Conversion, memory and writing: Remembering and reforming the self

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This paper examines the main narrative strategies and textual conventions of nineteenth-century Protestant autobiographical narratives of conversion to argue that by using a new mode of self-expression such as the prose autobiography, nineteenth-century Protestant converts were deploying individual memory to construct multi-layered narratives of reform and progress in a politically shifting terrain. Focusing on two book-length autobiographies, I will show how nineteenth-century autobiographical accounts of conversions to Christianity strategically negotiated with the past in a manner that allowed both an articulation of belonging and a disavowal of continuities.

I place my investigation of these autobiographies in widening debates on religious difference and conversion in the public sphere, which were increasingly taking place within the framework of ‘modernity’ from the eighteenth century onwards. I draw attention to the power of narrative constructions and how moments of crisis, including potentially the crisis generated by the conversion experience, can be rhetorically resolved through narrative. This is narrative both as performative act and object: that is, one can speak one’s experience and life into existence (I narrate, therefore I am) and one’s life becomes the object of the self’s gaze—an object that acquires a life of its own and which can be probed and investigated for ‘truth,’ ‘genuineness’ and ‘usefulness’. Personal and social reforms are brought together within the context of conversion and whether the autobiography offered a means by which such emergent, ‘reformed’ selves could be conceptualised or ‘translated’ into the modern, rational individual. Writing an autobiography is thus a constitutive act. Investigating such textual displays of self-directed, and often self-conscious, programme of self-reform and the rhetorical resolution of spiritual and social crises through the autobiography I argue that re-formation of the Protestant individual was conceived of as part of a larger project of ‘reforming’ India to a state of progressive, rational modernity.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)400-417
JournalSouth Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies
Issue number2
Early online date18 Apr 2018
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2018


  • South Asia
  • autobiography
  • conversion
  • Tamil
  • print history
  • memory
  • translation
  • South Asian colonial history


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