Articles of interest
28th November 2022
Book in Focus
Women Writing Trauma in Literature
Edited by Laura Alexander
This collection of essays features studies on trauma, literary theory, and psychoanalysis in women’s writing. It examines the ways literature helps to heal the wounded self, concentrating on the way women explain the traumatic experiences of war, violence, and displacement. Covering a global range of women writers, this book focuses on the psychoanalytic role of literature to help recover voices buried by intense pain and suffering and to help those voices be heard. Literature brings the unconscious into being and focus, reconfiguring life through narration. To put it another way, these essays look at the relationship between traumatic experience and literary form.
Background of the Book
While several chapters in this collection look at the struggles of writers to find language for articulating trauma (often from physical violence), others consider the repetitive utterances and actions of survivors in the process of recovery. This volume pays particular attention to rape and the assault of women and the ways in which women writers’ responses to violence influence both literary form and the evolving concepts of feminism today. In some cases, these chapters look to acts of writing to find healing. Others seek to articulate a feminist voice for affirmation, validation, or community. Trauma has historically defined women’s lives and continues to shape their social and political roles globally.
My research interest in trauma and women writers started in 2003, when I began to study early British women writers and was often drawn to figures of melancholy and abjection. While my dissertation and first book considered the way women could exercise self-autonomy and agency, specifically through libertine culture in seventeenth and eighteenth-century England, my next books turned to theories by Julia Kristeva to understand the relationship between literature and traumatic experience.
In Fatal Attractions, Abjection, and the Self in Literature from the Restoration to the Romantics (2019), I consider Kristeva’s theory of abjection in several works by early British writers from the Restoration to the Romantic era. This period saw an increased emphasis on understanding the self. Poems with anxious speakers or narratives featuring characters with considerable psychic pressures emerged as writers responded to ideas on consciousness by natural philosophers. The pursuit of self-knowledge also reached greater imaginative depths, inspiring new artistic movements, including sensibility with its attention to expressions of the suffering self, and the Gothic that examined the self’s deepest fears. Romantic writers theorized about artistic genius, creating a cult of the self that has never left us. Kristeva offers a more complete psychoanalytic vocabulary for understanding the self’s unconscious motivations in literature written during this period, and this book provides readers interested in early British literature, philosophy, and literary theory with a constructive perspective for thinking about literary depictions of the self-in-crisis.
My next book, The Beauty of Melancholy and British Women Writers, 1670-1720 (2020), also looked at melancholy and women’s experience of suffering in their art. The book provides an alternative psychoanalytic perspective for considering melancholy discourse created by women experiencing alienation, depression, and anguish in earlier periods. Kristeva offers a theoretical lens for understanding loss as a significant and ongoing perspective on life experience that finds expression through art and language. This text argues that early women writers created a new expressive mode, revising existing models to account for their own losses during a time of cultural and political transitioning in England. These writers either provide a melancholy aesthetic in their works or depict depressed female figures, both of which reflect artistic angst and a new discourse within language for articulating pain.
My current projects include two edited collections that consider the relationship between literary form and trauma: Women Writing Trauma in Literature (forthcoming, 2022) and Transformations of Trauma in Women's Writing (forthcoming, 2023). Both books look at the way women writers have drawn and continue to draw on literature to heal the wounded self.
Focus of Each Chapter
While together the essays form a collective whole for understanding feminist perspectives on trauma in literature, each of the sixteen chapters may be read as an independent essay.
Lindsay M. Vreeland’s chapter, “‘Lord, I hate a nasty woman’: Gendered Violence and Black Communities in Toni Morrison’s Home and Paradise,” examines Toni Morrison’s presentation of women in all-Black communities in two of her novels, Home (2012) and Paradise (1993). Vreeland argues that these novels demonstrate how, under a patriarchal system, such as a town or family structure, it is difficult for women to heal. Inside and outside patriarchal communities, women create their own spaces to thrive, teach, and heal. They are the most successful when men do not perceive them to be a threat to the community’s power structure.
Emel Zorluoğlu Akbey’s chapter, “War Phobia and the Aesthetics of Trauma Writing in Hilda Doolittle,” questions the relationship between war and women’s aesthetics. Akbey reads Hilda Doolittle (or H.D.) and her obsessive writing about ambivalent feelings and her stillborn process, a consequence of traumas she suffered. Akbey charts a relationship between H.D.’s writings about war and childbirth-related trauma.
Aoileann Ní Éigeartaigh’s chapter, “‘This is a female text’: Confronting Absence and Dispossession in Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s A Ghost in the Throat,” considers the trauma of absence in Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s A Ghost in the Throat (2021). The text reflects on the elisions and absences that characterize the experiences of Irish women, both in the present and historically.
Jane Evans’s chapter, “Epistolary Healing from Trauma in Sedef Ecer’s Trésor National (National Treasure),” considers the 2021 novel, Trésor National, and its Turkish narrator Hülya, who Latinizes her first name to Julya. Drawing on medical and literary studies about trauma, memory, and grief, such as those published by Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk and Cathy Caruth, this chapter makes the case for autobiographical content influencing narrative format and considers life-writing theories. Evans considers the grief process psychologically: specifically, the overlap between autobiography and therapeutic narrative as a step towards managing grief and letting go.
