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20. Narratives and Rights: Zlata’s Diary and the Circulation of Stories of Suffering Ethnicity (Smith 2006)
At this historical moment, the human rights regime is the primary global project for managing injustice and immiseration around the world (Farmer 49), and life stories are at once ground and grist of rights work, rights instrumentalities, and rights politics. This conjunction of life narration, broadly defined, and contemporary human rights activisms, is indeed, as Kay Schaffer and I argue in Human Rights and Narrated Lives: The Ethics of Recognition, a productive and problematic yoking of the decidedly intimate with the global. Since the language of human rights is the contemporary lingua franca for addressing the problem of suffering (Ignatieff 7), the attachment of personal storytelling to the discourse and the institutions of the human rights regime enables survivors of and witnesses to injury and harm to make their grievances public and to draw attention to specific environments of suffering around the world. At the same time, this yoking of personal narrative and international rights politics affects the kinds of life stories and the narrative subject positions that can gain a global audience.
Take, for instance, the post-Cold War resurgence of ethnic nationalism, with the attendant reorganization of politics in Eastern Europe, that has set large numbers of people in motion—into refugee camps, resettlement programs, and diasporic communities in receiving nations such as the United States. Under violent assault, displaced, haunted by traumatic memories, members of ethnic communities turn to life storytelling to extend global recognition of the violence unleashed against people on the basis of their ethnic identification. Their acts of narration emerge out of local contexts of rights violations. But to the extent that local movements “go international,” these witnesses participate through their storytelling in global processes that create a climate for the intelligibility, reception, and recognition of new stories about ethnicity under assault. Gillian Whitlock calls this breakthrough to public attention a “discursive threshold” (144).
Through their stories of ethnic suffering, witnesses expose the violence inflicted by those pursuing the project of ethnic nationalism as a goal of state formation. They also reveal the complexities and conundrums involved in telling stories of ethnic difference and grievance through frameworks and institutions founded on the concept of abstract universality. For many witnesses, the embeddedness of stories of ethnic suffering in the discourses, institutions, and practices of the human rights regime provides the previously unheard and invisible a narrative framework, a context and occasion, an audience, and a subject position from which to makes claims. And yet, in order to circulate their stories within the global circuits of the human rights regime and bring crises of violence and suffering to a larger public, witnesses give their stories over to journalists, publishers, publicity agents, marketers, and rights activists whose framings of personal narratives participate in the commodification of suffering, the reification of the universalized subject position of innocent victim, and the displacement of historical complexity by the feel-good opportunities of empathetic identification.
This case of personal storytelling in the regime of human rights suggests how it is that life narration reproduces, is animated by, and contributes to a paradox at the heart of human rights discourse and practice: the uneasy enfolding of the universal in the ethnic particular. Elicited, framed, produced, circulated, and received within the contemporary regime of human rights, the life story of ethnic suffering at once ennobles an authentic (and sentimentalized) voice of suffering and depersonalizes that voice precisely because of the commodification of suffering in the global flows of the human rights regime. Emerging from a local site of ethnic struggle, the story enters the Western-dominated global circuits through which it can lose its local specificity. It can reach global audiences far from its point of origin, there to be interpreted and reproduced in unpredictable ways, some of which might universalize suffering and elide difference.
In this essay, I cannot possibly do justice to the complexities of the conjunction of life storytelling and the contemporary regime of human rights as that conjunction captures and complicates transnational ethnic formations and the remembering of suffering at this historical moment. What I can do here is to locate one published narrative of besieged ethnicity in Eastern Europe that circulated in the United States, Zlata Filipović’s Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Sarajevo, and elucidate some of the contradictory effects of the commodification of narratives of suffering ethnicity through a rights regime that attaches abstract universality to ethnic difference under assault. I do so in order to assess what we might learn about the mobilization and globalization of personal stories of ethnic suffering in a human rights regime that serves as one of the central “managers” of ethnicity today.
