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On the cover of Susan Rubin Suleiman’s latest book is a painting by the contemporary Hungarian artist László Fehér: above the viewer, gazing outward from the balcony of an urban building, stands a woman. At [End Page 391] once protected and confined within the cage of industrial metal railings, she is perilously poised on the edge of an empty, tilting space. Suleiman calls the image “so perfect for this book that it could almost have been painted for it” (viii), and with good reason. For both painting and text distill versions of contemporaneity, here specifically gendered female. Like Fehér’s painting, the essays Suleiman has assembled focus as much on the perceiving self as on the cultural productions her gaze encompasses. And like the contemporary condition she addresses, her book is, in many ways, an edgy enterprise—risky and high climbing, speculative, unsettled and unsettling.
Risking Who One Is offers a retrospective of Suleiman’s shifting reflections over the past two decades. Its twelve core essays have all appeared elsewhere. In revising and framing them with an introduction, an epilogue, and brief headnotes, Suleiman constructs a dialogue between her present, past, and emerging selves. Aligning herself with Nancy Miller and other critics who have contributed to the current efflorescence of so-called “personal criticism,” she suggests that these essays, taken together, constitute a “form of mediated autobiography, where the exploration of the writer’s self . . . takes place not directly but through . . . writing about another.” Beginning with meditations on her own motherhood as a site from which to theorize issues of women and writing, and ending with recollections of her childhood in the Hungary of World War II as a site for theorizing the relation of the politics of atrocity to the politics of postmodernism, the book moves backward in time even while describing a kind of circle: the embrace—sometimes deadly, sometimes regenerative—of the family.
In the essays bracketed by these end pieces, Suleiman sets up encounters with various texts and works of art that have in common their status as “contemporary” productions—as she defines the term, those created by “people whose life has in some way intersected with” hers, “even if they are much older or younger.” Thus Simone de Beauvoir, Leonora Carrington, and Angela Carter rub shoulders with Mary Gordon, Christine Brooke-Rose, and Hélène Cixous; and the iconographies of Carrington, Max Ernst, and Frida Kahlo are juxtaposed with those of David Avalos, Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, Ana Mendieta, and Eugenia Vargas, artists “who have not had much exposure or commentary in the United States” (141). Suleiman’s comment on Cixous’s “Coming to Writing” and Other Essays applies as well to her own collection, which treats “not a single subject but a whole web of intertwined [End Page 392] concerns and reflections”: the “relations between writing, exile, foreignness, loss and death; . . . the relations between writing, giving, nourishment, love, and life; and . . . the relations between all of the above and being a woman.”
Inevitably, perhaps, the collection is uneven. Some essays, such as the first piece on Simone de Beauvoir, appear hastily composed—provocative but incompletely realized. Others, such as the essay on Brooke-Rose, in their brevity or curiously truncated conclusions recall their origins as papers designed for oral presentation. More troubling—and surely less inevitable—is the Eurocentrism inherent in Suleiman’s formulations of “the contemporary.” With the token exception of the piece on Latino/a artists in Chapter 8 (“Alternatives to Beauty”) and a brief exchange with Raquel Portillo Bauman, whose critique of Suleiman’s ethnocentrism in “Maternal Splitting” elicited a cogent response from the author in the pages of Signs in 1989, all the essays reprinted here deal almost entirely with Euro-American subjects, however “mixed.” Obviously, the author’s focus reflects her own status as “a European-born American woman professor of literature,” but that cultural history leads to a kind of insularity most evident in what it renders invisible, not only in subject...