If you could not attend any of our past events, you can check out the page below. We’ve invited both scholars and students to submit written responses to the different events.
August 26. 15:00-16:30 (GMT+2)
In August, Hanna Meretoja, a Professor of Comparative Literature, University of Turku Finland and the Director of SELMA: Centre for the Study of Storytelling, Experientiality and Memory, led a discussion on Jenny Erpenbeck’s novel Go, Went, Gone (2015).
Response by Miriam Muccione, Ph.D. Candidate at the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures (Italian), Division of the Humanities at the University of Chicago
Towards More Explorative Modes of Memory: Hanna Meretoja’s reading of Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone
When the Berlin wall fell on November 9, 1989, the celebrated German author Jenny Erpenbeck was a twenty-two-year-old young woman attending the university in “a half of the city [that] was the whole city” for her, as she recalls talking about her youth in East Berlin. When the West met the East, Erpenbeck writes in her essay “Homesickness for Sadness” (2014), “everything that had been called the present up to that point was now the past” and the world as she knew suddenly collided with a new, juxtaposed order of things. “Everyday life was no longer everyday life — she writes — it was an adventure that had been survived. Our customs were now a sideshow attraction. Everything that had been self-evident forfeited its self-evidence within the span of a few weeks. […] From this point on, my childhood became a museum exhibit.” Her life and the life of the people around suddenly stopped to be current to became shadows of a past life. Erpenbeck’s work as a novelist has been since then the effort to preserve the multitude of experiences that was life in East-Berlin, that self-contained world “at the ends of the earth” before it disappeared forever in people’s memory.
In Go, Went, Gone [Gehen, ging, gegangen] (2017), Erpenbeck multiplies the number of worlds in collision. Herself and her experience of East Berlin as a world that ended meets with those of African refugees whose lives have been tragically disrupted and had to flee their home countries to escape war and poverty to find themselves with neither civil nor human rights, but as second-class people pleading European countries to give them asylum.
The protagonist of the novel is a professor from East Germany, like her father, John Erpenbeck, who was a physicist and philosopher. However, Richard is more of a humanist. He is a retired professor of classical philology who lives alone after his wife passed away. At the beginning of the novel, the reader follows Richard in an uneventful routine that nothing seems to disturb, apart from the gloomy news of a man who drowned in a lake near the city and whose body after months has not yet been found. Then one summer day, Richard notices a group of men protesting in Alexanderplatz. At first, Richard goes on with his life, and only later he suddenly decides for unprecise reasons, inexplicable even to himself, to interview the refugees to understand their situation which he feels ignorant about. Before becoming their friend, Richard enters the stories of their lives in the same way he would have started a new research project, that is, by asking questions. Erpenbeck herself interviewed thirteen refugees and Go, Went, Gone is the result of those interviews that gradually led her to a deeper encounter between them.
In her reading of Erpenbeck’s novel, Professor Hanna Meretoja reflected on narrative and memory as modes of understanding others, with a focus on the sub-subsumptive and non-subsumptive elements of memory and narrative in Richard’s understanding of the refugees’ experiences. Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Turku and director of the research center SELMA: Centre for the Study of Storytelling, Experientiality and Memory, Meretoja is author of The Ethics of Storytelling (Oxford, 2018). Meretoja’s reading of the novel explored how the novel represents memory as the starting point of a learning process that entails a dialogical understanding of others through curiosity and open listening, something she analyzed at length in her recent essay “Non-subsumptive memory and narrative empathy” (2021).
What follows is an overview of Meretoja’s presentation for the History, Literature, and Human Rights reading group, and the discussion that it stimulated. Because of the multifaced aspects of Meretojas’s reading of Gone, Went, Gone, the short titles at the beginning of each paragraph below offer a quick summary of the main points of Meretoja’s complex and enlightening analysis of the novel. The first question Meretoja addressed concerned memory as mode of understanding and sense making of new experiences.
Memory is an act — According to Meretoja, if traditionally, memory has been considering as the act of retrieving the past, recent memory studies have complemented that perspective by exploring the rather dynamic, productive, and performative nature of memory. As a performative act, memory shapes our present and constructs our social reality. Recalling Nietzsche’s belief that “every concept comes into being by making equivalent that which is non-equivalent,” vis-à-vis Levinas’ and Derrida’s claim that language and narrative are inherently violent, Meretoja enclosed the question of memory in an ethical framework, asking how to discern violent and non-violent elements in narrative memory.
Sub-subsumptive and non-subsumptive elements of memory — Focusing on memory and how it shapes our understanding of others, Meretoja argued that practices of memory can be placed on a continuum between sub-subsumptive and non-subsumptive forms of memory. Meretoja referred to this categorization as a heuristic tool that is useful to analyses the presence of sub-subsumptive and non-subsumptive elements in memory making and, consequently, to understand the role memory plays in dealing with novelty, that is, how old experiences informs the way we make sense of new ones.
Perception of sameness can either hide or reveal differences — Predominantly sub-subsumptive forms of memory are, for instance, culturally dominant ones, those functioning as “sense making models” when, to understand a culturally specific, local situation, we equate it to an event belonging to the history of another national context. Although a comparative approach, Meretoja stressed, is somewhat inevitable, a more ethical understanding of otherness should not lose sight of the specificities of the events held in comparison. Predominantly non-subsumptive forms of memory are those “open in both directions,” Meretoja said, since, while using earlier experiences as the starting point to understand something new, they use what we remember as the beginning of dialogical understanding, through which not only we learn something new, but we renegotiate the significance of our past experiences as well.
Richard’s sense making between subsumptive and non-subsumptive memory — According to Meretoja, Gone, Went, Gone explores the continuum and the ethical difference between sub-subsumptive and non-subsumptive forms of memory, as it sheds the light on a how openended narrative memory is the condition of possibility for a dialogical and more ethical encounter with the other, in which the other regains narrative agency.
The relationality of memory — Meretoja showed how the novel deals with the relationality of memory by displaying how we relate to new situations based on memory of past experiences. Richard’s East German past as well as the Nazi Germany past function as mnemonic filters that mold Richard’s sense making of new experiences, including his encounter with the refugees and how Germany was dealing with the 2015 migrants’ crisis in Germany. Those mnemonic filters are a double edge sward for they both enable and prevent his understanding, influencing Richard’s way to relate to the uniqueness of the refugees’ experience of exile. In other words, Richard’s past both helps him and does not help him understand the lives of the refugees and their stories.
The dishonesty of knowing already — At the beginning of his encounter with the refugees, the narrator pays close attention to what the protagonist does not receive. What does he not receive? For instance, he does not receive the silence in Alexanderplatz, despite its magnitude: “Why is it that Richard, walking past all these black and white people sitting and standing that afternoon, doesn’t hear this silence? – the narrative voice asks – “He’s thinking of Rzeszów. […] Just like in Rzeszów” (GWG, 10-20), assimilating that silence to the underground tunnels of the Polish city he once visited with his wife. Hence, at first, Richard does not hear the specificity of that silence; he only perceived the sameness between the two events and stops seeing what is going on in the square; he thinks he understands because he uses another context, the knowledge of another context as a point of reference, which instead leads him astray.
The humility of not-knowing yet — Instead, it is the humility of when he admits his ignorance and the curiosity to want to know more that leads him to understand something new. Yet, new experiences do not sink in a mnemonic vacuum. Therefore, also in these instances his past functions as a template. Richards draws from personal experiences of feeling lost and disoriented, estranged to others and himself to relate to the experience of disruption of the refugees, when their “former life came to an end” (GWG, 135).
Revising as better understanding — Meretoja analyzed how one of the questions the novel poses concerns finding “shared points of reference” without subsuming others to our expectations and preconceptions. In this respect, if crucial is our ability to understand, equally important is the willingness and ability to revise our understanding. Over the course of the novel, Richard revises his initial understanding of the refugees’ experience. If at first Richard uses what is most familiar to him and even renames the African refugees after heroes of Western mythology and literary canon (Apollo, Tristan, and so on), as he becomes a better listener or as “he becomes better at dialogical listening,” Meretoja specificized, he also reconsiders the validity of his culturally predominant preconceptions. In other words, the more Richard learns about the refugees the more he can see the limits of his earlier categories; also, the more he listens the more he learns, showing how the process of learning from others also helps someone becoming more open.
The limits of empathy — The cultural background of Richard and that of the refugees is so different that it would be pretentious to think that he can feel with them what they are feeling. Meretoja pinpointed that what Richard does instead is trying to imagine what they are going through by drawing on his experiences of foreignness. For instance, he remembers how when he visited the US he was “beside himself with the foreignness” (GWG, 278). Similarly, when one of the refugees does not know how to take care of one of Richard’s friends’ grandmother, Richard imagines a reversed situation and ask himself the following: “Would he have any idea how to look after an African grandmother? Nana?” (GWG, 278). Richard starts accounting for cultural and social differences between him and the refugees. Based on those examples, Meretoja argued that “transcultural empathy” — as a non-subsumptive understanding of the other — is based on curiosity and wonder, rather than on the traditional assumption that with empathy someone “can feel what the other feels.”
The privileges of empathy — Furthermore, Meretoja reflected on how both practices of memory and processes of empathy are socially embedded and occur in situations in which power and agency are unequally distributed: “some people have the privilege to empathize with those lacking such a privilege,” she argued. Some people empathize with others because they are in the privileged position to do so. Although Richard feels like a second-class citizen because in United Germany because, for instance, he has a lower salary compared to his colleague from West Germany, he is unquestionably a highly privileged man when compared to the refugees and their lack of civil/human rights. Throughout the novel, Richard becomes increasingly more aware of his position of privilege and power.
The contingent differences of one humanity — At the same time, his East German past makes him think about the possibility of role reversal, like, Sylvia, one of Richard’s friends says at some point: ““I keep imagining that someday it’ll be us having to flee, and no one will help us” (GWG, 143). The possibility of role reversal implies that what is most important for Richard is the understanding of a shared humanity, beyond the social and political contingences determining someone’s life, beyond power differences. On this point, Meretoja showed how, for instance, for Richard the encounter with the refugees sheds new light on his personal past, on Nazi Germany. In fact, Richards asserts that how we now treat the refugees is the real test of whether Hitler won in the end or did not: “The Africans probably had no idea who Hitler was, but even so: only if they survived Germany now would Hitler truly have lost the war,” he thinks (GWG, 78). According to Richard, how Germany treats the refugees shows us whether we can see everyone under the same, shared humanity or if, instead, we still build our world upon the differences between first-class and second-class humans, with no basic human rights. In this second case, Hitler won the war, then.