Zlata’s Diary and the Ethics of Ethnic Identities
Reflecting on the dynamic relay between the ethnic, the national, and the diasporic, Ien Ang notes that “the rise of militant, separatist neo-nationalisms in Eastern Europe and elsewhere in the world signals an intensification of the appeal of ethnic absolutism and exclusionism which underpin the homeland myth, and which is based on the fantasy of a complete juncture of ‘where you’re from’ and ‘where you’re at’” (34). She notes, as have Bruce Robbins and Elsa Stamatopoulou, the power of “the principle of nationalist universalism,” or what she describes as “the fantasmatic vision of a new world order consisting of hundreds of self-contained, self-identical nations” (Ang 34; Robbins and Stamatopoulou 425). The struggle to enforce this new world order was dramatically and traumatically witnessed in the events in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. In the midst of the “new Europe,” the people of the former Yugoslavia found themselves the subjects of salient ethnicities.
In the wake of President Tito’s death and the loss of Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe, the former Yugoslavia fractured into ethnic and (tenuously) multi-ethnic states. Croatia and Slovenia declared independence in 1991. In early March, 1992, the government of Bosnia-Herzegovina held a referendum on independence from the Yugoslav federation (dominated by Serbia), which was boycotted by the Bosnian Serbs. The Bosnian parliament declared independence on April 5, 1992. Before official recognition of the decision by the European Community on April 6, however, wars for ethnic dominance and hegemony erupted in Bosnia. Secessionist Serb paramilitaries armed and launched their bid to gain control of the new country for annexation to the Republic of Serbia. Immediately, the city of Sarajevo came under siege, one that would last until a cease-fire went into effect in late 1995. Inhabitants of the mountain-surrounded, multi-ethnic city of Sarajevo, which had gained the world’s attention when it hosted the international athletes and spectators of the 1984 Olympic Games, found themselves trapped inside the blockaded city, forced to organize their everyday lives so as to evade sniper bullets and mortar attacks and to find scarce food and medical supplies. Bosnian Serb paramilitaries, supported by Slobodan Milošević in the Republic of Serbia, pursued a policy of genocide (“ethnic cleansing”) for which they have now been held accountable in the international war crimes trials at The Hague. By early 1994 the United Nations reported that some 10,000 people had lost their lives or gone missing, among them 1,500 children; another 56,000 had been wounded, including 15,000 children. Eventually, the international community intervened, taking action against the besieging Serbs. As the Serbian paramilitaries lost ground, peace negotiations gained momentum. In October 1995, the United Nations brokered a cease-fire in Bosnia; in December the Dayton Accords were signed, establishing the blueprint for post-war stability, which would involve two autonomous governmental entities, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (or the Muslim-Croat Federation) and the Republika Srpska. In late February 1996 the Bosnian government declared the siege of Sarajevo officially over.
Throughout the four-year siege, journalists assigned to Sarajevo reported on the realities of life lived under siege, the deaths of non-combatants, and the devastation of the city and its infrastructure. They brought their stories of the siege to an international public. Yet foreign journalists were not the only ones to provide stories of ethnic cleansing and ethnicity under assault to the wider world. Zlatko Dizdarević’s Sarajevo: A War Journal (1993) chronicled the early years of the siege. Then in late 1993 another personal story reached an international audience, this one the diary of a young girl.
For a two-year period from September 1991 to October 1993, the young Zlata Filipović kept a diary in which she recorded her everyday life in an increasingly besieged Sarajevo. Through her diaristic record of that everyday life, the young Bosnian-Croat described, and sometimes reflected upon, the disintegration of a cosmopolitan way of life and the gradual disruption and degradation of middle class familiality through the war of ethnic nationalisms and the genocidal assault of Bosnian Serb paramilitaries. In the summer of 1993, Zlata shared her diary with her teacher, who subsequently found a publisher in Sarajevo. Through the sponsorship of the International Centre for Peace, UNICEF originally published the diary in Croatian. With the recognition of the diary in Bosnia, Zlata became a “celebrity” victim, labeled “the young Anne Frank” of Sarejevo. Recognizing the affective appeal and power of personalizing the story of the siege through its refraction in the eyes of the young girl, international journalists covering the war turned their attention to “Zlata’s story.”
