SPEAKING THE UNNAMEABLE AND UNKNOWABLE: Meera Atkinson’s The Poetics of Transgenerational Trauma

Reviewed by Amanda Hickey
Edited by Robyn Cadwallader

In her timely book, Meera Atkinson opens with a few unpalatable facts about our society and the world we live in. Fact one: in Australia not a week goes by without a woman being murdered by her partner or ex-partner. Fact two: suicide among young women is now the leading cause of death the world over.

Why then, asks Atkinson, can so much political muscle and funding be found to combat terrorism but not the domestic and familial violence that is, in truth, another battleground largely ignored by media and society?

The Poetics of Transgenerational Trauma takes a wide-angle lens view at the pain, suffering, violence and trauma that is embedded within our world, but explores it through contemporary writings around trauma studies and ‘affect theory’. This theory explains how emotional feelings, those that motivate thought and action, are biologically hardwired into us. Although the theory was initiated by Spinoza, by the 1960s psychologists were starting to recognise the transgenerational transmission of parents’ traumatic experiences, such as those who were in the Holocaust, to their children. As Atkinson points out, last century’s horrors of world wars, Depression and colonialism have not necessarily lessened in this century.

Troubling and daunting social realities have beset the first decades of the twenty first century: legally dubious warfare, global terrorism, financial crisis, human induced climate change, new addictions (internet, gaming etc.), neo-colonialism and increased family and intimate partner violence. (p 3)

If we are not directly experiencing such social realities, we are certainly aware of them — just turn on the nightly news or fire up the Internet. But what role can authors, philosophers and scholars play? As transgenerational trauma is rooted in patriarchy, Atkinson maintains that literature, particularly that written by women, plays a vital role in not only exposing the trauma that all kinds of violence creates, but also in calling to attention the open wounds that are still raw. ‘Traumatic affect rumbles, spills, bursts forth, erupts, leaks, emits, fumes, whispers, screams, and acts from its restless grave, because at the deepest level it seeks recognition,’ she writes. ‘It demands witnessing and memorial and it haunts until it gets it’ (p 131).

It’s not just the individual testimony explored by poets and writers that Atkinson examines; what is of particular interest to her is the cyclical way trauma repeats or recurs at a social and political level. She explores a range of literary texts and genres including fiction, Indigenous writing, graphic memoir and l’ecriture feminine, that expound (but not always consciously) the poetics of transgenerational trauma. She outlines how this particular niche of writing is complex, multi-faceted and penetratingly deep in its exploration of traumatised characters and their narratives. In The Lover by Marguerite Duras, the narrative hinges on a scandalous love affair between a teenage girl and her Chinese lover. Yet Atkinson points out the real story is not so much the restrictions of gender at that time, but the ‘conditions of colonial patriarchy’ (p 36). In the shadow of French colonialism Duras’ protagonist is as much traumatised by her dysfunctional family — the cruel brother and deranged mother — as the illicit affair. ‘The shame-bound traumatic transmissions of colonial culture become her mother’s shame-bound traumatic transmissions, which in turn become the narrator’s — a spiraling circle of transmission’ (p 37). For Atkinson, The Lover is not just a tale of gendered experience via an erotic, cross-cultural affair, but an exploration of how traumatic memory relates to nontraditional positions regarding gender and sexuality.

Atkinson shows how the permutations of gender roles and familial trauma are taken up another notch in the darkly humorous work of Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, a graphic novel by Alison Bechdel. Finely-drawn illustrations, accompanied by captions that are ‘poignant, clever and reflective’ (p 60) recount the narrative of the author’s father, an obsessive and closeted homosexual, and his premature death by possible suicide — an event that occurred just as the author, then in college, was coming out as a lesbian.

At the heart of transgenerational trauma narratives are shame, fear, anxiety and grief (including sadness and melancholy) and often these emotions are entwined with others such as anger which, for example, usually binds to shame. This kind of writing is similar to Holocaust writing because both involve ‘significant traumatic experience and history beyond the individual’ (p 56). The other feature here is that children become the caregivers or carriers of their parents’ secret histories, and that those histories end up being transmitted along with the previous generation’s trauma. When drawing on stories of family members and their secrets, ethics also come into play. For example, Bechdel wonders out loud if she ‘might be constructing her father’s repressed homosexuality as inappropriately heroic’[1]. For Atkinson, the ability of writers to interrogate their own agendas takes this writing well away from the genre of ‘misery-literature’, or memoirs that explore child abuse in an almost sensational way.

