AUTOBIOGRAPHY and MEMOIR
My autobiographical narrative, my memoir, is partly an experiment with a means, a way, of defining my experience of a religious and cultural heritage. This heritage to which I refer is bound up with the Baha’i community for over more than fifty years. Through this writing, this autobiography, this literary production, I attempt to turn my small part in one of the world’s most significant but, as yet, quite obscure diasporas—that of international Bahá'í pioneers--as far as the general public is concerned into a literary activity that is both an act of personal memory and a part of that heritage and its institutional and cultural memory. My narrative records my confrontation with both a native and a host culture, a Baha’i and a non-Baha’i culture, a confrontation that has been part of my total experience since 1953.
What I try to do here in these essays on autobiography and, indeed, in most of my writing, is to try and understand a pioneer condition, accept its many dimensions and explain it to others as much as I am able. I resort in this work to the act of narration as an expression of my role in the hybrid nature of this global phenomenon, a phenomenon of voluntary migration, migration both in my own homeland and overseas. It is also a phenomenon which in its individual details is not written about, at least not significantly in the public domain, and it is simply unknown to the general public. This great diaspora won’t be forgotten by history and history’s public memory because the Bahá'í archives in their multitudinous forms have the stories now in books, in boxes and in computer hard-drives.
I face the basic inability of linguistic discourse to fully articulate the whole of my lived experience. The whole exercise is partly to dream the impossible dream. The brilliance of the Bahá'í diaspora over more than a century and a half now, a diaspora largely hidden from public gaze by the judicious use of the proverbial bushel, by lack of any real interest on the part of the wider society and by the very complexity of our age—will one day become well-known. The Bahá'í community is a pioneer society in so many ways.
Canada, the home of my birth, is a pioneer society historically. It is a country six time-zones wide (93 degrees of longitude), with its head high in Arctic ice and its feet in the hot latitudes of the Mediterranean Sea. It has ten million square kilometres of land, over half covered by boreal forest and 32 million people. It is a country filled with pioneers: the indigenous peoples long before the end of the ice age, perhaps as early as 30,000 years ago, came across the Bering Strait; the first Europeans five centuries before Columbus--1985 was the millennium anniversary of the Norse arrival in what is now Canada. These peoples lived in tiny communities of fishing and minimal farming which lasted some 350 years. These Norse people did not try to enslave the native peoples and the natives were not destroyed by disease nor were they worked to death in gold and silver mines as happened in the Caribbean after the Spanish arrival.
Small fishing, hunting and farming communities made good sense in a cold, rocky landscape. That northern tradition of life continued over centuries: it was largely people from the Orkney Islands and Scotland who, after 1670, opened up the centre of our country to Europeans through the fur trade via Hudson Bay. I mention all this because Canada has a long history of pioneers and so, too, does Australia, although I won’t go into all that here. The pioneer is endemic to both countries and I see myself within this long tradition, of course in quite a different context, a socio-historico-spiritual one.
This autobiography of my own pioneering takes nearly half a century of personal accounts of events in the realm of memory and locates connecting points between ancestral, family, societal and religious history along linking lines in an attempt to create a unified whole, a synthesis in time and space. And so it is that, in the context of reproducing my history and my family's history, this autobiography is critically rewriting—at least in part--a new version, a variant, of the old story of my community, my Baha’i community. At the same time a dialogue is created both within and without the Baha’i community, a dialogue about that community’s memory, its contents and discontents. Fiction writing it is often said is about things that are not true but they are real or, to put it another way, they are not real but they are true. In the case of my story, I like to think it is both real and true.
I want to draw on the writing of a fellow Canadian here: Emily Carr(1871-1945). This famous Canadian artist wrote much autobiographically-based prose and her collections are now read as records charting the development of a uniquely Canadian brand of individualism and artistic development. Perhaps this work, all this autobiographically based prose and poetry will one day help to chart the Bahá'í experience in the first century of the Formative Age. This writing could be said to exist as a text, as "literature engagée," which contributes in its own way to new didactic readings of Baha’i history, its politics and sociology, its psychology and the poetry of its community, indeed, what it means to be a Baha’i in the last six decades(1961-2021) of the first century of the Formative Age. There are many layers of circumstantial memories in the Baha’i community, a multiplicity of narratives, multiple voices and multiple interpretations of the same story. The ones that are written down—and there are a myriad of them now after more than a century and a half of the history of this community—are for the most part short and sweet or not-so-sweet as the case may be; some are of medium length and they can be found in all sort of publications and a very few, like my memoir, are long-and hopefully sweet, bitter-sweet and of some pleasure to the intellectual taste-buds of readers. A very few personal and historical narratives are long ones.
