Academic journal article Bilingual Review

The Private in Public: The Greatest Performance and the Revision of Testimonial Fiction

Academic journal article Bilingual Review

The Private in Public: The Greatest Performance and the Revision of Testimonial Fiction

Article excerpt

Elias Miguel Munoz's The Greatest Performance has not garnered as much critical attention as other works in his corpus, but scholars who approach the novel have found a text with much to contribute to discussions of both Cuban exile narrative and Cuban American gay and lesbian fiction. Those treating the novel as exile narrative have highlighted its depictions of Cuban community formation in the United States (Alvarez Borland), the evolving relationship between US refugee law and human rights violations predicated on sexual orientation (Mullins), and the construction of pan-ethnic Latino identities by a homogenizing American mainstream culture (Caminero-Santangelo). On the other hand, those approaching The Greatest Performance as gay and lesbian fiction hail Munoz as an eminent voice of the Cuban American homosexual experience, citing the novel's importance to understanding the impact of AIDS on gay communities (Hernandez-G.) and its place within a trilogy of works that explores Cuban heterosexual, bisexual, and homosexual identities in a sort of evolution of sexuality (Miller).

While these studies represent a firm foundation for our understanding of The Greatest Performance, I intend to take our conversation about the novel in a new direction by examining its clear attention to sexual persecution. Specifically, I argue for a reading of The Greatest Performance as testimonial fiction. At present, no study has considered the novel in terms of Latin American testimonio, though such a reading is warranted: first, it foregrounds this novel's interest in social justice and inserts the text into activist (rather than literary) conversations in which its political agenda may be more readily realized, and second, it prompts a necessary revision of dominant definitions of testimonio that emphasize the public nature of oppression and elide ostensibly private persecution predicated on sexual orientation. I therefore argue below that we must revise our understanding of The Greatest Performance and, through it, our understanding of the publicness of testimonio. To pursue this project, I first situate testimonio within public sphere theory: recent work by Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner posits the mutual interpenetration of public and private spheres as well as the publicness of sex and sexual oppression, conclusions that inform my retheorization of testimonio. I then examine The Greatest Performance as testimonio and demonstrate that its testimony depends on decentering representations of traditionally public oppression in order to testify against sexual persecution perpetrated by public, heteronormative discourses circulating in Cuba and beyond its borders. Finally, I conclude by evaluating the novel's potential to promote social justice and by forwarding general comments regarding the ability of other marginalized testimonial forms to reach publics' and to mobilize those publics for social change.

I understand, of course, that my examination of The Greatest Performance as testimonio may seem belated to those who recognize the end of the testimonial moment. While testimonio was collectively hailed as the voice of subaltern peoples in the early years of its reception, more recently scholars have become suspicious of its aims and efficacy. An early leading scholar of testimonio, John Beverley, declares that "testimonio s moment, the originality and urgency or--to use Lacan's phrase--the 'state of emergency' that drove our fascination and critical engagement with it, has undoubtedly passed," along with the particular revolutions, solidarity networks, and economic conditions that generated it (77). Qualifying his statement, Beverley says that testimonial literature itself will continue: it will go on "just as testimonial forms have been present at the margins of Western literature ever since its inception as a modern episteme in the sixteenth century" (77). The conditions that gave rise to a specifically Latin American testimonial genre, however, have declined, and testimonios importance has faded along with them. …

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