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"A window of opportunity": an ethics of reading third world autobiography.

I'll never forget the first time I stood in front of a university classroom in the fall of 1966. It was packed with the composition students I would be teaching as a part-timer at a large urban campus in Chicago. Names like Mary Ellen Arpino, Lois Leposky, Joan Krishko, and Ron Sigada reminded me of my own classmates back in the Western Pennsylvania mining town where I was born. Part of the Anglo-Saxon minority in Portage, I had grown up feeling both superior to and excluded from the Italian and Eastern European Catholics whose lives I observed with both fear and envy through the window of my Republican childhood.

Those people were the "foreigners," according to my great-Aunt Mary who had come to the United States from Scotland when she and my grandmother were still toddlers. Annie Dillard's Western Pennsylvania childhood was spent in fear and envy of the Irish Catholic Jo Anne Sheehys who, in Dillard's An American Childhood, ice-skated in the winter street outside her Point Breeze house in Pittsburgh. In my own adolescence, I was in awe of the Mary Ellens and the Joanies whose bodies glided with their own "radiance" across the teen canteen dance floor.

As soon as I began calling the roll on that first day of composition class, I knew that I would be canceling most of the supplementary texts I had added to the anthology of essays departmentally required for all composition sections. I would make room on the syllabus for my students' lives. The course, I hoped, would be a larger window on American ethnicity.

After leaving Chicago for Chapel Hill some ten years after I began my teaching career, Annie Dillard's autobiography, had it been published by then, might have been the model of the book I wanted to write about growing up in Western Pennsylvania. Having left the flat plain of the Middle West, I found myself again in the Back Country whose low mountains chained down the Alleghenies to the Carolina Piedmont. But instead of writing my own autobiography, I returned to graduate school at the end of my first year in North Carolina so that I could develop a theory of autobiography that employed the writing of others.

Four years after publishing my dissertation, I left for a city among other hills halfway around the world. Divorced by then and taking my first sabbatical since starting out in that Chicago classroom, I decided that I wanted to turn fifty in Jerusalem, not Greensboro, North Carolina where I was a tenured professor of religion and literature. It was on my subsequent return to Jerusalem that I first read Dillard's An American Childhood. Having taken the sabbatical to begin a book on the autobiography of the Holocaust, I later went back to Jerusalem to work and study on the Palestinian West Bank.(1)

It was in the third world, then, that I first read Annie Dillard's autobiography and, as it turned out, began writing my own. I say, "as it turned out," because I didn't realize how much of my own life was implicated in a book I began to write about a Palestinian refugee family. Gaining access to the life of that family was not a matter of getting outside my own window but of acknowledging that it was there: I was looking at them from somewhere. How the window of my own life both blocks and facilitates the telling of Palestinian lives was part of the story I wanted to tell.

The information I have been supplying thus far is not personal background but critical foreground to the more explicit argument I want to develop about an ethics of reading third world autobiography, which begins with the reader, not with the text. Defining the location of that reader is the first interpretive task for such an ethics. The next interpretive task requires the interrogating of that location. Defining and interrogating the reader's location finally affords the reader what Edward Said calls a "wider optics" -- a new and expanded location which can move interpretation toward transformation or what George Yudice has recently called an "ethics of survival," which engages the autobiographical activity of the first world reader as well as the third world text. Along the way, I will be addressing the differing functions of the "other" in first and third world representations of selfhood and identity.

I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala is the third world autobiography I want to use. A life history set in a country that accounts for more than half of the disappeared in Latin America, I, Rigoberta Menchu is a counter-story that works against such disappearance to the extent that it testifies to the appearance of her people on the stage of history and names the harsh reality in which they live. It is furthermore a resistance story about directing that history and transforming that reality.

Life stories like Menchu's emerged in Latin America after the Cuban Revolution and were elicited by other more privileged women like the Venezuelan anthropologist Elisabeth Burgos-Debray, who edited and inscribed Menchu's story. She interviewed Menchu in Paris, where the Guatemalan had been invited in 1982 to participate in a conference sponsored by the 31 January Popular Front. The organization's name commemorates the day in 1980 when Menchu's father and other early leaders of the Committee of Campesino Unity had been burned to death during their peaceful occupation of the Spanish embassy in Guatemala City to protest military repression in their villages.

