When Memory Speaks Autobiography by Jill Conway Essay

Total Length: 1697 words ( 6 double-spaced pages)

Total Sources: 3

Page 1 of 6

Essay Prompt:

Creative Non-Fiction Book/Movie Review

1. Write a 4-5 page book OR film review about one of the texts on the course—or choose from one of the texts below. You cannot write about one of the books, films, or authors you will be presenting on. Feel free to expand on one of your journal entries but be sure to add secondary sources to enhance your research. Submit a typed copy during the first class following reading week. Electronic submissions will not be accepted. 

* Use proper MLA format: 

* See  Libraries for how to write a book review: 


* See below for tips on writing film reviews: 



Further Reading: (write about any one of the readings belows) 

Jill Conway: https://www.amazon.ca/When-Memory-Speaks-Exploring-Autobiography/dp/0679766456

Sonya Lea: https://www.amazon.com/Wondering-Who-You-Are-Memoir-ebook/dp/B00RKI3NAY

Regina McBride: https://www.amazon.com/Ghost-Songs-Memoir-Regina-McBride/dp/1941040438

Lacy M. Johnson: https://www.amazon.ca/Other-Side-Lacy-M-Johnson/dp/1935639838

Herta Müller: https://www.amazon.com/Land-Green-Plums-Herta-Müller/dp/0312429940

A.J. Albany: http://www.jerryjazzmusician.com/2003/11/amy-albany-author-of-low-down-jazz-junk-and-other-fairy-tales-from-childhood/

Actual Essay:

When Conway claims in the first sentence of When Memory Speaks that autobiography is “the most popular form of fiction for modern readers,” readers will immediately raise flags of protest (3). After all, autobiography can hardly be considered a form of fiction when it is defined as the truth-filled personal memoirs of those whose stories lend insight into the lived experiences of readers. When Memory Speaks is Conway’s musings on the potency of autobiography as a genre. In this book, Conway analyzes not the structure or medium of autobiography itself, but the phenomena of reader affection for the genre. Conway is not attempting to teach readers how to construct their ideal personal memoir, or to laud the strong points of the most notable of all published autobiographical accounts. Instead, Conway uses When Memory Speaks to show how gender issues and the medium of autobiography intersect. When Memory Speaks does show how female authors can use autobiography as a tool for reconstructing gender identities and for shaping social norms and cultural values. The book also aims for an overarching theory of autobiography that literary critics and scholars of the genre, as well as historiographers, may find helpful. A lack of focus and a lack of substantiation for some of the author’s claims mar the validity of the text somewhat, causing Conway to miss the mark on many of the book’s main points. Nevertheless, Conway’s goal in When Memory Speaks is ambitious and certainly worthwhile as a starting point for exploring gender issues in self-reflective narrative.

When Memory Speaks is divided into nine chapters, starting with one that introduces the principle premises of the text. In Chapter One, “Memory’s Plots,” Conway wonders whether women can wrestle autobiography from patriarchal social structures and institutions, including the language itself. The author invokes postmodern theory and feminist theory alike, referring to issues like the male gaze (Conway 4). Yet Conway does not celebrate the legion of female writers, nevertheless female autobiographers, who have used their command of language to convey the need for social justice. Readers will undoubtedly relate to Conway’s lamenting the fact that patriarchal norms do persist. However, the connection between patriarchy and autobiography is not adequately established or clarified in the opening chapter. Conway’s lack of focus in When Memory Speaks is therefore immediately noticeable and colors the reader’s subsequent experience. It seems from the first chapter that Conway is more interested in exploring feminist theory from a sociological standpoint rather than from a literary one. Alternatively, Conway could segue the substantive content of When Memory Speaks into the realm of historiography, given the centrality of personal memoirs to the process of constructing history.

Granted, Conway does celebrate the contributions of key female autobiographers in the Western tradition. The author admits that the focus in When Memory Speaks is on the Western, and while admitting this is important for retaining integrity and validity, Conway would have bolstered the book by researching the role that autobiography has played in non-European societies.

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Moreover, autobiography takes on many forms and extends far beyond the confines of prose. Film, music, oral tradition, and the arts contribute to the global corpus of female-led autobiographical narratives that taken together, contribute to a universal understanding of how women have used their voices and located their position of power from within patriarchal societies. Conway provides readers with a cogent overview of the history of autobiography, but only starts with the Christian mystical tradition and the likes of Julian of Norwich. When Memory Speaks would have been more effective had the author opted to focus on the evolution of female autobiography rather than simultaneously try to show why the genre remains popular. Conway also never clarifies why autobiography can be considered to be fiction.

In “The Secular Hero,” Conway uses the Frederick Douglass narrative to show how autobiography can and often does serve as a means to reveal systematic oppression, helping to promote social justice and a transformation of social norms. This chapter also covers the autobiographies of luminaries like W.E.B. DuBois, showing that Conway is cognizant of the way race impacts personal identity construction and thus, collective identity construction. Conway unfortunately overlooks the contributions made by African American women to the conversation, missing a grand opportunity to illustrate how race, class, and gender intersect through the medium of autobiographical memoir. Chapters like these are also purely expository, lacking the thesis-driven or persuasive verve that would elevate When Memory Speaks to a level readers may find profound. Conway lays the foundation for future scholars to explore these issues more in depth, though. In the third chapter, “The Romantic Heroine,” Conway does delve deeper into the issues related to intersectionality, showing how feminism and abolitionism converged in the nineteenth century, evident in multiple literary genres but particularly in autobiography. In this chapter, Conway claims, “women have come up with life histories which seem complementary to those of men,” but fails to expound on the claim and causing it therefore to lie flat (43). On the other hand, Conway does raise important questions related to identity construction: one of the core themes of When Memory Speaks. In spite of the weaknesses in Conway’s approach to the study of autobiography, the author’s focus on identity construction remains the greatest strength of the text. Female autobiographers consciously or not convey their own socially constructed lives; their self-reflection allows for a deconstruction of social structures and institutions.

Conway also shows how female authors have utilized autobiography as a deliberate tool of liberation. Memoirs allow for creative subversion: as female authors can use the power and nuance of language to convey anguish and pain, discontent and protest without overtly challenging patriarchal norms and institutions. Bereft of actual political power, women would have leveraged their capacity for creative self-expression to regain status and influence. After universal suffrage in Western societies, female authors gradually altered the ways they used language and the ways they presented their life histories. A better author might have offered readers a glimpse into how the tone and narrative style of female autobiography has changed over the years, using empirical tools like content analysis. Conway’s overview of the subject serves as a teaser for what will hopefully be a surge of interest….....

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Works Cited
Comerford, Susan A. and Mary J. Fambrough. “Constructing Learning Sites for Solidarity and Social Action: Gender Autobiography for Consciousness Raising.” Affilia, Vol. 17, No. 4, pp. 411-428.

Conway, Jill Ker. When Memory Speaks. New York: First Vintage, 1999.
Miller, Nancy K. "Representing others: gender and the subjects of autobiography." differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural

Studies, vol. 6, no. 1, 1994, p. 1+. Academic OneFile, Accessed 26 Nov. 2018.
Smith, Sidonie and Julia Watson (Eds.). Women, Autobiography, Theory: A Reader. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

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