Writing the Self: Biography, Autobiography, and the Work of Fiction
Panel XI-19, 2023 Annual Meeting
On Sunday, November 5 at 8:30 am
What is the place of the self in writing the story of the other? How does the self appear and disappear in one’s own story? What is the relation between fiction and reality, and between the “real” self and the self as a character that is weaved into plots and narratives that mimic real life to find exits and pathways for survival? What technologies of escape and attenuation are deployed when the proximity to pain and disaster threaten narrative coherence and authorial positions? This panel addresses these questions by examining prison memoirs, war memoirs, biographies, and autobiographies. Engaging with authorship and genre in storytelling, it showcases the writing practices and literary strategies that are deployed to confront experiences of incarceration, violence, displacement, and breakdown. The panel exposes the interconnections between the personal, the political, and the historical that put in question the way we delineate genres and organize knowledge, and the way we read and teach these works today.
How do we write war when it has no end and no beginning? What processes of memory and remembrance can be deployed when there is no outside to war, and no temporality beyond it? This paper engages war as an ongoing event, either because of its recurrence in many parts of the Middle East, or because it has become integrated as a mode of being and a way of life. Focusing on the Lebanese civil war particularly and examining the genre of the war memoir, I argue that war is omnipresent to the point of invisibility, which renders the work of memory and theories of trauma ineffective as conceptual frameworks. The talk explores new theoretical tools that fully recognize the inability to access or reconstitute war as a past event and that could be written, represented, and processed.
This paper examines the ethics and challenges of writing a prison memoir. As an Egyptian writer who was imprisoned in 2016 for publishing my novel Using Life, I later wrote a book about my experience in jail titled Rotten Evidence: Reading and Writing in Prison (McSweeney's, 2023). Drawing on this experience, this paper explores the complexities of writing about incarceration and the ethical considerations that arise when sharing personal stories of imprisonment. In particular, this paper examines the challenges of writing within the constraints of human rights narratives that often require ex-prisoners to write in a testimonial format that can be limiting. This paper considers how writers navigate these challenges and maintain the integrity of their work while also contributing to the broader discourse on prison reform.
What is the process of identifying, recognizing, and reading archives while creating life writing in the form of a biography? How can we widen the concept of archive in writing a biography to include practices not generally recognized as “archival” per se, such as engagement with psychiatric medicine, cemeteries, martial law, and the negotiation of geography? In this talk, I explore these questions by drawing on Saidiya Hartman’s image of the archive as “mortuary” while reflecting on my journey in writing Enayat al-Zayyat's biography, Traces of Enayat (And Other Stories, 2023). I argue that writing a biography involves carrying an anonymous corpse on your shoulders while attempting to provide this corpse with a name and lend meaning to its past life. The corpse is the biographer’s question; it’s urgent, mysterious, distorted, and even inconsistent. It is a question which emerges from the present—the here and now—yet lacks the language required to speak its language. Finally, I reflect on writing a biography as a configuration or reiteration that preserves meaning by pursuing a “trail” or what Derrida calls a “trace” rather than a point of origin or a fact