Laura Webb

ISSN 2516-8045

Download: Laura Webb, ‘Testimonio, the Assumption of Hybridity and the Issue of Genre’.

Testimonio is a genre of literature whose indistinct boundaries have always proved problematic in terms of definition and criticism. In fact, the very definition of testimonio as a genre in and of itself is contended by the author. The subject of hybridity is a significant factor in this definition of genre and in particular in the restriction caused by the attribution of specific generic elements or literary concepts to one particular country or region. Whilst the term refers to Spanish and Latin American works in particular, the genre itself is by no means exclusive to these countries. There is no direct Western counterpart to testimonio although there are parallels to be drawn with Holocaust survivor literature and close links to the genre of autobiography. However, there is certainly a distinction between the two, despite their apparent similarity. The fact that one term has come to encompass a genre of such diversity is one of the major factors which complicate critical consideration of works of literature of this kind.

Many critics have attempted to define testimonio, yet these attempts at definition have often served not to demarcate the term but rather to highlight the breadth of its scope. It would appear that the term has a different meaning for different critics at different times.Some, such as Yúdice, have a relatively precise conception of what testimonio is:

Testimonial writing may be defined as an authentic narrative, told by a witness who is moved to narrate by the urgency of a situation (e.g., war, oppression, revolution, etc.). Emphasising popular oral discourse, the witness portrays his or her own experiences as an agent (rather than as a representative) of a collective memory and identity. Truth is summoned in the cause of denouncing a present situation of exploitation and oppression or in exorcising and setting aright official history. 1

Others, for example Beverley, who has written widely on the subject, recognise the variety of forms that testimonio may take:

Testimonio may include, but is not subsumed under, any of the following textual categories, some of which are conventionally considered literature, others not: autobiography, auto-biographical novel, oral history, memoir, confession, diary, interview, eyewitness report, life history, novella-testimonio, nonfiction novel, or “factographic” literature.2

Even in these two examples, which are two of the most quoted, a difference in approach is evident. Beverley is concerned with the textual format, whilst Yúdice’s definition takes into account other factors which focus on content rather than form. The fact is, the variety of works which may fall under the umbrella term of ‘testimonial literature’ is so vast that there is no single approach or universally applied method of reviewing this type of literature.

Testimonial literature is not a genre which appeared as an immediate response to one particular event or set of circumstances such as the Holocaust. In fact, works which concern themselves with the ‘other’ in terms of those who exist outside of the cultural hegemony, are very much a part of Latin American literary history and are often described as examples of costumbrismo or indigenismo. The main difference between works of this type and those classed as testimonio can be found in the terms themselves. Whilst costumbrista or indigenista literature is descriptive and informative and generally observational, a testimonio is a witness account which implies factuality and first-hand experience. In Spanish the term has a strong legal and religious connotation: the direct translation of the word itself means ‘testimony’, ‘evidence’, ‘statement’ or ‘proof’,3 and therein lies the distinction. There is a shift in emphasis from the romantic and nostalgic to the political and social, with the added dimension of urgency. The definition offered by Yúdice, cited above, characterises early testimonial works such as Quarto de Despejo (Carolina Maria de Jesús, Brazil, 1958) and ‘Si me permiten hablar’, testimonio de Domitila, una mujer de las minas de Bolivia (Domitila Barrios de Chungara with Moema Viezzer, Mexico, 1977), that culminated with Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú Y Así Me Nació La Conciencia (Elisabeth Burgos Dubray, Guatemala, 1983). The latter publication generated much controversy and marked a turning point in the study of Latin American testimonial literature.

Early testimonio criticism centred on questions of authorship and literary classification. Gugelberger examines the reasons why testimonio was so interesting to critics:

It was at the crossroads of all the discourses of institutional battles in recent years: postcolonial and/versus postmodern; genre versus non-genre; interest in autobiography; the function of the canon; authenticity/realism; the debates on subalternity; othering discourse; orature/literature; dual authorship; editorial intervention; margin/centre; race/class/gender; feminisms (some apparently unjustifiably declare the testimonio women’s discourse); minority discourse; Third world writing; the post-boom novel; Latin Americanism; questions of disciplinarity; and so on.4

