Sunday, June 20, 2021

Rhiannon Graybill's "Texts after Terror"

Rhiannon Graybill is W.J. Millard Professor of Religion and Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, TN. She is a scholar of the Hebrew Bible whose work brings together biblical texts and contemporary critical and cultural theory. Her research interests include prophecy, gender and sexuality, horror theory, and psychoanalysis and ancient Near Eastern literature. Graybill's books include Are We Not Men? Unstable Masculinity in the Hebrew Prophets (2016).

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Texts after Terror: Rape, Sexual Violence, and the Hebrew Bible, and reported the following:
Page 99 is in the middle of chapter 4, which is focused on the story of Hagar and Sarah (Genesis 16 and 21). Here’s an excerpt:
Hagar and Sarah, Entangled

While I have described the literary dyads of Frances and Bobbi, and of Roberta and Stevie, as “friendships,” that term undernames the hostility, violence, and mutual pain that characterizes both pairs. Bobbi is deeply hurt when Frances, strapped for money, publishes a story that is clearly about her. She is also upset by Frances’s relationship with Nick. Frances, too, has her own fraught feelings toward Bobbi—jealousy, vulnerability, heartbreak, rivalry. In Supper Club, Stevie and Roberta spend much of the novel trying to sabotage each other; romantic jealousy is only a small part of the complicated mess of emotions and petty acts of violence that characterize their ongoing reactions. If these details seem “smaller” or “pettier” than the plots of Genesis 16 and 21—rape, contempt, near-death theophany, and so on—this is indeed the point. I am interested in a reading that shifts the focus away from the moment of sexual violence and onto a larger context of entangled relationships. And this way of reading is in fact in alignment with the biblical text, which presents Hagar’s rape as one facet of a larger story of violence, competition, and a relationship that can’t seem to untangle itself.

When biblical scholarship takes up the issue of entanglement in Genesis 16 and 21, it is often from the perspective of intersectionality. Intersectional critique is an important part of feminist critique more broadly; intersectionality describes the ways that categories such as gender, race and ethnicity, class, sexuality, and disability interact with and on each other. A central claim of intersectional theory is that forms of oppression are not simply additive; neither are they separable. In the case of Hagar and Sarah, this means we cannot read the story only from the perspective of gender (Hagar and Sarah are both women), of ethnicity (Hagar is Egyptian, Sarah is a [proto]-Israelite), class (Hagar is a slave, Sarah is her owner), or disability (Sarah is infertile, Hagar is not). Instead, we need to consider these questions of identity, privilege, and oppression together. In the case of Genesis 16, this means that Sarah’s class solidarity, or perhaps merely her own self-interest, overrides any gender solidarity she might feel toward Hagar as another woman in Abraham’s household. Similarly, Hagar’s status as slave and foreigner intersects in complex ways with her able-bodiedness, represented as fertility.
More than anything, page 99 gives a good sense of the style of Texts after Terror and the kind of arguments it makes. Scattered in the first full paragraph are references to Sally Rooney’s novel Conversations with Friends (the references to Frances and Bobbi) and Lara Williams’ Supper Club (Stevie and Roberta). In the chapter that page 99 is a part of, I discuss the tendency in contemporary fiction to tell stories about women with really fraught and complicated friendships, and for these stories also to include rape – but as a secondary or even unimportant narrative detail. I use this literary comparison to find a new way of reading the story of Hagar and Sarah, which is clearly a story of rape – Sarah tells her husband Abraham to have sex with Hagar and conceive a child, Hagar never consents. This doesn’t all come across on page 99, of course, but the basic critical move of juxtaposing texts and seeing what emerges is there, along with the feminist perspective I bring to interpretation.

The second paragraph on page 99 talks about intersectionality and how this helps us read Sarah and Hagar. This is a little more complicated, as I go on in the book to show the limits of intersectionality, and even to critique it. But page 99 does showcase, again, the way the book brings biblical texts together with contemporary ideas from feminist theory.

The kind of juxtapositions that are found on page 99 (and, I think, make it interesting!) are found all over Texts after Terror. In the introduction, for example, I introduce the problem of biblical sexual violence with reference to Kristen Roupenian’s viral short story “Cat Person,” which was published in the New Yorker in 2017 and remains a flashpoint in talking about bad sex, female agency, and consent. In another chapter, I read the biblical book of Lamentations together with contemporary writing by survivors of sexual violence, including Carmen Maria Machado’s recent memoir In the Dream House. My book explores a number of other ways of interpreting, including what I call “unhappy reading” – if only that term had appeared on page 99!
Learn more about Texts after Terror at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue