Memory and Trauma in Postcolonial Writing

Session Organizer: Kathleen W. Smith

Kalamazoo Coll.


“Decolonizing the American Mind:  The Narrative Dialogics of Cultural Trauma”


In this paper, I shall use the work of Mikhail Bakhtin to examine the ways in which memory of culturally shared trauma such as the Holocaust, American slavery, the Vietnam War, or the 9/11 attacks is formed in dialogic relationship to the narratives through which these events are depicted.   From a historical perspective, dominant cultural and political forces begin to narrate these events almost immediately in what Bakhtin calls monologic discourse: a language to which there is no possible rejoinder.   Such language invokes Bakhtin’s “centripetal forces of language . . . which serve to unify and centralize the verbal-ideological world” ( Discourse 270), attempting—often violently—to impose a seemingly impenetrable, unified structure on our understanding of a traumatic event.  These dominating discourses, particularly of politics and media, begin to colonize the American mind by structuring our understanding of traumatic events in self-aggrandizing, self-justifying, and seemingly “safe” terms.


Many of the novelistic narratives that have been centered around these historical traumas serve to disrupt the supposed unity of such monologic structures, decolonizing the mind precisely by offering alternative discourses through which to consider and understand horrifying experience.  Novels like Beloved, focusing on American slavery; The Archivist, by Martha Cooley, which portrays the painful need of an American Jew to understand the violence of the Holocaust; The Things They Carried, by  Tim O’Brien, set during the period of the Vietnam War and its aftermath; or Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, in which Jonathan Safran Foer depicts the 9/11 attacks and their effects through the voice of the child of one of the victims—all these novels invoke the multi-layered voices of dialogic discourse to complicate, stratify, and finally undermine the rigid, monologic, colonizing narratives that dominant cultural powers have offered as explanations for our cultural traumas.


All of these narratives treat traumatic experience as a locus of realized or potential meaning, and they are all preoccupied with the question of whether it is possible for language to contain such horror and still honor its reality.  “Reality,” of course, is always a dangerous word, but becomes insistent and finally unavoidable in a discussion of narratives that take as their subjects events that are not only non-fiction, but are traumatically and indelibly coded in the memories of large groups of people.  Bakhtin offers useful terms for theorizing the difficulties that necessarily emerge from the relation of such narratives to the real when he asserts in “The Problem of the Text” that

Only an utterance has a direct relationship to reality and to the living speaking person (subject).  In language there are only potential possibilities (schemata) of these relations . . . . But an utterance is defined not only by its relation to the object and to the speaking subject-author (and its relation to the language as a system of potential possibilities, givens), but . . . by its direct relation to other utterances within the limits of a given sphere of communication.  ( Problem 122)

This dialogic model helps us to look at these novels and understand the power of Bakhtin’s assertion that “A human act [even a horrific human act] is a potential text and can be understood (as a human act and not a physical action) only in the dialogic context of its time (as a rejoinder, as a semantic position, as a system of motives)” (“Problem” 107).


These novels are narrated out of the tension between the seemingly constant inadequacy of language to fully articulate human experience as text in Bakhtin’s sense, on the one hand, and the ineluctable drive to try to create such containing narratives, on the other.  That drive continues to arise, of course, precisely because an act can only be understood in its dialogic context, and the decolonizing force of all these novels emerges when we explore their complex nuances as they attempt to treat horrifying acts that exist in a broad cultural context.   For instance, The Archivist , is in a sense not “about” the Holocaust at all.  It is, instead, the story of one woman’s response to the Holocaust, about the need to understand, tell, or narrate that story.  Beloved, of course, is very much located directly in the story of American slavery, but it, too, revolves around the need of the characters and of the third-person narrator to give voice to an historical moment.  O’Brien’s work explicitly and repeatedly focuses on the relationship between what he calls “happening truth” and “story truth” and the many voices needed to create “story truth.”  And the central premise of Foer’s novel involves the struggle of the first-person narrator, a son of the World Trade Center attack victim, to narrate and contain his own story.


Bakhtin would no doubt assert that the novel as a genre offers a unique opportunity to explore the connection between trauma as it is experienced by individuals and a later understanding of multiple instances of such acts as a culturally traumatizing set of events, usually conceived as a unified, single event occurring over a delineated period of time.  Looking at these novels through the lens of Bakhtin’s work shows us that the novel as a genre represents a postmodern refusal of such unity, recognizing it as a violent attempt to colonize the mind politically and culturally.  This refusal, which unremittingly complicates and plays with meaning, will finally be the only way to narrate and thus make history of agonizing cultural moments.


                                                   Works Cited

Bakhtin, M.M. “Discourse in the Novel:  Four Essays.  Univ. of Texas Press Slavic Series, No. 1. 

      Austin:  Univ. of Texas Press, 1981.

---.  “The Problem of the Text in Linguistics, Philology, and the Human Sciences:  An

      Experiment in Philosophical Analysis.”  Speech Genres & Other Essays. Ed. Caryl Emerson     

      and Michael Holquist.  Univ. of Texas Press Slavic Series, No. 8.  Austin: Univ. of Texas

      Press, 1986.


