The Return of the Subject
- Annie O. Eysturoy (Author)
Daughters of Self-Creation: The Contemporary Chicana Novel. University of New Mexico Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Donald J. Winslow (Editor)
Life-Writing: A Glossary of Terms in Biography, Autobiography, and Related Forms. University of Hawaii Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Jeanne Perreault (Author)
Writing Selves: Contemporary Feminist Autography. University of Minnesota Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Bina Toledo Freiwald
Teresa de Lauretis observed a few years ago that "the problem of the subject has come to be seen as fundamental for any inquiry, be it humanistic or social scientific, aimed at what may be broadly called a theory of culture." The books under review here attest to the continuing vitality of such investigations, bringing their different perspectives to bear on the various discourses through which subjectivities are represented, re-visioned, and transformed. Taken together, the three books also chart a certain critical-theoretical trajectory, demonstrating the shift in focus noted by James Olney some fifteen years ago from "bios to autos—from the life to the self." While Winslow’s Glossary of Terms in Life-Writing (1995) still favors the more traditional historical approach to autobiography as a genre, Perreault and Eysturoy seek to foreground the discursive acts by which selves are inscribed and re-imagined in works that blur the generic boundaries between autobiography and fiction.
In his new preface to the Glossary, Donald Winslow explains the need for a revised second edition by pointing to the rapid expansion of scholarship on life-writing in the fourteen years since the appearance of the first edition. He immediately goes on to suggest, however, that while some recent studies have introduced terms "which are of real value," others have merely added "to the jargonizing of the language." As reviewer’s fate would have it, Winslow seems to have relegated to this latter category the very concepts Perreault and Eysturoy consider crucial to their endeavors. How else to understand the omission from the Glossary of terms such as subjectivity and Bildung, or the decision to leave out of the bibliography such groundbreaking critical works as Sidonie Smith’s A Poetics of Women’s Autobiography (1987), and Life/Lines: Theorizing Women’s Autobiography (eds. Brodzki and Schenck 1988)? (I am attributing agency here, but this is another missing term). While conceding that the most active field of scholarly research in life-writing today is on self-writing, Winslow fails to incorporate much of its suggestive vocabulary; the Glossary has entries on quest, hagiography, and even hackiography, but none on interpellation, resistance, or autobiographical manifestos.
The Glossary’s entries on feminist and lesbian life writing, moreover, barely begin to suggest the rich intellectual context for Perreault’s and Eysturoy’s studies, a context that has recently yielded such important works as Françoise Lionnet’s Autobiographical Voices: Race, Gender, Self-Portraiture (1989); Sidonie Smith’s Subjectivity, Identity and the Body (1993); Helen Buss’ Mapping Our Selves: Canadian Women’s Autobiography in English (1993); Leigh Gilmore’s Autobiographies: A Feminist Theory of Women’s Self-Representation (1994); Laura Marcus’ Auto/biographical discourses: Theory, criticism, practice (1994); and Jeanne Braham’s Crucial Conversations: Interpreting Contemporary American Literary Autobiographies by Women (1995). Fortunately, both Eysturoy and Perreault draw on the recent scholarship in their explorations of the intersections of race, class, and gender in the making of selves and of narratives. Eysturoy’s Daughters of Self-Creation: The Contemporary Chicana Novel (1996), a revised doctoral dissertation, presents a clear argument: Chicana women writers have chosen to use and transform the Bildungsroman form in order to give expression to a particular socio-cultural experience in which "oppression and resistance play major roles." The book charts an evolutionary course, following the Chicana protagonist as she resists entrapment, discovers agency, and is finally able to redefine her relationship to the community. In Isabella RÃos’ Victuum (1976) and Estela Portillo Trambley’s Trini (1986)— examined in the first part of the book— Eysturoy finds protagonists who are defined by a traditional patriarchal context, and whose sole solace lies in an extra-social psychic or natural sphere beyond the Chicano community. In Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street (1985) and Denise Chavez’s The Last of the Menu Girls (1986), to which Eysturoy turns in the second part of the book, the