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“(P)ink”: A Research-Creation Approach to Autopathography

« (P)ink » : Une approche recherche-création de l’autopathographie
Michelle Ryan


Cet article s’intéresse aux stratégies de recherche-création. Il est donc divisé en deux parties. La première partie présente un travail créatif de fiction autobiographique, « (P)ink », qui dépeint le paysage intérieur d’une femme suite à un cancer du sein. La nouvelle cherche à explorer les limites des modes intimes d’écriture autobiographique, life-writing, en proposant des strates de réflexion intermédiale. Il est autoréflexif sur le plan formel et thématique. La deuxième partie propose un prisme critique permettant de considérer les questions que « (P)ink » soulève sur l’utilisation de modes hybrides d’écriture de soi qui mêlent le personnel et l’académique, l’intime et l’esthétique. En s’appuyant sur le travail de critiques tels que Jennifer Cooke, ce texte place la nouvelle dans un contexte plus large d’écrivains et d’artistes utilisant audacity pour créer une esthétique déstabilisante. En outre, le texte explore les réseaux d’images à l’intérieur de la nouvelle et au-delà de son cadre en la plaçant dans ce que les critiques appellent un « short story cycle », un recueil de nouvelles interconnectées sur le plan thématique. Le recueil complet, Blue Breast, dans lequel « (P)ink » apparaît en dernier, propose en effet une exploration autoréflexive des possibilités formelles de la nouvelle, du short story cycle et de l’autopathographie (écriture sur la maladie) pour produire l’esthétique troublante d’un récit de cancer où s’entremêlent le personnel, l’académique, la vie et l’art.

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Notes de l’auteur

The following is a work of research-creation. A short story of autobiographical fiction is accompanied by a critical text that seeks to contextualize and dialogue with the creative work. Here, the short story has been placed before the critical response. However, some readers might prefer to read the critical work first, as an introduction to the story.

Texte intégral


Pink t-shirts have blurred women, men, families into a streaming mass of flowing ribbons, like a coursing system of pink fluid that winds itself down the path along the river and down to the lake. I look about me, desperate to find my friends in the crowd. We all melt into a collective pink here, a series of Octobre Rose torsos moving in unison to celebrate breast cancer. Individuality is achieved only through the use of clever hats. Veterans of the walk know techniques. One woman strolls by in a multi-colored beanie with a propeller. Another group has balloons tied to their hats. A mother has sprayed temporary dye on the heads of her children, one orange, one green, one blue, so she won’t lose them in the crowd. Her own head is covered with a bright yellow scarf. She must be in treatment, I think. A set of “cat in the hat” floppy hats march by. The tops sway back and forth with the movement of hips. A frizzy orange wig bobs up and down above heads like a lost piece of fluff ready to float up into the air. So many ways to stand out in the pink stream, some people running, some walking, others sitting quietly, a steady backdrop for the flow. Two women run by leaving words in their wake.

“I think I’ll have my lipostructure next month. How about you?”

“I don’t know yet. I have to get my implant checked first.”

I recently read a New York Times article that said to be careful with Pink October, as it can trigger trauma. This is my first event. I am a few months out of treatment, and my cancer friends have convinced me to join. I spot the red broad-brimmed hat of my friend Michelle, and follow her dutifully, almost blindly, through the event. She is English, a key figure in breast cancer networking. She is in remission, but our cancer walking club continues to invite her for her ability to spark kinship. I often see the club when I go walking alone. There is a prairie along one side of the lake where the sun shines bright. It leads into a patch of woods where tree roots pierce the surface of soil worn smooth. I like to weave in and out of the trees along forking paths. The cancer group pushes back rhythmically on long walking poles, as they twine their way through the trees, stepping gingerly over roots in quiet conversation. An energetic coach leads them onward. I have walked with this group. The group leader and I exchange knowing glances of compassion when our paths cross.

I look for Michelle. She is my flagship. She is a member of the Dragon Pink Ladies, women who row colorful dragon boats down the river. They paddle on their healthy side. I have not yet joined, but the sea of stories in their bodies sets my imagination in motion. I am a part of this, yet also set apart.

I walk side by side with women in a curious loneliness.

Alienation. Imagination. I have always felt different. In kindergarten I put my head down on my desk and cried. At recess I read books. I watched the others play.

I watched. I listened.

I read. I wrote internally. I have always written. Narrative scrolls through me in crisscrossing patterns. I quietly lift images, quivering, kicking, sometimes screaming, out of the air. I extract. I distill. I seek the story that is already there, calling out to be seen, opening doorways to perception.

I see what is not there. I make visible. I write into the blank space of the portal.

Impressions float in vaguely, and the world appears from flashing angles. Close-up, panoramic, satellite view, and subterranean views far beyond the scope of the eye. I know. But I don’t know how I know. I know that I don’t know. Not knowing is my guide.

