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  • Autoethnography and Feminist Theory at the Water’s Edge: Unsettled Islands by Sonja Boon, Lesley Butler and Daze Jefferies
  • Astrida Neimanis (bio)
Autoethnography and Feminist Theory at the Water’s Edge: Unsettled Islands
Sonja Boon, Lesley Butler, and Daze Jefferies
Palgrave Pivot, 2018, viii + 146 pp. ISBN 9783319908281, $69.99 hardcover.

Autoethnography and Feminist Theory at the Water’s Edge: Unsettled Islands is made up of twenty short chapters with titles such as “Myths: Fishy,” “Futures: Unfrozen,” “Water: Flooding Memory,” and “Belongings: Stumble.” Bringing together the personal with the geographical, its central themes are common to much life writing: identity and its relation to place, home, and history. [End Page 832]

Yet, as the book’s title and its three-headed authorship suggest, this slim volume is a confluence of many things. First, it is a work of autoethnography that explores questions of subjectivity and identity via everyday embodied experience; it also insists that such narratives of self are deeply tangled, immersed, and floating in their ecological, meteorological, and geophysical contexts. Second, it directly draws on a swath of feminist scholarship, from feminist environmental humanities to écriture feminine, to trans studies and decolonial and Black feminisms, to feminist anthropology and geography. Notably, it traces flows of connection between these various feminist genres and fields, the result of which is an original work of interdisciplinary feminist theory. This coherence is made possible only because this book is, thirdly, a rich work of place-based writing: its geographic specificity establishes a holding pattern for these many currents, always moving but very much in place. Newfoundland—Canada’s most easterly island landmass—is written into being not as a shape on a flat map, but as a phenomenon shaped by bodies, deep histories and cultures, movements, weather, water, labors, and more. The specifics of this particular place are also significant: as noted, Newfoundland is an island. Hence this book is, fourth, also a contribution to the emerging field of archipelagic studies. Islandness is not mere backdrop or context, but a significant driver of form and concept. Fifth, even though authorship is notionally attributed to each chapter, this book is presented as a collaboration between three authors. It is not an edited collection, but rather an experiment in collaborative autoethnography. It is interested in ways that narratives of both self and place are enriched by the insistence that many experiences and bodies all rub up against one another in this ecotone of land and sea, world and word. Finally, the title also flags that the book is unsettled. Although it works in all of the above ways (and likely more), the lapping of the sea slowly erodes any firm foundational claims that might anchor any of its premises. What is place, home, human, life, writing? The sea whispers these questions back to the authors, and to its readers, in between the lines.

Some chapters gather up (and unsettle) this messy multivalence in insightful and evocative ways. “Weather: Fog Trouble” brings body and place into deep conversation. Its strength depends on its specific setting: St John’s, Newfoundland’s capital city where one feels “a habitual closeness to fog” (67). In a mere three pages, the chapter describes an everyday experience of fog that significantly departs from some of its common tropes (erasure, disorientation, loss) to offer it instead as “a sensorial bridge between humans and other environmental bodies” (66). Learning this place’s stories in a context of fogginess offers different epistemological openings. The edges of one’s own body become blurry; intimacy does not come from solid or clear knowledge of another. In a different version of intimacy, “Hauntings: Love” suggests the idea of “fish love,” where an evolutionary and imaginative kinship with fish offers new forms of relation. The author notes the connection of the archipelagic imaginary to fish love, stressing the emplacedness of this theorising: “It took island living to understand fishy being” (25). With impressive economy, the chapter also underscores the unexpected ways in which a variety of feminist work animates these fishy relations, and vice versa. Fish love emerges as a shared [End Page 833] breathing, a proximity, a moving relation to the past.

At the same...