“Scandalous Memoir” — Mahvish Khan's My Guantánamo Diary — III

Posted by patwari on March 27, 2013 · 13 mins read

[This is the final installment of M. Neelika Jayawardane's three-part essay on Mahvish Khan's memoir. A longer version will appear in an edited collection. Previously: I, II ]


Khan's My Guantánamo Diary: A Memoir in the Interstices

Americans love personal confession and public testimony -- whether on the Oprah Winfrey show, in a church or in a memoir — and we tend to give the confessor some level of sympathy. Such sympathy allows the storyteller to negotiate how her/his story is absorbed and shaped by communities of listeners/readers and thus accords that storyteller a degree of educative power through the use of confession and testimony. Although recent scandals in the memoir industry have somewhat discredited the power autobiographical writing once wielded in revealing injustice and thus tainted the genre's truth-telling capacity, the significance we continue to grant testimonials signals the role that public confession might play in fashioning both private identity and our conception of collective political positions in the post-9/11 United States.

The history of memoir writing includes a counter-tradition dissent, in which Khan's memoir finds its foothold, among texts by religious and political outsiders, criminals,an and 'disgraced' women who employed autobiographical writing to re-present and defend themselves to the public at large. Khan's intervention in the public construction of the post-9/11 American self joins the tradition of what scholar Mascuch calls the “scandalous memoir,” in which the writer publishes and publicizes “gross misconduct” in order to “shame” the powerful into correcting wrongdoing and to redirect our understanding of persons who have been disappeared under deliberate misconstructions (189-90).In the U.S., personal narrative is rooted in the nation's Puritan and Protestant history, in which public confessions were central to how notions of identity were policed and governed by one's community, who had an ear to one's innermost thoughts and struggles. Smith and Watson point out that autobiography originated with the the privileged Enlightenment subject who gave voice to “the autonomous individual and the universalizing life story as the definitive achievement of life writing” (3), allowing the individual to negotiate private identity in the public sphere; however, contemporary memoirs permit not just the privileged, but also oppressed people to communicate their life stories to the public.

Khan also quite clearly positions her narrative in opposition to travel stories of conquest and empire. This homes and unhomes readers as they read a 'travelogue' that combines Khan's geographical and personal voyages. Ironically and significantly, Khan's travelogue includes the familiar captivity narratives that recall European travelers' stories of being held by natives, but here, the captives are the natives, and the savage behavior is exhibited by those with whom most American readers would identify as the self.


Khan's scandalizing memoir runs counter to another set of popular personal narratives and memoirs, which were written by and about the veiled other and which flooded the western marketplace at the onset of the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. These best-selling 'invasion romances' about 'veiled' reformist-minded elite -- replete with designer clothing, birthday gift baskets from Harrods, and friendly attitudes towards the West -- helped to consolidate support for the U.S. invasion and occupation. That U.S. military invasions “might be accompanied by propaganda generated by the veiled bestseller may seem bizarre,” writes Whitlock (91); however, she maintains that this 'humanitarian genre of life-narrative is “well adapted to naturalizing an aggressive military strategy as a benevolent intervention” (91). Furthermore, because readers in the west are part of the “mass markets for life narratives” (12) and because these readers are also 'primed' to participate in “Western traditions of benevolence” (13), these memoirs by empathetic narrators from an otherwise terrorizing 'Orient' have tended to move rapidly from East to West; they have become “highly valued commodities for a 'primed' readership” who sought to participate in discourses of human rights that promised a “seemingly uncontested ethics of cross-cultural relations” and to “inevitable and natural moral grammar, which is part of the doxa of globalisation” (13).

Whitlock points out that the “proliferation of life narratives from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran […] produced for the mass market readerships in the West -- the United States most specifically” signals American readers' desire to know the other and thus to create connections of familiarity, the popularity of these narratives is also quite troubling (7). The need to familiarize oneself with the other is, in itself, fraught with problems, partly because the audiences for such romances want, in a manner of speaking, to unveil that other and thereby to control and penetrate the other's unknowability. Rather than creating connections between two cultures, such life narratives tend to enter “circuits of self-construction, where Islam [and Muslims are] objectified as the obverse of Euro-American societies that self identify as 'the West,' driving a constant creation and re-creation of imaginary boundaries between 'we' and 'others'” and aiding the revival of Orientalisms with “renewed vigour” (7, 9).

