- Ghostly Narratives and the Limits of Fiction
Joanne Lipson Freed's Haunting Encounters: The Ethics of Reading across Boundaries of Difference is a valuable addition to the scholarly conversation about the writing and reading of silenced histories. Lipson Freed argues that the "ethical and imaginative claims of fictions that unsettle us with their difference" make space for ethical encounters between readers and texts that depict cultures different from their own (3). Focusing primarily on the way texts by and about people of color can have material effects on the ethical actions of white readers, Lipson Freed posits haunting—within the bounds of narrative—as an ethical mode of relation that requires neither identification on the basis of similarity nor absolute alterity, between reader and text. "Haunted fiction," she writes, "encourages its readers to interrogate the assumption that reading fiction, in and of itself, can be an ethically significant act" (24). Without making claims that fictional narratives can actively remedy the violence of omission or produce more just encounters, Lipson Freed is bold enough to make a small claim: that the ethical encounter of haunted reading matters on its own terms.
Each of the four main chapters pairs two narrative texts from different cultural contexts and shows how haunting, which she characterizes as an "intense, temporary, [End Page 281] and ultimately transformative encounter with unfathomable difference" (36), opens onto ethical relationships both among characters and, more importantly for her argument, between fictional narrative and reader. The first and strongest chapter pairs a canonical work of haunted fiction—Toni Morrison's Beloved—with a Bengali novella, Mahaswete Devi's "Pterodactyl, Puran Sahay, and Pirtha." The novella, which is Lipson Freed's only subject not originally written in English and which, significantly, is translated by Gayatri Spivak, becomes something of an anchor for Haunting Encounters, appearing repeatedly to demonstrate different facets of the ethics of haunted reading.
Lipson Freed locates within the texts she discusses the very haunted ethics of reading for which she advocates between reader and text. "Pterodactyl" is about Puran, a bourgeois Indian journalist sent to report on a famine in a tribal village. Despite his presumed worldliness and his wealth of empirical knowledge, Puran has trouble connecting with the tribal people about whom he is writing. An encounter with a pterodactyl—a living impossibility—leads Puran to have more ethical relationships with both the people in the village and his own family at home. Lipson Freed reads the pterodactyl, which Puran must attempt to care for and communicate with in the absence of reference-book knowledge, as a transformative haunting figure. The pterodactyl is different enough to challenge Puran's sense of relationality but similar enough to invite his empathy—for both the pterodactyl and for the villagers. In Beloved, the eponymous ghost challenges both Sethe's and the reader's claims to knowledge, "de-stabiliz[ing] meaning-making" for the other characters and for readers (46). In both texts, the supernatural creatures act as "ethical guides" for both the characters and the readers. Puran's encounter with the pterodactyl and Sethe's encounter with Beloved are encounters with difference that vex knowledge and that, because they are painful, are ultimately temporary but nonetheless provide an opening onto an ethical encounter. Importantly, Lipson Freed carefully argues that these creatures are not merely metaphors or symbolic standins for the silences of history, but rather are more capacious figures through whom we might imagine the possibilities of ethical relation across difference.
In the following chapters, the book moves away from textual appearances of actual supernatural figures to discussion of the way this ethics of haunting works in the telling of the historical traumas of colonization, in "human rights novels" about people who [End Page 282] have been "disappeared" by repressive governments and in novels set in "dystopian" presents that are "haunted by futures that they themselves cannot presage" (136). The primary strength of Chapter 2, which focuses on Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony and Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things, is its pointed...