Many cultures experience painful stories that touch the lives of thousands – sometimes hundreds of thousands – of people. My research seeks to find out how the memories of past atrocities (slavery, child labor, etc.) are carried over several generations to people who are far removed from the event itself, but who are still not free of its legacy. Intergenerational trauma is something scholars have been trying to articulate for many years. Over time, we’ve seen a rise in the number of books that deal with cultural and ethnic atrocities and their complex legacy.
One good example of how stories are necessary for healing is the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment in the entertainment industry and beyond. When people try to avoid painful topics, the problem is not solved but gets exacerbated. What we’re seeing now is a growing acceptance that we need to share and acknowledge stories of other people’s pain, hurt, and suffering. We are beginning to understand that suffering from the past – at the intersection of psychology and culture – is part of our collective identity. That means it’s extremely important to have conversations about difficult topics.
We may not have the answers, but at least now we’re asking the right questions.
Literature and the Human Experience
Literature is an important way in which we publicly communicate our human experience. Intergenerational trauma has a far reach. It can fall under a wide range of instances in which we feel a sense of identity: family history, national history, ethnic history, or being born into a community that was touched by trauma in the past. What remains the same in all of those instances is that being a victim begets shame. Shame leads one to either forget the experience or seek opportunities to repeat it to achieve a positive outcome. In this way, trauma puts the victim through three stages which can be seen throughout a culture’s literature:
- Denial. Living through trauma may lead them to believe that they are stronger than that experience. They believe they don’t need help. Or are ashamed to admit they have been victimized. But getting stuck in denial never works in the end. Ultimately that person must reconcile the future with the past.
- Sharing. Until a victim of trauma tells their own story, they are not in command of it. Literature provides a great tool for making that story available for others. Then, people who have had similar experiences may feel empowered to tell their own story.
- Healing. Once a person is open about their trauma, they can begin the healing process. Pulling themselves up, asking for help, and finding the strength for forgiveness. Literature will never replace therapy for victims, but it’s a step forward.
Among the ways we communicate today, literature is the only open-access platform to deal with group trauma. For example, how can you acknowledge or heal the trauma caused by colonialism in North America? You cannot psychoanalyze all settler-colonialists or all Native Americans – it will never work. We need a public platform for conversation – much like the conversations being had today about sexual harassment. People will add their own personal pieces to the conversation and together we can create a different story.
Using the Past to Create a Better Future
We are social beings and we live through words, language, and storytelling. But we also come from very different backgrounds – cultural, religious, historical, or otherwise. Without the understanding of where we each come from it is almost impossible to understand how and why other people’s lives are the way they are today. The more stories we have that address difficult subjects, the more young people become aware of the fact that these things did happen. That way, in the context of understanding how and why people were hurt, we can educate ourselves and become more mindful of others.
Stories, and literature in particular, are important ways to talk about how past wounds shaped identities of specific groups. For example, they can be used to understand the lives of Native American people today. Or how the Japanese invasion of China during World War II left scars that still impact the way Chinese people construct their self-identity. If we get the chance to expose a painful story we become wiser and motivated to avoid the trappings of the past. It’s the reason why informative films are watched and books are read: they warn us against falling back into racism, nationalism, fascism and other ideologies that are inhumane. If we know why we failed in the past, we have a better chance to succeed in the future.
Below are several examples of literature that bring difficult conversations on intergenerational trauma into the public space:
- Eugene Yelchin’s Breaking Stalin’s Nose (2013) is a middle grade novel about living in Stalin’s Russia, eerily reminiscent of today’s North Korea. Ruta Sepetys’ Between Shades of Gray (2011) and M.T. Anderson’s Symphony for the City of the Dead (2017) are two young adult novels about the Bloodlands experience. Monika Schröder’s The Dog in the Wood (2009) is a middle grade novel on the still-controversial topic of German civilians as victims.
- Among books from East Asia, Ji Li Jiang’s Red Scarf Girl (about the cultural revolution in China), or Linda Sue Park’s When My Name Was Keoko (about the Japanese occupation of Korea) are two examples that are equivalents of the more known stories about the Holocaust like Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale or Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl.
- Perhaps the most read in the U.S. are stories about Native American genocide: especially residential schools and the eugenics program. Joseph Bruchac’s Hidden Roots, Debby Dahl Edwardson’s My Name is Not Easy, Tim Tingle’s How I Became a Ghost and a recent Native American dystopia, Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves are all part of this large body of works.
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