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The Archives of Those Who Write Themselves: What and Where Are the Issues?

The CEU Campus
Tuesday, November 21, 2017, 5:30 pm

Autobiographical archives are never “transparent,” unmediated documentary evidence. For, life writers act as readers, interpreters, and curators of material ranging from the intimate to the impersonal. Their personal archives, which include earlier self-writing in journals and diaries and self-imaging in photographs and drawings, are reinterpreted in situating and composing the past. As a written life enters the world, it encounters other kinds of archives and may be changed by subsequent editions or translation into other languages and media. That is, the “afterlife” of a text shifts its relationship to archival materials as new reading publics access different versions of the “life” over time. Our talk foregrounds issues of theory and method, emphasizing critical concepts in life writing studies such as identity, authenticity, paratextual surrounds, and mediation. To do so, we use eight micro-studies of autobiographical texts, primarily by women, over the last four centuries, and explore what material is encompassed in a life writer’s archive, including the conflicting evidence of subjective records of embodied life. Finally, we pose critical questions about the challenges confronting scholars in archival research, and invite audience questions. 

Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson have published several books, most recently the 2016 collection, Life Writing in the Long Run: A Smith & Watson Autobiography Studies Reader (Michigan Publishing), including collaborative and solo essays written over a quarter-century, which is available to read online. They coauthored Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives (expanded edition, 2010) and co-edited five collections: De/Colonizing the Subject:  The Politics of Gender in Women’s Autobiography (1992); Getting a Life: Everyday Uses of Autobiography (1996); Women, Autobiography, Theory (1998); Interfaces: Women, Autobiography, Image, Performance (2001); and Before They Could Vote: American Women's Autobiographical Writing, 1819-1919 (2006).  Smith and Watson have also co-authored several essays, most recently: “What about ‘False Witnessing’?” for the Routledge Companion to Human Rights and Literature (2015), and"Virtually Me: A Toolbox about Online Self-Presentation" (2014). Smith and Watson are also active in their separate lives.

Sidonie Smith is the Lorna G. Goodison Distinguished University Professor at the University of Michigan and a past President of the Modern Language Association of America (2010). Her most recent book is Manifesto for the Humanities: Transforming Doctoral Education in Good Enough Times (2015), available open access through the Digital Culture Series of the University of Michigan Press. She is also the author of Where I'm Bound: Patterns of Slavery and Freedom in Black American Autobiography (1974), A Poetics of Women's Autobiography: Marginality and the Fictions of Self-Representation (1987), Subjectivity, Identity, and the Body: Women's Autobiographical Practices in the Twentieth Century (1993), and Moving Lives: Women's Twentieth Century Travel Narratives (2001). With Kay Schaffer, she co-authored Human Rights and Narrated Lives (2004), and has also co-edited other collections. Her most recent essay is on identity.

Julia Watson is Academy Professor Emerita of Comparative Studies and a Core Faculty member of Project Narrative at The Ohio State University. Watson’s recent essays are on women’s visual diaries, on voice in Patti Smith’s Just Kids, and on Charlotte Salomon. She gave a master class in Gender Studies at CEU in 2013.

NOTE: If lecture attendees wish to read a few of our essays, the following are recommended:

Ch. 2. Introduction: Situating Subjectivity in Women’s Autobiographical Practices, from Women, Autobiography, Theory: A Reader (1998)

Ch. 3. Witness or False Witness? Metrics of Authenticity, I-Formations, and the Ethic of Verification in Testimony (2012)

Ch. 20. Narratives and Rights: Zlata’s Diary and the Circulation of Stories of Suffering Ethnicity (Smith 2006)

From Life Writing in the Long Run: A Smith & Watson Autobiography Studies Reader (Michigan Publishing, 2017), available online.They may be accessed (free) at: