Winner’s story: Philip Holden

The Hogan Prize for a/b: Auto/Biography Studies

The prize itself is a very fitting tribute to the contribution of Rebecca and Joseph Hogan to auto/biography studies through their scholarship and their editorship of a/b: Auto/Biography Studies over the years…

holden2014I became interested in life writing a decade or so ago, in a project that led to my book Autobiography and Decolonization (University of Wisconsin Press, 2008). I quickly found a home in an interdisciplinary community of scholars centered on the International AutoBiography Association (IABA) and three key journals in the field: Biography, a/b; Auto/Biography Studies, and Life Writing. In the last decade I’ve thus found myself straddling two research areas that only fitfully come together: Southeast Asian—and in particular Singaporean—literature in English, and auto/biography studies.

About six years ago, I commenced a research project that tried to merge some of the strands of my research, writing a literary biography of the British writer, W. Somerset Maugham, who wrote about colonial Malaya and Singapore. Yet I found—and still find—writing the biography surprisingly difficult. In 2014, preparing to write a conference paper at the International Auto/Biography Conference in Banff, I was struck my how some of the features of Maugham’s life that had been seen as obstacles to overcome by previous biographers—his stammer, for example, and his dementia in late life—in fact told me a great deal about him and the persona he manufactured for a reading public. On an extended sabbatical in Canada at a time of change in my own life, I also became aware of the fact that my own self of sense was intimately bound up with this and other writing projects. My paper at the IABA mixed personal recollection with scholarly analysis in order to foreground this.

After the conference, I was encouraged by Eva Karpinski and Leena Kurvet-Käosaar to submit an extended version of the essay for a special issue of a/b: Auto/Biography Studies. Eva and Leena proved thoughtful editors and interlocutors, and encouraged me to develop the essay’s intermingling of scholarly analysis, biographical narrative, and autobiographical reflection. I was very honored to receive the inaugural Hogan Prize for the essay. The prize itself is a very fitting tribute to the contribution of Rebecca and Joseph Hogan to auto/biography studies through their scholarship and their editorship of a/b: Auto/Biography Studies over the years. By coincidence, Rebecca attended my panel at IABA 2014, and expressed enthusiasm about my paper in conversation afterwards. a/b: Auto/biography Studies has long been one of the major scholarly journals in life writing, and it’s good to see the journal going from strength to strength, with Ricia Chansky and Emily Hipchen now building on the legacy that the Hogans have left.

Auto/biography studies continues to fascinate me because it forces scholars to bridge so many different research areas, looking at how selves are made and unmade through everyday narratives. I’m glad that my paper “Selves in Dialogue: W. Somerset Maugham and Dementia’s Story” managed to build such intellectual bridges not only through its content but also through its form, and I hope that the Hogan Prize will continue to reward innovative scholarship in the area over future years.


Read Holden’s winning article Selves in Dialogue: W. Somerset Maugham and Dementia’s Stories

Find out more about the Hogan Prize and read the judge’s statement.