Cypress Mountain, British Columbia

After a lovely couple of weeks off from research, it’s back to my desk and its stacks of books. Thankfully, I feel refreshed from a trip to the west coast (see pic above and previous post). The stacks of books, which looked daunting before the break, look slightly more welcoming now.

One of the skills that any good graduate student has to master is the art of simultaneous reading. It is not uncommon to be in the middle of several books at a time. Full disclosure – I have not mastered this art. I often have several open books on my desk, waiting for me to pick them up again. And although I am generally better when I focus on one book at a time, I can appreciate those moments when a phrase or paragraph from one book seems to speak to another in some unexpected way, or when an author picks up the thread of another to push an argument a crucial step further. And even when the authors are working with different ideas or themes, research is the most fun when you can figure out a way to put them into conversation with each other.

Arranged around the themes of visual culture, archival imagery and desire, here are a few snippets of conversation that I hope to engage as my research moves forward:

W.J.T. Mitchell’s What Do Pictures Want?:

What pictures want, then, is not to be interpreted, decoded, worshipped, smashed, exposed, or demystified by their beholders, or to enthrall their beholders. They may not even want to be granted subjectivity or personhood by well-meaning commentators who think that humanness is the greatest compliment they could pay to pictures. The desires of pictures may be inhuman or nonhuman, better modeled by figures of animals, machines, or cyborgs, or by even more basic images – what Erasmus Darwin called ‘the loves of plants.’ What pictures want in the last instance, then, is simply to be asked what they want, with the understanding that the answer may well be, nothing at all (48).

Julia Emberley’s Defamiliarizing the Aboriginal:

The colonial photographic archive, for example, constituted a key technology of representation that coincided with the epistemic violence of eugenics and miscegenation, forced sterilizations and hysterectomies, and, especially, the coercive use of domestic violence and wife battering, rape, and the sexual assault of indigenous male and female children in the residential schools (14).

Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History:

“Silences enter the process of historical production at four crucial moments: the moment of fact creation (the making of sources); the moment of fact assembly (the making of archives); the moment of fact retrieval (the making of narratives); and the moment of retrospective significance (the making of history in the final instance).

These moments are conceptual tools, second-level abstractions of processes that feed on each other. As such, they are not meant to provide a realistic description of the making of any individual narrative. Rather, hey help us understand why not all silences are equal and why they cannot be addressed – or redressed – in the same manner. To put it differently, any historical narrative is a particular bundle of silences, the result of a unique process, and the operation required to deconstruct these silences will vary accordingly (27).

Still figuring out how the above work together, but it’s coming together. Slowly but surely.

Hope everyone had a happy new year.

My last few months have been spent reading and searching through archival documents and images. As I have posted in the past, I am constantly in awe of the materials that can be found there, documents that are both revealing and limited. I’ve also had some wonderful conversations with the archivists I have met (in Vancouver, Toronto and Ottawa) and it’s been a pleasure to discuss some of the complexities involved in doing this research. Over the last few months, I have also been reading (and re-reading) sections of Ann Stoler’s book, Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense, which has provided an additional perspective on reading not only the documents contained within the archive, but on the archive itself.

I’ve found that my approach to archival research follows what Stoler identifies as “archiving-as-process rather than archives-as-things” (20). She stresses the need to read both along and against the grain of the archive, that is, to understand the conditions in which these archives were created and cultivated, and the conditions in which they are read now. Archives are not simply produced; they are productive. Because archives are charged sites of both knowledge and anxiety, they must be read as sites of contestation and resignification.[1]

These reflections have also led me to recognize that  truth commissions themselves are often about the production of an archive. For example, Verne Harris, Deputy-Director of the National Archive of South Africa during the South African TRC saw the reconciliation process as  “profoundly, an archival intervention.”[2] As the South African TRC gathered testimonies, “it was engaging archive, rescuing archive, creating archive, refiguring archive.”[3] I am curious to see how the archive (as both process and thing) plays a role as the Canadian TRC moves forward.


[1] See the collected essays in Lucy R Lippard’s Partial Recall: Photographs of Native North Americans for one example where indigenous people have done re-readings and resignfied archival images.)

