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Auto/biography in Canada

Interview with Julie Rak

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Scholarship on autobiography and biography in the United States, England, Germany, and Australia has exploded along with what Leigh Gilmore calls the memoir boom. As a graduate student writing my thesis on autobiography, I noticed that the most recent book collection on Canadian autobiography in English and French was published in 1996, and it was high time for another one. I ran a special session for the academic organizations ACCUTE and ACQL on autobiography in 2001 and the sessions were packed, so I felt that the time was right to put a collection of critical essays together. I received a lot of submissions from new and established scholars in the field, and so it was easy to decide to go ahead with the collection.

What makes this essay collection different from the ones that went before it?

Some special issues on Canadian autobiography in academic journals have mainly focused on the study of autobiography in literary studies. This collection is truly multi-disciplinary: there are essays about everything from newspaper death notices to the identity of Grey Owl. In my introduction, I try to contextualize this kind of change with a strong focus on the history and development of autobiography criticism internationally and in Canada. And I also point out some gaps in the scholarship (like the lack of studies on biography) that some of the contributors address. I felt that it was really important for other scholars to have that kind of background in auto/biography studies readily available. And, this collection is not about Canadian autobiography. It’s about all kinds of what scholars now call life narrative, by people who live in Canada. Some critics who work in Canada do not necessarily think of themselves as Canadian nationalists, and so this collection seeks to honour the differences between regions and peoples in Canada by saying in Canada and not Canadian.

What is auto/biography anyway? Why don’t you just say “biography” or autobiography, or memoir?

Problems about what autobiography really is, or what we should call it, have been around as long as criticism about genre has been around. Memoir is the oldest term out there, but for a lot of reasons, it came to be too difficult a term for critics to use after the time of the ancient Romans. Originally, autobiography meant self-life-writing — that term came into being about two hundred years ago and it became the dominant way to understand all kinds of writing about ones life. But what this meant in criticism is that biography, the term that describes how someone writes the life of another person, got relatively short shrift. It was thought to be related to biographical criticism which is an older kind of literary criticism that focuses on the life and work of an author. In recent years, critics have started to realize that biography should be looked at in its own right. So now, most critics use the term auto/biography to describe autobiography, biography, and all the kinds of writing that occurs in between these two things. Some critics have tried to coin new words for these genres to show how complex the relationship between them actually is, but most of the time the terms haven’t really stuck. So auto/biography is a way to highlight our awareness of the critical history of these terms while we keep the words that are familiar to the general public. Most people don’t go to find life writing or autothanatography in a bookstore, for instance.

What kind of essays are in the collection?

The main audience for this collection is the academic community, so the chapters are written for specialists. Having said this though, I really like the variety of essays here. We have a great socially aware reading of Laura Salverson’s undeservedly unknown classic Confessions of an Immigrant’s Daughter, an experimental essay from a scholar of social work about the politics of self-publishing life narratives with a collective, an exploration of Grey Owl’s identity presentations, two essays about Quebecoise autobiography, a look at autobiography by a boy with autism who uses bus transfers to tell his stories, a theoretical essay about autism and case studies, death notices in the newspaper as biography, autobiography by Canadians about the Holocaustand much more. We have major scholars like Susanna Egan and Barbara Havercroft contributing, and up and coming scholars too. I think that the collection is very fairly balanced that way.