Ordinary witnesses

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Harad, Alyssa D.

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“Ordinary Witnesses” takes up and extends Toni Morrison’s call to recognize the unspoken, but “seething presence” of America’s historical traumas in some of the American canon’s most venerated works. Beyond its explorations of trauma in three deeply resonant works of contemporary American literature, it shows how trauma provides a critical lens through which we may begin to read and teach across the multiple literatures of the United States without collapsing their specific histories. Rather than simply “applying” trauma theory to literature, “Ordinary Witnesses” makes explicit the rich implicit work on American trauma already present in its literature. In doing so, this project reframes debates about the practice of canonization. For example, while its primary texts might normally be read within separate canons of Native American literature, African American literature, Southern literature, or lesbian literature, here they are complimentary pieces of an ongoing national debate about the nature of America’s story, a debate that is deeply inflected by trauma’s long term effects. Chapter One traces Dorothy Allison’s strategies, as reflected in Bastard Out of Carolina, for rewriting a contemporary political narrative of child abuse that relegates class oppression to the background. Chapter Two examines how Sherman Alexie’s novels and short stories, particularly Reservation Blues, intervene in a genocidal myth of the disappearing Indian that makes its survivors invisible. Chapter Three explores why, in The Alchemy of Race and Rights, legal scholar Patricia Williams turns to literary strategies to show the everyday effects of a social contract based on slavery. The fourth and final chapter brings these literary lessons to the classroom, in order to argue for a pedagogy of witness based on learning’s repetitive remembering and forgetting, rather than the oft-employed rhetoric of crisis and conversion.