Non authoritative narrative voice — According to Meretoja, the same narrative strategies of Gone, Went, Gone convey a non-subsumptive approach to the other. First, in the novel there is no authoritative narrative voice. As readers, we only know how something may appear to someone, speculations about the possible reasons for the characters actions and reactions, as well as possible future developments. The uncertainty of the narrative voice invites the reader to participate to the process of interpretation, which is therefore open-ended. Meretoja highlighted how forms of narrative that are less certain of themselves invite to a dialogical, explorative engagement with the text, as they open the horizons to asking questions.
The “primacy of questions” — Indeed, the novel actively examines questions as a form of engagement with others that begins with listening: ““the act of listening always contains the questions: What should you understand? What do you want to understand? What will you never understand but want to have confirmed?” Richard says while reflecting on how everything depends on asking the right questions (GWG, 114). The memories the refugees share with him over the course of this dialogical process constitute a process of exploration in which what is at stake is “who they are and how they exercise their power of narrative agency by telling their own stories,” stressing how agency and sense of self are entangled in their stories, “the ones they have started, those in which they have being thrown, and those who they took from the culturally available repertoire of narrative templates,” Meritoja stated.
Stories that elude the plot — In addition, Richard’s narrative templates are in tension with stories eludes traditional narrative understanding. In the novel, we see Richard looking for narratives that could help him understand what it means to be a refugee, how they transitioned from a full existence to a life of a refugee, which is open in all directions. To do so, at first, he thinks he must know what it was “he has to know what was at the beginning, what was in the middle, and what is now” (GWG, 60). However, the stories of the refugees resist such preconceived narrative pattern. The stories they tell are so overwhelming and so full of pain that their stories show that how Richard’s Westerns narrative world is not ready to receive them. Those stories do not fit in Richards’ search for a plot. Eventually, instead, Richard asks himself whether “will he too occupy some place in their stories?” and whether in the end this is even a relevant question to ask himself.
The human right to tell one’s own story — Finally, Meretoja argued that the novel shows how not everyone as an equal right to excise their narrative agency. Agency, including narrative agency, are unequally distributed within society. Some people have more power than others to determine which stories get told. People with more freedom decide the stories to tell. The question of power is essential because it determines the narrative memory that we all are: “without memory, man is nothing more than a bit of flesh on the planet’s surface,” Richard catches himself thinking (GWG, 226). In conclusion, according to Meretoja, if memory gives us the sense of a shared humanity with specific social and cultural difference, the novel suggests that we should draw from our experiences of foreignness, marginalization, to keep ourselves open to the suffering for others. At the same time, this means accepting that we cannot fully understand another human being and that all we can do is to learn from one another, resisting the temptation of subsuming someone’s narrative agency to our own.
The discussion that followed Meretoja’s critique focused on some problematic aspects of Richard’s rather subsumptive modes of engagement with the experiences of the refugees at the beginning of the novel.
The novel’s intended readership — A problem that emerged from the discussion concerned the novel’s intended readership and whether the novel accompanies the reader to the progressive realization of one’s own privileges. Who is the novel addressing? Who is the novel trying to teach to, even? Is Richard, the retired professor, and his path to relearn also a sort of mise en abyme of the readers’ expected learning process throughout the novel? Perhaps, Erpenbeck is writing for other Westerners, especially for those who think of themselves as liberal and do not realize that in their dialogue with others they are still very limited and dogmatic. Yet, readers pointed out how to reveal with more distinctiveness his later process of opening, the novel presents a rather slow, too long setup of Richard’s initial close-mindedness, who is indeed almost the only character at the beginning of the novel. That long initial setup is in contrast with the rather delayed focus on the stories of the refugees.
Richard as a cultural mediator / translator — Another question concerned whether Richard can be seen as a mediator, because on the threshold between cultures, as well as in-between academic and non-academic world. Meretoja opened the discussion on the different aspects of Richard’s past that anticipate the mediating role he may play in the novel. Richard already mediated different worlds, the East German one where he grew up and the one of United Germany. Yet, although Richard experienced marginalization, there is a dramatic difference between the Richard’s marginalization and that of the refugees. According to Meretoja this is part of the novel’s exploration of how people experience different degrees of marginalization because different are the difficulties people face in their lives. When it comes to Richard as an intellectual bridging academia and social life, Meretoja thinks that the novel can be read as a criticism or self-criticism of the European tradition of humanism. In fact, Nazi Germany showed us how European humanism did not save us from the horrors of WWII and does not make us automatically good. Meretoja suggested that Erpenbeck treats Richard’s humanism with irony. For instance, the way he tries to use this classical mythology and paintings to make sense of the life of the refugees is very problematic, and only later he understands he was wrong, although, still with his own limits. Yet, if the novel criticizes Richard’s pretentious humanism, there is also some hope in the possibility of growth by listening, since he appears to learn along the way.
Renaming as a subsumptive act — A reader reflected on Richard’s subsumptive way of renaming the African refugees and the extent in which it influences the readers’ experience to also function in a subsumptive way, so much so that after reading the novel we may remember the refugees with the name Richard assigns them, which obliterates their self-identification by their own name prior to meeting Richard. Is the narrator’s irony towards Richard’s subsumptive renaming something that informs the reading experience? Perhaps the narrator’s irony of Richard’s renaming encourages the reader to engage in self-criticism when employing similar subsumptive acts and embracing the primacy of questions as a more ethical way of understanding.
Memory as the basis for asking questions — At the same time, not all questions are the same and, indeed, Richard’s questions change over the course of the novel showing his subtle development. Meretoja suggested that if at first Richard’s questions are rather mechanic, towards the end of the novel they are more genuine, creating the conditions for a two-way dialogue with the refugees. A meaningful, open dialogue can improve the awareness of our individual and collective limitations, embedded in our memory, and make us more humble, exploratory, and friendly in our encounter with the other. Memory, therefore, can be the starting point for not-knowing, to become aware of the things we take for granted and beginning by asking question with curiosity rather than by looking for answers. Since questions are informative of the perspective we hold, finding new ways of asking questions means also overcoming some of our limits to see beyond our initial horizon and meet new ones.
Gone, Went, Gone and Meretoja’s critique of the novel invited us readers to become more aware of how we use the past and what we remember when approaching something new, being it the present we are in or the lives of others and their experiences. How did Erpenbeck’s own understanding of the performativity of memory develop after her encounter with the African refugees and their stories? How did her approach to narrative memory change after writing a novel about that encounter? Erpenbeck’s recent, structurally more fragmented work Not a Novel: A Memoir in Pieces (2018) [Kein Roman. Texte und Reden 1992-2018] could be a new starting point to continue our dialogue with her. In light of the discussion on Gone, Went, Gone, a question I would like to ask Erpenbeck is to which extent the experience of disruption of the refugees as well as their tragic stories influenced her decision to opt for more fragmented narrative templates, such as the short essay, rather than the novel. Is the collection of short pieces a better suited medium to explore that shared humanity that experiences of marginality and disruption reveal?
Erpenbeck, Jenny, and Susan Bernofsky. “Homesick for Sadness: A Childhood in Incompletion.” The Hudson Review 67, no. 4 (2015): 549-562.
Erpenbeck, Jenny. Go, Went, Gone, trans. Susan Bernofsky, New Directions, New York (2017).
Erpenbeck, Jenny, and Kurt Beals. Not a Novel: A Memoir in Pieces. New York: A New Directions Book, 2020.
Meretoja, Hanna. The ethics of storytelling: Narrative hermeneutics, history, and the possible. Oxford University Press, 2017.
Meretoja, Hanna. “Non-subsumptive memory and narrative empathy.” Memory Studies 14, no. 1 (2021): 24-40. https://doi.org/10.1177/1750698020976458
July 2nd 17:00-18:30 CEST/GMT+2
In July 2021, Brigitte Herremans, a research fellow in the Justice Visions project at the Human Rights Centre of Ghent University, led a discussion on Khaled Khalifa novel Death Is Hard Work (2016).
Response by Anne-Marie McManus, Principle Investigator, ERC Project SYRASP
Death is Hard Work: Insolvent Violence and the Persistence of Literature
A leading figure of contemporary Syrian literature, Khaled Khalifa has dedicated multiple novels to writing the repressed violences experienced by Syrian society under the Assad regime (1970-present). His most recent novel translated into English, Death is Hard Work (2016; translated by Leri Price, 2019), continues Khalifa’s work of paying painstaking attention to how ordinary Syrians experience monumental historical events of displacement and loss, and how these events accumulate in individual lives and bodies, in families, and in Syrian society.
Death is Hard Work writes the ongoing war in Syria through three estranged siblings: Hussein, Fatima, and Bolbol (meaning nightingale), the novel’s central character. A story of crossing Syria in a minibus over several days, the novel opens with the death of ‘Abdel Latif, their father, whose dying wish is to be buried in the family village, Anabiya. The village lies outside Aleppo, and the journey of bringing the corpse to its burial site would, in ordinary times, have taken mere hours from Damascus, where the novel begins. Yet the mission to fulfill ‘Abdel Latif’s last wish instigates the novel’s arduous plot. Checkpoints, conflict zones, shellings, and even the arrest of the corpse (along with its children) all slow them down. In the final pages, Khalifa is unflinching in his descriptions of the corpse’s decomposition as the siblings race (if the verb can be used in the context of a war that has settled like lead over the hopes and desires of Syria’s inhabitants) to reach Anabiya before it splits open. In the final scenes, Fatima, the least explored character of the three siblings, is struck mute by the horror of her father’s rapid decay and infestation by maggots.
Brigitte Herremans contextualized Khalifa’s work in a tradition of dissident literature in Syria, notably since the 1990s, citing the novelist’s belief that literature’s “response to dispossession is [the] strongest form of resistance [to] oppression.” Khalifa, she explained, has remained in wartorn Syria due to his commitment to bearing witness to the war and to telling Syrians’ stories in literature. Herremans noted the Libyan novelist Hisham Matar’s commentary on the novel’s title in translation, which suggested “labor” as an alternative to “work” that foregrounds the existential dimensions of the novel’s task. Drawing on her interviews with the author, Herremans underscored Khalifa’s refusal to write within the accepted categories and discourses of Syrian politics as well as to cultivate the empathy of his readers. He chooses an unheroic protagonist in Bolbol: an ordinary citizen, resentful of the regime’s power but too afraid to act (most of the time). Bolbol fits the profile of a post-2011 category in Syrian politics and society: “the grey (al-ramadiyyin).” A sizable portion of the population, they refused to act with the revolutionaries and thus placed “systemic limits on the uprising” (Wedeen 22). As a result, the grey have been a target of opposition anger and mocking typologies in cultural production over the past decade (Wedeen 70-1).