protagonists are better able to oppose patriarchal norms while affirming other aspects of their ethnic identity. Thus Eysturoy’s own interpretive narrative can end on a celebratory note, reading in the protagonists’ eventual return to their Chicano community an affirmation of a successful negotiation between feminist self-creation and communal ties. Perreault’s Writing Selves: Contemporary Feminist Autography (1995), like Eysturoy’s Daughters of Self-Creation, is concerned with the interrelation of self and community. Through an examination of selected works, Writing Selves successfully foregrounds broader issues relating to the making and re-making of selves in a discursive arena that is shaped by the complexities of race, sexuality, class, and ethnicity. The core of the book consists of nuanced and evocative readings of Audre Lorde’s Cancer Journals, Adrienne Rich’s later essays and poetry, Kate Millett’s The Basement: Meditations on a Human Sacrifice, and Patricia Williams’s The Alchemy of Race and Rights: Diary of a Law Professor. These readings are framed by a discussion that is in dialogue with recent feminist theorists of subjectivity and life-writing (including Riley, Modleski, Butler, Fuss, Spelman, and Flax), allowing Perreault to clarify her particular position and the focus of her study: "In autography, I find a writing whose effect is to bring into being a ’self that the writer names ÎŠ,’but whose parameters and boundaries resist the monadic. .. . This study addresses who and what is meant by that written ’I’ as an element in the ’we’ of feminist communities. .. . Autography, then, as I conceive it, invites the reader to reconsider the imbrications of subjectivity, textuality, and community."
The texts that Perreault examines underscore a range of processes through which selves take shape. Audre Lorde’s Cancer Journals bears testimony to the difficult tasks of coming to terms with a body transformed by breast cancer, and incorporating it into a sense of self already marked by the plurality of being Black, lesbian, feminist, mother, poet. The chapter on Rich investigates a writing in which the passion for history and the body produces a multiple subjectivity that does not evacuate presence, "a poetics of subjectiv- ity [that] claims selfhood and relinquishes identity." Perreault reads Kate Millett’s The Basement—an account of the actual torture and murder of a sixteen-year-old girl by a woman and a group of teenagers in Indiana in 1965—as yet another form of self-inscription. In Millett’s retelling of this prototypical story of a culture steeped in sexual hatred, both victim and torturer become "metonyms of Millett’s interior drama, and projected figures of her own cultural scripts." In Patricia Williams’s The Alchemy of Race and Rights Perreault finds a textual practice of self-making that encompasses legal discourse and cultural critique, links the social traumas of racism, sexism, poverty, and individual history, and finally moves towards an affirmation of "’self as a possession, as the possibility of knowledge within the deeply felt and articulated complexity of unstable meaning."
The self, then, having experienced a temporary setback in certain postmodernist quarters, and now no longer associated with the kind of notions found in the Glossary of Terms in Life-Writing under Identity ("Oneness; the sameness of a person at all times and in all circumstances"), has returned with a vengeance. Eysturoy’s and Perreault’s studies suggest that the growing appeal of modes of self/life writing—for writers and critics alike—owes much to contemporary preoccupations with the complex and shifting character of subjectivity, experience, and representation, and is directly related to attempts to fashion individual and collective discourses of resistance and empowerment.
- Narrating Re-Generation by Reilly Yeo
Books reviewed: Generation A by Douglas Coupland
- Innocence and Experience by Gisèle M. Baxter
Books reviewed: Mean Boy by Lynn Coady
- Home and Away by Annette Kern-Stáhler
Books reviewed: Domesticity, Imperialism, and Emigration in the Victorian Noval by Diana C. Archibald, Passages: Welcome Home to Canada by Westwood Creative Artists, and Destination Canada: Immigration Debates and Issues by Peter S. Li
- Origins Reconsidered by Anupama Mohan
Books reviewed: A House by the Sea by Sikeena Karmali
- Desert Books by Melanie Kolbeins
Books reviewed: Bone and Dream by Lake Sagaris and Travels with my Daughter by Niema Ash
MLA: Freiwald, Bina Toledo. The Return of the Subject. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 22 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #156 (Spring 1998). (pg. 176 - 178)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.