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Biography 24.1 (2001) 259-272

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Displacement and Self-Representation: Theorizing Contemporary Canadian Biotexts

Joanne Saul

This essay focuses on a group of Canadian writers who pose their questions about cultural difference and national belonging while writing about their own lives and their own personal experiences of displacements. 1 Michael Ondaatje's Running in the Family, Daphne Marlatt's Ghost Works, Roy Kiyooka's Mothertalk, and Fred Wah's Diamond Grill employ a range of innovative textual strategies to work through questions of cultural identity, rather than merely seeking to reflect or represent them. These four "biotexts" are linked not only by their shared focus on questions of belonging and self-representation, but also by the challenge they pose to generic classification. Although their writers deal explicitly with the representation of a displaced subjectivity, it is their self-consciousness when parlaying this material into textual form that initially sets them apart as a group. What if anything, however, does this generic disruption have to do with their shared emphasis on displacement and self-representation?

Answering this question is difficult, because any attempt to group these four texts together seems to contradict their very resistance to categorization. The connections between and among the separate texts must not be oversimplified, nor should we prescriptively establish links between generic disruption and the representation of a minority subjectivity. It is useful therefore to look at each of these biotexts as responding to its specific historical moment and to a specific conceptualization of the self. Together, however, they can be read as challenges to the theory of the enlightenment subject because they are constructing subjectivities that are multiple, performative, and in flux, while still acknowledging the political importance of the subject's [End Page 259] claim for legitimacy. Each text thus engages sociological and postmodern theories of the subject by drawing out the tension between historical determinacy and postmodern flux. The tension generated by the impulse to write one's self into place, while at the same time recognizing that the complex nodes of belonging--and not belonging--are inextricably linked to ethnic, national, cultural, and gendered subjectivity, gets played out in the formal innovations in each of these biotexts.

Canadian writer and critic George Bowering coined the term "biotext" as a way of privileging literary form as the very place where the writer of a specific poem or fiction finds him or her self. While "Autobiography replaces the writer," Bowering claims that "Biotext is an extension of him"--a distinction that emphasizes the ongoing sense of discovery linked to the idea of the subject as performative and in process (24). "Biotext" captures the tension at work between the thematic content and the linguistic and formal aspects of the texts, between the fragments of a life being lived, the "bio" (with its emphasis on the self, the family, origins, and genealogy), and the "text," the site where these various aspects are in the process of being articulated in writing. Rather than admitting a gap between self and text, "biotext" foregrounds the writer's efforts to articulate him or her self through the writing process. The text itself comes to life. 2

This focus on process and performance is linked to the ways these biotexts disrupt settled generic categories. All four works are forms of life writing, mixing travel writing, autobiography, biography, journal entries, letters, social history, and self-portraiture. In Running in the Family, Michael Ondaatje returns to Sri Lanka, his place of birth, in part to reinvent his father and to reconstruct their relationship. In Ghost Works, a collection of three autobiographical travel narratives first published separately as Zócalo, "Month of Hungry Ghosts," and How Hug a Stone, Daphne Marlatt travels to Mexico, returns to her birthplace of Penang, and visits England, the birthplace of her mother. In Mothertalk, the life stories of Mary Kiyooka, a first-generation Japanese-Canadian woman, are told to, interpreted, and organized by her son Roy Kiyooka, then reorganized and edited after his death by Daphne Marlatt. And in Diamond Grill, Fred Wah sets fragments of his childhood on the Canadian...


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