[2] Krog, Antjie. There Was This Goat: Investigating the Truth Commission Testimony of Notrose Nobomvu Konile. University of Kwazulu Natal Press, 2009, p. 65

[3] ibid, p. 65.

On July 30, 2010, the Calgary Herald published a short article entitled “Residential Schools Generate Anger But Also Pride,” written by Lea Meadows. It told the story of Meadows’ parents, Harry Meadows and Elsie McLaren Meadows who worked as teachers at Indian Residential Schools in Manitoba. Elsie was also a student at an Indian Residential School and it was her positive experience there that inspired her to become a teacher.  Meadows writes against painting everyone who worked at the schools as an abuser. She also notes that the word “survivor” may not be the best or most suitable term for all former students. She writes:

I do not deny there were people in those schools who greatly harmed students. We all must speak out against such abuse. But to label the schools themselves and all who worked there as evil, and to describe everyone who attended a school as a “survivor” is facile — and it dishonours those who were truly abused and did have something horrific to survive.

I have wondered about the way IRS history will be told. Undoubtedly, it is a complicated history, and trying to create one cohesive narrative may disallow for this complexity to come through. In addition, I think Meadows brings up an interesting point about the term “survivors.” It is a term that is commonly used for former students, but I wonder if everyone identifies this way. And I wonder too if its association with other historical traumas empowers or disempowers its use.

In an article entitled, “Many Threads are Woven Into the Fabric of Truth,” published on August 5, 2010, Justice Murray Sinclair responded to Meadows’ piece. He wrote:

We are grateful for people such as Meadows, who speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. Their memories and contribution to history will be preserved. The input of former staff is of tremendous value because their number is declining. Each story lost to us represents an experience that will be missing from the public record, diminishing our ability to reflect the reality of the schools and assess their ongoing impact. While the TRC has heard many experiences of unspeakable abuse, we have been heartened by testimonies which affirm the dedication and compassion of committed educators who sought to nurture the children in their care. These experiences must also be heard.

I’m glad to see that this dialogue is happening in public and that the Commission is welcoming differing viewpoints and memories to come forward.

Recently, I’ve been reading about the role that indigenous literature can play in the process of reconciliation in Canada. I’m currently finishing Jo-Ann Episkenew’s Taking Back Our Spirits: Indigenous Literature, Public Policy, and Healing where she explores the work of Aboriginal authors including Basil Johnston, Maria Campbell and Beatrice Culleton Mosionier. But this post will focus on a short story from the collection, Our Story: Aboriginal Voices on Canada’s Past (published in 2005).

Although the book is filled with excellent writing, the narrative that I found most striking was Thomas King’s piece entitled “Coyote and the Enemy Aliens.” Here, King tells a tale of a coyote who becomes involved in rounding up “enemy aliens.” The story is set during the internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II.  As the definition of enemy alien changes in the story, King illustrates the fickle nature of dividing people into categories of “us” and “them.”

I have been curious for some time about how the process of redress for historical injustices in Canada has taken shape. In particular, the demand for an apology and reparation for Japanese Canadians interned during the second world war is one that I have followed closely. And I have often wondered how to relate these two experiences (of Japanese Canadians and Aboriginal peoples) to each other without erasing the important differences. Thomas King’s work in his short story is impressive in this regard. He uses the familiar character of the trickster coyote to tie the two historical narratives together. In his foreword to the story, he explains his intentions:

“I know the story of the Japanese internment in Canada. I know it as most Canadians know it.

In pieces.

From a distance.

But whenever I hear the story, I think about Indians, for the treatment the Canadian government afforded Japanese people during the Second World War is strikingly similar to the treatment that the Canadian government has always afforded Native people, and whenever I hear either of these stories, a strange thing happens.

I think of the other.

I’m not suggesting that Native people have suffered the way the Japanese suffered or that the Japanese suffered the way Native people have. I’m simply suggesting that hatred and greed produce much the same sort of results, no matter who we practice on” (158).

King’s story captured my imagination. Not only because it is a well-told tale, but because it opens up a way of creating a particular type of Canadian narrative, one that incorporates many voices while maintaining ties to an indigenous mode of story-telling. It also works to close a gap between seemingly disparate histories, drawing attention to similarities rather than differences. I recommend the book in general, and this story in particular.

