Biography 24.1 (2001) xxi-xxiii
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Autobiography and Changing Identities
Welcome to the Conference: July 27, 2000
Dr. Martha C. Piper
President The University Of British Columbia
I am so pleased to be able to be with you this morning to welcome you officially to Vancouver, to Canada, and to the University of British Columbia. We are delighted that you have chosen UBC as the site of your conference, Autobiography and Changing Identities, and are honored that so many preeminent international scholars, from so many countries around the world, have joined us for this meeting. We are also particularly pleased that so many of our own scholars from UBC are participating in this international event--as well as numerous students. I also want to express my sincere appreciation to those individuals from UBC who are chiefly responsible for staging this conference. They include former UBC Professor of English and Dean of Arts, and now Dean of Literature, Science, and the Arts at the University of Michigan, Shirley Neuman; a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of English, Gabriele Helms, and Associate Head and Graduate Chair of the Department of English, Susanna Egan.
Recently I read Jill Ker Conway's book, When Memory Speaks: Reflections on Autobiography. Having devoured her first two autobiographies, The Road from Coorain and True North, I was intrigued with her treatment of autobiography, the forms and styles it assumes and the strikingly different ways in which men and women respectively tend to understand and present their lives. Early in the text, she asks the following questions, "What sort of story can anyone tell about her or his life when its end is as yet unknown?" And, [End Page xxi] "Can anyone be both subject and object of the same sentences--the speaker and the subject spoken about?"
These two questions, I believe, capture in many ways the focus of this conference; that is, a focus on autobiographies that involve a significant displacement or reconstruction of "self" and identity on the part of both the speaker and the subject spoken of. What Conway suggests, and what this conference honors, is that how we remember the past has a profound impact on how we envision the future. Indeed, how we construct a life history through personal narratives not only provides renditions of history but also shapes and changes our future personal identities and cultural worlds.
The study of issues such as gender, race, class, sexual preference, genetic makeup, environmental landscapes, and personal trauma helps us to understand the notion that identities are not fixed, but are changing. When I consider this notion, I am struck by the examples of such changing identities in autobiographies that I have read.
May Sarton, in one of the earliest memoirs reporting a lesbian life in post-Freudian America, Plant Dreaming Deep, describes her changing identity in terms of the story of her house--its restoration, its pattern of life, her developing relationship to the village in which the house stands, and her changing sensibility while living alone in it. Another example is provided by The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA, in which James Watson describes the two year period in the early 1950s when he and Francis Crick discovered the structure of the DNA molecule. He identifies the role that personalities, cultural traditions, friendship, erotic drives, food, drink, and travel played in the creation of his inner monologue, and their impact on his discussions with colleagues about the puzzle of DNA. He depicts himself in constant motion--a youthful Midwesterner, fleeing the social and intellectual dullness of Middle America, changing dramatically as a result of large, impersonal causal forces on the one hand, and a multitude of personal relationships on the other. From time to time, through serendipity, his intellect seizes the moment--acting on others instead of being acted upon, not only transforming scientific thought but also being transformed personally in the process.
And, of course, there is Katharine Graham's Pulitzer Prize winning autobiography Personal History, in which she describes her...