In contrast, Khalifa centers Bolbol, a man plagued by ambivalence and weakness. With this choice, Khalifa brings into view what Herremans calls social violence: the quotidian slights and exclusions that preoccupy Bolbol, whose daily concerns – when he is not delivering his father’s corpse across the country — focus on securing his neighbors’ approval and living as invisibly as possible. This social violence intertwines with the military violence that is everywhere in the novel, breaking the siblings’ journey, even besieging the spaces where characters find moments of temporary respite. Amidst so much abjection, we find in Bolbol a portrait of fear and isolation, but also of the most ordinary of hopes and desires. Herremans drew on writings by Hannah Arendt and Judith Butler to argue that these dimensions of the novel insist on the humanity and vulnerability of Syrian lives, too often obscured and dehumanized today.
The discussion that followed Herremans’ comments was lively and multifaceted. Participants expressed their admiration for Khalifa’s capacity to capture the dignity of his characters amidst degradation and destruction, as well as the ongoing meaning of rituals surrounding death. Khalifa’s narrative thematizes the banalization of death in the war, with Bolbol grumbling to himself that in the presence of constant loss and annihilation, “rites and rituals meant nothing now […] death wasn’t even a source of distress anymore: it had become an escape much envied by the living” (6). “The Syrian war novel,” states the late Hassan ‘Abbas, “is a mass grave” (112). A pervasive, anonymizing violence even governs Khalifa’s style. His earlier novel, In Praise of Hatred (2006), had marked the explosions of violence in 1980s Aleppo with sharp shifts in language and style. In contrast, Death is Hard Work lets death and loss to suffuse its prose from beginning to end. In this context of relentless loss, the main characters repeatedly question the point of observing pieties around death, particularly when the journey exposes the siblings to so much danger. Hussein threatens to throw his father’s corpse to wild dogs. Bolbol contemplates giving up and burying the body anywhere.
There are no moments of sentimental realization, no affirmations of filial duty to counterbalance the siblings’ intense desires to abandon their task, to stop pretending there is any meaning in honoring their father’s last wish. The novel and their journey simply continue. The siblings’ movement across time and space, paralleling the linear movement of the novel itself, becomes a gesture of persistence — “a mode of living-on with the eternal dread of the present” — rather than progress, growth, or triumph (Berlant, 180). When the siblings finally reach Anabiya, the extended family is waiting and gives them refuge. They bury ‘Abdel Latif in haste, but it is no source of catharsis or closure. They even neglect to bury him next to his sister, Layla, as the dying ‘Abdel Latif had asked. What little relief that may be found lies in Bolbol’s decision to scurry back to his dull existence – “like a large rat,” concludes the text — in the capital where he hopes to avoid regime scrutiny and the hatred of his neighbors – and above all, to sleep (144).
Very little can be recuperated from these closing scenes. Readers hoping for an uplifting celebration of the human spirit will be disappointed. Yet Khalifa is far from veering into nihilism. Resilience suffuses the text, exploding in expressions of love and childlike joy that seem anarchically out of place: ‘Abdel Latif joins the revolution in his seventies and marries his childhood love. They frolic and kiss across the ruins of rebel territory as their aging bodies, like those of the younger rebels, slowly starve. The revolution assuages ‘Abdel Latif’s bitter disillusionment at the hollow promises of the 1960s – Arab nationalist glory, anti-colonialism, resistance to imperialism – in ways that appear unavailable to his son. This generational mapping of the 2011 revolution is a curious one in Death is Hard Work, as the protests and military rebellions in Syria were dominated by the young. Khalifa’s choice implicitly suggests that Bolbol’s life under the Assad dictatorship has robbed him of certain extremes in his political imagination and actions. His horizon stretches as far as making bargains with his surroundings to evade social violence and exclusion. Utopia is foreclosed. Only unrequited love permits Bolbol to glimpse other futures, perhaps precisely because they remain unrealized. He adores Lamia, a beacon of courage and solidarity in the novel whom we meet hosting and feeding displaced families with her husband, impervious to the dangers they face in welcoming the state’s opponents into their home. Bolbol muses that she gives him “the courage” to be otherwise, even reckless (53). Through Bolbol Death is Hard Work suggests, with Khalifa’s characteristic compassion for human weakness and inconsistency, that we are not revolutionaries, brave, or for that matter grey in abstraction and isolation. Rather than “undivided selves,” we are embedded in networks of social belonging, dependence, and recognition (Morales 86).
What is the fate of this entangled individual in a society that has been silenced, intimidated, and torn apart over decades, but most intensively in the past ten years? Death is Hard Work’s only reply is to offer nothing that resembles ordinary character development. This literary yardstick entered the discussion as a way to think about Bolbol’s trajectory: had he changed by the end of the novel, asked the participants? On one hand, he sheds his nickname for his real name, Nabil, meaning “noble.” On the other, he crawls into bed, “superfluous” and exhausted – hardly words that promises noble acts ahead (144). One discussant noted that despite the completed journey, much remains unfinished at the novel’s deeply unsettling conclusion. If we are used to understanding plot as showing character development, whether in self-understanding or relationships with others, Death is Hard Work defies our expectations.
Something else accumulates along with the rot and maggots in the patriarch’s corpse: an ambient trauma that tears subjectivities apart, silencing Fatima and deflating the brothers’ dreams. Khalifa names this trauma, the offspring of decades of political oppression layered by the contemporary war, in a moment when the narrative muses on a figure of debts unpaid: “the shame and the silence they had lived through for years were exacting a price, and everyone would pay it, executioners and victims alike” (122).
Debts are relations. As narrative objects, they arrange time, causality, and ethics (Bouju). For Khalifa, these invisible bonds capture the proliferating, unnameable, perhaps even invisible trauma at the heart of this and his previous novels, accumulating in bodies and memory, soldering Syrians to one another in the very years of their most rancorous divisions. It is not that death and suffering form a currency for new relations between Syrians in the novel (or indeed for sympathy from the reader). In a passage that recurred in Herremans’ discussion, a taxi driver laughs when he learns of the siblings’ loss (8). Similarly, “the story of [‘Abdel Latif’s] body got no sympathy” from other displaced Syrians, numb and disinterested (48). Nor does Khalifa turn to debt to raise questions of settling accounts, a core topic of transitional justice that is still postponed in Syria. The novel makes this clear through the ubiquitous presence of armed men at checkpoints, some driven by payback and profit, others by sympathy. The siblings narrowly escape the battles around checkpoints, waged increasingly by foreigners as the novel progresses, suggesting Syria has been engulfed by scores that may kill, but do not concern, ordinary Syrians.
Instead, Khalifa uses literature to gesture to the impossibility of paying back a price that won’t stop growing for Syrians: too many losses, too dear to too many, accumulated over too much time. In this sense, Death Is Hard Work performs what Emmanual Bouju terms a poetics of insolvency, with its persistent living-on figuring the necessary work of living, dying, and bearing witness amidst all that may never be settled. It is for this reason that the novel’s plot is driven by a debt paid only partially (a debt, noted David Graeber, is a promise perverted by “math and violence”). The burial of ‘Abdel Latif does not offer a full release for Bolbol (or, indeed, the novel), and his dying command is only partially fulfilled because he is not buried next to his sister Layla. Much as ‘Abdel Latif’s corpse invites its own reading as a symbol of the ravaged Syrian nation (‘Abbas 123), Layla, a specter of the past and its patriarchal violence, asks to be read as the symbol of feminist revolt in Syria. When their father tried to force her into marriage decades earlier, Layla lit herself on fire on the roof of her wedding party, “a blazing torch […] lighting the way for other women” (104). Yet another debt of insolvent violence, Layla’s story resurfaces again and again. The family tries to bury it in multiplying stories, but her burning figure never collapses into ashes. In this sense, she is never fully dead, but nor can she or the resistance she embodies be reborn, triumphant and phoenix-like. Khalifa’s decision to leave the siblings’ corpses at a distance in the family land in the north, their wishes still unfulfilled, is thus a fitting end to Death is Hard Work. Although their corpses disappear into the earth, the siblings remain: lonely and irreconcilable symbols of promises squandered and debts unpayable around which new Syrian narratives will proliferate.
‘Abbas, Hassan, al-Jasad fi Riwayat al-Harb al-Suriyah [The Body in the Syrian War Novel] Presses d’IFPO, 2021.
Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. 2nd edition. University of Chicago Press, 1998.
Berlant, Lauren. Cruel Optimism. Duke University Press 2011.
Bouju, Emmanuel. “The Debt Narrative and the Credit Crunch of Democracy.” differences 31:3, (2020): 59-75.
Butler, Judith. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. Verso, 2006.
Graeber, David. Debt: The First 5000 Years. Melville House, 2014.
Morales, Rafael Acosta. “Splitting the Colonizer: Discarding Centrality as Freedom.” Comparative Literature 71.1 (2019): 86-107.
Wedeen, Lisa. Authoritarian Apprehensions: Ideology, Judgment, and Mourning in Syria. University of Chicago Press 2019.
June 15th 16:00-17:30 (CEST/GMT+2)
Response by Janet Handley, UiT, The Arctic University of Norway: Burnt Shadows
Kamila Shamsie´s novel Burnt Shadows (2009) spans a vast history of political upheaval. It begins in Nagasaki, 1945, moves through the partition of India in 1947, from Delhi to Pakistan, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, America´s proxy wars, to New York post 9/11 and its aftermath. It ends in 2002 with an innocent man sent to Guantanamo Bay. This final location takes us full circle back to the prologue, providing a neat structural frame for the novel. Written in present tense, the prologue hints at its location with the simple reference to a cell and an orange jumpsuit – symbols so ingrained in the public imagination that Shamsie needs not name it. The final words of the prologue pose a question: How did it come to this? By the end of the book, readers are in a position to form their own responses. This question, according to Shamsie, also defines the role of the novelist. In a panel debate on Literature and Political Violence (Royal Society of Literature 2009), shortly before Burnt Shadows was published, she was asked about the form of the novel and how it could possibly keep up with the fast-moving events in the world as documented by journalists. Shamsie clarified that in this context, journalists and novelists play complimentary roles. Journalists provide the daily updates, whereas novelists have the time to explore “how we came to this”. Events do not occur in isolation, and Shamsie´s linking of the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945 to 9/11 and its aftermath, underline what Professor Greg Forter describes as “a deep, structural relationship between the two events … part of the history of U.S. world hegemony”.