Several months after its publication in Sarajevo, a French photographer took a copy of Zlata’s Diary to Paris where Le Robert Laffont-Fixot made a successful bid to become its French publisher. Le Robert Laffont-Fixot also provided the money and means to fly Zlata and her family from Sarajevo to Paris just before Christmas of 1993. In early 1994 the French translation of the diary appeared as Journal de Zlata. In this instance, life writing functioned as a means of life saving. The material diary became a commodity through which a life’s sheer survival and betterment could be exchanged. Zlata’s diary writing gained her and her family escape from snipers and the bombs of the siege and enabled her to start a new life in Paris (and subsequently Ireland).
From Paris the diary traveled to New York City, where it was auctioned off in a sale conducted by its French publisher. With a bid of $560,000, Viking Penguin (a subsidiary of Penguin Books) won the rights to publish Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Sarajevo and brought it out in March 1994. After publication in the United States, the diary reached an ever-widening mass audience. Irene Webb of International Creative Management subsequently bought the rights to represent the book in any movie deal. As reported in the New York Times, January 19, 1994, Webb announced: “It’s like the ‘Diary of Anne Frank,’ but with a happy ending” (Lyall C20). Upon publication, the English language version of the diary circulated broadly within the United States, becoming “an extraordinary national best seller,” according to the book cover. Eventually it moved into the social studies curriculum in the nation’s public schools. As one website announces: “Zlata’s diary brings Sarajevo home as no news report ever could” (The Unsung Heroes of Dialogue).
In the years after the diary’s publication, Zlata became a “spokeschild” for the conditions of ethnic genocide and displacement in the former Yugoslavia, appearing through the auspices of the United Nations as an ambassador speaking on behalf of the children of Bosnia. International attention brought increased interest in the conditions in the former Yugoslavia and, after the cessation of fighting, in the rights of the child internationally. In 1995 Zlata appeared as a special guest at the 1995 Children’s World Peace Festival in San Francisco. The attention garnered by the diary and its circulation within the United States and Europe produced an aura-effect around Zlata herself, elevating her and legitimating her as a “universal” voice of the child suffering from human rights abuses. Since those years, Zlata has continued as an activist on behalf of the human rights of children, helping to launch UNICEF reports on the impact of armed conflict on children. Her diary continues to be highlighted as suggested reading on websites mounted by activists working on behalf of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. During the summer of 2004, a stage version of Zlata’s Diary, produced by Communicado Productions, toured Scotland. Though no longer a child, Zlata continues to speak on behalf of besieged childhood from her home in Dublin.
Reflections on This Story of Suffering Ethnicity
Inter-ethnic appeals and the production of collective memory
Through the publication of the diary in the west, “Zlata” becomes a marketable archetype of the suffering victim of ethnic nationalism in extremis. The publication of her story of lost childhood, of innocence under assault, is meant to lend immediacy to calls for intervention on the part of the international community in the ethnic war in Bosnia and the organized acts of genocide carried out in service to nationalist myths and the nationalist “fantasy of a utopic space to be occupied by all those who suffered ‘the same’ violence at the hands of the enemy” (Wilson 16). And yet, the case of Zlata’s Diary suggests how interethnic the appeal to ethnicity under assault becomes.
Within Zlata’s Diary and within its zones of circulation and reception, Jewish ethnicity comes to underwrite the aura of suffering of a largely unmarked Croatian ethnicity. Here is an instance in which one ethnicity gets attached to another ethnicity globalized in world memory through a particular mode of life writing, the child’s diary. Zlata herself invokes the comparison to Anne Frank early in her Diary. Like Anne Frank she chooses a name for her diary. Writing on Monday, March 30, 1992, she opens her entry with “Hey, Diary! You know what I think? Since Anne Frank called her diary Kitty, maybe I could give you a name too” (27). In all subsequent entries Zlata addresses the diary as “Mimmy,” projecting an affectionate and interested interlocutor and keeper of her secrets. Moreover, already in 1993 in Sarajevo, Zlata, at thirteen, was called “the young Anne Frank” (Di Giovanni, v). The identification of Zlata’s story with the story of Anne Frank, its modeling upon the earlier text, its adoption of the earlier diarist’s mode of address to an interlocutor: all these features suggest the way in which the “authenticity” of this contemporary girl, this “Zlata,” derives from the earlier editing and marketing of “Anne Frank” as a figure of universalized innocence and heroic suffering whose celebrity can be borrowed in making claims about the struggle against racial violence and ethnic cleansing.