The testimonio allowed previously unheard voices to speak, via an interlocutor in the form of a scribe or editor. These voices were previously unheard because they belonged to people who were lacking in the literary skill and the physical means to take their story to an audience. Such people were considered ‘subaltern’ i.e. groups of people existing outside of a society’s hegemonic system, often because of poverty or ethnic discrimination. Beverley expands this definition of subaltern, claiming that ‘testimonio-like texts have existed for a long time at the margins of literature, representing, in particular, those subjects – the child, the “native”, the woman, the insane, the criminal, the proletarian – excluded from authorized representation when it was a question of speaking and writing for themselves’.5 The proliferation and popularity of testimonial novels altered the position of testimonio, removing it from the margins of literature. For Lindstrom, this factor alone qualified testimonio as a genre in its own right.6 For Beverley, there were two particular developments which led to the ‘sanction’ of testimonio as a genre. Firstly, the 1970 decision of Cuba’s Casa de las Américas to award a prize in this category in their annual literary contest, and secondly the reception in the late 1960’s of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (published 1965) and Miguel Barnet’s Autobiography of a Runaway Slave (Biografía de un cimarrón, published 1966).7 Gugelberger concurs, stating that ‘The genre comes into existence due to the Cuban Revolution, more specifically due to Miguel Barnet’s recording of the life story of Esteban Montejo under the title Biografía de un cimarrón/The Autobiography of a Runaway Slave (1966)’.8

Gugelberger’s statement is somewhat misleading as Barnet did more than simply ‘record’ the life story of Esteban Montejo. His role was more than that of scribe or editor, and the production of the written text involved a process which Barnet refers to as ‘decanting’: ‘el gestor de la novela-testimonio recoge los relatos de viva voz de sus informantes y luego los trasmite en forma decantada’.9 This process consists of retaining those elements typical of oral discourse which it is felt lend the work authenticity, such as certain repetitions and conversational phrases, but eliminating those which interrupt the flow of the written text. More controversially, it includes the linking of certain episodes to actual historical events, which often necessitates the chronological re-ordering of the informant’s story.

The testimonio author strives for factual and historical accuracy, authenticity and aesthetic and literary appeal. The problem is that often each of these components precludes the other. Millay states that ‘testimonial narratives gain their authenticity by creating the effect of an eye-witness retelling his or her life story’,10 yet an editing process is necessary in order to make that story aesthetically appealing to a reading audience. This editing process compromises the authenticity of the narrative as highlighted by Beverley when he asks us to note that ‘the assumed lack of writing ability or skill on the part of the narrator of the testimonio, even in those cases where it is written instead of narrated orally, also contributes to the “truth-effect” the form generates’.11 Moreiras states that whilst ‘the attraction of testimonio is not primarily its literary dimension […] it remains true, of course, that the most successful testimonios are those that have a better claim to literary eminence’.12 Millay goes so far as to claim that Barnet ‘ultimately violates oral culture by extracting it from its context and imposing norms of written culture’.13 So, which is most important – veracity, fidelity to the subject or literary eminence? Criticism of testimonial literature has focused on these elements and the tensions between them. There is a persistent trend amongst critics to evaluate testimonio within a solely Latin American context which has led to its comparison, often on tenuous grounds, with magical realism,14 postmodernism, ethnographic novels,15 the traditional epic and the picaresque.16 It is precisely this desire to define testimonio as a uniquely Latin American narrative form that has restricted testimonio criticism to aesthetic, literary considerations and questions of authority and authenticity. The experiences of the subjects themselves, the actual content and purposes of these works are rarely considered, if at all. The importance and significance of testimonio has been judged in terms of its interest to the academic, intellectual community. The testimonial subjects themselves are subordinated once again by the academic community and the very people to whom their testimony appeals.

However, it would be incorrect to assume that the testimonial subject is entirely at the mercy of the interlocutor. The subject ultimately decides what to tell. Sommer draws attention to the last words of Rigoberta Menchú’s testimonio as an example of this: ‘I’m still keeping secret what I think no-one should know. Not even anthropologists or intellectuals, no matter how many books they have, can find out all our secrets’.17 There is a sense here of an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality. The subaltern subject needs the skills and status of the intermediary who in turn attempts to represent the subject but often according to his or her own interpretation and personal agenda. Beverley suggests that testimonio is a form of ‘global “alliance politics” of the left’ which allows subaltern classes or social groups to form coalitions with intellectuals and professionals.18 He goes on to suggest that even criticism and ‘deconstruction’ of the testimonio ‘is still to give testimonio in effect status as a literary text comparable to, say, Rousseau’s Confessions’.19 This attitude based on the premise that there is no such thing as bad publicity overlooks the difficulties posed by the consumption of testimonio as either literary or documentary which has often led to it being discredited from both perspectives. Sklodowska makes the point that:

By establishing an explicit interplay between factual and fictional, between aesthetic aspirations to literariness and scientific claims to objectivity, testimonio has consistently defied the critics by departing from a traditional system of assumptions about truth and falsity, history and fiction, science and literature.20

Rather than considering the ways in which testimonio defies criticism, critics have seemed stubbornly determined to interpret testimonio according to established disciplinary boundaries: ethnographical, sociological, Latin-American literary etc. rather than adopting an interdisciplinary approach. The focus on the tensions between author and subject and between fiction and fact has led critics to view testimonio somewhat unfavourably, as demonstrated in the language used by Millay when she writes that ‘Writers of testimonial novels share with anthropologists the desire to faithfully represent non-Western cultural traditions. They invoke native voices as a means of reproducing life stories that purport to represent collective reality. Testimonios masquerade as scientific-discourses and appeal to Western audiences’.21 That testimonio ‘purports’ or ‘masquerades’ suggests, of course, that it is ultimately untrustworthy, a sentiment echoed by Kerr when she states: ‘that documentary or testimonial novels are inherently duplicitous, in the way that narrative literature is itself always double or divided, may well be evident’.22 Because these texts do not conform, they are regarded with suspicion and ultimately rejected.