Latin American women like Burgos-Debray were trying to overcome their own marginality in a patriarchal culture. Through such testimonials as Menchu's, they wanted to show that oppressed people were subjects and not merely objects of national histories. The inscribers of these testimonials were also raising questions about the negative aspects of the concept "third world" with its connotations of dependency and racial backwardness. They were helping to redefine "third world" as a positive term of radical critique against colonialist policies both inside and outside Latin America.(2)

When I returned to my teaching career in the United States, I decided to use An American Childhood as a point of embarkation for the course on third world autobiography which I team-taught with an anthropologist.(3) An autobiography like hers, we agreed, could be useful in defining our own location since most of us, like Dillard, had had a middle-class American childhood. More than that, Dillard would help us to measure the distance between our lives and Menchu's, in their differing modes of self-representation as well as their material conditions.

In beginning the course with Dillard, we began to appreciate some of the differences between what I called autobiography of nostalgia and the testimonial. The former represents a mainstream tradition of self-writing in the industrialized West and North. A strategy of recovering what would otherwise be lost, autobiography of nostalgia is directed toward the past. The autobiographer's identity depends not only on recovering this past but on individuating his or her experience of the past. Childhood memories are especially important since it is in that period that the process of individuation has its start. That process is experienced as separation, painful but necessary to establish a self/world boundary that must be kept essentially intact to assure the unique individuality on which identity is based. Growing up requires the self's outward movement into the world, but in such a way that a sense of boundary is maintained and even sharpened by experiences of otherness. The other, alluring but dangerous, continues to reset those limits that keep alive one's sense of having a self.

Unlike nostalgic autobiography of the first world, the testimonial's understanding of selfhood is based on collective identity, not individuality. Early in her account, Menchu is quick to insist that her "personal experience is the reality of a whole people" (1). What follows in the first half of her book is the description of rituals which establish the bond between the community and each of its members. Those rituals begin with the practice of the mother who, "on the first day of her pregnancy goes with her husband to tell . . . elected leaders that she's going to have a child, because the child will not only belong to them but to the whole community" (7).

Like other third world autobiographies, the testimonial is oriented toward creating a future rather than recovering a past. It is a form of utopian literature that contributes to the realization of a liberated society based on distributive justice. A form of resistance literature as well as utopian literature, the testimonial resists not only economic and political oppression, but also any nostalgic pull towards an idealized past -- pre-Hispanic origins, for instance, which promise false comfort. To resort to such indigenism would implicate Menchu in the very culture from which her testimonial wants to free itself.

While autobiography of nostalgia welcomes and, in fact, needs the other, the testimonial has to find ways of deconstructing it, since otherness in the third world is the most basic structure of colonial control. It is a construction by means of which the oppressed are kept "barbarian" and the colonizer securely defined as the bearer of civilization's burden. The operative existence of the other justifies a colonialist structure of domination.

Through autobiography of nostalgia like An American Childhood, I tried to define and establish the location from which the first world reader listens to the voice of Rigoberta Menchu. The reader I constructed is a reader very much like myself some ten years ago when I developed a theory of autobiography based on the self-writing of Thoreau, Wordsworth, and Proust -- all of them writing in the romantic tradition of an Annie Dillard and all of them members of a culture that already has a voice (Gunn, Autobiography). Although I raised questions about an autobiographical tradition that privileged the private and ahistorical self, it was not until I spent time in the third world that I began to see that another set of questions had to be raised about the "narrative space of familiarity" that my very choice of texts constructed (Kaplan). That space was first of all defined by the first world citizenship of my informants. To be sure, I ended my project with Black Elk, but even there I was reading his testimonial out of the location I had established by means of the others. It is that location I began to interrogate with the help of Menchu.

