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Modern Wars, Genocide, Survival, and Life Writing

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Organizer: Phyllis Lassner

Co-Organizer: Margaretl Richardson

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Although war has always inspired powerfully innovative writing and art, the incessant global wars and genocides of the 20th and 21st centuries continue to revolutionize life writing and art. For example, disillusionments resulting from the Great War’s catastrophic losses inspired modernist innovations. The Nazi drive for global domination inspired the urgency to bear witness to what was later recognized as crimes against humanity. Twentieth and twenty-first century war life writing merges personal accounts, observations, and testimony with imaginative and self-critical voices and narrative structures that lend immediacy and reflection to affective experience. Critically, war writers have expressed doubts about the extent to which conventional or traditionally appropriate tropes and linear narrative development could depict horrors that have become increasingly inconceivable and traumatizing over the course of the 20th century through today. Complicating these doubts, the instability of traumatic, partial, and decontextualized memory challenges the historical accuracy and evidentiary value of survivors’ accounts and their oral and legal testimony.

Responding to these challenges, survivors of modern wars and genocides have created hybrid genres in which poetry and fictional forms merge with official and personal documentation, photographs, reportage, or archival research. Individual subjectivity and agency have been expressed in fractured voices of imagined narrators, protagonists, perpetrators, bystanders, and victims. Whereas Wilfred Owen’s poetry recounts his horrific trench experiences during WWI, Charlotte Delbo imagines life stories her lost comrades might have told about their Holocaust experiences. More recently, Latin American testimonio literature of the 1980s and 1990s Central American wars and refugee memoirs such as The Girl Who Smiled Beads, co-write with native English speakers.  Most recently, technology has facilitated a range of personal representations of war and genocide via the internet and social media including personal video testimonies of the military slaughter of Sudanese civilians on Instagram, many of which, like earlier testimonies are conveyed in poems and songs.

This seminar seeks proposals on life-writing accounts of the wars and genocides spanning the 20th and 21st centuries that represent a variety of narrative forms and voices, including hybrid and graphic self-representations. We encourage papers that offer critical, historicized approaches to experiences and memories of state, regional, and global conflicts, forced migration, incarceration, mass killings, and refugee experiences. Among theoretical and experiential approaches to consider are gender, family life, community contexts, citizenship, minority status, statelessness, and human rights. 

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