Life Writing and the Life of Faith
Session Hosted by the Conference on Christianity and Literature at the 2020 MLA Convention,
Seattle, WA, 9-12 January 2020
Through more than four decades of writing, poet Marilyn Nelson, the Conference on Christianity and Literature’s 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, has limned the shapes of life and faith. This work includes explorations of her own life in personal lyric and the childhood verse-memoirHow I Discovered Poetry, but it has also, perhaps even more typically, involved writing other lives. Carver: A Life in Verseexamines the inseparability of scientific vocation, racialized experience, and Christian faithfulness in the extraordinary character of George Washington Carver. The Homeplacetells a family history populated by figures all the way back to Nelson’s great-great-great grandmother. The sonnet sequence A Wreath for Emmett Till memorializes the “mutilated boy martyr” while condemning “the blasphemies pronounced to justify / the profane, obscene theft of human lives.” In these and other books, Nelson has undertaken a concerted project of poetic life writing that is at once faith-filled and searching.
Nelson’s project raises questions of genre and purpose: what difference does poetry make to biography and autobiography? What risks haunt versified hagiography? What possibilities arise in the interstices of Christian struggle, self-narration, and aesthetic form? How do writers negotiate private and public purposes in life writing, including disciplines of contemplation and prophetic calls for justice?
Nelson’s project also raises questions of history and reception. Life writing has been a Christian endeavor from at least Augustine’s Confessionsand Athanasius’s biography of Anthony of the Desert, not to mention the Gospels; how have twentieth-century developments like confessional poetry, the 1990s memoir boom, digital life writing, and the ongoing unfolding of (post)secular contexts complicated contemporary life writing and its relation to the tradition? How do we theorize readers’ and writers’ unflagging interest in both ancient and new life writing texts and their place in Christian practice?
Inspired by Nelson’s poetry of lives and faith, the Conference on Christianity and Literature invites papers that explore these questions. We welcome papers on Nelson’s engagements with faith in her life writing as well as papers on our topic more broadly construed.
Please send 250-word abstracts and brief C.V. to Cynthia Wallace (cwallace[AT]stmcollege.ca) by March 22, 2019.