Meera Atkinson writes across genres — creative nonfiction, memoir, fiction, hybrid, poetry, essays, scholarly, songs — and over the last ten years her work has been particularly focussed on the subject of trauma, individual and collective. In 2017, her academic monograph, The Poetics of Transgenerational Trauma, was published by Bloomsbury Academic. In 2007, her essay ‘The Exiled Child’ was shortlisted for The Alfred Deakin Prize for an Essay Advancing Public Debate, Victorian Premier’s Awards. Earlier this year, Atkinson’s timely memoir-based book, Traumata, was published by UQP. Melding together personal story and interdisciplinary subjects as broad as neuroscience, pop psychology, feminist theory and philosophy, Traumata illustrates and interrogates the wider context of our society’s structures and wounds.
Interviewer: Tamara Lazaroff
I’d been looking forward to Traumata for some time leading up to the release earlier this year. I read it in one sitting thinking at turns, Yes, me too, and also — particularly about some of the more critical writing — Oh! So that’s how it works. I found myself talking to the text. I’m really curious to hear about some of the other responses you’ve had so far, from readers both known and unknown to you.
I’d always conceived of Traumata as a conversation, which is strange to say when you’re writing a memoir-based book. The traditional view of memoir is that somebody is telling their story and the reader is entering into it, experiencing their reality. But I always knew that there’d be a reader on the other end who very likely, to some degree or another, would have experienced their own traumatic history, and that the way I’ve written the book — that hybrid approach, of the personal and the political, opening into interdisciplinary research — would likely have the kind of effect you talk about. People are getting information about trauma and hopefully having a process of gaining increased understanding of it as they read. I always felt there was going to be a conversation happening — just that I couldn’t hear the specifics of what was coming back to me.
I always find it moving when I hear how a reader has engaged with Traumata. I’ve had some really lovely notes from male readers, which I must say has surprised me.
I went onto Goodreads. I know people say to never do it, but I was curious. One person gave it one star and said: ‘This book couldn’t decide whether it was memoir, history, etc.’
For some people, hybrid is just not going to work for them, and I understand that. I knew there’d be people who don’t like genre-fluidity or genre-defiance. That’s fine. But I’ve been heartened that a lot of people have gone with it and it’s worked for them.
As to people close to me, that’s a different kettle of fish. Some have chosen not to read it because they know it’s going to be uncomfortable for them. That’s one choice that several family members have made. There are others who did choose to read it in proof form — because I offered it to certain people who I knew might be particularly affected — and they were all fine with it because they understood the nature of the project and the spirit in which it was written.
In Traumata, you often address the reader directly — letting us in behind the curtain, telling us what your motivations for telling the story are, showing us how the book came into being. You show us where you deliberate about sharing certain information or not — the ethical dilemmas you bumped up against. How important was it to let the reader in in this way?
It’s an interesting question. It came very naturally to me. I don’t recall a moment of making a conscious choice, but I must’ve somewhere along the way. I think the reason I found it an interesting narrative voice and approach is because of the nature of trauma and traumatic memory. I’ll just speak for myself — there was no way of avoiding the fact that, to a degree, I’m an unreliable narrator, in the sense that trauma and traumatic memory is a very complex and tricky business. It’s very hard, especially when remembering things that happened forty years in the past. Then you’ve got age memory issues on top of the trauma. So, I wanted to be transparent about that.
I wanted the reader to understand — because to me that is part of the struggle of being a person who has experienced profound or chronic trauma and is living with the ongoing legacy of… I don’t want to say uncertainty because I don’t want to suggest that people are unreliable in their accounts. A lot of the time people know that something happened. And sometimes they have a lot of detail. And I don’t want to suggest at all that we shouldn’t believe people — quite the opposite. What I want to do is challenge the idea that what we should expect from people testifying to their trauma is totally verifiable, provable recall. Because that’s an unrealistic expectation in terms of traumatic memory. Obviously, it’s a tricky business. Especially if legal processes come into play, there need to be clearly demarcated requirements.
But in the context of this book, narrating this kind of story, I wanted the reader to understand that my telling of a lifetime of traumatic experience is not going to be this neat, solid thing. It’s a different kind of process.
