As a fiction writer, I was intrigued by Greenberg’s summary of Styron’s Nat Turner novel and the controversy it elicited upon its release. The concern about Styron’s skin color relative to Nat Turner’s reminded me of the controversy, albeit slighter in scale and vehemence, that Dave Eggers faced when he released What is the What. In that novel, Eggers (a white man) tells the true story of a Sudanese refugee in a fictionalized version of the refugee’s voice. Some readers and critics expressed concern that perhaps Eggers had usurped this refugee’s voice, that perhaps Eggers should have just ghost-written/helped the refugee write his own story, that perhaps there is something that just “feels funny” about the idea of a white man presuming to tell a black man’s story from a black man’s perspective.
The controversies around these novels by Styron and Eggers bring to mind Spivak’s essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” In this essay, Spivak suggests that any time a westerner attempts to tell a story of another culture, or of an individual from another culture, his telling is held hostage by his own western-influenced motivations, assumptions, and economic interests. Spivak charges that research is a fundamentally colonial enterprise that, intentionally or not, denies the subject’s voice because the western researcher is incapable of speaking in anything other than his own paradigm.
So, Spivak would likely say that Styron and Eggers are not, in fact, giving their subjects a voice. Spivak would likely be more critical of Styron than Eggers, because Eggers at least had the consent and invitation of his subject to write What is the What (in Styron’s case, Turner hadn’t been available for consultation in more than a hundred years, and seemed to take that as a different sort of invitation to speculate and invent). I must also conclude, then, that Spivak wouldn’t give Greenberg’s piece a pass, either. Personally, I found Greenberg to be a writer who was consciously and dedicatedly attempting to be objective in his postulations, always considering multiple angles, multiple contexts, and offering multiple musings on any given aspect of his research on Nat Turner’s rebellion. Greenburg especially does an excellent job of reminding the reader to read the Confessions critically, seeking out moments that are likely in Gray’s voice and moments that are more likely in Turner’s voice, as well as encouraging the reader to consider silences and omissions in the text as voices in their own right. But who is really speaking in Confessions – and who is really speaking in Greenberg? Whoever it is, in either case, it’s not Nat Turner.
To consider, now, Kyle Baker’s graphic novel, and its near wordlessness (save for the Confessions source material), is another opportunity to muse on the question of who is really speaking, and to listen for what is really going on in the silence that dominates this “reading” experience. An author photo reveals that Baker is an African-American; so, can he give Nat Turner speech? Maybe, though maybe not. Baker’s choice to incorporate Turner’s Confessions, while really interesting and artfully suggestive, does seem to preserve the presence of Thomas Gray over the narrative events. For example, Baker illustrates the scene where Nat attempts to kill his master but is unsuccessful (114-115). While Baker does depict Turner’s rage, he is loyal to the narrative, in which Nat fails to “speak” through the violence of his rebellion, requiring often the aid of others to finish off his victims.
So, is it simply the case that Nat Turner could not, cannot, and will never speak? I suppose so, if you buy into Spivak’s argument. I’m not entirely sure if I do, though. I’m not a scholar of Spivak or even of theory in general, so I’ve been working from my hazy recollections of undergrad coursework in this post (and hopefully not embarrassing myself in doing so). But it seems to me that theorists like Spivak don’t do much to encourage westerners to study or even talk about racism (a relevant point, since I seem to recall someone mentioning in class last week a piece he/she’d seen about how uncomfortable white people are in talking about African-American history/texts/etc.). Which is why Greenberg’s active call for a new retelling of Nat Turner’s story was so intriguing—and now that Baker has answered it, what do we make of it? I wonder if Greenberg’s challenge is still on the table, for as artful and thought-provoking as Kyle Baker’s graphic narrative is, to what extent does a collection of wordless illustrations appended to Turner’s/Gray’s Confessions amount to a re-telling? Perhaps, in a way, this question is related to our discussion about whether Baker’s narrative can be considered literature; to that, I say yes, but I do wonder about this question of re-telling, and what that might or should entail. Or maybe the call has been answered, for, perhaps, as Greenberg suggests, the re-telling is in the not-telling; maybe the silence in Baker’s novel is the real narrative.