The Year in Readings started with a mission: more ethnographic monographs. The first book I finished, however, does not fit into this category. On the upside, at least it is remotely related to what I do in my research. Memory, Subjectivities, and Representation. Approaches to Oral History in Latin America, Portugal and Spain by Rina Benmayor, María Eugenia Cardenal de la Nuez and Pilar Domínguez Prats (eds.; Palgrave Macmillian 2016) is meant to be an introdcution to oral history work in Latin America, Spain and Portugal. I’ve been doing a more formal review for the Oral History Forum d’histoire orale from the Canadian Oral History Association, which you can find here, if you’d like to have a look.
For the purpose of continuing with my subjective review series, I am just going to mention a few key points. Overall, reading edited volumes is often a challenge, because personally, I am rarely interested in all the contributions. This one had the great advantage, that it were those articles I thought wouldn’t fit my interests, which were the most inspiring. Some of the topics are innovative, like the articles on Lisbon’s tattoo scene, or the performance piece on the Portuguese dictatorship, and I especially liked the articles focusing on female militants from the Southern Cone and on migrant sex workers in Spain. But I would have liked more of that. Most articles are concerned with worker’s history. A real downer was the fact that articles on Latin America were restricted to the Southern Cone and Mexico, giving a somewhat eurocentric idea of the continent, and completely leaving out any indigenous contributions. Given that it is particularly this area where Oral History flourishes in Latin America, I found that quite disappointing. Apart from this (serious!) flaw, the volume is a solid contribution, and might be of interest for people wanting to know more about current trends in the region.
How did I come across the book?
Actually, the journal approached me to ask whether I would review it. I found that flattering and agreed.
When and where did I read it?
In one of Bogota’s amazing public libraries around New Year’s.
Something like a Vignette about Reading.
I open the cellophane and get a first impression. The green and yellow landscape on the cover is withdrawn from the viewer by a fence. The pages on the inside are of a thick yellowish paper with black-and-white-drawings. A friend of mine is mentioned as part of the team of investigators that gave birth to some of the material in the comic. I get exited, thinking of her and how she loved being part of that team and made up her M.A. thesis from the very material. The comic is structured in three parts. The first works as a kind of introduction, where a peasant from the palmoil region gives a kind of historic walking tour through the land. In the second part, the reader accompanies a young researcher on her day in the village, where she gets to know more of the day to day consequences of living close to the palmoil plantations. In the final part, we can observe a cartography workshop with some villagers, in which they speak about their aspirations for the future of the land.
While I ask myself how to ‘read’ a comic book – like, it’s clearly more than reading just the text – another thought crosses my mind as I marvel at a flashback scene. During a workshop to draw a map of the future, one of the participants takes as his vantage point the past, and how he used to live on a finca with his family members, enough room for everyone and land to work and grow plants for food, access to water and all that. When he realizes what he ‘had’, he becomes silent, and we see scenes of the house, a pair of army boots, the back of a person in camouflage with a gun around the shoulder, then the finca closed down, wooden boards crossing the windows, he and his family walking away.
The images now mix in my head with a memory of the Memory Studies Association’s inaugural conference. On the last panel of the second day, a discussion arose about whether memory studies scholars should or should not pair with memory activists. While on one side, people were campaigning for the idea of an indepent scholar who has her concepts clear and analyses the data from whatever field she’s working on, on the other side voices could be heard claiming the importance of an engagment with civil society, and of leaving the ivory tower to bring all those concepts to use on the ground. Someone was afraid to engage in designing a game about the holocaust, as for him this should clearly not be the context to negotiate holocaust memory. But such a game already exists in different forms, many of them probably designed by neo-Nazis with much less reserve. The question is not whether there should be a game about the holocaust or not, because such a thing already exists. The question is, rather, whether we as scholars are willing to leave the development of those games to those who might abuse the idea, or whether we should not rather be participating in efforts to make the knowledge we generate behind closed doors available to a broader public by exploring alternative media. This includes video games as well as comic books, and might go as far as handycraft workshops or dinner parties.
In our network MemoriAL, we’ve been discussing for quite some time how in Latin America the division cannot be drawn that clearly: Many of those working in Academia on topics of collective memory have been affected in one way or another by the dictatorships of the Southern Cone, are second generation survivors, or otherwise politically engaged in their countries. But to think that scholarship on collective memory is not an inherently political act is even more absurd when doing it in overly positivist terms as a way of “rescuing narratives” that otherwiese would be lost. If there is only the slightest claim for truth in such an effort, it clearly is an activist approach to the study of memory. Granted, theses thoughts are not only valid for the field of memory studies. Topics of land tenure, gendered working environments and politico-economically motivated violence bear strong political implications. In approaching these topics throught the medium of comic, I think caminos condenados has done a brave and valuable effort.