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Can Literature Promote Justice?

Trauma Narrative and Social Action in Latin American Testimonio

Kimberly A. Nance

Publication Year: 2006

As if in direct response to The New Yorker's question of “The Power of the Pen: Does Literature Change Anything?” Kimberly Nance takes up the relationship between ethics and literature. With the 40th anniversary of the testimonio occurring in 2006, there has never been a better time to reconsider its role in achieving social justice. The advent of the testimonio--loosely, a political autobiography of a Latin American activist who hopes, through the telling of her life story, to bring about change--was met with a great deal of excitement by scholars who posited it as a radical new form of literature. Those accolades were almost immediately followed by a series of critical problems. In what sense were testimonios "true"? What right did privileged scholars in the U.S. have to engage accounts of suffering with traditional modes of criticism? Were questions of veracity or aesthetics more important? Were these texts autobiography or political screeds? It seemed critics didn't know quite what to make of the testimonio and so, after a brief bout of engagement, disregarded it. Nance, however, argues that any form as prolific as the testimonio is well worth examining and that these questions, rather than being insurmountable, are exactly the questions with which scholars ought to be wrestling. If, as critics claim, that the testimonio is one of the most pervasive contemporary Latin American cultural genres, then it is high time for a comprehensive study of the genre such as Nance's.

Published by: Vanderbilt University Press

Table of Contents

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix

My work on trauma narrative owes much to conversations with my father, John Coleman Nance. When I was in high school, he was applying his experience from the military hospital in Da Nang, Viet Nam, to the emergency room of Cook County Hospital in Chicago...

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pp. 1-18

Among Latin Americanists, the genre of testimonio is most often traced to Esteban Montejo and Miguel Barnet’s 1966 Biografía de un cimarrón (Biography of a Runaway Slave). Barnet, an anthropologist with a deep interest in Cuban history, conducted a series of interviews with Montejo, a veteran...

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1. A Genre Without a Strategy?

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pp. 19-47

Testimonio is not only a text. It is a project of social justice in connected to the lifeworld, in their inceptions as responses to speakers' real-life experiences of injustice and also by their though the genre is frequently characterized as didactic, that description fails to recognize that the goal of testimonio is not ...

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2. A Genre Without an Addressee?

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pp. 48-65

In the history of testimonial criticism, the appraisal of readers has moved from congratulation to condemnation, idealization to demonization. Early on, the reader was envisioned by most critics as a socially responsible co-participant in a revolutionary...

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3. A Genre Without a Chance?

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pp. 66-99

The question of testimonio’s potential efficacy is central to any engaged analysis. Can testimonial texts really be expected to contribute to the achievement of social goals? If it is possible to do such a thing with words, is it possible for testimonio’s speakers to influence the First World readers that constitute the genre’s...

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4. The Capacities and Constraints of Testimonio's Speakers and Experiencing Writers

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pp. 100-118

In the critical literature to date, the speaker has been by far the most frequently examined of any of the participants in the production of testimonio. Often this selective emphasis reflects a psychoanalytic approach—a focus not on the speakers’ skills but on the difficulties of narrating their traumas. Despite the...

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5. The Capacities and Constraints of Collaborating Writers, Translators, Editors, and Publishers

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pp. 119-136

In collaborative testimonios, the speaker is joined by a professional writer who transforms the spoken words that are the speaker’s own representation of experience into written text. Generally such speakers have had little or no formal education, and thus cannot produce their own written testimonios...

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6. The Capacities and Constraints of Critics

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pp. 137-156

The previous chapters have made clear that the ways in which testimonial speakers and writers represent their experience have profound effects on the likelihood that their texts will promote social action. Explicitly and implicitly, critics’ responses to those texts help to shape the inventory of socially acceptable...

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pp. 157-166

In its progress from celebration to mourning, testimonio seems well embarked on the path that Kal


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pp. 167-178


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pp. 179-192

Works Cited

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pp. 193-206


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pp. 207-212

E-ISBN-13: 9780826592125
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826515230
Print-ISBN-10: 0826515231

Page Count: 224
Publication Year: 2006