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“Witnessing Girlhood” charts a History of Life Writing as a Means to Address Gender and Racial Injustice

24th September 2020

Witnessing Girlhood

Can you give us some background about how the book first came about?

My colleague Leigh Gilmore and I have been collaborating on the topic of childhood, life writing, and trauma for over a decade. We have written on literary life writing, such as human rights activist Rigoberta Menchú’s testimonio I, Rigoberta Menchú as well as on graphic forms like Una’s Becoming Unbecoming and David Small’s Stitches: A Memoir as well as picture book testimonies like Junko Morimoto’s My Hiroshima.  We come from different disciplinary backgrounds. Leigh works out of English and gender studies while my background is in children’s literature, cultures of childhood, and education. Our interests overlap around life writing, trauma, and feminist theories of representation.

Why did you and Gilmore decide to name the book, Witnessing Girlhood?

We originally entitled the book Child Witness, but as we began to complete the book it became clear that our central interest coalesced around the figure of the girl-child and how adult women used this figure to return to and reclaim stories that have been long silenced or ignored. Girlhood is also a diffuse category, and our epilogue disrupts “girl” as a static identity marker through a focus on trans life writing, including Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love and So Much More. Witnessing Girlhood also refers to what the readers of this book and of life writing about childhood and trauma are asked to do; namely, that they are called to engage with it ethically rather than consume it passively. The book includes a dynamic visual archive through which comic artists Phoebe Gloeckner and Una as well as picture book artist Junko Morimoto create visual testimonies that seek out ethical viewers/readers.

Can you tell us what you mean by “life writing” and why it is important for understanding the child witness?

 “Life writing” is an umbrella term that includes diverse autobiographical forms. Women use a variety of narrative and visual strategies to witness their childhoods. We have a chapter on children’s picture books, for example, and one on the memoir boom of the 1990s that also analyzes Hannah Gadsby’s solo performance Nanette. We connect slave narratives to Latin American testimonio and to feminist comics and graphic memoir in order to demonstrate how frequently and powerfully women, and trans and nonbinary writers, use the self-representation of childhood and adolescence to disrupt norms of silencing and connect with readers.

What was the most meaningful aspect of reading life writing to understand violence in the lives of girls and women?

Life writing offers a first-person perspective. It not only frames events and experiences from this point of view, it centers the subjectivity and authority of the narrator. We found the woman who narrates and analyzes her own childhood experience of trauma to be missing from the established archive of whose knowledge counts. To counter this exclusion and the distortions it invariably produces, we chart a feminist intersectional tradition of women writing about their childhoods, framing their authority through this experience, and representing the impact of violence and their analysis of it. In so doing, we call attention to forms of self-representation that hide in plain sight. In the life writing we analyze, violence is a persistent aspect of childhood, and women use life narrative strategically to persuade diverse and distant audiences to see them as credible witnesses rather than rescue targets. The exemplary origin to this tradition is Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. With her work as a starting point, we trace the recurrence of a mode of life writing that enlists the reader as an ethical witness and is centrally concerned with race, gender, and justice.

What has the response been to Witnessing Girlhood?

The response to Witnessing Girlhood has been positive. Reviews highlight the dynamic archive of life writing that we analyze, comment on how our book rejects the cliché of the sentimentalized child, and how the book engages with persistent and everyday violence in the lives of girls and women. Witnessing Girlhood  will appear as a 2020 feature book in the Society for the History of Children and Youth’s online magazine. 

Is there anything else about the book you would like to tell us?

In connecting events and cases across different time periods, forms, and places, we found recurring strategies and figures. One of our central findings is the “trope of accompaniment,” which offers a way to retell the story of childhood trauma without retraumatizing the author or performing that retraumatization for readers. As the adult narrator accompanies her younger self, she reframes the trauma, explains it, offers knowledge she did not have access to at the time, and makes a point about trauma and justice. The book is especially important for educators and others who work with children because it attends to forms of education, including violence, that define childhoods outside of the schoolroom.

Leigh Gilmore is the author of Tainted Witness: Why We Doubt What Women Say About Their Lives, winner of a 2018 Choice Outstanding Academic Title award. With Elizabeth Marshall, she is the co-author of Witnessing Girlhood: Toward an Intersectional Tradition of Life Writing (2019). A scholar of life writing and feminist theory, she is the author of the groundbreaking books, The Limits of Autobiography: Trauma and Testimony (2001) and Autobiographics: A Feminist Theory of Women’s Self-Representation (1994) and co-editor of Autobiography and Postmodernism (1994). Her research appears in scholarly journals, including SIGNSFeminist StudiesWomen’s Studies QuarterlyBiography, and Profession, and in numerous edited collections. She has been Professor of English at The Ohio State University, Dorothy Cruikshank Backstrand Chair of Women’s and Gender Studies at Scripps College, and has held visiting appointments at UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, Northeastern University, Harvard Divinity School, Brown University, and Wellesley College. She writes for The Conversation and WBUR’s Cognoscenti and appears frequently as an analyst of the #MeToo movement. She is currently writing a book on the #MeToo movement. 

Elizabeth Marshall is associate professor of Education at Simon Fraser University, where she teaches courses on children’s literature and popular culture. Her research interests include children’s and young adult literature, life writing, picture books, comics, and popular culture. Marshall’s interdisciplinary scholarship has appeared in numerous academic journals, including Feminist StudiesJeunesse: Young People, Texts, Cultures, Language ArtsThe Lion and The Unicorn, and Women’s Studies Quarterly. Marshall is the author of  Graphic Girlhoods: Visualizing Education and Violence (Routledge, 2018)and co-author with Leigh Gilmore of Witnessing Girlhood: Toward an Intersectional Tradition of Life Writing(Fordham, 2019). Her current book project focuses on representations of alcohol and childhood in American visual culture.

Posted on June 26, 2020 by:


Listen to a podcast interview with Leigh Gilmore and Elizabeth Marshall that will also appear in the SHCY online magazine in November 2020. The authors are interviewed by Dr. Hannah McGregor, Assistant Professor of Publishing at SFU and producer and host of Secret Feminist Agenda. Funding for this podcast was made possible by SFU Faculty of Education’s Research Hub.

For ways to use life writing in the elementary classroom download Marshall’s article on Life Writing and the Language Arts.