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Eva Hoffman - mixing genres

As part of the life writing seminar series at Kingston University, this evening writer, academic and former literary editor Eva Hoffman gave a talk on 'mixing genres' and also gave a reading from her novel, Illuminations.

Eva Hoffman began by referring to her critically acclaimed memoir, 'Lost in Translation' (1989), which came about when she wanted to write something on the transliteral - an intersection of the subjective and the objective, which would also reflect herself as a Polish Jewish immigrant into America. At first she toyed with the idea of writing an essay, using herself as a case study, but it then became the memoir. Finding the right form, she says, can be a tricky business. She spoke of fiction versus non-fiction and gave the oft-quoted 'the writer has a contract with the reader', when referring to non-fiction, i.e. it has to be true and not invented. Yet she then also acknowledged that all fiction is, if only in part, autobiographical. I asked her whether she felt that fiction was a misnomer that we should see to replace, as it clearly breaks this contract if, by 'fiction', the reader assumes it to be totally invented? She said no, that it only pertained to non-fiction. I suppose there are too many blurred lines between truth and fiction in fiction and, there is more of a duty not to invent in non-fiction, but that it doesn't matter as much if one passes off autobiography as fiction, but certainly not biography.

She spoke of the trauma that was involved in her exile when she emigrated to Canada, at the age of thirteen, but how it was an 'informative' trauma. She certainly seems to have learnt a lot from the process of acclimatising to a different language and culture. But then it seems as though there was more recognisable trauma in Poland. Eva Hoffman was born in Cracow in 1945 to Jewish parents who escaped the holocaust by hiding in the Ukraine. In Canada she found a very different life where she had to learn to speak English and that, during this time, she found she had no way of projecting her personality and from this she realised the importance of language not only in creating the self, but in creating the self to the self - one's interiority - without language it becomes dark. She then moved onto several readings from Illuminations, about a female pianist, based on herself, as she studied the piano whilst still in Poland, and how intensely she feels the music and romance. She meets a Chechyen freedom fighter, or, 'terrorist', a Romantic of a different sort and it charts the meeting of these two romantics. Hoffman says that she had first thought about this novel prior to 9/11 and when the twin towers came down it changed everything. She was not going to write the novel as she felt it would be seen as capitalising on it, especially to include the terrorist. And so she left it a little while before returning to it. One of the themes of Illuminations is how art can contain the passion of the freedom fighter - the violence. Hoffman's reading from the novel was enchanting - she has the immigrant's way with the English language, wanting to show her wide vocabulary, and this results in a prose that is excellent at description, so much so, that I must order it.

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