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. Use the links below to navigate.
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.