In Zlata’s self-positioning in her diary as a modern-day Anne Frank and in the marketing of “Zlata” as a new “Anne Frank,” both narrator and marketer assume the global resonance of the iconic figure of Anne Frank, assume that “Anne Frank” will be collectively remembered as having been tragically lost in the Holocaust. The affective appeal of the Sarajevan girl’s story of lost childhood becomes intelligible to a broad educated readership through the global aftereffects of collective world memory of another “ethnic” girl’s narrative of lost girlhood and lost life. The haunting remains of “Anne Frank,” and the aura of the Holocaust as paradigmatic event of twentieth-century genocide, attaches itself to this “child’s” narrative as Zlata and her publishers attach her story to that of Anne Frank, who has, through her widely read Diary, as the website for the Anne Frank Foundation states, “become a world-wide symbol representing all victims of racism, anti-Semitism and fascism. She stands for victims who lived at the same time as she did just as much as for the victims of today. The foremost message contained in her Diary sets out to combat all forms of racism and anti-Semitism” (Anne Frank Foundation). In this instance, Jewish ethnicity functions as an ethnicity of reference in the globalization of the human rights regime.
This aspect of the production and circulation of Zlata’s Diary within the regime of human rights points to ethnic remembering and storytelling as an historical effect of transethnic comparisons; an inter-ethnic energy distributed across unevenly remembered events in world memory. The forces of globalization, Clifford Bob notes, offer victims and activists responding to ethnic violence “symbols of oppression and repertoires of contention” through which to organize and project their local grievances in an international arena (134). Brent Edwards argues that “the level of the international is accessed unevenly by subjects with different historical relations to the nation” (7). I would adapt his argument to make the point that the level of the transnational is accessed unevenly by ethnic subjects with different historical relations to the global circuits of world memory.
The Depoliticization of a Globalized Ethnic Suffering
In her critique of the sentimentalization of suffering, Karyn Ball has called for the comparative study of traumatic histories in order, she writes, “to forge links among traumatic histories that would raise Americans’ historical consciousness and promote their sense of civic responsibility” (15). Ball’s is a call for comparative studies of histories of suffering, necessary to complicating any one model of traumatic remembering, any one paradigm for understanding witness testimony, and any singular model of possibilities for recovery and recognition. In one sense we might read Zlata’s Diary as pursuing, at once consciously and unwittingly, what Ball describes as a “strategy of comparison in order to forge links among traumatic histories” by yoking “Zlata” and “Anne Frank.” Here is a strategy of comparison in action. And yet, this strategy of comparison from the ground up, as it were, and through the perspective of an adolescent immersed in a globalized popular culture, may not so much illuminate the incommensurable differences and the specificities of ethnic histories as it would effect the flattening of history through an appeal to empathetic, de-politicized sentimentality.
As a text commanding response and responsible action, Zlata’s Diary is represented and marketed in ways that sentimentalize the suffering Bosnian-Croat subject by lifting that subject outside history and politics. The commodification of stories of ethnic suffering obscures the complex politics of historical events, stylizes the story to suit an educated international audience familiar with narratives of individual triumph over adversity, evokes emotive responses trained on the feel-good qualities of successful resolution, and often universalizes the story of suffering so as to erase incommensurable differences and the horror of violence. The commodification of the young girl’s diary gives us a version of the story of “Anne Frank”—but with a happy ending.
