Soft Weapons Autobiography in Transit
by Gillian Whitlock
University of Chicago Press, 2007
Cloth: 978-0-226-89525-3 | Paper: 978-0-226-89526-0 | Electronic: 978-0-226-89527-7
ABOUT THIS BOOKAUTHOR BIOGRAPHYREVIEWSTABLE OF CONTENTS

ABOUT THIS BOOK

Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran,Marjane Satrapi’s comics, and “Baghdad Blogger” Salam Pax’s Internet diary are just a few examples of the new face of autobiography in an age of migration, globalization, and terror. But while autobiography and other genres of life writing can help us attend to people whose experiences are frequently unseen and unheard, life narratives can also be easily co-opted into propaganda. In Soft Weapons, Gillian Whitlock explores the dynamism and ubiquity of contemporary life writing about the Middle East and shows how these works have been packaged, promoted, and enlisted in Western controversies.

Considering recent autoethnographies of Afghan women, refugee testimony from Middle Eastern war zones, Jean Sasson’s bestsellers about the lives of Arab women, Norma Khouri’s fraudulent memoir Honor Lost, personal accounts by journalists reporting the war in Iraq, Satrapi’s Persepolis, Nafisi’s book, and Pax’s blog, Whitlock explores the contradictions and ambiguities in the rapid commodification of life memoirs. Drawing from the fields of literary and cultural studies, Soft Weapons will be essential reading for scholars of life writing and those interested in the exchange of literary culture between Islam and the West.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY

Gillian Whitlock is professor of English, media studies, and art history at the University of Queensland and the author of The Intimate Empire: Reading Women’s Autobiography.

REVIEWS

“At once a heartfelt and thoughtful affirmation of the power of autobiography, and an intelligent and trenchant critique of the commodification and, indeed, political co-optation of life stories in our current global moment, Soft Weapons makes for fascinating and surprising reading. By focusing on the explosion of life writing from the Islamic Middle East, Whitlock calls for an expansion of our conceptual and theoretical understanding of life writing so that we might account for new subgenres—blogs, autoethnographies, and ‘autographics.’ Her attention to the marketing of lives and life stories offers a welcome contribution to current controversies about authenticity and ‘truth’ in autobiography.”

— Marianne Hirsch, Columbia University

“Gillian Whitlock’s Soft Weapons is a beautifully attentive reading of the ‘intimate work of self-invention’ in the life writings of authors at risk in the war on terror. Whitlock’s focus is on the textual cultures through which they pass, their transit through uses ranging from their reception as eloquent acts of witness through propaganda, and the commodification of cultural difference. In its attention to the networks of relations through which texts are realized, Soft Weapons is politically engaged literary history of the most productive kind.”

— John Frow, University of Melbourne

"An engaging and thoughtful new study of contemporary Middle Eastern autobiography...With its dire implications for anyone still devoted to humanistic ideals about literature, Soft Weapons is an especially timely and important collection of essays."
— Jasmin Darznik, Women's Review of Books

"Soft Weapons is a stunning scholarly and intellectual tour de force, a model of excellent critical reading, and a sound argument for how and why reading—and reading well—still matters.  In fact, Soft Weapons teaches why reading critically—to consider the transits of books as market commodities, tools of propaganda, acts of often compromised political resistance, authentic testimonies, and repositories of highly charged cross-cultural exchange—matters more urgently now than ever."
— Victoria Kuttainen, Politics and Culture

