Los desmaravilladores


los-desmaravilladores-elsa-bornemannOkay, so back to thinking about desaparecidos en literatura para jovenes. Another book that touches on the theme is Los desmaravilladores (10 cuentos de amor, humor y terror), by Elsa Bornemann. The final story (Los desmaravilladores, from which the book takes its name) addresses the problem of discovering that your adoptive parents have (in this case unwittingly) adopted you after your biological parents were disappeared.

The story is framed as a short story being submitted under a pseudonym to a historical story competition run by the Academia Nacional de Historia de la Republica de Sudaquia. This short story itself is framed by the book of short stories in which it is published and to which it gives its title. This frame seems full of meta-narrative! But the story itself is fairly straight forward.

(Question: Is setting this story in the Republic of Sudaquia like re-claiming an insult – like has been done more classically with the terms nigger or gay? There is a publishing house by the same name: http://sudaquia.net/ and a blog http://weblogs.clarin.com/sudaquia/ but this is new to me and as far as I can tell it comes from an insult that has been reclaimed (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_profanity#Racial_and_ethnic_derogatives) …I don’t know!)

NB One site describes the book: “Un libro de cuentos que habla de los primeros encuentros con el terror. Cuentos que además recrean leyendas populares o acontecimientos reales, con la valentía de quien sabe que para los chicos no existen temas difíciles. Sólo se trata de saber contarlos.”  http://www.librosalfaguarainfantil.com/ar/libro/los-desmaravilladores-1/

la memoria de los seres perdidosThe story did also put me in mind of La memoria de los seres perdidos by Jordi Sierra i Fabra, though the two approach the theme quite differently.



The myth of the Highlands


I’m just a bit interested in representations of the Highlands of Scotland at the moment… In 1989, Peter Womack wrote:

“We know that the Highlands of Scotland are romantic. Bens and glens, the lone shieling in the misty island, purple heather, kilted clansmen, battles long ago, an ancient and beautiful language, claymores and bagpipes and Bonny Prince Charlie – we know all that, and we also know that it’s not real. Not that it’s a pure fabrication: on the contrary, all the things on that rough-and-ready list actually exist, or existed. But the romance is not simply the aggregate of the things; it is a message which the things carry.

“Around 1730, an English gentleman called Edward Burt described the mountains near Inverness: they were, he observed, ‘of a dismal gloomy Brown, drawing upon a dirty Purple; and most of all disagreeable, when the Heath is in Bloom’. Here, preserved by chance, is one of the things without the message. Burt doesn’t know what heather ‘means’; for him, the plant is innocent of romance. This is because when he was looking at it, the romance had not yet been invented.

It is not a question of personal taste. Burt thought the heather-covered mountains ugly, but he might have liked them; most people nowadays find them beautiful, but it’s perfectly possible for a modern individual to dislike them. What it is not possible to do today, whatever our personal tastes, is to see the heather he saw. Trying to see that neutral, unappropriated flower would be like trying to see, say, a swastika as nothing but an abstract design. For us, the moment when we set eyes on a heather-covered Highland hillside, and see what it is, is also the moment when we register the presence of the Highland romance. Thus, while Burt’s observation is an exemplary demonstration that the things and the romance are separable in principle, it is equally a reminder that they are inextricable in practice. The highlands are no longer just a place where people and animals and plants live; they have been colonised by the empire of signs; they are what Roland Barthes called a myth: that is, an object which is signified within an ordinary linguistic sign, but at the same time serves as the signifier within a secondary sign, having been, so to speak, pressed into the service of a concept. The concept, the mythic signified, is vague: as Barthes also notes, ‘the knowledge  contained in a mythical concept is confused, made of yielding, shapeless associations… Not at all an abstract, purified essence [but] a formless, unstable, nebulous condensation’. It would be right to say that Highland heather signifies Scottishness, wild freedom, naturalness, antique valour. But that is talking loosely; it is not the point of myth that it should specify denotations in that way; this is not a question of symbolism. Rather, the heather (together with the other Highland differentiae) is made the instrument of an intention, saturated with ideological imperatives which, by merging themselves with it’s incontestably organic fibres, win for themselves the opaque and self-evident charm of a natural contingency. The concept, no longer recognisable as such, is just there, for all to see. Botanically, no doubt, calluna vulgaris is exactly as it was in the 1730s. Semiotically, it has been irrevocably hybridised.” (Pp1-2)

“…the Highlands are romantic because they have been romanticised.” (P2)