Yet there is more to the relationship established between the contemporary Zlata and the 1940s Anne Frank. The forces of commodification have framed the earlier diary as well. In successive decades since its initial publication, The Diary of Anne Frank has been edited and interpreted, re-edited and re-interpreted, marketed and circulated, to give some of its audiences an “Americanized” “Anne Frank” situated not in a determinative ethnicity but as an adolescent subject inspiring hope and promise “for everyone.” As an early reviewer of the stage version of the Diary wrote in 1955, “Anne Frank is a Little Orphan Annie brought into vibrant life” (New York Daily News 6 October 1955, qtd. in Rosenfeld). Alvin H. Rosenfeld suggests that the early version of the diary and the 1955 stage play based on the diary, as adapted by Goodrich and Hackett, present “an image of Anne Frank that would be widely acceptable to large numbers of people in the postwar period . . . one characterized by such irrepressible hope and tenacious optimism as to overcome any final sense of a cruel end” (251–2). He further elaborates how the play and its reviews erase the haunting marks of ethnic difference, eliding references to the Jewishness of the Frank family and playing up the figure of the “universal” teenager struggling with her own adolescence and hopeful about the future. The Jewish particularities of the Anne Frank who lived in the attic and died in Bergen-Belsen are suppressed in order to broadcast a story of universal inspiration. Made into a story that “speaks” to “everyone” about what Hanno Loewy points to as “the personalized world of family experience” (156), The Diary of Anne Frank becomes a story that can no longer speak of ethnic difference. The iconic “Anne Frank” becomes an abstract universal “detached from her own vivid sense of herself as a Jew” (Rosenfeld 257). Rosenfeld defines Anne Frank as a “contemporary cultural icon” (244), whose name is so well-known that “[t]o the world at large” the 1.5 million children who perished in the Holocaust “all bear one name—that of Anne Frank” (243). “Anne Frank” has become the child that died in the genocidal Holocaust.
The production, circulation, and reception of Zlata’s story of ethnicity under assault as “the deepest truth about the Bosnia situation” has had the effect of “leech[ing],” according to David Rieff, “the Bosnian tragedy of its complexity” (32). If the category of the ethnic, and the global visibility and saliency of particular ethnic identifications, are historical effects of a modernity founded on the articulation of universal categories of abstract equality (see Kazanjian 4–27), then the trackings of ethnicities enfolded in one another at once create a superfluity of the particularities of difference and cancel differences through the abstract equality (a universalism) of those who share suffering. The figure of the child commodified in the global flows of the rights regime and its management of ethnicity becomes the sentimental public face of ethnic trauma and the violence of ethnic nationalism, the essentialized figure of the community’s “victim” and its victimization. To put it another way, “Zlata,” with her invocation of “Anne Frank,” becomes a universalized category, ethnicity’s besieged child.
The Remains of Ethnic Suffering
The commodification of ethnic suffering also contributes to the ethnic as a site of sentimental attachment. For members of communities experiencing contemporary displacement, ethnicity can function as a trace of continuity across rupture; and stories of ethnic suffering can offer occasions for constituting the remembered past as a resource for understanding identities in the social present (Eller). When Zlata’s Diary enters into circuits of consumption in the United States and western Europe—through the purchase of publishing and film rights—the narrative begins to circulate in venues where it can be invoked as a marker of Croatian ethnicity under assault, or a lost Bosnian cosmopolitanism, thereby sustaining nationalist narratives of suffering and loss so often central to the imagination of the ethnic as a site of sentimental attachment. Because reading narratives of suffering and loss is not only “a profoundly personal act, belonging to a psychological sphere, but . . . also the effect of inhabiting various cultural spaces” (Bennett and Kennedy 7), published narratives such as this diary produce an archive of memories of “ethnicity.” The story might thereby set in motion new releases of affective energies (Guattari 36); and those energies can be put to use in the social struggles over competing rememberings of “Bosnia” and its wars of ethnic nationalisms. This story can become a part of the cultural stories, the reservoir of collective memory upon which ethnic nationalism is both founded and sustained.
For some, then, Zlata’s Diary participates in the production and circulation of new collective memories (for members of the diasporan Croation community in the United States, for instance), offering a future site of melancholy, what David Eng and David Kazanjian define as the “psychic and material practices of loss and its remains” (5). It puts in play residual glimpses of the past as remembered tradition of interethnic community or ethnic grievance. Contributing to “a contemporary landscape of memory” (Bennett and Kennedy 8) through which future subjects may negotiate their ethnic attachments and pasts, the personal diary may underwrite future historical grievances. This narrative of loss told through the voice of the “innocent” child becomes a site of melancholy which “creates a realm of traces open to signification, a hermeneutic domain of what remains of loss” (Eng and Kazanjian 4). The child becomes the sentimental public figure of ethnic trauma.
