Panel: Identity Strategies in Life Writing from the Modern Cityscape
Copanelists: Seth Howes and Dawn Morais
This presentation interprets three works by recent American life writers: Edward Said’s Out of Place (1999), Leila Ahmed’s Border Passage (1999), and Carlos Eire’s Waiting for Snow in Havana (2003). In response to displacement, these three writers perform acts of cultural translation that resemble the religious world-making of diaspora communities.
Exile involves dwelling in one place or culture with a constant awareness that one is not at home. The exiled person is at once oriented to a distant homeland and disoriented where he lives. He feels out of place, at odds with the immediate environment. To make sense of this situation, an exile engages in cultural translation, interpreting the relevance of symbols and values from the homeland for the new situation.
An exile’s translation of values into a new context resembles in certain ways the religious experience of diaspora communities such as Jewish and African-American people. When exile is reinterpreted in terms of ideal values, it becomes not simply a tragic fate suffered, but a symbol of certain positive values and commitments. The experience of displacement becomes more than a distant historical event; exile is a distinctive religious orientation, a form of consciousness fostered through repeated acts of remembrance. Not only memories of the original homeland, but also the experience of exile itself, is continually reenacted to keep alive the exilic worldview. These three authors translate memories of a lost homeland and the event of dislocation into new terms that serve as central components of personal identity, narrative strategies that shape their life writing, and symbols of their ultimate values and commitments.
John D. Barbour is Professor of Religion at St. Olaf College. He is the author of The Conscience of the Autobiographer (1992), Versions of Deconversion: Autobiography and the Loss of Faith (1994), and The Value of Solitude: The Ethics and Spirituality of Aloneness in Autobiography (2004). He is working on a family memoir entitled Family Conscience, and a study of the ethical and religious dimensions of travel narratives.