This essay coins the concept of redactive reading to describe a method for interpreting women’s absences in racialized and gendered histories of collective trauma through M. NourbeSe Philip’s 2008 poem, Zong! In 1781, the Zong crew murdered as many as 150 African captives following a water shortage and tried to claim insurance on victims. Gregson v. Gilbert denied plaintiffs the right to profit from murder without indicting anyone for the atrocity. This diasporic Caribbean poet revives mythological figures—notably, the biblical Ruth—to expose Western law and the English language as insidious tools of epistemic violence. In naming three archetypes that reincarnate “ruth”— the rebellious slave, the lady of society, and the raped whore—this article interrogates the white, patriarchal, imperialist imaginary behind the massacre. Redactive reading is a strategy for reading femininity as a structuring absence on which canons of exclusion—from legal rights to representational politics and the sympathetic imagination—are built.
The Ruth in (T)ruth: Redactive Reading and Feminist Provocations to History in M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong!
nicole gervasio is the 2019–21 Mellon/acls Public Fellow at pen America, a human rights organization in New York. She completed this essay under the auspices of the Carol G. Lederer Postdoctoral Research Associateship at the Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women at Brown University. Her work has been published in Modern Language Studies and is forthcoming in English Language Notes and Women Mobilizing Memory (Columbia University Press). Her book project “Arts of the Impossible: Violence, Trauma, and Erasure in the Global South” examines contemporary non-Western writers’ strategies for reviving suppressed archives and questioning evidentiary forms to promote justice for collectively traumatic acts of unmitigated state violence in world history.
Nicole Gervasio; The Ruth in (T)ruth: Redactive Reading and Feminist Provocations to History in M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong!. differences 1 September 2019; 30 (2): 1–29. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/10407391-7736021
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