The dismissal of testimonio

Gugelberger confidently asserts on the opening page of his collection of essays on testimonial discourse in Latin America that ‘obviously the euphoric “moment” of the testimonio has passed’.23 In what way has it passed? According to Gugelberger, it is the shift in its position from margin to centre.24 Viewed in this way, it is the sanctioning and canonisation of testimonio of a genre which ultimately renders it impotent, echoing Gayatri Spivak’s polemical question of whether the subaltern can speak at all25 Beverley interprets Spivak’s argument thus:

If the subaltern could speak- that is, speak in a way that really mattered to us, that we would feel compelled to listen to, then it would not be subaltern. Spivak is saying, in other words, that one of the things being subaltern means is not mattering, not being worth listening to.26

It would appear that upon producing a work of testimonio and entering into the literary canon and academic discourse, the testimonial subject surpasses his/her position of subalternity and in effect, loses his/her ‘otherness’, which is the very quality which makes the work so interesting to academics. If the subaltern subject is elevated from his/her marginalised position, then he/she can no longer be representative of the people or situation he/she hopes to represent. This representativity is an essential element of testimonial writing and is what distinguishes testimonio from autobiography and ethnographic literature. Beverley acknowledges the use of ‘I’ as the ‘dominant, formal aspect of the testimonio’27 and refers to its status as ‘what linguists call a shifter – a linguistic function that can be assumed indiscriminately by anyone’.28 The ‘I’ in the text is a real person, representative of a wider group of people who appeal directly to the reader. This is important because, as stated by Nance, the ultimate aim of testimonio is ‘not only to educate readers about injustice, but to persuade those readers to act’.29

In the opening passages of Rigoberta Menchú’s 1983 testimonio, Me llamo Rigoberta y así me nació la conciencia,30 the narrator, Rigoberta claims that her testimonio is the testimony of her people, the story of ‘all poor Guatemalans’. Beverley disputes this, raising the point that her particular situation was neither typical or representative.31 In fact, it has been claimed that in her quest to perform as a representative, aspects of her story have been altered to fit; others invented and still more left out.32 The insinuation that there is something inherently untrustworthy in testimonio is apparent once again. In Menchú’s case, it is the suggestion that the testimonial subject might attempt to intentionally manipulate the reader in order to achieve a specific purpose or in support of her claims or cause. This is a direct result of viewing testimonio with an anthropological or ethnographical bias, and with a focus on what the testimonio does for us as readers and critics, and how we can analyse it within an already established framework. When the established framework has proven to be insufficient, rather than recognising testimonio as a new kind of literature requiring broader critical analysis from a variety of disciplines as this thesis contends, it has instead resulted in the premature dismissal of testimonio as a ‘moment’ in literary history.

When testimonio is referred to as a genre, there is an expectation that all works belonging to that genre have essential characteristics in common. Cairns states that ‘every genre can be thought of as having a set of primary or logically necessary elements which in combination distinguish that genre from every other genre’.33 Whilst acknowledging that every genre has multiple distinguishing traits which are not necessarily shared by each exemplar, Fowler states definitively that ‘every work of literature belongs to at least one genre. Indeed, it is sure to have a significant generic element’.34 The Oxford English Dictionary defines genre as ‘a particular style or category of works of art; esp. a type of literary work characterised by a particular form, style, or purpose’ (OED 2013). The challenge posed by testimonio is that it is difficult, if not impossible to identify the ‘significant generic element’ to which Fowler refers.

Testimonial works do not follow one particular form or style and often do not share the same purpose. Earlier testimonial works were easier to group as a genre as they were similar in many ways and largely conformed to the criteria outlined above. However, this is not true of later and continuing testimonial production. The assimilation of testimonio as a genre into the Western canon is restrictive: as Fowler points out, the idea of the canon itself ‘implies a collection of works enjoying exclusive completeness’.35 This is not the case for Latin American testimonial literature which has flourished and evolved in the last two decades in particular. Sklodowska recognised this in 1994 when she wrote:

Nevertheless, seeing testimonio as a seamless monument of authenticity and truth deprives it, in my opinion, of the ongoing tension between stories told and remaining to be told. More to the point, perhaps it also diminishes its potential as a forward-looking discourse participating in an open-ended and endless task of re-writing human experience.36

It is precisely the ‘tension’ referred to by Sklodowska and other uncontainable, indefinable elements of testimonio from which critics must not shy away. Not only the tension between stories told and remaining to be told, but the tension between truth and fact, between literary and non-literary, and between remembering and forgetting.

