Return visits: the European background of transcultural life writing
Many autobiographies by European immigrants to North America in the course of the Second World War trace the formation of a new transcultural identity to their childhood and/or adolescence in Europe. Particularly the experience of growing up in Eastern Europe under difficult political and ideological circumstances seems to provide the basis for a multi-ethnic and transnational coexistence in the new world. The autobiographical reconstruction of the historical expanse and eventual collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and Prussian empires, followed by the destructive advance of the Communist and the Fascist ideologies, are set against the prevailing body of European thought as a cultural bond of all people. The imperialistic structures of the political powers are undercut by cultural and religious bonds, which transgress all boundaries. In this sense, the Yiddish language functions as a lingua franca in Eastern Europe.
This background facilitates the process of acculturation in a new environment and enables the European newcomers to help frame a new multicultural and potentially transnational society. After the collapse of the Communist Bloc in 1989 and the newly gained independence of Eastern European countries many immigrants returned to the sites of their youth. These return visits represent an important part of their autobiographical accounts and contribute indirectly to the formation of a unified Europe and the creation of transcultural identities between Europe and Northern America. In my talk I will use the life writings of authors from Latvia, Hungary, Russia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the Ukraine to analyze the importance of the East European background for life in North America and its prominence in the autobiographical recollection. The special focus on these writers' return visits to their East European origin will reveal the impact of a democratic basis for transnational self-healing processes and the function of a transcultural identity. The general purpose of all life writing, which aims at the resolution of various crisis situations, political, cultural or physical, corresponds to the adoption of a planetary consciousness and the hope for Immanuel Kant's "eternal peace".
Lisa Appignanesi, Losing the Dead (1999); Modris Eksteins, Walking in Daybreak: A Story of Eastern Europe, World War II, and the Heart of Our Century (1999); Irena F. Karafilly, The Stranger in the Plumed Hat: A Memoir (2000); Janice Kulyk Keefer, Honey and Ashes: A Story of a Family (1998); Anna Porter, The Storyteller: Memory, Secrets, Magic and Lies (2000); Hanna Spencer's Hanna's Diary, 1938-1941 (2001).
Alfred Hornung is Professor and Chair of English and American Studies at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz. He held guest professorships at various European, American, Canadian, and Chinese universities. He was a fellow at Harvard, Yale, the National Humanities Center in North Carolina, and is a member of the Center for Cross-cultural studies at Peking University. His publications are in the field of modernism, postmodernism, autobiography, postcolonialism, intercultural, and transnational studies: Narrative Struktur und Textsortendifferenzierung: Die Texte des Muckraking Movement 1902-1912 ["Narrative Structure and the Differentiation of Texts: The Muckraking Movement 1902-1912"] (1978), Kulturkrise und ihre literarische Bewältigung: Die Funktion der autobiographischen Struktur in Amerika vom Puritanismus zur Postmoderne ["Cultural Crisis and its Resolution: The Function of the Autobiographical Structure from Puritanism to Postmodernism"] (1985), Lexikon Amerikanische Literatur ["Dictionary of American Literature" ](1991), 20 volumes on postmodernism, interculturality and autobiography. From 1991-2002 he was the general editor of the journal Amerikastudien / American Studies. He is an editor of the American Studies Monograph Series, the American Studies Journal, the Journal of Transnational American Studies and on the editorial board of several journals, including Atlantic Studies and Contemporary Foreign Literature (Nanjing). He served as President of MESEA (the Society for Multi-Ethnic Studies: Europe and the Americas, 2000-04), as President of the German Association for American Studies (2002-2005), member of the International Committee of the ASA, director of the Center for Intercultural Studies, Dean of Philosophy and Philology, and senator at Mainz. Since 2008 he has been an elected member of the review board for European and North American literature of the German Research Foundation. He is a founding member and on the executive board of IABA and of IABA Europe.