Slide 1: My Thesis proposal is on trauma in the fiction of Sherman Alexie and Leslie Marmon Silko. In my thesis, I wish to examine Native American literature through the lens of trauma theory.
Slide 2: First, I would like to talk about trauma studies before I move on to discussing trauma in relation to Native American literature.
Applying trauma theory to Native American literature could be considered problematic for a number of reasons.
Critics consider trauma fiction to be a paradox because if the experience of a traumatic event resists language and representation then how can it be narrativised in fiction.
Craps and Buelens accentuate the “Eurocentric blind spots of trauma theory” (10) with it focus on the Holocaust.
Also, Van Styvendale contends that imposing an Euroamerican framework on Native people and using the nomenclature of trauma risks “the danger of revictimization” (206)
Slide 3: Trauma can be divided in to three categories: personal, cultural and historical trauma. There are connections between each and all are relevant to the works of Alexie and Silko.
Slide 4: Neil Smelser, in Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity, defines cultural trauma as “an invasive and overwhelming event that is believed to undermine or overwhelm one or several essential ingredients of a culture or of a culture as a whole.” (38)
Historical trauma is also called intergenerational trauma because it is a cumulative emotional and psychological wounding across generations that emanates from massive group trauma experiences.
Dori Laub observes that “the trauma of the holocaust is inherited by the children of the holocaust survivors” (qtd. in Van Styvendale 219)
Durran, Durran and Braveheart maintain that intergenerational trauma exists because it’s effects manifest themselves through present-day symptomatology”. These include alcoholism, suicide, and violence, which are prominent themes in Alexie’s work.
Slide 5: There’s links between psyche and history because the traumatic past is carried forward into the present.
Alanis Obomsawin highlights the traumatic memory in the collective psyche of Native Americans by saying: “We’re carrying a pain that is 400 years old.”
Cecil White Hat states: “PTSD happens around an event, an event with a beginning and end. For Native people, the trauma continues. There hasn’t been an end”.
This inheritance of trauma, which is also known as “the survivor’s child complex” is evident in Jewish survivors of the Holocaust.
Kirbey Farell suggests that it leads to what he calls a “post-traumatic culture” and I think this culture is evident in the works of Alexie and Silko.
Slide 6: Furthermore, I think historical trauma could also define identity because in fiction dealing with trauma the protagonist functions to express a unique personal trauma but the protagonist also conveys a collective experience. So the protagonist magnifies a historical event experienced by a collective.
Slide 7: This is evident in Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony. The protagonist Tayo functions as a cultural figure to accentuate the historical event of Native American genocide through Native American involvement in WWII. Tayo returns from WWII with PTSD as a result of a specific war event involving the death of his brother, Rocky. Sophie Croisy maintains that “Tayo’s traumatic web is intermingled with the web of life, the web of human history.” (89) Silko’s Tayo demonstrates that personal and historical trauma is interconnected and contributes towards the formation of identity.
Slide 8: Furthermore, in Alexie’s Indian Killer. In “Mythology”, the first chapter, John Smith recreates the scene of his birth and returns to the trauma of his adoption but he reconstructs it as a kidnapping. Van Styvendale asserts that the fictionalization of John’s traumatic story alludes to the tenet in trauma studies that trauma cannot be known or represented directly. Therefore, it can only be “represented indirectly through it’s narrativization.” Anne Whitehead contests this tenet in her book Trauma Fiction.
Slide 9: Alexie in an interview with Tomson Highway notes that John Smith goes mad during the course of the book. Critics interpret John’s schizophrenia as a metaphor for his fragmented subjectivity.
Also, the rage in the novel, which is evident from the eye gouging and scalping could be perceived as related to trauma because it is an intergenerational anger.
Alexie states: “The United States is a colony and I’m always going to write like one who is colonized, and that’s with a lot of anger”. This demonstrates again the effects of historical trauma and how it is expressed in Native American literature.
Slide 10: However, there is a division in the critics’ camp about personal and collective trauma. Craps and Buelens note that traditionally the study of trauma focuses on individual psychology but colonial trauma is “a collective experience”.
On one side, you have LaCapra, Erikson and Hutcheon who assume an unproblematic translation from individual to collective trauma.
On the other side, Llyod, Saunders and Aghaie warn that a simple metaphorical extension may be reductive and politically irresponsible.
Slide 10: Conclusion: I think trauma theory is useful in understanding colonial trauma. Novels that deal with trauma convey emotional states through an array of narrative innovations and techniques. Such as landscape imagery and pathetic fallacy; a nonlinear plot and disrupting temporal sequences convey the difficulties in representing trauma and the confusion associated with it.