Were the reader to respond to Menchu from an unexamined mainstream location in the first world, she would, I think, be disturbed or simply incredulous at the suffering that fills Menchu's world and frustrated at how little she could do to alleviate that suffering. She might conclude much like Jane Tompkins did in her essay on American Indians: "The moral problem that confronts me now is not that I can never have any facts to go on, but that the work I do is not directed towards solving the kinds of problems that studying the Indians has awakened me to" (77). Such limits must be acknowledged in establishing an ethics of reading third world autobiography that gets us beyond a conventional ethics of altruism to an "ethics of survival."

An American Childhood epitomizes a nostalgic mode of self-representation. The following passage illustrates several of its main characteristics:

How much noticing could I permit myself without driving myself round the bend? Too much noticing and I was too self-conscious to live; I trapped and paralyzed myself, and I dragged my friends down with me, so that we couldn't meet each other's eyes, my own loud awareness damning us both. Too little noticing, though . . . and I would miss the whole show. I would awake on my deathbed and say, What was that? (155)

Replete with echoes from Thoreau's famous words about going to the woods to live deliberately, Dillard's passage underscores three features associated with a mainstream autobiographical tradition of the industrialized world. First of all, its "loud awareness" calls attention to a Cartesian singularity of consciousness. Second, the passage calls attention to an aesthetics within which individuation and style are coterminous. Third, Dillard's exact noticing combines with exact expression to situate the passage in a tradition which privileges inner selfness as both the spring of artistic activity and the starting-point of ontological reckoning. The world is significant to the extent that it enters and is ratified by one's consciousness: Dillard writes, ". . . things themselves possessed no fixed and intrinsic amount of interest; instead things were interesting as long as you had attention to give them" (79).

Nostalgic autobiography seems to hold out the promise that memory can achieve perfect rapport with the past. Dillard writes her autobiography to rescue the sensuous details of her childhood from what she calls a "cave of oblivion." She understands memory to be an empty space individually filled rather than a cultural activity practiced in and informed by an historical and ideological situation. In order to maintain a centered "I" by defining itself against the other, Dillard's autobiographical agenda has to remain fixed. In the sense that Menchu's testimonial "I" represents the communal and resistant "we," its agenda must remain open.

The comfortable Pittsburgh neighborhoods of Point Breeze and Squirrel Hill where Annie Dillard had her American childhood are worlds away from the inhospitable mountains and fincas of Guatemala where Menchu grew up. Even so, Dillard has her dangerous places: the "dark ways" of the Roman Catholic Sheehy family, the "greasy black soil" of Doc Hall's alley, the Frick Park bridges under which the bums had been living since the Great Depression, and, in the earliest memory of all, her own bedroom into whose corners a slithering, elongated "thing" would burst nightly to search her out. In the process of figuring the "thing" out as the lights of passing cars, young Annie was "forced" to what she calls "the very rim of |her~ being, to the membrane of skin that both separates and connects the inner life and the outer world" (21).

In the daily mapping of her world, it is important for Dillard to name those experiences of what might be called the other but at the same time to keep them on the outside of that membrane. Like the ice-skating figure of Jo Anne Sheehy whom she watches from the "peace and safety" of the Dillard house, they are experiences which take place on the outside of her skin's rim -- dark, dangerous, criminal, but also beautiful, mysterious, and "radiant." Dillard's child is careful to keep the membrane virginally unbroken, but she needs nonetheless to be taken to her "edge" with that combination of "desire and derision" which communicates the anxiety involved in the construction of otherness (Bhabha 19).

Not surprisingly, Menchu's autobiographical agenda is quite different. But in a world more literally dangerous, it is surprisingly more open. The telling of her story is a matter of cultural survival. In telling that story to Burgos-Debray, she makes it clear that she used the story of her own past as a strategy for organizing her people against landowners and the larger system of oppression whose interests they represented. "I had some political work to do, organizing the people there, and at the same time getting them to understand me by telling them about my past, what had happened to me in my life, the reasons for the pain we suffer, and the causes of poverty" (162).

