Narrative Agency, Life-Writing, and the Experience of Illness

Hannah Meretoja smiling at the camera

This talk explores the concept of narrative agency, which refers to our ability to navigate our narrative environments, to use, interpret and reinterpret narratives that are culturally available to us, and to make choices over how we narrate our lives and our relationships. I propose a model that articulates three central dimensions of narrative agency: narrative awareness, narrative imagination, and narrative dialogicality. I will then discuss how the experience of serious illness can challenge one’s sense of agency and the ability to narrate one’s life. I reflect on my own recent experience of breast cancer and on my attempts to write about it. This involves the difficulty to locate the traumatic experience in time and space, and a critical engagement with the culturally dominant narratives of cancer. The talk reflects on the possibilities and limits of narrative in dealing with the challenge that serious illness or other experiences of crisis can present to one’s sense of agency and explores the problems inherent in the need for narrative mastery that tends to dominate culturally available narratives of crisis.


Hanna Meretoja is Professor of Comparative Literature and Director of SELMA: Centre for the Study of Storytelling, Experientiality and Memory at the University of Turku (Finland). In 2019-2020, she is Visiting Scholar at Oxford Centre for Life-Writing (Wolfson College) and Visiting Fellow at Exeter College, University of Oxford. Her research is mainly in the fields of narrative theory, narrative ethics, life-writing studies, cultural memory studies, and trauma studies. Her monographs include The Ethics of Storytelling: Narrative Hermeneutics, History, and the Possible (2018, Oxford University Press) and The Narrative Turn in Fiction and Theory (2014, Palgrave Macmillan), and she has co-edited, with Colin Davis, The Routledge Companion to Literature and Trauma (2020, Routledge) and Storytelling and Ethics: Literature, Visual Arts and the Power of Narrative (2018, Routledge).

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How will online events work?

We will aim to upload the video 24 hours before the event, and then, at the usual time of 1:15 on a Tuesday there will be a text-based discussion with the speaker via the OCLW Facebook group. You will need to have a Facebook account and be a member of the OCLW Group to participate in the discussions.

If you are not a member of our Facebook group and decide you would like to join, here is what you can do:

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For anyone who doesn't want to use Facebook we will try and make the videos themselves available via the University's Podcast pages as soon as we can - however their technology team is going to be very busy so they may be some delay!