The story of Emily Carr’s life and art, writes Susan Elderkin, sometimes appears to eclipse the woman and her experiences. I trust this will not be the case with my story, although one has little control over what others will do with what one writes after one’s passing. Throughout her fictions, autobiography, journals, and published letters, Emily Carr displays her frustration and preoccupation with the public reception of her works. Perhaps, if Carr had had access to the internet in the way that I have enjoyed in the last decade, her frustrations and preoccupations would have been less intense. I get feedback which is immediate and simply pass by the publishers who concerned me back in the 1980s and 1990s. It is also suggested that Carr needed to regard herself as an unappreciated artist in order to continue her work. For the most part, the appreciation or lack of it in the public domain does not concern me since I am a small time player in an immense ball-park of print that threatens to submerge the reading public, if they have not already drowned.
Carr's attention to the reception of her work suggests a keen interest in self-disclosure and disguise. The two apparently contradictory impulses, revelation and self-protection, appear in a wide variety of guises in all of her prose. She repeatedly describes identity as something immediately present yet undisclosed and she accentuates this paradox by expressing selfhood metaphorically. Self-disclosure and disguise or non-disclosure is a concern of mine as memoirist. This is not only because of the desire for self-protection but also due to my preference for a moderate, as opposed to, a full-blown confessionalism in my writing.
I aim to create a construction of history and culture that is a shared one, a process, based on a collective effort, that excludes no one in the Bahá'í community and involves anyone who has the interest and the desire to read what I have written. As a general comment, I would like to emphasize that my memoir is not a particularly easy read. My own experience of the many fields of analysis in the social sciences and humanities is now clearly hopelessly out of date but, still, I try to draw on the developments in the several disciplines of the social sciences that are relevant to this account. It has been impossible for me to keep abreast of the burgeoning fields of knowledge as I have gone about this literary construction. One is tempted to say: “who can?”
Writing this autobiography has been a major exercise not without its problems. Readers trying to engage with this work may find they, too, have their problems. The language that I use may cause them to get out their dictionary or turn to a glossary which my editors may want to include one day when my work is published. Sometimes I think my work, my writing and commentary, is overly courteous, that I have a too gentlemanly manner and that in reading my multi-faceted oeuvre readers may form the impression that I am too polite and uncritical. This would be a mistake for I have often been aroused in life, even on not-so-rare occasions to towering rages, in part due to my bipolar disorder. I have certainly been moved to much displeasure and annoyance when irked by the often and awkward uncooperativeness of many who have crossed my path in life. By these middle years(65-75) of late adulthood(60-80), this annoyance and irksomeness had dissipated significantly but I think this has been due to the new medication regime that came into my bloodstream at the age of 63. I am not the gregarious person I once was and my capacity for social interaction and maintaining patience, tolerance and compassion--when I do engage with others--is not as high as I would like or as it once was.
I have no desire to dumb down my work, although I do make every effort to use simple language, language free of unnecessary jargon. And I am more than willing to put up my own hand in pleading appalling ignorance in so many fields. Being sent scurrying to look up words like ‘hermeneutic’ and ‘epistemology,’ should not be too frequent an experience for readers. I try to keep readers free from the experience of swallowing sentences like: ‘The idea of an ungraspable entity that affects discourse is one elucidated by the Lacanian psychoanalytical concept of the “real.”’ It is sentences like this which fill many a volume in today’s academic world, which give readers intellectual indigestion and which make them jump analytical hoops in the course of their literary negotiations. I hope I fully explain my analytical journeys and help readers work through as well as comprehend each argument. In this way, I trust my memoir and my writings in general, are both educational and rewarding. May they gain an appreciation of my life, my times and my religion that they could not acquire any other way.
Dipping into my five volumes of memoirs and expecting to glean little nuggets of information which readers can slip casually into their next conversation is an ideal that for some will be reached but I’m sure, for most, such an activity is something I advise readers not to expect, not to shoot for. If readers want to prepare to read my work, if they want to prepare the foundations for their own appreciation of my autobiography, they can read in much the same way I did when writing my book, my prose in its several forms and my poetry. In this way readers will be involved with me in what the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin(1895-1975) calls dialogic interaction. "Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of dialogic interaction," writes Mikhail Bakhtin in his analysis of Dostoevsky's Poetics.
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- Posts: 22
- Joined: Mon Sep 05, 2005 4:35 am
- Location: George Town Tasmania Australia
I have been married for 44 years, a teacher for 35, a writer and editor for 13, and a Baha'i for 53(in 2012). I have lived in Australia since 1971 & am now retired and on a pension.