Writing in Times of Crisis: A Theoretical Model for Understanding Genre Formation

Writing in Times of Crisis: A Theoretical Model for Understanding Genre Formation

Amir Kalan
Copyright: © 2021 |Pages: 21
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-6732-6.ch012
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This chapter focuses on a memoir and a film that narrate the experiences of Kurdish writer Behrouz Boochani in an Australian refugee camp in Papua New Guinea in order to show how genres organically develop out of human engagement with social and historical circumstances. The author discusses the novel and the film as examples of how writers' interactions with the world impose rhetorical orientations and nurture genre formation. This chapter illustrates that, as opposed to the dominant view of rhetoric as a means of persuasion, the essence of rhetoric and genre formation is engagement with what the author calls “phenomenological autoethnography.” The author argues that studying writing in times of crisis makes the phenomenological and autoethnographic foundations of writing visible because in crises rhetoric is unapologetically used to resist injustice and build resistance through “poetic realism,” which consists of fluid genre practices that can help capture the complexities of human experience.
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I fled Iran because of journalism and cultural activities. I travelled to Australia by boat but never arrived. I was exiled [by the Australian government] to Manus Island alongside one thousand other people. This is my story: A man who left his country because he didn’t want to live in prison. A man who sought asylum but ended up in a prison for 6 years. My story is the same as 2000 other innocent people. (Boochani, 2019,1:00)

These are the words of Kurdish writer Behrouz Boochani, whose writing and artistic work created and circulated by a smuggled cell phone, brought the world’s attention to the traumatic experiences of large groups of asylum seekers in a refugee camp in Manus Island, Papua New Guinea. In this chapter, I explore some of Boochani’s rhetorical and genre practices to conceptualize an alternative theoretical model that can allow us to revisit some dominant understandings of rhetorical function and genre formation.

Rhetoric is usually treated as “formulation of language for readers” (Rivkin & Ryan, 2017, p. 127), especially through borrowing and arranging more established traditional patterns of communication for effective persuasion (Corbett, 1990; McQuail, 1987; Rapp, 2002). In this dominant view of rhetoric, following rhetorical traditions, attention to audience, and desire for persuasion outweigh interest in the social, political, and power relational factors that impact the formation of rhetorical patterns and shape genres. From this perspective, rhetoric is calculated and crafted by writers, who are assumed to have a significant amount of control over constructing rhetorical structures.

In contrast with this dominant view, there are alternative research and theoretical trends in writing studies which highlight how the contextual layers of writing have a determining impact on rhetorical arrangements and textual genres beyond communicators’ power, control, or sometimes consciousness. Scholars, for instance, have written about the role of gender in writing (Alexander & Gibson, 2004; Jarratt, 2001), imagining individual and public identities through rhetoric (Browne, 2012), employing literacy as a form of activism (Simon & Campano, 2013), rhetoric as imagined construction for giving voice (Grumet, 1990), the connection between economics and written genres (Freedman & Smart, 1997), and the relation between technology and writing (Warschauer, 2007). Another possible way to examine how and to what extent sociocultural, political, historical, and technological contexts determine rhetorical and genre practices is focusing on sample texts created in times of crisis. In a crisis, rhetorical flexibility is not considered an experimental act, but a necessity for responding to unexpected or undesired circumstances. Creating and disseminating text through a crisis period would require separation from rhetorical and dissemination traditions and thus can reveal how societal, power relational, and technological circumstances create genres.

In this chapter, I focus on two works that narrate Boochani’ experiences in Australia's notorious refugee camp Manus Regional Processing Centre in order to illustrate how genres organically develop out of human engagement with social and historical circumstances: (1) No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison, a memoir which Boochani wrote on WhatsApp and (2) Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time, a film which he co-directed on smuggled smartphones. The book details Boochani’s journey from Indonesia to Australia in the hope of refuge in fear of the Iranian government’s threats because of his political activism and journalism, especially as a minoritized Iranian Kurd. The book follows the journey to Manus Island, where Boochani and other asylum seekers were illegally detained by the Australian government for years and experienced torture and death. The film also is a visual account of everyday experiences and struggles of the refugees on Manus. I will discuss Boochani’s writing and art as representative of a large body of refugee literature (Bakara, 2020; Gallien, 2018; Schiltz et al., 2019) that captures the traumas of millions of exiled, displaced, and dislocated migrants, especially in the face of the global COVID-19 pandemic and the rise of xenophobia in the West. Discussing the rhetorical nature of Boochani’s book and film, I will show how writers’ and communicators’ interactions with the world impose rhetorical orientations and nurture genre formation.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Autoethnography: An inquiry/writing genre that hinges on the “self” as its major epistemological lens.

Genre: Socially constructed and accepted rhetorical structures.

Digital Fiction: Fiction created by digital means.

Refugee Literature: Literature that contains refugees’ experiences.

Poetic Realism: A theoretical genre model that regards creative genre formation as a means of capturing reality by encompassing all its complexities.

Smartphone Filmmaking: Low budget alternative filmmaking made possible by smartphones.

Phenomenology: Epistemological study of the impact of positionality on consciousness.

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