I am back in Colombia on a fairly short trip, and having fantastic research conversations. I'm so grateful to get to think with smart committed activists who are up for having difficult conversations about different ways to do solidarity. In particular I've been talking about gender and how it shapes international accompaniment day to day, and different ways that accompaniers respond to various forms of sexism, sexual harassment, and the possibility of sexual violence.
Since I'm busy chewing on that, rather than write my own blog post I want to share one related to those issues. I've long been a fan of the blog the Llama Diaries and was lucky enough to finally get to sit down with the author Anna on this trip. She recently wrote a great post about the difficulties of sharing stories about violence in Colombia without reinforcing stereotypes. With her permission, I'm reposting it below in its entirety.
In the peacebuilding Olympics,
I am a medal contender for the storytelling event. There is nothing I
enjoy more than a dramatic (complete with arm flailing and sound
effects) recital of something that I have experienced. My favourite is
my motorcycle accident. Each time the pus explosion is a little larger
and the audience is a little more awed by my survival.
Currently, my job is telling stories, but what I tell and how I tell
it is more than a job. It is an ethical responsibility, especially
because my the majority of my audience is not made up of Colombians, but
people whose only experience of Colombia is based on my stories and
general stereotypes. I write from a position of power. What I say is
taken as truth about the realities of this place. I am developing a
Spanish section, but not everything I write is accessible to those I am
writing about. The stories I tell about my experiences are filtered at
home through Canadian experiences, knowledge and culture.
Representations are easily misinterpreted.
We like to rescue people. We love individual heroes. My facebook
newsfeed is constantly filled with petitions and stories of violence and
victims worldwide, especially related to sex trafficking and rescue
industries. We share these stories because, as human beings, we care and
want to make a difference in the lives of others and the stories that
we tell have the power to move people into action. But what action? And
based on what information? Who is actually telling the story? And how
does that story play into globalized realities of colonization, economic
structures and power inequalities?
Money and other resources are funnelled into situations and towards people because of the stories we tell. Last month, Newsweek’s cover story
was an expose about Somaly Mam, a famous Cambodian woman in the sex
trafficking rescue industry. It turns out, how she was portraying
herself and the supposed victims of trafficking, was blatantly untrue.
Yet, in part because of her stories and the prominent support she
received from influential people in the US,
billions of dollars have been poured into an industry which does little
to actually examine the structural causes of migration, labour, and
economic policies; it’s main goal is to make us feel good about ourselves and our power to save. In reality, many of the woman “rescued” in Cambodia end up in foreign funded sweatshops, creating our clothes. (An excellent book on the topic is Laura Agustin’s Sex at the Margins.)
As Chandra Talpade Mohany reminds us in Feminism without Borders,
“Writing is itself an activity marked by class and ethnic position.
However, testimonials, life stories, and oral histories are a
significant mode of remembering and recording experiences and struggles.
Written texts are not produced in a vacuum. In fact, texts that
document Third World women’s life histories owe that existence as much
to the exigencies of the political and commercial marketplace as to the
knowledge, skills, motivation, and location of individual writers…After
all, the point is not just to record one’s history of struggle or
consciousness, but how they are recorded; the way we read, receive, and
disseminate such imaginative records is immensely significant.” (78).
What happens when I, as a Canadian, write a graphic description of an
experience of personal violence in Colombia, for a Canadian audience,
as a blogger for Canadian Mennonite recently did?
There is a good chance that the context in which the situation took
place will not be familiar or understood by my Canadian audience because
they do not live here. Instead, their understandings of violence in
Colombia may be be further cemented towards stereotypes. The victim of
the incident may become the hero, for being brave enough to live and
work for change in such a dangerous place, while the Colombians already
working for change remain unseen and unheard.
Even though the experience is true, Colombia is misinterpreted
and the structures and stereotypes that have helped contribute to
increasing urban violence across Latin America are perpetrated. Policies
of structural adjustment, free trade deals, deportation of migrants,
military interventions: all of these global realities remain
unacknowledged and an opportunity to think critically about our negative
role is lost because no context is provided.
When our stories portray Colombia as a land of chaos, filled with
terrorists, random violence and poverty, we justify Plan Colombia and
other interventionist policies. We rationalize the spending of
development dollars, such a the collaboration between mining companies and giants of the development world, on economic policies that end up harming the people we believe we are helping. We ignore the Colombians already working for change and become heroes. It helps to remember, as Magaly Sanchez
points out, that “Rather than viewing violence as a personal deviation
from societal norms, it is more appropriate to consider it a product of
structural inequalities, a social phenomenon in which multiple actors
resort to the use of violence under similar social circumstances and in
mutually reinforcing ways, not as isolated individuals.”
This does not mean that we cannot share our stories of violence.
#yesallwomen is a powerful opening to talk about the global violence
against women everywhere. To deny our own stories simply because they
happened outside of our local context is to also become a victim. But by
choosing to work and live in another context, we also must accept the ethical responsibility
of how and where we tell our stories so that violence and stereotypes
do not continue to be perpetrated, especially when, because of language
and publication location, those we write about are not able to respond.
Even the way I tell my accident story or write this blog is implicated
and requires revision.