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Soft Weapons

Autobiography in Transit

Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran,Marjane Satrapi’s comics, and “Baghdad Blogger” Salam Pax’s Internet diary are just a few examples of the new face of autobiography in an age of migration, globalization, and terror. But while autobiography and other genres of life writing can help us attend to people whose experiences are frequently unseen and unheard, life narratives can also be easily co-opted into propaganda. In Soft Weapons, Gillian Whitlock explores the dynamism and ubiquity of contemporary life writing about the Middle East and shows how these works have been packaged, promoted, and enlisted in Western controversies.

Considering recent autoethnographies of Afghan women, refugee testimony from Middle Eastern war zones, Jean Sasson’s bestsellers about the lives of Arab women, Norma Khouri’s fraudulent memoir Honor Lost, personal accounts by journalists reporting the war in Iraq, Satrapi’s Persepolis, Nafisi’s book, and Pax’s blog, Whitlock explores the contradictions and ambiguities in the rapid commodification of life memoirs. Drawing from the fields of literary and cultural studies, Soft Weapons will be essential reading for scholars of life writing and those interested in the exchange of literary culture between Islam and the West.

216 pages | 9 halftones, 4 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2006

Biography and Letters

Literature and Literary Criticism: General Criticism and Critical Theory

Middle Eastern Studies


“Gillian Whitlock’s Soft Weapons is a beautifully attentive reading of the ‘intimate work of self-invention’ in the life writings of authors at risk in the war on terror. Whitlock’s focus is on the textual cultures through which they pass, their transit through uses ranging from their reception as eloquent acts of witness through propaganda, and the commodification of cultural difference. In its attention to the networks of relations through which texts are realized, Soft Weapons is politically engaged literary history of the most productive kind.”

John Frow, University of Melbourne

“At once a heartfelt and thoughtful affirmation of the power of autobiography, and an intelligent and trenchant critique of the commodification and, indeed, political co-optation of life stories in our current global moment, Soft Weapons makes for fascinating and surprising reading. By focusing on the explosion of life writing from the Islamic Middle East, Whitlock calls for an expansion of our conceptual and theoretical understanding of life writing so that we might account for new subgenres—blogs, autoethnographies, and ‘autographics.’ Her attention to the marketing of lives and life stories offers a welcome contribution to current controversies about authenticity and ‘truth’ in autobiography.”

Marianne Hirsch, Columbia University

"An engaging and thoughtful new study of contemporary Middle Eastern autobiography...With its dire implications for anyone still devoted to humanistic ideals about literature, Soft Weapons is an especially timely and important collection of essays."

Jasmin Darznik | Women's Review of Books

"Soft Weapons is a stunning scholarly and intellectual tour de force, a model of excellent critical reading, and a sound argument for how and why reading—and reading well—still matters.  In fact, Soft Weapons teaches why reading critically—to consider the transits of books as market commodities, tools of propaganda, acts of often compromised political resistance, authentic testimonies, and repositories of highly charged cross-cultural exchange—matters more urgently now than ever."

Victoria Kuttainen | Politics and Culture

Table of Contents

Introduction: Word Made Flesh
1. Arablish: The Baghdad Blog
2. The Skin of the Burka: Recent Life Narratives from Afghanistan
3. Testimony Incarnate: Read My Lips
4. Branding: The Veiled Best-Seller
5. Tainted Testimony: The Work of Scandal
6. Embedded: Memoir and Correspondents
7. The Pangs of Exile: Memoir Out of Iran
Bookends: AutoGraphics


New South Wales Premier's Lit Awards

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