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Ayen’s Cooking School for African Men: Mediating Life Narratives of Trauma

From: a/b: Auto/Biography Studies
Volume 27, Number 2, Winter 2012
pp. 242-261 | 10.1353/abs.2012.0023

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How does television documentary—a genre that is so often mandated to confront and entertain at the same moment—take up the challenge of representing social suffering? In this paper I look at the Australian documentary Ayen’s Cooking School for African Men to consider the ways in which it carves a space for trauma narration.

Trauma stories are ubiquitous in everyday culture. A staple of news and current-affairs-style program, and a feature of literature, documentary, and television—trauma narratives traverse cultural discourses and define our understanding of social suffering in local, national, and international contexts.1 One of the most pervasive trauma narratives in Australian cultural and mediascapes is that of asylum seekers—those who flee their country of origin due to persecution but do not have legal status to live in the country to which they flee. Stories of clandestine migration on boats, of life in detention centers, and of tensions settling in to Australian life saturate Australia’s popular media. Life narratives, particularly television documentaries, have played a particularly potent role in these debates. Documentaries have brought trauma narratives into the public domain—and more particularly, into people’s lounge rooms—into the intimate spaces and lives of audiences. Documentaries such as Australia’s Pacific Solution (2002) and Molly and Mobarak (2003) work as “soft weapons,” to use Gillian Whitlock’s term, that offer engaged interventions, often disrupting master, mainstream narratives about traumatic events associated with immigration (such as those found in the media and within political rhetoric).2 Documentaries have been crucial in sanctioning a multicultural, multilingual Australia, and for supporting new arrivals in Australia.3

Cultural consumers frequently look to documentary to help make sense of an unintelligible, post-traumatic world, to fill gaps in knowledge and understanding. Though often preaching to the left-wing converted, these documentaries, produced in the 2000s, have had as a recurring agenda: a desire to individualize and humanize the asylum-seeker cause, and to call viewers to witness the trauma testimony within.4 As Ruth Leys argues, “it is because personal testimony concerning the past is inherently political and collective that the narration of the remembered trauma is so important” (109). Narratives of individuals are offered metonymically in the absence of larger entrenched communal narratives. Trauma stories commonly function as a call to action, as E. Ann Kaplan suggests: “Art that invites us to bear witness to injustice goes beyond moving us to identify with and help a specific individual, and prepares us to take responsibility for preventing future occurrence” (23).5

In this paper I consider the example of Ayen’s Cooking School for African Men—a fifty-two minute documentary directed by Sieh Mchawala and released in 2007. This South Australian documentary tells the story of (male) Sudanese refugees in Adelaide through their experiences overcoming some of the cultural problems inherent in immigration by attending a cooking school. Ayen’s Cooking School for African Men appears, at first, to be a feel-good documentary charting the assimilation of Sudanese refugees into Australian life. It could, on the surface, be read as reinforcing the stereotypes that multiculturalism is all about food and festivals, music and bright clothing.

However, I want to suggest that despite its overtly comedic presentation, this documentary is a “trauma text.” Whitlock and I have defined “trauma texts” as those which take up the challenge of representing trauma, and of authorizing new trauma subjects. Trauma texts are conscious of the myriad practical, ethical and cultural complications that accompany representations of trauma. Trauma is often theorized as unspeakable, resistant to representation (1).6 But life narrative not only takes trauma to its limits by attempting representation, but also thrives at these limits, considering and trying new ways for bringing trauma stories into public view (Gilmore; Whitlock and Douglas). I argue that Ayen’s Cooking School for African Men is such a text; it grapples with the question of how to represent the trauma stories within. Ayen’s Cooking School for African Men is a television documentary—commissioned by and screened on Australia’s government-funded, multicultural, multilingual broadcaster: SBS, a station mandated with supporting and indeed celebrating a multicultural Australia. How does television documentary...

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