How Can We Write about the Experience of Violence?


Rita Kesselring

In my childhood, books had always been the stuff that you spend your weekends with, your holidays and the hours after homework. They came from the public library, where I hoped not to be asked embarrassing questions when I showed up at the loan desk a second time in a day (one load was limited to four books). Books had always been friendly company. They would speak to you, but not speak back to you. They opened up worlds and thoughts, but never appeared assertive or dominating.

Later, when studying, and especially during the field research for the book Bodies of Truth in the townships surrounding the City of Cape Town, South Africa, this relation of trust and confidence in books changed and became more ambivalent. On the one hand, I consumed all (scholarly) books I could get my hands on relating to my topic: on violence, the body, memory, narration, life in post-apartheid South Africa, struggle biographies… Reading in the evenings while spending my days with apartheid victims, sharing their continuous struggle to find acknowledgement in society and to emancipate from their experiences of systemic violence under apartheid rule, I was trying to find a book, a perspective or a theory that would reflect my own field experiences. It should offer a way of thinking – or of coping, for that matter. I did not find one. Books suddenly became authoritative, misleading, confusing; no longer a gentle company. I struggled to reconcile the social and bodily experiences of field research during the day, and the reads in the evenings.

in-the-skin-of-a-lionLooking back, I do wonder how to understand this change. Was it related to the topic (violence and its aftermath), to the fact that I was in the midst of doing field research, or simply to the fact that I had not found my own voice and was thus fighting against what I perceived as other authors’ presumption? Whatever the reasons, I felt let down by those scholarly books, which should have been closest to my own situation and might have enabled me to understand it.

I felt that scholarly books on the body instead imposed a narrative onto their research subjects and, indeed, subjected persons to theories. In the end, I found little in them to learn about the experience of being embodied – an experience I found crushed by their eloquent (or simplistic) theories.

I was lucky enough to have friends who – unsolicited – sent me different kinds of books. One friend in particular regularly sent me books, one at a time, together with a fitting, funny or random postcard. They were not academic books, and not about a particular topic. He knew the research context I was in very well and possibly selected the books with this is mind (I have never asked him). Among the books were The Wading by Tom Eaton, The Native Commissioner by Shaun Johnson, In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje, and The Discovery of Heaven by Harry Mulisch. They had little or nothing to do with my field of research, they were not imposing their narrative onto my experience; and they were each, in their own way, brilliantly written. They did not claim to explain something; they just were, and thereby showed something to me.

Transit.jpgOther books that were closer to the experience of pain absorbed and greatly influenced me. In Jahrestage (Anniversaries), Uwe Johnson writes a prose that tries to be true to the world without pretending to have found out its truth. He treats the force of language carefully. I had a similar experience with Anna Segher’s Transit.

These books helped, I believe, in separating the issues at stake from a scholarly language that sometimes conceals more than it reveals of the everyday experience of persons. Certainly, scholarly literature about the body and memory have a particularly hard task in this regard, since they must put into words what is often non-predicated and embodied. I too often found they stopped trying, content with eloquently explaining experiences away.

In the course of becoming an author myself, scholarly books have thus shifted from a friendly companion to something I should engage with and have an opinion about, and something to struggle against. Reading fiction books helped me to start writing on how victims experience pain, about current injustices and about the struggle to overcome embodied memories of past violence. They have kept alive in me the wish to write true to what is at stake when people are in pain, when they cannot express their embodied memories in a way that will be understood by others such as their neighbour, their government or courts. Reading fiction opened up the range of styles I could use. Fiction is more generous, I find, in allowing you to first reflect on what you want to say and then find an adequate form for it, instead of letting the form dictate what should be said. It should be possible, though, to write an academic book that combines the openness about the world and curiosity for human action of fiction writing with the precision and clarity of theoretical thinking.


Rita Kesselring is Senior Lecturer at the Institute for Social Anthropology at the University of Basel, Switzerland. She is the author of Bodies of Truth: Law, Memory, and Emancipation in Post-Apartheid South Africa, published by Stanford University Press (2016)