There is an ‘extraliterary’ element to testimonio that loses its force in the hands of testimonio criticism, according to Moreiras.37 He identifies this ‘extraliterary’ element as solidarity between the reader/critic and the testimonial subject – a solidarity that he claims is elusive at best and is continually threatened by attempts at literary representation.38 Moreiras warns that ‘the testimonial subject, in the hands of the Latinamericanist cultural critic, has a tendency to become epistemologically fetishized precisely through its (re)absorption into the literary system of representation’,39 and that testimonio has come to be a Latinamericanist ‘aesthetic fix’.40 These hypotheses depend upon the relationship between the subaltern subject and the critic or consumer, but what if the aim of testimonio is not solidarity between the testimonial subject and the critic, not a hierarchical relationship but a linear relationship between the testimonial subject and those they represent? Beverley acknowledges that ‘that question, the way in which subaltern groups themselves appropriate and use testimonio […] has not been addressed adequately in the discussion on testimonio that has gone on among ourselves in the metropolitan academy’.41

Initial definitions of testimonio are a useful starting point for identifying examples of contemporary testimonial literature in Argentina. They are, however, inadequate criteria against which to evaluate contemporary testimonio further. This is due, not least, to the inevitable evolution of other disciplines which are so intimately tied to the study of testimony, such as memory studies, trauma studies, psychoanalysis and literary criticism. Memory studies in particular is a rapidly expanding field, with the introduction of relatively new concepts such as post-memory (Hirsch 1992), prosthetic memory (Landsberg 2004) and multi-directional memory (Rothberg 2009). These new ways of exploring memory both influence the way we read and interpret testimonies and are themselves influenced by new forms of testimonial production – there is a symbiotic and ever-evolving relationship between the representation and memory of events and the study of these representations and memories. This renders it almost impossible to establish a stable and static definition of testimonio, as all testimonios are the representation of events and are reliant upon memory and personal experience. This is true regardless of the ‘type’ of testimonio, whether it is a fact- or interview- based testimonio, or a fictional memoir. Testimonios are inextricably bound to and influenced by a number of variable factors, which include but are not limited to: the nature of the events testified to; the motivation of the author; literary styles/movements/trends; censorship; cultural background/heritage/history/traditions; knowledge/skill/ability of the author; means/country of publication. Each of these factors in turn is similarly neither static nor stable. Therefore, any definition of testimonio must be fluid.

Despite a change in times, in literary trends and knowledge in related fields, testimonio criticism has not evolved and early conceptualizations of testimonio still apply. Given the subject matter upon which testimonio is based, it cannot be regarded as a static genre. It is in this regard that the consideration and labelling of testimonio as a genre, in and of itself, is restrictive and has actually hindered critical thinking in this area. How are we able to consider and explore new and experimental examples of testimonial literature if we are bound to a set of outdated norms and standards? Crucially, the question must be asked, why has critical theory not evolved as testimonial literature has?

The responsibility for this lies heavily with academia, and those who work with and write about this kind of literature. This thesis proposes several reasons for this. One of those reasons is engendered by the very transformation of testimonial writing itself – as it is no longer constrained within easily recognised boundaries, how can a work be identified as a testimonio? The multi-faceted nature of contemporary testimonial works means that they can be difficult to categorise, complicated further by the obvious tensions between truth and fact, history and fiction, and the fusion of genres, sometimes even within one text.

Literary genre, ‘outlaw genre’, or the ends of literature itself

Testimonio is unquestioningly referred to as a genre, even from its earliest origins. Whilst critics from Miguel Barnet, one of the ‘fathers’ of testimonial literature, to the most prominent names in testimonial criticism such as Beverley and Gugelberger, deal with the various intricacies of testimonio and the dilemmas posed by testimonio, whether it is indeed a genre or not does not enter the discussion. This may be due to the fact that earlier testimonial publications had more cohesive factors making it easier to identify works of this kind as belonging to one particular genre. However, given the diversity which is now to be found in testimonial works, to identify testimonio as a genre is contentious at best.

