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Conference for the International Association for Biography and Autobiography (IABA) Auto/biography in Transit (Part 3)

By: Seraphima Kennedy 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 text-hungry delegates, the centre’s programme of residencies for […]

By: Seraphima Kennedy


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 text-hungry delegates, the centre’s programme of residencies for emerging artists meant that a quiet drink in the bar could be spiced up by a percussion performance, jazz guitar or saxophone solo, while live music venues within 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 in her closing discussion. 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 that 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, binaries, 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.’


With thanks to the ‘Tweetbots’: Kate Douglas, Anna Poletti, Emma Maguire, Terri Tomsky, Julie Rak, Candida Rifkind, Liz Rodrigues, Aimee Morrison, Sarah Carson, Miriam Novick, and Linda Warley.  


Visit the IABA website here.


Source: Conference for the International Association for Biography and Autobiography (IABA) Auto/biography in Transit (Part 3)