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DemCP colloquium - LAURA BIEGER: "The Committed Writing of Jesmyn Ward: Reading 'Sing, Unburied, Sing' Now"

When:We 07-10-2020 16:00 - 17:00


After the death of George Floyd under the knee of a white police officer on May 25 this year, the words “I can’t breathe” may never sound the same. Over the course of the summer they’ve become a rallying cry in anti-racism demonstrations across the U.S. and around the globe—a contested cry, prompting Black Lives Matter activists to remind white demonstrators appropriating the words to express their solidarity that they can indeed breathe just fine. This demarcation of difference among those united in solidarity against racism is what makes “I can’t breathe” such a striking expression of the present devaluation of Black lives—an expression to think with, bang against, and potentially crack open, rather than merely think about the suffocating realities of anti-black racism in the U.S. today.

This talk is about what literature can bring to this task. And to answer this question, I turn to the work of Jesmyn Ward, a prominent figure in contemporary African American literature and a leading voice in the struggle against anti-Black racism in the U.S. today. I argue that Ward fully embodies Jean-Paul Sartre’s ideal of the “committed writer:” a writer who works across different genres and media to engage her readers with the pressing social and political problems of her time. For Ward, the number one problem of her time is the structural conjunction of racial injustice and social inequality. In her most recent novel Sing, Unburied, Sing breath and breathing play a crucial role in engaging her readers with this problem. My talk unpacks Ward’s poetics of breath and breathing, and in doing so, it ties Ward’s practice as a committed writer to the larger stakes of literary art in helping its readers to take a stance on what it means to be human today.

About the speaker

Laura Bieger is Professor of American Studies, Political Theory and Culture at the University of Groningen, where she co-directs the Research Center for Democratic Culture and Politics. She is the author of Belonging and Narrative (2018), which considers the need to belong as a driving force of literary production and the novel as a primary place and home-making agent. In another book, Ästhetik der Immersion (2007), she examines public spaces from Washington DC to the Las Vegas Strip that turn world-image-relations into immersive spectacles. Her essays have appeared in New Literary History, Narrative, Studies in American Naturalism, Amerikastudien/American Studies and ZAA. Her current research explores ‘reading publics’ as a democratic institution and ‘engaged literature’ as a tool for social change.

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