There’s another deep conversation going on in the book and that’s the conversation that you set up between your own personal experiences of trauma, and the thinking through or dissecting of the society and culture in which those traumas — or traumata — have taken place. Was this dialogic structure also an intuitive decision?
It was both an intuitive and a very conscious decision. I’d been writing in that kind of personal / cultural / political hybrid form over a number of years in the Griffith Review pieces, some of which were drawn into the book. So the form wasn’t new to me. It became clear when I started to think about writing Traumata that I wanted to write in a more interdisciplinary, layered way, in a more wildly hybrid way.
As well as the conversation between me and the reader, I wanted there to be a conversation between genres and narrative voices and approaches. That was important in terms of teasing out the personal and political dynamics. I didn’t want to do: This is my personal story over here and here are some cultural and political realities over there. I wanted the writing to show the interrelationship between how those realms feed into and out of each other to the point where the distinction becomes very blurred. I was trying to achieve that in a structural sense as well.
I heard you say in another interview that you wrote the first draft of Traumata in just six months — which is extraordinarily fast! Why do you think that was?
I don’t normally write that quickly. My day job is as a sessional university teacher and that’s a very precariat and busy work life. The Varuna fellowships were absolutely crucial. There’s no way I could have done a first draft in that period of time, given my other commitments, had I not had two Varuna fellowships. The first one was courtesy of the Griffith Review Contributors’ Circle prize in the beginning of June 2016. That’s when I started the book. I was planning, preparing, thinking, and reading ahead of that, but June was when I actually started to write.
When I came back from that, I felt like I’d hit a vein and I wanted to stay with it, so I applied for a Varuna Fellowship and I was awarded the Dr Dark Flagship Fellowship 2017.
In between those two fellowships I was working away doing what I could, when I wasn’t teaching, to make progress. I did two weeks of my Flagship Fellowship residency at Varuna in October and wrote the last few months of that year and entered 2017 with a completed first draft.
Varuna is such a magic place. With concentrated writing time and no other distractions, it’s possible to make incredible progress in a short period of time. It would have taken much longer in normal life.
Which aspect or part of the book do you love the most?
I think the poetic prose. I’d been studying and researching in the area of trauma since I started my PhD in 2010, so I’d done a lot of research. And I did new research for this work — and that is a fascinating process to undertake and there are always interesting discoveries — but in poetic writing, there was more of a surprise. I never knew what was going to come up.
I’m fond of the friendship section as well. It’s probably the least overtly traumatic, but I felt that it was important to speak to friendship in a book like this — because there’s a lot of heavy in it, and necessarily so. There’s a little light and sweetness there in that section. Some relief. But also friendship is so crucial to my coping with the process of dealing with trauma, coming to terms with it.
I love the drawings you’ve used to delineate the chapters or sections. Could you say something about them and why you chose to include them?
They’re by a Spanish medical artist of incredible genius and great acclaim — Nobel Laureate Santiago Ramón y Cajal. I used them because we didn’t want a traditional, strict chapter structure; it was important to me that the structure speak to the way traumatic memory works. We were also aware that trauma is a challenging motif to have from beginning to end. There are a lot of shifts and thematic arcs in there too, and we wanted to do something to mark them.
The Cajal drawings are very beautiful in terms of being visual representations of neurons. I don’t want to suggest that trauma happens only in the brain. Of course, it doesn’t. It’s a very bodily experience. There are also body affects and other considerations that are part of psychic traumatic injury, but we do know, increasingly, due to advances in technology and neuroscience, that profound trauma does change the brain and affects the wiring and the pathways. So, there is a level at which these drawings are speaking to the incredibly complex operations that are going on in traumatic experiences.
Now, this is a quite big question. In Traumata, you really examine the machinations of patriarchy and its — often traumatic — effects. You do touch on what the balm could be for the wound on a personal level: friendship, love, therapy, embodiment, creativity, for example. But how do you think our culture can repair as a whole?