It is clear that testimonio is not restricted to literary production. The boundaries between literature, music and art often merge in testimonial production. Renowned former CDCs (Centros de detención clandestinos) such as the ESMA Navy Mechanics School in Buenos Aires have been converted into museums and preserved as sites of memory and large-scale public memorials such as the Parque de la Memoria (also in Buenos Aires) demonstrate the variety of ways in which the act of bearing witness is multisensory. Therefore, if testimonio is defined by function and the act of bearing witness, rather than form, then testimonio cannot be simply a literary genre alone. However, it is not ‘antiliterary’ or ‘against literature’ as Beverley posits’,42 and although his term ‘extraliterary’ seems more apt, it does not apply in the sense in which he employs it, at least not to contemporary testimonio. His basis for suggesting these terms is the fact that testimonio cannot be considered literary as it traverses two realms which Beverley, amongst others, considers incompatible: the public and the private. That is, the broader social context and the function of the text mean that, for Beverley and his followers, testimonio cannot be viewed as a novel or even as literary. This is yet another definition based upon class distinction and social boundaries which contemporary testimonio defies. Beverley explains:

If the novel is a closed and private form in the sense that both the story and the subject end with the end of the text, defining that auto-referential self-sufficiency that is the basis of formalist reading practices, the testimonio exhibits by contrast what Jara calls a “public intimacy” (intimidad pública) in which the distinction between public and private spheres of life essential in all forms of bourgeois culture and law is transgressed.43

Similarly, Beverley’s implication that testimonio has been ‘appropriated by literature’44 is problematic, as central to this idea is the concept of testimonio itself in a subaltern position, similar to or perhaps viewed as an extension of its subject, in a position of weakness, and at risk of being subsumed into or even consumed by the canon. The suggestion here is that testimonio is vulnerable, and testimonial works unable to stand alone as works of literature in their own right. Beverley’s criticism is preoccupied with the concern that, to consider testimonio as literature, jeopardises or negates its political or social function: that the two are indeed incompatible. It appears that this preoccupation with distinguishing between fact and fiction and literary and non-literary genres is a Western issue, projected onto a literature which consistently defies the boundaries that critics have attempted to apply. Critics working within the cultural and social contexts from which testimonio is produced, such as Sklodowska and Strejilivich, do not express the same concern that one element precludes another. They seem to understand that the nature of memory and, in particular, of traumatic recollection from which testimonial works are produced, means that they cannot be read through the lens of a single genre. Less concerned with categorising testimonio, Strejilevich and Sklodowska emphasise the inconsistencies and incongruities presented by testimonio, as Sklodowska explains, ‘The discourse of a witness cannot be a reflection of his or her experience, but rather a refraction determined by the vicissitudes of memory, intention, ideology’.45 The concern that testimonio will be subsumed into literature is not relevant to contemporary Argentine testimonio for it is literature in its own right, and it is able to hold its own within this category. It is no longer marginalised in the way that testimonio was at the time critics such as Beverley were writing. However, it remains indefinable in terms of generic classification. If it transgresses the laws of culture and literature, and is literary but not a literary genre, is it perhaps an ‘out-law’ genre?

A literary out-law?

Kaplan includes testimonial literature in her list of ‘versions of the discourse of situation: expansions or revolutions of generic boundaries that rework and challenge conventional notions of critic and author’.46 Whilst Kaplan’s discussion of genre is primarily focused upon a feminist interpretation of autobiographical practice (incidentally, the kind of approach that this paper rejects in terms of testimonio criticism and the practice of viewing testimonio through one particular lens such as feminist discourse or exile literature), the points that she raises which address the inadequacy of genre boundaries, or their inability to encompass or contain certain literary works is relevant. It is important to note that Kaplan does make reference to ‘expansions or revolutions of generic boundaries’, recognising the restrictive nature of generic classification. Kaplan draws on Derrida to emphasise her point that genre imposes limits:

As soon as the word “genre” is sounded, as soon as it is heard, as soon as one attempts to conceive it, a limit is drawn. And when a limit is established, norms and interdictions are not far behind: “Do”, “Do not” says “genre,” the word “genre,” the figure, the voice, or the law of genre…. Thus, as soon as genre announces itself, one must respect a norm, one must not cross a line of demarcation, one must not risk impurity, anomaly or monstrosity.47

Therefore, if genre is law, and testimonio defies this law, then it satisfies the criteria for Kaplan’s notion of an out-law genre. The problem of classification persists, however, and Kaplan’s definition falls short as even within its description of an ‘out-law’ or ‘counter-law’ genre, there is the implication that testimonio is a coherent, cohesive body of work, which it is not. To describe testimonio as any sort of genre, even an out-law genre, still binds it to a set of norms or ‘lines of demarcation,’ to quote Derrida. There is an expectation set by the term itself, and as this thesis demonstrates, testimonio can and does take many different shapes and forms and consistently challenges, thwarts and denies attempts at classification. However, classification must not be confused with recognition. Whilst testimonio may not be easily classified, it does not follow that without generic norms and boundaries it is impossible to recognise a work of testimonio. At least not if it is the function of the text that is considered, as this thesis suggests should be the case.

