October 2019 | ISSN 2516-8045
Latin American testimonial literature, known in Spanish as testimonio, generated much discussion amongst critics in the 1980s in particular, when production of this new genre of literature reached its peak. Despite the initial excitement surrounding testimonio and the questions it raised in terms of genre, authorship, subalternity and authenticity to name but a few, it was soon dismissed as a genre that had its ‘moment’. This dismissal was based on several assumptions, amongst them the notion that hybridity is simply a type of Latin Americanism, to be found in numerous and multiple examples of Latin American literature and therefore generally unremarkable. However, hybridity in testimonial literature is inextricably linked to content, circumstance (i.e. the recounting of a traumatic experience) and format, and not confined to a Latin American context. This paper explores the definition of testimonio, the reasons for the assumption of hybridity in Latin American literature and the problems created by this assumption when discussing testimonial production, and the wider issue of labelling testimonio as a genre.
While the pervasive silence surrounding the harkis – indigenous Algerian men who served as auxiliary soldiers in the French army during the Algerian War of Independence – has been largely broken in recent decades, this community’s aims of gaining recognition and reparations has often resulted in the proliferation of repeated references to organising events and symbols, producing a fixed collective narrative which the anthropologist Vincent Crapanzano has termed the ‘harki story’. In contrast to this potentially static discourse, several daughters of harkis have published creative, hybrid works which instead perform a dynamic process of reconstruction in which the boundaries of individual and collective experience, and of unspeakability and the necessity of bearing witness, are constantly tested. It is, arguably, these authors’ ‘in-between position – both as members of what Marianne Hirsch has described as the ‘postgeneration’, and as inheritors of a postcolonial condition – that allows them to broaden the scope of their writing projects beyond traditional, individualistic models of testimony and life writing, granting them the requisite distance and creative impulse to break down the borders between self and other, past and present, reality and the imagination, even life and death, creating unprecedented dialogues and encounters across and between subjectivities, memories and temporalities.
This article considers two works by daughters of harkis – Zahia Rahmani’s Moze (2003) and Saliha Telali’s Les enfants des harkis: Entre silence et assimilation subie (2009) – to argue that the tropes of haunting which characterise the production of such authors may be considered as a creative, dialogic and politically-charged mode of testimony. Rather than representing a static, passive symptom of trauma’s inherent unspeakability, spectrality functions in these texts as a deliberate, subversive force of resistance to silence, stigma and shame. In conjuring familial and collective spectres, these authors perform a complex process of ‘unearthing’ which reflects Mireille Rosello’s conception of ‘ghostly encounters’, in which the ‘unfinished business’ of haunting histories is exposed in a performative, interpellative endeavour. Modes of haunting thus complicate Freudian binarisms such as mourning and melancholia and acting out and working through, allowing these ‘postgenerational’ individuals to imaginatively confront their own (inter)subjective relationships to traumatic pasts, while simultaneously revealing the ongoing traumatising post- and neo-colonial power structures which prevent comprehensive dialogues from taking place. This article seeks to demonstrate that the multivocal nature of these works ultimately positions the reader as an active witness who is called upon to take up the dialogues which are often foreclosed or interrupted within the confines of the texts. In this sense, textual ‘ghostly encounters’ point to the potential for the development of extra-textual processes of exposing the wounds of history, transforming one-dimensional, decontextualised forms of bearing witness and receiving testimony into more ethically-attuned, historically-situated dialogic speech acts.
This essay focuses on spatial figuration of rape and trauma in Susan Brison’s Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of a Self (2002). An account of a sexual attack Brison only narrowly survived, Aftermath describes the author’s arduous recovery and the assaults lasting effects. Spatial metaphors, especially those of trespass and boundary violation, are often employed in popular depictions, as well as in feminist theorizations, of rape. Trauma and recovery, on the other hand, are not predominantly understood in spatial terms. Whereas Brison’s narrative exposes the limits of conceptualizing the violence of rape in spatial terms, its emphasis on trauma and recoveries spatial aspects invites new ways to interpret the traumatic experience. Informed by a close reading of Aftermath, this essay puts forward a spatial figuration of trauma as the paradox of simultaneous departure and return, taking leaving of and coming back to the site of a violation, metaphorically and literally. Only after she has metaphorically and literally revisited the traumatic event—by reliving it through flashbacks, by bearing public witness to it, by going back to the place she was assaulted and by writing about her experience – is Brison able to distance herself from it and begin to look forward to the future.
The essay is organized into three parts. The first section discusses spatial models of rape and their centrality in Aftermath’s depiction of Brison’s attack and its consequences. Spatial figuration of trauma is the focus of the essay’s second part. As it examines spatial metaphors in theories of trauma and recovery, it shows how they shape Brison’s understanding of what happened to her. The last part explores trauma and its aftermath as a series of metaphorical and literal returns to and departures from the site of violation. In particular, it demonstrates how the return/departure dynamics underlies Brison’s ongoing efforts to give her experience a coherent narrative form.
In this paper, I investigate how first-person rape stories published in contemporary North American memoir can help us understand what we call rape beyond a re-telling of the event. Survivors of sexual violence hesitate to disclose the crime within legal contexts because legal testimony adopts an ‘event-centered approach’ (Byford 201) that requires the survivor to provide a testimony of the event as a form of evidence in trial. Additionally, legal testimony is predicated on coherence, linear narrative structure, and comprehensive language—all of which must relate to the event—and this form of testimony is nearly impossible given the effects of trauma on the mind. A survivor’s inability to provide an ‘adequate’ legal testimony, as well as rape myths that include blaming tactics and misinformation about rape, are exploited by defense attorneys in order to discredit and suppress the survivor’s testimony. In recent years, survivors have begun to publish memoirs, in which they testify about their rape—alongside the story of their life—and these memoirs not only challenge official notions of truth, but also expose the social structures that disempower women who want to disclose experiences of rape. Apart from comments on social media, some popular news coverage, and blog posts, contemporary memoirs about rape have yet to receive any critical treatment.
Just as some survivors choose not to disclose their experiences of rape within judicial contexts, and have found different mediums, such as memoir, in which to testify about their experiences, as scholars, we must nuance our methodology concerning how we read narratives about trauma. In this article, I follow scholars such as Karyn Ball (2000), Marianne Hirsch and Valerie Smith (2002), and Susanna Radstone (2007) who advocate for a turn from trauma studies to memory studies in order to account for the ways in which memories of trauma are not simply traces of the event, but are also negotiations and mediations informed by embodied experiences and culture. I adopt a reading of melancholia and affect studies to describe how a survivor’s embodied subjectivity informs the way in which she negotiates her experience and chooses to transform her memories into narrative form. I argue that the rape testimonies as they appear in Lena Dunham and Jessica Valenti’s memoirs conclude with an optimistic tone—a manoeuvre that allows the authors to present a linear narrative of progression—coinciding with Freud’s concept of mourning: Dunham and Valenti’s testimony demonstrates that the authors overcome their trauma and begin to move past it. Conversely, Sil Lai Abrams and Roxane Gay’s testimonies can be described as melancholic because their narratives refuse the same narrative closure or resolution, and I argue that this version of melancholia is not a pathological form of mourning, but, rather, a form of resistance that challenges post-feminist discourses about rape in the wake of the #metoo movement that suggest that rape laws and political advocacy about rape have resolved the high numbers of sexual violence against women. Testimonies about rape in memoirs demonstrate that memoirs about rape unsettle and dismantle hegemonic narratives, as well as create alternative ways of talking about and understanding testimonies about rape.