That’s such a hard one. On one level, I think it’s a person at a time getting the help they need to… Now this is where I struggle with using the word ‘heal’. I keep wanting another word, and it’s not because that’s a bad word. But I don’t know how much we can expect from people. It really depends on the nature and the extremity of the trauma. So, when I use a word like ‘heal’, for one person that might mean that they get to a place where they just don’t feel affected by their trauma anymore; it doesn’t have a driving influence in their life. That’s great and ideal. But for some of us that’s not going to happen. For some of us healing means we can get to a place where it’s affecting us less and we have a lot more choice and agency.
At a cultural level, we urgently need political leadership around this. We need government that understands what trauma is at an individual and a structural level — which we’re very far from having. We have some amazing community leaders who are doing all sorts of important work around trauma. But we have to rethink how we’ve arranged our society. We have to make serious changes that address the history of transgenerational trauma and intervene on and prevent those cycles continuing. A big job. I don’t know if we’re going to get there in time.
It sounds bleak, but my view is: What else are we going to do here? Let’s do everything we can individually, collectively, to intervene in those cycles of transmission. And then we might just have a chance.
Traumata: an excerpt
Stories about those languishing in every kind of exile, imprisoned in ‘processing centres’ like Nauru, Manus and Christmas Island, fill my Facebook feed year after year, successive governments signing off on their trauma, even though experts have likened Australia’s offshore detention centres to the torture ‘black sites’ used by the US in the ‘war on terror’. I sadface this world. The war on terror is a war of trauma. My weaponised trauma versus your weaponised trauma. The Guardian runs a story about Paul Stevenson, a ‘psychologist and traumatologist’ who has ‘spent forty years helping people make sense of their lives in the aftermath of disaster, of terrorist attacks, bombings and mass murders, of landslides, fires and tsunamis’. Stevenson made fourteen deployments to Nauru and Manus during 2014 and 2015. ‘In my entire career of forty-three years,’ he tells journalists Ben Doherty and David Marr, ‘I have never seen more atrocity than I have seen in the incarcerated situations of Manus Island and Nauru.’ Child suicide. Mismanaged rapes. Self-harm. Child sexual assault. My body beneath the weight of their tortured bodies. No way: you will not make Australia home. Australia first. Rise up. One Nation. Heil Hitler. Are you an ‘economic migrant’, a ‘queue jumper’? Never mind. If you’re not sufficiently traumatised when you get here, you soon will be. ‘Make a whistle from my throat,’ begins an anonymous poem penned by a refugee held in Baxter Detention Centre in 2005, ‘I do not know what will happen after I die. I do not want to know. But I would like the Potter to make a whistle from the clay of my throat. May this whistle fall into the hands of a cheeky and naughty child and the child to blow hard on the whistle continuously with the suppressed and silent air of his lungs and disrupt the sleep of those who seem deaf to my cries.’
Those deaf to these cries count the votes in their blue ties.
There can be no poetry after Auschwitz. This unsettling misquote is attributed to the philosopher Theodor Adorno, writing in the wake of the Holocaust, but according to a translation by Samuel Weber what he actually said was more along the lines of ‘it is barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz’, which offers little more reassurance. Adorno later softened and qualified his position stating that ‘Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream’ and he clarified that what he meant to raise was the difficult question of whether after Auschwitz one can go on living. What he was getting at, then, was that culture, including language, had been so twisted by the Nazis as to have stripped human civilisation of meaning. To continue reproducing culture in the wake of that and in the context of ‘the open-air prison which the world is becoming’ is ethically unjust. That is to say that to keep doing culture in the ways that produced the conditions that led to monstrosities such as Auschwitz (and Guantanamo and Manus and Don Dale) is barbaric. I wonder if Adorno realised he was calling for a feminist revolution in its sincerest sense, if he was aware that patriarchy lays the foundation from which hellholes like these rise up. The great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda once declared that ‘poetry is an act of peace’. In light of this it would be more accurate to say that after Auschwitz there should be only poetry. The question is how to go on living.
Even after years of therapy, I am unable to map out a reliable and linear timeline of events, or to articulate a cohesive account of the disintegration of the relationship between my mother and Al. All I know is that one day they seemed content and we were playing happy families, and the next they were fighting. I have no idea whether I witnessed ten, fifty or one hundred and fifty episodes of violence. All I have is a patchwork of random recollections without their broader context. The experts assure me this is completely normal for someone with post-traumatic stress disorder. Judith Herman describes how it works: ‘Traumatic memories lack verbal narrative and context; rather, they are encoded in the form of vivid sensations and images. Robert Jay Lifton, who studied survivors of Hiroshima, civilian disasters and combat, describes the traumatic memory as an “indelible image” or “death imprint”.’
