Thesis Proposal (20 March 2011)

Provisional Thesis Title: ‘Weaving a Traumatic Web: Trauma in the Fiction of Sherman Alexie and Leslie Marmon Silko.”

My thesis proposes to examine trauma in the fiction of the Native American authors Sherman Alexie and Leslie Marmon Silko. Sherman Alexie is a Spokane/Couer d’Alene Indian writer, poet and filmmaker who subverts the stereotypes of Native Americans in his fiction. For example, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, The Toughest Indian in the World and Ten Little Indians are three collections of short stories that undermine depictions of Native Americans from literature and film. Alexie’s work, however, also questions the concept of Indian identity or ‘Indianness’, which is evident from the short story “A Drug called Tradition” and the film, Smoke Signals (1998).

Leslie Marmon Silko is a Native American writer of mixed ancestry from the Laguna Pueblo Tribe. At the core of her writing is an examination of what it means to posses a mixed blood Indian identity; a liminal state between white and full traditional Indian. Alexie establishes himself as a representative of Indian people by constructing an authentic Indian identity devoid of stereotypes. Silko, however, hesitates to situate herself as a representative of her people because of issues concerning Native authenticity.

Defining ‘Indianness’ or determining an identity that can speak for and represent Native Americans is a complex issue complicated by Native Americans’ history of colonization and the blood quantum percentage of Native American heredity, which is a U.S. government imposed criterion. Some tribes, however, divorce tribal identity from blood quantum percentage or genetic inheritance, and use the practice and involvement in tradition Indian lifestyle and affairs as a representation of cultural identity, which exposes the problem of anyone assuming Native American identity based on cultural pragmatics rather than genetic factors. By comparing Alexie’s and Silko’s identities, I will discuss in my thesis Native authenticity and how the cultural and historical trauma of colonization contributes to the formation of Native American culture and identity, as depicted in Native American literature.

Critics such as Anne Whitehead acknowledge that trauma fiction is a paradox because if the experience of a traumatic event resists language and representation then how can it be narrativized in fiction? (3). The development of trauma theory, however, provides alternative methods of conceptualizing trauma, which over comes the aforementioned paradoxical dilemma by focusing on how and why trauma is remembered.
Trauma is present in both Alexie’s and Silko’s work, but my thesis will not suggest that their work is trauma fiction. However, I propose to examine the way trauma is conceptualized in both their fiction, by using trauma theory to examine the relationship between trauma and fiction, how trauma is transcended by the cathartic act of writing fiction, how Alexie transcends trauma by utilizing humour, how violence and rage are symptomatic expressions of trauma, and how trauma contributes to the formation of Indian identity.

The primary texts I will be referring to for Alexie include Indian Killer, Flight, Reservation Blues, and a selection of short stories from The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, The Toughest Indian in the World and Ten Little Indians. For Silko, I will be focusing on Ceremony and Almanac for the Dead. I may also refer to additional texts, poems and/or films to reinforce my argument.

The application of trauma theory to Native American literature is a relatively new field of research because traditional trauma studies tends to focus on European literature with such events as the holocaust, and Western literature involving the Vietnam war, 9/11 and the war in Iraq. Trauma studies exclude non-Western literature, but it could also be applied to African American and Native American literature to name but a few. The purpose of my thesis is to broaden the horizon of trauma studies by demonstrating that trauma theory is applicable to Native American literature.

However, this could be considered problematic for numerous reasons. Van Styvendale, for example, contends that imposing an Euroamerican framework on Native people and using the nomenclature of trauma risks “the danger of revictimization’ (206). In response to this, I aim to argue that colonial trauma is present in the collective psyche of Native Americans and not acknowledging it and depriving it of a theoretical framework could also be considered as a form of victimization in itself. The majority of trauma theories were formulated in Europe and America, which vindicates the use of this theoretical framework on Native American studies.

Furthermore, in my thesis I will treat trauma as three different distinct categories that are interrelated and interconnected. These can be divided into personal, cultural and historical trauma and each of these are present in Alexie’s and Silko’s fiction.