Atkinson goes deeper, examining the dark space that lies between the poetic word and affective silence, quoting the German poet Rilke, for whom poetry alone can get up to ‘the edge/of the Unsayable’ (p 85). The Unsayable can encompass many things including psychic trauma, ancestral pain, rumour and even folklore — so that the writing, according to Atkinson, becomes a ‘spooked text’ (p 81), with phantoms moving through it that affect not only the writer but every reader who comes across it. So the efficacy of the poetics of transgenerational trauma ‘speaks of, out of, and to, that which hovers between presence and absence, unnameable, and unknowable in the usual sense. Such literature is able to do this by way of a kind of channeling’ (p 86). As an example of this haunted writing, Atkinson cites the novels Carpentaria and The Swan Book, by Aboriginal Australian author, Alexis Wright. ‘The ghostliness of Carpentaria has to do with the specters of Anglo invasion and colonialism, but also with the Dreaming itself, with its open-ended quality of forever time …’ (p 97). The author has the ability to tap into the stories of her ancestors and tell the stories of what really took place. Atkinson describes as a powerful example of ancestral haunting in Indigenous storytelling a scene filmed in the ABC documentary First Footprints. An elder of the Wunambal Gaambera people, Sylvester Mangolamara, approaches a rock art figure called Gwion that was painted 12,000 years ago and speaks to it directly: ‘Gwion it’s me, Mamajii … Gwion, do you know who I am?’ (p 159). He does not pause, but opens up a conversation with this ancient figure written in humanity’s first storybook — rock paintings.

Conflicts of all kinds, past and present, have left millions of people damaged and shaped by the traumas they have experienced. When trauma is no longer hinged on a single event but becomes a destructive movement that goes on and on, it becomes ‘cyclical trauma’. In this way, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) turns into Chronic Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD) and those who have lived or continue to live in horrific wars like the Syrian civil war have had their brains rewired by chronic shock and misery. Atkinson explains that Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy is a literary classic in its ‘vital rendering of the trauma of the Great War’ (p 116) and a fine example of the workings of cyclical trauma. Moving back and forth across time, ‘The novels testify to the trauma of masculinity on a number of levels: masculinity as traumatized, masculinity as traumatic and masculinity as traumatizing’ (p 122). One character in the trilogy, Rivers, must heal his patients so that they can be returned to the trenches for more traumatisation. Those who happen to survive the war go home to traumatise their families as they relive their own trauma in a kind of toxic feed-back loop.

Hostilities arising from the increasing stress of climate change and global environmental devastation also have their own traumatic legacies. There is also an intersection between justice and trauma in relation to gender, age, race and the treatment of animals and the natural world around us, writes Atkinson. ‘Even so, it may not be too far-fetched to suggest the earth could be experiencing something similar to the subjective shock and disturbance that occurs in the experience of trauma of sentient life forms, a kind of PTSD if you will’ (p 186).

Atkinson argues that in order for human beings to adopt more ethical action they must have, as the philosopher Spinoza advised, more internal power, and also the kind of reason that operates for the greater good. Writers are indispensable in the way forward by not only testifying to the trauma within their families and culture, but also by negotiating its consequences so that it can be transformed and ultimately healed. In the book’s foreword, Professor Gregory J. Seigworth sums up Meera Atkinson’s contribution to trauma studies: ‘There is much to gain in discovering how distinctive literary genres wrestle with their unique tellings of transgenerational trauma, and Atkinson has gifted us with a capacious critical methodology for unfolding these lessons into the everyday’ (ix).

[1] Alison Bechdel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006

The Poetics of Transgenerational Trauma

Meera Atkinson
Bloomsbury Academic, 2017
199 pages

Amanda Hickey has worked with words all her adult life across many mediums – documentaries, journalism, blogging, short films and creative writing. She is also a teacher and gives Storytelling workshops to Not-for-Profits. Her first documentary (Writer & Director) on heart surgeon Victor Chang, won an award for SBS TV. Her latest documentary (Producer, second unit Director) – We Are Many – was long listed for an Academy Award and is currently available on I-Tunes.

Amanda writes for her own blog, reviews for Verity La, and is currently finishing a nonfiction book on a WW2 Australian soldier that will be published later this year.  She is also working on a memoir, an extract of which appeared in Verity La.