Book Review

Review of *Picturing Identity: Contemporary American Autobiography in Image and Text*

The Book

Picturing Identity: Contemporary American Autobiography in Image and Text. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2018. 265 p.

The Author(s)

Hertha D. Sweet Wong

Picturing Identity: Contemporary American Autobiography in Image and Text makes an innovative contribution to the ever-growing canon of autobiography studies, which has been championed by critics such as James Olney since the 1970s. In her book, Hertha D. Sweet Wong examines the “pictorial turn” (6) in autobiography in the last few decades of the twentieth century following the civil rights era. Wong argues that, along with the social movements of the civil rights era, notions of individual identity became fractured, thus stultifying enthusiasm for the developmental bildung quality and the exclusively text-based narrative of the traditional autobiography. She works against assumptions about “the American self-made autonomous subject” (230) by turning her attention to visual autobiography, which ensconces the artists within their complex historical and cultural contexts. In her study, she examines diverse, well-known works such as Leslie Marmon Silko’s photo-narrative Storyteller, Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus, and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s experimental book Dictée, as well as lesser-known works such as Peter Najarian’s illustrated memoirs, Julie Chen’s artists’ books, Carrie Mae Weems’s photo-(auto)biographies, Faith Ringgold’s story quilts, and Hachivi Edgar Heap of Birds’s art installations. Branching out from her first book, Sending My Heart Back Across the Years: Traditions and Innovation in Native American Autobiography (1992), Wong studies a diversity of minority artists who articulate their racially and culturally particular memoirs through combinations of text and image in Picturing Identity. She claims that visual autobiography encompasses performative, situational, dialogic and narrative-based subjectivities.

Wong begins the book powerfully by historicizing the visual autobiography in the latter decades of the twentieth century, in which the collage of text and image in autobiographies reflected the deconstruction of identity that was theorized and embraced by contemporary thinkers. In making an argument that she describes as “cumulative and prismatic” (15), she employs a variety of critical perspectives to close read various forms of images and texts. In many of her chapters, she historicizes the works she close reads instead of making grand historicizing gestures to link the multiple works she studies. She undertakes lateral spot comparisons between the works studied in the chapters. Her book is divided into eight chapters—each devoted to one of the eight artists cited above—and in three parts: (I.) Literature-Based Image-And-Text Forms; (II.) Hinge Image-and-Text Forms; and (III.) Art-Based Image-And-Text Forms.

Her first chapter, “Peter Najarian’s Illustrated Memoirs,” delivers the historical background of the Armenian genocide (1915-1918; 1920-1923) which informs Najarian’s memoirs such as Daughters of Memory. Less experimental than the other works of Wong’s study, Najarian’s memoirs nevertheless represent the figure of the Armenian mother as cultural loss and identity as well as survival. She notes that, in his images, Najarian’s gaze is often problematically gendered: “a version of the classic male gaze that consumes, rapes, or dominates that which is observed” (20). She claims that Najarian is wont to equate women with beauty, desire, nature, and art in his pictorial memoirs. Wong continues to examine the conceptual relations between text and photographs in her second chapter, “Leslie Marmon Silko’s Photo-Narratives.” In this chapter, she analyzes Silko’s photo-text autobiographies such as Storyteller and Sacred Water. She concludes that her disjointed photo-texts reflect Silko’s vacillation between Western paradigms of linear time and Pueblo concepts of cyclical temporality.

Considering the graphic novel form as “a more complete union of image and text” (83),Wong’s third chapter, “Art Spiegelman’s Graphic Memoir, Maus,” claims that Spiegelman distributes the autobiographical self among the characters of the “mother, father, extended family, and culture…Rather than a singular autonomous ‘I,’…the autobiographical subject is profoundly relational” (83). In her fourth chapter, “Julie Chen’s Artists’ Books,” Wong shifts her focus to Chen’s hypertext-like (130) artists’ books, which unify a medley of images, texts, and mediums. Wong returns to the theme of the loss of homeland, which she discusses in her first chapter, in her fifth chapter, “Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictée.” Building on other critics’—such as Sunn Shelley Wong’s and Josephine Park’s—claims, she treats Dictée, famously known as a genre-less book, as an epic poem in the style of modernists such as T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound where language collapses. She smartly associates the poem with “dictation,” interpreting Cha’s efforts as an experiment in translation to document the loss of a motherland and mother tongue.

Less about loss, Carrie Mae Weems’s photo-autobiographies—the subject of Wong’s sixth chapter—assert her politicized personal African and Native American histories and her social critiques of race and class in the U.S. She underscores Weems’s training as both an artist and a folklorist in her “visual storytelling” (171), in which she “grappl[es] with the complex issues of representation, memory, history, and subjectivity” (195). In her seventh chapter, “Faith Ringgold’s Story Quilts,” Wong focuses on the ways in which Ringgold invigorates the artist form of the quilt, like Weems, to represent the social constructions of race and gender. For example, in her quilt, Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima?, resonating with Edward Albee’s famous play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, she rearticulates the racial and gendered stereotype of the “black mammy” as the central figure of a community of African-Native women on the quilt. In her eighth chapter, “Hachivi Edgar Heap of Birds’s Artwork,” Wong turns to the experimental, visual art installations of Heap of Birds, which critique European American erasure of Native culture and land. She argues that his text-based visual art installations specifically provide a platform for “remembrance” and “repatriation” (215). His work thematically focuses on home and homelands and, like Silko, cyclical temporal patterns.

Wong continues James Olney’s advancements in studying different types of autobiography by focusing on the pictorial shift in autobiography formation in the late twentieth century. The book concludes by relating the new visual-verbal interfaces of the visual autobiography to social media such as Facebook as a form of everyday autobiography.  Wong’s Picturing Identity is a useful resource for introducing undergraduate and graduate students to the fields of autobiography studies, art history, and the graphic novel, in particular, which find their intersections here.

About the Reviewer

Audrey Wu Clark is an Associate Professor of English at the United States Naval Academy. Her work focuses on Asian American literature, African American literature, critical race theory, and twentieth-century American literature.

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  1. Thank you for this elegant and informative review of a fascinating new work. Autobiography, as a reconstituted drama of selfhood, makes for some of the most delicious reading–or, as Hertha D. Sweet Wong seems to imply–viewing. I wonder how some of these theories about the interplay of text and image would translate to the field of documentary editing? Historical and literary editors tend to diverge on how to approach, for example, questions of what needs annotation and explanation beyond the supplied text. Particularly, I’m thinking of the challenges that editors face when selecting and publishing “unconventional texts” (i.e. pieces of music) for annotation. I’ll look forward to checking out how Sweet’s work can refine the standard editorial process.

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S-USIH Comment Policy

We ask that those who participate in the discussions generated in the Comments section do so with the same decorum as they would in any other academic setting or context. Since the USIH bloggers write under our real names, we would prefer that our commenters also identify themselves by their real name. As our primary goal is to stimulate and engage in fruitful and productive discussion, ad hominem attacks (personal or professional), unnecessary insults, and/or mean-spiritedness have no place in the USIH Blog’s Comments section. Therefore, we reserve the right to remove any comments that contain any of the above and/or are not intended to further the discussion of the topic of the post. We welcome suggestions for corrections to any of our posts. As the official blog of the Society of US Intellectual History, we hope to foster a diverse community of scholars and readers who engage with one another in discussions of US intellectual history, broadly understood.