Womack Writes that this “began , fairly decisively, with the military defeat of the Jacobite clans in 1746, and can be regarded as complete by 1810-11, when a flurry of publications, including most notably Scott’s The Lady of the Lake, both depended on and confirmed a settled cultural construction of the Highlands as a ‘romantic country’ inhabited by a people whose ancient manners and customs were ‘peculiarly adapted to poetry’. Although I have strayed across both these chronological boundaries in pursuit of particular motifs and developments, the 65 years between them are the essential epoch in which the story is set.” (P2)

“During this period, the dominant theme in British discourse concerning the Highlands was Improvement.” (P2)

“The ‘Improvement’ of the Highlands… signified (a) that the region was to yield a better return on capital; (b) that it was to become, very generally, a better place; and (c) that (a) and (b) were substantially identical.

“This was evidently a project fraught  with contradictions both internal and external; and it was out of its contradictions that the Highland myth was generated. At every stage of its elaboration, the code of Improvement gave rise to discordant tones, dysfunctional ideological traces which it was obliged to elide or exclude: these, precisely because of the hegemonic unity of Improvement itself, formed a coherent counter-image to it, matching it’s powerful but limited rationale with a utopian but impotent irrationalism, mirroring its economist in a quixotic denial of self-interest, haunting its progressivism with a voluptuous love of the past. These oppositions can occasionally make the romance look like a counter-ideological formation, but as their symmetry suggests, the conflict is illusory. Rather, it is the ideological function of the romance that it removes the contradictory elements from the scope of material life altogether; that it marks out a kind of reservation in which the values which Improvement provokes and suppresses can be contained – that is, preserved, but also imprisoned. I began by pointing out that the romantic Highlands are not real; this is not an incidental drawback; not to be real is what they are for. Officially, Romance and Improvement were opposites: native and imported, past and present, tradition and innovation. But in reality they were twins. The story of Highland romanticisation is essentially the story of that covert complementarity.” (P3)

Ref: Peter Womack (1989) Improvement and romance: constructing the myth of the highlands. Macmillan: London

History as fiction and truth


The following words are from the prologue to Andersen’s Dossier Secreto:

“This book – like the work of those who documented the Holocaust is meant to ensure that the fictionalized account left by the military as their official record of events in the 1970s and 1980s will not be allowed, sometime in the future, to replace fact.” (p.6)

The texts narrating Argentina’s history of violence are interesting to me; with regards to ‘truth’/fiction; with regards to history and historicism; representations of violence; among other things…

Ref: Martin Edwin Andersen (1993) Dossier Secreto; Argentina’s Desaparecidos and the Myth of the ‘Dirty War’ Boulder: Westview Press

Routledge / Taylor and Francis – free articles: Shakespeare, Women’s Lit, Life Writing…


Taylor and Francis just sent out an email notifying us of some of the free article collections they have put together (on literary studies in a general sense, Shakespeare, Women’s lit, Life writing etc.) – pretty cool. They connect us to documents which organize these articles for consideration:





Mimesis and the reliability of ethnic literature


 “Mimesis is unreliable because “the production of discourse which. . . fully adequate[s] the real” (MacCabe 8) depends on an ideological understanding of the relationship between linguistic and natural reality. Such adequacy is ideological to the extent that it “confuse[s]. . . reference with phenomenalism” (De Man, Resistance 11). Nowhere is this confusion more obvious than when “ethnic” literature is “use[d]. . . entirely for lessons outside of literature” (Tan in Stanton 7). The ideological implications of assuming that “ethnic” literature references reliably are discussed by Melanie McAlister: “what is reinforced is a simplistic and condescending attitude toward ‘ethnic art,’ one that requires that representations of, and by, ‘the Other’ be contained and presented as information, rather than as any challenge to the aesthetic of the mainstream” (106).” (18)

Ref: Bella Adams (2003) ‘Representing History in Amy Tan’s “The Kitchen God’s Wife“‘ MELUS, Vol. 28, No. 2, Haunted by History (Summer, 2003), pp. 9-30Published by:The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States (MELUS)

Representing History – the Rape of Nanking and The Kitchen God’s Wife


In her analysis of the Amy Tan’s interaction with history in her novel, The Kitchen God’s Wife, Bella Adams wrote:

