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Reviewed by:
  • Negotiated Memory: Doukhobor Autobiographical Discourse
  • Vicki S. Hallett (bio)
Julie Rak. Negotiated Memory: Doukhobor Autobiographical DiscourseUniversity of British Columbia Press. xvi, 166. $85.00, $29.95

Who are the Doukhobors? How have they been known to themselves and to Canadian society? In what ways have their autobiographical narratives been constitutive of and constituted by a unique cultural history of diaspora and marginalization in both Russia and Canada? In answering these questions, Julie Rak takes us not only on a historical journey through Doukhobor collective memory, but also into the complicated terrain of autobiography theory.

The journey begins with an introduction to the particulars of the Doukhobors' century-old history in Canada. What follows is an elucidation of pertinent aspects of their culture, such as their strong identification with oral narrative and Christianity, resistance to all forms of state authority, and commitment to passivism and communal living. According to Rak, it is these aspects of Doukhoborism that have made them 'bad subjects' of the Canadian nation, in an Althusserian sense, and that make their uses of autobiography so unconventional and fascinating.

Rak continually circles back to these key aspects of Doukhoborism to make the case that theirs is a unique epistemology, one which lends itself to 'collective identifications that can ... signify a site of identity formation alive to its context and to the conditions of its production.' Hence, the autobiographical endeavours of the Doukhobors, found in recorded oral narratives, interviews, and prison writings, in many ways fall outside traditional (Western) definitions of the genre. Thus, they challenge the boundaries of what autobiography can be and do.

I think Rak's recognition of these challenges is part of what makes the text an important contribution to autobiography theory. This is especially true in the Canadian context, where, as the author mentions, 'studies of alternative autobiographical forms and subjects are still rare.' I particularly enjoyed Rak's discussions of subjectivity, identity, and autobiography. The points she most effectively makes are that these elements are all complexly intertwined with community memory in Doukhobor life writing/orating, and that the results can serve as effective resistance to cultural erasure and political marginalization.

Also well executed is her argument that Doukhobor autobiography constitutes a difficult set of negotiations both within and beyond their [End Page 200] cultural communities. According to Rak, Doukhobors have used autobiographies as a means to have intergenerational and international dialogues about what their identities signify for themselves. In addition, they have used them as 'strategies of visibility' in a Canadian public context that has often sought to keep Doukhobors invisible and silent.

Slightly less effective is the case she makes for Doukhobor autobiography as performative. While I appreciated her use of Sidonie Smith's and Judith Butler's complex theories, I would disagree with the binary she imposes upon certain Doukhobor (Freedomite) writings as 'exterior and public' versus Smith's and Butler's versions of perfomativity as 'interior and private.' Butler, in particular, invokes the very public citation of societal norms as an essential component of its largely involuntary execution.

Also, I would have appreciated a more in-depth discussion of Rak's motivations for taking on this project and its political implications for her as a non-Doukhobor. While she does mention the work of other scholars who have written on issues of appropriation and representation, this does not suffice as an explicitly feminist analysis. In addition there were certain places where I felt the use of explanatory footnotes would have been helpful. Rak makes culturally specific references to things such as the 'Small Party' and 'Brilliant' without giving us enough relevant information.

Despite my criticisms, I think that this will be a useful and informative text for students of Canadian studies, as well as those interested in critical autobiography and identity theory. As a person fascinated by the workings of memory and storytelling in relation to identity and subjectivity, I was particularly pleased by the way these themes were evoked throughout the text. Rak does a very good job of navigating the complex topography of Doukhobor autobiographical discourse within the Canadian historical landscape. Ultimately, this is an excursion worth taking. [End Page 201]

Vicki S. Hallett



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