Text or Testimony?

November 14, 2011

Iris Nicolas giving her testimony at the Commissioner's Sharing Panel on Thursday, October 27th, 2011.


I’ve had a lot to think about since the Halifax national gathering. This is the third event I’ve attended and the mix of questions, emotions, and concerns that arise from them do not get less complicated as time moves forward.

At the moment, I am still struggling with some of the same issues I found at the other events in Winnipeg and Inuvik. In part this has to do with my own relation to the events. As a graduate student who is conducting research while attending these events, the ethical considerations of listening to testimony and observing the dynamics at the events are a constant challenge. Although most people attending these public events believe that there should be more awareness about what happened at the Indian Residential Schools, the ways in which this awareness should be raised is still controversial.

In particular, I am currently wondering how to write ethically about testimony. How can I write about the words of another without appropriating them for my own academic purposes? As I transcribe some of the recorded testimony, I wonder how these words on my computer screen can possibly encapsulate the emotions, thoughts, and spirit of the person sharing their experiences? When people are talking about abuse or extreme hardship, or about their triumphs over overwhelming difficulty, how is it possible to take these stories, put them on paper and then analyze them in relation to a theoretical framework that often shapes them into something altogether different? At the moment, I am letting these questions and concerns guide my writing.

A few quotes that I’m thinking with and through at the moment:

Lee Maracle (Sto:lo) in “Ka-Nata” in Bent Box:

“Academic theories/ are but the leaky summations/of human stories” (107).

Shoshana Felman in Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History.

“A life-testimony is not simply a testimony to a private life, but a point of conflation between text and life, a textual testimony which can penetrate us like an actual life” (2).

(Thanks to the Aesthetics of Reconciliation in Canada research group for the great discussion about the difficulties I mention above.)

3 Responses to “Text or Testimony?”

  1. Arie Says:

    Hey Naomi

    Have you come across the work of Veena Das? I’ve been reading her lately to try and make sense of some similar questions – there’s a very interesting article on trauma, testimony, and political community in Anthropological Theory 3(3) (2003), which also shows up in revised form in her ethnography Life and Words.

    Good to see you again the other day!
    Arie

  2. n.a. Says:

    Hi Arie,

    Thanks for suggesting Veena Das (and for commenting on the blog!). I’ve read some of her work but some time ago. I’ve been thinking recently that I need to do some more reading on these issues, so I really appreciate the suggestion!

    Great to see you the other day too. And if you have other suggestions, definitely let me know.
    Naomi


  3. […] written in the past about the challenges of writing about testimony, about how to write about the pain (or strength, anger and resilience) of others while trying to […]


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