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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2001, Vol. 4 No. 2 .

Remaking A World: Violence, Social Suffering, And Recovery
Veena Das, Arthur Kleinman, Margaret Lock, Mamphela Ramphele and Pamela Reynolds (eds.)

Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 2001
302pp. Pb.: $19.95/£12.95; ISBN 0-520-22330-6.

Remaking A World is the third and final volume on social suffering, violence, and recovery. The first volume Social Suffering (1997) focuses on political violence. The second volume Violence and Subjectivity (2000) explores how collective violence can transform individual subjectivity. This third volume seeks 'to describe the processes through which communities cope with various forms of social suffering' and to analyze 'the societal consequences of violence, in both its spectacular and everyday forms, at the level of local worlds, interpersonal relations, and individual lives' (p.3).

The 'Introduction' outlines the theoretical issues of narration, experience, collective and individual memories, and community and individual healing. The six ethnographic accounts ground these theoretical concerns in local settings. The Kui - an indigenous group - in Thailand creates 'counterhegemonic' networks and alternative discursive spaces that challenge the systemic violence of state power (Chuengsatiansup). The Cree Nation of northern Québec reimagines the meaning of aboriginality as a response to centuries of marginalization and internal colonization (Adelson). The female hibakusha (atom-bombed persons) in Japan create a space for political agency that counters the public representations of them as 'atomic maidens', and 'bad wives and unwise mothers' (Todeschini). In Sri Lanka, victims of the state's counterinsurgency campaign respond to the failure of secular mechanisms of justice by invoking narratives of 'spiritual possessions and avenging ghosts' (Perera). After the 'communal' riots in Dharavi (central Bombay), the fractured muslim and non-muslim communities seek to restore the conditions of coexistence and individual voices through relief work (Mehta and Chatterji, p.229). The women who gave testimonies in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission - an institution and process intended to 'forge a common memory' in post-apartheid South Africa - enunciate their suffering through the paradoxical act of speaking about the suffering of others while remaining largely silent about their own experiences (Ross).

Two striking features emerge from these ethnographies of suffering and healing. The first is the tension between public and private 'truths' and related to this, the limitations of state-sponsored institutional responses to trauma. Clearly the contradictory roles of the state as a perpetrator of violence and facilitator of healing have something to do with the competing representations of social suffering in the public sphere. The second feature is the non-linear experience of time. The present is mediated through remembering and forgetting the past and projecting hopes and fears towards the future. Initiatives for conflict transformation must, therefore, recognize these dimensions of violence, social suffering and recovery.

This volume is a timely meditation on the diverse forms of violence, the culturally acceptable expressions of suffering, and the coping strategies of various social groups that challenges the current dominance of judicial and western reflections on violence and justice. To the credit of the contributors, the suffering experienced by communities and individuals are not reduced to a sentimental victimology. Instead they illustrate the human desire and capacity to reclaim their agency and participate in their own healing processes. Furthermore, their experiences alert us to the importance of addressing multiple levels of healing in post-conflict reconstruction.

Dr Robyn Lui
Australian National University

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