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Ina C. Seethaler, "Lives Beyond Borders: US Immigrant Women’s Life Writing, Nationality, and Social Justice" (Albany, NY: SUNY P, 2021), 221 pp.:


Ina C. Seethaler, Lives Beyond Borders: US Immigrant Women’s Life Writing, Nationality, and Social Justice (Albany, NY: SUNY P, 2021), 221 pp.

Almost as a downstream reaction to the so-called “memoir boom” of the early twenty-first century, the last decade has seen an increase in academic monographs and anthologies analyzing contemporary memoirs and contextualizing them into traditional life writing debates. Ina C. Seethaler’s Lives Beyond Borders: US Immigrant Women’s Life Writing, Nationality, and Social Justice, published in 2021 by SUNY Press, can be counted among those advances. Situated at the intersection between literary criticism, women’s studies, and interrogations into multiethnic literature, the monograph examines how contemporary U.S. migrant women’s memoir adapts and transforms autobiographical traditions and generic norms. In contrast to similar contemporary interrogations, Lives Beyond Borders however already at first glance stands out for its broad comparative perspective and regional scope: it introduces its readers to rather unknown and experimental life writing texts by authors who migrated to the United States from countries as diverse as Mexico, Ghana, South Korea, and Iran. While limiting the scope to life writing by authors that identify as female, Seethaler hence at the same time extends discussions in the field of life writing which in the past have oftentimes focused only on experiences of migration to the United States from South America (Padilla; de Bichara; Batzke).

Before introducing readers to the diverse array of memoirs and autobiographical texts, in its introduction, Lives Beyond Borders starts by drawing on a wide theoretical background that includes feminist theory, critical race theory, and disability studies, next to recent advances in the field of life writing. By doing so, Seethaler provides the theoretical background necessary for arguing that the diverse autobiographical texts under investigation—through genre mixing, motifs of doubling, and other unconventional techniques that challenge traditional generic characteristics of life writing / the memoir—are able to dismantle stereotypes, social hierarchies, and the supposed fixity of identity. It is Seethaler’s declared aim to show how by “grow[ing] life writing as a social justice instrument that establishes a communal and relational sense of self and offers crucial intersectional insights into varying forms of multilayered oppression” (1), life writing by female migrants can lend literary support to grassroots social justice efforts.