“”Historical literature” is often understood according to binary logic, with critics tending to privilege either phenomenalism or theoreticism. A phenomenalist approach assumes that historical literature is a reliable source of information about past experiences, and a theoretical approach argues that “‘events’ are never not discursively constituted and that the language of historiography is always also language” (Spivak, In Other Worlds 242). In short, historical literature is generally understood as either phenomenal fact or theoretical fiction. When imagined simply in terms of a binary opposition, both approaches are beset by limitations. It is the task of this discussion to examine these limitations via a reading of Amy Tan’s The Kitchen God’s Wife, specifically the section narrated by Jiang Weili, otherwise known as Winnie Louie. This novel is valuable because in representing a particular period of Chinese history, namely Japan’s occupation of China during the 1930s and the 1940s as well as the Rape of Nanking (1937), it promotes an analysis that resists two equally conservative, if not downright oppressive, ideologies: neocolonialism and Japanese revisionism. These ideologies exploit phenomenalism and theoreticism respectively, allowing neocolonialists to factualize literature and Japanese ultranationalists to fictionalize history.

The Kitchen God’s Wife negotiates between these two extremes in terms compatible with deconstruction by generating a debate about the difficulty of referencing past experiences a la phenomenalism. This difficulty urgently needs addressing in the wake of [-p10] holocaust denial if the historical record is to be set straight about what happened during the Sino-Japanese War. It is important to note that “difficulty” does not mean the end of history; rather, it necessitates a theoretical inquiry into the concept of history. Such an inquiry about how history is constructed, both ideologically and linguistically, makes possible a radical critique of Japan’s claim that the Rape of Nanking never happened. Iris Chang argues that this claim effectively perpetrates “A Second Rape” (199). Whether rape is a phenomenal fact or a theoretical fiction, it functions oppressively in both instances. The Kitchen God’s Wife responds to rape in this second sense inasmuch as it affords insights about “the [ideological] forces of history and the [linguistic] process by which history is made” (Chang 200). At no point in Tan’s novel is doubt cast on the phenomenality of the (first) Rape of Nanking. Arguably, The Kitchen God’s Wife addresses the fictionalization of rape to affect radically historical understanding of the factual rape, which in turn ensures that both events are brought into history.

Moreover, an attention to language, particularly the literary or the rhetorical dimension of language, enables a radical critique of neocolonialism, which (mis)uses “ethnic” literature by valuing it merely for its capacity to teach dominant groups about “the really important things in life Roots, Culture, Tradition, History, War, Human Evil” (Wong 200). An emphasis on language resists the neocolonialist effort to displace the literary dimension of The Kitchen God’s Wife.” (pp9-10)

That “fiction is also historical” and that “history is also fictive” (Spivak, In Other Worlds 244) enables The Kitchen God’s Wife to disable misrepresentations of Chinese history in terms that safeguard a future for debate on history, literature, and historical literature. This debate, along with this particular discussion of Tan’s novel, depends for its future on resisting the binary logic of either phenomenalism or theoreticism.

A phenomenalist response to The Kitchen God’s Wife understands it as representing a particular period in world history, most notably Japan’s illegal occupation of China during the 1930s and the 1940s. More specifically, Tan’s novel charts the movement of the Japanese military from Shanghai to Nanking, along with its bombing raids on so-called “safe place[s] . . . almost to the edge of China” (277). China’s transformation from dynasty to republic(s) is also discussed, as are the internal conflicts that both preceded and succeeded the Sino-Japanese War: “The old revolutionaries, the new revolutionaries, the Kuomintang and the Communists, the warlords, the bandits, and the students-gwah! gwah! gwah!- everybody squabbling, like old roosters claiming the same sunrise” [-p12] (205). The Kitchen God’s Wife lends itself to “information retrieval” (Spivak, Postcolonial 9) inasmuch as it represents an unknown, if not a forgotten, history, which includes the Rape of Nanking by the Japanese:

‘Raped old women, married women, and little girls, taking turns with them, over and over again. Sliced them open with a sword when they were all used up. Cut off their fingers to take their rings. Shot all the little sons, no more generations. Raped ten thousand, chopped down twenty or thirty thousand, a number that is no longer a number, no longer people.’ (295)

As atrocious as this account is, it is conservative about what happened in China’s capital city. Indeed, it is estimated that “more than 260,000 noncombatants died at the hands of Japanese soldiers, . . . though some experts have placed the figure at well over 350,000.” The fact that this occurred in less than two months confirms that “the Rape of Nanking represents one of the worst instances of mass extermination” (Chang 4, 5).

