By Caitlin Schudalla
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — The University of Oklahoma’s World Literature Today Magazine presented its annual celebration of influential and innovative international literature with the week-long Puterbaugh Festival, filling the week of April 9-12 with speeches, roundtable discussions, films and a photography exhibit.
Focusing on women’s empowerment around the world, the 2013 Puterbaugh Fellow was Ethiopian writer Maaza Mengiste, whose short stories and essays have appeared in the New York Times and BBC Radio 4, among others.
Joining OU professors Ralph Belliveau, Eric Bosse, Kristin Dowell, Jill Irvine and Kimberly Roppolo in a roundtable discussion, Mengiste discussed issues of awareness, artistic expression and cultural relativism following a screening of “Girl Rising,” a documentary film to which she contributed.
“I was hesitant about addressing the subject of forced early marriage in Ethiopia because I’m sensitive about how Ethiopia is represented to the West — images of downtrodden people holding out their hand — and forced marriage is particularly sensitive because the historical relationship the West has had with African women has been very sexualized and grotesque,” Mengiste said.
Ultimately, Mengiste felt compelled to find and re-tell the story of a young Ethiopian girl named Asmera because of her own family history.
“My great-grandmother was given in marriage at an early age and had my grandfather when she was about 11 or 12. My grandmother was about the same age when she was given in marriage,” Mengiste said. “I’ve had this history in my own life and it hit close to home.”
Asmera’s story, featured as one of nine similar vignettes in “Girl Rising,” was one of triumph over the damaging and highly common practice of forced child marriage, as Asmera refused to marry with the support of her brother and was ultimately able to receive an education as a result.
The screening’s roundtable discussion was dominated by a critical analysis of the film’s depiction of each young woman’s culture, the effect of imperialism on these cultures, and appropriate understanding and aid for young women seeking education in the developing world.
“What’s powerful about this film is that it’s a political act to articulate one’s story on film and see their lives reflected back to them,” Dowell said. “There are themes that carry across these very individual girls, but the media allows for linking and a powerful lesson.”
Dowell also said the film did fail to explore questions of how colonialism and imperialism had facilitated the desperate or disadvantaged situations of the young women in the film. Additionally, Irvine observed that statistics the film presented about the state of women around the world may have been inaccurate.
“Many of the statistics floating by on the screen have been highly contested, productively so — it’s very hard to measure some of the things we’re discussing. Different agencies produce different statistics, it’s extraordinarily difficult to arrive at concrete information,” Irvine said.
“The most important I thing I hope all of you get from this is to understand that behind the statistics are human faces. I find that educating yourselves and understanding what’s really going on is the best thing that each of you can do, so I would ask you to pause and question what you do hear,” Mengiste said.
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