Academic journal article ARIEL

From Tehran to Tehrangeles: The Generic Fix of Iranian Exilic Memoirs

Academic journal article ARIEL

From Tehran to Tehrangeles: The Generic Fix of Iranian Exilic Memoirs

Article excerpt

Recently Wai Chee Dimock argued for approaches to genres as fields of knowledge that map literary texts in terms of dynamic links and pathways with "many outlets, ripples and cascades" (1378). This argument suggests that genres are not neat bundles with clearly defined borders and taxonomies, policed by national or chronological or formal properties, but kinship networks that are fluid and dynamic. Thinking about genres in this way is vital for memoirs and testimony most particularly, for these ebb and flow with history, and their cultural geography maps the ongoing shifts in volatile networks of consumption, pleasure and agency that carry life narrative. This transnational and porous idea of genre shapes the approach to the recent memoir boom from women writers of the Iranian diaspora that follows. Quantitatively speaking, this surge of Iranian exilic memoir is readily apparent with the publication of over a dozen memoirs in the past decade, but how these might be bundled and read together genetically as autobiographical effects remains an open question. This article uses Dimock's idea of kinship networks to suggest some generic links and pathways, some routes for thinking across the texts, traditions and cultures of recent Iranian memoirs in English.

Memoirs raise critical issues about the production, circulation, and consumption of life narrative. Memoir is an account of historical events written from personal knowledge. Helen Buss grasps its dynamics succinctly: memoirs personalise history and historicise the personal. They are about individuals, and they are also about an event, an era, an institution, or an identity. It is no accident that Buss proceeds to speculate about genre more widely to grasp "memoir" (1) and her attention to the sharply historicised subjectivities produced by memoir suggests why it responds well to Dimock's idea of genres as loose bundles that jostle and move in "ripples and cascades": the precarious lives that are brought into view through memoirs are subject to change, and the shifting subjectivities of memoirs is an index of historical, cultural, political, social changes across global networks. This suggests a series of questions about this surge of Iranian women's memoir: which writers and readers are empowered by this memory work? To whom and under what circum-. stances and to what ends? How are certain realities constructed, maintained and called into question here? John Frow's reminder that, for all that reality seems to be singular and external to the forms through which we apprehend it, genres are "fixes" on the world that have formative power as representational frames is particularly important in approaching memoirs: "genres create effects of reality and truth that are central to the ways the world is understood" (1632). This idea of the fix and frames of genre is useful for Iranian memoirs: these open up a space for a gendered discourse about Iran and the Islamic republic, so what do they say about women, gender, and sexuality? How do they relate to the ideoscapes of feminism as they empower women as writers, readers, and subjects? What gendered subjectivities are historicised now through these memories of a traumatic event as it has played out on and through the bodies of women?

A transnational approach to contemporary women's life writing suggests some more expansive possibilities in thinking about generic precursors for this upsurge of Iranian women's memoirs. Kay Schaffer and Sidonie Smith extend the concept of "scar literature" to consider the boom of Chinese memoirs that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s. (2) Like Iranian women's memoirs in the new millennium, autobiographical narratives of the Cultural Revolution in China engage subjectively with a process of historical revision and a time of trauma and loss and cataclysmic social change. These memoirs take a series of different forms, and Cultural Revolution literature, or scar literature, circulates in different networks within China and overseas. …

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