The children ahead are dragging their feet in the dust and sucking on applesauce pouches. A little girl weaves in and out of legs on one of those bikes without pedals. It has sparkly tassels at the end of the handlebars. I hear anxious parents calling out of the flow of pink. A rippling movement like sunlight on water appears ahead. It is a walking club in blue caps of various shades. I see the “water” part briefly, and the girl on the bike shoots out from between legs, riding against the flow. The dry grass is trampled to widen the path for hundreds of feet. Stray tissues, lost caps, flattened papers bear witness to this moment of shared travel. Words in French rise and bustle around. Who won the morning 5k course à pied? The design of les t-shirts. Le concert du soir. Free stuff in les sacs. La chimiothérapie. Dying friends. The car in the garage. Football practice. Breast implant or flap? Les tétons en silicone. What’s for dinner…

The strangely warm autumn weather makes faces red and shiny. I step along in slow obedience. Solidarity is good, I repeat to myself. I think back to the early months of my treatment. My now ex-husband had rallied friends to participate. They would walk to support me, to support the cause, as I slept alone in bed.

Breast cancer literature seeks to untie pink ribbons to reveal pockets of truth. I reach in and touch the ribbon in which I am immersed, feel the texture of threads. I walk in a mental fingering of bodies that weave in and out, bob up and down, and my face lifts to catch the words floating in the breeze around, like leaves in the wind. My body receives stories like the dream catcher tattooed on my friend’s arm. The river runs to the left. A lake sleeps peacefully to our right. A family of swans is drifting about, dunking their heads, seeking sustenance. A canopy of trees frames the empty path ahead, summoning us to enter.

Emptiness. Blankness.

My friends joined me in my empty apartment before the walk. It echoes like a hollow shell. I have not yet filled its spaces.

My new breast peers blankly at me from the lighted mirror in my bathroom. I undress there and study my body’s forms. My right breast is flat on top, despite my lipostructure operation. A circle surrounds the space where my nipple used to be, about two centimeters in diameter. The color of the skin in the middle is different, like a patch taken from the same color, but different fabric. Something doesn’t quite fit. I think the skin comes from my back. I stare into this space every day before my shower, wondering what I will put there. It opens invitingly, leaving room for my imagination. A stick-on nipple? A tattoo? A skin graft nipple reconstruction? Nothing at all? Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t leave it as is, a space to be dreamt into every day. Perhaps my body is calling me to write into the blank spaces of its story, or the tales of women who have lived through breast cancer. Perhaps it is their stories I see in this piece of skin. I look into its infinitely receding screen. It stares out at me, reminding me that I am somehow connected to others in my struggle. It compels me to write, to speak, to release voices. My words are not my own. The stories bubble up from the edges, emerging in the periphery of my own experience. It is not solidarity, I think. It is consciousness. I am not alone in the mirror.

I squeeze my hand into a fist and see my new breast ripple and twitch. The muscle that fills it is still attached, and I can make my breast pulse rhythmically. My daughter walks in as I am doing this, and exclaims.

“Wow. Really cool mom. Wish I could do that!”

“Oops sorry!”

“I’ve told you this a million times. I’m totally fine with it. I’m used to your new boob.”

I flex it a few more times and we laugh. She’s right. She has grown used to my new body, and I display it self-consciously, but also proudly. I own my body.

I touch my blank nipple space and ask for her advice as co-creator.

“What do you think I should put here?”

“It’s really up to you Mom. Maybe a tattoo? I need to take my shower. Can you get out?”

I laugh and put on my bathrobe. We dance for a few moments to some rap music in front of the mirror, a moment of shared silliness before I let her get ready for school. I’m running late because I’ve been drinking my coffee in bed. I head for more coffee. Her brother is still asleep.

Our bodies have divided over the last year. As her periods have intensified, mine have dried up in a chemo-induced menopause. As her body hair has multiplied, mine has grown sparser. Hormone therapy perpetuates chemo by thinning the hair on my head, my legs, my underarms, my pubis. I only shave my legs once a month and my bikini line has adopted a quietly tame mode of self-maintenance. My daughter marvels with ironic envy at my underpopulated body. In The Undying, Anne Boyer has written of breast cancer patients yanking out pubic hair in chunks and sending it by post. I ponder the idea. I think my daughter would like this. Maybe we could extract the hair removal essence from the chemo process? Imagine the implications for the industry of body hair care! A brief, amusing vision of young women holding tufts of pubic hair high for the Octobre Rose march flashes through my mind.

As my daughter struggles with the growing unruliness of her body hair in its obstinate pushing beyond the frame of clothing, my hair has taken a radically new route. It lives in a secret blank space, tremulous, as if preparing the terrain for the next steps, for emergence.

I am in a blank space. I am a blank space. I see blank spaces everywhere.

People try to read me and fail. I run into people I once knew and they look at me puzzled. “You’ve cut your hair” they say. “You look different,” they say.

I could say, “No, I had breast cancer and my hair fell out during chemo and now it’s starting to grow back. My breast was cut too. But it isn’t growing back.”

I’ve tried that. But it generates confusion and pain. Their eyes grow bright with the desire to avoid, to turn away, to not speak about the unspeakable: death and fear of death.

Cancer is a blank space. People talk around it. Those who know of my illness will say things like “You’re looking well!” and avoid asking other questions for fear of invading my privacy. My body’s rebellion is like a sharp thorn to be avoided. Only those who have also been ill face it straight on. Last week my friend Marie exclaimed, “Hey! I’ll shown you mine if you show me yours!” We gathered in the hallway, away from the windows, and at the count of three we lifted our shirts and bras and studied each others’ breasts curiously. She had had both breasts done. She had the gene. Her sister had died of breast cancer, and she had struggled to tell her parents about her illness. She had a line of scarring on each breast just above newly constructed pink nipples. She had implants because you can’t use the back muscle technique on both breasts. It would be too painful. Her implants sometimes float out of place. They will need to be replaced in about ten years. Implants need regular maintenance.

