York professor named one of Canada’s most powerful women

York Professor Marlene Kadar was recently named one of Canada’s most powerful women in the category of trailblazers and trendsetters by the Women’s Executive Network (WXN), an advocacy organization for women in the workplace. Kadar was one of 100 top female winners chosen in eight categories from across Canada and honoured at an awards ceremony at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre Nov. 25. 

A humanities and women’s studies professor, Kadar is editor of the Life Writing Series (Wilfrid Laurier University Press), which to date has published 23 books. She is the first female editor of a life writing series in Canada, says WXN founder Pamela Jeffery. “Her work pushes the traditional barriers of literary discourse and strives to include women’s voices from all walks of life.”

Right: Marlene Kadar

Kadar’s inclusion in Canada’s Most Powerful Women: Top 100 by WXN recognizes her work in forging a new path for autobiography. “I’m honoured by this award and especially honoured to receive it in such distinguished company,” she says. Among the honourees in her category are former prime minister Kim Campbell, former United Nations high commissioner for human rights Louise Arbour and journalist Ann Medina.

Kadar’s research has expanded the scope of autobiography from its once narrowly characterized definition as a fixed, written and usually published document. Under what is now termed life writing, Kadar’s interdisciplinary approach has broadened the concept of autobiography and taken it into the territory of plays, poems, short stories, songs, photography and archival documents. Some of Kadar’s colleagues have taken life writing into even more non-traditional forms of media, such as Web sites, chat rooms, art exhibits and reality television. “These other genres can stand in for autobiography in the absence of more conventional forms,” says Kadar.

“I began my career with the belief that ordinary women and girls had stories to tell about their lives that made contributions to the history of knowledge that we, until that point, had not been able to accept fully, especially in comparative literary studies.” Kadar now scours archival records and oral histories in search of what she calls traces or fragments of individual lives. She focuses on the private, personal experience of individuals within the broader context of the public, historical record.

Kadar has visited so many archives over the past 10 years, she has lost track. “I began my research in 1980 at the Houghton Library at Harvard where I was the first woman given access to Leon Trotsky’s exile papers, which had been closed until Jan. 2, 1980,” she says. That’s where everything started for her, including her work on Frida Kahlo, the great Mexican painter and one of Leon Trotsky’s lovers. “Hers is a good example of a life that was hidden and that we had to excavate from the history that was embedded in that archive,” she says. “Archives are mysterious places because you often don’t know what your research will be about until you’ve lived in there for awhile.”

Over the years, Kadar has developed a particular interest in the lives of Roma women and girls incarcerated in Ravensbrück Concentration Camp during the Second World War, a Nazi camp for women and girls many of which were Roma.

Above: Marlene Kadar (fifth from the right) with the other winners in the trailblazer and trendsetter category

Much of Kadar’s work deals with the Holocaust and, more specifically, the Porrajmos – meaning “The Devouring” – a Romany term used to refer to the Nazi regime’s efforts to exterminate them. Many Roma did not leave a written record of their experiences. The only account of their life experience is often found in song.

Kadar believes a Roma lament about the conditions in the camps can serve as a form of biography or autobiography. In the absence of a traditional memoir, and in the presence of an oral tradition, she says this shared autobiographical text can tell a great deal about the unnamed individual’s experience in the camps. She argues that a deportation list can also stand in for a biographical account of the disaster where no other exists. Kadar cites the example of Roma being catalogued as “AZR/Zigeuner”, meaning asocial/gypsy (gypsy itself being a pejorative term for the Roma people). The “AZR/Zigeuner” label often consigned gypsy prisoners to deportation or even extermination depending on the year, the context as well as other circumstances.

In talking about the forthcoming book she co-edited, Photographs, Histories, and Meanings, and States, Kadar says, “Many photographs had a particular meaning at the time they were taken but now, something dramatic, or traumatic, has happened to change the way we’ve received these images.” She points to the practice of Nazi photographers taking photographs of concentration camps as they were constructed or altered so as to maintain a record of them. The photos were also used to demonstrate to organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross that nothing was amiss in the camps’ operations.

Photos taken of Ravensbrück Concentration Camp portray women working on camp grounds, appearing healthy, well-nourished and adequately dressed, says Kadar. But these photos were completely staged. Some contemporary scholars, however, refer to them in their research as if they were accurate depictions of daily life, says Kadar. She contends that people must be vigilant in their interpretation of archival and artifactual materials, considering them in the context of politics, culture and history.

“It’s wonderful to see such appreciation for the scholarship of a colleague, especially in the humanities,” says Robert Drummond, dean of York’s Faculty of Arts. “Marlene is a great colleague and an innovative thinker, and I’m glad to see her get this recognition."

Kadar is currently working on a biographical history of a female guard’s career as an employee at Ravensbrück Concentration Camp. Post-war, this guard entered North America by way of Halifax without incident.

By David Wallace, communications coordinator, Faculty of Arts.