- Picturing Identity: Contemporary American Autobiography in Image and Text by Hertha D. Sweet Wong
Hertha D. Sweet Wong
North Carolina UP, 2018, xii + 265 pages. ISBN 9781469640709, $32.95 paperback
In her first book, Sending My Heart Back Across the Years: Tradition and Innovation in Native American Autobiography, which was published in 1992, Hertha D. Sweet Wong asked, "Can autobiography be oral or artistic rather than written?" (5). At that time, she focused on nonliterate modes of self-narration and non-Western ideas of self, pointing out that "long before Anglo ethnographers arrived in North America, indigenous peoples were telling, creating, and enacting their personal narratives through stories, pictographs, and performances" (3). Twenty-six years later, in 2018, Wong published Picturing Identity: Contemporary American Autobiography in Image and Text. In this work, the author recognizes that her interest in visual autobiography came out of her first book, in which she "challenged the western European limits of autobiography studies by considering non-Western [End Page 511] concepts of self and indigenous forms of unwritten personal narrative" (4). As a Professor of English and Associate Dean of Arts and Humanities at the University of California, Berkeley, Wong has been writing and teaching about autobiography, visual studies, Native American literature, and ethnic American literature, offering critical and expanded views on writing in self-narration. During these years, she has transformed her prior interest in visual autobiography into an essential interdisciplinary object of study, which becomes evident in Picturing Identity through a fresh approach to self-narrative that she articulates by navigating the fields of postcolonial studies, visual culture, literature, and visual arts.
In her new book, reflections on image-and-text relations in autobiography are informed by W. J. T. Mitchell, and Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson. Wong also employs the concept of "intermedia," which was coined in the middle of the 1960s by Dick Higgins, co-founder of Fluxus, when many artists were dealing with the happening form, the dematerialization of the art object, and starting to experiment further with new media. In the same period, feminists claimed their right to the public space, and performance became a way to expose daily oppression within a patriarchal society. Then, from the 1980s onwards, photography became a crucial tool for artists like Cindy Sherman, Nikki S. Lee, and Jo Spence, all remarkable practitioners mentioned by Wong in the book when she seeks to stretch the possibilities of understanding image-and-text relations in the context of autobiography studies and visual studies.
Picturing Identity is divided into three sections. Part one is devoted to literature-based image-and-text forms such as Peter Najarian's illustrated memoirs, Leslie Marmon Silko's photo-narratives, and Art Spiegelman's graphic novel Maus. Wong notes that images can work as visual-verbal devices in these works, whereas words can function as images or sounds. Next, in the second part, called hinge image-and-text forms, the author analyzes Julie Chen's artists' books and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's mixed-media autobiography Dictée. These are artworks that cannot be easily accommodated as literature-based or art-based forms. Instead, they oscillate between categories and make us question how we should classify and read self-narratives that require not only seeing or reading but also interacting and moving around installations or site-specific pieces. Lastly, in the third part, Wong reflects on art-based image-and-text forms by looking at Carrie Mae Weem's photo-auto/biographies, Faith Ringgold's story quilts, and Hachivi Edgar Heap of Bird's visual-writing works—all artists who create image-and-text sites for self-narration through contestation and resistance.
These eight artists-writers "engage actively in individual creative processes of self-construction and narration" (6), articulating senses of self by experimenting with multimedia forms. Although Wong leaves digital narratives out of this book, she explains why in the Introduction and the Coda, in which she seeks to demonstrate her awareness regarding the relevance of this subject matter for contemporary autobiography studies. However, the author highlights her particular interest in the generation of...