The Intersections of Trauma Theory Post Colonial Studies

I choose to root my understanding of Trauma theory in the seminal work Trauma: Explorations in Memory edited by leading trauma theory scholar, Cathy Caruth. The book is divided into two sections titled “Trauma and Experience” and “Reclaiming the Past” which contain articles from a wide array of scholars. In Caruth’s introduction to “Trauma and Experience” she claims that “The aim of this volume… is to examine the impact of the experience and the notion of trauma on psychoanalytic practice and theory, as well as other aspects of culture such as literature….”(4). Within the first section of the book, the topics of the scholarly essays range from the proper way to teach trauma narratives in an academic setting to the lasting effects of trauma on the human psyche. Further, this book introduces key terminology to the field of trauma theory such as “belated”, “intrusive”, and “repetition”. Each of these words are essential in understanding the ways in which trauma manifests in the human psyche as well as the ways trauma is written about in literature. These grounding terms and theories provide a scaffolding for what to look for in novels about trauma. Furthermore, they allow for a new set of guidelines with which to analyze literary devices, word choice, and more.

The second section of the book titled “Recapturing the Past” wrestles with the impact of traumatic memory. This section introduces the idea that trauma is “largely inaccessible to conscious recall and control” (151). The scholars in this section of the book focus on a range of topics such as traumatic memories inability to be incorporated into “narrative memory”, the conditions that evoke traumatic memory, and the phenomenon of “depersonalization”. However, the two sections of the book are united by the key claim of the importance of telling owns one and witnessing other’s traumatic stories. On this topic, Caruth states that “the history of trauma…can only take place through the listening of another” (11). In general, this book introduces key scholars and terminology in this field and has given me a foundation for how to view trauma in literature. However, one blind spot I noted in this book was the lack of diversity in experience of trauma represented. Though the book does introduce a feminist understanding of trauma, none of the essays deal with colonial or racial traumas besides the Holocaust.

In an effort to find links between trauma theory and post colonial studies I conducted a year long survey of The Journal of Post Colonial Writing focusing on the year of 2016. This volume contains 6 separate editions titled “Beyond Britishness”, “Al-Andalus” ,“The Worldliness of Cricket and Its Literature”, “Trans/Forming Literature: Graphic Novels, Migration and Postcolonial Identity”, “Asian Australian Writing” and one untitled edition. Each of the editions explore different specific facets of post colonial literature, however each mention key thinkers such as Edward Said, Homi Bhabha, Frantz Fanon, and more. Additionally, almost every article in the year long survey utilizes key terms such as “Cosmopolitanism”, “multiculturalism”, “migration”, “globalization”, “racism”, and “hegemony”. One facet of the year long survey that struck me was the breadth of scholarship that exists within incredibly specialized fields. For example, the special edition “The Worldliness of Cricket and Its Literature” contains many distinct scholars speaking to numerous different novels using a huge variations of lens. The huge diversity of study within this minute subdivision of study communicated to me the vast potential that post colonial studies allows and hasinspired me to find a specialized topic.

Though each edition contains useful information for my exploration of the post colonial studies, the special edition “Beyond Britishness” is particularly relevant to my interest in the novel White Teeth and the concept of transgenerational trauma. One article in this special edition titled “Tell me a story Dad: (Post)memory and the archeology of subjectivity in Hanif Kureishi’s My Ear at His Heartfocuses on transgenerational trauma and explaining the complex effect cultural trauma has on the identity formation of second generation migrants. This edition also includes an article titled “Coming unmoored: Old and new ways of belonging in Caryl Phillips’s In the Falling Snow” that explores the progression of British national identity across generations of immigrants in England. Finally, the edition contains an article titled “Approaching space: Zadie Smith’s North London fiction” that analyzes the shifting use of North London as setting in Smith’s novels. These essays both validate my interest in exploring the work of Zadie Smith and give examples of transgenerational trauma and post colonialism coexisting in analysis.