She stared at my round circle and marveled.

“Wow. That’s really nice work”

“I know, right? My surgeon is an artist. Now I have to decide what to do with this blank space. Your nipples are amazing!”

I met Marie in the walking class. I had tried the boxing class for cancer patients. It was fun, like a dance, but I had to stop after my operation. I had described it to the group in glowing detail, and I saw her face brighten as I talked. We became fast friends.

The image of her scars is engraved in my mind. The light whiteness of lines carved into her flesh. The lines waver with vulnerability and strength. They speak of the vibrating tightrope of staying alive. They are a passageway to her body’s story. Paths.

Next to my desk is a print of a path: “View Down the Road.” It is made with a Japanese woodblock printing technique on finely crafted paper. The paper is part of the art. The artist, Eva Pietzcker, is from Berlin where my son will soon live. The print was sold to me by a close friend from the university. She died from lung cancer. She had started her own gallery of Japanese style prints in Washington state where I grew up. Her ideas had a quiet force that would seep through the air into your mind. We would sit for hours discussing poetry in “The Cave,” the basement coffee shop of our university where we liked to meet. These were the years of my youthful awakening. Today I lose myself in this print. It invites me in. I see its shadowy presence in the blank space of my nipple, asking me to travel onward. My friend lives on here. She seeps in, informing gestures in that silent influence of friends who have played a pivotal role that only becomes visible with the passage of time.

“Don’t go back to sleep” I hear her whisper softly to me as I gaze into the path. It calls me into its depths.

The Japanese paper is called washi and is made with a special technique, nagashi-zuki. This paper is very strong, made from long plant fibers from the Kozo tree. Pietzcker explains on her website how the strength of this paper allows it to keep its shape through repeated printing. It has a built in resilience. The water based ink spreads from carved wood to infiltrate the cloth-like texture of the paper. It saturates even the rough edges, leading us to imagine an inky afterlife beyond the frame. Paper is seeped in nature. These are windows to worlds. Mountains. Rivers. Plants. Lakes and Forest. Paths.


A pigmented substance.

A dark liquid.

Sometimes ejected for protection.

It can mark, coat or stain the dictionary says.

I imagine the paper yielding to its force, a submission to dark color that travels along fibers and seeps into cracks and crevices, partially directed by carefully carved blocks, yet also exerting its own force in the process, opening entryways.

I close my eyes and imagine the paper quivering invitingly beneath the inky blocks, composed and consolidated in its strength, exposing its fibers in a delicate vulnerability to creation, calling the ink, ready to receive its flow. This is the only way, I think.

Brush strokes carved into wood surfaces infuse Pietzcker’s work with a wavering lightness and immersion in nature. Beauty. Surrounded. In the depths of something other. She announces a “shift” in her process, her thinking about the inherent reiteration of printmaking, inking paper again and again, each repetition yielding subtle particularities. She writes of moving from control to openness and exploration in an embracing of the temporality of printing, the same landscape appearing again and again with a slight shift in color, shading, the ink seeping into the paper’s tender yielding, guided by the pressure of the blocks, capturing a moment in cycles of repetition. The inking, the spread of the liquid, invades time, moves beyond, seeking.

I think to “View Down the Road” as I gaze at the stream of bodies moving along the river. I am trailing towards the end, listening to conversation fragments, watching children weave in and out of bodies. The color flows through the landscape with uncanniness, highlighted against green grass and reeds that line the river bed, a bit like Pietzcker’s prints, I think. The image of the pink stream is engraved in my mind, playing out in an internal reiteration I carry into the future. I have not returned to the Octobre Rose walk since that first day. I can’t explain why. An ambivalence, I suppose. A need to detach and perceive, to write my own way back, to engage with my internal recitations of events that have inked the paper of my memory. But I continue to see pink streaming through. I watch the color infiltrate lives in twisting shades and shadows.

(P)ink. Repetition with a difference. I scroll through a surprisingly diverse array of breasts on the website of The Tétons Tattoo Shop. I am shopping for a new nipple. An oncology specialist has converted to nipple tattoo artist. I comb through photos, sketches, silicon test breasts, and a special section about training with American tattoo artist David Allen. I learn his work is exhibited at the International Museum of Surgical Science in Chicago, the only museum in North America dedicated to surgery. A special area is devoted to women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), and there is an extensive collection of art that depicts surgical events. The museum has resident artists who explore the meeting of art and medicine. I contemplate the possibilities. I stand on the threshold, vibrating.

The image on the museum website shows a male doctor holding a baby upside down, its umbilical cord still connected, as another doctor performs an early Caesarian section. The woman is casting her eyes downward toward the site of her baby’s emergence. Two other men are holding her arms down. I feel the pressure on my own wrists. Prison. Pain. Another woman, perhaps the nurse, squeezes sponges into a dark liquid. I visualize the aftermath. The woman rests and recovers. She takes her baby, rises into the air and floats away.