I’ve just returned to New York from North Bay, Ontario where I attended Nipissing University’s conference on Truth, Reconciliation and the Residential Schools. The organizers put together a great program that involved both the academic community and the Nipissing First Nations community. I presented a short paper entitled: The Limits of Testimony: Contextualizing Truth and Reconciliation in Canada.

Because the IRS TRC is still in its early stages, the paper focused on a comparative analysis. In particular, I focused on one specific, puzzling testimony, given to the South African TRC in 1996 by Mrs. Konile, whose son was killed by apartheid security forces in 1986. A recent book has been published about this testimony, co-authored by Antjie Krog (an Afrikaner poet and journalist), Nosisi Mpolweni (Xhosa lecturer and linguist) and Kopano Ratele (psychologist).  The book is entitled There Was This Goat: Investigating the Truth Commission Testimony of Notrose Nobomvu Konile and the authors spend the bulk of the book discussing one particular testimony, given by Mrs. Konile. This testimony was difficult to understand for many reasons – it did not follow a linear trajectory, it mixed her dream life with her waking life, and made reference to cultural and traditional symbols that would have been difficult for outsiders of her culture to understand. Add to that that her testimony was translated from Xhosa to English and transcribed, and one begins to understand how difficult it may be to comprehend one not-so-simple testimony.  The authors of There Was This Goat, which is a line from Mrs. Konile’s testimony, embark on a journey of understanding as they imagine conversations about this testimony and begin to discuss with Mrs. Konile her experience of losing her son, with the truth commission and its aftermath. In one section of the text, where the authors imagine a conversation between two black South Africans, one says to the other:

To fully understand our words you have to understand a whole history of fear, hiding, running, evading, and still trying to maintain a sense of dignity and a life worth something. To truly hear Mrs. Konile’s truth, and the truth of most of the black people who testified at the Truth Commission hearings, you have to work hard to understand it, you have to gain our trust. It’s not going to be given to you just like that, because you may turn and use it against us, as happened many, many times under apartheid (32).

By looking at Mrs. Konile’s testimony and the work of Krog, Mpolweni, and Ratele, my paper explored how testimony is something that must be actively engaged and understood within a much larger historical and cultural context. (I posted a few weeks ago about another of Antjie Krog’s books, Country of My Skull, and There Was This Goat is another excellent, engaging read about the politics of truth commissions.)

Thanks to the organizers and the Nipissing First Nations, who were so generous with sharing their experiences.

While I was preparing for my specialization exams last summer, I read a ton of books. For the two exams, I had about 100 books to read in a very short period of time. I got good at skimming the material and pulling out relevant quotes, but because of the pressure to read quickly, I lost out on some of the nuances and beauty of the texts. Luckily, I recently had the chance to re-read one of these books and found that without the looming exam, I was able to appreciate the text much more.

In Country of My Skull: Guilt, Sorrow and the Limits of Forgiveness in the New South Africa, journalist Antjie Krog tells the story of the South African truth commission. It is a highly personal reflection on the process of national reconciliation after the fall of apartheid. When I first read it, I was looking for two sorts of information: 1) What were the basic facts of the commission? Who were the commissioners? Who testified? What was the public response? And 2) What were some of the theoretical issues with which the commission wrestled? How did it conceptualize truth? How did the concept of reconciliation change during the process? What did it mean to different sets of people within the country?

But on my second reading, I was able to focus far more on Krog’s personal experience of the commission and her struggle as a white Afrikaner dealing with the conflicting emotions of guilt, shame, pride, love and hope. It is a beautifully written, complex story that blends personal narrative with historical context and social commentary.

As I continue to follow the TRC in Canada, I wonder: How does one tell the story of a truth commission?With all its complexities and contestations, how does one weave together some sort of narrative that can speak to its inherent contradictions? Antjie Krog shows us that a layered text produced through a mixture of prose, poetry and journalism may be the answer.

A short piece on Canada’s colonial history, and Prime Minister Harper’s denial of it, is available at The Mark.

Alana Lajoie O’Malley writes:

“At the G20 Summit last September, our prime minister boasted that we “have no history of colonialism.” That the leader of our country can stand in front of dignitaries from around the world and speak these words is a testament to just how far we have to go in really understanding our national history.”

Read the full piece here.

Photo by axiepics available under a Creative Commons License