Johnson, June. “Overcoming Reader Resistance to Global Literature of Witness: Teaching Collaborative Listening Using The Devil’s Highway and What is the What.” College English 82.4 (2020): 351-80. Print.
June Johnson writes about the pedagogical challenges of using the “literature of witness” to engage readers’ emotional responses to suffering and injustice in the lives of people different from them.
Citing scholars Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, Johnson lists the features of “literature of witness” as
a first-person narrator’s account of suffering and survival, the obligation to tell the stories of the dead, and grounding in cultural and geographic specifics. (353)
The goal of teaching this literature, in Johnson’s view, involves developing readers’ ability to care about strangers and recognize similarities of humanity, without, at the same time, “either subsuming cultural differences within our own cultural frames or accentuating them” (352). Paradoxically, Johnson writes, efforts to engage emotional empathy may exacerbate resistance and even trigger hostility to the sufferers readers encounter in these texts.
For Johnson, citing Martha Nussbaum, narrative writing and literature are the means best suited to draw out emotional responses (351). In the case of literature of witness, the effort to gain empathy through storytelling is “justify[ed]” by “the genre’s outcomes in the world” as attitudes and behavior change; as a result, Johnson considers these texts to have “an overtly persuasive purpose” (353).
Drawing on work within language studies on the role of emotions in decision-making and attitudes as well as in fields such as cognitive psychology and theories of critical reading and “collaborative rhetoric,” Johnson also turns to Krista Ratcliffe’s concept of “cultural logic” to explore the ways in which readers may resist the emotional force of works like literatures of witness (352). Noting that a cultural logic, in Ratcliffe’s words, is “a belief system or shared way of reasoning within which a claim may function” (qtd. in Johnson 354), Johnson examines ways in which these cultural logics may limit readers’ responses to the stories of suffering presented in the specifically situated accounts of refugees, immigrants, and others whose accounts challenge the preconceived assumptions of developed Western societies.
One form of resistance, in Johnson’s view, is “Shock and Fascination Followed by Patronizing Dismissal” (354). Readers may experience a “voyeuristic response” to horrors that seem unimaginable, then move on to cast such horrors as distant and irrelevant in their own lives. Geographical areas where suffering takes place can be seen as needing to “work their way out of their problems” on their own in order to emulate more “developed” countries (355).
Citing scholars studying efforts to ameliorate global suffering, Johnson identifies a second form of response: “Sadness and Indignation Followed by Emotional Overload and Helplessness” (355). In these cases, readers are overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem and “retreat into emotional self-protection” when no solutions are offered or seem possible (357).
Finally, readers may experience “Fear and Defensiveness Followed by Denial and Retrenchment” (357). In this dynamic, Johnson contends, issues of national security and economic well-being compound with protectiveness over identity to shift attention to questions of responsibility, as members of privileged societies resist blame for others’ suffering (358).
In order to alleviate the effects of these resistances, Johnson writes, respondents must fundamentally change, and she posits “collaborative listening” (354), practices that draw on work by Carl Rogers, Peter Elbow, Donna Qualley, Krista Ratcliffe, and sociologist Robin DiAngelo (353-54). To guide students into these “rigorous listening” experiences (358), she proposes teaching two specific texts, Luis Alberto Urrea’s The Devil’s Highway and Dave Eggers’s What is the What.
The Devil’s Highway recounts a non-fiction border tragedy in the form of a postmodern novel: a desert march by 26 Mexican migrants, 14 of whom died on the journey. Johnson argues that rhetorical features of syntax and structure immerse readers in transformative identity challenges in ways that traditional narrative strategies may fail to do (359). In her view, the text induces collaborative listening via such moves as a “disorienting narrative structure” that requires readers to “struggle to make sense of the text as the characters struggle to make sense of a journey” (361).
She writes further that the text creates “shifting character identities” with postmodern juxtapositions of characters including Border Patrol agents and “coyotes” or smugglers as well as the migrants (363). Dialogic narrative includes a shift to second-person through which she writes that readers are “[c]aught off guard” and “place[d] . . . directly into the shoes of the walkers”; this shift, Johnson claims, undercuts what Carl Rogers called “our very natural tendency to judge” (qtd. in Johnson 360). In Rogerian fashion, Johnson contends, the text also “listen[s] to” readers’ concerns and further opens a space for engagement (364; emphasis original).
Johnson also defines Eggers’s book as “postmodern narration” that “teaches collaborative listening” (366). The full title is What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, A Novel; Deng, a refugee from civil war in Sudan, worked with Eggers over many years, deciding with him that “a shift to fiction” with Deng as the first-person narrator would be most effective in conveying Deng’s story (366). Johnson writes that a “fragmented narrative” that moves forward and backward in time in recounting events from 1987 to 2004, from Deng’s experiences in the Second Sudanese Civil War to his life as a refugee in America, emphasizes the “unknowableness” of these experiences for Western readers (Elizabeth Twitchell, qtd. in Johnson 367). In Johnson’s view, this radical difference undercuts tendencies toward “ethnocentric representation traps of racial privilege and cultural superiority” (367). Instead, she believes it encourages us to collaborate in the search for “agency and meaning” (368).
The text also focuses on the irony that Deng’s search for safety in the United States led him to become a crime victim as well as a victim of cultural oppression (369), undercutting what Michelle Peek calls the “rhetoric of rescue and promise” in which Western readers might find solace (368). Johnson also explores the use of direct address to other “narratees, “ such as the young man guarding Deng while his apartment was robbed; for Johnson, Deng exhibits a “listening” stance that acknowledges readers and their views (370). She also argues that his “reflexive grappling with his subjectivity” over the course of the novel disrupts readers’ attempts to construct a familiar identity for the narrator, thus inviting understanding of the instability of comforting assumptions (372).
Johnson suggests low-stakes practices such as free-writes, journals, or letters to self that teachers can use to introduce students to difficult texts like the literature of witness. These activities should encourage students in:
(1) creating probing dialogues with self that address positionality; (2) curbing judgments and revising assumptions by living with/in multiple perspectives; and (3) embracing ongoing reflexivity that focuses on open listening as a rhetorical stance and an ethical choice. (373)