Books for the News, History, Literature, Psychology, Sociology

The soft weapons of autobiography

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The July 31 edition of the London Review of Books has published several interesting articles focusing on two recent books, both of which offer some intriguing insights into the West’s engagement with Middle Eastern Muslim cultures in the twentieth century.
As the LRB‘s Roxanne Varzi notes, Gillian Whitlock’s Soft Weapons: Autobiography in Transit is a fascinating exploration of modern Middle Eastern autobiography, that demonstrates how the genre has been used in Western society as a window into an often inaccessible culture, but perhaps more often is appropriated and commodified by Western culture to serve its own interests. In her article Varzi focuses on the latter phenomenon writing:

“You shouldn’t overlook the what Gillian Whitlock in Soft Weapons: Autobiography in Transit, calls the paratext: the liminal features that surround the text, not just the book’s jacket and typeface but interviews with the author, reviews and commentaries. It is in transit, as commodities, that these narratives, which Whitlock calls ‘veiled memoirs,’ are shaped by and for the public. Whitlock reproduces an Audi ad that shows [Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran], outfitted in a cream suit, floating among shelves of books in a library (a library that contains no contemporary Iranian literature) above the words: ‘Never let reality get in the way of imagination.’ She is presented as the embodiment of imagination, and yet the ‘reality’ of contemporary Iran, which she claims to reveal to her audiences, is what provides her cultural capital.
Reading these memoirs, like watching bad reality television, gives the false sense that we are being told the ‘truth’ by the powerless at a time when those with the power to construct reality have limited our access to the facts.

The July 31LRB also contains an interesting piece by Megan Vaughn on Richard C. Keller’s Colonial Madness: Psychiatry in French North Africa—a book that explores the history of French psychology in North Africa and its complicated nature as both a progressive and innovative scientific endeavor, and as a means for furthering colonial goals.
Pick up a copy of this month’s LRB to read the full reviews.