TEXT review


Boundary-riding in Never Never Land

review by Kiera Lindsey

 


Recovering History through Fact and Fiction: Forgotten Lives
Dallas John Baker, Donna Lee Brien and Nike Sulway (eds)
Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle Upon Tyne
ISBN 9781527503250
Hc 200pp AUD119.95

 

Recovering History through Fact and Fiction: Forgotten Lives (Forgotten Lives) is an edited collection that surveys current Australian experiments in biography. The collection is divided into three sections. The first explores current methods being used to recover lost and obscured lives. Section two builds upon this methodological investigation, considering how we write, perform and ‘talk back’ to those who are, or were once, well known (125). The third and final section gathers together a suite of case studies from the Romantic and Renaissance era, outlining a host of ethical and creative implications associated with recovering practices, before pointing to new pathways both within and beyond biography.

In her chapter from Forgotten Lives, Jayne Persian describes the fraudulent nature of her subject a Czech migrant named Vladimir Lezak Borin (79). Due to his dabblings in various postwar intrigues, Borin was condemned as ‘unreliable’ by Australian and English officials, while other international authorities insisted this so-called ‘Cold War Warrior’ was also ‘too dangerous’ to be ‘left at large’ (80). Borin certainly had a remarkable capacity for reinvention, evidenced in his 1959 autobiographical novel, The Uprooted Survive: A Tale of Two Continents, in which Borin depicts himself as a boundary-rider from outback Queensland, ‘clean-shaven, sun-browned, grey-haired, dressed in horseman’s garb with a big hat’, and a recently-acquired ‘Australian drawl’ (83). Borin’s bookwas the first autobiographical novel written by an Australian ‘displaced person’ and yet, as Persian observes, Borin’s literary rendering of himself seems to raise more questions than it answers. Indeed, such was his capacity for fantasy that Borin may even have succeeded in luring his biographer into the very ‘Never Never Land’ he conjured in his book. Ruminating upon the ‘complexities and ambiguities’ of his life, Persian concludes that subjects such as Borin are probably best approached via some ‘sort of speculative history’ (85). A sort of speculative writing, we might surmise, that allows the boundary rider to navigate the past once the firm fences of fact have disappeared.

Like many authors in this collection, Persian’s chapter offers a carefully considered reflection about how the idiosyncrasies of a biographical subject and their sources shapes the way we write about them. With his ambiguous identities and deliberate boundary riding, Borin’s life also serves as a useful metaphor for this collection of methodological musings, which were first presented as individual papers at the ‘Forgotten Lives / Biography symposium’ in 2016. Both Borin and the authors featured in the edited collectionexplore entwined themes of identity and invention, historical imagination and integrity – and – like Persian’s elusive subject – Forgotten Lives provides few conclusive answers. And yet by offering a ‘much-needed snapshot of biographical writing and enquiry in Australia’ and making a sustained effort to address ‘the theoretical neglect’ associated with ‘biography, its sub-generic incarnations and emerging methodological approaches’, Forgotten Lives achieves its primary objective of encouraging:

further enquiry and collaboration with the field of biography … particularly in the area relating to how we recover, reclaim and recount the lives of those who have been obscured by the passage of time’ (2).

Within these 200 or so pages we meet many forgotten lives: Libby Connors introduces us to a colonial emancipist whose clumsy thuggery caused the death of his travelling companions; Nike Sulway to a child prodigy whose mysterious disappearance inspired a succession of textual explorations; and Ira McGuire to a Finnish grandmother with a taste for romantic novels and Chippendale furniture. There is also a Renaissance humanist, a Tudor paintrix, a Romantic novelist and a thoroughly modern sculptress from Queensland. Many, but not all, of the biographical subjects in Forgotten Lives are women, precisely because the scanty and subjective nature of their archives frequently necessitates what historian Nell Irvin Painter (1990) has elsewhere described as the need to ‘subvert and transcend’ traditional biographic praxis (13). In justifying her biography of nineteenth-century African American activist, Sojourner Truth, Painter insists that rather than ‘cede biography to the usual sort of biographical subjects’, we must find new ways of writing about ‘people who are in history but who have not left the kinds of sources to which historians and biographers ordinarily turn’ (14). Many of the fourteen chapters in the collection can be read as a response to Irvin Painter’s provocation, outlining challenges and offering approaches that will prove useful for others also engaged in biographical acts of recovery.

For co-editor Donna Lee Brien, the most significant trend in current life writing relates to this new reliance upon speculation, which has led to the emergence of ‘the most contentious of all biographical sub-genres’ (15): speculative biography. Although all biographers engage in a degree of speculation, which reflects the innately constructed nature of narrative, Brien insists that speculative biographers go further. Drawing upon a selection of Australian case studies, she describes how, like the traditional biographer, the speculative biographer commences ‘with the available evidence’ (15). However, faced with evidentiary silences that threaten to slow or stop the narrative, the speculative biographer draws upon contextual detail, interior motivation and conjecture, to fill in the gaps. But, Brien insists, because speculative biographers make it ‘patently clear’ (15) when they are interpreting or elaborating upon the available evidence, such work should be recognised as a legitimate form of non-fiction life writing. Indeed, for Brien, such strategies are innovative – not only for their capacity to transcend the prejudices of the archive and recover lost lives – but also for highlighting the constructed nature of history, biography and fiction, in ways that confirm how blurred the boundaries are between all three.

In his chapter, ‘Fiction as Biographic Space’, James Vicars shares Brien’s focus upon boundary riding. Noting how a veritable traffic of writers now regularly criss-cross the once ‘well-maintained borders’ (105) between fact and fiction, Vicars considers two relatively new hybrid solutions: fictional biography and the biographical novel. Such experimentation offers fertile possibility for those working with archival traces, Vicars suggests, arguing that such processes also demand the use of ‘responsible imagination’, that is, a determination to work with ‘the known facts’, before freely interpreting them, enlarging upon them and supplementing them (100). Thus, Vicars concludes that all fictional techniques are best employed as solutions to (rather than escapes from) the challenges of this work, before offering two questions which he believes should guide this process: ‘Is fiction the form or the objective of such a work?’ and ‘Does this work realise biographical truth in terms of both fact and the person?’ (104).

While Forgotten Lives offers a fascinating overview of current trends and emerging possibilities in Australian biographical practice, Brien and Vicars provide particularly useful mappings of the shifting topographies of biography, speaking to the enormous creative potential unleashed by interdisciplinarity and experimentation, as well as the need to infuse these practices with methodological reflection. Thus, Forgotten Lives can be read as a sort of skeleton map for other ‘boundary riders’ also seeking to traverse the blurring boundaries between fact and fiction.

 

Works cited

Irvin Painter, N 1990 ‘Sojourner Truth in Life and memory: Writing the Biography of an American Exotic’, Gender and History 2, 1 (Spring): 3-17 return to text

 

 

Dr Kiera Lindsey is a Research Fellow at UTS. In 2017 she was awarded an ARC DECRA for a project entitled ‘Historical Craft, Speculative Biography and the case of Adelaide Ironside’. In 2017 she appeared as the on-camera historian in a four part series on Foxtel’s HISTORY Channel and is also a regular presenter on Radio National’s Nightlife. Kiera’s first book, The Convict’s Daughter: The Scandal that Shocked a Colony (Allen & Unwin 2016), was a speculative biography.

 

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TEXT
Vol 22 No 1 April 2018
http://www.textjournal.com.au
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins
Reviews Editors: Pablo Muslera & Amelia Walker
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