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  • Michelle Stephens (bio)

In a recent essay on "the art of personal narrative," Vivian Gornick offered the following as a definition of the exemplary memoir: "A memoir is a work of sustained narrative prose controlled by an idea of the self. . . . That idea of the self—the one that controls the memoir—is almost always served through a single piece of awareness that clarifies only slowly in the writer, gaining strength and definition as the narrative progresses."1

"A controlling idea of the self, produced from a single piece of awareness"—this phrase precisely captures the quality of the "exemplary" that I find in Ilan Stavans's and Leila Ahmed's memoirs. If I had to rearticulate that phrase in the terms of their narratives, I would say that both Ahmed and Stavans share an idea of the self as a "palimpsest," as a "text to be read," and that the singular awareness that shapes their sense of the self is a keen perception of the impact of geography on personal history.

Now I want to define a bit what I mean by a geographical understanding of personal history. Elsewhere I have argued that our contemporary academic interest in migration and globalization is also resulting in a new mapping of our globe, a remapping that is affecting crucial paradigm shifts in a number of traditionally unrelated fields and disciplines. It is apt that this conference, "Beyond the Boundaries of the Old Geographies," is part of a Five-College event, for it was the drafters of a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant proposal for a related Five-College initiative, the Crossroads in the Study of the Americas curricular project, who best articulated for me the nature of that shift in our contemporary frameworks and perspectives.2

Pointing to the effects of "traditional disciplinary boundaries and established area-studies configurations" in deepening our understanding of "particular ethnicities and racialized identities within the United States and globally," the framers of the proposal also expressed "an urgent need to [go beyond] bipolar approaches that oppose 'north' and 'south,' center and periphery."3 They called instead for more triangular understandings of the relationships between Old World and New World, an Old World understood to include Asia, Africa, and Europe.

I believe there are two key implications of applying such an approach to traditional disciplines such as English and, more broadly, the study of literature. First, such an approach privileges the moment and history of colonialism. A second implication, however, found in the [End Page 87] "rejection" of core-periphery frameworks, is a turn away from the conceptual lens of Time and a focus instead on Place. In the words of Walter Mignolo, such a turn creates the conditions to "think spatially rather than chronologically."4

Following Mignolo, then, this second major implication of the paradigm shift I am identifying is a self-conscious conceptual relocation of the peoples and cultures of East and West, North and South, in coeval and contemporaneous geographical places in space and time. In his book Culture and Imperialism, in an opening chapter titled "Overlapping Territories, Intertwined Histories," Edward Said describes his own similar project as "a kind of geographical inquiry into historical experience . . . [as] none of us is outside or beyond geography."5

Another angle from which to understand the phrase "geographical inquiry into historical experience" is as a study of the politics of location. Again, as some may remember, the phrase a "politics of location" was first introduced by feminists as a way of describing not so much place as the body—the embodied modern subject as a crucial category of, and standpoint for, analysis. The politics of "marginality" became one key angle of inquiry—those experiences of raced, classed, and gendered bodies, marginalized by the master narratives inherited from Western discourse.

I would argue that the contemporary focus on borders and borderlands, exemplified in Ahmed's and Stavans's conceptions of the self, move us beyond the boundaries of an older, postmodern geography of margins and centers. It moves the "politics of location" toward a more coeval focus, on relationships of "betweenness," between identity and place. In the doubled consciousnesses of transnational immigrants such...


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