I return to the The Tétons Tattoo Shop. Tattoo. Téton. The two words fit together in a blend of English and French. I am tickled by the T’s. Perhaps I will have my Téton’s tattooed. The French word for tattoo is tatouage. I stare at the series of breasts and try to figure out which nipple is the tatouage. The photos are visual puzzles. Without touch, their trompe l’oeil is perfect. They beam forth in a simulation of texture. I imagine a stray hand attempting to quiver a nipple into action, and the amused skin drawing away in a “ha ha try again” gesture of mischief. The website language suggests illusion. “Simulates three dimensional form and skin irregularities.” “Play of shadows.” “Close to reality.” “Vision.” “Perspective.” “Best effects when seen in the mirror.” Simulation. Reality. Vision.

Skin is an irregular canvas. The artist speaks of ink spreading in unexpected ways, familiar territory for tattoo artists. Color is altered by passing time. If I look closely at the photographs, I manage to pick out the fake nipple; the simulacrum coexists uneasily with the scar below, beside, above the nipple, echoing the surgical event. Here the canvas is sensitive, vulnerable, riddled with stories etched into flesh. These will be rewritten through the ink of the tattoo, and re-inscribed through the daily, repeated gestures of showering, studying, touching, mirror gazing. My surgeon asked me to massage my new breast after my surgery, to hold it, to caress it lightly. I didn’t understand then. I do now. I whisper words of love to it, inviting it tenderly into my body’s changed landscape. Repetition. Reiteration. Lived temporality. Identity.

I am struck by the lines of ink bottles in the website photos. How many shades in the pink to brown spectrum? The tattoo artist speaks of mixing inks to reach the specific color palette for each nipple. More words flash. Realistic. Permanent ink. Personalized. Long-lasting.

Flesh is fragile. The artist is trained to create with its textures. Each body receives ink differently. Age can bend and shape artful inking. Here, scars and damaged tissues call for delicate crafting, a mindful writing into flesh. This is thoughtful art. The ink will flow into a space of recreation, nipples springing up in a resolute illusion of mammary existence. The defiance of fiction warms the heart. The mind receives the aesthetic effect in the mirror. This is a private aesthetic. Only a privileged few will view the work of art, unless a woman chooses to make her bare chested tableau available on the website, adding to a scrolling of breasts in various shapes, sizes, reconstructions. I marvel at the variety of bumps and colors around the nipple. I learn the bumps are called Montgomery glands. They produce fluid to moisturize the breast. These too will have lost their function.

I can add an artistic touch to my new nipple. I study designs of winding vines of flowers and leaves in shades of pink and green, sometimes under the scar, sometimes alongside it, appearing to sprout from the new nipple oeuvres as if you could simply sprinkle seeds and a bit of water, and fresh buds of life would burst from the rich soil of wounded flesh.

I return to the bathroom and study my breasts in the mirror. The round, blank space on the right is slightly higher than the nipple on the other, slightly sagging, left breast. I stare deeply, keenly aware of the uncanny nonexistence of this form before me, yet feeling it quiver in my body, in the scar on my back, in my right arm and its limited reaching. I try to connect the two as I stare into the blankness and watch the doorway open, calling me into the depths. I reach out to touch the absence in the mirror and I feel it give way beneath my touch. “Come,” It whispers gently. I feel a quickening in my body as it melts into new shapes, bending, thrusting, in that slow bursting violence of vegetal growth springing out of emptiness into the space around, reaching for the light. I am ink. I am inky vegetation. I peer into the empty space and peel back the edges of the opening. It widens and beckons. I see a path open into a vibrant landscape. My twisting, lurching growth spreads through, and my leafy body is transported onwards, as the path curves into a river. I release myself to the flow, allowing myself to slip into the currents with a slight tremor of fear. The river reaches the edge of a cliff, and I linger on the edge. I breathe deeply and feel the ink spread beyond the frame into the space beyond. I relax and allow my vines to travel downward, in a flowing movement alongside the river, and I give myself up to currents that escort me into the gentle light of the depths.

Critical afterword

1In Jennifer Cooke’s Contemporary Feminist Life-Writing: The New Audacity, she underlines an intention “to invigorate interest in contemporary feminist life-writing” (11), referring to a long tradition of life-writing in women’s literature, and the evolution of practices and forms since its rise in the confessional modes of 1970s feminism: “The centrality of feminism in valorizing autobiographical writing for testifying to the political in the personal cannot be overestimated: in large part, it is the body of work resulting from this insight that propelled auto/biography into sharper theoretical and literary focus in the latter decades of the twentieth century” (Cooke 2020, 7). Citing the likes of Leigh Gilmore, Laura Marcus, Rita Felski and Kate Millett amongst others, she delves into a mode of writing that has been in turn embraced and rejected by feminist writers. Central questions have arisen concerning the “feminist” quality of confessional modes, along with problematic connections between the individual “I” in its specific situation, and the broad diversity of women’s experiences. As a result, formal experimentations appear to probe the limits of women’s autobiography from within the text; a spirit of self-consciousness is inherently inscribed and foregrounded.

