Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

Trauma and Testimony: Heather Raffo's 9 Parts of Desire

Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

Trauma and Testimony: Heather Raffo's 9 Parts of Desire

Article excerpt

This article analyzes a recent play, 9 Parts of Desire (2003) by Heather Raffo--an Iraqi American--which deals with the tragic conditions of Iraq as expressed by nine Iraqi women of different backgrounds and age groups. The performance of the play, often featuring one actress playing the nine roles, was successful in the US. The author finds parallelism between Iraqi trauma marked by repression, sanctions, and wars, and narrated by women, and other catastrophic events and testimonies. She links staged discourse with traumatic syndromes and dramatic theory. The article raises issues related to representation of the Other and identification.


Although I am not very fond of personal inserts into one's theoretical writings, I feel the need to provide the reader with some information about my own cultural background to explain my interest in Raffo's play. I have lived in the US for the last fourteen years, but I grew up in Poland, a country shaped by centuries of serendipitous historical forces and fickle geopolitical circumstances: three hundred years of partitions, two wars, years of Nazi occupation and Soviet regime. What attracted me to Raffo's play was the odd similarity of Polish and Iraqi history: the long lack of stability, years of internal violence, external occupations, and their cumulative generational effects. The profound sadness of Raffo's women, the sense of having been broken down, the sense of time frozen in the moment of one's trauma seemed eerily familiar. It reminded me of my grandmother who survived the German labor camp. There was something in my grandmother's eyes that stayed there through years of turmoil: the merciless endless sediments of history passed on from her mother to her daughter, without beginning or end.

What also attracted me to Raffo's play was her painful attempt to bridge the gap between her two identities: American and Iraqi. Although born in the US, Raffo found herself in a situation all too familiar to emigrants and refugees: the need to balance and reconcile two separate, often antagonistic, social, political, and cultural paradigms. As Brecht famously put it:

   The best school of dialectics is emigration. The most acute
   dialecticians are refugees. They are refugees as a result of
   changes, and they study nothing but changes. Out of the tiniest
   signs they conclude the greatest events. When their opponent wins,
   they calculate how much the victory cost, and for contradictions
   they have a refined eye. Dialectics, here's to you! (1)

Thrust between the American-Iraq conflict, Raffo struggles to build a viable narrative that would reconcile her alliances. But to what degree is the dialectics of her experience translatable into the political or cultural sphere of either country? After all, to what degree is it possible to communicate such an experience to either American or Iraqi audiences, and, to use Paul de Man's rhetorical question: What's the difference? (2) To which audience is she speaking? Although Raffo's play focuses on Iraqi women, it also tells a larger story of Raffo's liminal dialectic: a delicate art of negotiating impossible social and political alliances. In her own words, she felt compelled to "soften" some of her women to make them accessible to American audiences. (3) What does such "softening" imply and how does it function on the esthetic, literary, and dramatic level vis-a-vis the genuine trauma she attempts to capture? And to what extent is this "softening" and exoticization aimed at 'domesticating' a complex situation to suit an audience? These were the questions that drew me to her play. For some of them, I have found answers; for others, I am still searching.

Based on a series of interviews with nine Iraqi women, Heather Raffo's one-woman show Nine Parts of Desire chronicles, through the prism of their lives, the successive stages of Iraq's troubled history since 1963 and up to the late 1990s. …

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