Academic journal article Antipodes

Teaching Traumatic Life Narratives: Affect, Witnessing, and Ethics

Academic journal article Antipodes

Teaching Traumatic Life Narratives: Affect, Witnessing, and Ethics

Article excerpt

I had been granted an inestimable privilege of looking into other people's lives. What I had found there had absorbed my intellectual and emotional attention for many hours. Unlike the Cinques, unlike the Singhs, I could walk away.

-Helen Garner, Joe Cinque's Consolation (121)

This book has some ethical problems. We only hear one version of events, and the author gets far too close to her subjects.

-Anonymous ENGL 2141 student

In this paper we discuss our experiences teaching life writings of trauma to undergraduate literature students, employing Helen Garner's Joe Cinque's Consolation as a case study. We consider the affect of trauma stories and explore the ethics of including trauma texts in the literature curriculum-texts that often confront and destabilize students' reading positions. Such texts require the deployment of literary methodologies including, but also beyond, close reading-for instance, paratextual, contextual, and theory-based readings. Life narratives of trauma offer a means for broad considerations of the social and political efficacy of Australian literature texts. In reading these texts students must consider their role as witnesses and the responsibilities that come with responding to testimony. Our students' responses to these reading methodologies (and we include some anonymous responses here) reveal the particular challenges and eventual rewards of these theories and methods for contemporary literary analysis.

Life Writing, Trauma Texts, and Ethical Responses

Life writing comprises the myriad ways that people tell stories about their lives or the lives of others. Common forms include auto/biography, memoir, diaries, letters, documentary, blogs, and digital media. As teachers in literary studies at Flinders University, South Australia, we, like colleagues at other Australian universities, recognize the significant role that life writing plays in Australian literature. Texts based on the lives of real Australians bring much to the body and study of Australian literature and offer a different kind of engagement to, and different challenges for, students of literature. The study of Australian life writing locates students in a reflexive space, asking them to engage directly with contemporary Australian cultural issues via the tangible genres of nonfiction.

Richard Freadman notes the plethora of culturally diverse and politically conscious life-writing texts to emerge on the Australian literary scene in the 1980s and 1990s, for example, texts by Indigenous Australian authors, memoirs reflecting on gender and sexuality, and life writing representing Australia's multiculturalism (209- 10). As Freadman asserts, a greater emphasis on non-canonical literatures became important at this cultural moment, along with a focus on theories such as feminism and postcolonialism amongst others (210). Consequently, our response to this mandate, in recent years, has been to center our teaching of contemporary Australian literatures on life-writing texts-drawing on authors such as Larissa Behrendt, Raimond Gaita, Helen Garner, Kate Holden, and Leah Purcell, to name a few examples. In teaching life writing we have negotiated with genre-at the cusp of life narrative and fiction-and worked through ethical and moral issues such as hoax memoir, and questions of authority and the right to write. Life-narrative texts conventionally invite intimacies-closing the distance between reader and text through the autobiographical pact-the promise of veracity, of sharing aspects of personal life with the reader.

However, this negotiation has been complicated by the recurring theme of trauma. Testimonies of cultural and national displacement, sexual abuse, addiction, racism, and poverty permeate the contemporary Australian cultural landscape, responding to cultural flashpoints in Australia more broadly. Life narratives reflect back urgently on other discourses and representations of trauma circulating within contemporary Australian (and indeed global) cultural- and media-scapes. …

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