2Such investigations are taking on hybrid forms that integrate diverse forms and levels of discourse. Cooke speaks of “the imbrication of life with intellectual ideas, questions, and arguments” (Cooke 2020, 4) as being a defining feature of new modes of autobiography. Annie Ernaux’s Nobel prize points to an engagement with the “audacity” Cooke underlines. Cooke cites Maggie Nelson amongst others as an example of writers who push beyond the boundaries of genre and bend the rules of self-representation. In The Argonauts Nelson thinks her way through the intimacy of love as a cis-woman in an act of intercourse with the non-binary Harry, and is described by Olivia Laing in The Guardian as “knitting together what might in heavier hands be abstruse theory and humid confession to create an exhilarating new language for considering both the messiness of life and the meanings of art” (2015). Laing observes how the Nelson “unit of thought is not the chapter but the paragraph”, as Nelson’s text juxtaposes life details and analysis, along with quotations from other writers and sources cited in the margins. Her writing presents an interpenetration of the self, politics, thought.

3Olivia Laing is a fitting author to highlight Nelson’s blending of the personal and intellectual spheres, a growing trend in academia, as she also investigates critical awareness through experimental forms. Her 2019 novel Crudo openly plays with the biographical presence of novelist Kathy Acker, bringing creation and reflection to resonate in relation to each other. The intimate is expanding as a terrain for collective reflection that stretches the codes of discourse, as the narrator suggests in Crudo: “Writing, she can be anyone. On the page the I dissolves, becomes amorphous, proliferates wildly. Kathy takes on increasingly preposterous guises, slips the knot of her own contemptible identity” (Laing 2018, 125).

4Such modes of intimacy are foregrounded by Cooke for their “affective” potential: “My chosen texts are written and structured to maximize the affective impact of their feminist politics. The formal properties of these writings deliberately amplify the questions they raise and the arguments they propound, and this is often achieved through experiments with literary conventions. […] New audacity feminists use their writings to think from life, and this has formal implications” (Cooke 2020, 3). My own writing grew out of “thinking from life” and seeking a means to engage with my experiences as an academic who suddenly found her life mirroring the trends she was researching. After having studied women’s short fiction over two decades, I found myself writing short stories in the wake of a series of traumatic life events. I had brought my research to bear upon the personal, and the personal was in turn filtered back outwards through the prism of forms that had come to infiltrate my intellect and imagination. I began my career by studying the intellectual and affective provocation present in British author Angela Carter’s novels, gradually widening my scope to include a focus on the correlation between short fictional forms and an underlying ethics of unsettling the reader. I was drawn to fiction that rendered ideas in startling ways, a tendency I also found in the work of American surrealist writer, Rikki Ducornet. A career firmly grounded in ethics and formal mediation was then shaken up by a diagnosis of breast cancer in 2016 concomitant with a marital and family crisis, setting in motion an uncanny linking of the body and a creative awakening.

  • 1 Ainsi mon passage du je fictif au je véridique n’est pas dû à un besoin de lever le masque mais lié (...)

5In 2017 I began the slow work of reconstructing a body, personal life and career decimated by illness. The short story form rose to the surface as being best suited to mediate key moments of experience, memories of breast cancer treatment, segments of time. Shaping these fragments involved engaging with the temporalities of reiteration, duration, distortion often associated with illness and trauma. As I wrote, I began to see networks of images, echoes, recurrences emerge from not only my personal experience, but also from the lives of women I had encountered throughout my treatment. I found myself experimenting with nuances of intimacy in narrative through a studied movement between “she” and “I”, along with an oscillation between past and the present tense, in a conversation with a “she” who was myself, and not myself, and an “I” who had become at the same time familiar and foreign. I was not alone in my traveling through diverse pronouns. I seemed to be intuitively reaching for a plural “I”, somewhat along the lines of Annie Ernaux’s “je transpersonnel1, that is a narrative “I” that seeks to move beyond the writing subject, while also evading a pretension to universalize experience. I have found myself writing alongside a trend in women’s writing that troubles Philippe Lejeune’s famous autobiographical pact, not only rendering porous the connection between narrating I and authorial I, but also making of this zone of connection a realm for exploration. The final result of mediating my experiences through story-telling was Blue Breast, a collection of thirteen, often magical realist, intertwined stories presented in varying narrative modes.

6Blue Breast proposes unflinching explorations of the intimate in a manner that echoes a long tradition of autopathography, a form studied by Helen Thomas in her essay “Breast Cancer Autopathography”. The concept is also associated with thanatography, narrative that deals with death (Thomas 191). Such works investigate the representation of illness and vulnerability, and are part of a long tradition of narratives that I don’t have space to properly develop here. These include Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1913), Audrey Lorde’s Cancer Journals (1980), Dorothea Lynch and Eugen Richard’s Exploding into Life (1986), Susan Sontag’s well known Illness as Metaphor (1988) and, more recently, Anne Boyer’s Pulitzer prize winning The Undying, a creative nonfiction account of having breast cancer in the United States (2020). As Thomas notes, such works foreground the questions of intimacy, privacy, subjectivity, instability, loss of identity, that arise in relation to illness and dying (Thomas 191). Thomas observes how the body disrupted by disease presents a chaos to be “negotiated by constant adaptation and redefinition on the narrator’s part, as productive introspection, coherent analysis and political exegesis emerge from emotional turbulence and uncertainty” (Thomas 192). The narrator of autopathographical texts represents modes of deconstruction of the “body/self” alongside “a logical narrative of survival, liberation or transformation” (Thomas 192). Thomas underlines in particular the fragmentary dimension of narrative that “resists unified explanation or interpretation” (Thomas 192), suggesting how disease also points to the possibility of death, and in narrative silences one also finds the consequent difficulties of representing the potential nothingness of life’s end (Thomas 192).

