Accepted Paper:

Conversion and the language of autobiography: inventing the protestant self in nineteenth-century India  

Author:

Hephzibah Israel (University of Edinburgh)

Paper short abstract:

The proposed paper examines Protestant conversion autobiographies from late nineteenth-century India to analyse how Protestant converts chose to construct new religious identities rhetorically. I aim to investigate the textual, rhetorical resolution of ‘religious crises’ through the autobiography.

Paper long abstract:

The proposed paper examines Protestant conversion autobiographies from late nineteenth-century India to analyse how Protestant converts chose to construct new religious identities. Locating autobiography in an interdisciplinary context, I will investigate the genre as a key element in new understandings of cultural identity. Religious conversion is an experience that seems particularly suited to autobiographical writing because the central focus of conversion, the supposed awakening to a sense of true self-knowledge, anticipates the conversion of lived experience into textual self-representation. Thus, the self-directed, often self-conscious programme of self-reform, and the decision to convert, fits well with the idea of the enactment of self-choice in the very writing of autobiography.

I view autobiography as resulting from a complex set of interrelated historical and cultural factors. I will examine how autobiography allowed for new organisations of the self by which a convert identifies him/herself as a stable and independent object. In particular, I am interested in the rhetoric that surrounds conversion narratives. With examples from various published autobiographies, this paper aims to investigate the textual, rhetorical resolution of 'religious crises' through the autobiography. I will analyse the language in which conversion is interpreted and conceived and what literary devices are used by the convert to construct conversion experiences as 'genuine'. I will also discuss the role of paratexts and translation in the construction, circulation and consumption of these autobiographies.

Panel P47
Of saints, converts, and heroes: hagiographies and conversion auto/biographies across religions in South Asia