To analyse literature without or outside the framework that Kaplan describes as ‘Western literary structures’48 is challenging, but it also enables and is perhaps a prerequisite to the expansion of the study of testimonio and other works which defy established norms. It is particularly pertinent to the study of testimonio which is not restricted to literary production and therefore cannot be considered a solely literary phenomenon. Bearing witness assumes many forms and an exploration into and acceptance of this fact paves the way for greater understanding of post-traumatic literary and artistic production. This understanding is not focused upon how this production fits into rigid, prescribed, predominantly Western structures. It is instead open and interdisciplinary in nature, reflecting the intricacies of this particular type of production and the inter-relationship between personal experience, politics, cultural background, history, memory, social context and the many other factors which both influence and are influenced by testimonial production. In its rejection of genre, which, according to Derrida, risks ‘impurity, anomaly or monstrosity’,49 and its challenge to conventional notions of critic and author as stated by Kaplan, does testimonio then herald the end of literature?

Dislocation, transgression, hybridization and the ends of literature

Attempts by critics to locate testimonio within a predominantly western literary framework have proven divisive at best and futile at worst. It is often described in negative, even destructive terms. Levinson goes so far as to state that testimonio ‘dislocates literature and indicates its passing’,50 whilst for Maier, analysis of testimonial literature can only take place within a postmodern context and, in particular, within that of the ‘collapse of the distinction between elite and mass cultures, collapse of master narratives, fragmentation and decentering of the subject and affirmation of alterity’.51 Whilst both of these descriptions have merit, each of them fails to recognise that it is precisely within such dislocation and collapse that testimonio finds its power. Far from being hindered by dislocation and collapse, it finds freedom in them. Levinson cites two clearly defined reasons why testimonio is not literature:

The claim that testimony is irreducible to literature is by now a common one. The assertion is made via two logical premises. One is rather obvious: literature, as a culturally and historically grounded concept/institution, consists of a series of genres (novel, autobiography, poetry, essays, and so on), none of which captures the nature of testimony. The other premise concerns one of literature’s modern cultural functions, the production of signs that aid the formation of the metropolitan bourgeoisie. This function, clearly, is resisted rather than adopted by narratives such as Menchú’s.52

If we accept Levinson’s explanation, then perhaps testimonio is the end of literature as we know it, at least literature as a privileged, metropolitan, western, bourgeois concept – which is not necessarily a bad thing. However, testimonio as interpreted and understood here does not concur with Levinson’s theory in regard to what the end of literature actually means. In the introduction to his work. Levinson explains:

[Similarly] the end of literature does not mean that literature desists. It signifies that literature, which once occupied a privileged position within the institutions of civil society, and therefore within the state itself, must now battle for that rank and legitimacy with other forms of creation, above all, mass and popular culture.53

Testimonio certainly does not desist, nor does it do battle for rank and legitimacy with other forms of creation. Rather it incorporates and utilises other forms of creation such as pop music, rock, art, theatre and film. Testimonio is not concerned with rank or legitimacy; these matters reflect the concerns of academia, and testimonio is a unique form not only of literature but also of expression. The personal and social aspect of testimonio is as important, if not more so, than any academic value. This is one of the factors which makes testimonio criticism so difficult.

Testimonio is inseparable from the personal, political, cultural and social context within which it is produced. Therefore, whilst testimonio is discussed in particular as a Latin American phenomenon, in actual fact, the production of testimonio, the act of bearing witness is, of course, universal and the observations made here can be applied to other personal, political, cultural and social contexts. This move away from viewing testimonio as an essentially Latin American construct is important as it allows works of contemporary Latin American literature to stand alone, free from the constraints of preconceived genres and literary styles. Testimonio does not occupy a neat slot somewhere between the Latin American ‘Boom’ and contemporary postnationalism. In fact, it traverses the boundaries of both these literary genres and others in-between. However, some would argue that the hybrid nature of testimonio is inextricable from a Latin American context, that it exists only because of this very same context and history, which in turn is inextricable from a discourse of race, as explained by Lund:

It is no exaggeration to say that for the past five hundred years, the geographical land-mass that we today call “Latin America” has been theorized as a space that compels writers to produce “mixed” forms and genres. Hybridity (and by extension, Latin America), then, should be precisely that which trumps the racialization of culture by transgressing and overcoming the purism of generic restrictions, static traditionalism, and strict formalism. Moreover, hybridity seems to indicate a decentering and even displacement of the purist standardization and canonization of culturally authentic artifacts established in the name of colonial or national authority.54

This paper argues that the hybridity seen in testimonial literature in particular is rather related to the nature of the events themselves that compel authors to write – events which are usually of a traumatic nature, and trauma is by no means confined to Latin America. Therefore, the discourse of race is not central to the notion of hybridity in testimonial literature. We cannot say that it is entirely irrelevant as some testimonios are of course concerned with trauma inflicted as a result of racial, ethnic or social biases, such as Menchú’s Me llamo Rigoberta y así me nació la conciencia or Barnet’s Biografía de un cimarrón. However, the hybridity seen in testimonial literature, where hybridity is the mixing of genres, does not centre on a discourse of race. Furthermore, the linking of hybridity to racial discourse restrains testimonial criticism in the same way as viewing testimonio as purely subaltern production, not least because viewing hybridity as racial discourse establishes the same hierarchical boundaries as viewing testimonio as subaltern production.