7Fragmentation, discontinuity, instability are also terms used to describe short narrative structures. A special two volume issue of Short Fiction in Theory in Practice dedicated to “The Health of the Short Story” attests to the practice of using short forms to mediate the experience of illness. As Lucy Dawes Durneen observes in her introduction, such a practice reaches back to early practitioners of the form such as Giovanni Boccacio with The Decameron (Durneen 3). This issue of Short Fiction in Theory and Practice, initially conceived as a conference topic, predicted with uncanny prescience the Covid pandemic that would follow its initial conception. The conference was cancelled because of travel bans, but as Durneen observes, the two volume issue speaks of a long tradition of using short story forms to engage with the experience of illness, both physical and mental:

The short story has long functioned as an examining room, psychiatrist’s couch, emotional balm, case study. It provides a supportive crutch for dangerous, unstable times, reflects the physical and psychic wounding of war, maps the fractured spaces of the mind and acts as a barometer of a nation’s socio-political health. Inside its boundaries wallpaper moves, women transmogrify, pathologizing grief, doubt and anxiety until their cure becomes something more and something other than medicine. (Durneen 3)

8Rachel Newsome writes, for example, of short fiction and abuse trauma, citing the “qualities of brevity, condensation, fragmentation, ambiguity and elision” underlined by Lohafer and Clarey as being essential elements of the genre to engage with “difficult subject matter” (Newsome 60). She brings Jungian psychoanalysis to bear upon the formal considerations of representing childhood abuse in her critical-creative text, “Walking the shadows: Writing trauma, short fiction and Jungian psychoanalysis”, in a self-reflective discussion aligned with the mission of Short Fiction in Theory and Practice to engage with “the ongoing process and philosophy of composition rather than the ‘post-event’ dissection of literary texts”.

9Following in this vein of critical-creative writing, this essay seeks to reflect upon the choice of the short story form as a means by which to represent breast cancer, particularly in its systemic and temporal interconnection with family history and dysfunction. As I was writing, I found myself creating networks of images throughout the stories, a tendency I now see as echoing the association of illness with family networks, temporal networks, body systems. I seemed to be developing the texts as part of an organic whole. These grew into what short fiction specialists identify as a short story cycle, that is a series of short stories bound together by a linking thematic thread. As Forrest Ingram’s well-known definition suggests, the “short story cycle” is a collection of short stories “so linked to each other… that the reader’s successive experience on various levels of the pattern of the whole significantly modifies his experience of each of its component parts” (Ingram qtd in Gill and Kläger Introduction 2). Cycles are characterized by forms of repetitions and patterns that occur both within and between stories in a collection. The short story cycle form allowed me to express intersecting moments, crisscrossing patterns of connections within the framework of the illness, intergenerational family abuse, and the consequences of illness on our family structure at a specific moment in time.

10This tendency towards systemic writing was certainly fed on a subterranean level by my research, and was perhaps a response to a growing awareness of rhizomatic forms and relational landscapes of network connections in art and literature studies, as Rita Felski suggests in her use of “actor network theory” (ANT) to develop a theory of responses to art in Hooked: Art and Attachment (2020). In the context of short form studies at the University of Angers, France, I had already been reading Caroline Levine’s Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network (2015). Levine’s use of the design theory idea of affordances has served as a productive concept, particularly in her treatment of the productive tension between the affordances and constraints of forms. Levine also observes the capacity of forms to migrate, intersect, overlap and interact through networks.

11As I was reading Levine, I was also being exposed to the principles of Gestalt therapy with its emphasis on the body and focus on the present moment to reveal forms and patterns in the therapeutic process. I found myself drawing connections between the foreign landscape of the lush Loire valley and the changes in my body, observing a curious synergy between corporeal and environmental awareness, as the effect of natural and artful beauty seemed to be heightened in the deeply attentive states of weakness and vulnerability of illness. I appeared to be echoing in literature a form of body awareness promoted by American choreographer Anna Halprin as a means by which to foster processes of healing: “I see the need to redefine dance once more as a powerful force for transformation, healing, education, and making our lives whole, a dance that will speak to our needs today” (Halprin 7). Halprin’s integrative approach to life through dance has had a formative effect on contemporary arts and has led to new approaches in art therapy (notably Gestalt art therapy techniques). “(P)ink” is written along the lines of such an integrative approach to art that blends the personal body with art, while also drawing upon fragments from the professional, intellectual life of an American woman researcher working in France.“(P)ink” is the last in a collection of thirteen stories that portray key moments in the progression of illness, from diagnosis to awakenings, family crises, transformations of the body and the emergence into the blank space of a new life. It brings the fictional system to a close through a presentation of elements that inadvertently echo earlier stories: paths, works of art, nature, trees, vulnerability, awakening to writing, as is evident in the titles of the other stories:

1. Entering the Funhouse

2. Cars and Carnivals

3. Blue Breast

4. Floating

5. Hair

6. My Body, My Self: A Bathtub Meditation

7. Hum

8. I am a Tree

9. Paths

10. Stitches

11. Help my son

12. Time

13. (P)ink

12(P)ink also proposes an internal stratification of images of empty spaces, blankness, voids, all uncanny metafictional echoes of the short story’s predilection for elliptical expression. As the parenthesis in the title suggests, the conceptual thread of plural ink also runs through the story; the ink of writing, the ink of Japanese woodblock style prints, the ink of tattoos, and the ink of flowing pink, intersect and move apart to create a fluid navigation of individuality and collective experience, as expressed through the array of artfully inked artificial nipples.