Forter´s introduction to the novel began by directing attention to an article Shamsie wrote for Guernica magazine in 2012: The Storytellers of Empire. It provides both a general frame for the novel and intervenes in the debate surrounding 9/11 fiction, especially as represented by U.S. authors. Here, Shamsie draws attention to another question, one asked by many Americans immediately after 9/11: “why do they hate us”? Rather than pondering this deeply, Shamsie states, the question was answered swiftly and simplistically: “they hate our freedoms”. Expecting novelists to “proffer” more complex explanations, Shamsie is disappointed. She cannot find U.S. authors who “see its stories bound up with the stories of other places”. The national calamity of 9/11 lacks any historical context or understanding of causality. It is viewed as a singular event: the day itself. She quotes John Freeman, editor of Granta magazine, who reflecting back 10 years later admitted: “We [Americans] read less about the world and more about ourselves”. Shamsie´s novel, Burnt Shadows, can thus be seen to counter the seeming inability of U.S. writers to free themselves from an insular, domestic focus. The novel decenters the narrative in order to tell stories from a different perspective: one that inhabits the exterior. In this way it provides a broad historical context in which to address and reconsider these pertinent questions: “How did it come to this?”; “why do they hate us?”.
Burnt Shadows follows two families over three generations, as their lives interweave. The family histories represent what Forter highlights as one of the main concerns of the novel: uprootedness, nationalism and cosmopolitanism. The Weiss-Burtons, German (Konrad, Ilse), English (James), American (Harry, Kim), travel freely and settle where it benefits them most, their country heritages aligned with colonial and neo-imperialist powers. The Tanaka-Ashrafs, Japanese (Hiroko), Indian (Sajjad), Pakistani (Raza) move out of necessity: Hiroko leaves Japan to escape the label of “hibakusha” (affected by the bomb) and later Pakistan due to the threat of nuclear conflict; Sajjad is denied entry to his home in Delhi after Partition and forced to live in Pakistan where he is eventually killed; Raza flees to Canada suspected of Harry´s murder. Forter points out that the families “embody the power dynamics that shape historical violence along racial-national lines”. Beginning with the atom bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Hiroko recounts to Sajjad: “the American with the gentle face said the bomb was a terrible thing, but it had to be done to save American lives” (BS 62). Similar reasoning is applied by Kim in the final pages of the novel, who by reporting Abdullah, inadvertently leads to Raza´s arrest: “If I did look at him and see the man who killed my father, isn´t that understandable?” (BS 361). A clear distinction operates between those whose lives matter and those whose lives do not count as lives at all.
The justification that dominant military powers use to “write-off” civilian populations as collateral damage, draws attention to the violation of human rights. In Burnt Shadows, Forter argues, the novel looks more to the question of “the right to have rights” as posed by Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), and what happens to those rights when people are dispossessed, forced to flee, exiled. Uprootedness is everywhere in this novel. Aside from the focus on the two families, Shamsie provides a broader narrative that captures the voices of those on the margins: the migrant taxi drivers working in the U.S.; market traders in Karachi; Afghan refugees; the training camps for the Mujahideen; an Afghan farmer who accepts the Taliban so he can watch his sons “measure hand-span against a pomegranate, not a grenade” (BS 320); and those who smuggle Raza to Canada via Iran and Oman. The boat journey to Muscat, so cramped it makes Raza think of the mass graves in Kosovo, leads to the question: “What kind of world made men have to endure this?” (BS 337). Burnt Shadows examines how social forces are mediated by individuals, and how different histories of violence impact on different social groups and the complex relationships that arise. Spanning five countries and sixty years, Shamsie connects both readers and characters to intimate scenes within the more impersonal context of war and destruction: we witness the interplay of history in the personal lives of those who live it.
This draws us to the title, Burnt Shadows, upon which Shamsie elaborates further in the Guernica article. Awaiting inspiration for her next novel, the image of an atom bomb dropping on Nagasaki kept coming to mind. Her lack of knowledge led to a book by John Hersey: Hiroshima (1946), where she read about the effects of the atom bomb on human survivors: “On some undressed bodies, the burns had made patterns … the shapes of flowers they had had on their kimonos”. This leads to the “three bird-shaped burns”, literally “burnt shadows” imprinted onto the flesh of Hiroko´s back from the kimono she was wearing. In the novel, Hiroko´s wounded body becomes a metaphor for the wounded world: “Urakami Valley has become her flesh. Her flesh has become Urakami Valley” (BS 27). As she states later, “Some days she could feel the dead on her back” (BS 49). Described as a “diagonal script”, the wounds that history has inscribed on Hiroko´s back also become part of the novel´s focus upon language and translation, or what Forter describes as the “possibilities” of translation. Hiroko´s own linguistic facilities not only provide employment and an ability to embrace world citizenship, but love is borne in and through translation, in her relationships with Konrad and Sajjad, and the skills she passes onto her son Raza. In contrast, the reluctance of the Weiss-Burtons to adapt linguistically, is expressed by James: “If there ever was a time we were interested in entering your world in that way, it´s long past” (BS 40). The final scene of the novel depicts the inability of Kim to translate and thus to understand any connection between the atomic bomb in 1945 to the present “war on terror”: “The silence that followed was the silence of intimates who find themselves strangers. The dark birds were between them, their burnt feathers everywhere” (BS 362).
The notion of “shadows” haunts the book from beginning to end. Shamsie uses this symbol to connect sequences in the text. Explaining the significance of a shadow on a rock, Hiroko asks: “Do you know about the shadows, Sajjad?” (BS 76). The horror of the bomb and its consequences are vividly captured, not only in the wounds that Hiroko bears and the description of her father, but in those for whom there were no remains: “Those nearest the epicentre of the blast were eradicated completely, only the fat from their bodies sticking to the walls and rocks around them like shadows” (BS 76). The tenderness with which Hiroko recounts her search for Konrad´s “lanky shadow” and the burial of the rock she felt sure bore his imprint, stands in stark contrast to the brutal act of military warfare. Later, when Sajjad is killed by one of Harry´s operatives, Hiroko turns away, “so that even his [Harry´s] shadow was out of her sight” (BS 243). On hearing of Yoshi Watanabe´s cancer “mushrooming” in his body, and the news that Pakistan had decided to drop the nuclear tests, Hiroko is unable to escape from the image of “Karachi manifest in a post-bomb landscape by shadows overlying shadows overlying shadows” (BS 291). As Raza is arrested at the end of the novel, he notes: “There was the spider and its shadow. Two families, two versions of the spider dance. The Ashraf-Tanakas, the Weiss-Burtons – their story together the story of a bomb, the story of a lost homeland, the story of a man shot dead by the docks, the story of body-armour ignored, of running alone from the world´s greatest power” (BS 355). The distinction between those who cast the shadows and those who live in those shadows highlights how the world is safe for some but not for others.
Professor Forter´s presentation of the novel led to a lively and interesting debate. One question drew attention to the fact that as a 9/11 novel, 9/11 only plays a small role in Shamsie´s account. In Burnt Shadows, Shamsie emphasizes that you cannot tell the story of 9/11 without telling all the other stories. Shamsie makes connections between the atomic bomb, the military bases, the covert bases, the proxy wars and the creation of economic borders that the U.S. benefits from, whilst presenting us with counter-narratives that trace the stories of those who are displaced, who fight back, who suffer, who long for their homelands. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the sense of brotherhood and loyalty established between Raza and Abdullah, and Harry and Kim´s world view. Harry tries to dissuade Raza from tracing Abdullah to which Raza responds: “How long ago was it that you decided to justify your life by transforming responsibility into a disease?” (BS 286). This attitude is echoed as Raza is arrested. Kim thinks: “She didn´t want him to be caught, she didn´t want him to escape, she didn´t want to be responsible either way” (BS 353). This lack of responsibility underlines the fact that Kim and her father Harry comprehend the narrative of 9/11 only in terms of themselves and their lives. They fail to reflect upon or grasp their own complicity in events. Rather, Harry dreams the dream of U.S. imperialism, of a “map of the world with countries appearing as mere outlines, waiting to be shaded in with stripes of red, white and blue” (BS 203). You make Americans into world citizens by making the world itself American. As Forter points out: This is a profit-making enterprise: “Here was internationalism, powered by capitalism” (BS 204). Kim embodies the liberal-minded U.S. citizen whose sense of self is toxic; she has no idea of the crimes committed in her name.
In Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (2004), Judith Butler draws attention to the value of narratives: “[t]he ability to narrate ourselves not from the first person alone, but from, say, the position of the third, or to receive an account delivered in the second, can actually work to expand our understanding of the forms that global power has taken” (8). She argues that the dominant narrative in the U.S. post 9/11 split humanity simplistically into two groups: those “with us” and those “against us”. This polarisation operated as a way to justify the violent response of the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq as it removed the ability “to consider the ways in which our lives are profoundly implicated in the lives of others” (7). Shamsie highlights the dangers of such a narrow world view. The inability to understand, connect and respect lives beyond our own, as represented by the Weiss-Burtons in the novel, is summed up in Hiroko´s final words: “In the big picture of the Second World War, what was seventy-five thousand more Japanese dead? Acceptable, that´s what it was. In the big picture of threats to America, what is one Afghan? Expendable … right now, because of you [Kim], I understand for the first time how nations can applaud when their governments drop a second nuclear bomb” (BS 362).
Butler, Judith. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. New York. Verso. 2004.
Forter, Greg. Literary analysis/presentation of Burnt Shadows. ReadRespond: UiT. June 2021. https://site.uit.no/readrespond/books/burnt-shadows/
Shamsie, Kamila. Burnt Shadows. London. Bloombury. 2009. (Quotations referred to as BS)
Shamsie, Kamila. “Literature and Political Violence”. Royal Society of Literature. https://rsliterature.org/library-article/literature-and-political-violence/ 2009.