In contrast to such dominant narratives, Khan's memoir joins a different tradition, one that unveils the political and economic violence of the West's colonizing gaze upon the rest of the world. She writes to discredit the romance of invasion for humanitarian purposes, or in aid of democracy-minded elites, unmasking instead the deeply disturbing rhetoric of power that drives American politics. The detainee voices disturb the coherent narrative of a nation that prides itself on being the global police force of human rights. By Whitlock states that by connecting that seemingly humanitarian narrative to the rhetoric that persuaded the public to go to war, the untold stories of the detainees ask readers to examine “matters of impropriety in the public sphere” and thus help us question the authority of the national narrative (98). Khan's revelation of the horrors carried out by one's own nation connects her memoir to what Smith and Watson identify as part of the tradition of “life writing produced and circulated within contemporary human rights campaigns”: it confronts readers with “emotional, often overwhelming, accounts of dehumanization” and “scenes of witness” that “entwine the narrator, the story, and the listener/reader in an ethical call to empathic identification and accountability, recognition and oftentimes action” (133-134). Smith and Watson contend that “narrative of witness,” seek to “tell a story of radical injury and harm and to claim the stage for a narrative counter to the official story” of continuing state-mandated violence (140). Khan's memoir, as part of this tradition of being “witness,” interrupts readers' desire to “do good” for the other or invade for the cause of the other, and thus illuminates the troubling, shadowy side of this humanitarian rhetoric.


Scandalous Memoirs: Re-constructing Self in Publication, Illumination and Revelation

Of course, books may not have the political influence of other media, b but life narratives can nevertheless mediate between the political sphere of the dominant nation and the personal lives of those whose lives have been destroyed by the GWOT. My analysis of how dangerous counter-narratives such as Khan's are received by audiences owes a deep debt to the students in my seminar courses; my understanding of how the public reacts to the illuminating and revelatory power of memoirs like Khan's began by observing how students in my classes spoke about, argued over, and wrote seminar papers investigating Khan and her narrative these students quite clearly became what Smith and Watson call “co-creators of the text”: they remade “the story through the social codes and psychic needs” of their own political moment (99). Ranging in attitude from cynical to apathetic, m my students typically arrive I in class knowing little about the GWOT; even though most of them have seen the iconic images of men in orange jumpsuits kneeling in front of barbed-wire fences, they generally believe that there was a good reason for the U.S. government's decision to imprison these “terrorists”. However, Khan's and the detainees' accounts triggered a series of transformations in my students' attitudes, leading them to consider what it might mean to be a more engaged citizen. Struggling to understand why they had not previously paid attention to these stories or bothered to investigate further, many students conclude that televised accounts and images on their Yahoo or MSNBC landing pages simply “flit by” on the screen, drawing little of their attention as they peruse the news of the day. Harlow contends that narratives alternative to those in the mainstream media may encourage people to question whether “22 January 2002, the date of the first arrivals of detainees at Guantánamo Bay,” might “perhaps weigh more ponderously than the abbreviated 9/11” on the trajectory of their own nation, as well as on “the new century's global narrative” (3); in my classes, those questions became a significant part of the conversation as we delved into Khan's memoir.

Reading this memoir has given my students space to consider and to contemplate post-9/11 politics with a level of empathy that television or web-based news sources tend to obscure. After reading the memoir's opening pages, in which they learn with Khan that the “prison camp's very existence was a blatant affront to what America stands for” because “there was no investigative process or trial” to determine the detainees' innocence or guilt (1, 2) and how “policy makers had cleverly circumvented legal principles in creating the military detention camp […] where prisoners could be held indefinitely without being charged with any crime” (1), my students often conclude, echoing Khan's own words, “My government has duped me” (Khan 30).

In the end, my students have learned that the processes of both remembering and determining who is authorized to remember are, as Smith and Watson assert, politically charged matters (24). This is especially true in regard to the contested terrain shaped by the authoritative voice of the nation; as Whitlock states, this “'unofficial' public sphere of [the] literary,” in which memoirs like Khan's operate, remains “vital to political contestation and opinion formation” because it allows the reader to become “an agent in complex global dialogues and encounters” and gives her/him a way of thinking through the relationship between conceptions of the self and other” (11). After they have been 'schooled' by Khan's memoir, my students feel not only less susceptible to the regular sensationalism evident in televised and web-based news but also more motivated to investigate matters further using alternate and international news sites, legal documents, and political analysis. Some have even continued, in their future careers as teachers, to design units on 9/11 and GWOT for their own classes. What happens to readers after their initial feelings of helplessness regarding Guantánamo Bay is what most interests me: the ongoing, educative power of Khan's memoir on the reading public, is its power to call readers t to be engaged citizens, long after politicians' sound bites have disappeared from memory.