- Writing the Roaming Subject: The Biotext in Canadian Literature
Joanne Saul offers a cogent examination of four contemporary Canadian authors—Michael Ondaatje, Daphne Marlatt, Roy Kiyooka, and Fred Wah —who all work repeatedly and innovatively with various auto/biography genres. Canada has a long, diverse, and rich history of life writing, yet scholarly attention to Canadian materials remains rather thin on the ground. Thus, almost any contribution to Canadian auto/biography studies is welcome. Certainly a few important collections of essays have been published in the past couple of decades (see Egan and Helms, Neuman, Rak), but more rare are book-length monographs that focus solely on Canadian works (see Buss). In a monograph, the critic has the opportunity to locate particular authors and works in broader theoretical, national, and cultural contexts, and in that sense Saul's Writing the Roaming Subject is highly comprehensive. Her range of subject is both wide (in that she considers life-writing texts authored by women and men of diverse ethnicities) and narrow (in that the temporal focus is on autobiographical texts published in the 1980s and 1990s). In her study, Saul blends skillful close reading of the primary works (including archival materials such as letters) with precise commentary that contextualizes and theorizes each author's text. Saul's main interest is in how each author manipulates various genres, ranging from the long poem to travel memoir to oral life narrative, in constructing his or her "self" in writing. Generic experimentation is at the heart of each author's oeuvre, and it is one reason Saul finds these particular authors so intriguing.
Eschewing the term "autobiography" and also the somewhat looser "life writing," Saul uses "biotext" to describe specific texts by her four authors. It is not her term; rather, it was coined by Canadian poet George Bowering and picked up again by Fred Wah, as Saul acknowledges. Saul finds "biotext" useful for her project because it "captures the tension between the 'what' and the 'how' of the texts, between the 'bio' (with an emphasis on the 'life': including the family, relationships, and genealogy) and the 'text' (the site where these fragments are articulated in writing)" (4). Accordingly, in each chapter, Saul brings careful attention to matters of form, textuality, and language. Consistent with much of the best scholarship in auto/biography studies, the focus here is as much on writing strategies as it is on the particular life stories told.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Saul theorizes the "self" in these "biotexts" as a performative self—multiply constituted, mobile, forever in flux. I say not surprisingly because this kind of autobiographical human subject has appeared in auto/biography scholarship before. But Saul takes that concept of a mobile subject literally, and examines how each author negotiates his or her relationship [End Page 400] to Canada and at least one other place in the world. Saul's autobiographical subjects are "roaming" subjects who find themselves—originally, ancestrally, occasionally, temporarily, sometimes opportunistically—in multiple locations. Ondaatje was born in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) and his "biotext," Running in the Family, is initiated by his desire to rediscover the childhood place and the family (especially his father) that at age eleven he left behind. Marlatt's book, Ghost Works, is also a text of journeys, three in her case (a visit to her mother's native England, a return to her own colonial Malaysian childhood home, a trip to Mexico as a tourist), each of which permits Marlatt to work through her memories and experiences of places both familiar and foreign, as well as her position with regard to social class and gender. Roy Kiyooka's Mothertalk is a generically fluid text that is based on life stories told to him by his mother, an Issei or first-generation emigrant from Japan to Canada. Fred Wah's Diamond Grill deals with Wah's mixed Chinese/Scots/Swedish ancestry and his experiences growing up as the son of a man who owned a Chinese-Canadian café in small...