Shamsie, Kamila. “Storytellers of Empire”. Guernica Magazine. February 2012. https://www.guernicamag.com/shamsie_02_01_2012/
May 10th 16:00-17:30 (CEST/GMT+2)
April 29th 17:00-18:30 (CEST/GMT+2)
In April 2021, Stef Craps, a professor of English literature at Ghent University in Belgium, where he directs the Cultural Memory Studies Initiative, led a discussion on Octavia Butler’s novel Parable of The Sower (1993).
Response by Marijana Mikić, University of Klagenfurt
Octavia E. Butler’s 1993 novel Parable of the Sower has become eerily prescient in recent times. The resurge in popularity largely rests on Butler’s uncanny ability to predict the future: not by conjuring up one apocalyptic, earth-shattering event, but rather by thinking through the future consequences that will follow if existing problems are not addressed. The fact that Butler became a New York Times bestselling author in 2020, 14 years after her death, is a recognition long overdue. And yet, it is hardly possible to celebrate the overwhelming resonance of the novel, without also understanding the success as a warning that we are coming closer and closer to the planetary doom that Butler is imagining. For all these reasons, Dr. Stef Craps reminds us, Parable of the Sower offers fertile ground for a discussion of literature, history, and human rights in the contemporary day and age.
Dr. Craps opened his introduction to the novel with the following question: “Why is this book being rediscovered now?” Set during the years 2024–2027, Parable of the Sower presents a nightmarish vision of social and environmental collapse that is all too recognizable for readers today. Moreover, the lack of confidence in the political system portrayed in the novel may only have become more pronounced in recent years. Corporate greed, climate change denial, a zero-tolerance border policy, executive orders against immigrants, and the mindless promotion of anti-democracy and anti-science views are only some of the ways in which the Trump era tragically reinvested in an old order that is not only responsible for many past and present injustices, but fundamentally opposed to change as “the only lasting truth”—one of the key tenets of Butler’s Earthseed belief system (3).
Butler, who has been declared the mother of Afrofuturism, resonates in this time of intense political activism that calls for a future in which the matter of Black lives is no longer contested. Dr. Craps referred to the Derek Chauvin trial and the jury’s “good sense to deliver a guilty verdict.” He noted that Chauvin’s acquittal in the murder of George Floyd would have likely (and understandably) led to riots on a national and possibly international scale, much like the 1992 L.A. riots following the acquittal of four white police officers over the brutal beating of Rodney King. In “the cynical cycle that is race relations and white supremacy in America” (Thomas 38), the guilty verdict provides a measure of accountability, relief, and hope. And yet, it is “less justice than an unusually strident effort toward self-preservation,” as Cheney-Rice observes. Self-preservation, however, will not fix a system that is broken beyond repair. Radical reform will. Butler’s storytelling highlights how present-day injustices are inextricably linked to historical injustices that are often not even properly acknowledged, let alone repaired. By participating in the African American literary tradition of the neo-slave narrative, Parable of the Sower presents a searing indictment of redemptive accounts of US history and linear progress narratives that give social currency to “post-racial” ideologies. Butler urges us to understand that we must reckon with the realities of injustice, both past and present, to generate a future imaginary that makes possible intersectional justice.
In and through her fiction, Butler provides a blueprint for a sustainable future, which relies on community-building, mutual trust, inclusivity, and interdependence. The protagonist Lauren Olamina’s hyperempathy syndrome—a disability that is also a superpower—plays an important role in facilitating the creation of a progressive community in Parable of the Sower. Dr. Craps drew an intriguing parallel between Lauren’s hyperempathy and Greta Thunberg’s autism. On the one hand, their neurodivergence helps them to act purposefully. On the other hand, it is used against them by their opponents. A passage in the novel when Lauren’s father advises her to stop talking about the dangers she foresees illustrates the connection particularly well. “These things frighten people. It’s best not to talk about them,” her father tells her, to which Lauren responds: “But, Dad, that’s like … like ignoring a fire in the living room because we’re all in the kitchen, and, besides, house fires are too scary to talk about” (Butler 59). In her speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2019, Greta drew on very similar imagery to communicate climate urgency: “I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”
Dr. Craps concluded his talk by raising questions about the viability of Butler’s imaginary agrarian community, the effectiveness of change which happens on a communal rather than on a political level, the commitment to interstellar exploration rather than planetary conservation, the anthropocentrism of Butler’s imagination of empathy, and the role of (hyper-)empathy in the context of real-world political change.
The first question from the audience raises the concern that a dystopian, sci-fi imaginary may act as a form of escapism which directs attention away from real-world issues that require immediate solutions. Indeed, Parable of the Sower was ahead of its time because Butler combined her dedication to follow already existing problems to their logical conclusions with a yearning for imagining an alternate, more hopeful future. Dr. Craps pointed out that the recent trend toward utopianism seems to suggest that doomsday fatigue has set in for many readers. Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future (2020) exemplifies this utopian revival particularly well. Rather than imagining the end of the world, the novel takes up the arguably more difficult challenge of imagining a credible alternative to the global challenges facing us. Whether environmentally engaged novels seek to invite fear or hope in readers, or both, there is, as Alexa Weik von Mossner suggests, “a certain consensus that emotionally powerful renderings of human–nature relationships play an important role in our engagement with environmental narrative and that such engagements can have substantial repercussions in the real world” (2017, 9). The exciting research done in the field of empirical ecocriticism promises to provide some answers to questions concerning the impact of climate fiction on real readers (e.g. Schneider-Mayerson 2020).
How, then, can literature help us to tackle the barriers that get in the way of our own commitments to hope and change? Rather than providing readers with exact blueprints for a better future, the potential of novels like Parable of the Sower lies in the ability to convey that change is indeed possible. The novel refuses, however, to fall into the trap of naïve optimism. By drawing attention to the ever-present tension between seeds of hope and seeds of destruction, Butler is invested in evoking hopeful visions, while never losing sight of the ambivalence and complexity of viable change. The discussion emphasizes the legitimacy of both literal and figurative interpretations of literary utopianism in the context of contemporary debates about more sustainable futures.
Considering Butler’s ability to envisage our future, it might not come as a surprise that she also predicted the bestseller status of her fiction in a private journal: “I shall be a bestselling writer . . . So be it! See to it!” The fact that we have largely failed to see to the conservation of the human and nonhuman world in the decades following the publication of Parable of the Sower has certainly contributed to its contemporary resonance. In this regard, the discussion closed with a pronounced hope that the current resurgence of the novel comes not only with a realization that Butler’s future has in many ways materialized, but also a recognition of the central importance of individual and communal responsibility necessary for imagining and creating change. The fascinating and thought-provoking book discussion led by Dr. Stef Craps invites all of us to consider the potential value of fictional writing about the world but also “for the world” (an expression brought up during Dr. Mieke Bal’s discussion that seems particularly compelling in this context).
“Behold Octavia Butler’s Motivational Notes to Self.” Open Culture, 29 Jun. 2020. www.openculture.com/2020/06/behold-octavia-butlers-motivational-notes-to-self.html.
Butler, Octavia E. Parable of the Sower. Headline, 2014.
Cheney-Rice, Zak. “This Is Not Justice. It’s Self-Preservation.” New York Magazine, 20 Apr. 2021. nymag.com/intelligencer/2021/04/the-chauvin-trial-guilty-verdict-is-police-self-preservation.html.
“‘Our house is on fire’: Greta Thunberg, 16, urges leaders to act on climate.” The Guardian, 25 Jan. 2019, www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jan/25/our-house-is-on-fire-greta-thunberg16-urges-leaders-to-act-on-climate.
Robinson, Kim Stanley. The Ministry for the Future. Orbit, 2020.
Schneider-Mayerson, Matthew. “‘Just as in the Book’? The Influence of Literature on Readers’ Awareness of Climate Injustice and Perception of Climate Migrants.” ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, vol. 27, no. 2, 2020, pp. 337–364.
Thomas, Sheree R. “Dangerous Muses: Black Women Writers Creating at the Forefront of Afrofuturism.” Literary Afrofuturism in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Isiah Lavender III and Lisa Yaszek. Ohio State UP, 2020, pp. 37–55.
Weik von Mossner, Alexa. Affective Ecologies: Empathy, Emotion, and Environmental Narrative. Ohio State UP, 2017.
March 2021 19th 17:00-18:30 (CET/GMT+1)
In March 2021, Yasmine Motawy, a Senior Instructor of Rhetoric and Composition at the American University in Cairo, led a discussion on Leila Aboulela’s novel Kindness of Enemies (2015).
Response by Dr. Neriman Kuyucu, Koç University, Istanbul
Leila Aboulela’s novel The Kindness of Enemies (2015) moves back and forth between modern-day Scotland in a post-9/11 context and the nineteenth century Caucasus during the Crimean War. Dr. Yasmine Motawy started the discussion with an introduction to the complex characters whose stories are intertwined across time and space throughout the novel.
The Kindness of Enemies is divided into four different strains. Sudanese Russian Scottish history professor Natasha Wilson Hussein’s present-day narrative is weaved with the story of the Sufi leader Imam Shamil who fascinated the west and the Russian Empire with his unyielding ambition and faith during the Crimean War. The historical narrative also follows the curious trajectory of Shamil’s eldest son, Jamaleldin who was captured by the Russian Czar and of Anna Chavchavadze, the Princess of Georgia who was, in return, held hostage by Imam Shamil. Through these different stories of yearning and belonging, as Dr. Motawy pointed out, Aboulela challenges the stereotypical depictions of Islam that perpetually dehumanize Muslim identities. The historicity of the text allows Aboulela to unveil the trials and tribulations that Muslims have suffered over the centuries. The past then serves as a powerful tool that illuminates our understanding of Muslimness in the twenty-first century.
Aboulela further shifts the discursive focus from the neo-Orientalist tropes of radical and threatening Muslims towards the complexity of Muslim identities. The two plotlines unfold against the backdrop of anti-Muslim discourse in different centuries, which serves as a springboard for an in-depth exploration of the right to religious freedom, the right to safe space, and the right not to be discriminated against on the basis of race or religion. From Natasha, Oz, and Malak to Imam Shamil, Anna, and Jamaleldin, the characters’ struggles with what it means to be home, to belong, and to remain true to their faith bring to light how their basic human rights are perpetually relegated to the periphery. Aboulela thus contests the construction of identity and faith as a monolith, asking for a deeper engagement from the reader beyond the negative stereotypes that have long defined Muslimness.
