Transgenerational Trauma in The Dew Breaker and White Teeth


For my thesis project I will explore the intersections between Trauma theory and Postcolonial studies. Particularly, I will focus on the ways colonial and other forms of trauma are passed down through generations of immigrants living in diaspora. When reading my primary texts I will consider what kinds of trauma exist, how different generations relate to trauma, what effects it has on their subjectivity formation and more. With these questions in mind, I will chart the pathways for and methods of trauma transmission within the family unit. I will then analyze how transgenerational trauma informs the lives of second generation citizens. However, a key interest of mine is not just to discover how trauma affects the lives of postcolonial subjects, but also their resilience, healing, and methods of survival despite their trauma. Finally, in my research thus far I have identified considerable disjunctions between western centric trauma theory and postcolonial studies. I will be sure to keep these tensions at the forefront of my project, privileging specific cultural conceptions of family, healing, and identity.

The first primary source I am considering is the 2004 short story collection, The Dew Breaker, by Edwidge Danticat. The collection contains 9 different stories with 7 distinct narrators and charts the experiences of the Haitian diasporic community in New York City. These stories focus both on their struggles as immigrants as well as their traumatic pasts under the violent Haitian dictators “Papa Doc” and “Baby Doc” Duvalier. Though the collection contains a variety of different stories, each are linked to the family of a young Haitian-American, Ka. In the third story of the collection, “The Book of Miracles”, Ka’s mother, Anne, reveals that Ka’s father was an agent of the violent military regime headed by the Duvaliers. Known as “dew breakers” or Tonton Macoutes, he was one of the hundreds of men who committed heinous acts of violence against Haitian civilians in order to enforce the power of the regime. As the stories progress narrators reveal the specific ways in which “The Dew Breaker” inflicted trauma in their lives, uniting them all in shared traumatic experience. However, the collection if punctuated by Ka learning of the violence her father perpetuated through a phone conversation with her mother. Ultimately, the phone conversation is unresolved leaving readers with a complex ending to the short story collection.

The Dew Breaker offers a particularly nuanced representation of transgenerational and cultural trauma. On one hand, the traumatic connections between the characters of each story stress the importance of community for those living in diaspora. Through community they are able to find comfort in a foreign land while also speaking in a unified voice against the regime that drove them from Haiti. Further, the collection resists the urge to paint the United States as a place of salvation. Rather, the characters still struggle with a number of problems such as police violence, unwanted pregnancies, stalking, and familial strife. However, this representation of trauma is complicated by the primacy of Ka and her family’s narrative. With the inclusion of Ka’s story, the collection also asks readers to consider how one can deal with traumatic information about one’s family.  What are the effects of existing in a legacy of a perpetrator of trauma? How does this fracture one’s own subjectivity formation? Though the collection leaves the reader with Ka’s revelation unresolved, Danticat’s stories are a heroic testament to the importance of speaking and witnessing one’s trauma for healing.

Throughout the novel Danticat contends with the motif of speaking and silences. Though some characters in the novel lack the agency to tell their own truths, Danticat ultimately transcends her character’s silences through the metanarrative of writing their stories. Ka and the traumatized characters in the novel will never be able to change the things they have endured, however they regain agency by the writing and witnessing of their pain. That being said, one concern I have with this text is its place in the field postcolonial studies. Though it is classified as a postcolonial novel I am struggling to draw clear connections between the oppressive forces of colonialism and the trauma occurring in these short stories. If I choose to write about this collection I must also formulate my own understanding of the field of study. Overall, I believe that this work asks unique questions about familial and communal trauma. That being said, one of the only characters in the collection who is second generation is Ka and many of the stories do not focus on her at all. This lack of focus on the second generation may cause problems for my interest in exploring how transgenerational trauma effects their subjectivity formation. That being said, there are many other aspects of this collection that excite me. For example, I would be fascinated in exploring the individual structures of the short stories, while also considering how this collection works as a whole. Further, I find the project of telling Haitian stories deeply important. If I chose to write about this collection I would continually be inspired by the Haitian community’s historic resilience in the face of oppression and disaster.   

The second primary source I am interested in is the 2000 novel White Teeth by Zadie Smith. White Teeth maps the lives and families of two WWII veterans fighting for the British Military, Samad Iqbal and Archie Jones. Samad, is an Indian fighting the war in an effort to relive the glory of his supposed great grandfather, Mangal Pandey, who fired the first shot in the Indian Rebellion of 1857. In contrast, Archie is an average white British man who later in the novel marries a second generation Jamaican woman, Clara Bowden. While fighting in the same platoon, the pair forge a cross cultural friendship that continues once Samad and his wife, Alsana, move to Britain. The novel then introduces the second generation of characters, Samad’s twin boys, Millat and Magid, and Archie’s biracial daughter, Irie. Within this lengthy and intergenerational novel are an array of personal and familial dramas as well as much broader cultural critiques. The beauty of this novel lies in its ability to contend with issues of racism, citizenship, class, religious fundamentalism, abuse, war and the British colonial empire, all while telling deeply personal stories about family, love, and growing up.