In no way unique, Menchu's story is intended to elicit recognition and, in naming the suffering she shares with her people, to deliver them and herself from muteness. Such muteness is a product of oppression. As recently observed by a fellow-member of the Committee of Campesino Unity, "a person can be poor, dirt poor, but not even realize the depth of their poverty since it's all they know" (MacGregor 132). To take notice of the oppression and to give it a name is the first step beyond it. Noticing, it turns out, is an even more important activity in Menchu's culture of "silence" than it is in Dillard's culture, whose voice is secure. But it is a noticing of material conditions, not a noticing of noticing.

Menchu's testimonial is a story of resistance as well as a story of oppression. More precisely, her testimonial is itself an act of resistance. Solidarity growing out of resistance as much as membership in a community of the oppressed produces the circumstances of her identity. Menchu has to be reminded of these circumstances by a twelve-year-old when she is on the verge of hopelessness following the torture deaths of her brother and then her mother. "'A revolutionary isn't born out of something good,'" the young girl told her; "'|she~ is born out of wretchedness and bitterness.'" The twelve-year-old goes on to add something very foreign to an autobiographer of consciousness like Dillard: "We have to fight without measuring our suffering, or what we experience, or thinking about the monstrous things we must bear in life" (237). Menchu's testimonial is instead an autobiography of conscientization.(4)

Menchu leaves behind the communal rituals that have long anchored her and her people in order to enter resistance activity that keeps her on the run outside her own community. Far from mourning her loss, she opens herself to new and potentially conflicting strategies of survival, especially in learning Spanish and turning to the Bible. Spanish is the language of her enemy; those who learn it, as her father cautioned her, often leave the Indian community. The Bible had been used by many priests and nuns to keep her people "dormant while others took advantage of |their~ passivity" (122). Menchu, however, uses both, especially the Bible, as "weapons." Far from being "an unlikely, movie-set world" as it was for Dillard, the Bible became a document by means of which Menchu could understand her people's reality. Moses "gets pluralized and Christ turns into a political militant" (Sommer 123). Biblical stories allowed Menchu and her people to give yet another name to their oppression.

Instead of constructing a single map within whose boundaries a Dillard can hold safely onto a sense of individual identity, Menchu superimposes many "conflicting maps" in a collective and incorporative struggle for communal survival (Sommer 120). Yudice notes (in words that echo liberation theologian Enrique Dussel), "her oppression and that of her people have opened them to an unfixity delimited by the unboundedness of struggle" (229).

Dillard's autobiography set side-by-side with Menchu's testimonial raises a new set of issues that can move us in the direction of Yudice's "ethics of survival." A third world testimonial like Menchu's serves to destabilize the nostalgic structure of autobiography based on a loss and recovery ostensibly beyond the marketplace that gives force to those very terms. More important, it lays the ground for exposing otherness as that construction which keeps women, blacks, Jews, Palestinians, and Guatemalan Indians in their subordinate place.

In order that interpretation become transformative and reading of third world autobiography be ethical, we need to re-insert texts into political cultures and what Raymond Williams calls the "life of communities" (Said 82). The Pittsburgh of the Fricks and Carnegies is also the Pittsburgh of the unemployed steelworkers and the black slums. That the latter are outside Dillard's ken has everything to do with the fact that the former are not. Gerald Graff has recently reminded us that "what we don't see enables and limits what we do see" (47). He was offering a personal account of how his teaching of Heart of Darkness has changed as a result of confronting a very different reading of the text from the third world perspective of the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe. Simply out of sight from this or that location, huge chunks of the world are blocked out.

Dillard's memories of Pittsburgh block out the Polish and Slovak steelworkers and the Hill District ghetto except, in the case of the latter, as a place where boarding-school boys carouse. To acknowledge such unavoidable blocking is to open the way for examining the emancipatory potential of autobiographical practice in testimonials like I, Rigoberta Menchu. With that "wider optics," we might find a way of breaking through the membrane of critical isolation and solitude to an ethical criticism practiced "in solidarity with others struggling for survival" (Yudice 229).

