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  • The Margin at the Center:On Testimonio (Testimonial Narrative)1
  • John Beverley (bio)

The deformed Caliban-enslaved, robbed of his island, taught the language by Prospero-rebukes him thus: "You taught me language and my profit on it / Is, I know how to curse."

-Roberto Fernández Retamar, Caliban

Do Social Struggles Give Rise to new forms of literature, or is there more a question of the adequacy of their representation in existing narrative forms like the short story or the novel as in, for example, Gayatri Spivak's articulations of the stories of the Bengali writer Mahasweta Devi or the debate around Fredric Jameson's notion of national allegory in Third World writing?2 What happens when, as in the case of Western Europe since the Renaissance, there has been a complicity between the rise of "literature" as a secular institution and the development of forms [End Page 11] of colonial and imperialist oppression against which many of these struggles are directed? Are there experiences in the world today that would be betrayed or misrepresented by the forms of literature as we know it?

Raymond Williams formulated a similar question in relation to British working class writing:

Very few if any of us could write at all if certain forms were not available. And then we may be lucky, we may find forms which correspond to our experience. But take the case of the nineteenth century working-class writers, who wanted to write about their working lives. The most popular form was the novel, but though they had marvelous material that could go into the novel very few of them managed to write good or any novels. Instead they wrote marvelous autobiographies. Why? Because the form coming down through the religious tradition was of a witness confessing the story of his life, or there was the defence speech at a trial when a man tells the judge who he is and what he had done, or of course other kinds of speech. These oral forms were more accessible forms centered on "I," on the single person. . . . The novel with its quite different narrative forms was virtually impenetrable to working-class writers for three or four generations, and there are still many problems in using the received forms for what is, in the end, very different material. Indeed the forms of working-class consciousness are bound to be different from the literary forms of another class, and it is a long struggle to find new and adequate forms.


Let me set the frame of the discussion a bit differently than Williams does. In the period of what Marx describes as the primitive accumulation in Western Europe-say 1400 to 1650-which is also the age of the formation of the great colonial empires, there appears or reappears, under the impetus of humanism, a series of literary forms like the essay, the short story of novela ejemplar, the picaresque novel, the various kinds of Petrarchan lyric including the sonnet, the autobiography, and the secular theater. These forms, as ideological practices, are also a means of these economic developments (in the sense that they contribute to the creation of the subject form of "European Man"). By the same token, then, we should expect an age such as our own-also one of transition or the potential for transition from one mode or production to another-to experience the emergence of new forms of cultural and literary expression that embody, in more or less thematically explicit and formally articulated ways, the social forces contending for power in the world today. I have in mind here, by analogy to the role of the bourgeoisie in the transition from feudalism to capitalism, not only the struggle of working people everywhere against exploitation, but also in contingent ways movements of ethnic or national liberation, the women's liberation movement, poor and oppressed peoples' organizations of all types, the gay rights movement, the peace movement, ecological activism, and the like. One of these new forms in embryo, I will argue, is the kind of narrative text that in Latin American Spanish has come to be called testimonio.

By testimonio I mean a novel or novella-length...


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