Sex sells―and so does pain and violence, apparently. This is evidenced by the popularization of “World War II” fiction such as The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, or All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Even the recent rise of dystopian literature such as the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins or the Divergent trilogy by Veronica Roth could point to today’s recent enthrallment with trauma and all that it entails.
But what accounts for this maudlin enchantment? Dr. Jocelyn Martin, a professor at the Ateneo de Manila University specializing in the field of Memory and Trauma Studies, gave us a brief overview on the rise of Trauma Studies and its subsequent translation into literature.
The roots of trauma literature
Trauma literature falls under the field of trauma studies, which arose with the officialization of PTSD or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder by the American Psychological Association in 1980, following years of lobbying by Vietnam War veterans. According to Dr. Joyce Martin, a scholar in the field, soldiers as far back as the time of World War I already exhibited symptoms of PTSD, but were never recognized or officialized as a disorder.
However, the culture of the time viewed these as signs of cowardice and not of illness: attempts at avoiding a return to the battlefield, and worse, an unwillingness to defend one’s country. Martin continues, “After official recognition of the sickness, the awareness of PTSD gave rise to an interdisciplinary endeavor that brought together scholars from different fields in order to further investigate the traumatic experience, giving rise to the issue of ‘victimhood.’”
The 20th century bore witness to two world wars, and thus it’s unsurprising to realize how the rise of PTSD would come about. However, it was surprising to discover the academic fascination with the trauma experience―a fascination so strong that it would later be translated into literature. Martin elaborated:
Literature, like psychoanalysis, gives us analysis to what is known and unknown. It is a language that allows us a sense of narrativity that gives us a possibility or impossibility of literature.
This literary genre may be characterized by nonlinear narratives due to the victim’s experience of trauma. Here, the post-modernists and structuralists found a marriage between their framework and the trauma narrative. The trauma narrative listens to a voice that it cannot fully know, but to it nonetheless bears witness. Trauma demands to be read and yet cannot be. Perhaps in this enigma lies its allure.
There arises the question of transmissibility, as narration of traumatic events clearly differs from one generation to another. For first generation survivors, those who experienced the trauma first-hand, the writing is meant to be therapeutic, written in the hopes of giving justice to those who died―a survivor’s symptom.
The second generation, usually the children of the survivors, tells a different story, however. Since they live in mostly dysfunctional families, these children suffer with the silence of their parents, and thus present a more fragmented narrative. Martin explains, “You cannot put into words the traumatic events. Things come belatedly. They would hear about the suffering in tiny bits and pieces, through remnants, through photos, through trinkets.” This generation is considered “memorial candles”: experiencing guilt about not participating enough in their parents’ suffering but also frustrated at their silence.
The third generation―that is, the one of today―maintains a distance with the events, allowing for a certain curiosity, but retains a sense of guilt for not having participated in the event itself, despite more freedom in terms of artistic license. Since they cannot fully understand the first or second generation, they turn to imagination or post-modern aesthetics in order to make the reader unsettled, rather than through the narration of their own experience.
The trauma genre
When reading a piece through the lens of trauma, there is usually a sense of temporal disruption―the anti-narrative, or the non-linearity associated with the mindset of trauma victims. This is usually accompanied by a disordered plot―mimicking trauma―as well as themes of repetition.
Sometimes, there is the appearance of a specter as representation of the past as an intrusion to the present, a life crying out to be recognized. A most notable example would be All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, as the novel jumps restlessly from the past to the present, unraveling the plot in bits and pieces, repeating themes of light and discovery juxtaposed against the destruction that wages around the characters.
There are many factors behind this attraction―almost desensitization―with trauma and its genre. The rise of trauma studies brought about the issue of “victimhood,” further exacerbated by today’s steady climb of human rights issues such as LGBTQ+ rights and feminism.
In all the hullaballoo, who is to say who the real victims are, when anyone can lay claim to the title? Our generation holds both a fascination and oversensitivity concerning trauma. This paradox, together with our generation’s distance from and simultaneous allure and repulsion with trauma, could serve as a plausible explanation for the appeal of trauma literature to today’s audience.
The return of ethics
But as with many other things, there is the problem of ethics. In our fascination, where do we draw the line between being a reader and being a voyeur? Must trauma literature always signify a predilection towards violence? Martin elaborated on the issue by saying, “Trauma fiction puts ethics back into literature… Are we taking advantage of the violence done, or are we doing justice to them?” Readers must strike a balance between witnessing the narrative and sincere empathy. Moreover, trauma narratives are also linked to violence, but the texts themselves need not be violent.
“Trauma fiction puts ethics back into literature… Are we taking advantage of the violence done, or are we doing justice to them?”
Despite its popularity, trauma studies and trauma literature still attract contentions. Aside from the issues of victimhood and transmissibility, there is also the problem of Euro-centricity. As of today, the trauma genre is seen to focus mainly on a eurocentric point of view, and there is a tendency to forget that the trauma experience is universal. The concentration of trauma studies and trauma literature in the West manifested mainly due to the Holocaust and the 9/11 attacks.
Trauma in local colors
If trauma may be implicated in historical events, then it follows that trauma literature can be no less rich in the Philippines, given our country’s fraught history with three colonial masters, a number of rebellions, wars, periods of civic unrest, and two decades under the administration of a ruthless dictator. Such events in history can be a rich source of literary material, but most of the works produced involved more the political and social significance of these events and less about trauma as a psychological comeuppance of survivors.
A possible explanation for this lack could be the issue of mental health in the Philippines. Despite the officialization of psychological disorders such as PTSD and clinical depression, the Filipino layperson’s understanding of the field is still rife with misconceptions. Trauma and its repercussions on the psyche still carry with it a stigma that has yet to be removed in the culture of Philippine society. Coupled with the current status of Trauma Studies as a relatively niche field within the academe, it is no wonder that the discussion of trauma in the Philippines is sorely lacking. And so here lies the irony: in a society where trauma literature is on the rise, trauma studies are being neglected.
Looking into the past and acknowledging that traumatic events happened is often a painful exercise, but arguably, an exercise that is necessary in order to move forward. At the very basic level, in trauma fiction, we recognize that oppression, suffering, pain and violence―so often the precursors of trauma―are part and parcel of the human condition. Perhaps, at the end of the day, our fascination with trauma literature lies not in the enigma of its narrative, or the emotional catharsis it so readily provides, but in its belief that trauma can be overcome by human will and spirit.
Text by Alie Unson, Celina Chung, and Rox Angelia