Literature in general, but testimonio in particular, should be judged on its merits and not on the basis of racial, cultural or social status. Lund pays particular attention to Canclini’s equation of hybridity with impurity.55 The idea that literature which mixes genres is somehow impure is imbued with negative connotations that Lund suggests are based on racial biases, with roots in the question of racial purity and intercultural mixing. ‘Hybridity’ is a term loaded with preconceived ideas, but perhaps most significant amongst them is the notion of culture. Lund states that ‘in contemporary humanistic criticism, hybridity usually indicates the dynamics and implications (political, aesthetic,) of intercultural mixing in general. Yet in Latin Americanist fields, hybridity – as the name for a paradigm of culture mixing – stands as the sign of Latin American cultural production in particular’.56

The hybridity seen in contemporary Latin American literature is not necessarily a mixing of cultures or a direct result of this. It is the mixing of genres, which may be employed intentionally by the author or may be an inherent factor of testimonio which necessitates the employment of alternative modes of expression to describe or bear witness to extraordinary events or circumstances. This mixing of genres is not indicative of a mixing of cultures. Nor is it a Latin American phenomenon. If it is taken for granted that hybridity is simply a sign of Latin American cultural production, then the mixing of genres found in testimonial works will not receive the attention it deserves. Perhaps contemporary testimonial production challenges not only the concept of testimonio, but also other concepts that have hitherto been closely associated with a Latin American context, including hybridity.

It is clear that defining testimonio as a genre, even as a generic variation or type of non-genre such as Kaplan’s outlaw genre, or even as a hybrid, is more than problematic. Testimonio confounds definition and, in so doing, generates considerable unease amongst critics who situate it within a context of de-centering and collapse, of impurity and anomaly, of the end of literature. The question of genre, and certainly of testimonio in particular as a genre, focuses on the stylistic elements of a given work and on academic response to it. This undermines the very foundations of testimonial works which are concerned with social response and impact, perhaps more than any other genre.

Is testimonio a genre? Does it matter? For once this question is off the table, we are able to receive testimonio as participants, rather than consumers and analysts, for that is what testimonio requires of us. This does not, of course, mean that the role of the academic is obsolete. It does mean that this role has to evolve in response to the evolution of the testimonio. Part of this role is to understand the circumstances that attend the emergence of testimonio. In this respect, academic specialism in a particular field, in this instance Latin American Studies is relevant, but testimonio is no longer a strictly Latin American phenomenon, for it has broken the confines of generic restriction and established a definition and its principles extend beyond borders, physical and metaphorical. Testimonio is not the story of ‘a people’ as defined by religious, cultural or geographical criteria, but of ‘people’.When this is recognised and accepted, the enduring significance of this type of production, literary or otherwise can be truly appreciated.