The Universalized Innocence of Ethnic Appeals
The marketing of Zlata as a victim/commentator on suffering ethnicity presents the young girl in the subject position of unassailable innocent. As Kay Schaffer and I note in Human Rights and Narrated Lives, some survivors of human rights abuses are more easily equated with the subject position of victim than others. The child is, as Hughes D’aeth suggests in his discussion of the film Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002), easily the most accessible and readily believable of victim identities. In the context of human rights campaigns, life narrators are expected to take up the subject position of “innocent” victims; and they are expected to be able to occupy that position with moral authority. And yet, the person whose rights are violated cannot always be assumed to occupy the subject position of innocent victim. The marketing of sentimental suffering, especially through a child’s-eye narrative viewpoint and the trope of childhood lost, obscures the permeability of the categories of victim and perpetrator, and obscures the relationship of perpetrator to beneficiary. Such stories reinforce the differentiated identities of ethnic victim and ethnic perpetrator, reinforce rather than confuse the moral alignment of innocence and victimization. Begging the question of innocence in childhood, we might say that in human rights discourse and campaigns “the child” is given to speak for the better part of “ourselves,” the better part of human nature, the better part of our community. Rieff, in his critique of Zlata’s Diary, assails the way in which the child is made to speak wisdom, to be positioned as the voice of knowledge (33).
The “innocence” effect is produced through Zlata’s self-conscious invocation of the trope of lost childhood and her shifting terms of reference. Within her diary, Zlata is self-conscious about the importance of her narrative, its possible attraction to others. She even writes about becoming a “personality” after the initial publication of the diary. And once interest is expressed in her diary, she begins to reflect on the situation in Sarajevo in rather poignant ways. Zlata’s self-consciousness about her celebrity and her recognition of her role as representative child of Sarajevo emphasizing the tragedy of “lost childhood” (a discourse that comes from the journalists and advocates who take up her story) undoes the truth effect of “innocent child” and the “child’s-eye view” otherwise produced through the diary. Already, within the production of the diary, the politics of commodified sentimentality are evident.
The innocence effect is also reinforced through the packaging of Zlata’s Diary and the paratextual use of photographs that visualize the young girl’s story as a sentimentalized drama of lost childhood. One photograph in particular captures “innocence” and the “production of innocence” at the same time. There is a photo of Zlata in bed, framed by the caption: “Zlata, who loves books, reads by candlelight.” To capture the picture for mass distribution through global media, the candlelight has to be photographed; photographed, it is overwhelmed and rendered inauthentic by the light from the flash of the bulb. Through such visuals, the authenticity of sentimental childhood is at once produced and exposed as artificial, as the reviewer for Newsweek noted (27). My point here is not that the diary is “inauthentic” or “suspect” as witness testimony; it is, rather, that the commercialization of the diary and its immersion in what Lauren Berlant has described as “sentimental politics,” here a politics of the ethical (soliciting response and responsibility across social divides), obscures the difficult politics of histories of difference and violence. We see here the modernist project of producing the authority of universalized innocence.
Saving Whose Child?
The paratextual apparatus of the “introduction” to the diary invites the reader to act in response to this child witness and her story. In her Preface, journalist Janine Di Giovanni orients the reader to the text to come, prompting the reader to adopt an activist stance. She writes: “Zlata kept a careful record of the chilling events—the deaths, the mutilations, the sufferings. When we read her diaries, we think of desperation, of confusion and of innocence lost, because a child should not be seeing, should not be living with this kind of horror. Her tragedy becomes our tragedy because we know what is happening in Sarajevo. And still, we do not act” (xii). Di Giovanni establishes a reading praxis that foregrounds the figure of the innocent child and the trope of innocence lost, orienting a global middle-class readership to the “representative” story of all the suffering children of Sarajevo.
Di Giovanni assumes an adult audience implicated, as surrogate parents, in this tragedy. The journalist can address these readers as passive bystanders to massive human suffering. For the journalist introducing the narrative to the Western reader, the point is to spur an affect of shame. Here, as elsewhere in the era of humanitarianism and human rights, images of children and lost childhoods are invoked to shame individuals, communities, nations, and that imagined “international community” into action. Those images become invitations to rescue. And the reader is addressed as the universal parent, called to respond as the parent of all children. The diary and its paratexts shift the register of appeal from the particularity of the ethnic subject under duress to the universal abstraction of the child of human rights. But the appeal of “the child” in need of saving is that the child is everybody’s child and thus nobody’s specific child in a specific location.