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) Jeffrey C. Alexander writes in the same book:

Cultural trauma occurs when members of a collectivity feel they have been subjected to a horrendous event that leaves indelible marks upon their group consciousness, marking their memories forever and changing their future identity in fundamental and irrevocable ways. (1)

Historical trauma, on the other hand, is a cumulative emotional and psychological wounding across generations that emanates from massive group trauma experiences. This is also known as intergenerational trauma. Dori Laub, one of the trauma studies critics whose work I will be employing for my thesis, observes “the trauma of the holocaust is inherited by the children of the holocaust survivors” (qtd. in Van Styvendale 219). The effects of intergenerational trauma “manifest themselves through present-day symptomatology” (Durran, Durran and Braveheart 61). These include, for example, alcoholism, suicide, and violence, which are prominent themes in Alexie’s work and the trauma-induced, psychosomatic speech loss of Tayo in Silko’s Ceremony.

Psyche and history are also linked 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 also exemplifies this by stating: “PTSD happens around an event, an event with a beginning and end. For Native people, the trauma continues. There hasn’t been an end” (qtd. in Wesley-Esquimaux and Smolewski 55). This inheritance of trauma, which is also known as “the survivor’s child complex” is evident in Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. Kirby Farrell suggests that it leads to what he calls a “post-traumatic culture” (3), and this is portrayed in Alexie’s film and literature.

With that in mind, my thesis will argue that cultural and historical trauma contributes the formation of Native American identity and culture. This is because in trauma fiction or fiction dealing with trauma the protagonist functions to express a unique personal trauma, but the protagonist’s story also conveys a collective experience. The protagonist, therefore, magnifies a historical event experienced by a collective.

However, there is a division among critics concerning 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” (4). On one side, LaCapra, Erikson and Hutcheon 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 (Craps and Buelens 4). I will argue in my thesis in support of the former assumption that the translation of individual trauma to the collective trauma of Native Americans is unproblematic because of the visible signs of cultural and historical trauma in their collective psyche , which is expressed in their literature.

As well as trauma theory, I aim to incorporate post-colonial theory, which examines the impact of European colonization on non-European people and culture into my argument because it examines colonial trauma. Two of the four key post-colonial theorists I aim to employ are Frantz Fanon and Homi K. Bhabha. This will be useful to my argument because the central concepts of post-colonial theory are representation, identity and history. These theorist also incorporate the influential thinkers of Post-structuralism such as Derrida, Barthes, Lacan, Foucault and Kristeva in to their theories, which I may also incorporate into my argument. Trauma studies is closely linked with psychoanalysis so my thesis will also use Freud’s and Lacan’s interpretations of trauma as a foundation for interpreting trauma in Alexie’s and Silko’s fiction. Since I will be discussing issues of identity, ethnicity and Native authenticity, I may also draw from theories of identity and ethnicity to support my claims.

With regards structuring my thesis, I aim to have three chapters of approximately 4-5000 words in length with and introduction and conclusion, comprising of 1-1500 words each. In my introduction, I will discuss the history of trauma studies and the utilization of trauma theory in interpreting Western and European literature on the Holocaust, Vietnam War and 9/11. I will also discuss how it may be applied to Native American literature and its contribution to the field of research. I will also discuss how personal, cultural and historical trauma impacts the development of Native American identity. This leads into my discussion of issues of ethnicity and Native authenticity resulting from mixed blood identity.

In chapter one, I will discuss trauma and the formation of a personal and collective identity in Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony and Almanac of the Dead. Although a substantial body of literary criticism has been written about Ceremony and Almanac of the Dead, there does not appear to be much, if any, published research examining Silko’s work using trauma theory. This enables my thesis to contain a substantial amount of originality.

The non-linear structure of the narrative and analepses in Almanac of the Dead resembles the narrative strategies of trauma fiction. In Ceremony, 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 (post traumatic stress disorder) as a result of a specific war event involving the death of his brother, Rocky. I aim to argue that Tayo’s trauma is a microcosmic representation of the collective trauma of Native Americans because he demonstrates the interconnectedness of personal and historical trauma that formulates identity. I will also discuss Tayo’s mixed blood identity, akin to Silko’s identity, in relation to Native authenticity.

