By Ricky Shear, HI Graduate Research Assistant
Dr. Gabriela Polit, Associate Professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, led the April 11th session of the Humanities Institute’s Faculty Fellows Seminar. She discussed her latest book, Unwanted Witnesses. Journalists and Conflict in Contemporary Latin America, which “look[s] at the work done by journalists covering conflict” in Latin America and aims to “bring to the public eye what it takes to write a story of social suffering (i.e. migration, displacement, armed conflict, narcotrafficking, impunity, force disappearance, domestic violence, etc.) under extreme circumstances.”
Polit’s seminar discussion focused on the writing of cronistas, Latin American journalists who act as witnesses to the “quotidian” aspects of social events and conflicts. Polit suggests in Unwanted Witnesses that cronistas’ stories, also known as crónicas, are more concerned with personal narratives, small details, and aesthetics than other forms of journalism. She explained to Faculty Fellows that spending time with cronistas like Patricia Nieto and Marcela Turati caused her to see the cronista’s investment in reporting the personal and the quotidian as driven by a commitment to listen well to others, to understand “listening as a way of writing.”According to Polit, in the context of social suffering the cronista’s “listening to the words uttered by someone who has a need to be listened to and understood” has an “ethical quality.” Listening well produces an understanding between speaker and listener that allows the cronista to “transfor[m] stories of pain, trauma, and social suffering into stories of empathy, care, and affection that could eventually lead to political action.”
Polit told Faculty Fellows that Unwanted Witnesses makes journalists both its subject and one of its target audiences. By voicing the experiences of cronistas and examining the challenges they face when writing about their own and others’ suffering, Polit suggested that she hoped to give representation to those who risk their personal safety and mental health to represent victims of social conflict. Spending time with several cronistas, including one who was killed during the writing of Unwanted Witnesses, has made the prevalence and seriousness of violent threats to journalists all too clear to Polit. Thus, Polit has crafted Unwanted Witnesses to enable readers to better understand and appreciate cronistas’ journalistic techniques as well as the sacrifices they make to produce their work.
Polit pointed to Patricia Nieto’s Los escogidos, a book-length crónica about the practice of retrieving the bodies of people killed and dumped in the Río Magdalena as a result of armed conflict in Colombia, to provide Faculty Fellows with an example of cronistas’ experience of writing about trauma. In Unwanted Witnesses Polit describes Nieto’s struggle to write about traumatic events earlier in her career and indicates that for Nieto “writing becomes a process for healing a person after trauma.” Polit claims that Nieto “emphasizes the importance of the pursuit of beauty as an introspective journey, rather than the pragmatics of storytelling” in her journalism. Nieto merges journalistic and aesthetic writing in Los escogidos to craft a reflective and transformative account of social suffering, according to Polit. Nieto’s pursuit of beauty through aestheticized writing shapes personal and communal trauma into an “inner voice” through which victims may assert themselves to “claim reparation from the state.”
Faculty Fellows were moved by Polit’s description of cronistas’ experiences of trauma and violent retribution and responded by making connections between Polit’s research and the experiences of journalist and academic friends and colleagues. They pointed to resonances between her work on writing and trauma and the work of colleagues Gloria González-Lopez and Jamie Pennybaker. Fellows also reflected on Polit’s discussions of the functions of listening and representation in cronistas’ work. They considered why crónicas’ representations of injustice and traumatic experiences do not always lead to political action, and questioned whether the empathy evoked and conveyed by cronistas’ listening-based writing style makes readers more likely to work towards social change.