Laura Savu Walker’s chapter, “Traces of Trauma and Trajectories of Transformation in Stories of Transnational Mobility,” looks at how American Dirt and Reyna Grande’s novel Across a Hundred Mountains (2006) illuminate the human side of the multifaceted migration story and its traumatic implications for Mexican and other Central American women who endure poverty, loss, separation, abandonment, and sexual violence.
Christa Jones’s chapter, “Wahiba Khiari’s Our Silences: Writing Trauma au féminin,” considers the relationships between trauma, identity, and literary form in Our Silences (Nos Silences, 2009), the winner of the 2010 Senghor award.
Anastasia Logotheti’s chapter, “A Suffocation of Blackness:” Trauma in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and Pat Barker’s Regeneration,” she argues that two writers interrogate traumatic experience through a gendered lens that alters the literary form. This chapter explores how Barker reinvigorates Woolf’s modernism through self-reflexive historiography to underline the contemporary inability to confront loss and to recuperate.
Zsuzsanna Lénárt-Muszka’s chapter on “Trauma, Continuity, and Circularity in Kalisha Buckhanon’s Conception” focuses on the depictions of multi- and intergenerational trauma in the novel Conception (2008) by African-American writer Kalisha Buckhanon. Relying on Black feminist theory and Afro-pessimism, this chapter argues that the novel’s structure reveals a unique continuity as well as circularity in the wake of enslavement.
Eileen Harney and Dr. Sarah Stanley’s chapter, “Visions from Inside: Perpetua’s 3rd-Century Prison Diary,” studies the coping strategies detailed by the imprisoned Saint Perpetua while she awaited death in Carthage in 202/203 CE. The chapter offers a close textual analysis of approximately 175 lines of Latin prose, and Harney and Stanley apply this close reading to a contemporary carceral context. Present-day prisoners, deeply affected by the justice system, are encouraged to develop coping strategies from the self-help books filling the library shelves rather than in the daily practice of writing and mindful presence. Harney and Stanley are committed to this textual work because they understand it as a way to interrupt the neoliberal logic that surrounds women profoundly altered by the justice system in our communities.
Audrie Ford’s chapter, “Trauma and Reader Reception in Rupi Kaur’s “The Hurting,” considers how the 2015 poetry collection milk and honey generated significant discourse around femininity, intergenerational trauma, and women’s sexuality.
Zachary Hayes’s chapter, “When the Prize is Trauma: Paula Markovitch’s El premio and the gendered pain of being a child of the Argentine dictatorship,” discusses the 2011 film El premio. Argentine filmmaker Paula Markovitch draws on her experience as a child of the dictatorship to tell the story of Ceci, a young girl of seven who flees with her mother to a remote coastal town in Argentina following her father’s capture by the authorities.
Liubov Kartashova’s chapter, “The Deconstruction of Patriarchal War Narratives in Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War,” examines how the Soviet construction of womanhood along with the glorification of war resulted first in women’s active participation in World War II and later in the silencing of their war experiences.
Yasuko Kase’s chapter, “Over the Father's Corpse: Neo/colonial Trauma and the Daughter's Subversive Mimicry in Dream Jungle by Jessica Hagedorn,” features the Filipina American writer Jessica Hagedorn’s postmodern novel Dream Jungle (2003). It critically denotes how neo/colonial master narratives have repeatedly employed the figures of male sacrificial saviors to overcome neo/colonial perpetrator trauma.
Ajanta Dutt’s chapter, “Escaping Childhood Trauma in Narratives from Nigeria,” looks at Chimamanda Adichie’s debut novel, Purple Hibiscus (2003). The novel focuses on childhood trauma and a modern family contending with intensive practices of Christian beliefs foisted upon the Africans in post-independent Nigeria.
Lisa Wenger Bro’s essay, “Control, Compliancy, Subservience: Biopolitics and the Regulation of Women’s Bodies in Black Box, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Orphan Black,” examines the way society devalues women, who lose control over their bodies. Transformed from person into object, women are valued solely for their sexual and reproductive capacities, leaving them without individual identities.
Andriana Hamivka’s chapter, “Trauma and the fragmentation of the Self in Toni Morrison,” returns to a discussion about Morrison’s oeuvre. Employing Cathy Caruth’s trauma theory, Hamvika argues that traumatic experience is the force that moves many women in Toni Morison’s books.
Each of these chapters reaches into the language of traumatic experience, whether felt personally or experienced communally, and tests the boundaries of aesthetic form to probe the deepest psychic tensions driving human action and behavior. This literature can be as healing for readers as for writers. Perhaps that is the true function and meaning of literature, to heal a wounded world and to heal ourselves.
Laura Alexander is Associate Professor of English at High Point University, USA, where she teaches courses on early British literature and culture, fairy tales, world literature, and women writers. She has twice held a national fellowship from the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies for research at the Folger Shakespeare Library. She has written more than 30 articles, and is the author of The Beauty of Melancholy and British Women Writers, 1670-1720 (2020); Fatal Attractions, Abjection, and the Self in Literature from the Restoration to the Romantics (2019); Lucretian Thought in Late Stuart England: Debates about the Nature of the Soul (2013); and Dangerous Women, Libertine Epicures, and the Rise of Sensibility, 1670-1730 (2011).
Women Writing Trauma in Literature is available now in Hardback at a 25% discount. Enter code PROMO25 at checkout to redeem.