When Memory Speaks by Jill Ker Conway
Exploring the Art of Autobiography (Vintage)

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J ill Ker Conway, one of our most admired  autobiographers--author of The Road from Coorain and True North--looks astutely and with feeling into the modern memoir: the forms and styles it assumes, and the strikingly different ways in which men and women respectively tend to understand and present their lives.
In a narrative rich with evocations of memoirists over the centuries--from Jean-Jacques Rousseau and George Sand to W. E. B. Du Bois, Virginia Woolf, Frank McCourt and Katharine Graham--the author suggests why it is that we are so drawn to the reading of autobiography, and she illuminates the cultural assumptions behind the ways in which we talk about ourselves.
Conway traces the narrative patterns typically found in autobiographies by men to the tale of the classical Greek hero and his epic journey of adventure. She shows how this configuration evolved, in memoirs, into the passionate romantic struggling against the conventions of society, into the frontier hero battling the wilderness, into self-made men overcoming economic obstacles to create an invention or a fortune--or, more recently, into a quest for meaning, for an understandable past, for an ethnic identity.
In contrast, she sees the designs that women commonly employ for their memoirs as evolving from the writings of the mystics--such as Dame Julian of Norwich or St. Teresa of Avila--about their relationship with an all-powerful God. As against the male autobiographer's expectation of power over his fate, we see the woman memoirist again and again believing that she lacks command of her destiny, and tending to censor her own story.
Throughout, Conway underlines the memoir's magic quality of allowing us to enter another human being's life and mind--and how this experience enlarges and instructs our own lives.

About Jill Ker Conway

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Jill Ker Conway was born in Hillston, New South Wales, Australia, graduated from the University of Sydney in 1958, and received her Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1969. In 1962 she married John Conway and moved with him to his native Canada. From 1964 to 1975 she taught at the University of Toronto, where she was also Vice President, before going to Smith College. Since 1985 she has been a visiting scholar and professor in MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society. She serves on the boards of Nike, Merrill Lynch, and Colgate-Palmolive, and as Chairman of Lend Lease Corporation. She lives in Boston.
Published June 8, 2011 by Vintage. 224 pages
Genres: Literature & Fiction, Education & Reference. Non-fiction

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Kirkus Reviews

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In this erudite essay, former Smith College president and Australian expatriate autobiographer Conway (The Road from Coorain, 1989; True North, 1995) makes a smart but less than convincing case for the construction of identity through the writing of life stories.

May 20 2010 | Read Full Review of When Memory Speaks: Exploring...

Publishers Weekly

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Memoirs often include events and thoughts that reveal the author's perception of how they see themselves, frequently excluding known aspects of their lives. Omissions, or a narrow focus, lead Conway (

Mar 02 1998 | Read Full Review of When Memory Speaks: Exploring...


The author reminds us that we are all autobiographers, "but few of us give close attention to the forms and tropes of the culture through which we report ourselves to ourselves .

Apr 05 2014 | Read Full Review of When Memory Speaks: Exploring...

Story Circle Book Reviews

And, Conway points out, even such assertive feminists as Germain Greer (in Daddy, We Hardly Knew You) and Gloria Steinem (Revolution From Within) reveal in their memoirs the difficulty of redefining ourselves as heroes of our own stories.

Jan 08 2001 | Read Full Review of When Memory Speaks: Exploring...

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