Dr. Motawy’s first question to Aboulela during the discussion, whether she was consciously thinking about human rights while writing the novel, was a compelling one within this context. No, Aboulela replied, she was not deliberately considering human rights challenges when she started to work on the novel. And she did not have to. The issues surrounding human rights and rights of citizenship are implicated in the true stories that inspired the construction of her characters and their stories. Oz’s harrowing experience, for instance, is based on the true story of a college student who got arrested after he’d downloaded the al-Qaeda training manual for a research project on the concept of terrorism. Oz then represents the large number of Muslims (conservative, liberal, secular, or “lapsed”) who are targeted by counter-terrorism strategies such as PREVENT and CONTEST. What happens, Aboulela asked during the discussion- as she does throughout the novel, when counter-terrorism laws falsely persecute innocent people?
In a society that perceives its minority groups as a threat to its national unity— its culture, language, and economy—, such mandates can be problematic and perilous, when implemented without meticulous care. A risky conflation of terrorism and piety may facilitate anti-terror operations, which threatens a Muslim’s right to practice conservative Islam without becoming a target. As Natasha meditates on the plight of Muslims in the current political climate:
Many Muslims in Britain wished that no one knew they were Muslim. They would change their names if they could and dissolve into the mainstream, for it was not enough for them to openly condemn 9/11 and 7/7, not enough to walk against the wall, to raise a glass of champagne, to eat in the light of Ramadan and never step into a mosque or say the shahada or touch the Qur’an. All this was not enough, though most people were too polite to say it. All these actions somehow fell short of the complete irrevocable dissolution that was required. (6)
Oz’s arrest and its serious ramifications point to the various ways in which Muslim identity is reduced to a single entity that evokes a sense of threat and terror. Moreover, it is not only Oz who suffers the consequences of the polarizing rhetoric that labels all Muslims as intrinsically radical. His family, friends, and teachers too find themselves in a precarious situation, where they have to prove their allegiance and loyalty to their country.
In the second half of the event, the discussion delved further into the question of conditional citizenship. The right to religious freedom, Dr. Motawy went on, “while enshrined by laws, are undermined by others,” compels some young Muslims to “live under a constant shadow of suspicion.” Particularly young Muslims in Europe today are given an ultimatum: you are welcome to stay only if you erase your Muslimness— your otherness. In the novel, characters are forced to leave places to practice their religion and to remain true to who they are: What are its implications today? Dr. Motawy asked Aboulela. The important question she raised, as well as Aboulela’s reflection on the question of forced displacement and integration opened up a discussion on the fact that the integration of Muslims often depends on their depoliticization and secularization.
The inflammatory rhetoric of othering speaks to the various ways in which Muslims “have been called upon to prove their citizenship and commitment to the secular nation state” (Chambers and Herbert 2015; 2). The pressure to prove one’s loyalty to the nation takes on various forms, Aboulela suggested. Looking at the issue through a human rights perspective, she underlined the fact that all minorities feel a sense of threat in their home countries. The discussion then turned towards a crucial point often overlooked in debates on immigrants and refugees: displacement as a shared experience. Aboulela explained that her personal experiences in the west inform not only her writing; her positionality as a Muslim immigrant woman allows her to comprehend and sympathize with the struggles of Christians in Sudan and Egypt, for instance.
This emphasis on similarities and commonalities is at the heart of The Kindness of Enemies, rendering the novel a must-read as we reflect on the issues of discrimination, prejudice, and Islamophobia. The participants’ questions and comments throughout the event broached a wide range of topics, including but not limited to hybridity, the concept of terrorism, readership, and the process of writing and publication. The inquiries about Muslim writing and representations of Muslim identity further tied into the discussion on shared experiences. As the event was wrapping up, I recognized, once again, the need and the demand for texts like The Kindness of Enemies and for literary representations of multifaceted, diverse Muslim identities in the ongoing debates on integration and social cohesion. Through its characters’ intersecting stories that transcend time and space, The Kindness of Enemies reveals how the Eurocentric discourse on Islam and minorities finds its articulations in recent history and in contemporary society—but the novel simultaneously does something new. It offers a refreshing perspective that moves beyond differences and the rhetoric of ‘us vs. them’ (and certainly a glimmer of hope), emphasizing kindness and understanding that can emerge in the midst of war, social unrest, and polarized times.
Aboulela, Leila. The Kindness of Enemies: A Novel. Reprint Ed. Grove Press, 2017.
Chamber, Claire, Caroline Herbert. “Introduction.” Imagining Muslims in South Asia and the Diaspora: Secularism, Religion, Representations. Routledge, 2014. pp. 1-14.
Kuyucu, Neriman. Transnational Spaces, Transitional Places: Muslimness in Contemporary Literary Imaginations. 2020. University of Missouri, PhD Dissertation. pp. 55-142.
February 2021 25th 17:00-18:30 (CET/GMT+1)
In February 2021, Mieke Bal, a Dutch cultural theorist, video artist, and occasional curator who co-founded the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis at the University of Amsterdam, led a discussion on Christa Wolf’s novel Cassandra (1983).
In 2020 she made an “essay film” on Cassandra, time, and history, titled “It’s About Time! Reflections on urgency”. You can check out the full film in the video player down below:
Response by Dr. Noa Roei, Amsterdam
Professor Mieke Bal on Christa Wolf’s Cassandra (1983), February 25th 2021
Mieke Bal opened her reflection on Christa Wolf’s novel Cassandra (1983) by staging a relation between various contemporary manifestations of the novel’s protagonist. From Greek Mythology to modern literature and contemporary art, Cassandra appears in different literary forms that are also different forms of research and argumentation, and as her story travels, it enables a reflection on time, urgency, and communication.
The lecture began by addressing the relation between Wolf’s novel and the mythical narrative that it returns to, through Bal’s theory of preposterous history. The primary problem of chronology, following this theory, is the assumption of a one-way traffic of influence. This assumption involves an appeal to an author’s intention as the central way with which to understand a cultural text, and an assumed passivity of later artists who can only emulate prestigious predecessors. Refuting such conceptions, Bal argues that the traffic of influence is decidedly bi-directional: later works impact the way previous works are interpreted and read; they hang as a screen between the present and the past. Disentangling a work’s cultural influence from the author’s intention, newer works may recast marginal voices as central ones and offer alternative ways for approaching common themes, characters, plots and possibilities.
Such a resistance to linear chronology should not be understood as anti-historical. Rather, it addresses history as part of the present. From this perspective, Cassandra is the personification of preposterous history, marginal in the earlier text and returned to later on. Her reincarnations through the years are anything but repetitions in new historical or social contexts, but are rather conversations and debates taking place across time and space on issues that remain relevant to contemporary affairs. In the case of Cassandra, these affairs are strongly related to human rights, involving the place allotted to women as part of the public, and the political violence that targets marginalized social groups.
For Bal, close reading is a political weapon. She exemplified this point by addressing the fact that, originally, Cassandra had no narrative power. In Wolf’s novel Cassandra recuperates precisely that, through her role as narrator and focalizer. In this sense, the choice to have the novel written in the first person singular is crucial for its meaning. It is through this seemingly formal, apolitical literary and narratological tool that readers of Wolf are cast in the role of the listeners Cassandra never had. We readers are second person to Cassandra: we listen to her voice, and moreover become co-focalizers as we see through her eyes. By this narratological and comparative address of Wolf’s work, Bal emphasized the way in which a work’s political impact is embodied in its form. This is, for Bal, a crucial aspect in understanding the importance of literature and its relation to politics.
Additional cultural projects, and their varying forms, were addressed in the lecture in order to drive these main points home. These included works by Indian artist Nalini Malani as well as works by Bal herself. Malani’s Cassandra (2009) comprises a thirty panel paintings that create a cinematic allusion and demand detailed looking. In this work, as well as Malani’s multi-medial installation In search of Vanished Blood (2012) where Cassandra appears as a voice, the mythical story as well as Wolf’s reading of it are broadened to include a demand of all women, also from non-Western contexts and mythologies, to be heard listened to. Bal’s visual essay, that the participants of the meeting were invited to watch in advance, stages Cassandra in conversation with a variety of figures (fictional and real, contemporary and historical, artistic and philosophical, textual and visual) in order to cast light, through the essay form, on many of the points made in the lecture, including the importance of “testimonial focalization”, as well as the dynamics of time and the entangled relation of the urgent concerns of the present with the ways in which we imagine and narrate our pasts and futures.
The essay form as such – central in Bal’s work, but persistent also in Wolf’s writing style, and in Malani’s artworks, was presented in the lecture as a specific and valuable form of thinking and argumentation. Bal introduced the audience to Theodor Adorno’s writing on the essay form. For Adorno, the essay presents a fragmented and partial, passionate argument about the world; it resists totality and is categorically subjective. Essayist elements in Wolf’s and in Bal’s work, as well as Malini’s, were addressed in the lecture to shed light on the indispensable position and responsibility allotted to the second personhood that hears and adheres to Cassandra’s words and warnings.
Future pasts and the voice of solidarity
The first question from the audience addressed the elusive genre of the novel. As a response, Bal offered some possible directions but suggested that pinning down what the novel “is” might not be the most productive way to underscore its significance. Rather than classifying the novel, we can attend to what it “does”: how it positions us as witnesses and encourages solidarity. The following question addressed the issue of time in relation to recovery and reparation: whether one should focus attention on acknowledging the damage done in the past, or on imagining better possible futures. Here Bal emphasized that, in fact, there is no need to choose, once we realize that the time of the past is with us in the present, something that Wolf’s novel makes very clear. Looking at the past from the present is in itself part of the way to ensure a less destructive future. It is a political stance against periodization, that involves casting some of today’s urgent issues out of the political order by painting them as over and done with. This point was developed an crystalized in the ensuing conversation, that addressed the temporality of affect, countering the feeling of futility (that is part of a perception of the past as a stable fact) and hope (part of an understanding that the past is not over, and that the present is itself the future’s past). In this sense, urgency itself is understood in relation to the entanglement of time. Wolf’s work dreams of an alternative present, where Cassandra would have been listened to. Wolf, Malani, and Bal amongst others enable Cassandra’s voice to become augmented, pluralized in solidarity, and impossible to ignore. Their works embody the way in which active listening can turn into a position of solidarity, turning a single voice into a chorus, that speaks through artistic form, with and for the Cassandras of our days, creating new pasts for a better future.
January 28th 16:00 – 17:30pm CET/GMT+1
On January 28th, Aghogho Akpome, who teaches in the Department of English at the University of Zululand, South Africa, led a discussion on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Purple Hibiscus (2003).
