For the last event of Hilary term OCLW hosted a panel on ‘Writing War, Writing Lives’ to launch a special issue of Textual Practice with that same title. Lara Feigel, who chaired the event, introduced the panellists and asked them each to speak for five minutes on the notion of authenticity in war writing.
Kate McLoughlin started, focusing on the relationship between authenticity and intangibility. Her article centres on a collection of letters at the National Army Museum in London written by Lieutenant Edward Teasdale, who sailed to the West Indies in 1806. Teasdale wrote four letters to his mother, but she did not respond until sixteen months after his first letter. McLoughlin is intrigued by the concept of a letter that is desired and anticipated. In Teasdale’s case, the desire and desperation is ‘palpable’, constituting a counter-narrative that, McLoughlin argued, has no textual trace except for the absence itself. In the letters that fail to materialise, McLoughlin found productive readings of phantom narratives that are often neglected. While recognising that authenticating these narratives is difficult, McLoughlin felt they were nevertheless important, and suggested the issue for open discussion.
Hope Wolf considered the connection between authenticity and digital life-writing. Wolf’s article looks at Farah Baker’s tweets about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Baker’s digital contributions have acquired a significant following, and she has been described controversially as the ‘Anne Frank of Palestine’. Wolf discussed the nature of Twitter, asking how trust may be ascertained in such a medium. Wolf argued that the ‘real-time quality’ of the tweets makes swift and scantily edited comments come across as more authentic. There is a prescribed fragmentation, imposed by Twitter itself, which does not lend itself to sustained reflective work. The ‘ordinary voice’ (by implication non-literary) takes precedence. Wolf noted how Baker’s age (she is often referred to as a ‘girl) and her gender both suggest that the value of rhetorical skills and the construction of arguments are discouraged. Since patience is not associated with digital technology, Wolf questioned the implication this medium could have for the authenticity of life-writing more generally.
Sue Vice talked to the audience about (in) authenticity, the question of whom we decide to trust. Vice described the case of two American creative writing authors who both claimed to be witnesses of war when they were, in fact, writing fictive accounts. Vice is interested in the boundaries of authenticity – does it define reality or the appearance of reality? How can one trace the appearance of authenticity? Lynda La Plante’s Entwined tells the story of twins in a concentration camp. It was discovered that the author had copied part of this account from the archive of Olga Lengyel, which aroused a great deal of suspicion and judgement directed toward La Plante. Vice gave us another example to consider the problems of defining what is ‘authentic’. Judith Kelly wrote a memoir of suffering in a convent in East Sussex during the 1950s called Rock Me Gently. It turned out that some of the descriptions were copied from Hilary Mantel’s novel Fludd. Vice questioned if this revelation compromised the authenticity of what Kelly wrote. If everybody does it, Vice asked the audience, does it matter?
The final panellist was Santanu Das, who spoke about the problem of recounting the South Asian experience of World War I when the life-narratives are scarce, and the problem becomes one of amnesia and absentia. Lacking literary material, Das worked with sound recordings of prisoners of war. These, he argued, raise fundamental impulses in life writing: the sense of being in the presence of ‘the authentic’, the allure of the archival, the need to establish a narrative to document it, and the tendency to image home in terms of food. Das noted that this material made for complex research, for there is a lot to work with, yet none of it has a narrative. He gave us the example of a postcard from a young girl who learned to write in order to be in touch with her father who was at the front. What happens to the authentic, Das asked, if you don’t have a narrative?
The panellists raised diverse and stimulating questions surrounding the concept of authenticity, which encouraged lively discussions among the panel and with the audience. At the end of the event, several issues stood out: a general suspicion of the notion of authenticity; the value of authenticating intangibles (such as feelings, longings, or touch); the problem of narrating/documenting absences; the difference between experience and representation; the dangers inherent in the seductiveness of the archives; and finally, the political problems surrounding authenticity.