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  • Fictions, Fantasies, and Thought ExperimentsThe Year in Canada
  • Alana Bell (bio)

Some of the most interesting and celebrated lifewriting books this year have defied categorization. Through formal experimentation, metanarrative, the signaling of fictionality in memoir and of veracity in fiction, they prompt audiences to consider the multiple ways a life can be shared. Genre-disrupting texts are, of course, not new in auto/biography, and over the years have been especially common in Canada. In the 1990 Literary History of Canada, Shirley Neuman recognized that "the Canadian life-writing which is most sophisticated and thoughtful about problems of inscribing the self in literature … crosses and re-crosses the border between auto/biography and fiction in order to question static and holistic conceptions of the writing subject" (qtd. in Saul 261). And in 2001, Joanne Saul used George Bowering's notion of the biotext to explore a particular subgenre of Canadian life narratives that "Rather than presenting finished versions of a life … focus on the process of writing a life—the ruptures, gaps, and workings of memory; the fictionalizing that reconstruction requires; the communal nature of the task … the necessity of 'faking it'" (260). Yet while Neuman is looking retrospectively at several years of Canadian life writing and Saul examines biotexts published throughout the 1980s, this year multiple new publications stretch the limits of auto/biographical narrative and intentionally blur generic boundaries. Rather than being produced by small presses willing to take risks with unusual forms—Book*hug has been notable in this area over the past several years—many of these texts are from the catalogues of major publishers, suggesting a willingness by publishers and audiences to forego to some extent what Julie Rak has identified as the "recognition of repetition" and "measure of participation" that predictable generic conventions provide (29).

The multiple texts that disrupt the "typical" chronological, ostensibly factual representation of a life do so in a variety of ways. For example, Shelley Wood's [End Page 22] biographical novel Quintland Sisters tackles the story of Canada's famous Dionne quintuplets through invented characters and real newspaper articles reprinted with permission, but as the acknowledgments indicate, they were "edited marginally to suit my story" (439). Aleksandar Hemon's My Parents, the story of the author's parents' immigration to Canada, is published in one volume along with This Does Not Belong to You, a more fragmented account of memories seemingly still in formation. Since one text starts at each end of the book, which must be flipped upside down and backward to make each story readable, there is no clear order, and as Madeleine Schwartz notes in a New York Times review, "you'll either be going from a concrete account to disarray, or watching the threads of memory come together into a single story." These texts and others deserve attention from lifewriting scholars because of the ways they challenge representations of stable, individual, and verifiable selves.

Here, however, I'm going to focus on three recent publications that most explicitly disrupt recognized auto/biographical forms by blending memoir, biography, and fiction. Helen Humphreys's Machine Without Horses, Harold R. Johnson's Clifford, and Tanya Tagaq's Split Tooth challenge generic boundaries as they purport to tell the story of a self while signaling their fictionality, or in the case of Humphreys, purport to tell a fictional story while signaling veracity. James Phelan's notion of fictionality in life writing, defined as "any rhetorical act in which someone intentionally signals his or her use of a discursive invention to someone else for some purpose" is useful here. Phelan suggests that "A rhetorical approach to fictionality in life writing can productively complicate our understanding of the relation between referential truth and subjective truth by adding a third option, a deployment of invention in order to better convey aspects of one or both kinds of truth" (235). These three texts might also be considered auto/biographical limit-cases, to use Leigh Gilmore's term, as each one focuses at least in part on the experience of trauma, while positing narrative production as an antidote to suffering. All three are widely-reviewed, award-winning, or nominated texts that suggest an...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-1456
Print ISSN
0162-4962
Pages
pp. 22-29
Launched on MUSE
2020-09-11
Open Access
No
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