Through the Long Corridor of Distance: Space and Self in Contemporary New Zealand Women's Autobiographies

By Williams, Amanda | Transnational Literature, May 2015 | Go to article overview

Through the Long Corridor of Distance: Space and Self in Contemporary New Zealand Women's Autobiographies


Williams, Amanda, Transnational Literature


Valerie Baisnee, Through the long corridor of distance: Space and Self in Contemporary New Zealand Women's Autobiographies (Rodopi, 2014)

Women's autobiography theorist Valerie Baisnee's new book, Through the long corridor of distance: Space and Self in Contemporary New Zealand Women's Autobiographies, examines, in a new light, concepts of place and space in autobiographies written by New Zealand women writers including Sylvia Ashton-Warner, Janet Frame, Laurie Edmond, Fiona Kidman, Barbara Anderson and Ruth Park. These autobiographies range in publication from the early 1970s to the twenty-first century, which reflects the emergence of a renewed interest in autobiographical theory and the changes in self-awareness for New Zealand women that occurred during this time.

After acknowledging and outlining the historically accepted ways of reading autobiography through the lenses of genre, truth versus fiction and subjectivity, Baisnee explores, more specifically, the role of 'place' and 'space' in the development and representation of identity. Questions surrounding the literal and metaphorical birth of the author take precedence over the post-modern death of the author paradigm (23), where in a post-post-modern world, the life of the author is less about what is real and what is fiction and more about the 'body and its environment'.1

Baisnee refutes the hegemonic identification of earlier theorists regarding the difference between 'place' and 'time' which sees 'time and its connotations of history and progress as masculine, and place with its connotations of nostalgia and inertia as feminine' (xiv), and suggests instead that 'the relationship between space and mobility needs to be reassessed' (xv). Using postcolonial, geographical, and autobiographical feminist theories, Baisnee further delineates the difference she sees between the ideas of 'place' (both public and private) as it pertains to gender and autobiography and its fixed positions, and 'space', which is characterised by movement (xxi) and where 'these marginal, in-between spaces are sites of resistance' (xiii).

Her book is broken up into five chapters that nicely reflect these questions surrounding 'place' and 'space' as they pertain to women's autobiography and New Zealand women's autobiography in particular: 'Thresholds', 'Homes', 'Displaced Bodies/Disembodied Texts', 'Landscapes' and 'Itineraries'. These chapter titles also connote the autobiographical tropes of the journey, of travelling, and of boundaries, both in the physical and metaphysical sense, which is one of the underlying themes of this work.

In the first chapter 'Thresholds', Baisnee applies Gerard Genette's definition of the marginal space of paratext as 'liminal devices and conventions, both within and outside the book that form part of the complex mediation between book, author, publisher and reader' (21) to suggest that it is within the paratext of autobiography where 'the game of multiple identity-positions and the limits of the genre are explored' (2). The idea of the liminal and the marginal, of the inside and the outside, and the spaces between the two, is another important theme that permeates Baisnee's work as it pertains to subjectivity and place. Four of the books she discusses in this chapter appropriate the 'journey' trope into their titles - including Janet Frame's To the Is-Land - as a means of highlighting the subjective relation between time and space for these women autobiographers. Baisnee also analyses epigraphs, forwards and openings to 'decode the transgressions and deterritorialisations [that] take place [which is] what the paratext allows the reader to do' (23).

This idea of thresholds connects to the next chapter, 'Homes', which explores the connotations of home through a feminist and post-colonial reading and how these New Zealand women autobiographers subvert the hegemonic notion of home as a place of specifically female 'nurture, security and stability' (26) by suggesting that 'home can be both lived and imagined' (54), and also that 'home has a different meaning for those who have been colonised' (27). …

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