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Cover of issue #219

Current Issue: #219 Contested Migrations (Winter 2013)

Canadian Literature’s Issue 219 (Winter 2013) is now available. The issue features articles by Vinh Nguyen, Miriam Pirbhai, Rachel Bower, and others, as well as new poetry & book reviews.

Women Writing Women

  • Jill Ker Conway (Editor)
    In Her Own Words: Women's Memoirs from Australia, New Zealand, Canada & The United States. Vintage (purchase at Amazon.ca)

Reviewed by Susanna Egan

Those of us who work in autobiography studies are no longer naive about the autobiographical nature of our academic work; the texts we choose to work on, the issues we engage, and the arguments we make all reveal something of ourselves. And these revelations have very little to do with recent developments that require us to "position" ourselves. Positioned or not, we are exposed. In the present case, Traise Yamamoto and Jill Ker Conway know exactly what their work explains about themselves and foreground the relationship between their interests and their personal history. However, thinking about both books for one review, I am also engaged by distinctions between the serious, even strenuous theorising and analysis provided by Yamamoto, who is a young academic, and the exuberant abundance of Conway’s work that is broad on assumptions and minimal on conceptual framework. I wonder to what degree these distinctions reflect developments in literary studies, to what degree women’s issues (as articulated by white women) are more confident of acceptance than minority issues, and therefore not requiring argument, and to what degree audience is the central issue. On this last, as on the very personal nature of academic work, autobiography crosses boundaries; most often intended for a wide and sympathetic readership, life writing of all kinds addresses not only the selves involved in writing and reading but also the cultural contexts of both, as these frame the assumptions on which writing and reading are based.

Yamamoto’s work begins from personal experience and examines the cultural assumptions that govern representation of Asian American women. Her frontispiece is a formal studio portrait of her grandparents taken in 1938 with the daughter they sent back to be raised in Japan. Yamamoto’s text provides analysis of this photograph (but without mentioning that the seated doll, who forms a parallel to her seated father, is elaborately elegant and definitely white). Yamamoto’s introduction also provides the history that follows from this pose: the internment suffered by the family members who remained in the States, and the sense of rejection experienced by the child sent away to Japan. Yamamoto studies the impassive face of the young mother who is parting with her daughter and discusses this young mother’s deliberate choice of the English name, Rose, for herself. The mask-like face and the self-naming then ground Yamamoto’s whole discussion on Japanese American women as both socially defined and surprisingly self-creating. "How do they construct the self as subject," she asks, "within a society that constructs them as objects without agency?" (4). Overdetermined by the combinations of gender, race, and original nationality, all heavily sexualised within North American culture, Japanese American women have converted the "mask of difference" into a trope for their own self-construction.

With careful attention to history texts, documents from the Western "opening" of Japan, autobiographies, fiction, film, and poetry, Yamamoto demonstrates not only that Japan and Japanese people have been infantilised and feminised by the West but also that Japanese American women in particular are therefore in an impossible bind in terms of asserting their own subjectivity. Physical appearance and sexuality being defined in literature and in cultural experience by the white and "masculine" West, the Japanese American woman belongs, like Yamamoto’s grandmother "Rose" and her first child with the white doll, in the apparently inarticulate silence of the "mask." "Masking Selves," Yamamoto suggests, "gestures grammatically toward both the limitations on and possibilities of Japanese American women’s agency. Its phrasal ambiguity evokes an implied subject/agent who masks the selfhood of the (Japanese American) other, as well as the Japanese American subject whose self is, in a sense, defined by its own participation in reappropriative acts of masking" (100). Yamamoto’s discussion of gender, race, and cultural relations is careful and sophisticated though not always pellucid. Her materials are complex, and she weaves a complex and well-sustained argument with them. However, her strengths, to my mind, reside in the careful textual analyses with which she develops her theoretical concerns. The range of literature she discusses accumulates reference points for various aspects of discussion in a most persuasive way. When she concludes, therefore, that the varied texts she has chosen "constitute a tradition," the complexities of her theoretical discussion do indeed come together. She describes this tradition as one "in which [Japanese American women] write the self as subject, refusing to be spoken or spoken for, a tradition in which they insist on their singularity of perception as well as their ties to community and shared experience" (263).

Yamamoto works in the most approved current mode, extending research and analysis from personal experience for an academic audience while achieving a clear political agenda. Her work will be of value for the burgeoning study of Asian American and Asian Canadian literatures, for postcolonial studies in general and dis- cussion of diasporas in particular. While strong on the role of Nisei autobiography, she seems far less sophisticated in her brief discussion of autobiography theory, citing Olney and Gusdorf as authorities but seeming to discover, as if the works to which she refers were not twenty-five years old and more, that they do not include discussion pertinent to her interests. Laxity in this one area, however, is a small blot on a fine book.

Conway’s new anthology is harder to place. I must confess to a personal bias against anthologised excerpts of large autobiographical works. However, Conway has used this method repeatedly, presumably for a popular audience to whom she thus introduces women as autobiographers from around the English-speaking world. Against my own preconceptions, repeatedly against my better judgement, I was seduced. Choosing writers from Australia (Patricia Jean Adam-Smith, Dorothy Hewett, Sally Morgan), from New Zealand (Robyn Hyde, Janet Frame, Lauris Edmond), from Canada (Dorothy Livesay, Gabrielle Roy, Rosemary Brown) and the United States (Lillian Hellman, Shirley Chisholm, Kim Chemin), Conway provides brief biographical introductions and some annotation, but hands the space over to these women "in [their] own words."

However, having confessed my enjoyment of these excellent choices, I return to a cranky academic mode. One does not have to be a scholar in such matters to appreciate some distinction between the terms "memoir" and "autobiography." Conway uses them interchangeably, as if to avoid ugly repetitions. Surely such extracts should not attempt extended narrative on a framework of ellipses. Might Conway’s editorial choices and inevitable interference not have provided nuggets of text instead? Small episodes intact, maybe framed by editorial contextualisation? So many transitions are abrupt and therefore shocking because they overlook intervening events that are needed for comprehension. And the notes: I am not clear with these who it is Conway imagines the reader to be. For myself, I did not need to know that a "locum" was a substitute doctor (256) but would dearly like to know what a "bludger" is (64) or what it means to be "on the wallaby" (13, 16). Most of all, I have difficulty with the absence, even in the Introduction, of clear criteria for these choices, or discussion of recurring issues in colonial writing or in women’s lives. Despite one brief observation about the unreliability of memory, Conway presents these texts as if they were transparent windows onto the souls of some remarkable women. Nonetheless, she reminds me that autobiography is indeed a popular set of genres. Because her choices are, in fact, rich and interesting, and because I am a woman, and because reading autobiographies is what I do, and because Conway has introduced me to texts that I did not know and that I shall now read in full, I wrestle with my cranky disposition and recognise that I will not be alone in enjoying this work. Maybe in the end the reviewer is the one exposed?

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MLA: Egan, Susanna. Women Writing Women. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 20 Sept. 2014.

This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #163 (Winter 1999), Asian Canadian Writing. (pg. 206 - 208)

***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.

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