Something Other than Autobiography: Collaborative Life-Narratives in the Americas
vol. 31, no. 3, Summer 2008
Guest Editors: Kathleen McHugh & Catherine Komisaruk
From The History of the Luiseño People by James Luna and Isaac Artenstein. Copyright © 1993 by James Luna. Reprinted by permission of James Luna. All rights reserved.
We dedicate this cluster to the memory of Lindon Barrett, whose sudden death shocked and saddened us. Lindon had a brilliant, fierce intellect and a radiant personal sweetness and sunniness, which radiated in equal measure. As critic and colleague, he was both supportive and astute. Lindon believed in music, ideas, dancing—work and pleasure in equal measure. He will be sorely missed.
“Something Other than Autobiography: Collaborative Life-Narratives in the Americas—An Introduction” by Kathleen McHugh and Catherine Komisaruk
This Introduction to a special essay cluster on “Collaborative Life-Narratives in the Americas” suggests a field of texts and critical practices, arising from the material circumstances of colonialism in the Americas, that counters traditional autobiographical narrative. The essays explore the complicated relationships among literacy, identity, colonialism, and conquest, as the narration of marginalized lives invokes collaboration with technologies of literacy.
“Rape Narratives, Rape Silences: Sexual Violence and Judicial Testimony in Colonial Guatemala” by Catherine Komisaruk
Using cases documented in the colonial Spanish judicial archives of Central America, this essay considers litigants’ depositions as a form of collaborative life-narrative, recorded on paper by government notaries in a court system that functioned according to dominant social ideologies. An analysis of the transcribed narratives of certain rape survivors suggests that other rapes were never recorded. Pointing to the ways that legal culture determined which charges would be brought and which cases would be heard in the courts, Komisaruk illustrates both contested and cooperative collaborations between colonial institutions and colonized subjects. These collaborations produced a historical record of Spanish American life, but also created silences where histories went unrecorded, notably in cases of sexual violence.
This essay illuminates multiple complexities in collaborative life writing through an analysis of In the Land of the Grasshopper Song: Two Women in the Klamath River Indian Country in 1908–09 by Mary Ellicott Arnold and Mabel Reed, a book in the form of a journal recounting colonial contact between whites and indigenous people prior to the 1910 United States appropriation of native lands in what is now far northwestern California. Arnold and Reed function as amateur ethnographers, narrating a complex tale of encounters and negotiations, but they leave out those that had to do with their lesbian relationship. Thus, their overt collaboration masked that of a more private kind. Watson examines the very complicated speaking position(s) of Arnold and Reed in relation to the native population, their white cohort, and each other, illuminating the various modes of collaboration that emerge from this multiply voiced text: co-optation, coercion, collusion, cooperation, collectivity, compromise, and camoufl age.
This essay studies narrative collaboration in film, focusing on The History of the Luiseño People, produced collaboratively by performance artist James Luna and filmmaker Isaac Artenstein. The film uses the ephemeral quality of performance art to allegorize the loss of a material history that would register its story. Rather than invoking division, plurality, and ambiguity, Luna and Artenstein limit their film’s historical space to the media and the domestic, and its temporality to a version of what Walter Benjamin called “nowtime.” Although History’s apparent collaboration with negative stereotypes of Native Americans has angered many critics, McHugh reads the film as an instance of Benjaminian “profane illumination.” Her essay details Luna and Artenstein’s profane apprehension of the historical, as she considers their strategies within the contexts in which the film was funded, produced, distributed, and exhibited.