A Summer Reading List – Part Two: Trauma in Fiction
compiled by Pat Shelly
Part Two: Trauma in Fiction
Do you want to advance your knowledge of trauma this summer? Have you been meaning to read a classic in the field, or find out about the latest in treatment modalities? Do you find that fiction can provide nuance regarding the impact of trauma on people’s lives?
Part One of the reading list provided clinical titles on trauma treatment.
Part Two offers my own eclectic selection of a half-dozen works of fiction. Novels often include critical social and political issues, and some of these titles even include characters who are social workers. And with my seventh selection on this list, I offer an example of poetry that helps soothe my spirit during difficult times – self-care through bibliotherapy.
Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. (2013) Americanah. New York: Anchor Books/Random House.
“Ifemelu and Obinze are young and in love when they depart military-ruled Nigeria for the West. Beautiful, self-assured Ifemelu heads for America, where despite her academic success, she is forced to grapple with what it means to be black for the first time. Quiet, thoughtful Obinze had hoped to join her, but with post-9/11 America closed to him, he instead plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London. Fifteen years later, they reunite in a newly democratic Nigeria, and reignite their passion—for each other and for their homeland.” Random House Publishers
Poignant, poetic, and just plain funny, this novel provides a narrative about moving to the US from Nigeria and discovering, for the first time, what it is like to be “black.” I especially enjoyed the entries from Ifemelu’s blog about being black in America – hilarious, pointed, personal and political. The intricacies of status and power among Nigeria’s elite gave me some insight into the challenges that corruption poses to democracy and to free and open elections. As Obinze struggles to survive in London, the limits of Western democracy are sharply drawn. Migration, identity, racism, and the mutable dimensions of love are captured in this bestseller.
Alexie, Sherman. (2007). The absolutely true story of a part-time Indian. New York: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
“Sherman Alexie tells the story of Junior, a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Determined to take his future into his own hands, Junior leaves his troubled school on the rez to attend an all-white farm town high school where the only other Indian is the school mascot.
Heartbreaking, funny, and beautifully written, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which is based on the author’s own experiences, coupled with poignant drawings by Ellen Forney that reflect the character’s art, chronicles the contemporary adolescence of one Native American boy as he attempts to break away from the life he was destined to live.”
The Absolutely True Tale of a Part-time Indian uses wry humor while depicting complicated family ties, the legacies of genocide, poverty and alcoholism, as well as the pulls of competing loyalties and identities – and the importance of basketball! This a book you may want to buy many copies of to distribute to your friends and family.
Atwood, Margaret. (1986). The handmaid’s tale. New York: Random House.
Feminism. Roe v. Wade. War. Exploding nuclear plants, AIDS, incurable syphilis, human infertility – then a society rebuilt. Perhaps only Margaret Atwood could include some sanity-saving humor in such a tale.
“In the world of the near future, who will control women’s bodies?
Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are only valued if their ovaries are viable.
Offred can remember the days before…when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now…
Funny, unexpected, horrifying, and altogether convincing, The Handmaid’s Tale is at once scathing satire, dire warning, and tour de force.” Random House Publishers
See also: What I said when they came for The Handmaid’s Tale.
Bechdel. Alison. (2006). Fun home. New York: Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflen.
Sexual identity, suicide, and a dysfunctional family: a treasure trove of trauma in this autobiographical graphic novel.
“A year after her father died, when she was twenty years old, Alison Bechdel was looking through some old family photographs and found one of a young man in his underwear. She recognized him as a student of her father’s and a family babysitter. She also came across a photo of her father as a young man, wearing a woman’s bathing suit. There were also snapshots of her mother over the years, in which her expression transformed vividly from hopefulness to resignation to bitterness. Alison found her own childhood pictures, of a girl who looked like a boy. She knew that these snapshots conveyed much more information than she suspected, and there was a deeper story begging to be told, about a daughter who inadvertently “outs” her gay father, who meets a tragic end.”
Bechdel’s honesty and self-revelation is remarkable. The dynamic between Alison and her father – he loved interior decorating, and she was a tomboy with the nickname “Butch” – is captured in terse exchanges and evocative drawings. Fun Home received high praise for its qualities both as a memoir and a graphic work.
