Something Other Than Autobiography: Collaborative Life-Narratives in the Americas-An Introduction

By McHugh, Kathleen; Komisaruk, Catherine | Biography, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Something Other Than Autobiography: Collaborative Life-Narratives in the Americas-An Introduction


McHugh, Kathleen, Komisaruk, Catherine, Biography


Writing erases the materiality of colonialism. Paper is colonialism, not the record of it--it is it.

--Catherine Lord (1)

This cluster of essays, titled "Something Other Than Autobiography: Collaborative Life-Narratives in the Americas," takes as its subject collaborative life-narrative--whether it arises from coercive historical circumstances or is freely chosen--as counter to autobiography, as what might define an alternative set of practices in the Americas. In the 1985 essay from which we take the cluster's title, James Olney asserted that the "prescribed, conventional, and imposed form" of slave narratives made of them "something other than autobiography" (168). Produced by a triangular collaboration of "narrator, audience, and [abolitionist] sponsor" rather than by a creative individual actively and freely shaping "the patterned significance" of his life, slave narratives document "the reality of slavery," and invariably recount the narrator's personal life according to the "interdependent and virtually indistinguishable thematic strands ... of literacy, identity, and freedom" (156). Thus these narratives document that literacy--access to the written word and the history of inequality it encodes--is necessary not only to identity and any sense of freedom, but also to knowledge of "the reality of slavery." Literacy's contradictory effects, as Frederick Douglass recognized, are to produce self-understanding and the pain of this knowledge.

Similarly, this cluster of three essays shares an understanding that literacy has enabled not only the exercise of identity and freedom, but also modern conquests and colonialisms in the Americas. Artist and critic Catherine Lord has observed that "paper is colonialism." The technology of writing supplants and overrides the materiality of precolonial American cultures; print and paper disallow evidence, accounts, objects, and voices that fall outside of and cannot be converted to the colonizing regime of the literate. If, as Lord asserts, paper and writing are modes of colonialism, the life-narratives discussed in this cluster attempt to register a materiality that has not been or could not be written, though kept alive by oral and embodied transmission. Thus the lives featured in the essays are of the marginalized, but their narrative forms require collaboration with technologies of literacy.

We use the term "collaborative life-narrative" instead of "autobiography" to signal our emphasis on the circumstances from which these narratives arose. We are concerned especially with how these circumstances challenge conventional rubrics of analysis and clear ascriptions of author, narrator, protagonist, narrative, and genre. (2) While "collaboration" has arisen fairly recently as a critical concern in studies of Native American autobiography, and also, somewhat differently, in Latin American testimonios, (3) we believe that collaborative forms of life-narrative in the Americas have ranged across historical moments, media, and subject positions--from the Mesoamerican dynastic glyphs and the conquerors' cronicas to contemporary installation art and self-narration in experimental film and video. Examples of this form include indigenous codices and annals, slave narratives, Inquisition records and judicial depositions, captivity narratives, religious confessions, commonplace books, "as told to" accounts, testimonios, ethnographies, oral histories, and genealogies. Contemporary writers, artists, and critics working in prose, installation art, cinema, video, and visual and performance art frequently choose collaborative modes of working, often to put forth and simultaneously render ambiguous their representations of subjectivity, cooperation, history, and/or authenticity within the life-narratives they construct.

As these examples indicate, we interpret "collaboration" broadly, in ways that include all the nuances and interpretations of the word as well as aspects of its history as a critical term. …

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