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The Charles Bernheimer Prize Citations 2005 HM

2005 Honorable Mention:

Jutta Maria Gsoels-Lorensen. Epitaphic Remembrance: Representing a Catastrophic Past in Second Generation Texts. (Yale 2003. Directors Vilashini Cooppan and Benjamin Harshav)

Dr. Gsoels-Lorensen forges new paradigms about memory, trauma and representation by analyzing an unusual range of materials: autobiographically inflected novels from geographically and historically disparate cultures, paintings and the captions intended to gloss them, and family photographs captured only in verbal description. ìEpitaphic remembranceî is not the direct recall of past experience by those who have lived it and now commemorate it in words: instead, the recall exists at one remove and the ìepitaphsî are second generation texts that draw on mediated memories - family anecdotes, oral tradition, letters, diaries and photographs, or even the contents of attic trunks. Historical truth, insofar as it exists, is unattainable, and those who seek the meaning of past events must content themselves with a ìhistory spaceî populated by fragments of information, diverse perspectives, and the writer's own self-conscious attempt to make sense of what is there.

Although this paradigm is widely transferable, it becomes particularly interesting when brought to bear on suppressed or contested issues in cultural history. In Epitaphic Remembrance: Representing a Catastrophic Past in Second Generation Texts, Dr. Gsoels-Lorensen focuses on just such issues. Through an impressive series of close readings, she shows how various strategies of representation manipulate these memories to uncover aspects of the past that cannot be reconciled, or are suppressed in contemporary consciousness. In The Migration Series (1941), a series of sixty panels with explanatory captions that represent the flight of African Americans from the South to the industrialized North, the painter Jacob Lawrence is not just a ìpainter of historyî drawing on official photographs of the Farm Security Administration but an artist who uses the interplay of word and image to subvert the traditional positive interpretation and a ìcertain history of looking.î A narrative by LÍ Thi Diem Th™y returns repeatedly to a family photograph of the I-narrator's Vietnamese grandparents and notes that it evokes multiple pasts - and that the narrator's perspective factors in her mother's reaction to the same scene. In Maxine Hong Kingston's China Men the narrator juxtaposes history and myth to compose an image of her family's past in the face of her father's refusal to discuss it. The question of access to the past is paramount in Barbara Honigmann's story ìDoppeltes Grab,î where the absence of anticipated gravestones in a Jewish cemetery in Berlin bear witness to the flight of those who are missing. It takes on monstrous form in Elfriede Jelinek's recent novel, Die Kinder der Toten, an attack on Austrian silence about complicity in the extermination of Jews under Hitler. Here the missing dead emerge as zombies mingling with the tourists at a mountain resort or appearing unexpectedly on a TV show - truly an epitaphic ìhistory spaceî in which a fragmented and suppressed past returns to haunt the living.

Dr. Gsoels-Lorensen's concept of epitaphic remembrance is elegantly conceived and executed with great theoretical sophistication; it is supported, moreover, by a set of remarkably detailed and imaginative readings.

2005 Bernheimer Prize Committee:
Sarah Lawall, University of Massachusetts
Katie Trumpener, Yale University