Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Introduction for Yvette Christiansë's Reading from Unconfessed

Cover ImageI'm off on a trip with C, so I thought I'd post something I'd prepared not too long ago. These are the remarks I delivered when I introduced poet, fiction writer and scholar Yvette Christiansë, who came to campus to read from her new and superb novel, Unconfessed. The remarks, which are still in a fairly rough state, hardly do justice to this remarkable woman or novel, nor do they reflect even in the slightest the stunning performance--because that's what it was--Christiansë delivered as her reading. It's not an easy book, but one that I strongly recommend exploring.


Yvette Christiansë's Unconfessed

Writing fiction entails the creation and transformation of reality; this is a commonplace that we all acknowledge. Yet this aspect of fiction takes on particular resonance, I think, when the reality under question has been hidden or buried, forgotten or omitted, erased, as it were, from the ledgers of history. In our own society and in societies around the world, we can attest to the power that this literary genre can play and has played in illuminating the dark spaces and corridors not only of our present—and of our possible future—but also of our past. I am not talking about historical fiction, per se, but about fiction that engages in a conversation, an argument, a struggle, with history and the historical, especially when that history has not entered the records, official or otherwise; when it exists at the margins of what a society understands and accepts—passes on as—its history, its past, its stories. This engagement and struggle are what Yvette Christiansë has undertaken so effectively and remarkably in her début novel, Unconfessed, which we are going to hear her read from today.

One may assert in response that historical study and historiography have this engagement as their chief task; so what is fiction's role? The historian John H. Arnold, in his concise little book History: A Very Short Introduction, offers one response: in his introductory chapter, he contrasts two different versions of Sojourner Truth's famous 1851 address to the Ohio Woman's Rights Convention to suggest that in fact what we have in both cases are representations, versions of Truth's address, that bring us no closer to her interiority, her mentalité, as he calls it, or the inner lives of other African Americans, enslaved and free, of that era. History, being a possible instrument and technology of truth-telling, is like truth itself complex and difficult, and we could assert that no historical account could fully provide this missing aspect of (Sojourner) Truth's story and her or any historical moment. But this historian suggests, however, ironically enough, that a fictional account might show us the way: it might get us closer to a truth whose material grasp, always elusive, as Walter Benjamin suggests, might nevertheless profoundly shape our present and future actions. Arnold ends by quoting the fiction writer Tim O'Brien, who writes: "But this is true too: stories can save us." Fiction, and fiction that engages in a struggle with history, can thus ultimately be viewed as cultural product functioning as a weapon of struggle, but it is a necessary weapon and a necessary struggle—a struggle Yvette Christiansë has undertaken in Unconfessed.

This idea has met with resistance, though. To give one example, South African Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer, in her essay "Three in a Bed: Fiction, Morals, and Politics," challenges the position arguing that in contemporary South Africa—or we might say, more broadly, as she suggests, in any situation marked by the concept of the "post-" (post-Apartheid, in her case)—that writers refrain if even temporarily from the notion of "culture [as] a weapon of struggle": "There are some writers who have been—I adapt Seamus Heaney's definition to my own context—'guerillas of the imagination': in their fiction serving the struggle for freedom by refusing any imposed orthodoxy of subject and treatment, but attempting to take unfettered creative grasp of the complex 'state of things' in which, all through people's lives, directly and indirectly, in dark places and neon light, that struggle has taken place."

In her new novel, Unconfessed, Yvette Christiansë serves as a guerilla of the imagination. Based on actual court records, Unconfessed tells the fictionalized account of Sila van den Kaap, a 19th century African slave woman living in the Cape Colony of South Africa, who was sentenced to death in April 1823 by the Dutch for the murder of her own child. But because it is a time of political upheaval in the country, Sila is sent to spend a lifetime at Robben Island, the prison where Nelson Mandela and numerous other opponents a century later of the apartheid government were held, instead. Through the vivid and complex unfolding Sila’s voice the reader is introduced to the often painful and unforgettable portrait of this enslaved woman’s life, her subjectivity, and her humanity in the South African hinterlands of the early 19th century.

Yvette Christiansë, a guerilla of the imagination, is a poet and fiction writer, and an associate professor at Fordham University, where she teach African American literature and postcolonial studies. She was reared in South Africa under apartheid and emigrated to Australia via Swaziland with her parents, and then on to the United States. She is the author of the poetry collection Castaways, and the novel Unconfessed. Through her academic articles on the present-day repercussions of apartheid, she remains an active observer and commentator upon South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation project.

It is with both honor and delight that we welcome Yvette Christiansë back to our campus!

Copyright © John Keene, 2007.

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