December 3rd 10:30-12:00 (CET/GMT+1)
On December 3rd, Alexa Weik von Mossner is an Associate Professor of American Studies at the department of English at The University of Klagenfurt, a federal Austrian research university, led a discussion on Amitav Ghosh’s novel The Hungry Tide (2004).
November 19th 11:00-12:30 (Time/GMT+1)
On November 19th, Dr. Irving Goh, the author of The Reject: Community, Politics, and Religion after the Subject (Fordham University Press, 2014), which won the MLA 23rd Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for French and Francophone Studies in 2015, and L’existence prépositionnelle (Galilée, 2019), lead a discussion on Anthony Doerr’s novel All the Light We Cannot See (2014).
Response by Lloyd Davies, Western Kentucky University
The title of Anthony Doerr’s novel, All the Light We Cannot See, suggests a focus on sight, and specifically on the limitations of the visible, on what our eyes cannot see. That limitation becomes concrete on the third page, in which a girl appears whose fingertips can feel a wood model of her city, whose ears can hear the drone of approaching bombers, and whose nose can smell the fresh ink on a leaflet dropped by an airplane, but whose eyes can see nothing. This blind girl, Marie-Laure, is the central character of All the Light We Cannot See, and her necessary reliance on senses other than sight is the entry for Dr. Goh’s fascinating discussion of touch in the novel.
Dr. Goh’s approach to this literary text is speculative and theoretical but also remarkably concrete. His 2019 article, “Introducing Touching Literature: Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See,” acknowledges his intellectual debt to Jean-Luc Nancy as well as other philosophers and literary critics who have engaged with touch. Two more philosophers in the French phenomenological tradition who have also made important contributions to a theory of touch are Michel Henry (Incarnation: A Philosophy of Flesh) and Jean-Luc Marion (The Erotic Phenomenon). Yet, while conversant with this rich philosophic discourse, Dr. Goh is working beyond philosophy toward a theory of touch which literature can best reveal. He suggests in his article that a “heavy emphasis on sight has neglected the significant affects of other senses, particularly touch” (p. 242). He argues that the “lack of a singular definition of touch, or of a precise way of speaking about touch, has discouraged scholars to engage with touch in literature” (pp. 243-4). His presentation for the Literature/History/Human Rights group is an important corrective to that history, and should encourage literary critics to embrace the many ways that literature opens toward a “sense of the senses” in a full-orbed and comprehensive way.
Dr. Goh began his presentation with a disclaimer: he is not a scholar of the rights of the disabled, such as the blind, or of rights discourse in general. His talk did not directly address the question of trauma, whether of Marie-Laure’s blindness, or of the Nazi boys’ abuse of Frederick, or, more broadly, the destruction and suffering inflicted upon Europe by the war. Nevertheless, Dr. Goh presented a taxonomy of touch that allows us to measure how bodily contact with the world and with each other is central to our sense of human integrity and autonomy and their possible violation.
The varieties of touch are distributed among three major characters of the novel: the blind French girl Marie Laure, the German boy Werner, and the German soldier Von Rumpel. There is the touch of Marie Laure, who needs the tactile and tangible physical sensation of her father’s wood models of Paris and Saint-Malo to orient her to the surrounding world. Her touch is delicate and sensitive, able to solve her father’s wood puzzles with their secret hiding places. Marie Laure’s visits to the grotto in Saint-Malo show her gentle touch with the snails: hers is a touch that is respectful and wants to preserve life. Likewise, the young German boy, Werner, displays a similar touch in repairing radios: he is as reliant on the feel of the parts of the radio as Marie Laure is on the feel of her model house. Werner’s respect for the materials he works with is the antithesis of the careless contempt for life shown by his school mates in the sadistic beatings they inflict upon his friend Frederick. The German soldier Von Rumpel, who is hunting for a legendary diamond hidden by Marie Laure’s father, also has a careless, destructive touch. He is unable to solve the puzzle of the model house; he can’t grasp things carefully, but only smash them beneath his boot. His is a selfish, possessive touch. Werner, through the ravages of the war, gradually develops a conscience and sensitivity to other people. When he finally encounters Marie Laure walking down a Saint-Malo street he steps back to allow her to pass; he tactfully observes the space between them. A true sense of touch, Dr. Goh commented, is dependent upon just such a respect for limits; for touch to be a lived reality there must be distance and separation. Thus, the climax of this story of two children caught up in the war is the moment when Werner, leading Marie Laure out of the bombed city, takes her hand in his: a touch that is protective of her life and invested in the continuity of their shared existence. Nascent and rudimentary, and all too brief, it is a loving touch.
In his remarks on sight, hearing, and particularly touch in All the Light We Cannot See Dr. Goh traverses the major senses, and thus gestures toward a comprehensive theory of the arts as they relate to the senses: painting as a visual art, music as an art of sound, etc. These arts all bring to our lived experience of the world a disclosure and appearance that might otherwise be hidden. But while these arts focus on particular senses, Dr. Goh’s analysis of touch in All the Light We Cannot See highlights the unique art of literature itself, and how reading literature is precisely a matter of sensing the senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch, all brought into consciousness. In the discussion following Dr. Goh’s presentation he was asked what his focus on touch reveals that we would not otherwise see. Touch, he replied, reveals the “materiality of the text.” With a heightened sensitivity, we can recognize, for instance, that the various acts of reading out loud in the novel are also a matter of touch: not only the touch of Marie Laure’s fingers on the Braille text of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but also the sound of her voice in her radio transmissions: vocal cords vibrating, tongue touching teeth and the roof of the mouth, lip touching lip: the physical feel of words in the mouth. We sense, then, in a literary text, the power of language, of the word, as a non-sensible inner force. This is what Nancy calls “the arts of intelligible sense, the arts of language” (p. 27).
So too literature reveals the ways that time and memory constitute our lived reality. It was noted in the discussion that the non-chronological structure of All the Light We Cannot See makes time slow down. Dr. Goh commented that memory is not sequential, that the air is teeming with life from the past. In his article he argued that “time, in the form of memory, may be (re)constituted by touch; or, touch might just lie at the heart of the constitution of memory (p. 257). This insight demands an attentive rereading of other novels, such as Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past; a careful reading of its most seminal scene will recognize the crucial play of touch in Marcel’s tasting of the tea-soaked madeleine: “No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped” (p. 48). Before taste, before memory, there is touch.
We are all blind to the world around us; this is a phenomenological truth that All the Light We Cannot See makes manifest and Dr. Goh’s thoughtful presentation has elucidated for us. And yet, in unexpected and uncanny ways we learn to negotiate that world, much as Marie Laure and Werner did. We often stumble in the dark, but also enjoy, as they did, moments of human contact, of flesh touching flesh, of what Keats refers to as the earnest grasping of living hands.
Doerr, Anthony. All the Light We Cannot See. Scribner, 2014.
Goh, Irvin. “Introducing Touching Literature: Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See.” CR: The New Centennial Review, Volume 19, Number 3, Winter 2019, pp, 241-264.
Henry, Michel. Incarnation: A Philosophy of Flesh. Translated from the French by Karl Hefty. Northwestern University Press, 2015.
Keats, John. “This living hand, now warm and capable.” John Keats: The Complete Poems. Penguin, 1988, p. 459.
Marion, Jean-Luc. The Erotic Phenomenon. Translated from the French by Stephen E. Lewis. The University of Chicago Press, 2007.
Nancy, Jean-Luc. “Why Are There Several Arts and Not Just One?” The Muses. Translated from the French by Peggy Kamuf. Stanford University Press, 1996, pp. 1-39.
Proust, Marcel. “Overture.” Remembrance of Things Past (A la recherche du temps perdu). Translated from the French by C. K Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin. Vintage, 1982, pp. 3-51.
November 13th 18:00 – 19:30 (Time/GMT+1)
Dr. Maxine Lavon Montgomery, a Professor of English at Florida State University specializing in African Diasporic, Post-Colonial, Contemporary Black Women’s fiction, Post-Apocalyptic Literature and Culture along with Gender and Critical Race Studies, gave a scheduled Zoom talk regarding Toni Morrison’s novel Home (2012) on November 13th 2020 at 18:00, 12:00 Florida Time/ET.
Response by Dr. Kerstin Shands, Stockholm
Professor Maxine Montgomery, Florida State University, on Toni Morrison’s Home
November 13th at 18:00
On November 13, 2020, Dr. Cassandra Falke, Professor of English Literature at The Arctic University of Norway and President of the American Studies Association of Norway, organized a seminar on Toni Morrison’s Home as part of the ReadRespond project. The invited speaker was Dr. Maxine Montgomery, Professor of English at Florida State University, a specialist in areas such as Contemporary Black Women’s Fiction and African Diaspora Literature and Culture. Most recently, Prof. Montgomery has written about The Post-Apocalyptic Black Female Imagination, and she has written extensively on the works of Toni Morrison, with articles such as “Bearing Witness to Forgotten Wounds: Toni Morrison’s Home and the Spectral Presence.” Prof. Montgomery’s lecture on Toni Morrison’s Home was followed by a discussion via Zoom.
Response by Dr. Kerstin Shands, Stockholm
Professor Maxine Montgomery, Florida State University, on Toni Morrison’s Home
Professor Montgomery began her lecture by pointing to Toni Morrison’s approach as a teacher at Princeton University. Morrison used to encourage her students to stretch themselves in writing. She wanted them to write about what they did not know, what was unfamiliar. This is precisely what Toni Morrison does herself, in all of her works. Indeed, a central insight emerging both from Prof. Montgomery’s presentation and from the ensuing discussion concerned the sheer complexity of the œuvre of Toni Morrison, whose inventive use of language and word play along with linguistic structures of repetition and revision, doubling, mirroring, and twinning requires rereading and delving ever deeper. The reader has to be actively engaged in the story, there is a relation between the reader’s world and emotions and the novel as an artifact.
In Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and The Literary Imagination—a work that, importantly, “rises from delight, not disappointment” (4)—Toni Morrison reminds us that “until very recently, and regardless of the race of the author, the readers of virtually all of American fiction have been positioned as white” (xii). She goes on to ask the question: “What happens to the writerly imagination of a black author who is at some level always conscious of
representing one’s own race to, or in spite of, a race of readers that understands itself to be ‘universal’ or race-free?” (xii)
Pointing both to Playing in the Dark, in which Morrison discusses how early white American authors have attempted to create race-free texts, and to Morrison’s essay, “Home,” Prof. Montgomery went on to outline some of the salient themes in Morrison’s earlier novels (focusing in particular on The Bluest Eye and Beloved), such as selfhood and identity, violence, invisibility, a sense of displacement, the incomprehensibility of history and the horror of slavery, indeed, the struggle to come to terms with many forms of oppression in order to move towards historical recuperation and a reinscription in history.