Cornel West identifies as an Enlightenment legacy "the inability to believe in the capacities of oppressed people to create cultural products of value and oppositional groups of value" (17). In any ethical reading of third world autobiography, the racism inherent in this legacy must be exposed and rejected. George Yudice turns this legacy on its head when he concludes his essay "Marginality and the Ethics of Survival" by defining "ethical practice" as the "political art of seeking articulations among all the 'marginalized' and oppressed, in the interests of our own survival." "We need not speak for others," he says, "but we are responsible for a 'self-forming activity' that can in no way be ethical if we do not act against the 'disappearance' of oppressed subjects" (230-31).

Autobiography like I, Rigoberta Menchu calls on first world readers to take responsibility, not for the third world but for the locatedness and therefore the limitations of our own perspective. Acknowledging those limitations might contribute to the survival of us all. The ultimate window of opportunity is to stand with Menchu and, acknowledging the cost borne by the third world for our own selfhood, to affiliate at the borders between us.(5)

NOTES

1 I've discussed my move from West to East Jerusalem in "A Politics of Experience."

2 Among those policies, one would have to include the billions of dollars in foreign aid that the United States has given to Central American countries like Guatemala despite their human rights records. As U.S. citizens, we are thereby complicit in the story Menchu tells. That political fact is part of our location as readers of her story.

3 I am indebted to Professor Judith-Maria Buechler of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, with whom I hashed out many of my ideas.

4 "Conscientization" is a term used by Paulo Freire. In my use of it here, I am talking about an autobiographical process that takes place in and on the world and serves as an instrument of the world's transformation and not simply of the self's representation.

5 I am especially appreciative of Caren Kaplan's argument that as a matter of "staying alive," cultural autobiography (as "outlaw-genre") "works to construct both 'safe' places and the border areas of coalition politics where diversity operates in crisis conditions to forge powerful temporary alliances." Since the volume in which both of our essays appear was not yet published at the time of this writing, I am unable to supply page numbers.

WORKS CITED

Bhabha, Homi. "The Other Question." Screen 24.6 (1983): 18-35.

Dillard, Annie. An American Childhood. New York: Harper & Row, 1987.

Freire, Paulo. "Cultural Action and Conscientization." The Politics of Education: Culture, Power, and Liberation. Massachusetts: Bergin & Garvey, 1985.

Graff, Gerald. "Point of View." Chronicle of Higher Education 12 Feb. 1992: 47-48.

Gunn, Janet Varner. Autobiography: Toward a Poetics of Experience. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1982.

-----. "A Politics of Experience." Smith and Watson.

Kaplan, Caren. "Resisting Autobiography: Out-Law Genres and Transnational Feminist Subjects." Smith and Watson.

MacGregor, Eleanor. "Organizing in Guatemala." Z Magazine July/August 1990: 129-34.

Menchu, Rigoberta. I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala. Ed. and Intro. Elisabeth Burgos-Debray. Trans. Ann Wright. London: Verso, 1984.

Said, Edward. "Narrative, Geography, and Interpretation." New Left Monthly Mar. 1991: 81-97.

Smith, Sidonie, and Julia Watson, eds. De/Colonizing the Subject: The Politics of Gender in Autobiography. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1992.

Sommer, Doris. "'Not Just a Personal Story': Women's Testimonios and the Plural Self." Life/Lines: Theorizing Women's Autobiography. Ed. Bella Brodzki and Celeste Schenck. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1988.

Tompkins, Jane. "'Indians': Textualism, Morality, and the Problem of History." "Race," Writing and Difference. Ed. Henry L. Gates. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987.

West, Cornel. "Religion and the Left: An Introduction." Monthly Review 36.3 (1984): 9-19.

Yudice, George. "Marginality and the Ethics of Survival." Social Text 7.3 (1989): 214-36.

Former chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Gunn is writing a book on third world autobiography and completing a memoir about two years of work and study on the West Bank. She taught at Hobart and William Smith Colleges on her return to the United States and now lives in Pittsburgh. She is author of Autobiography: Toward a Poetics of Experience.
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Date:Oct 1, 1992
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