Spectators, Sponsors, or World Travelers? Engaging with Personal Narratives of Others through the Afghan Women's Writing Project

By Mannon, Bethany | College English, March 2018 | Go to article overview

Spectators, Sponsors, or World Travelers? Engaging with Personal Narratives of Others through the Afghan Women's Writing Project


Mannon, Bethany, College English


The popularity of life writing in the past three decades has corresponded with a proliferation of life writing online. Anecdotes and photos of lived experiences characterize users' interactions on social networks, blogs, and projects like PostSecret and Humans of New York. This widespread use of personal narrative online has given rise to digital storytelling projects "outside the boundaries of mainstream media institutions" (Couldry 386). Independently, in conjunction with NGOs, or with support from educational institutions, these projects mobilize dozens, sometimes hundreds, of participants to share accounts of their experiences and to engage with others across national borders. With titles like The Everyday Sexism Project and Women Win, these story archives create a growing vein of material for studying the confluence of life narrative and activism online.

The Afghan Women's Writing Project (AWWP), one story collection particularly visible to US audiences, seeks to intervene in the lives of participants and influence discussions about gender and human rights. AWWP offers online and in-person writing workshops that site editors describe as empowering to women and girls who were previously silenced. Writers' poems and prose narratives circulate in email newsletters, in the books The Sky Is a Nest of Swallows (2012) and Washing the Dust from Our Hearts (2015), and through readings hosted by community organizations. Readers also find AWWP stories on the website awwproject.org, which had published the writings of 154 participants at the time of this study, and editors encourage visitors to support writers through donations and by posting comments. While readers in any region can explore the story collection, AWWP's history and mission statements envision Western readers as the audience most curious about Afghan women and girls and also as those best positioned to support their empowerment.

AWWP founders and editors envision the project as a site of transnational encounters between writers and readers. Gillian Whitlock argues that life writing can "personalize and humanize categories of people whose experiences are frequently unseen and unheard," and AWWP certainly participates in this mission (3). However, feminist scholarship on humanitarian intervention demonstrates that such efforts run the risk of perpetuating racist and sexist assumptions and disregarding the specificity of women's situations (Jaggar; Grewal and Kaplan; Gilmore and Marshall). Furthermore, AWWP creates meaning by framing the rhetorical work of non-Western women for consumption by Western audiences. Scholarship on life writing and feminist rhetoric informs my analysis of personal narrative as a feminist practice. Wendy Hesford's work on human rights and life narratives provides an important reference point for studying AWWP, as does Mary Queen's analysis of modes of digital circulation that often "construct and reinforce binary oppositions and rhetorics of superiority" ("Transnational Feminist Rhetorics" 472). My analysis focuses on one field of rhetorical action: the website where writers' stories first appear and find a public. This article furthers conversations on women's life writing and feminist rhetorics; in particular, I consult scholarship on transnational feminism that forcefully critiques "colonial discourses and hegemonic First World formations that wittingly or unwittingly lead to the oppression and exploitation of many women" (Grewal and Kaplan 2) and works to "understand the material conditions that structure women's lives in diverse locations" (17).

Life writing can reveal much about those material conditions, but it can also be implicated in hierarchies and rhetorics of superiority. I propose three concepts-spectatorship, sponsorship, and world traveling-as methodologies for studying the cultural currency of life stories in humanitarian efforts and the ways that projects shape readers' interpretations of personal narratives. …

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