Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Sujatha Fernandes's "Curated Stories"

Sujatha Fernandes is a Professor of Political Economy and Sociology at the University of Sydney. She taught at the City University of New York for a decade and holds a visiting position at the Center for Place, Culture, and Politics at the CUNY Graduate Center.

Her research combines social theory and political economy with in-depth, engaged ethnography of global social and labor movements. Her first book, Cuba Represent! looks at the forms of cultural struggle that arose in post-Soviet Cuban society. Her second book, Who Can Stop the Drums? explores the spaces for political agency opened up for barrio-based social movements by a hybrid post-neoliberal state under radical left wing leader Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. In her third book Close to the Edge, she explores whether the musical subculture of hip hop could create and sustain a new global cultural movement.

Fernandes applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, Curated Stories: The Uses and Misuses of Storytelling, and reported the following:
On page 99 I’m talking about the ways in which a national domestic workers organization used a controversial Hollywood film, The Help, in order to raise the profile of domestic workers, and how this strategy received pushback from some domestic workers themselves. The Help had been criticized for resurrecting a mythical “mammy” stereotype, for its comic treatment of the abuses faced by domestic workers, and for centering the plot on the triumphs of a young white benefactor who writes the women’s stories.

One of the domestic workers from the local New York-based organization Domestic Workers United (DWU) noted that the hype of the film created a frenzy of reporters and writers wanting to speak with contemporary domestic workers and get their story: “We’re so in vogue now. Everyone wants our story, everyone wants a DWU story, so they come and put a microphone in your face. And these were the same stories that the women couldn’t speak about back in the sixties, who were still in the backwaters of Mississippi or Alabama.” Just like it was a white woman in The Help who wrote down the stories of the domestic workers, this worker says that it is the same with contemporary domestic workers who have somebody else come in to “take our story and twist it and turn it and tell the story.”

My book Curated Stories argues that in the contemporary period, advocacy organizations, non-profits, and foundations have turned to the use of such curated stories to humanize their issues and gain the attention of the public. I explore how domestic workers used a storytelling advocacy approach to push for legislation that would protect their rights. They told their stories at the New York State legislature, to the media, and in rallies. But they found that the kinds of stories they could tell were highly circumscribed by legal and media venues, and they questioned whether telling their stories of horrific abuse and mistreatment actually brought them any benefits in the end. The book cautions us to be wary of the claim that storytelling may be a universal panacea for marginalized groups, and that while films like The Help may bring coveted modes of mainstream recognition for domestic workers, this may be at the cost of reproducing stereotypes about these groups.
The Page 99 Test: Who Can Stop the Drums?.

Visit Sujatha Fernandes's website.

--Marshal Zeringue