Political Unease in Testimonial Nonfiction: Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and Dave Eggers's Zeitoun

by Carolin Alice Hofmann

Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and Dave Eggers's Zeitoun, two post-9/11 nonfiction bestsellers, can be read as testimonial texts because both give an account of a personal tragedy. Each of the texts records a real person's experience of suffering, injustice, and hardship, and thus bears witness to trauma on behalf of that person. By testifying vicariously, the books make constant gestures toward their own truthfulness and authenticity, either within the narrative they tell, or in paratexts and other forms of commentary. I am interested in how Skloot and Eggers 'treat' the tragic life they present, that is, how they locate their stories within the larger context of the real events they cover. In Skloot's book, this is the realm of medicine and patients' consent; in Eggers's case, it is the hostility against Muslim Americans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

I want to juxtapose the two popular texts not just because both are works of literary journalism that unravel stories of personal trauma, but because, in doing so, they face similar challenges that are tied to the genre conventions of testimonial writing. First and foremost, the authors oscillate between keeping a critical distance, on one hand, and becoming a part of the story, on the other. Moreover, the books involve controversies over the social issues they address, and reflect unease with their own place in the political discussion they, more and less willingly, participate in. While Skloot reduces the political power of her narrative to eventually tell a story of an exceptional individual, Eggers expands the scope of his narrative to make a larger point about social injustice.