In the conclusion of her book, Cynthia R. Wallace asks, ‘What will you do, once your hands are again free?’ (Wallace, p. 231) She asks this of the reader who has just finished a narrative on suffering, either the ones she outlines throughout her work, or ones they have picked up on their own. She asks it because her desire both for the book and for the reader(s) is to point towards action. To develop an ethic of suffering without developing a method of acting against it is to fail, and for her part, she believes that these narratives are meant to push the reader to see that. Wallace’s book, Of Women Borne: A Literary Ethics of Suffering, delves into this difficult task of exploring how literature deals with and affects our understanding of suffering. Through examining four authors, Wallace opens the discussion to include a variety of experiences. Wallace’s hypothesis of this literary ethic is that by engaging with these texts, ones she refers to as giving a ‘nuanced ethics of suffering’, the reader enters into an ‘ethical relationship with both the text and the material world’ (p. 210). She posits that this relationship will allow the reader to understand the varied types of suffering and call for action in this. It is not enough, she argues, to ‘do nothing’ (p. 208) after developing the knowledge of suffering. In fact, her definition of liberation theology could be transposed here: ‘…[it] refuses the binaries not just of spiritual/material but also of mind/body: it fundamentally links embodied action with metaphysical contemplation’ (p. 150). Wallace’s ethic of suffering is developed by both contemplation on the fact and action to overcome it. While it can certainly be said that her purpose of writing is a more nuanced, detailed version of her ending question, I believe that the best way to read this work is through the lens of that question. It is unfortunate that this comes at the end, as the reader would be well served by having a clear understanding of the thread that weaves throughout the reading of the four authors and Wallace's thinking. However, after having read her conclusion, I believe that Wallace’s desire to spur action in her readers is noted through her consistent acknowledgement of the value and purpose of suffering. As she says in the introduction, we must understand how to ‘read suffering’ (p. 31). If suffering can be purposive, then what Dorothe Sölle argues is correct—love is seen as justice (p. 30). It is then through this that Wallace allows us to see the diversity of suffering through a diversity of writers. She begins with the writings of Adrienne Rich, largely focusing on Rich’s understanding of the suffering of motherhood. In here, she first explains ‘pain is not to be sought [but] can be transformed’ (p. 51). This type of suffering, the kind that ‘leads to the mitigation of oppression’, (p. 76) is what Wallace sees as the active suffering feminist scholars support. It is not suffering that is passive or needless, but instead it is reminiscent of Christ. His ‘meekness’ (p. 54) his allowance of suffering was purposive. His suffering allows us to overcome our suffering. Similarly, a mother must suffer for her child, and in this both are transformed and strengthened. This redemptive suffering is further explored in her chapter on Toni Morrison. While she discusses the tragedy of Morrison’s characters, particularly those who have suffered rape and lost their ability to put language to it, she demonstrates how important it is for us to transform suffering. In this chapter, Wallace’s strength of understanding abounds. Here she is able to do what Morrison’s characters cannot; she gives language to the suffering. While acknowledging that often the oppressor’s language must be used, (p. 98) Wallace demonstrates that telling the stories of those who suffer allows the reader to step into their shoes. This gives the reader the ability to participate in the reality of another’s suffering, even if it is quite removed from their own experiences. This chapter details the point and purpose of the book with clarity and real depth, and Wallace’s work could almost end here with the same end. This is not to say that her remaining two authors are needless, however. Her exploration of Castillo and Adichie are both well thought through and helpful in continuing to diversify her literary exploration. While they continue on the same path, the understanding of redemptive suffering, it is worth noting especially that in her chapter on Adichie she expands her idea of suffering to include sight. In this chapter, she repeatedly demonstrates the blindness to the suffering, changing her concern from silence to ‘Did you see?’ (p. 206) Adichie’s book, Half of a Yellow Sun, gives us a narrative of people living through the Biafran War (which Wallace explains as ‘the civil war in Nigeria…lasting from 1967 to 1970’ (p. 197)). This story, even more removed from her personal experience, allows her to explain the need to expand the boundaries of what it means to suffer. She argues against ranking suffering or prioritizing it. She expands the label of sufferer, asking ‘Who is the most guilty?’ (p. 202). Again, her ability to lead the reader into a moment of realistic empathy is important and helpful when thinking through how these literary works can lead to action. No longer is it simply a matter of whose suffering is more important, but how can the variety of suffering, even of those who seem guilty, allow us to transform. Again, I am reminded of her final question. What will I do, now that my hands are free? Now that I have both the head knowledge and the emotional impact of the sufferings of others? Once I see that I am not alone in my own wounds, but that I also may not overlook the wounds I have caused, the wounds I have witnessed, or the wounds I know little about? It is a question I carry with me, which is, I believe, the most valuable thing that can be said about Wallace’s work. Woven into the heavy academic writings of her work is the more valuable narrative. Her experiences reading the books, her understandings of them, and the narratives themselves take centre stage in the text. It is worth the read simply to experience those. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press 2017 This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs licence (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/), which permits non-commercial reproduction and distribution of the work, in any medium, provided the original work is not altered or transformed in any way, and that the work properly cited. For commercial re-use, please contact email@example.com
Literature and Theology – Oxford University Press
Published: Dec 16, 2016
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