Fact, Fiction and Slavery Testimonials

fiction-in-archives-pardon-tales-their-tellers-natalie-z-davis-paperback-cover-artThe Cambodia Daily published an article on October 13th called “Sex Slave Story Revealed to be Fabricated. (Hat tip to Joel Quirk for this.)  Coincidentally I was reading Natalie Zemon Davis’ book Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and Their Tellers, thanks this time to my York colleague and big Davis fan, Amanda Glasbeek. Reading about pardon tales from 16th century France and child sexual exploitation in 20th century Cambodia may seem to be a strange pairing but both tell us about the value of fiction, the strength of narrative, and the always contested and sometimes irrelevance of fact.

The article from the Cambodia Daily recounts the story of a young woman, Meas Ratha, who had been interviewed in 1998 as a teenager about her experience as a sex slave in a Cambodian brothel; the interview with Somaly Mam was described as “harrowing on-camera testimony”.  This year Ratha went public again, stating that “her testimony for the France 2 channel was fabricated and scripted for her by Ms. Mam as a means of drumming up support for the organization”.  Ratha now says that this was a story based on a composite of other girls and coached by the director of the NGO which was providing her with housing and education. As an articulate young person, she was identified as making a good witness to the horrors of sex slavery. However, she was in need of support due to her family’s poverty, not sexual exploitation. Nonetheless her narrative assisted in giving a profile to the NGO and its Director. In a resource scarce economy of donors and NGOs, there is also a political economy of good stories/ good victims.

sample image of 16th Century French manuscriptNatalie Zemon Davis’ work reminds us of the ways and means of shaping a series of events into a story, “the crafting of a narrative”.  She is interested in the ways in which people in 16th century France told their stories and “what they thought a good story was”. While one can compare the versions of events with other sources, the construction of the tale is what interests Davis. Further, she argues that fictive qualities do not necessarily imply falsity but can help the audience make sense of the tale. And as we see in the 20th century, the social conditions in which the story is told determines many of the constraints and possibilities for the teller. (Kay Schaffer and Sidonie Smith’s work on life stories in human rights campaigns is particularly instructive.)

In the case of Meas Ratha, her age, poverty and relationship to her interviewer determined the story she told. But so too did the larger political context of activism around sexual slavery and child exploitation. There was a receptive audience. Today, her story also resonates within a broader politics, this time a skepticism about oral testimonies. While there has been a boom in memoirs published by former child soldiers, victims of human trafficking and child brides, there have also been concerns raised about the authenticity of some of those accounts. This goes to the heart of the academic debates within history and social sciences concerning the value of qualitative research based on interviews or archival documents such as letters and diaries. Fiction in the Archives demonstrates that much value can be drawn from understanding how the narrative is crafted and what makes a good story in this century or the past.

Natalie Zemon Davis will be speaking at York on October 24th.

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