There is yet another large audience for Zlata’s diary, other young people in classrooms in Europe and the United States. An “innocent” victim of and witness to ethnicity besieged, Zlata writes from her location within a middle-class family. And her diary is marketed to a broad middle-class readership educated about, familiar with, and prepared to respond to stories of childhood suffering. The published version includes a cast of family characters and a photo album, with images of the wholesome, open-faced, smiling Zlata, a figure of the innocent child tugging on the sympathies of the reader. The home is middle-class and the occasions of the photos are birthday parties and family outings. The photo album appeals to western readers—both adults and children, presenting a home and a family the educated reader can imagine inhabiting.
Throughout the diary, Zlata’s citation of global popular culture resonates in its references with the lives of young people in western Europe and the United States. The constant citation of a global popular culture (a popular culture whose primary, though by no means whole, point of reference is the United States) situates the subject of the diary in a non-differentiated space of consumer adolescence and global youth culture. In this, Zlata is “representative” of a commodified and “universal” adolescent subject knowledgeable about and attentive to the products, icons, celebrities, and self-descriptions of the global marketplace. As she interweaves comments on the common references of global youth culture and the trope of childhood lost, Zlata assumes the subject position of the universal middle-class child anxious about childhood itself.
The international community looked on, watched the war in Bosnia on nightly news, and failed to take decisive action to intervene in the early years of the siege. Zlata’s Diary made, and continues to make, good reading in the social studies courses of U.S. and European classrooms. But as Thomas Keenan argues so persuasively in his exploration of the mutually constituting intersection of endless images of suffering and political inaction, “images, information, and knowledge will never guarantee any outcome, nor will they force or drive any action. They are, in that sense, like weapons or words: a condition, but not a sufficient one” (114). And yet Zlata herself gained stature as a spokesperson for the UN’s covenant on the rights of the child. She and her story continue to spur occasions for children from around the world to connect through organized and online activities. In this, Zlata and her diary have participated in and contributed to a new arena of human rights activism.
We can, however, turn the argument around once again. Lisa Makman has observed that children themselves have now become the crusading upholders of the rights of the child to a childhood perceived by increasing numbers of people in industrialized democracies as under assault. Makman tracks recent UN discourse about “the world’s children” and attributes this focus on childhood under assault to cultural anxieties, circulating in the mainstream media in the United States, about the “ero[sion]” of a “universal” innocent childhood due to the influences of new technologies and global media (289, 291) Through the commodification of stories of ethnic suffering and the sentimentalized “channels of affective identification and empathy” (Berlant 53), ethnicity’s besieged child is becoming the universally besieged child of a universally besieged childhood.
As a marker of identity and difference, ethnicity is an effect of modernity rather than a residue from the past prior to modernity. Ethnicity, Jack David Eller suggests, is “a radical appropriation and application of otherness to the practical domain” (1997). Thus, modernity involves what Rey Chow describes as “the systematic codification and management of ethnicity” (11). The contemporary regime of human rights is a primary site for this project of codification and management. In human rights campaigns targeted on ethnic rights in the midst of ethnic nationalism in extremis, ethnicity has to be “managed” as immobile difference through a modernist fiction of a totalizing ethnicity (a definitive inside to a collectivity) under assault from an outside (see Chow). Moreover, human rights discourse and campaigns are responses to, and in turn engage in, the production of salient ethnicities and ethnicities of reference.
This case study of Zlata’s Diary and the problematics of ethnic suffering exposes the “logical contradictions” and “epistemic paradoxes” (Kadir 14) enfolded within and enfolding the production, circulation, and reception of personal narratives in the regime of human rights. Abstract universality and ethnic difference are both “mythographic reductions” at once underwriting, energizing, and reconfiguring the human rights regime. Through the pathways and byways of global circuits localized and local circuits globalized, the tensions binding abstract universality and ethnic difference release energies that reconnect, diverge, and converge around the international community’s struggle with injustice and suffering. I have used Zlata’s Diary to reflect on the circuits of ethnicity as sentimental politics in the regime of human rights. And so, let me conclude with some observations about the conjunction of the human rights regime and narrations of suffering ethnicity.
