Mathieu Bokestael

What is a Caring Historiography? Lessons from Sarah Moss’ Night Waking (2011)

This paper examines how historiography and care are not only ‘matters of concern’ but also ‘matters of care’ (Puig de la Bellacasa 2017) in Sarah Moss’ Night Waking (2011). The novel, set on a fictional Hebridean island, relates the story of historian Anna. She is struggling to write her monograph amidst parental care responsibilities, and slowly starts uncovering the island’s history of neonatal mortality. Night Waking’s interrogation of care is multilayered, but is most obviously enacted through the figure of the parents, who operate as prisms that open up multiple intersectional aspects of care on the one hand, and, on the other, allow for the diffraction of care-ethical concepts on different levels: parental-interpersonal, medical-institutional, and colonial-international. A close reading of the novel reveals how the intersectional distribution of parental care irresponsibilities mirrors similar unequal relationships of privileged irresponsibility in medicine and landlordism, both during the British internal colonial project and today. This is the case even though the colonial project and its associated biopolitical violence, institutionalised by medicine, were precisely justified by paternalistic pretexts of care. Moss’ novel thus highlights how the represented communities fall short of a democratic politics of care on all three levels. The question of how, then, Anna is supposed to write her monograph is not only, as the blurb on the back of the book puts it, the pragmatic question of finding ‘a room of her own’ when faced with her husband’s privileged irresponsibility. It is also the question of how a caring historiography, one that precisely does not fall into the trap of multiscalar irresponsibility which Anna sees all around her and one that also takes into consideration the ontological, epistemological and ethical premises of the care-ethical paradigm, can be practised. The paper will explore how well Anna succeeds in this endeavour.

Mathieu Bokestael, University College Dublin, Ireland

This research is part of a larger PhD project on community, immunity, and care in contemporary writing about Scotland, which is generously funded by the Irish Research Council under the Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholarship programme (2021-2025). Grant ID: GOIPG/2021/1261.