The Hogan Prize a/b: Auto/Biography Studies

a/b: Auto/Biography Studies

The Hogan Prize will be awarded in 2017 to Julie Rak for “Radical Connections: Genealogy, Small Lives, Big Data.” Drawn from a special issue of a/b: Auto/Biography Studies on the theme of “Excavating Lives,” this essay stood out for me for its big-picture analysis of genealogy—one of the most popular life-story practices today. Most of us will have a relative or friend who has fallen sway to the seduction of family-tree making and perhaps you have too, though it remains somewhat of a confession for an academic to say so. Rak’s essay crisply shows why we should be distrustful, yet she is also determined to honor the instincts that fuel such interest while nicely respecting genealogy’s opportunities for learning research skills.

The explosion of family-tree research responds to the “movement of family groups in the last two centuries, the advent of biotracking through census and other records newly available online and the history of enslavement or other forced migrations” as well as prodding by television programs such as Who Do You Think You Are? (10). Rak neatly draws out the ambiguity of the term itself. As the title of the article suggests, genealogy can epitomize an essentialist (often elitist and racist) assertion of biologized identity, but it can also open a set of “radical connections” in which roots become rhizome-like, where it is solidarity in the network that counts.

Rak cleverly frames her argument with a helpful reminder of theories of genealogy as a method that paradoxically sets itself against seeking an “origin principle,” from Nietzsche through Deleuze and Guattari to Alondra Nelson’s work on African American “kin-keeping.” Rak also maps out discussion in our field, principally via Julia Watson, Julia Creet, and Naomi Tallbear, all of whom confirm that life narrative thrives in the search for family connections. Yet she also playfully points out that every “tree” leads quickly into a forest simply too dense to fully map. The most compelling part of her argument, however, relates to “the business of genealogy,” where she raises the frankly horrifying specter of the genealogy and DNA-testing company Ancestry.com acquiring all the world’s genealogical data. (It has already secured access to records in the United States, Canada, Australia, South Africa, and much of Europe, with limited access to genealogical records elsewhere; it controls Rootsweb, military database Fold3, FindaGrave.com, and the software Family Tree Maker; it owns the AncestryDNA testing service and AncestryHealth and it controls online access to all the US census records from the eighteenth century onward.) Shamelessly monetizing what should be public or personal records, Ancestry.com and its associate FamilySearch also conceal the interests of Mormon Christians attempting to carry out forms of posthumous conversion on everybody else’s dead. It’s sensational but true and another reason for this prize, as Rak shows just why life-writing critics need to get to grips with the politics of big data if we value “small lives.”

Building on the perceptions of women, LGBTQI people, and scholars of color, Rak’s method is consistent with her argument in favor of “families” of progressive alliance, consistent too with life-writing studies, which in its own way has been all about the possibility of making “radical connections.” I conclude this brief tribute, therefore, by acknowledging some of the other radically spirited submissions to this prize: Kylie Cardell on Marie Kondo’s how-to-tidy bestseller; Ana Belén Martínez García on North Korean girls’ memoirs; Olga Michael on Lynda Barry’s graphic survivor art; and particularly encouraging for me at least, Xin Huang’s description of photo-auto/biography workshops with older women in her home town of Chongqing. All these can be found in this special issue, whose rich pages I encourage you to excavate while congratulating again the winner of this year’s Hogan Prize, Julie Rak!

Margaretta Jolly, August 2017
Centre for Life History and Life Writing Research
University of Sussex, UK