Further, an essential take away to the year long survey was the importance of telling post colonial stories. In the special edition “Al-Andalus” scholar Tariq Ali explains his project of post colonial scholarship as an effort to tell “the whole bloody story” (189). This statement invokes that similar sentiment in trauma theory of bearing witness to horrific moments of the past, whether they be colonial traumas or intimate personal traumas. Both lens communicate that it is only through telling stories that one can begin the healing process. However, an important question still looms at the intersection of post colonial studies and trauma theory. In my further research I am interested in discovering what the limitations of trauma theory may be in relationship to post colonial studies, as Caruth’s books lays out theories largely based in the work of Freud. Many of Freud’s theories have been proven false today, and often do not account for the complex and intersectional identities that are at the center of post colonial novels. Therefore, I will be interested in exploring how trauma theory must be reconfigured to meet the specific needs of post colonial studies.


BP 5

Works Cited

Athanasiades, Andreas. “Tell Me a Story Dad: (Post)Memory and the Archaeology of Subjectivity in Hanif Kureishi’s My Ear at His Heart.” Journal of Postcolonial Writing, vol. 52, no. 1, May 2016, pp. 26–37.

Cilano, Cara. “Highlighting the Sceptical Strain: An Interview with Tariq Ali.” Journal of Postcolonial Writing, vol. 52, no. 2, May 2016, pp. 189–194.

Journal of Postcolonial Writing, special issue of Beyond Britishness vol. 52, no. 1, May 2016.

Journal of Postcolonial Writing, special edition of Al-Andalus, vol. 52, no. 2, Jun. 2016.

Journal of Postcolonial Writing, special edition of The Worldliness of Cricket and Its Literature , vol. 52, no. 3, Aug. 2016.

Journal of Postcolonial Writing, special edition of Trans/Forming Literature: Graphic Novels, Migration and Postcolonial Identity , vol. 52, no. 4, Nov. 2016.

Journal of Postcolonial Writing, special edition of Asian Australian Writing, Migration and Postcolonial Identity , vol. 52, no. 5, Dec. 2016.

Journal of Postcolonial Writing, vol. 52, no. 6, Dec. 2016.

Pirker, Eva Ulrike. “Approaching Space: Zadie Smith’s North London Fiction.” Journal of Postcolonial Writing, vol. 52, no. 1, May 2016, pp. 64–76.

Tournay-Theodotou, Petra. “Coming Unmoored: Old and New Ways of Belonging in Caryl Phillips’s In the Falling Snow.” Journal of Postcolonial Writing, vol. 52, no. 1, May 2016, pp. 51–63.

Trauma: Explorations in Memory, edited by Cathy Caruth, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.


3 thoughts on “The Intersections of Trauma Theory Post Colonial Studies

  1. This is an excellent topic that you have chosen. The effects of trauma and the way in which it influences memory and the retelling of stories is a very interesting topic. I noticed how you mentioned most colonial and racial trauma theory is focused on the Holocaust. This made me wonder if there was a specific time period, ethnicity, nation, culture, community, etc. that you wish to focus on when studying trauma in postcolonial literature. Aside from the Holocaust, you can focus on decolonization in the British Empire, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the One Child Policy of Communist China, the intervention of the West in the Middle East, etc. I have read novels that involve trauma and memory in the postcolonial world so I am happy to share them with you. A couple of examples are “A Grain of Wheat” by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (focuses on the Mau Mau Uprising in British Kenya) and “The Garden of Evening Mists” by Tan Twan Eng (focuses on the Malayan Emergency in British Malaya, also touches on trauma from the Japanese occupation during WWII).

  2. I really like your topic and I would like to know more about your research/sources, because I think there is some overlap in our ideas for our theses. I am curious, however, as to what exactly the timeline of your research is. You mention the Holocaust, but I am assuming your argument will be based in more of a contemporary point in time? I am also curious if you will be looking at trauma theory in solely an American or potentially an international viewpoint, and comparing how the two relate? By looking at this through an international lens, it might be interesting to compare how the theory differs alongside postcolonialism.

  3. I find trauma to be a very interesting topic that challenges its readers to connect and understand the characters through an intense and sensitive lens. I think the words “intrusive” and “repetition” really stuck with me and I am curious to see how you link these terms to your close reading of White Teeth. I would suggest looking at “Trauma Fiction” to enhance your analysis. I also think expanding on the idea or differences between trauma and international trauma.

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