The voices of others: Dave Eggers and new directions for testimony narrative and cosmopolitan literary collaboration

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Author: Brian Yost
Date: Jan. 2011
From: ARIEL(Vol. 42, Issue 1)
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 8,336 words

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Dave Eggers is probably best known for his ironic playfulness and his preoccupation with middle-class US adolescence, so his sincere treatment of genocide in Sudan in his novel, What is the What (2006), the product of his collaboration with Valentino Achak Deng, at first seems a somewhat surprising departure. The novel, although it marks a shift in Eggers's style of narration, retains his faith in the enduring significance of childhood. More significant is Eggers's intervention into the construction and function of literature and the relationship of literature to nationalist identities through the text's juxtaposition of exile across Africa and exile within the US. Of course, literature has always played an important role in the production of nationalisms, among other forms of communal and individual identity. Nor are narratives testifying to or documenting human suffering something new. Even the collaborative process Eggers employs has precedence in the testimonio-documents created by Western academics and Central American political activists record the injustice underlying revolutions in Central America. What makes What is the What innovative is the playful flexibility Eggers applies to the boundaries of genre and authorship and the space his experimentation with novel, biography, and testimony creates for cosmopolitan collaboration between writers, readers, and speakers of wildly different racial, social, and political status. (1)

What is the What, although marketed as a novel and titled an autobiography, more closely resembles a testimony narrative. Testimony narratives are collaborative acts involving a speaker who has witnessed injustice and violence and an academic or other professional writer in order to raise awareness in US or European readers. (2) Their mediated presentation of injustice demand further action on the part of a reading audience otherwise far removed from conflict by boundaries of nationality, race, class, and gender by merit of the events described and the global inequality implied by the need for its speaker to seek mediation. Most critics theorize the genre as limited to Central American political struggles to the exclusion of narratives produced in other parts of the world. (3) However, because political struggles are global and ongoing, and because collaborative narratives continue to emerge from them, the testimonial genre has the potential to fulfill a critical need in the development of a cosmopolitan society, with its explicit appeals for supranational human rights advocacy and transnational, micropolitical humanitarian action. Reconfiguring the testimony genre, and literature more broadly, as an ethically motivated cosmopolitan engagement with difference attributes to literature a materially productive function and expands its relevance beyond the constraints of any specific territorial or national boundary. Eggers's use of testimonial narrative is a powerful example of this potential for literature to engage in cosmopolitan activism.

To argue this point, I describe the generic qualities of and objections to testimonial narratives. I examine the grounds for charges against the testimony genre via an analysis of Elizabeth Burgos-Debray's construction of I Rigoberta Menchu. Burgos-Debray uses her text to argue that her text understands Menchti and that this understanding enables Western readers to empathize with the suffering...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A265574611