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  • Writing Against, Alongside and Beyond Memory: Lifewriting as Reflexive, Poststructuralist Feminist Research
  • Christina Houen (bio)
Marilyn Metta . Writing Against, Alongside and Beyond Memory: Lifewriting as Reflexive, Poststructuralist Feminist Research. Bern: Peter Lang, 2010. 312 pp. ISBN 978-3034305140, $78.95.

This is a significant book for several reasons. First, it contributes to the discourse about life writing as a transformative praxis; second, it engages critically and creatively with the literary and scholarly field of Asian Australian writing; and third, it adds to the major feminist poststructuralist project of rewriting subjectivity. Its contribution has been recognized in an international award, the 2011 Outstanding Qualitative Book of the Year Award, presented at the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry in Illinois.

Metta is both academic and practicing psychotherapist, and as a Chinese Australian woman who has lived in Malaysia and Singapore and now lives in Australia, she writes from the viewpoint of ethnic minority women writers, exploring "personal and cultural narratives as narratives of resistance to discourses of racism, sexism and marginalization." She writes a braided narrative, weaving backwards and forwards between her own story and those of her mother and her father. The book opens with memories of violence, cruelty, and neglect: a beating by her mother when she was a small child; screaming matches between her parents; a visit to her father when he was dying in a C class hospital, suffering from a huge bedsore; a scene from her own marriage, her husband battering at the locked bedroom door, her baby asleep in the cot, and her three-year-old daughter standing with her back against the door, [End Page 534] trying to protect her mother. These vignettes yield to the discursive voice in the first chapter, which outlines the methodology. Chapter II takes up and opens out the autobiographical and biographical stories, and the remaining chapters reflect on the research methodologies used, the writing process, and the relationship between narrative therapy and life writing.

The auto/biographical narrative, particularly of her mother's life, is powerful and moving. The mother was born in Malaysia during the Japanese occupation, and when she was ten months old, was given away to a poor family who lived deep in the woods and wanted a future daughter-in-law. She was cruelly treated and had to work hard collecting charcoal in the jungle. She ran away when she was thirteen, and eventually married Metta's father, who turned out to be a gambler and a womanizer. In a chapter that reflects on the writing of the triple braid of autobiographical and biographical stories, Metta describes her ambivalent and contradictory journey, getting to know and narrate her mother's story. It is a healing process, through which she reconnects with her mother and gives her a voice; she relates this process to their common philosophy of Buddhism, which helps them to understand each other's differences and see things differently.

Metta's central metaphor for her position as researcher is the empty teacup, in the story of a Zen master who instructs a professor in how to understand Zen by pouring tea into his cup until it overflows; the moral is that the professor needs to empty his mind of his own opinions and speculations before he can begin to understand Zen. Metta works with an empty teacup that bears the stains of the experiences and lessons of her life journey. The empty teacup is "an ethical position as well as a methodological" one; her multiple subjectivities are represented in the stains, which flavor and color the new ideas that are poured into it. Yet, paradoxically, her Buddhist practice of mindfulness, of non-self and unthinking, brings her back to detachment from thinking, to a position of standing outside the experiences and memories she is writing. There is an inherent tension between the concept of mindfulness, emptiness, non-self, and the metaphor of the empty, but stained teacup. A stained teacup is not truly empty; it is stained by past use, past selves. A Buddhist practice of mindfulness would, in my understanding, lead to an awareness of the stains as being simply that, stains that color one's thinking. Any concepts or...


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pp. 534-536
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