112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

Witnessing Trauma: Violence, Landscape, Memory

Sarah DeYoreo, Portland State University

Looking at Helon Habila’s 2010 novel Oil on Water, a fictional account of the ongoing oil crisis in Nigeria, this paper explores the relationship between legacies of human and geographical violence, trauma, memory, and the role of the journalist as recuperative witness and bearer of testimony. 


This paper explores the relationship between writing in the form of personal narrative and journalism, memory, and the act of giving testimony or bearing witness to traumatic events and experiences in the context of Nigerian writer Helon Habila’s 2010 novel Oil on Water. Drawing on what Edward Said identifies as a fundamental link between colonial and geographical violence, as well as the recent work of postcolonial ecocritics Elizabeth DeLoughrey and George B. Handley, I suggest that writing in Habila’s novel functions as a means of recovering or representing that which has been, through acts of colonial and neocolonial violence, made silent, invisible, or been erased. The first-person protagonist, Rufus, a native of the Niger Delta and a journalist by trade, seeks to uncover or reveal through writing elements of his own traumatic past and of the lives lived in crisis of those around him. Writing here serves as a means of bearing witness, belatedly, to the traumas of conquest and colonization, of describing, recounting, and making visible their lasting legacies. Whereas the event of trauma, like the event of violence, is generally thought of as spectacular and instantaneous, an event capable of being located in and understood as an isolated, momentary incident, the type of writing undertaken by Rufus bears witness to the slow dispersion of violence through people and landscapes (Nixon), the peculiar tendency of trauma to re-announce and repeat itself long after its original occurrence.   

However, even while attempting to restore, recount, and recover, writing in Oil on Water also comes up against the representational limits of its own project, the impossibility of assimilating into knowledge and language the geographical, psychological, social, and historical wounds inflicted by trauma. Rufus’s attempts at recovery, discovery, and (self-) revelation are ultimately futile: his journalistic pursuit of the perfect story, the story in which everything would fit neatly together, in which violence and conflict would cohere into sense, ends unfulfilled. Reading Oil on Water alongside the recent trauma theory of Cathy Caruth, Shoshana Felman, Dori Laub, and others, I suggest that Rufus’s failure to fully represent or bear witness to his own memories and to the memories and experiences of those he meets attests to what Felman and Laub identify as the representational crisis produced by trauma, the inexhaustible wound or void at the heart of traumatic experience. In this sense, writing in the novel serves the additional function of bearing witness to its own limits, of encountering that which cannot be resolved or synthesized into coherent communication or speech. In the face of these limits, what is required instead is an imaginative act that at once grants truth and meaning to otherwise unacknowledged experience and recognizes its own fictionality.