In chapter two, I will discuss the symptomatology of trauma and the “post-traumatic culture” (Farrell 3) depicted in Alexie’s fiction. As I mentioned earlier, alcoholism, suicide and violence are prominent themes in Alexie’s fiction, which I will argue are the result of a combination of personal, cultural and historical trauma. Alexie’s own personal trauma is expressed in his work with his preoccupation with dysfunctional, father-son relationships, which I will argue may be interpreted as a microcosmic representative of the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized. Here I will incorporate post-colonial theory into my argument. For example, Homi Bhabha uses the term hybridity, which emphasizes the interdependence between the colonizer and the colonized.

Furthermore, I will also examine how Alexie’s use of rage and violence in Indian Killer and other works is symptomatic of trauma because it is an intergenerational anger from the trauma of colonisation. “The United States,” Alexie states, “is a colony and I’m always going to write like one who is colonized, and that’s with a lot of anger” (“Seeing Red” par 15).

In chapter three, I will investigate how personal, cultural and historical trauma is transcended through the cathartic process of writing and humour, which Alexie acknowledges in interviews. Kenneth Lincoln in Indi’n Humor: Bicultural Play in Native America focuses on humour as a means of transcending genocide and as a survival strategy. I aim to examine Alexie’s use of humour by focusing on a few short stories from his collection of short stories and with reference the use of humour in other texts such as Reservation Blues, Flight and An Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. To supplement this point, I may draw a comparison with other fiction dealing with trauma. I will also draw a comparison with Alexie’s and Silko’s treatment of trauma with other works dealing with trauma.

Consequently, it shall be contended that trauma theory provides an alternative insight into interpreting Native American literature. Trauma is a cross-cultural phenomenon that is expressed in all forms of ethnic literatures. Even though the majority of acknowledged theories of trauma are formulated from European and American experiences, this thesis aims to show that trauma theory and studies should not be excluded from non-Western literary application. I shall argue trauma contributes to the formulation of individual and cultural identity, but this is also interlinked with the problem of defining Native authenticity or ‘Indianness’, as a result of colonialism.

Works Cited & Already Consulted

Alexie, Sherman. “Seeing Red.” Interview with Gretchen Giles. Sonoma Independent 3-9 Oct. 1996. Web. 17 Feb. 2011.

Alexander, Jeffery C et al. Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity. Berkley: U of California P, 2004. Print.

Brown, Laura S. “Not Outside the Range: One Feminist Perspective on Psychic Trauma.”Trauma: Explorations in
Memory. Ed. Cathy Caruth. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1995. 100-12. Print.

Bhabha, Homi. “DissemiNation: Time, Narrative and the Margins of the Nation State.” The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994. Print.

Caruth, Cathy. Interview with Aimee L. Pozorski. Connecticut Review 28.1 (2006): 77-84. Web. 26 Feb. 2011.

—. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1996. Print.

—. “Trauma and Experience: Introduction.” Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Ed. Cathy Caruth. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1995. 3-12. Print.

Christie, Stuart. “Renaissance Man: The Tribal “Schizophrenic” in Sherman Alexie’s Indian Killer.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 25.4 (2001): 1-19. Wilson Web. Web. 10 March 2011.

Craps, Stef, and Gert Buelens. “Introduction: Postcolonial Trauma Novels.” Studies in the Novel 40.1&2 (2008): 1-12. Project Muse. Web 05 March 2011.

Croisy, Sophie. “Reimagining Healing after Trauma: Leslie Marmon Silko and Judith Butler Writing the War of Culutres.” Nebula 3.2-3 (2006): 86-113. Web 15 Feb. 2011.

Duran, Bonnie, Eduardo Duran and Marie Yellow Horse Brave Heart. “Native Americans and the Trauma of History.” Studying Native America: Problems and Prospects. Ed. Russell Thornton. Wisconsin: U of Wisconsin P, 1998. Print.

