Q&A with Kimberly Theidon

Kimberly Theidon is Henry J. Leir Professor of International Humanitarian Studies at Tufts University and author of Intimate Enemies: Violence and Reconciliation in Peru. In her new book, Legacies of War, Theidon draws on ethnographic research in Peru and Columbia to examine the lives of children born of wartime rape and the impact of violence on human and more-than-human lives, bodies, and ecologies.

You begin your book with a mention that you started writing it during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. This spring, the United States and Europe have been preoccupied with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, while military conflicts around the world, like Yemen and Afghanistan continue. How did you find yourself relating to events like these while writing your book? Has that changed now that the book has been published?

Legacies of War is ethnographically grounded in Colombia and Peru. Having a deep sense of local histories and struggles—as well as the practices of care and hope that animate individual and collective life—is a cornerstone of anthropology, but place-based knowledge is not place-bound. Ethnography informs theory and analysis, which in turns allows me to speak to issues that resonate in other regions. You ask about Ukraine: this morning I opened the New York Times to a story on war, famine, and the purposeful destruction of crops. Starving people out, disrupting their economic livelihoods—the paramilitaries used similar strategies in Urabá, Colombia. Starving and displacing people is not an unforeseen consequence of war: it is a deliberate strategy used time and again. I argue for “connecting the dots” in my book to reveal techniques of violence that are repeatedly deployed yet are made to appear random and far removed from one another. The underlying and shared logics matter.

Cover for Legacies of War: A typography based cover. A red background with semi transparent repetitions of the main text, which is left centered. In white serif lettering, the title, "Legacies of War," sits atop a transparent line that directs to the author's name, "Kimberly Theidon." Below, in orange, is the subtitle, "Violence, Ecologies, and Kin."

You discuss how ambiguous and over-determined the English phrase “children born of war” is. How difficult is it to study and address this issue when the words being used—especially by prominent policy-makers, media members, and scholars—are so effective at concealing the harsh reality faced by children born of wartime sexual assault?

“Children born of war” —or CBOW in policy documents—obscures specificity. CBOW lacks an agent or a perpetrator, and war itself does not impregnate anyone. The language of policy documents may not be the language that allows us to think clearly in our research. Research categories demand greater precision. An anthropologist wants details about age, gender, race, religion, nationality, culture; in short, a researcher needs to incorporate intersectionality into her questions, her categories, and her analysis. The failure to incorporate other identity markers evokes “the danger of a single story.” As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie eloquently argues, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” In this book, I share numerous stories, some of rejection and pain, others of love and care.

As for “concealing the harsh reality of children born of wartime sexual assault”? There is more at stake in concealment and silences. I suspect that one reason children born of wartime rape were and have, to some extent, remained invisible on the international agenda is because there is no reasonable way to discuss this issue from a “survivor centered” perspective without addressing women’s right to abortion—a woman’s right to refuse to lend her body to nine months of reproductive labor. The UN’s Women Peace and Security Agenda, for all of its good intentions and accomplishments, is a framework that placates those for whom a more feminist agenda would be unpalatable. “Mainstreaming gender” can be a double-entendre, as the feminist critique of policy is mainstreamed into an agenda that does not threaten the status quo of powerful countries or interest groups—a move that may obscure the fact that women and their children (especially their fetuses) may be located within competing rights regimes. One cannot finesse away these competing rights. This calls for an explicitly feminist peace-building and post conflict reconstruction agenda, understood to include a full range of sexual and reproductive rights, including access to safe and affordable abortions.

How did you incorporate ideas from the environmental humanities such as theories of entanglement in your work, and why?

I was troubled by the tendency to place the heavy lifting of reproductive labor on the shoulders of women, which leads to reproductive governance more readily than reproductive justice. Uterine myopia is a problem, which is why I focus on the multiple environments in which conception, pregnancy and childbirth unfold—environments that may lie far beyond the control of any one woman, of any one person. From toxic chemicals to land mines, from rivers tinged with blood to angry mountains, the goal was to capture the multiple environments and actors that play a role in “distributed reproduction”— environments and actors that may in turn suffer various forms of reproductive violence. An open-ness to the world and its capacity to “get under our skin” allowed me to draw connections between indigenous epistemologies, situated biologies, and the burgeoning field of epigenetics. I questioned what is involved in “discovering” that our bodies bear life’s signature upon them—or “discovering” that we share this world with more-than-human kin. The trope of discovery follows a particular history of modernity, settler colonialism and capitalism: it is erected on the erasure of indigenous and Native American peoples, their ways of life and their theories about the world and the place of human beings in it. If there is to be a way forward on this planet, it will require moving beyond human exceptionalism and its devastating consequences.

You write about how heavily this research and these stories of trauma and survival have weighed on you. Yet, you also mention that you “found solace” while writing the book (vii). How did you navigate the emotional challenges of writing about children born from sexual assault?

In my research, I have explored what people say they suffer from and how they attempt to set things right. This has required me to hold present both suffering and resilience, and to help my readers imagine what it is that permits people to get up in the morning and believe—despite all evidence to the contrary—that there might be a better day ahead of them and a future for their children. This still remains the most enduring memory of my fieldwork. When I close my eyes, I recall moments doubled over laughing, dancing until we could no longer stand up, children running into my room and piling on my bed, singing until the candles burned down and there were only stars streaming through the cracks in my corrugated aluminum roof. I remember more than endurance. There were also moments of joy that stretched into hours that in turn became days. Even in the midst of violence, life is not only tragic.

I have come to think of writing as a pharmakon, as both poison and remedy. Writing plunges many of us back into the field, yet also offers us a way out, and a way to fulfill the enormous responsibility we feel to the questions we have posed and to the people with whom we have worked. Many of us were sent home with the exhortation to “tell people out there what you’ve seen so they will do something about it.” 1 Writing is one way we honor that charge. It is one way we amplify voices demanding justice.

Finally, I have loved my research, and certainly loved writing this book. I hope readers can feel that we amplify voices demanding justice.

Read the introduction to Legacies of War for free on our website and save 30% on the paperback with coupon E22THDON.

1 The charge to carry a message to some imagined “international community” — imagined as moral, caring and disposed to action if only provided with the necessary knowledge — can be a painful fiction. For example, see Purity and Exile: Violence, Memory, and National Cosmology among Hutu Refugees in Tanzania, Liisa Malkki, University of Chicago Press, 1995.

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