- Literary Impostors: Canadian Autofiction of the Early Twentieth Century by Rosmarin Heidenreich
McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2018, 352 pp. ISBN 9780773554542, $37. 95 paperback.
The authors profiled in Literary Impostors are life writers in the traditional sense, in that they use their writing to tell their stories and define their identities. However, the identities these writers craft through their writing often bear little resemblance to the ones they were born with: these authors construct new personae and then perform those constructions throughout their lives. In Literary Impostors, Rosmarin Heidenreich profiles several early twentieth-century Canadian writers, and chronicles how their fictional and nonfictional writing served to frame the fabrications they lived. For example, British-born Archie Belaney moved to Canada, and over many years, transformed himself into the role of a famous Ojibwa conservationist known as Grey Owl. Through his writing, Belaney honed his Grey Owl persona by appropriating a Native identity, eventually becoming internationally famous. During a highly successful speaking tour of England (where his disguise was so convincing that no one recognized him, even in his home town), the Sunday Express noted that “there never came a Redder Red Indian to Britain” (105). Belaney so fully adopted his Grey Owl persona that his original identity was not widely known until after his death. In a similar manner, each of the six authors profiled in Literary Impostors was able to forge a new identity—usually transracial, often transnational— and use their writing to craft those personae and publicize them to a wider audience. Using these various transformations as an analytical throughline, Heidenreich goes on to discuss the more general implications of this kind of appropriation for twentieth-century Canadian literature and North American culture. The authors she profiles include Belaney, Frederick Philip Grove, Will James, Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance, Onoto Watanna, and Sui Sin Far. [End Page 852]
Because works by authors such as Will James or Onoto Watanna are largely fiction in the guise of autobiography, Heidenreich does not use the term “auto/ biography” to describe them. Rather, she adroitly employs the term “autofiction.” Coined by French writer Serge Doubrovsky in 1977, the term “autofiction” refers to works that intricately entwine elements of fiction and autobiography to define an authorial “self,” so that it becomes difficult if not impossible to discern the factual from the fictional. So, although autofiction exhibits some aspects of autobiography, this form of writing also breaks Philippe Lejeune’s “autobiographical pact” by including fictionalized elements as well. Since its inception, the term autofiction has been repeatedly defined and refined, but it undoubtedly serves as an apt descriptor of the kinds of writing profiled in Literary Impostors. Heidenreich defines autofiction this way: “the fictionalization of the self, in which the writers (re)invent their own lives by assuming new identities” (15). By this definition, the extratextual lives of the writers are as or more important to Heidenreich’s analyses as the auto-fictional texts themselves: the texts they write are autofictional because they are fictions that their authors work into their lived lives.
In order to make sense of these figures’ complex personae, Literary Impostors deftly interweaves literary analyses of these six authors’ works with extensively researched biographical sketches of their lives, thereby providing insight into how these figures evolved into their alter egos and how their writing facilitated that evolution. Heidenreich painstakingly chronicles how their published work helps these writers develop and disseminate their fictional personae, while—for some of the writers at least—their work also provides clues into their hidden pasts. According to Heidenreich’s definition, what makes these writers’ works autofictional is that they both provide accurate biographical information about the writer and fictionalize elements of that writer’s life. Furthermore, these writers use their writing to craft artificial personae that they then adopt in their actual lives: “the deliberately created fictitious selves come to determine the sociobiographical existence of their creators” (10). Heidenreich employs Elaine K. Ginsberg’s definition of “passing” to argue that “these writers, in essence, re-invented themselves to ‘become’ who and what they felt they really were” (4...