Witnessing atrocity through auto-bio-graphy: Wing Tek Lum’s The Nanjing Massacre: Poems
Gayle K. SATO
Abstract I explain the perceptual apparatus of the “atrocity photo poems” comprising The Nanjing Massacre: Poems (forthcoming 2012). In particular, how their graphic depiction of violence arises partly from references to actual photographs and oral histories of the event, but mainly from Lum’s style of documentary realism (developed in his first book, Expounding the Doubtful Points, 1987) that is modeled on a photograph’s modes of conveying information. I use Marianne Hirsch’s concept of the family photo album as a scene of mourning and filiation within Holocaust postmemory, Judith Butler’s concepts of precariousness, grievability, and framing of visual images, and Susan Sontag’s concept of contemplative space to explain how an ethics of witnessing atrocity is built into the narrated scene of a Nanjing poem and the interpretive space between poem and reader, via an auto-bio-graphical, inter-subjective mode of perception and expression. Lum’s auto-bio-graphical witnessing re-cognizes precarity (objectification) as precariousness (subjectification), creates a contemplative space for the reader to participate in such a reformulation of filiation and inter-subjectivity across geopolitical and historical borders, and in doing so, enables the writing of a tomb for the unknown civilian that demonstrates the vital role of the literary arts in critical memory work.
Keywords: atrocity photos, precariousness, autobiography, Nanjing Massacre, Wing Tek Lum
Gayle K. Sato (Ph.D. Brown University 1986) taught at the University of Hawai’i and Keio University before taking up her present post in 1997 at Meiji University, where she is Professor of English in the School of Arts and Letters. Her work has been published in various journals and anthologies of critical essays, including Asian American Literary Studies (Edinburgh UP), Reading the Literatures of Asian America (Temple UP), Amerasia Journal, and Paradoxa. She is co-author of America Viewed from the Asian Periphery: 1850~1950 (アジア周縁から見たアメリカ: 1850-1950, 2010).