Narratives enlisted in and attached to human rights campaigns participate in the articulation of a history of suffering and loss attached to ethnic identity and the articulation of communal fictions of ethnicity (imaginings and grievances). Narratives of suffering and loss bind communities sharing some common “ethnic” past (of language, culture, defining events), across their local, national, and diasporic differences at the same time that they appeal to others who do not share that ethnic marker. They provide historical information, intergenerational communication, rallying cries, sites of healing. They offer a means to claim rights and demand redress and also to claim a shared past and shared tradition. They ignite an affective charge attached to identity under assault, project a figure of the victim for political mobilization, and serve as a means of shaming the nation and the international community into acknowledging and redressing claims. Because they are so critical to the contemporary regime of human rights, stories such as that presented in Zlata’s Diary become cultural capital, for individuals and for ethnic communities. Sometimes the publication and circulation of a specific narrative becomes a “focusing event” (Bob, 136, citing Kingdon, 99–100) that galvanizes international attention and action, as was the case with Rigoberta Menchú’s I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala (1984), which gained recognition for the situation of Guatemala’s indigenous community in its struggle against a repressive state.
Emanating from local settings that are inflected by and inflect the global, life stories are taken up in a host of formal and informal, material and symbolic, sites and networks where they undergo further transformations. In effect, narratives of suffering such as Zlata’s Diary are produced, circulated, and received within an intricate, uneven, and overlapping set of spheres: the local, the national, the regional, the global. They also travel within overlapping, uneven, and intersecting zones of ethnic identification and affiliation: the diasporic, the transethnic; the national ethnic; and the local ethnic—all heterogeneous zones of identification and historical tracings that are differently located, differently accessed. Moreover, such stories unfold through and enfold overlapping, uneven, and contradictory appeals to ethnic singularity and abstract universality at once.
Finally, commodified narratives of suffering ethnicity enter a global field saturated with multiple modes of appeal and cues to interpretation. They reach for readers/viewers/the public, calling that public into definition (as a middle-class public of parents and children; as an ethnic public of dispersed Bosnian-Croat refugees). As with all such appeals, suggests Thomas Keenan, “the public is the possibility of being a target and of being missed” (108).
I am indebted to Kay Schaffer for her comments on certain aspects of the framing and marketing of Zlata’s Diary. I am indebted to Laurie McNeill for conversation about Anne Frank’s diary. I am also indebted to John Cords and Elspeth Healey for their research assistance.
1. In our study, we look expansively at the multiple sites of personal storytelling attached to human rights campaigns: published life narratives; fact-finding in the field; handbooks and websites; nationally-based human rights commissions; human rights commission reports; collections of testimonies; stories in the media; and the scattered everyday venues through which narratives circulate.
4. Wilson here cites the work of Glenn Bowman and his discussion of the ways in which “the narrating of past mass violations plays a constitutive role in the formation of all nationalisms” (qtd. Wilson 16). Wilson does not give a reference for the Bowman paper.
5. As Rosenfeld makes clear, “Anne Frank” is remembered differently in different communities at different historical moments. After analyzing the Americanization of “Anne Frank,” he goes on to explore the reception of the diary by Germans and by Jewish writers and intellectuals and concludes that “in both Germany and Israel one finds a common history marked by a common symbol but shaped by very different motives and yielding diverse interpretations of the past” (277).
6. Rieff also indicts the way she is made to speak as a commentator on behalf of Bosnian innocence. Comparing the versions of the diary published in Paris and in the United States and the interpolations added to the Viking Penguin edition, he notes the addition of references to political events and critiques of the leaders and their antics (33–4).
7. Stuart Hall has cautioned that cultural formations may work in contradictory ways. There is at once the force of homogenization and universalization across national and ethnic differences through appeals to global mass culture. There is also the incorporation and reflection back through global mass culture of the specific context of ethnic difference and its histories of suffering (Hall 32). I may be overstating the former case here.
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