Home and Unhomeliness
What places could rightfully be labeled ‘home’? A distinction could be made between the metaphor of house and the metaphor of home. As Laura Castor points out in her essay, “‘This house is strange’: Digging for American Memory of Trauma, or Healing the ‘Social’ in Toni Morrison’s Home,” “houses are discrete places located in towns, in states, and in countries that literally and figuratively ‘house’ the expectations, the questions, and the struggles of the main characters to find healing from the personal and societal violence they have experienced and internalized” (140). The notion of ‘home’ has multiple cultural and personal meanings in Morrison’s novel, in which the shifting narrative perspectives lay bare violence and discrimination while also pointing to possibilities for agency and healing, as Castor suggests in her book Facing Trauma in Contemporary American Literary Discourse: Stories of Survival and Possibility.
To be sure, Morrison’s narrators’ representations of ‘home’ and ‘homelessness’ open perspectives on personal and collective memory. In The Location of Culture, Homi Bhabha writes that “to be unhomed is not to be homeless, nor can the ‘unhomely’ be easily accommodated in that familiar division of social life into private and public spheres” (9). Referencing Homi Bhaba and his notion of the unhomeliness of the postcolonial condition, Prof. Montgomery suggested that since home and nationhood are central concerns in Morrison’s novel, the notion of ‘unhomely lives’ may be useful in a discussion of her work.
To what extent is it possible, then, to determine where home is for the post-slavery subject? In the discussion that followed, one participant perceived a link between home and healing, home being the place where one is able to reverse trauma. Home may be the place of trauma, but potentially also a site of healing and recovery. A transcendental space, home is nowhere and everywhere at the same time.
Beginnings and Endings, Trauma and Healing
The discussion touched on a broad range of questions of language, central themes, and narrative structure. One participant raised a question about the novel’s beginning and its ending. Prof. Montgomery explained that the ending actually echoes the opening section—but on a different level. In order to understand the relationship between those two sections one has to consider Morrison’s use of mirroring. This mirroring suggests a link between the originary trauma and the present, indicating that the past is always present. After a fragmented, broken history that is traceable all the way back to slavery, the narrative is almost brought full circle. Symbolically, in a non-linear process, there is a reconnection and a reversal of emotional trauma. Emphasizing the gothic dimension of the narrative, the burial rites point back to African burial laws. Linguistic in its repetition, revision, and mirror imaging, this link also points to a possibility for healing in the connection or reconnection to a larger community, a broad transnational circle involving the living and the dead.
One participant suggested that Home is a story of repressed trauma, and that when the protagonist is willing to accept his own guilt, he is on the road to recovery. Another question concerned how to comprehend trauma when the subject, through migration or through the passage of time, is removed from the immediate context that gave rise to trauma. Prof. Montgomery underlined that language is key to understanding Morrison’s attempt to identify and reembody the invisible structures of racism. Morrison’s multilayered novel Home is an epic journey into a mid-twentieth century underworld, an era marked by unknowingness, discriminatory practices, and violence. As with other works by Toni Morrison, the seminar concluded, one has to look at Home from different perspectives. With its realistic framework, challenging narrative structure, and metaphoric complexity, Home draws us back into the text, again and again.
Bhabha, Homi K. Introduction. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994. 9-18. Print.
Castor, Laura Virginia. Facing Trauma in Contemporary American Literary Discourse: Stories of Survival and Possibility. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2019. Print.
———. “This house is strange”: Digging for American Memory of Trauma, or Healing the “Social” in Toni Morrison’s Home.” In Living Language, Living Memory: Essays on the Works of Toni Morrison. 139-50. Edited by Kerstin W. Shands and Giulia Grillo Mikrut. Stockholm: Södertörn UP, 2014. Print.
This text can be downloaded at: http://sh.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:732657/FULLTEXT01.pdf
Morrison, Toni. Home. New York: Knopf, 2012. Print.
———. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and The Literary Imagination. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1992. Print.
October 20th 12:30
On October 20th, Michael Richardson, author of Gestures of Testimony, made a brief presentation on and lead a discussion of Fugitive Pieces via Zoom.
Response by Victoria Nesfield, University of York, UK, 20 October 2020
Dr Michael Richardson, School of the Arts and Media at the University of New South Wales, Australia, on Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels.
Dr Michael Richardson began his discussion of Anne Michaels’ novel Fugitive Pieces. by referencing Australia’s struggle with its past. Recognising past atrocities and the continuing struggle for justice by the indigenous population set the tone for Richardson’s thoughtful presentation of the interwoven themes of trauma, affect and the sedimentation of the past.
Lyricism and Trauma
The novel was presented, firstly, as offering a powerful exploration of the limits of language and style. The question of how to, indeed, whether to represent the Holocaust creatively, continues to challenge and divide scholars and philosophers. Most famously Adorno asserted that to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric.i That was in 1949, the revelations about Auschwitz and the Holocaust just a few short years in the past. Now, after the proliferation of Holocaust literature and many more atrocities, how should we read this complex novel with fictional characters whose Holocaust experiences echo the most pained life writing; presented in the register of a poet. All in a text which, as Richardson identified, sits in an academic as well as literary milieu.
Richardson continued the presentation with an exploration of trauma, explaining the origins of trauma theory in French Studies, and defining it as an incapacity to respond to a particular experience. Because of this inability to respond at the time, the trauma recurs, creating a rupture, something that resists representation. The notion of a traumatic rupture, one which defines a period of time or an experience, but remains impossible to adequately represent, is familiar in Holocaust literature. Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi, one of the most gifted writers in transmitting the Holocaust experience, called Auschwitz the “caesura, which snapped in two the chain of my memories.”ii
The presentation went on to discuss history in Fugitive Pieces, and the various ways in which it manifests itself in the text. It was a segment that prompted a rich and varied discussion. First, Richardson described the novel as ‘villainising history’, citing two quotes by Jakob: history is posited as “a poisoned well”, and memory a stain “like a drop of rain” on the “map”
of history. History, like memory is recursive in the book. Structurally, Ben retraces Jakob’s life, therefore the sights, the names, the events of the past reappear in the latter section of the book. As the novel states, “every moment is two moments.”
Thematically, the same tensions and traumas recur: flawed and troubled memories; what is concealed and revealed in the lives of the characters, from the disappearance of Jakob’s family and particularly troubling for him, what happened to his sister Bella, to the revelation to Ben about his two older siblings, murdered in the Holocaust.
From the Nazi perspective, the Holocaust was intended to be a moment in time that did not exist. They sought to rewrite history, firstly to eliminate the Jews, thus, Jewish culture from the world, and secondly in attempting to destroy the evidence of their crimes (they also attempted to destroy the archaeological site of Biskupin on their retreat from Poland). In this sense history, as the text posits, is amoral; it seeks to be authoritative and yet the hegemony of those who write, or rewrite history is flawed and at times, villainous.
In unearthing what was buried in the past, the archaeologist reveals what was hidden, the history that was forbidden. They painstakingly remove the mud, the dirt, the sediment that coats these histories and attempt to make sense of them again. It would be too much to say the archaeologist breathes life back into the objects they discover, but they can attempt to rehabilitate them, to write them back into history. In Fugitive Pieces the characters from the past are buried artefacts, at first almost literally, as Jakob emerges from the mud of Biskupin, the only survivor from his family. Primo Levi’s reference to “the drowned” – those who did not survive to speak of the Holocaust, echoes loudly here in Michaels’ references to “drowned cities”.iii In Levi’s philosophy, the drowned were the most honourable and the most pitiful; they did not learn to survive by hook or by crook, they did not hide or eat or rest at another’s expense and that is why they drowned. The drowned characters in Fugitive Pieces are elevated in such a way, Bella in particular, but also Ben’s murdered siblings. Unearthing these buried figures does not bring them back to life, but rather emphasises their ghostliness; they remain spectres of the living characters’ traumatic histories.
The presentation turned towards simulations and simulacra.iv There is the danger that the anthropologist or scholar, ‘emabalms’ a person when they study them, turning them into a simulation. Key to avoiding this trap is to try not to make traumatic events and their victims into spectacles, avoiding violent simulations. But, asked Richardson, are violent representations unavoidable in a context such as the Holocaust?
Does the aesthetic style and the lyrical register that Fugitive Pieces insist upon offer an alternative to dealing with the subject matter? Or is it, too, cynical? The novel has been critiqued for its style, for making beautiful what should not be. However, Richardson argued that this criticism tends to miss that making something beautiful is not the entire premise or purpose of aesthetics. I would argue that the language may serve to emphasise the ‘unreachableness’ of some of the moments of the story. It does not respond to atrocity with silence, which, as one contributor in the discussion observed, Elie Wiesel asserted protects only the perpetrators, never the victims. Another contributor suggested that the reader’s own proximity to the subject may influence their response: without a personal connection to the Holocaust, the lyricism of the text may not be problematic, but someone for whom the event is closer, therefore more traumatic, may find more conflict in the poetry of the book.
The event closed with Richardson returning to the subject of trauma and affect. Referencing Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub’s influential work on witnessing and testimony in Holocaust studies,v Richardson recalled the bodily and linguistic affect of trauma displayed by Felman’s students, who fell silent or stuttered in attempting to respond to her class material. It was a fitting closing discussion to a discussion of a text so inextricably interwoven with the challenge of representing history.
i Theodor Adorno, ‘Culture, Critique and Society’ 1949, in Prisms, 1955.
ii Primo Levi, The Truce, 1960, 1979.
iii Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, 1986. iv Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, 1981.
iv Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History, 1992.
September 24th 16:00 – 17:30
On September 24th, James Dawes (DeWitt Wallace Professor of English, Macalester College, USA) gave a lecture at the American Studies Association of Norway Conference. The topic of his lecture was“Truth, Rights, and US Political and Literary Culture.” He will touched on both Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad and John Edgar Wideman’s Philadelphia Fire.
The lecture will be hosted on Zoom and open to anybody interested. You can either join our Goodreads group and RSVP us back before Friday 18th, and we will e-mail you the Zoom-link to the lecture or contact us here before the 18th and we will make sure you get the link.
KEEP IN MIND: We’re operating in GMT+1.