Centre for Life History and Life Writing Research

Autobiographical Performances of Memory

28 January 2015
Place: Fulton 201
University of Sussex

A joint Sussex Centre for Cultural Studies and Centre for Life History and Life Writing Research event.

This three-part talk will look at performances of memory in film, writing and oral history. We examine the ways in which the narration of personal memory reveals aspects of gendered social and cultural histories from the post-war period to the UK women’s movement of the 1970s and 1980s. We focus on how subjectivity is formed and performed through the construction of narratives of family history, particularly in relation to material objects – photographs, clothes, places, home movies.  Material explored includes Stories We Tell (Polley, 2012) Clothes Pegs, (Thomas, forthcoming) (an autobiographical text on class and identity as recalled through clothes) and interviews from 'Sisterhood and After: The Women’s Liberation Oral History Project' (a major oral history project led by Margaretta Jolly, archived at the British Library).


Lyn Thomas (Sussex University), Material Memories: Writing Class Migrant Identity and White Femininity
Lizzie Thynne (Sussex University), Unravelling Family Fictions
Margaretta Jolly (Sussex University), The Sound of Feminist Memory - Sisterhood and After, The Women’s Liberation Oral History Project

Clothes pegs, promo picture for Lyn Thomas' book (photograph: Alexandra Loske)

Lyn Thomas: Material Memories: Writing Class Migrant Identity and Femininity

Clothes Pegs (Thomas, 2012) is a series of interconnected, autobiographical texts which attempts to capture the stages and moments of class transition, emerging sexuality and white femininity through depictions of the lived experience and social contexts of wearing and buying clothes. The paper will explore the texts' evocation of the gendered and classed experience of growing up in provincial, post-war Britain, and the emotional dimensions of class migration - the shame and pride, losses and gains. Questions raised include the relationship of the texts to visual representations in the form of family photographs; the role of humour and irony in the author’s depictions of her younger selves; the ethics of writing class. The paper will draw on the author’s twenty year dialogue with the French writer Annie Ernaux, and Ernaux’s own struggle to save the past from oblivion and to depict the experience of ‘the dominated’.   

 Stories We Tell poster Lizzie Thynne

Lizzie Thynne: Unravelling Family Fictions

Stories We Tell (2012) by Canadian film-maker Sarah Polley is one of the many first- person documentaries which have come out in the last few years which investigate the lives of the film-maker’s dead mothers. Several of these films, including Thynne’s own On the Border (2012) probe their mothers’ secrets which have remained hidden to the film-makers during their lifetime. Thynne explores how, in reimagining the home movie to show the mother as active desiring subject who exceeds the role of ‘mother’, Polley advances earlier feminist representations of the maternal (such as Daughter Rite (Citron,1978) and in the process affirms her own her own position as a director, as the one who is not only to be-looked-at but has the power to look and to create.


Margaretta Jolly: The Sound of Feminist Memory - Sisterhood and After: The Women’s Liberation Oral History Project 

Sisterhood and After leaflet pageImage credit: See Red.

In 2013, the British Library unveiled a major oral history of the women who powered the liberation movements across the United Kingdom during the 1970s and 80s. This comprises sixty life history interviews with core activists across the UK. In this talk Margaretta Jolly will use clips from the oral histories and related films by co-presenter Lizzie Thynne to explore the creative elements of oral history as collective memory. She will particularly consider what the non-verbal sounds of an oral history recording may tell us about remembering feminist lives. The talk will be informed by concepts of radical post/humanist subjectivity which go ‘beyond the subject’ to focus on what the individual is able to do, feel, speak, as opposed to their ideological positioning in the abstract.