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Acknowledgments

- Gillian Whitlock
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226895277.003.0001
[Salam Pax, globalization, mass media, mass migration, autobiography, Muslim life narratives]
This book begins with Salam Pax to stress transformation and experiments in ways that selves are imagined and constructed now. Pax is a sign of a world that is “massively globalized” in the recent past as a result of mass media and mass migration. Globalization reaches toward the transnational circuitries of images and narratives that are a feature of contemporary culture. It is often characterized in terms of flow. This book also presents some large claims about the cultural, social, and political work of autobiography. It then reports some of the Muslim life narratives that have been taken up in a time of crisis when recognition of viable speaking subjects in the public sphere has become an urgent issue. An overview of the chapters included in this book is finally given. (pages 1 - 23)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Gillian Whitlock
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226895277.003.0002
[Salam Pax, Iraqi blogger, Where Is Raed?, Mukhabarat, weblog, Arablish, linguas polutas]
This chapter introduces an Iraqi blogger called Salam Pax. The origins of Pax are uncertain. The creation of the weblog and Pax was a brave act of resistance, and readers in the West constantly feared for his safety at the hands of Saddam Hussein's intelligence agency, the Mukhabarat. The accumulating authority of Pax's weblog resulted to unprecedented activity on the web as users went in search of more independent and alternative representations of Baghdad. Where Is Raed? is written in the name of peace and resistance. Arablish is a language devised to effect a careful engineering of the self in the virtual spaces of a webdiary. It is characterized as a linguas polutas. Salam Pax is a reminder that newness can come into the world in the struggle over representations and the conduct of war, and in the protocols of civil society and the conduct of relations among its subjects. (pages 24 - 44)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Gillian Whitlock
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226895277.003.0003
[women's autoethnographies, burka, feminist activism, Afghanistan, Afghan feminist activists, My Forbidden Face, Afghan women]
This chapter investigates how autoethnographies circulate in the West and empower feminist activism in Afghanistan at the same time as they appeal to Western fantasies about one of the most intractable signs of cultural difference: the veil. My Forbidden Face is one of the most popular life narratives from Afghanistan. Afghan feminist activists strategically use the burka. The specter of the refugee haunts those Afghan women who pass into the West as celebrities and champions of freedom. The covers of Afghan women's autoethnographies play on similarity and difference and on the threshold of what can be recognized as human, with the burka securely placed as a metonymic sign of the absolute Other, obscuring the promise of a familiar woman's body beneath. In the war of words and significations attached to the war on terror, the faces of Afghan women mark a threshold in the struggle over how subjects become human. (pages 45 - 68)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Gillian Whitlock
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226895277.003.0004
[testimony incarnate, life narratives, trauma, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, asylum-seeker testimony, human rights]
This chapter investigates the conditions where life narratives about trauma in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran are excluded and suppressed, unable to break through into the mass market to exert political influence. It also reviews the routes of asylum-seeker testimony. Asylum-seeker testimony is often gathered in composite text that is surrounded with peritext by authorized witnesses. In the case of this testimony, the appeal to human rights discourse is contested by renewed discourses of belonging: homelands, patriots, closed borders, and national security. This renewed emphasis deprives asylum seekers of access to the codes of human rights discourse that have comprised the lingua franca for the production and reception of testimony. Testimony incarnate calls on an extraordinary leap of faith: that it can come alive in and through its witness regarding pain. (pages 69 - 86)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Gillian Whitlock
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226895277.003.0005
[veiled best-seller, Jean Sasson, Mayada, Norma Khouri, Honor Lost, weapon, Iraq, Arab women]
This chapter evaluates Jean Sasson's Mayada. Critics rarely look at best-selling life narratives, although of course many readers do. The connections of life story and book markets to geopolitics are scarcely veiled at all. The fate of Norma Khouri's hoax life narrative Honor Lost, a generic sibling of Mayada and a contemporaneous publication, is a reminder of how important this assertion by a genuine native subject must be. The narrative structure of Mayada is a complex series of life narratives that circle around the oppression of women in Iraq. It presents some hope for a smooth transition to a Western style democracy in Iraq. Both Sasson and Mayada al-Askari respond to criticisms of Mayada and use the Amazon.com website to reinforce their intention that “this book makes readers admire and respect Arab women.” It is noted that the veiled best-seller is clearly a potent weapon in propaganda wars now. (pages 87 - 105)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Gillian Whitlock
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226895277.003.0006
[hoax text, Norma Khouri, Honor Lost, Forbidden Love, life narrative, honor killing, scandal]
This chapter explores what happens when a “hot” life narrative is outed as a hoax text, and a potent moral and political force turns cold, with its potency diminishing in a painful aftermath. It specifically addresses Norma Khouri's Honor Lost: the hoax that brings the brand into disrepute. In both Honor Lost and Forbidden Love, the same story of terrible retribution is told. Honor Lost uses life narrative to bring to light the practice of honor killing, invoking quite explicitly an alternative jurisdiction to the Shar'ia courts that address the custom of honor crimes according to traditional Islamic law. In the peritext of Forbidden Love, Khouri deliberately invokes an international court of appeal, an alternative jurisdiction on behalf of oppressed and silenced Arab omen in Jordan: “the voices of people in Western nations.” It is noted that hoax, scandal, and impropriety haunt testimony. (pages 106 - 130)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Gillian Whitlock
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226895277.003.0007
[trauma, war, memoir, Leigh Gilmore, autobiographical writing, Travels in American Iraq, Baghdad, correspondents]
This chapter turns to what Leigh Gilmore calls the “limits” of autobiography: its trading in trauma—and war. It also identifies memoir as a vehicle for haunted and fragmented accounts of the professional self in a specific historical context. The memoir is traditionally the prerogative of the literate elite. It is a distinctive space for autobiographical writing. The impacts of graphic accounts of trauma in war journalism from Iraq are an important issue. Journalists' memoirs from Baghdad rapidly take up performatively the spatial organization of news coverage. Travels in American Iraq is a nomadic memoir: processual and unresolved. Naked in Baghdad provides a valuable thick description of the correspondents' world, using the tools, customs, and technology of Anne Garrels' craft to autobiographical and ethnographic effect. The terrible and spectral presence of the victims of war is implanted in the American experience of Iraq. (pages 131 - 160)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Gillian Whitlock
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226895277.003.0008
[memoir, power, Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita, Iran, American literary, liberal humanism, cultural politics]
This chapter addresses a memoir of power and influence. Azar Nafisi's Reading “Lolita” in Tehran: A Memoir in Books is specifically considered. In Reading “Lolita”, Nafisi recalls that revolutionary Iran became obsessed with America in the 1980s. Reading “Lolita” has been carried on the wave of enthusiasm for reading as mass entertainment. It reflects the book group and the accomplished reader back to themselves in the most flattering terms imaginable. It is also a passionate and polemical narrative about the novel, the reader, and cultural politics. Nafisi's book renews a liberal humanism in American literary criticism and hearkens back to an earlier age to revive a literary canon and critical epistemology. The success of Nafisi and her memoir in the American market is a spectacular example of the appropriation of exilic writing to set a vogue and to neutralize Iranian and Islamic difference as style. (pages 161 - 186)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Gillian Whitlock
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226895277.003.0009
[Salam Pax, Marjane Satrapi, Marji, Persepolis, cartooning, Iran]
Salam Pax recognizes a kindred spirit in Marjane Satrapi's Marji. Pax believes that Satrapi's Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood is a beautiful book. Satrapi's comics can be read in association with the contemporary formation of Iranian exilic literature. Her book is shaped by a period of totalitarian control and censorship in Iran: the revolution of 1979 and the Islamist theocracy that followed. She utilizes the child's view to cut things to size and to put the veil into a different frame. Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return provides an Iranian and Islamic genesis for Satrapi's distinctive cartooning. A number of things about Pax's enthusiasm for Persepolis are indicative of the life narratives that have been characterized as soft weapons. Salam Pax describes this book as a book that makes him wince and made emotional demands on him that are hard to bear. (pages 187 - 202)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

Notes

References

Index