13The “blank” breast in the bathroom mirror invites forms of unsettling intimacy that are in turn amplified by cancer, the possibility of death, and disquieting scenes of familial abuse that appear intermittently throughout the collection. Cooke’s collection of essays Scenes of Intimacy (2013) addresses the results of fostering such porousness between the intimate spheres of not only sexual intimacies, but also the realms of “familial relationships or particular states, like death, illness or grief, which bring us into intimate contact with strangers or alter the shape and experience of our existing intimacies” (Cooke 2013, 3). She concentrates particularly on the consequent unease, underlining a growing attention to the role of affective relationships to fiction and art in contemporary criticism (Cooke 2013, 9-11). Rita Felski’s Hooked similarly engages with how we connect to art, focusing on the power of affect in processes she has labeled as “attunement”:

Attunement is not a specific affect but a state of affectedness—referring, as Erik Wallrup writes, to the relationship between personas and musical (or visual or literary) worlds. It is not a feeling-about but a feeling-with: a relation that is more than the sum of its parts. In contrast to what we might call container theories of emotions—a person having an inner feeling about an external object—attunement is about things resonating, aligning, coming together. (Felski 2020, 42)

14Felski argues for an increasing awareness of the forces that influence our relationship to works of art, and the manner in which one’s reaction to a work of art can vary in intensity. Although there is no space here for an in-depth response to how Felski’s argumentation takes into account a more network based, relational account of the different manners in which we interact with works of art, her thinking about attachment, or “attunement” to works of art is particularly relevant in works of art or literature that venture into sensitive realms of private experience.

15Cooke’s use of the words “new audacity” in her study of feminist life-writing points to the manner in which attachment to some art works can give rise to emotional surprise or violence. I would argue that breast cancer narratives further muddy the waters of reader response with their portrayal of abject cancer bodies worn down by a struggle against death. Works of cancer autopathography can indeed foster a cringe effect, a form of reader recoil underlined self-reflexively within (P)ink. I have come to understand that autopathographical fiction about cancer can carry an ethics of unease, as it provokes varying shades of discomfort within the reader, often resonating with a reader’s history of exposure to illness. Although this effect is attenuated in part through the use of humor and irony in Blue Breast, along with magical realist elements, for some readers the weight of cancer can dominate the narrative and trigger fear or memory. For other readers, breast cancer narratives can foster an opposite effect, at least initially, as I am also working against the “always already” reiteration of breast cancer as an ordinary phenomenon, represented by the pink ribbon, writing out as one voice in a rich fabric of experiences, as one woman in eight has, has had, or will have breast cancer in her lifetime. Breast cancer is indeed sometimes associated with the banal, the everyday, a common occurrence.

16I have found myself writing in a fearless exposure of private details, in the same vein as Tracy Emin’s art and writing, Maggie Nelson’s representation of sexual acts in The Argonauts, Alison Bechdel’s delicate portrayals of her father and mother, and even Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy with its experimental exploration of shadows written from life. I seek to introduce audacious, self-reflexive, and often spiritual modes of investigation into narrative and thus play with the boundaries of creation, academic research, private and public personas. I seek to widen the territory of fiction for creative investigation and expose sensitive topics to new light, such as the forms of insidious abuse to which educated women are particularly vulnerable.

  • 2 I would like to express my thanks to Adèle Cassigneul for our rich critical-creative dialogue over (...)

17This development is taking place alongside a rise in critical-creative discourse, as evident in the British based Short Fiction in Theory and Practice, and a growing trend in writing that blends the academic and the personal, the essay and the research article. The French review Outsider, dedicated to expanding the possibilities of creative critical discourse, created in 2021 by Adèle Cassigneul,2 Taous Dahmani et Suzel Meyer, attests to a growing interest in creative-critical practice in France and the emergence of new forms of hybrid writing in academia. This trend is also visible in Anne Boyer’s Pulitzer prize winning The Undying, in which she thinks her ways through the politics and philosophy of corporeal disruption and its convergence with political, social, cultural, familial spheres of relations.

18The writing of Blue Breast engages with this trend as a means by which to re-position myself in French academia at the crossroads of creation and academic research, and speaks of a predilection for fostering porousness between research and artistic practice. (P)ink reflects a porous network of reading and aesthetic experiences, past and present, as the literal writing on the body evoked in the story resonates with intertextual and intermedial remnants of previous artistic encounters scattered throughout the collection. There is a flickering of ekphrasis in Blue Breast, as the personal is revealed through the prism of art works to which I have been “hooked” (to borrow Felski’s term) over the years. In the story “Paths”, for example, the character’s chemo-ravaged body is echoed by eerie post WWI Paul Nash landscapes, and a fear of passing into death resonates with David Hockney’s “The four seasons, Woldgate Woods” video project (Spring 2011, Summer 2010, Autumn 2010, Winter 2010). The character’s post-chemo body is immersed in the museum space of the Tate Gallery, making connections between the temporal unfolding of haptic response in art reception and the heightened attention of a diseased body. As Felski observes, “How aesthetic response unfolds over time is exceptionally hard to pin down […] Did that painting affect time as I stood in front of it—or was it an alteration that took place over days and weeks, as it worked its way into my memory and my thoughts? At what moment does an alteration of perception or sensibility come about?” (Felski 54). My own “attunements” fed into my imagination over years of reading short stories, viewing works of art in museums, encoding in my body a multiplicity of affective responses to aesthetics, to be in turn reworked, recycled in my writing, sometimes reaching back to formative childhood readings. The open ending of (P)ink reaches for the future deployment of aesthetic response through creation, as I continue to reach for creative-critical depths that allow memory to rise up and meet present experience. This is the only way, I think.

