I’m up at the crack of dawn today. I’m usually up early on teaching days, but today I woke up half an hour earlier than usual. I can thank jet lag for this. But, the conference that brought me to Oxford – “War and Life Writing,” organized by the UK organisation, WAR-Net (War and Representation Network), was absolutely worth it. 32 presenters from three different continents and many different countries. Many wars in many centuries. Keynote speakers that asked us to consider refugee life writing, war and film and the poetry of the liminal spaces of a Lebanese refugee camp. And then, a final dinner where we could all talk about it some more. It was a grand day full of thinking and learning; the best kind of day, and I’m sure I’ll be drawing on it for some time to come.
One of the most interesting ideas, for me, at least, had to do with the relationship between voluntary and involuntary life writing; that is, between those narratives that fit Philippe Lejeune’s definition of autobiography as “ a retrospective prose narrative written by a real person concerning his own existence, where the focus is his individual life, in particular the story of his personality,” a definition that imagines an autonomous, reflective writer in full control of the telling of the story of their life, and those narratives that do focus on the individual life, but which are not the product of autonomous self reflection, but rather, of involuntary extraction.
Now I know that this sounds simple. And in a sense, it is. But on the other hand, this clear articulation of a difference between the stories we tell because we want to and the stories we tell because we are asked to – because we are forced to – is conceptually very important. It makes room for scholars to think critically about the life writings that emerge in the most challenging of spaces, and to consider carefully the stories embedded within them. And it asks us to map out new conceptual terrain, a critical landscape that can better address both the limitations and possibilities in these troubled forms of life writing.
The paper’s author, a doctoral student from Warwick named Grace Huxford, was looking at the kinds of narratives produced by British POW’s during the Korean War: from the narratives produced for military psychologists before they enlisted to the journals they were forced to write and rewrite during captivity and the endless recollections that formed the basis of their encounters with military and medical personnel after their return. Every story they told, every story they wrote – each bit can be considered life writing, in the broadest sense of the term. But each telling was circumscribed by the involuntariness of the act, and that changes everything.
Thank you, Grace Huxford, for giving me another few pieces to my life writing puzzles.