‘The Limits of Life Writing’ Symposium Report

Maria TakolanderCHRGImageOn Friday 19th February 2016, the Contemporary Histories Research Group hosted a symposium called ‘The Limits of Life Writing’ at the Waterfront campus of Deakin University. The symposium, organised by Professor David McCooey and Associate Professor Maria Takolander, featured various Australian experts in the field of life writing. They engaged a strong audience, comprised of academics from Deakin and other institutions, undergraduate and HDR students, and the community.


The papers presented at the symposium spoke to the theme of ‘The Limits of Life Writing’ in various ways. They also resonated with the remit of the Contemporary Histories Research Group in provocatively exploring the ‘unfinished business of the past.


In her keynote speech, the University of Queensland’s Professor Gillian Whitlock, whose current research involves asylum-seeker life stories, focused on the graphic non-fiction narratives of Joe Sacco, whose work has so powerfully visualised the lives of refugees in Palestine, Gaza, and Bosnia. Professor Whitlock drew attention to Sacco’s childhood in Australia, as a Maltese migrant, and speculated on the marginalisation of this ‘Australian story’ in Sacco’s autobiography.

The first panel, dedicated to Indigenous life writing, was generously chaired by the Institute of Koori Education’s Terry Mason (of the Awabakal language group). ANU’s Associate Professor Martin Thomas spoke about his research into “expedition literature” and his fraught attempts to tease out the occluded perspectives of Aboriginal people, relying largely on oral histories. Deakin University’s Robin Freeman contributed a presentation about publishing and editorial practices vis-à-vis Indigenous life narratives in Canada and Australia. The final paper of the panel, presented by Deakin’s Dr Kate Hall, drew our attention to a new anthology of life writing about the so-called Intervention, an episode in Australian ‘history’ that is continuing to unfold. (Image: Maria Takolander, Robin Freeman & Terry Mason)

In the second panel of the symposium, focused on trauma narratives, UNSW’s Associate Professor Anne Brewster explored a recent autobiography by the Chinese-Australian Alice Pung as an example of the ‘post-memoir’: a type of memoir addressing the traumatic experiences and memories of a previous generation.


Deakin University’s Dr Jo Langdon followed with a presentation about the Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien’s life writing, and his controversial use of magical realism as a strategy that, according to O’Brien himself, authentically captures the experience of his war trauma. (Image: Jo Langdon & Kate Hall)


Flinders University’s Associate Professor Kate Douglas concluded the panel by highlighting the new genres of life narratives being produced by young people, focusing on the blogs of the Pakistani human-rights activist and the youngest-ever Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai.


The symposium concluded with a creative intervention from the Deakin PhD candidate Oliver Driscoll, who read from his prize-winning piece of ‘auto-fiction’ about the Bosnian war. ‘Auto-fiction’, as a genre that combines autobiography and fiction, works precisely in that challenging and fascinating space at the limits of life writing.


You can also listen to our special guests, Professor Gillian Whitlock, Associate Professor Martin Thomas, Associate Professor Anne Brewster, and Associate Professor Kate Douglas, speak about their research:

You can find the full program of ‘The Limits of Life Writing’ symposium here.

And be sure to look out, later in the year, for a special issue of the Routledge journal Life Writing, which will be guest edited by David McCooey and Maria Takolander, and which will feature refereed papers developed from the symposium presentations.


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