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Somy Kim on "Soft Weapons"

Cover of "Soft Weapons": Woman peeking through curtain

Gillian Whitlock

Soft Weapons: Autobiography in Transit

University of Chicago Press, 2007
216 pages

Reviewed by Somy Kim

The prominence of politically engaged works by non-western writers has increased considerably since 1987 when Barbara Harlow’s Resistance Literature was first published. While Harlow was responding to a dearth of foreign resistance narratives on bookstore shelves, Gillian Whitlock, in her Soft Weapons: The Autobiography in Transit, responds twenty years later to the abundance of these narratives, particularly those from the Middle East. Whitlock not only documents the current booming industry of life writings of oppression from the Middle East but discusses how “the life narrative as commodity moves across cultures in ways that are distinctly contemporary.” Therefore, she focuses on the claim to authenticity implicit in the genre of autobiography and how the circulation of life narratives from the Middle East directly impacts the post 9/11 war on terror by serving as a veritable justification, a kind of “soft weapon” against growing anti-war sentiment.

In Soft Weapons Whitlock documents the recent history of how women’s autobiographies coming out of the Middle East have been co-opted by neoliberal ideology, demonstrating the power of life narratives to influence the global reader. Due to the genre’s inherent claim to fidelity, the autobiographical narrative from abroad definitely figures in the average reader’s “opinion formation” and consequent support or lack of “political contestation” toward engagements abroad. She historicizes the readership of these works within the political and social milieu that has promoted, marketed, and consumed these narratives and argues for critically acknowledging the interdependent relationships between readers, publishers and national interests.

As Whitlock builds a taxonomy of testimony, autoethnography, best-seller and memoir, and further dissects their distinctive features, she reveals the inherent power inequalities within the societal structures they inhabit. Thus, she demonstrates how those writing testimonies continually “struggle for cultural authority,” while memoir writers already possess the “cultural capital” necessary to demand international attention. Moreover, she discusses the circumstances that allow autoethnographies like Zoya’s Story: An Afghan Woman’s Struggle for Freedom (2002) to be promoted by Oprah and Vagina Monologues (1996) writer, Eve Ensler, while the numerous testimonies of asylum-seekers tend to be more traumatic and not conducive to western forms of “empathic engagement,” like first person narrative, and thus less recognized.

More than merely providing a bibliography of Middle Eastern autobiographies written in the post 9/11 period, Whitlock hones in on the ways that these narratives actually diverge from western feminist notions of agency and empowerment. She reveals how fundamentally different the feminist projects are between non-western feminist organizations like RAWA (Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan) and that of the first wave of western feminists. In the tradition of Anzaldúa and Mohanty, Whitlock underscores how “these testimonials of subaltern women challenge liberal humanist notions of subjectivity and agency.” She contextualizes the success of the narratives of oppressed Middle Eastern women within events like the disturbing “unveiling” of Zoya in February 2001. Zoya, a representative of RAWA, recounts the day she was asked her to wear the burka only so that Oprah could “slowly, very slowly” lift it off her publicly, under a spotlit stage in Madison Square Garden. Here, Whitlock highlights the dangerous ability to create a formidable empathic effect based on a distorted fascination with and fetishizing of “the other.”

In the two chapters that deal explicitly with the industry of these narratives Whitlock describes their “branding” by way of book jackets laden with images of veiled women and celebrity endorsements of such texts as Jean Sasson’s Mayada: Daughter of Iraq (2003), Norma Khouri’s Honor Lost (2003) and Souad’s Burned Alive (2005). She focuses on the deliberate misrepresentation not only of the women but in some cases by them. Therefore, the “hoax” case of Honor Lost, an alleged true story of an honor killing in Jordan, highlights how “testimony can be a deeply flawed vehicle for cross-cultural communication and, what’s more, a self-serving one.” The celebrity status Norma Khouri garnered as a result of her fraudulent account created a backlash that has disabled local activist campaigns against honor killings, such as those led by the League of Muslim Women and other Jordanian activists in Amman. Thus, these stories, both false and true, belie the complexity of the society they claim to represent. Rather, they contribute to the image of the monolithic third-world woman as mediated through a “translated” first-person narrative, where “she is awaiting liberation rather than being an active agent in history.”

Whitlock extends her analysis to memoirs written from privileged positions like that of journalists “embedded” in Iraq and Iranian diasporic memoirs such as the popular Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003) by Azar Nafisi. Interestingly, the former is more transparently “subject to the operations of mass media and mass consumption,” while the latter is less conspicuously promoted as a personal memoir. Since memoirs are written by privileged members of society, danger lies in their potential ability to distort reality as they are being considered accurate insider accounts. On the other hand, Whitlock notes that that very porous quality of autobiographies allows embedded journalist texts like Generation Kill (2004) to engage in difficult questions of the American occupation of Iraq and not merely serve as a propaganda tool. Whitlock also looks at Nafisi’s work in this diametric way, underscoring the way that the writer is marketed as a non-conformist in the Never Follow campaign of the Audi corporation, when her memoir, in fact, reproduces the authority of the western literary canon.

Despite Whitlock’s unabashed critique of many of these autobiographical narratives and their exotic and ultimately detrimental appeal to the western reader, she begins and ends her work with two “avatars” of hope. She considers Salam Pax, known as the “Baghdad Blogger” and Marjane Satrapi, the graphic novelist of Persepolis (2003), two innovative examples in the realm of autobiography during the age of globalization and the war on terror. The “subjective intertextuality” of Pax’s blog and attendant hypertexts link him to other international articles, websites and points of reference that ultimately bestow a kind of authenticity disallowed by mere print text. Satrapi’s innovation of writing in the form of a graphic novel “opens some possibilities of different significations in graphic art, contesting the dehumanizing frame of reference that frequently mediates representations of veiled women in Western art and texts.” Significantly, part of the pact with the reader of the graphic novel is that the text does not claim to represent a full picture. As the distinctive mode of the comic “both amplifies and simplifies,” Persepolis actually offers a more nuanced view of women in the Middle East. While these two works criticize their local society, they more importantly “make a frontal assault on the imaginaries produced on the war on terror, using media that are appropriate for the times.”

Whitlock’s careful use of cultural and literary theory substantiates the otherwise “unofficial public sphere of literary, cultural, religious, and artistic movements” when speaking of real, official battles, to reveal the complex processes involved in the construction of “enemies” in the social consciousness of the average global reader-citizen. Therefore, this study is compelling for anyone interested in the Middle East, media studies, autobiography, literary, and cultural studies. In an August 2006 interview in Znet magazine with Foaad Khosmood, titled “Lolita and Beyond,” Hamid Dabashi calls for the documentation of the seemingly innocuous cultural acts of writing that legitimize US global domination. Whitlock has made a formidable contribution to this project by tracing the use of autobiographies as “soft weapons” in the battle for the public support of current wars in the Middle East.