- Transculturing Auto/Biography: Forms of Life Writing
Rosalia Baena's collection of essays on life writing draws attention to the crucial significance of form in life writing, and in particular, the engagement with and revision of generic traditions and paradigms that come with their own literary and ideological expectations. These expectations are considered [End Page 282] most vital when evaluating and interpreting transcultural identities, so many of the essays focus on multicultural texts and ethnic and immigrant self-representations that aim to demonstrate the various strengths of a diversity of life writing forms. Following on Janice Kulyk Keefer's 1993 definition, Baena explains that this key term, "transcultural," is preferable to the term "multicultural" because it allows for a more dynamic engagement of ethnicity and social formation that stimulates narratives that can exist in cultural and linguistic contact zones, or "in between" them. As a starting point, this is a very good one.
Baena's short introductory essay takes the same title as the book: "Transculturing Auto/biography: Forms of Life Writing." In it, Baena claims that her collection is a response to Susanna Egan's provocative 1999 "critical challenge"; namely, "How do autobiographers co-opt and adapt the genres that express this fraught moment of in-between?" For Baena and her authors, the "in-between" is various and unfixed. It reaches from life writing forms in film (Dorothea Fischer-Hornung's essay on Maya Deren's early films) to "paradigms of Canadian literary biography" (Ana Beatriz Delgado's essay applies Northrop Frye's idea of myth to Charlotte Gray's Sisters in the Wilderness) and travel writing; and from the politics of food in Italian American women's life writing (Alison D. Goeller's essay links reproduction, narration, and recipe in a series of texts) to representations of the autobiographical in Marjane Satrapi's popular graphic text, Persepolis—an essay by Rocio G. Davis. Eight essays in all traverse a variety of life writing genres and a host of separate and/ or intersecting communities and cultures, opening up a fruitful transcultural zone in various forms of modern life writing.
Although some of the essays focus on one author, artist, or autobiographer, the strongest essays propose theories and methods that help us read life writing forms broadly, and are comparative or interdisciplinary in methodology. William Boelhower's essay, for example, generalizes meaning about a particular life writing form—immigrant autobiography. It theorizes different immigrants and ethnic stances across the backdrop of the "immigrant autobiographical wager" as the starting point for ethnic semiosis, and, in its way, provides a lens for critique in this field, a field in which literary heroes participate in what Boelhower calls "the gift economy." Gita Rajan's essay is comparative and interdisciplinary as it studies the self-portraiture of three South Asian artists—Siona Benjamin, Annu Palakunnathu Matthew, and Ambreen Butt—within Jeanne Perreault's 1995 feminist framework of autography. To Perreault, Rajan adds Kristeva and others, focusing on race politics and civil liberties within an Asian American tradition, but here the canvas is seen as a metaphor for forms of life writing. [End Page 283]
Not all of the contributions are this provocative, but all do illuminate one aspect of the burden or the joy of a transcultural identity inscribed in a life writing text—a "real" one or a metaphoric one. Accomplished Canadianist Danielle Schaub, for example, takes Fredelle Bruser Maynard's work to a another autobiographical level by reading Maynard's two short story cycles in dynamic unison, quoting generously from Helen Buss's pioneering feminist study, Mapping Our Selves (1993).
What becomes abundantly clear is the remarkable contribution feminist theorists have made to the field of transcultural and multicultural (Baena's less favored word) life writing studies, and the huge range of topics and genres that can be invoked under the single cover of life writing studies. No longer in its formative years, Life Writing studies, it seems, is in its adolescence and is soon to break out into its adulthood. Originally a...