Along with advancing historical knowledge about the Sino-Japanese War, The Kitchen God’s Wife is valuable on an ethicopolitical front. Indeed, the representation of the Rape of Nanking in literature potentially represents the 300,000 dead Chinese civilians. Extermination, together with exclusion from history by Japanese ultranationalists, ensures that these Chinese “cannot represent themselves; they must be represented” (Spivak, “Subaltern” 276-77). Arguably, The Kitchen God’s Wife takes up this ethicopolitical task in defiance of Japan’s claim that the Rape of Nanking never happened.” (pp11-12)

Adams goes on to discuss her take on the brevity of Tan’s depiction of the Rape of Nanking, arguing that the brevity both resists literary (and potentially spectacular) representation of such atrocity – and also asserting: “That the Rape of Nanking represents one moment in years of widespread hostilities towards the Chinese perhaps explains why The Kitchen God’s Wife resists singularity regarding the Sino-Japanese War. Spatial and temporal boundaries are also exceeded during this war mainly because it does not confine itself to a frontline in accordance with “norms” of warfare.”

The rape of a city and a woman

Adams responds to (an apparently on-going) discussion about ‘the conflation of the rape of a city and the rape of a woman’ in The Kitchen God’s Wife, writing: “The Kitchen God’s Wife represents both the Rape of Nanking and the rape of Weili, drawing attention to the similarities between the Japanese military and a Chinese husband.” (16)

For critic Sau-ling Cynthia Wong, Adams explains, “Chinese history is marginalized in The Kitchen God’s Wife because it is used as “a foil for personal dramas” (200).” (16) Adams acknowledges that “…the conflation of the rape of a city and the rape of a woman is problematic to the extent that the latter potentially detracts from the former, which is Wong’s concern. Subjectivity in relation to history raises the question of reliability,” she continues. “Aside from the fact that individuals died, the bringing together of the suffering generated by Japanese imperialism and by Chinese patriarchy is rhetorically effective. As Caesar notes, Weili’s personal experience conveys “a sense of the type of suffering that Tan suggests only metaphorically or seemingly incidentally-the Nanjing massacre, for instance” (169). Caesar also recognizes that representing the individual in history follows a current trend in American narrative: “personal emotional crisis. . . is the only suffering interesting enough to write about” (169). Although offering a powerful critique of imperialist and patriarchal ideologies, The Kitchen [-p17] God’s Wife apparently legitimates the ideology of western liberal humanism.

Once again, Tan’s novel demands further analysis because it makes possible a critical negotiation of this ideology insofar as the individual (western liberal humanism’s principal figure) is assumed reliable regarding historical events only in terms of a rhetorical effect. Weili’s Chinese identity, together with the fact that she is an American, Winnie Louie, potentially works to her advantage. Indeed, the (liberal) West’s preoccupation with imparting individuality to the “native” empowers Weili to speak, albeit as “the Chinese woman.” Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak remarks on her own experience of this native populism, an experience that can also be extended to Weili: “A hundred years ago it was impossible for me to speak, for the precise reason that makes it only too possible for me to speak in certain circles now” (Postcolonial 60). That the oppressed are considered epistemically advantaged regarding the condition of oppression adds weight to Weili’s account of things: “Of course it’s a true story” (201). These narrative conventions are seductive in their affect, convincing Tan’s readers about the reliability of Weili’s historical representation. Commenting on this type of effect, Spivak observes that “the narrative takes on its own impetus as it were, so that one begins to see reality as non-narrated. One begins to say that it’s not a narrative, it’s the way things are” (Postcolonial 19).” (pp16-17)

Adams asserts that “…past experiences depend on linguistic structures to bring them into history. Nowhere is this more obvious than with the Rape of Nanking. For example, The Kitchen God’s Wife helps to ensure that this event does not “sink unremembered into history’s dark abyss” (Chan 21). Chang’s The Rape of Nanking does something similar in history. Without these kinds of representations of the Sino-Japanese War, there would be no understanding of Chinese history. However, it is also the case that the rendering of past experiences into language ensures that what happened is sunk or, indeed, raped in the sense that it is necessarily compromised by forgetting, by remembering, and by representation. In the words of Weili: “You are not choosing one thing over another. You are choosing what you want. And you are also choosing what somebody else does not want, and all the consequences that follow” (458). This vigilance about the limitations of representation in relation to the choices that The Kitchen God’s Wife unavoidably makes about the rape of a Chinese city and the rape of a Chinese woman helps to ensure that its articulation of these experiences does not bring history to a close. In addition, representation has consequences, consequences that “do not wash the trouble away” (459) because it entails the harmful marginalization of other experiences in all their heterogeneity.” (27)

Ref: Bella Adams (2003) ‘Representing History in Amy Tan’s “The Kitchen God’s Wife“‘ MELUS, Vol. 28, No. 2, Haunted by History (Summer, 2003), pp. 9-30Published by:The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States (MELUS)