Sustainability (and such)

Is it real or is it revisionist? Does it matter?

Posted by Nancy Van Leuven, Ph.D. on April 26, 2011

The blogosphere is abuzz about murky truth in nonfiction, aka the Greg Mortenson scandal.   Whether you think he’s a bonafide liar or celebrated humanitarian, the incident summons up ghosts of previous fallacies, ranging from the Oprah/James Frey debacle or the world’s response to Rigoberta Menchu’s autobiography about her life as An Indian Woman in Guatemala.  I’ve known of Menchu’s work for years and thus think of it more as a symbolic; that is, what I first read as a suspicious story of family and heritage is now more a global symbol of oppression and philosophy. 

The book elevated Menchu to near-celebrity status when she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992, the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage.  On one hand, she publicizes many of the indigenous traditions that she so desperately seeks to keep alive while also wishing to keep them secret for fear that others might steal her culture.  On the other hand, the autobiography seeks to speak for an entire people as Menchu announces, “This is my testimony.  I didn’t learn it from a book and I didn’t learn it alone.  I’d like to stress that it’s not only my life.  It’s also the testimony of my people…My personal experience is the reality of a whole people.” In speaking for all poor Guatemalans, Menchu also lays out how one individual might turn toward a life of collective revolution in the hope of turning back a cycle of oppression and poverty.  She told her story, I believe, to remind the world that such struggles “know no boundaries or limits” in a quest to deal with modernization and continuing colonialism. 

So, Menchu spoke for others.  And she spoke with much help, given that anthropologist Elizabeth Burgos-Debray interviewed and edited the book, later declaring, “Rigoberta has chosen words as her weapon and I have tried to give her words the permanency of print.”  But it’s not the last time:  Just as critics ripped Menchu’s truthfulness, Mortenson is now being trounced for possibly embellishing the truth to lift our eyes to horizons similarly lined with despair.  We thus continue a cycle in recognizing readings that depict the dialogue between historical constructions of identity – that was actually built and experienced by several cultures – and the self-representation of those who now hope to seize the power of words, ink, and collective history.

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