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Boyer, Anne. The Undying. New York: Picador, 2019.

Cooke, Jennifer. Contemporary Feminist Life-Writing: The New Audacity. Ed. Jennifer Cooke. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2020.

Cooke, Jennifer. “Making a Scene: Towards an Anatomy of Contemporary Literary Intimacies”. Scenes of Intimacy: Reading, Writing and Theorizing Contemporary Literature. Ed. Jennifer Cooke. London: Bloomsbury 2013, 3-21.

Durneen, Lucy Dawes. “Contagious Symptoms: The Need to Tell Stories and the Health of the Form”. Short Fiction in Theory and Practice 12.1 (2022): 3-6.

Ernaux, Annie. « Vers un je transpersonnel ». University of St Andrews, 2018. Texte publié pour la première fois dans RITM 6, « Autofictions & Cie », Université de Paris-X (1993): 219-222, reproduit avec l’aimable permission de la revue, et d’Annie Ernaux.

Gill, Patrick and Florian Kläger. Introduction. Constructing Coherence in the British Short Story Cycle. Ed. Patrick Gill and Florian Kläger. New York and London: Routledge, 2018.

Felski, Rita. Hooked: Art and Attachment. Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 2020.

Halprin, Anna. “Foreword”. Anna Halprin: Dance-Process-Form. Ed. Gabriele Wittman, Ursula Schorn and Ronit Land. Trans. Anne Oppenheimer. London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2015.

Laing, Olivia. “The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson review – ‘one of the sharpest thinkers of her generation’”. The Guardian. 23 April 2015. (Accessed 30 May 2022).

Laing, Olivia. Crudo. London, Picador. 2018.

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Newsome, Rachel. “Walking with shadows: Writing trauma, short fiction and Jungian psychoanalysis”. Short Fiction in Theory and Practice 12.1 (2022): 55-68.

Thomas, Helen. “Breast Cancer Autopathography: The Laws of the Body and the Body of the Law”. Scenes of Intimacy: Reading, Writing and Theorizing Contemporary Literature. Ed. Jennifer Cooke. London, Bloomsbury, 2013, 191-210.

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1 Ainsi mon passage du je fictif au je véridique n’est pas dû à un besoin de lever le masque mais lié à une entreprise nouvelle d’écriture que, dans Une femme, je définis comme « quelque chose entre la littérature, la sociologie et l’histoire ». Je veux dire par là que je cherche à objectiver, avec des moyens rigoureux, du « vivant » sans abandonner ce qui fait la spécificité de la littérature, à savoir l’exigence d’écriture, l’engagement absolu du sujet dans le texte. Cela veut dire aussi, bien sûr, que je récuse l’appartenance à un genre précis, roman et même autobiographie. Autofiction ne me convient pas non plus. Le je que j’utilise me semble une forme impersonnelle, à peine sexuée, quelquefois même plus une parole de « l’autre » qu’une parole de « moi » : une forme transpersonnelle, en somme. Il ne constitue pas un moyen de me construire une identité à travers un texte, de m’autofictionner, mais de saisir, dans mon expérience, les signes d’une réalité familiale, sociale ou passionnelle. Je crois que les deux démarches, même, sont diamétralement opposées.

2 I would like to express my thanks to Adèle Cassigneul for our rich critical-creative dialogue over the years of 2019-2021, as her experimental insertion of the autobiographical subject into academic research about gender and contemporary writing greatly contributed to heightening my awareness of my own creative practice.

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Michelle Ryan, « “(P)ink”: A Research-Creation Approach to Autopathography »Polysèmes [En ligne], 30 | 2023, mis en ligne le 30 décembre 2023, consulté le 22 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Michelle Ryan

Michelle Ryan is Maître de Conférences (Senior Lecturer) at the Université d’Angers, France and director of the European Network for Short Fiction Research. Her research focus is the short stories of contemporary women writers (Angela Carter, Rikki Ducornet, Ali Smith, Sarah Hall), with a special emphasis on intermediality, authorship, reading pragmatics and gender. Ms. Ryan has published essays in various collections and journals such as Marvels and Tales, Journal of the Short Story in English, Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines, and Short Fiction in Theory and Practice. Her current interests include research-creation approaches to autobiographical fiction. Her story “I am a Tree” won second prize in the Lucent Dreaming 2022 short story contest. This story has been published alongside a second story, “My Body, My Self: A Bathtub Meditation” in a Lucent Dreaming sponsored anthology, Hope is the Thing (2023). She is in the process of completing a short story cycle, Blue Breast, composed of magical realist short stories about breast cancer and family dysfunction.

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