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Helen Makhdoumian

Postdoctoral Fellow in the Collaborative Humanities
Global Humanities Thematic Research Cluster

Broadly, my work as a scholar and instructor is driven by bringing the what, how, and why of questions posed in the study of settler colonialism, indigeneity, and arrivant status to bear on the study of remembrance practices. For my research and pedagogy, that commitment means imagining how a relational approach to the study of histories of collective violence and their legacies in two geopolitical regions—North America and the Middle East—can help student and researcher alike revisit and expand upon taken for granted methodologies and discourses in trauma, memory, and genocide studies on the one hand and diaspora, transnational, and migration studies on the other. As a memory studies scholar, I work along three frames of inquiry: the migration of memory, memory and migration, and my contribution to this field, the memory of migration, especially in reference to global population management policies carried out for the maintenance of sovereignty. A full list of my publications, including my public writing, can be found here.

As a CHPP Fellow, I am working on two projects. The first, a book manuscript tentatively titled Nested Memory and the After-Words of Removal, addresses the following: What happens when we recognize that inheritors of traumatic cultural memory can also be witnesses to succeeding events of collective violence? How does the field of contemporary cultural memory studies develop tools to make meaning of the narrativization of those acts of witnessing when such acts occur in context of the displacement of an already diasporic community? I answer these questions by proffering the rubric of what I call “nested memory,” which I develop by analyzing portrayals in Armenian American, Palestinian American, and American Indian/First Nations literary texts of this phenomenon of living through the recursivity of collective trauma. Conceptually, the project illuminates depictions of inherited memories of dispossession and removal—a particular kind of forced migration—that are nested into collective memories of succeeding experiences of upheaval and displacement. As close readings further illustrate, the notion of nesting also accounts for how memory work unfolds in place and how memories are emplaced. Methodologically, the project takes up a contrapuntal approach to build theoretical nuance for the study of removal memory as it is portrayed as reactivated in instances of intergenerational internal and external displacement. Recent public lectures on nested memory can be found here and here.

A second project illuminates depictions of and conceptual discourses on the figure I call the “distant witness.” Specifically, it turns to literary and artistic works of exiles, transnational citizens, and diasporic individuals who confront their relationship to collective trauma that they witness through mediated form and as they live abroad as well as those who portray this experience. Once again taking up a global, comparative approach, examples of aesthetic representation in this project include structural violence in the US and South Africa to events such as the August 2020 Beirut port explosion and the Syrian Civil War. Beyond advancing the study of diaspora relations, Distant Witnesses and Parallel Lives has implications for literary history and theory regarding testimony work. For instance, if adjudication of mass violence implies accountability for wrongs committed and material reparations, then we might take a closer look at the role of the distant witness in instigating calls to respond to testimony morally, politically, and meaningfully beyond accumulation for documentary and archival purposes.