A fight has started on our way home from a wedding. Al is in the driver’s seat and he has pulled over so that he can strangle my mother. I’m sitting behind him in the back seat, leaning out the window, screaming for help so hard my throat hurts. It’s a Saturday night and three or four people in a jovial mood pass by and look at us, but they keep walking and do not help. I’m watching my mother gag and I reach out and pull on Al’s hair with all my might. His hands release my mother’s throat. He turns around and belts me in the side of the head.
My mother lies on the floor in the kitchen. I think she is dead.
We’re camping in a tent pitched at the top of a hill. They’ve been fighting all day and Al and Stacey appear to have abandoned my mother and me at the campsite. Michael, one of the boys from school who accompanied us on the trip, has gone with Al and Stacey, and the other, Tony, is with my mother and me. The three of us are sitting in the tent and the air is thick with apprehension and tension. We hear a car revving up the hill. We emerge from the tent, blinded by the headlights coming towards us at full speed. We run.
My mother and I arrive home to find slurs scrawled all over the walls in huge, mad red letters.
Some of my ‘indelible images’ feel realer than others. I feel certain the scene in the car took place. I know I didn’t imagine or false-memory our return to our apartment that day to ugly sexist vandalism, and I know I often feared for my mother’s safety. I am less sure about events at the camping site, though I do know something threatening took place because I distinctly remember my mother and Tony and me fleeing to the local police station and being put on a train back to Sydney. They blend, these memories, into each other in a timeless soup. Elizabeth Waites explains why they still feel like a bad dream from which I can’t quite wake, rather than reality: ‘The shock of trauma produces states that are so different from ordinary waking life that they are not easily integrated with more normal experience. As a result of this discontinuity, the traumatic state may be lost to memory or remembered as a dream is sometimes remembered, as something vague and unreal.’
My mother’s lifelong dream of being a working actor came to the fore during her time with Al. In her forties, with one child living independently and the other nearing adolescence, she was finally free to pursue her goal; to take classes, sign up with an agent, and take extra jobs and parts in local theatre productions. Together we conjured up the notion that I too had acting talent and she called on an old family friend to take photos of us — individually and together — that might be useful in landing us gigs. A few years back the wife of that photographer contacted me on Facebook. She had come across the contact sheet from that session and asked if I would like her to send it. When it arrived I stared at the small square black and white images, going from one to the next, fascinated by our performances of femininity. In the top corner photo my mother is lovely, arms crossed, smiling gently and awash with light beaming through a nearby window. In another my mother appears to be deranged, eyes bulging, shoulders hitched high and hands on hips. I don’t remember the photos being taken so I have no context for this, but I imagine she is ‘acting’ mad. I note that it seems to be pre–boob job. In the image beneath we stand together before a white wall. She looks to camera, unsmiling, arms crossed again. My eyes are cast down and off to the side; I have my finger in my mouth. I am spellbound by this image in particular. It seems to capture us both in our respective and related traumas. We stand apart and there’s a symbolic tear in the wall behind us, between us. My mother is drawn, more brittle than beautiful. There’s something about her direct gaze. She resembles a trapped animal, her eyes ghosted by pain. Her mouth is open slightly, as if she wants to speak. I seem lost, spaced out, sad. I’m old enough to have conscious thoughts about my fraught home life, but I never speak of it. I don’t know how to.
Traumata by Meera Atkinson is published by UQP, RRP $29.95.
Tamara Lazaroff is a writer of fiction and creative non-fiction whose work has been published widely in Australian, New Zealand and UK journals, including Meanjin, Southerly, Verity La, Headland and The Wrong Quarterly. Her short stories have won the Biennial Literary Award, been highly commended for the InkTears Short Story Competition and longlisted for the Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize. She is currently participating in the national HARDCOPY (Fiction) Program with her collection, In My Father’s Village & Other Stories.