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Writing Trauma: The diversity of human experience

Trauma. It is the sort of thing a writer lives to explore. Every new perspective lends nuance to the concept.

Sofie Laguna, Eben Venter, Mireille Juchau, and Emily Bitto delved into the experience of writing fiction about trauma in the family context.

But the human experience is so diverse, it is often hard to fully realize the experience and impact of trauma on the page. It is up to the writer to feel these things out for themselves, to bring new perspectives to the table. 

The 2015 Miles Franklin winner Laguna wrote The Eye of the Sheep through the voice of Jimmy, a young boy whose family is touched by his father’s violent alcoholism. For Laguna’s character, trauma is obvious — his mother, who is his idol, is cut down time and again by a largely absent father.

For Venter, whose novels have won three South African literary awards, trauma begins with a death in the family. In Wolf Wolf his character Matt deals with the imminent death of his father, Benjamin, and with the claustrophobia of their relationship.

The tension between he and his ‘quintessential patriarch’ pushes the homosexual Matt over the edge. The forced intimacy of having to care for a parent is more than he can handle, and Matt deals with his problems by diving headfirst into an addiction to pornography, seeking intimacy with something that is essentially fake — images on the internet.

For Laguna and Venter, trauma is an obvious thing with not-so-obvious consequences. The two complement each other, as both show the intensity of human reaction and the ways that perception and experience effect the way that we deal with traumatic grief.

There isn’t always be an obvious causation or point in life when a person faces a conflict, nor is everyone able to handle conflict effectively. Sometimes it is ‘something in the way things are’ that causes a disconnect in a person, and the reason may not be apparent. In Juchau’s The World Without Us, she explores how what’s not said can effect a child just as much as what is.

Bitto’s 2015 Stella Prize winning The Strays looks at the trauma inherent in not fulfilling your dreams. Her character Lily lives a life surrounded by disjointed parental figures and is infatuated with the romance of the bohemian lifestyle they lead. She becomes effected by their influence, watching as their lives degrade into failure, while her own life fails to live up to expectation.

What do these narratives tell us about ourselves, our experience as human? What makes authors write these stories countless times?

Bitto describes her story as being about “the aftermath but also the way that we constantly sort of revise our own pasts.”

Perhaps she means that trauma, like our memories, is subjective. And as our opinions change, so do our perceptions of the past and how we deal with our trauma.

The human experience is dynamic, yes. Diverse, definitely. But there is something common in the way that we experience life, and Laguna reminded us today that “we’re born into trauma, almost; trauma is a part of all of our lives.”

That’s what makes these stories so important.

Megan A. Morgan is a Bachelor of Arts student studying Writing and Visual Arts at Southern Cross University. She holds a prior degree in English from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. 

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