Carolin Alice Hofmann: “Political Unease in Testimonial Nonfiction”

Carolin Alice Hofmann
Panel I: Nonfiction (20. June 2013)

Political Unease in Testimonial Nonfiction: Rebecca Skloots The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and Dave Eggerss Zeitoun

  • Introduction
  • Trauma in Immortal and Zeitoun
  • Testimonial Writing and the Narrators
  • Extratextual Strategies
  • Coda: Political Trajectories


Rebecca SklootThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and Dave EggersZeitoun, two post-9/11 nonfiction bestsellers, can be read as testimonial texts because both give an account of a personal tragedy. Each of the texts records a real person’s experience of suffering, injustice, and hardship, and thus bears witness to trauma on behalf of that person. By testifying vicariously, the books make constant gestures toward their own truthfulness and authenticity, either within the narrative they tell, or in paratexts and other forms of commentary. I am interested in how Skloot and Eggers treat the tragic life they present, that is, how they locate their stories within the larger context of the real events they cover. In Skloots book, this is the realm of medicine and patients consent; in Eggerss case, it is the hostility against Muslim Americans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

I want to juxtapose the two popular texts not just because both are works of literary journalism that unravel stories of personal trauma, but because, in doing so, they face similar challenges that are tied to the genre conventions of testimonial writing. First and foremost, the authors oscillate between keeping a critical distance, on the one hand, and becoming a part of the story, on the other. Moreover, the books involve controversies over the social issues they address, and reflect unease with their own place in the political discussion they, more and less willingly, participate in. While Skloot reduces the political power of her narrative to eventually tell a story of an exceptional individual, Eggers expands the scope of his narrative to make a larger point about social injustice.


 The Zeitoun Foundation
No Creators
 The Henrietta Lacks Foundation
No Creators
Dave Eggers
 The Rumpus Long Interview with Dave Eggers
Stephen Elliott
 Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History1
Shoshana Felman; Dori Laub
 Trying to Read Zeitoun
Sara Foss
 The Limits of Autobiography: Trauma and Testimony
Leigh Gilmore
 Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-making in Nineteenth-century America
Saidiya Hartman
 Writing Beyond Race: Living Theory and Practice
bell hooks
 Review Essay: Troubling with ‘the Ethics of the Thing’ in Culturing Life: How Cells Became Technologies and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Melissa M. Littlefield; Anne Pollock
 Refusal to Cooperate: The Afterlife of Zeitoun1
Victoria Patterson
 The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Rebecca Skloot