Darren
By: Seraphima Kennedy
‘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 to me 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 (author of Boom!), Laurie McNeill, Eva Karpinski (author of Borrowed Tongues) and Linda Warley (contributor to Tracing the Autobiographical). 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 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 there 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 in the land on which we were standing, one narrative is always laid crossways over another. How and why we pay attention to these 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 three days, 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 #iaba2014selfie on Twitter, or scroll through #iaba2014 to see some of the best of these).
IABA 2014 was also 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 (among other places), with some scholars following the conversations for many hours and contributing questions directly 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 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’ later 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 with 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 of proxy narratives and life writing structures that both help and hinder academic inquiry into real life narratives. In ‘War and Human Rights,’ Kate Douglas looked at narratives of child soldiers through a paper on ‘Trauma, Young Lives and Ethical Reading,’ asking questions about ethical reading and ethical scholarship. 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’.
Interdisciplinary work was a significant preoccupation, 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. The focus was international, with most papers examining forms of intercultural exchange, highlighting the ‘mobility and transit of texts and scholars’ (Linda Warley).
This blog post is part of a four-part series by Seraphima Kennedy that will be continued in the following week. Visit the IABA website here.