The Politics of Unspeakability in Yvette Christiansë's Unconfessed

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Slavery and the slave trade have arguably become more visible in the public sphere, globally and in South Africa, since the last part of the twentieth century. The resurgence of interest in slavery in post-apartheid South Africa is evidenced in recent historiography, literature, public culture and memorial landscapes. This is tied to a globally emerging interest in historic formations of slavery packaged in popular culture, and the current increase in human rights politics dealing with re-emerging and new forms of slavery. In this paper I consider one literary example of slavery at the Cape, Yvette Christiansë's historical novel Unconfessed, and argue that the text focuses on what I term the refusal to support the comfortable imaginings of slavery. This is a vital contribution to understanding the history and legacy of slavery in South Africa as it troubles the conventional amnesia or minimisation of the role slavery has played in South Africa's history. By employing Christina Sharpe's idea of ‘monstrous intimacies’ in my critical analysis of the text, I argue that through a refusal of the comfortable associations of the past, Unconfessed represents the enslaved as subjects with agency, voice, interiority and a past. In so doing, the novel allows readers to revisit and acknowledge the ghostly spectre of what the unspeakable horrors and processes of enslavement have produced and meant for South Africa. Furthermore, the novel illustrates that literary examples along with other forms of cultural practice offer vital examples for history contexts that acknowledge the past in different and multiple ways.

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Memory has never been closer to us, yet never more difficult to understand. In the more than thirty specially commissioned essays that make up this book, leading scholars survey the histories, the theories, and the faultlines that compose the field of memory research. The volume reconstructs the work of the great philosophical and literary figures of the last two centuries who recast the concept of memory and brought it into the forefront of the modernist and postmodernist imagination-among them, Bergson, Halbwachs, Freud, Proust, Benjamin, Adorno, Derrida, and Deleuze. Drawing on recent advances in the sciences and in the humanities, the contributors address the question of how memory works, highlighting transactions between the interiority of subjective memory and the larger fields of public or collective memory. The public, political life of memory is an increasingly urgent issue in the societies we now inhabit, while the category of memory itself seems to become ever more capacious. Asking how we might think about the politics of memory, the closing chapters explore a number of defining instances in which the troubled phenomenon of memory has entered and reshaped our very conception of what makes and drives the domain of politics. These include issues of slavery, the Soviet experience, the Holocaust, feminism and recovered memory, and memory in post-apartheid South Africa.