IS IT TRAUMA?

A huge wave of traumatic writing happened especially after the WWII, when Jews who came out of the concentration camps alive where trying to either suppress or express their experience formally in books. Many other events of the 20th century caused that writers followed up the form of traumatic writing, trying to find words for the horrors of wars, genocides, and violent coups d'état. Their books create powerful stories, yet which are sometimes difficult to fully understand as it is impossible to logically express something so incomprehensible as trauma. To help you to make sense out of books dealing with trauma I want to share with you some details I've learned so far about formally representing trauma in literature.

The origin of the word TRAUMA - the Greek word 'trauma' means 'wound', originally referring to an injury inflicted on a body. However, in nowadays trauma is inflicted upon the mind

The definition of TRAUMA (described by Cathy Caruth in her book Unclaimed Experience) - trauma describes an overwhelming experience of sudden/catastrophic events in which the response to the event occurs in the often delayed, uncontrolled repetitive appearance of hallucinations and other intrusive phenomena

Collective trauma (described by Angela Conolly in Healing the Wounds of Our Fathers) - suffered by the survivors of the Holocaust/under the entire population under the Stalin regime

Transgenerational trauma - survivors of trauma (for example the Holocaust, slavery, colonialism) transmit their painful recollection of the past and its impact on their children. These children, so-called second generation, lack direct access to trauma of their parents, however, their personalities are profoundly (and often unconsciously) influenced by the past of their parents

Postmemory (a term used by Marianne Hirsch) - when survivors of trauma pass their stories to their children who create their own memories of something they were never physically part of

Haunted narrative - trauma itself is a form of haunting (the past keeps repeating in the present), therefore it is incorrect to talk about traumatic memory as trauma happens all over again in the present, haunts its narrator and influences his narration

Traumatic recall - as I already mentioned, it is incorrect to talk about traumatic memory as people do not immediately remember their traumas, instead the experience of those traumas haunt them, involuntary come back and repeat over and over again in minds of victims. And so their minds recall trauma, yet do not possess any control over it.

Trauma writing -

  • it uses a lot of repetition (for example, sentences start with the same word at least five times, the narrator asks one question over and over...)

  • Narrative collapses as its narrator is not able to make sense out of his trauma
  • Searching for meaning, but none is provided
  • Breaking grammar tenses - jumping from the past to the present as the trauma is happening to its narrator all over again, at the present moment
  • Dissociative behaviour, unable to fit back into the society
  • The death of time ('the discontinuity between past, present and future') and the death of language ('the difficulty of finding narrative forms capable of giving an authentic voice to traumatic experiences') -> quotations used from Angela Connolly's Healing the Wounds of Our Fathers
  • Long senteces  - stream of consciousness - narrator's thoughts and emotions are expressed without any logic, nor interruption
  • Use of photographs - they haunt their narrator, reminding him what no longer is (read for example Maus by Spiegelman) or help to build up reliability of the text (Austerlitz by Sebald)
  • Transversal reading - when a text on page is interrupted by, for example, a photo. This breaks the linearity of the text, signifying the presence of trauma. The text is fragmented which shows narrator's struggle to fully express his trauma.

Educational books about trauma in literature:

  • Gabrielle Schwab - Haunting Legacies
  • Cathy Caruth - Unclaimed Experience
  • S. Felman, B. Laur - Testimony
  • Angela Connolly - Healing the Wounds of Our Fathers

Books depicting trauma and its powerful influence

  • Imre Kertész - Kaddish for an Unborn Child (Nobel Prize for Literature)
  • Art Spiegelman - Maus (combining both trauma and transgenerational trauma)
  • W. G. Sebald - Austerlitz (a fictional story using photographs to create the sense of reality)
  • Nina Bouraoui - Tomboy / Garçon Manqué in original (transgenerational trauma of the Algerian War of Independence)