White Teeth fearlessly asks readers to consider the importance of trauma and family in identity formation. Further, its style of narration offers an interesting complication for the lens of trauma theory and postcolonial studies. The novel is narrated by an intrusive omniscient narrator who focalizes on specific characters throughout the novel. Though this semi-fragmented form of narration is common in both trauma theory and postcolonial studies, Smith also incorporates humor into the narrative voice. Given the often traumatic events that Smith narrates I am puzzled, but intrigued, by her use of humor. However, I am considerably intimidated by the length and breath of White Teeth. The novel is 480 pages, spans over 50 years, two generations, two primary families, and a multitude of themes. Though the scope of the novel is daunting, I believe my focus on transgenerational trauma and its place in subjectivity formation will focus my thesis project. Unlike, The Dew Breaker, White Teeth includes detailed portrayals of both generations’ personal traumas which in turn provides me with a breath of material for analysis.  Further, the novel depicts different kinds of family units with which to analyze the passage of trauma. Smith’s novel includes the complications of biraciality as well as deeply religious family which would necessarily complicate my arguments about transgenerational trauma. Finally, I am moved by White Teeth’s refusal to offer readers a rosy picture of personal, familial, and colonial trauma. Rather, White Teeth provides a realistic picture of healing which relies on community, personal connections, and the witnessing of one’s own trauma for survival.

One of my issues in choosing between these texts is their respective complexity and differences in subject matter. Though they certainly have similar features, I do not believe that I could do justice to both of works within the same thesis project. For example, The Dew Breaker deals specifically with Haiti, French colonialism, violent dictatorships,  and the diasporic experience in America. Conversely, White Teeth focuses on War, British citizenship, British colonialism in India and Jamaica, and the experience of people of color living in Britain. Though both ask questions about trauma and its relationship to family, I believe the task of comparing these works would be too complex of an undertaking. With this in mind I believe I must choose either The Dew Breaker and White Teeth, though both have significant positives and negatives. For The Dew Breaker, I am inspired by the collection’s emotional resonance and Haitian focus. However, I worry that the collection does not focus enough on the second generation and would disable a deeper analysis of the passing of trauma and subjectivity formation. White Teeth was a transformational novel in my life and provides innumerable layers of complexity to be explored in my thesis project. However, I worry that the novel may be too complex and broad in its scope. That being said, for both novels there is little to no research about the pathways of transgenerational trauma and its impact on subjectivity formation. In total, I believe my scholarship for either novel would fill an important critical gap and I would appreciate guidance in deciding between the two works.


Works Cited

Danticat, Edwidge. The Dew Breaker. Vintage Contemporary, 2004.

Smith, Zadie. White Teeth. Hamish Hamilton, 2000.

3 thoughts on “Transgenerational Trauma in The Dew Breaker and White Teeth

  1. I have been hearing you reference White Teeth all semester I am so glad to finally understand your interest in using this as a primary source. I think your topic is very relatable and intriguing and can go many different ways. Something I would suggest is actually talking with Bella about the importance of shell shock and the trauma of WWII. I think the two of you could exchange some good ideas and share some articles with one another that may aid your research.

  2. I really enjoyed your description of how Zadie Smith balances of humor with existing trauma. It definitely represents what you describe as Smith’s “realistic picture of healing,” and that pairing sounds really exciting to explore. I think you could definitely branch off from the scholarship we’ve used in our class, specifically surrounding Half of a Yellow Sun where so much of the personal narratives were deeply based on war and trauma. Something else that stood out to me in your description of White Teeth was the idea of two men who were in the same war, but experienced trauma differently. Maybe you could look further into how trauma is classified and categorized. I know you mentioned that it’s difficult to find information about how trauma is described specifically within a postcolonial context, but maybe you could look more at how a postcolonial framework has reimagined other literary frameworks (as in the articles we read about postcolonial feminism), and use those methods as a model for what you could do for trauma theory.

  3. Your attention on the second generation within narratives of postcolonial trauma is interesting because it maps the last impact of violence and power dynamics created during imperialism. I think it points to the important concept of inherited memory and how the way that our parents’ developed their understanding and ways of navigating the world will impact the way that we do as well. When thinking about this inter-generational inheritance of trauma it might be interesting or useful to think about language as well, especially when addressing Diaspora communities. Who gets use of the “homeland’s” language and who uses English, and in which instances they use them could be illuminating to how communication gets linked to violence and violent acts. I’m thinking of Julia Alvarez’s How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents, where the daughters learn to associate Spanish with the inability to communicate during important moments in America, following a traumatic experience that the oldest daughter is unable to fully communicate to the police due to language barriers.

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