Accordingly, Seethaler structures the following five thematical chapters of Lives Beyond Borders around two major interests: 1. the way in which generic characteristics are modified and challenged by the autobiographical works, and 2. their potential to change cultural and social perceptions that shape traditions, laws, and understandings of nationality and social justice. Chapter 1 centers on the memoir Journey of Hope (2007) by Rosalina Rosay, and thus the somewhat prototypical narration of an (undocumented) migrant from Mexico to the United States. As Seethaler identifies right from the start, however, Rosay’s memoir stands out among similar—and more popular—publications (such as Jose Antonio Vargas’s Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen [2019] or Julissa Arce’s My Underground American Dream [2016]) for being a trickster text: Rosay “manipulates the memoir genre by writing her text in the form of the relational testimonio—traditionally connected with collective social activism—but marketing it as a memoir appealing to American individualism” (30). In a careful reading of the memoir, Seethaler traces how innovative and thus genre-bending features in Rosay’s writing style enable the author to add a subversive “subtext” to her story, which in turn allows her to redefine what is expected of female (undocumented) migrant writing. Chapter 2 follows a similar logic but shifts the focus to life writing by African migrants: Seethaler utilizes Meri Nana-Ama Danquah’s Willow Weep for Me (1998) to exemplify how also this author deliberately mixes genres to adapt traditional life writing techniques to be able to speak to Black migrant women’s fight for survival. According to Seethaler, when fusing her memoir with a self-help and a reference book, Danquah is able to comment not only on her own life, but “issues of identity, assimilation, racism, and agency” more generally (30); the author’s life writing becomes a medium to “practice her activism” (84). The following Chapter 3, in contrast to the first two, de-emphasizes the regional and/or cultural focus and instead zooms in on a particular type of migration: transnational adoption. To exemplify life writing by female adoptees, Seethaler focuses on Jane Jeong Trenka’s memoir The Language of Blood (2003). In parallel to Danquah and Rosay, also Trenka’s memoir mixes several genres—this time adding a play, a fairy tale, and a crossword puzzle to her autobiographical narration—in order to encompass the author’s “doubled and fragmented self within those norms of autobiography that prefer a singular self” (32). Chapter 4 then once again adds a regional spotlight, namely on migration from Iran to the United States. It centers on Nahid Rachlin’s memoir Persian Girls (2006). As Seethaler points out, as a “collective memoir” (125), the text advocates powerfully for women’s autonomy: by including short stories, letters, and particularly imagined episodes of the author’s sister’s life, the traditionally I-centered memoir becomes a medium for communal (female) storytelling. In the case of the Iranian migrant memoir more generally, generic deviation does hence parallel the author’s intention to also “do away with Western misconceptions about Iran” (145). Finally, the fifth and last thematical chapter of Lives Beyond Borders centers on various forms of life writing that have come out of the Syrian refugee crisis. In analyzing Inside Out and Back Again (2011), Thanhha Lai’s lyrical novel based on her own journey to the United States as a Vietnamese refugee in the 1970s, Seethaler first sheds light on common experiences displaced people have. The chapter then compares Lai’s writing to Bana al-Abed’s Dear World: A Syrian Girl’s Story of War and Plea for Peace (2017). While this comparative perspective certainly enhances the reader’s understanding of refugee life writing as an essential subcategory within female migration life writing more generally, the analyses of both texts unfortunately do not fall back on the discussions about generic hybridity that thus far dominated the previous chapters of Lives Beyond Borders; the chapter nevertheless establishes noteworthy parallels on the level of content, particularly when paralleling the gendered nature of the reasons for and experiences with (forced) migration with those of refugeeism.

All in all, the case studies included in Lives Beyond Borders thus range widely across regional and thematic areas, encircling various examples of life writing by female migrants to the United States. While this, as pointed out earlier, certainly encompasses one of the strengths of Seethaler’s study, it also leads to a certain degree of disjuncture present in the monograph: while at least most thematical chapters focus on the way in which generic characteristics are modified and challenged, the potential of the texts to change cultural and social perceptions—Seethaler’s second main interest—is oftentimes addressed only in passing (and in the epilogue). The individual arguments presented and contexts explored within the individual chapters could also have been linked in a more convincing manner. At times, Lives Beyond Borders reads more like a heterogeneous essay collection than a monograph, an impression that is also due to the fact that the introduction relies heavily on a mere juxtaposition of quotes and secondary literature, i. e., almost reads like a literature review, instead of presenting a self-contained argument that is then traced in each chapter of the book. As a result, Lives Beyond Borders perhaps offers the most fruitful reading experience when approached as a collection of case studies, as each thematical chapter on its own presents valuable insights into various novel and innovative advances in the field of female migrant life writing, spanning diverse regional and thematic backgrounds.

Ina Batzke (Universität Augsburg)

Works Cited

1 

Arce, Julissa. My (Underground) American Dream. Nashville, TX: Center Street, 2016. Print.

2 

Batzke, Ina. Undocumented Migrants in the United States: Life Narratives and Self-Representations. New York: Routledge, 2018. Print.

3 

De Bichara, Donna M. Kabalen. Four Mexican American Women Writers. College Station, TX: Texas A & M UP, 2013. Print.

4 

Padilla, Genaro M. My History, Not Yours: The Formation of Mexican American Autobiography. Madison, WI: U of Wisconsin P, 1993. Print.

5 

Vargas, José Antonio. Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen. New York: Harper Collins, 2019. Print.

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