Monday, July 07, 2008

Countries and conferences

Dear Bloggers
I have just come back from the sixth International Auto/Biography Association conference that was held in Honolulu, or Waikiki, however closely you define the location of the university of Hawaii, on the island of Oahu, not the ‘big island’ of Hawaii as the locals so lovingly call it. It was summer and the temperature was tropical but not sultry, not most of the time. They overdid the air-conditioning throughout the conference to the point of protest. I thought I might have needed a cardigan for the evenings, after the sun had dropped and the air picked up the night cool, but the nights were balmy. Still I needed my cardigan for the large Keoni auditorium, which despite the presence of some 200 people seated in its core, was like an icebox. Every time I opened the large swing door to the auditorium and crossed the floor to find my usual seat at the front, the room gave off a blast of cold. It was like entering the beer fridge in Safeway.

The podium stood to one side at the front of the auditorium alongside a long narrow cloth covered table raised on a dais above which the panel members sat for each plenary. It was indeed a place for academic scholarship and I heard the words of the academy more than once. For me a new language. In many ways the whole experience was one of being inculcated into a new language, into a new mythology. Beginning with the multi tiered composition of the delegates.

To begin, there were the dignitaries, the so-called keynotes, those well published in the area of life writing, and auto/biographical theory. These also could be classified along the ranks of seniority. There were the old gods, the most famous, Philippe Lejeune and Paul John Eakin, the Frenchman and the American. The guests from the Anglophone world included the likes of Susanna Egan and Margaretta Jolley. The Americans probably occupied most of the significant positions, the famous academic twins, Julia Watson and Sidonie Smith, Nancy K Miller, though she kept in the background. She was referred to, her work at least, but she kept to herself.

On day one she sat beside me ever so briefly. I had planted myself in the front row. Why do they bother to put out chairs for a front row, no one bothers to occupy them except me? A line of chairs from one side of the room to the other, the empty chairs that signified a space between the speakers and the audience. I fractured that line and though at times I felt dwarfed by the high orange cloth covered dais that overlooked the Keoni auditorium. Like being in the front row in a picture theatre when you sit face to face with the screen.

‘I’d like to sit close to the front,’ Nancy K Miller said, muttering to herself. I gestured to the empty chair beside me. She had no choice but to sit and I introduced myself.
‘Nancy Miller,’ I repeated when she told me her name. ‘One of my favourite footnotes.’ She winced. She did not enjoy the limelight, at least not my pleasure at meeting her. ‘You coined the expression, ‘When memory fails I let language lead,’ I said.
‘Did I write that?’ she said. ‘It sounds pretty good.’ I nodded in agreement.
‘It’s a little too close to the podium for me here,’ she said.
‘Feel free to move.’
‘I’ll just go back a bit further. No offence.’
‘No offence.’
Was I offended? I asked myself? It was not meant as a snub. I recognised that the closeness to the front mountain of the front dais was overbearing but in spite of myself I felt peeved. Snubs like this happened often at the conference, but not nearly so often as the warm and friendly gestures of other people, most generally the lesser beings, the ordinary conference attendees, like Carina from Portugal who read her paper out in French and gave the audience, most of whom could not speak any French, a taste of what it is like to live in a foreign land, the foreign language like a blast of icy wind in your face and the bitter taste of exclusion, unable to understand.
She would do it differently next time, she told me afterwards. She had wanted to be understood and although many people praised her for her bravery in presenting in French, that had not been the aim of her paper.

Philippe Lejeune as the first keynote speaker spoke French but he sat alongside his adoring and competent interpreter who provided a translation of every word for the mostly ignorant audience. French became the second dominant language at the conference perhaps because Philippe and many of the Canadians speak French too. German came next and although the Chinese were reasonably well represented, not so well represented as perhaps those from other major countries, I did not hear much Chinese. There were many jokes about the hegemony of English, including the one that in ten years time, Chinese will be the dominant language simply because of the number of western students learning it.

As much as there was a cultural inclusiveness there was a cultural divisiveness. Philippe Lejeune acknowledged the odd comment from an English speaking person, he speaks English himself, but mostly he chatted with the French, including a couple of young women, perhaps his students. One had a tough look with fierce eyes and a shaved head. She hovered around Lejeune, much like a buzzing bee around a flower.

Tim Dow Adams, a footnote from America, had us in stitches much of the time. He looked so familiar to me, as if he could have been one of my brothers. We joked often throughout the conference. He spoke to everyone, and was the first to greet me when I climbed off the conference bus in front of the East West Centre at Hawaii university where the conference proceedings were held. The East West Centre consists of several floors of seminar type rooms some with open structures and desks into which translation boxes had been set. We did not use the translation boxes, nor did we use interpreters, except for on that first day with Philippe Lejeune and later at the performance on the Tuesday evening when the Hawaiians spoke and sang in their own language and the whole proceedings were presented in both English and Hawaiian.

Is this boring enough for you? I have so much to remember here, so much to try to record before it all dribbles from my memory into the trash heap of my unconscious mind.

I shall try to record some of my personal highlights.

Julie Rak from Canada, a woman of the future as one delegate told me works with popular culture and continually remarked on the need to be aware of the influence of popular culture on the field, the blogs, technology etc. Julie Rak remembered me when she and I were talking to Emily Hipchin. I had presented alongside Emily Hipchin and Susanna Egan in Mainz, Germany two years ago. Emily recalled the terrible question/comment from an Irish woman in the audience. Her Irishness had little to do with the question I suspect, maybe more the fact that she was studying at the university of Vienna were they are conceptually driven, no room there for the self reflexive). This young woman stood up after my talk and asked,
‘Is this appropriate?’ This said before suggesting she could not relate to what I had presented. And then both Craig Howes and Tom Smith (two other dignitaries) came to my rescue. They talked about how difficult it is for academics used to coming at material from a distance, from behind the interpretative fa├žade, to deal directly with autobiography and the autobiographer.
‘I use that example with my students,’ Jule Rak said. ‘I use it all the time to try to demonstrate how it’s possible to do it, how it’s okay to do it and yet how difficult it s for the audience to receive it.’
‘That woman was hostile,’ Julie Rak told me. No wonder I had felt the floor swallow me up after she had asked the question, is this appropriate. I’d heard of academics on the attack. This was my first ever conference and this my first question during discussion time and it was an attack.

At this conference, when I presented my own autobiographical material the audience did not seem flummoxed. I was though when Alfred Hornung (a German dignitary) asked me to talk about the ways in which language makes family secrets possible. I found it hard to answer his question and then his wife’s question (she’s a professor at another German university) that followed on immediately,
‘How do I link what you have written with revenge.’
Oh dear, my paper was not to do with revenge. I wrote about empathy and the inner and outer.
I posted this blog some time ago but for reasons I have still not understood, it refused to show on the screen. This time it will, I hope and wonder, is it worth it?