- Postcolonial Life Narratives: Testimonial Transactions by Gillian Whitlock
Gillian Whitlock's Postcolonial Life Narratives: Testimonial Transactions in the Oxford Studies in Postcolonial Literatures series brings together two approaches to literary studies that have met different fates over the last decade. Interest in all forms of life writing has grown, especially in a present global politics in which issues of referentiality, "fake news," and truth-telling become ever more urgently debated. Postcolonial studies as a conceptual framework has, in contrast, waned, and been partially eclipsed by a growing if parallel focus on world literature and translation studies.
Given these developments, and indeed the potential limitlessness of post-colonial life writing as a topic, Whitlock makes a number of strategic decisions. She focuses on prose and filmic narratives and, as her subtitle indicates, the question of testimony, reading a series of texts that testify, or that are made to testify, through the lens of postcolonial criticism and theory. Particularly welcome is Whitlock's stress on contexts of activism and dissemination, including paratexts, and her detailed exploration of the transactional nature of life narratives and the affective responses they solicit from audiences. Whitlock consciously opposes the term "life narrative" to "autobiography," which she sees as associated with "western Enlightenment values," in order to pay attention to different genres of life writing—"for example the slave narrative, women's journals and diaries, letters, memoirs, biographies" (3)—that offer other insights into subjectification. Drawing on Sara Ahmed's The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Whitlock is careful to analyze and critique the economies of affect in which such texts participate, while also holding out the hope that such narratives of testimony will "return to the legacy of humanism and continue to invest in its promise, even as they register the limits of its currency and value" (204).
Whitlock's choice of texts for analysis is perhaps more contentious. Postcolonial Life Narratives is divided into two sections. The first, entitled "Colonial Testimonial, 1789–1852," consists of six very short chapters, each exploring a single text or a pair of narratives from the period in question. Published narratives that are now canonical have good representation: Olaudah Equiano's The Interesting Narrative, Mary Prince's The History of Mary Prince, and Susanna Moodie's Roughing It in the Bush. They are supplemented with, and sometimes juxtaposed to, texts that have a more complex history of genesis and reception—the "Hottentot Venus" Sara (Saartjie) Bartman's testimony, for example, or Woollarawarre Bennelong's letter, the earliest surviving example of writing by an Australian Aboriginal author disseminated in English. The final chapter of this section, entitled "Proximate Reading," elaborates on [End Page 524] the critical method developed in these short chapters and its inspiration: testimony itself as expressed in "postcolonial narratives that emerged alongside the autobiographical narratives of 'the Western self' and entangled with it, drawing on shared ideoscapes of Enlightenment humanism" (68–69, emphasis in original).
The second section of Postcolonial Life Narratives consists of four more substantial chapters. A discussion of life writing emerging from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa covers texts by Antjie Krog, Zoë Wicomb, and J. M. Coetzee, ultimately focusing on the coauthored text There Was This Goat that explores the way in which the testimony of one of the mothers of a victim of apartheid remains stubbornly unassimilable to the TRC's goals of healing and reconciliation. This is followed by, for me, the most thoughtful chapter in Whitlock's study, which engages in proximate reading to discuss how rape warfare is emplaced within humanitarian narratives through bringing together two moments of life writing that occupy proximate geographical sites. Accounts of survivors of conflict and genocide in the conflict zone on the borders of Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo are thus juxtaposed with the proliferation of life writing around Dian Fossey, the "gorilla girl" whose own life stories of encounters with primates in Rwanda contain partially erased traces of gendered violence. Particularly powerful here are Whitlock's close readings of Lisa F. Jackson's documentary film The...