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Title:Autobiographical subjects: Disability and social identity in life writing
Author(s):O'Brien, Valerie
Director of Research:Mahaffey, Vicki
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Mahaffey, Vicki
Doctoral Committee Member(s):Gaedtke, Andrew; Nazar, Hina; Blake, Nancy
Department / Program:English
Discipline:English
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Degree:Ph.D.
Genre:Dissertation
Subject(s):life writing
autobiography
contemporary literature
disability
neurodiversity
debility
J. M. Coetzee
Samuel Beckett
Elizabeth Bowen
May Sarton
Sebastian Barry
Saidiya Hartman
Jesmyn Ward
Abstract:This dissertation explores a period of rich interaction between fiction and life writing in the decades leading up to and immediately following the memoir boom of the 1990s and 2000s. Examining trends in subgenres of fictional and nonfictional life writing, including autobiography, the slave narrative, the Bildungsroman, diaries, and the family memoir, I argue that the contemporary cultural obsession with the autobiographical has made space for some underrepresented narratives while excluding others. I build on the scholarly tradition that links life writing to social justice movements, from abolitionism to disability rights, yet I show that life narratives that deviate from prescribed norms still often remain untold. Focusing on fictional and nonfictional narratives that feature opaque, fragmented, and absent autobiographical accounts by or about subjects with invisible forms of disability or cognitive difference, I argue that these works advocate for more flexible ways of understanding the relationship between autobiographical narration and social recognition. Chapter One considers the relationship between voice—as both an element of the physical body and a symbol of social identity—and autobiographical narration in J. M. Coetzee’s novel Foe (1986) and Samuel Beckett’s play Not I (1972), two works that feature characters with speech disorders. I argue that these works unsettle conceptions of personhood bound to a capacity for normative autobiographical narration. In Chapter Two, I analyze Elizabeth Bowen’s Eva Trout (1968) as an example of a Bildungsroman featuring a neurodivergent protagonist. While critics have tended to read the titular heroine as incomplete due to her linguistic and cognitive difference, I draw on the 1960s anti-psychiatry movement and contemporary discourses of neurodiversity to argue that the novel’s portrayal of Eva’s neurodivergent sensory relation to the world actually gestures toward her complex interiority. Chapter Three examines the private and public functions of life writing about mental illness and institutionalization, using May Sarton’s As We Are Now (1973) and Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture (2008) to illustrate that institutional diary fiction frequently characterizes the practice of life writing as a form of personal therapy and the text itself as a means of engendering social change. In Chapter Four, my focus shifts to nonfictional life writing to address the lack of racial and economic diversity in autosomatography. Connecting Afro-pessimism to Jasbir Puar’s theory of debility, I read Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother (2007) and Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped (2013) as exemplifying a trend away from redemptive arcs and toward portrayals of unresolved race- and class-based injury in memoirs published since 2005.
Issue Date:2020-11-24
Type:Thesis
URI:http://hdl.handle.net/2142/109595
Rights Information:Copyright 2020 Valerie O'Brien
Date Available in IDEALS:2021-03-05
Date Deposited:2020-12


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