Job talk by Nicole Gervasio
Where: Bunche Hall 6275
Testimony for the Future: State Redemption as an Art of the Impossible in Contemporary Novels on Genocide
In my book project, “Arts of the Impossible: Decolonial Feminist Approaches to Reconstructing State Memory and Collective Trauma in Contemporary Literature,” I examine how and why non-Western writers from 1984 to the present fabricate several genres of archival evidence to contest key structural absences in the representation, memory, and narratives of modern state violence. I specifically focus on novels by politically engaged authors who critique genocide, femicide, and forced disappearance as explicitly heteropatriarchal, white supremacist, imperial technologies of authoritarian repression, including Caryl Phillips, Edwidge Danticat, Cristina Peri Rossi, Roberto Bolaño, Michael Ondaatje, Madeleine Thien, Tommy Orange, and Boubacar Boris Diop. I take a decolonial feminist approach to trauma studies to scrutinize how these human rights crimes are designed to exert what I call “ontological erasure” on dissident bodies, whereby the motive is not merely to murder the flesh, but to render personhood conceptually immaterial and identity unviable. I argue that these writers’ interventions not only metapolitically pursue an always already impossible feat: the radical reconstruction of state archives that are strategically organized to evade moral responsibility for the most incriminating truths, as feminist theorists of colonial archives, like Ann Laura Stoler, Lisa Lowe, and Saidiya Hartman, have shown. These writers’ efforts to novelize archival forms also expose gaps and weaknesses in the internal logics of evidentiary standards for justice that privilege Western epistemes as universals. In this talk, I highlight the testimonial form, one of five evidentiary types I distinguish (the others being documentarian, forensic, analogical, and phenomenological), in two novels reconstructing genocides in the twentieth century. The first is the 1937 Parsley Massacre in Danticat’s The Farming of Bones and, the second, the 1994 Rwandan genocide in Diop’s Murambi: The Book of Bones. I argue that both writers emphasize unmarried, non-reproductive women’s first-person points of view not only to recover missing testimonies from marginalized perspectives. They also expose the many ways in which these suppressed testimonies ironically attest to the state’s failures to transform its racial, gender, sexual, and class order so as to thwart the recurrence of genocide in the future.