When Memory Speaks (Magill Book Reviews)
Jill Ker Conway, former president of Smith College and a visiting scholar and professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.), is well known for the two volumes of her autobiographical writing: THE ROAD FROM COORAIN (1989) and TRUE NORTH (1994). WHEN MEMORY SPEAKS: REFLECTIONS ON AUTOBIOGRAPHY demonstrates her ability to theorize about the genre to which she has contributed. WHEN MEMORY SPEAKS is a history of autobiography and, as the subtitle indicates, a thoughtful book about self-portraits. Believing that everyone is an autobiographer because we all engage in inner conversations which give meaning to our lives, Conway identifies her audience as general readers and encourages these readers to find their own voices, examine cultural assumptions which inform ideas and actions, and assume responsibility for their actions—what she frequently calls “agency.”
As she has noted in the introductions to her two-volume anthology WRITTEN BY HERSELF (1992, 1996), Conway contrasts the approaches of men and women in writing their self-portraits. For men, she describes a pattern derived from the classical Greek myths in which an Odysseus-like character undertakes an epic journey of adventure, achieves his goals, and asserts that he has succeeded through his own agency. For women, Conway sees a different pattern, one in which the writers typically downplay a sense of agency in their own lives and successes, not believing in the control they have over...
(The entire section is 381 words.)
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When Memory Speaks (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Jill Ker Conway is a practitioner and theorist. She practices the art of autobiography, having published two highly praised self- portraits—The Road from Coorain (1990) and True North 1994)—and she theorizes about that art in her two- volume anthology of works by female writers, Written by Herself (1992-1996), and in her wide-ranging history of autobiography, evocatively entitled When Memory Speaks: Reflections on Autobiography. These complementary roles also overlap, when, for example, she concludes When Memory Speaks by referring to her first memoir, in which she narrates the story of growing up in Australia and dealing with her father’s enigmatic death. By asking questions about that death, and about the practice of autobiography, Conway connects the abstract with the concrete, the writing of autobiography with her own specific life story.
Questions inform Conway’s historical study of autobiography. She begins her book with a series of questions, the first one being the most general and most personal: “Why is autobiography the most popular form of fiction for modern readers?” Announcing that her answer is a book written for “the general reader,” Conway also asserts that her focus is cultural history—that is, the cultural assumptions of gender, race, and societal attitudes that influence both the writing and reading of autobiography. From beginning to end, When Memory Speaks compels...
(The entire section is 1859 words.)