  1. George Yúdice, ‘Testimonio and Postmodernism’, in The Real Thing: Testimonial Discourse and Latin America, ed. by Georg M. Gugelberger (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996), pp. 42-57 (p. 44).
  2. John Beverley, Testimonio: On the Politics of Truth (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), p. 31.
  3. Collins Spanish-English Dictionary and Oxford Spanish-English Dictionary definitions.
  4. Georg M. Gugelberger, ‘Introduction: Institutionalization of Transgression: Testimonial Discourse and Beyond, in The Real Thing: Testimonial Discourse and Latin America, ed. by Georg M. Gugelberger (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996), pp. 1-22 (p. 7).
  5. John Beverley, ‘The Margin at the Centre: On testimonio’, in The Real Thing: Testimonial Discourse and Latin America, ed. by Georg M. Gugelberger (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996), pp. 23-41 (p. 25).
  6. Naomi Lindstrom, The Social Conscience of Latin American Writing (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998), p. 70.
  7. See note 5 above.
  8. Gugelberger, p. 8.
  9. Miguel Barnet, La Fuente viva (Cuba: Editorial Letras Cubanas, 1983), p. 50.
  10. Amy N. Millay, Voices from the Fuente Viva: The Effect of Orality in Twentieth-Century Spanish American Narrative (Lewisburg: Bucknell University, 1995), p. 122.
  11. Beverley, 1996, p. 27.
  12. Alberto Moreiras, ‘The Aura of Testimonio’, in The Real Thing: Testimonial Discourse and Latin America, ed. by Georg M. Gugelberger (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996), pp. 192-224 (p. 195).
  13. Millay, p. 133.
  14. Beverley references what he terms the ‘excruciating detail’ Rigoberta Menchú uses to describe the torture and murder of her brother and mother by the Guatemalan army, claiming it is ‘a form of figuration that gives these episodes a hallucinatory and symbolic intensity different from the matter-of-fact narration one expects from testimonio. One could say this is a kind of testimonial expression or “magic realism”’ (1993: 81) Sklodowska claims it is Barnet’s perception of his subject Montejo that ‘resembles the construction of the so-called magical realist narrative in that it frames the “other” as fantastically exotic’ (1996: 93).
  15. Millay claims it is ‘the ambiguous play between ethnography and literature that canonized Biografía as a revolutionary text’ (1995: 149).
  16. Beverley notes an ‘affinity with the picaresque novel’ and how ‘the narrator in testimonio […] speaks for or in the name of a community or group, approximating in this way the symbolic function of the epic hero’ and offers a definition of testimonio as a ‘nonfictional, popular-democratic form of epic narrative’ (1996: 73-74).
  17. Doris Sommer, ‘No Secrets’, in The Real Thing: Testimonial Discourse and Latin America, ed. by Georg M. Gugelberger (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996), pp. 130-157 (p. 135).
  18. John Beverley, Against Literature (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), p. 90.
  19. Ibid. p.91.
  20.  Elzbieta Sklodowska, ‘Spanish American Testimonial Novel: Some Afterthoughts’, in The Real Thing: Testimonial Discourse and Latin America, ed. by Georg M. Gugelberger (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996), pp. 130-157 (p. 85).
  21. Millay, p.166.
  22. Lucille Kerr, Reclaiming the Author: Figures and Fictions from Spanish America (Durham, NC: Duke University Press), p. 47.
  23. Gugelberger, p. 1.
  24. Ibid, p. 2.
  25. Gayatri Chakavortry Spivak questioned the ability of hegemonic discourse to represent the subaltern other in her seminal work entitled ‘Can the Subaltern speak?’ (in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. by C. Nelson & L. Grossberg (Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1998), pp. 271-313.
  26. Beverley, (2004), p. 82.
  27. Beverley, (1989), p. 28.
  28. Ibid, p. 35.
  29.  Kimberley A. Nance, Can Literature Promote Justice?: Trauma Narrative and Social Action in Latin American Testimonio (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2006), p. 19.
  30. Menchú was a Guatemalan political activist who told her story to the journalist and anthropologist Elisabeth Burgos Dubray. Menchú went on to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992. Her testimonio has been the subject of several works that have sought to undermine the credibility of her testimony and to disprove the ‘facts’ her testimony claims. Elisabeth Burgos-Debray and Menchu, Rigoberta, Me llamo Rigoberta y así me nació la conciencia (Barcelona: Argos Vergara, 1983).
  31. Beverley, 1995, p. 227.
  32. David Stoll, Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans (Boulder: Westview Press, 1999).
  33. Francis Cairns, Generic Composition in Greek and Roman Poetry (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1972), p. 6.
  34. Alastair Fowler, Kinds of Literature: An Introduction to the Theory of Genres and Modes (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), pp. 18-20.
  35. Fowler, p. 214.
  36. Sklodowska, p. 98.
  37. Moreiras, pp. 204-4.
  38. Ibid, p. 198.
  39. Ibid.
  40. Ibid.
  41. Beverley, (1995), p. 281.
  42. Beverley, (1989), p. 25.
  43. Ibid.
  44. Ibid.
  45. Sklodowska, p. 379.
  46. Caren Kaplan, ‘Resisting Autobiography: Out-law Genres and Transitional Feminist Subjects’, in De/Colonizing the Subject, eds. Sidonie Smith and Julia Warson(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998), pp. 115-138 (p. 120).
  47. Jacques Derrida, ‘The Law of Genre’, trans. by Avital Ronell, Critical Enquiry, 7 (1980), 55-81 (p. 56).
  48. Kaplan, p. 119.
  49. Derrida, p. 56.
  50. Brett Levinson, The Ends of Literature: The Latin American “Boom” in the Neoliberal Marketplace (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), p. 155.
  51. Linda S. Maier, Woman as Witness: Essays on Testimonial Literature by Latin American Women (New York: Peter Lang, 2004), p. 7.
  52. Levinson, p. 154.
  53. Levinson, p. 2.
  54. Joshua Lund, The Impure Imagination: Toward a Critical Hybridity in Latin American Writing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), p. 4.
  55. Lund, p. 11.
  56. Ibid, p. 5.