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.

The American Studies Association (ASA) Conference was held this year in Washington, D.C. (Nov. 5th – 8th, 2009), and I had the pleasure of presenting on a panel entitled, “The Courts of Public Memory: Trauma, Nation, and Reconciliation.”

The panel was chaired by scholar Lisa Yoneyama, and the papers were:

Robert Eap, University of Southern California (CA)
Rethinking Impunity: A Critique of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal

Naomi Angel, New York University (NY)
Memory, Nation, and Social Transformation in the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Zenia Kish, New York University (NY)
Remembering Ukraine’s Famine-Terror of 1932–1933: Post-Soviet Memory as National Politics

Julie Thi Underhill, University of California, Berkeley (CA)
Elusive Justice: Democratic Kampuchea’s Cultural Genocide of the Muslim Cham

Before attending the conference, I was worried that I was suffering from ‘conference-burnout,’ so instead of rushing around and trying to take in too much, I decided to attend only a few panels and focus on learning from my fellow-panelists. It was great to draw connections between questions of social and criminal justice and the politics of memory across diverse geographical and temporal sites, and to continue this conversation after the panel. I was inspired by the work of my fellow panelists, and thrilled to meet Professor Yoneyama.

2009 has been a ridiculous year for conferences. I presented at five this year, and although each provided a unique and valuable experience, I’ve decided that maybe one or two would be far more manageable in the future! For now, it’s time to focus on my dissertation proposal…

For a brief recap of the other conferences:

Conference #1: American Comparative Literature Association, Cambridge.

Conference #2: Canadian Communication Association, Ottawa.

Conference #3: Encuentro (Hemispheric Institute Conference), Bogota.

Conference #4: Eleventh Berlin Roundtables: The Politics of Memory, Berlin.

Above image (from left to right): Julie, Naomi, Robert and Zenia

Magic Weapons cover spread.inddIn Magic Weapons: Aboriginal Writers Remaking Community After Residential School, Sam McKegney makes an important contribution to discourses that explore the role of literature in representing marginalized and/or contested histories. His focus on the work of authors including Basil H. Johnston (who also contributes an excellent foreword), Rita Joe, Louise Halfe, and Anthony Thrasher among others, brings much-needed attention to the ways in which the lens of trauma and psychoanalytic explorations of residential school experiences only tell part of the story. McKegney rightly highlights that calls for more awareness of these experiences should be accompanied by new visions for the future. He cautions against an orientation that privileges the past as the sole site of community-making and defining. 

He elaborates:

“Perceived over the past two decades as the principal vehicle for engaging the residential school issue, historicization (alone) dangerously orients our thinking away from the present and the future, binding us in a reactive manner to the power of the past. And, with compensatory and restructuring funds finally being freed from government coffers by virtue of the Reconciliation and Compensation Agreement (November 2005), imaginative visions for plausible futures of First Nations are essential. This is where the understudied resource of Native literature becomes so valuable” (6)

In exploring the history of the schools and the way in which individuals and communities have dealt with their legacy, McKegney asks, “What does literature do that history doesn’t?” (32) His book is an engaging, well-reasoned response to this question. 

McKegney, Sam. Magic Weapons: Aboriginal Writers Remaking Community after Residential School. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2007.

Also, a friend of mine recently informed me that today is National Aboriginal Day in Canada. For more information on the day, click here.


In his essay, “On Forgiveness,” Derrida discusses the paradox of granting forgiveness: true forgiveness consists of forgiving the unforgivable.  Throughout the essay, Derrida is working within the realm of contradictions. He negotiates the terrain between pure and mediated, conditional and unconditional, and individual and collective forgiveness.

Both forgiveness and reconciliation are concepts that have secular and religious interpretations.  Although there is a trend towards an attempted liberalization and secularization of reconciliation discourse, the theological undertones of reconciliation continue to play an important role in the way in which reconciliation takes place. As Derrida illustrates, Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s role as Chair of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission undoubtedly influenced the public’s perception of reconciliation in relation to forgiveness. The tensions between religious and secular conceptions of reconciliation also foreground the roles of individuals in comparison to those of the collective. Secular ideas of reconciliation tend to emphasize tolerance on the individual level and see amnesty on the collective level as a valid way to proceed. Religious conceptions of reconciliation, however, emphasize the idea of forgiveness and national healing.

Derrida argues that the concept of forgiveness is misplaced when used in relation to a national trauma. For example, he writes that “forgiveness must engage two singularities: the guilty (the ‘perpetrator’ as they say in South Africa) and the victim” (42). If a third party steps in to mediate this process (such as a national truth commission or juridical entity), pure forgiveness is no longer possible. Forgiveness then stays in the domain of the individual, not the state. And once the process of reconciliation has begun, pure forgiveness is no longer possible. Because once one embarks on a process of understanding the Other, the guilty, the perpetrator, the irreducibility and incomprehensibility of the Other is shattered. For Derrida, pure forgiveness “must plunge, but ludicly, into the night of the unintelligible” (49). Because reconciliation works to make sense of this unintelligibility, it drives one away from forgiveness.

At the end of this essay, he explores the implications of granting forgiveness. The granting of forgiveness implies a legitimate claim to power in order to do so. Derrida asserts that this form of power must be divorced from forgiveness; pure forgiveness is one without sovereignty (59). 

Derrida himself notes that he is ‘torn’ between the “ethical vision of forgiveness” and the practicality of reconciliation (51). His ruminations on forgiveness do not imply that reconciliation as part of a political process is impossible, nor that it should be avoided. Rather, he is arguing against the conflation of the two terms: forgiveness and reconciliation.

Derrida, Jacques. “On Forgiveness.” On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness. New York: Routledge, 2001.

See VanAntwerpen for a fuller discussion:

VanAntwerpen, Jonathan. “Reconciliation Reconceived: Religion, Secularism, and the Language of Transition” in The Politics of Reconciliation in Multicultural Societies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008, 25-47.