Sandy Morey Norton

Eastern Michigan University



“After the Indian Wars: Trauma, Memory and the Myth of Aftermath in Poems by Linda Hogan, Joy Harjo and Sherman Alexie”


In my current work, I fuse scientific and historic theories of traumatic stress with studies of modern poetics. This fusion, when applied to works by American women poets writing in the twentieth century, intervenes in key debates in trauma studies, while it historicizes and contextualizes recent contributions to poetic theory. My studies add to the work of a growing range of scholars who have applied psychiatric and medical concepts of trauma to their work in the humanities, including Dori Laub and Shoshana Felman, Dominick LaCapra, and Cathy Caruth, as well as Kevin Newmark and Benjamin Friedlander. Yet unlike much of the existing scholarship, my work focuses specifically on poetic craft, on instances of trauma experienced specifically by women, and on examples of trauma literature written in the United States, rather than Europe, after World War II.


This focus on trauma poetry by twentieth century American women offers an alternative to previous treatments of trauma writing, thus reorienting the focus of studies on the nature of traumatic experience and its effects. For example, my work challenges the criteria of “extreme experience” indicated by the original PTSD diagnosis: for women in America, sexual violence is not statistically outside the normal range of human experience. By choosing to study poems that explore the trauma of sexual violence against women, I revise the meaning of trauma from a feminist perspective. With this revision at work, I then probe America’s own traumatic history by examining sites of racial, gender, and economic oppression institutionalized in American culture. If sexual violence against women is not outside the range of normal human experience, if trauma is not apart from but a part of the life experiences of an entire social group, then how does the concept of trauma even apply to groups whose political history in the United States involves ongoing, repeated, religiously sanctioned, and institutionalized traumatic events whose scope encompasses hundreds of thousands of people, rather than an individual person? Furthermore, how can we use “trauma” to understand what has been called “post-memory”—the experience of persons removed from direct experience of the trauma event who are nonetheless (in)formed by the aftermath of trauma, including its narration? One of the features of trauma symptomology is its compulsive repetition, via flashbacks and somatization, its re-appearance and return well after the discrete event has ended. How can this re-experience of trauma explain aspects of the social impact of trauma on both victims and witnesses?


In her book, Poetry After Auschwitz, Susan Gubar asserts that “after Auschwitz” is a myth—that the world continues to live in the presence of the Holocaust, and the many other, ongoing acts of genocide being perpetrated across the globe. In this presentation, I use this insight--which so closely resembles Joy Harjo’s summation, “The Indian wars never ended”-- to study samples of poetry by Joy Harjo, Linda Hogan, and Sherman Alexie, three Native American writers whose work is permeated by an ever-present awareness of the losses of language, land, life and cultural identity. While these three poets all work in the lyric mode, their poetic sensibilities are diverse enough to resist the kinds of reductive reading practices that treat any one ethnically “other” writer as a spokesperson for his or her entire race—instead, I consider these poets as a sampling of voices speaking of and about the traumas of colonial encounter, Indian Removal, and the ongoing erasure of Native American cultural practices, rather than as witnesses for others. 


Through my attention to the ways that memory and post-memory mediate the works of these three poets, I will suggest that the collective trauma of colonialism in America not only inflects works by Native American writers, but also implicates and involves all American writers producing “trauma texts.”


Amy K. Griffiths

University of Minnesota




“Shattering the Discourse of Silence In Its Relationship to Indigenous Defiance in   ‘El árbol’ by  Elena  Garro”


To this day, imported European-centered  attitudes  of the XV and XVI century towards people of  European  and  indigenous  ancestry  still  remain, woven into the fibers  of  the vast tapestry of  Mexican culture.  In this paper I plan to identify and analyze the Aristotelean binomial of  the  concepts  of   “ the powerful / the powerless”  as it applies to  the colonially constructed identities  of   “the European / the Indian”  which came about due to the processes  of conquest and colonization  in Mexican culture and society.  This analysis is done through the reading of Elena Garro’s short story: “El árbol”,  in which a Mexican Indian woman and a bourgeis Mexican woman come face to face, in the centuries-old  dilemma  of  control  and  power exercised by the European over the indigenous people. 


With this shift in hierarchical ideology, all  indigenous peoples of  Mexico were homogenized in the eyes of  the European beholder.  I intend to look at how that historical act--in which the white European took over the Aztec emperor’s  scepter--allowed the European males to slide  into  a  slot  of   privilege  that  allowed  them  to look down upon the native Mexican population. 


Although the story takes place in Mexico City, in the 1960s, the text very clearly allows us to identify the processes  of  stratification  constructed by  European males, who,  after arriving in the New World, placed themselves at  the top of the chain of  hierarchies, and forced  the Indians to the bottom, thus, eliminating the previous norms of cultural stratification, --where  the Aztecs  had been   the dominant  indigenous culture, ruling over the  myriad of other Indian nations. The story clearly shows that these issues of power and domination, as well as subjugation and humiliation, still exist in all  spheres, including  those which are domestic and feminine.    


Alannah A Hernandez

Concordia University Chicago