Farrell, Kirby. Post-Traumatic Culture: Inquiry and Interpretation in the Nineties. Maryland: Johns Hopkins UP, 1998.

Fitzgerald, Kathleen J. Beyond White Ethnicity: Developing A Sociological Understanding of Native American Identity Reclamation. Maryland: Lexington, 2007. Print.

Krupat, Arnold. The Turn to the Native: Studies in Criticism and Culture. Nebraska: U of Nebraska P, 1996. Print.

Laub, Dori. “Bearing Witness, or the Vicissitudes of Listening.” Testimony: Crisis of Witnessing in Literature. Ed. Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub. New York: Routledge, 1992. 57-74.

Lincoln, Kenneth. Indi’n Humor: Bicultural Play in Native America. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993. Print.
Madsen, Deborah L. ed. and Intro. “Contemporary Discourses on “Indianness”.” Native Authenticity: Transnational Perspectives on Native American Literary Studies. New York: State U of New York P, 2010. Print.

—. Post-colonial Literatures: Expanding the Canon. London: Pluto P, 1999. Print.

Silko, Leslie Marmon. Ceremony. New York: Penguin Books, 1977.

Singh, Armritjit, and Peter Schmidt, eds. Postcolonial Theory and the United States: Race, Ethnicity and Literature. Mississippi: UP of Mississippi, 2000. Print.

Tuan, Yi-Fu. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1977.

Van Styvendale, Nancy. “The Trans/Historicity of Trauma in Jeannette Armstrong’s Slash and Sherman Alexie’s Indian Killer.” Studies in the Novel 40.1/2 (2008): 203-223. EBSCO. Web 02 March 2011.

Vickroy, Laurie. Trauma and Survival in Contemporary Fiction. U of Virginia P, 2002. Print.

Wesley-Esquimaux, Cynthia, and Magdalena Smolewski. Historic Trauma and Aboriginal Healing. Ottawa, ON: Aboriginal Healing Foundation, 2004. Print.

Whitehead, Anne. Trauma Fiction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2004. Print.

5 responses to “Thesis Proposal (20 March 2011)

  1. Hi, I’m writing a very similar thesis of around the same length. You must have finished yours by now, how did you find it?

    • Dear Jen,
      thanks for your comment. Yes, I have completed my thesis. I found it to be a thoroughly enjoyable topic to research and write about. How are you getting on with yours? Good luck with writing it!

      Best wishes,

  2. Hajer Elloumi

    Hello!! I am about to start ly thesis on a similar topic but I find it hard to decide on the corpus. Any suggestions? Any other Native American authors who focused on identity? Thank you.

    • The majority of renowned Native American authors deal with the issue of identity either explicitly or implicitly in some shape or form. Alexie deals with the issue of identity in a somewhat more implicit manner to other Native American authors such as Leslie Marmon Silko, Louise Erdrich, N. Scott Momaday, Vine Deloria, Jr. and James Welch. Native American identity is a broadly covered topic. There is a lot written about it, which can be both a help and a hinderance because there will be abundance of critical material for you to build your thesis argument upon but, unfortunately there will be less room for originality. Therefore, if you chose to stick with the topic of Native American identity, the only advice I can give you is to approach the topic from an alternative, preferably original, perspective. I don’t know how far you have gone with your research into this, but one way of achieving this would be to consider Native American identity in conjunction with another topic that compliments your thesis argument. In my case, I used trauma, more specifically trauma theory, to add a new and original interpretation of the perception and definition of Native American identity. If you so choose to add trauma to your argument, I must warn you in advance that trauma theory is rather dense reading material for someone unfamiliar with psychology/ psychological theories to cognitively digest. Researching trauma is time consuming due to its highly theoretical nature, but very rewarding at the same time, if you have an interest in the area like I do.

      I hope the above information is of some relevance to you, and I wish you the best of luck with your research and thesis writing.

      Best wishes,

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