Twitchell's essay examines Dave Eggers's What Is the What (2006) in the context of recent international interest in the morality of uncertainty, a stance which looks to self-erasure, not-knowing, and imaginative empathy as providing both the most humane response to trauma and a generative platform for cross-cultural understanding. Twitchell posits that this turn can be productively situated in relation to two seemingly unconnected “problem” genres of U.S. literature: representations of Africa and memoirs of suffering. By positioning What Is the What—the fictionalized autobiography of a real-life Sudanese Lost Boy written by a white American author—as the limit case for the imaginative representation of distant trauma, two distinct questions arise and converge: how did the fictionalizing of suffering become a means of rendering it usable, and what confluence of events has made it ethically possible for an American writer to offer a first-person account of African trauma? By sketching the recent critical histories of depictions of Africa and memoirs of trauma—each of which have been haunted by the specters of narcissism and fraudulence—Twitchell argues that two seemingly antagonistic cultural imperatives coincided at the moment of the novel's publication: the moral obligation to empathize with distant and dissimilar persons, and a skepticism about the morality of empathic identification itself. She suggests that Eggers's novel proposes a way out of this stalemate by offering a model for empathic response grounded in the ethical value of uncertainty and error, in which representations of Africa and memoirs of suffering function as privileged sites of cultural conversation not despite their inevitable inaccuracies but because of them.
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Elizabeth Twitchell; Dave Eggers's What Is the What: Fictionalizing Trauma in the Era of Misery Lit. American Literature 1 September 2011; 83 (3): 621–648. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00029831-1339890
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