I am new to this forum, and it is a real relief to find a community like this, since information on how to apply is so limited. I am looking for advice on my Statement of Purpose- would anyone be willing to read it (tailored for Columbia's program) and give me feedback? If so, I would greatly appreciate it and am happy to reciprocate!
“What we accept in life we cannot accept in story,” protests J.M. Coetzee’s Susan Barton, the heroine transcribed from William DeFoe’s Robinson Crusoe into J.M. Coetzee’s Foe, one of the many novels I analyzed for a graduate seminar thesis entitled “Mut(e)ilations: The Loss of Voice and the Voice of Loss in South Africa,” which earned me a 2004 writing award at the University of Cape Town and a 2005 Award by UCDavis’ English Department. I describe Susan’s remark as a “protest” deliberately; Foe is Susan’s dissent against the grand narrative of Robinson Crusoe, a text she decries as Defoe’s attempt to create an anesthetized legacy from her witness narrative. From my examination of Coetzee’s literature, my experience living in the South African society left as a consequence of apartheid, and my study of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I argued that to begin a process of healing in post-apartheid South Africa and indeed, the many histories of national trauma in the 20th century, the country must memorialize and inscribe within its national canon its history of forgetting people; and must reveal instead a story of disappearance and a disappearance of story, a tale of lost tales.
Living in South Africa and studying its literature has led me to consider the use and misuse of language to represent silence in traumatic histories. Those familiar with DeFoe’s original text will remember the slave Friday, literally rendered speechless by the text. Transplanted into Coetzee’s text his mutilated tongue alienates him from communication, his consequent silence subject to wanton interpretation and mistranslation. I found this act of interpreting and assigning meaning to the silence of the victim as much an act of violence as denying the victim expression through language altogether and decided to probe it further in other literary contexts.
My experience exploring the violence of both muting and assigning a ventriloquist to silenced victims drew me to a course in Holocaust Literature. My senior thesis explored how the stories told through children’s Holocaust literature has and will construct Holocaust memory for upcoming generations. Here, I found myself again surrounded by attempts to fix meaning to a silenced people. In my senior thesis for this course, I argued that much of Holocaust knowledge comes to us filtered through literary fiction written about it, its narrative reinterpreted through modern politics, cultural attitudes, motives and agendas. While doing so keeps the history interesting for and relevant to modern audiences, it is also a ventriloquist’s act. I maintained, as I did in my study of South African literature, that the literature of traumatic cultural memory must acknowledge the essential ambiguity of the victim’s story, the history of silencing and the silences in the historical narrative, and the capacity of language to both give voice and to subvert it. I concluded that we must recognize in the subaltern story its essential ambiguity and our inability to fix meaning to it; that our only recourse is to eulogize and memorialize the trauma and the loss. We cannot and must not attempt to recover an irretrievable language.
In pursuing my PhD, I would like to consider the issue of how to tell the tale of a silenced witness, how literature grapples with the problem of the untold stories in global postcolonial and postmodern literature, and our motivations for interpreting told and untold stories as we do. My knowledge and interest in 20th century literature has been informed by an array of courses on contemporary literature and history (I was a history minor with an emphasis on Judaic studies), and during that time, I cultivated a sensitivity how the witness narrative has become as much political and diplomatic task a factual one.
After leaving my work with the Memorial, I accepted a research position with the IJCR, a think tank devoted to social and demographic issues. Here, I consider how and why textbook publishers choose to incorporate versions of post-Holocaust history into their texts. Surveying varieties of historical accounts reminds me once again that history is more a discourse than a reality, a myth imbued with the political, social, and moral agendas of the people who tell it. Working at the Institute has allowed me to hone my research skills and, critically, confirmed my ambition to pursue further academic scholarship. It has given me distance and perspective on career goals, allowing me to enroll in Hebrew and German courses, which will allow me to access primary documents in my chosen field. I have taken a distanced and analytic view of my two theses, expanding upon and reconsidering many of the initial concepts, arguments, and conclusions I originally asserted. I have determined that I not only wish to pursue this study, but that I can best do so within the framework of Columbia’s English PhD program. In my quest to better understand the violence imposed by silence and silencing the witness, I found myself greatly influenced by Professor Spivak’s work on the subaltern and by Professor Damrosch’s study of literary allusions to antecedent texts in order to create new layers of narrative meaning. Significantly, my thoughts on using literature as a means through which to bear witness have been heavily influenced by Professor Hirsch’s preoccupation with the limits of language to represent traumatic memory.
I do not suppose that as a PhD, I will understand or explain the episodes of trauma and violence in history, or the massive effect it has on the way we construe ourselves and construct our surroundings. I do, however intend, as a graduate student, to understand how and why our society is compelled to bear witness, and to project a theory about what type of story we, as witnesses, will tell. My wish is to research, document and influence the texture of that memory, to become a witness and a storyteller myself and to help weave the narrative that will pass on to the next generation.