In the Jaws of the Leviathan: Genocide Fiction and Film
Author: Joya Uraizee
Date Of Publication: Mar 2010
This book analyzes representations of mass violence in film and fiction about African, South American, and Asian genocides, from the points of view of the bystander and the survivor. It argues that in commercial film and fiction, metaphors and looks represent the violence and trauma indirectly, even when the representation is quite graphic; whereas in experimental novels and films, looks used to describe the violence are individualized or interactive.
Both Bapsi Sidhwa’s novel Cracking India and Deepa Mehta’s film Earth deal with the violence of the partition of India in 1947. While Cracking India educates us about the dangers of “the beast” (the violence), Earth shows us the impact the beast has on victims like the beautiful Ayah/nanny. Similarly, both Buchi Emecheta's novel Destination Biafra and Charles Enonchong's videos The Nigerian-Biafran War, Parts I, II & III, depict the Nigerian Civil War of 1966–69. Yet, while Emecheta’s metaphors of division and bestiality highlight the selfishness of politicians and the suffering of civilians like Debbie, looks exchanged by the survivors and the military in Enonchong’s videos highlight the tragic ways in which generals like Ojukwu betrayed and were betrayed. Metaphors and looks in Isabel Allende’s novel The House of the Spirits and Bille August’s movie, which is based on it, depict the terror of Pinochet’s 1973–89 dictatorship in Chile. Allende and August use metaphors and looks of sight and blindness to describe torture survivor Alba/Blanca’s trauma. Alba/Blanca re-tells the events of the past in order to survive. Photo journalist Alfredo Jaar’s photos and notes, Let There Be Light, and Terry George’s feature film Hotel Rwanda, both depict the Rwandan genocide of 1994, but their emphasis is on inability of the Western bystander/reader to hear or see the pain of the survivors. Accordingly, Jaar and George choose “dark” metaphors and looks to represent the violence, using diffuse lighting, fades, and absences to stand for the violence and trauma.
Overall, representations of genocide that involve individualized metaphors and interactive looks are vitally important if the complexities of that violence are to be appreciated in the West.
Joya Uraizee is Associate Professor of English and International Studies at Saint Louis University in St. Louis, Missouri. Some of her research interests include representations of violence in postcolonial fiction and film, the idea of the nation in postcolonial fiction, rewriting postcolonial history, and postcolonial women writers and political fiction. She is the author of This is No Place for a Woman: Nadine Gordimer, Nayantara Sahgal, Buchi Emecheta and the Politics of Gender (Trenton: Africa World Press, 2000). She has also written several articles on Djibril Diop-Mambety’s feature film Hyenas, Ngugi wa Thiong'o's novel Petals of Blood, and Jean Rhys’ novel Wide Sargasso Sea. In 2008 she was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to teach at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. At Saint Louis University, she has taught courses on genocide and mass violence, postcolonial film, the postcolonial nation, world literature, fiction, drama, women’s literature, and composition.
Joya Uiraizee’s In the Jaws of the Leviathan: Genocide Fiction and Film raises one of the hot issues for our times: how we deal with the representation of violence, and specifically with traumatic violence. Genocide, ethnic cleansing, and longterm conflict have made familiar the distressing features of child soldiers, rape, and massive population displacements. How are we not only to understand the Rwandan genocide, India’s partition, and Chile’s repressive state under Pinochet? How do we relate these events entailing massive destruction and brutality, often employed so as to control valuable resources or territory, to historical events like the Biafran Civil war of 1967-70 in Nigeria. Most importantly, how do we confront these conflicts in their various mediations? Joya Uraizee poses the central question of mediation by examining a range of key texts that serve to present the genocides and violent traumas endemic to conflict that have marked many postcolonial societies. Those texts range over well-known novels, like Isabelle Allende’s The House of the Spirits, films like Terry George’s Hotel Rwanda, Mehta’s Earth, and a number of other works that have given us some of the best-known representations of violent conflict. Additionally, she explore some lesser known novels or testimonies, like Sidwa’s Cracking India, Enonchong’s documentary video films on the Biafran war, and Alfredeo Jaar’s book of photographs, that serve to elucidate her principal thesis. Uraizee claims that we can best assess the representations of violence by asking whether we are given images, in the forms of metaphors and gazes, that permit us to engage and work through the violence, or that fetishize and avoid the direct physical realities of the violence. She analyzes a range of stratagems that serve to absolve our consciences without bringing home the truths we need to experience and engage the traumas. Part of the truth we must face rests on the fact that we cannot help but be witness or observer. But there are many ways to look, and some leave us with insight and motivation while others merely satisfied, and with the structures of power undisturbed. The teaching about global violence today requires that we assess clearly how our positioning with relation to the texts of violence responds to this basic ethical imperative: though we cannot resolve the conflict, we are obliged to confront it unflinchingly if meaningful praxis is to follow. At that point, as Uraizee claims, our looking will become a “process” involving a “circle of gazes” in which the goals of oppositionality can become possible.
—Kenneth W. Harrow, Professor of English, Michigan State University
"As the merciless flow of digital reality turns us all into numb spectators, Uraizee sets out here to re-imagine the role of the “observer” in a century of genocide. A skeptical, and often emotional, testament to the ability of novels and films to make history’s literary bystanders more than voyeurs and less than the victims themselves. Its subtitle might well read “the purifying power of empathy,” and its analysis of the different ways of seeing mass murder (interactive, circular, blinding) is wide-ranging, placing literature itself back in the world where it belongs."
- Professor Timothy Brennan, Department of Cultural Studies & Comparative Literature and English, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, USA
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