Her 2012 memoir, Are You My Mother? covers the mother-daughter dyad and includes revealing accounts of her therapy sessions over decades. These portions of the memoir also serve as a tribute to all therapists.
And I must mention here the Bechdel Test for movies: the test checks the level of gender bias in any given film. In order to pass the test, a film must fulfill three basic criteria: 1. at least two named women characters, 2. who talk to each other, 3. about something other than a man.
De Veaux, Alexis. (2014). Yabo. Washington DC: Red Bone Press.
I love this book for its portrayal of resiliency: from grieving, from unrequited loving, from political struggles, from being not quite female or male but both (the character Jules is intersex). It speaks of the beauty of life lived among earth and plants, and the importance of food in our lives. And passion. And sex.
Alexis De Veaux is best known as the author of the definitive work, Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde. De Veaux is a retired professor of Women’s Studies from the University at Buffalo (full disclosure: I have known Alexis for many years and count her as a friend). She is also an activist recognized for her lifelong contributions to a number of women’s and literary organizations.
From the Red Bone Press site: “Alexis De Veaux’s work is defined by two critical concerns: making the racial and sexual experiences of black female characters central, and disrupting boundaries between forms.”
Here is an excerpt from the Prelude to Yabo:
“The child, a certain child, only visits our here
Because the child lives in time’s grace, visits here but
knows of other heres.”
And another excerpt:
“It was not longing they felt, for they (would have said they) had not longed for each other.
Not consciously, at least.
They had not missed each other (they would have said), grieving, the way lovers separated by a tragic absence—the murder of one, say, or the surprise of a quick, terminal disease—did. Nor (they would have said) had they felt want, for that would imply innocence. And yet they felt all they did not say: longing, grief, want; for they were each a limb of the other. And what they’d felt, separately, for years, was akin to a tingling of phantom nerves after an amputation, the sensation
a limb was still there
though it was gone.”
Erdrich, Lousie. (2013/1984). Love medicine. New York: Harper Collins.
A twenty-fifth anniversary edition of this enduring tale is now out.
This was the first Erdrich book I read, and it radicalized my understanding of what histories can be, what a life in two worlds can be like, and how love takes many forms in all its twining connections.
From NEA’s The Big Read:
“Structured as a novel-in-stories, Love Medicine spans the half-century from 1934 to 1984 in rural North Dakota. The book’s chapters are told from the perspective of several different narrators weaving together the lives of two Chippewa families. The novel is not a linear path through time. Instead, it begins in 1981, loops back to the 1930s, and then proceeds forward into the mid-1980s.
In the book’s opening pages June Kashpaw, a renegade and free spirit, freezes to death in a snowstorm. The book then looks back to the departure of June’s aunt Marie Lazarre from the Sacred Heart Convent in 1934. On Marie’s way home she meets Nector Kashpaw, who will eventually become her husband. Nector had been romantically involved with Lulu Nanapush, but his chance encounter with Marie changes all three lives and their families forever.”
Mary Oliver, Mary. (1992). New & Selected Poems, Volume One. New York: Harcourt Brace.
Oliver is a poet I often turn to when I feel disconnected or discouraged. She also writes of joy and happiness. Here is one example of her exquisite poetry:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Do you have any additions to this list? Add under Comments below!
Note: One 2014 book that I have not yet read has a troubled social worker as its central character: Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson. Pete Snow works in Northern Montana as a child welfare worker. From the NY Times book review: “The book’s deeply persuasive message is ‘that all of life can be understood as casework.’”
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The absolutely true story of a part-time Indian
The handmaid’s tale
Are you my mother?
Mary Oliver: New and selected poems, Volume one
Fourth of July creek
I read Love Medicine twenty years ago when I was getting my Bachelor’s degree. It has stuck with me all this time. It is a very powerful book, and beautifully illustrates not only the burden of inter-generational trauma, but also the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. I’m putting it on my list of books to re-read, and adding some of the other recommendations to my reading list. Thank you for posting this blog!
I agree, Paula, about the power of Erdrich’s writing. I find that I glean new perspectives each time she is re-visited, even with a work I first read decades ago. Let us know how the other titles informed you!
What a wonderful blog to read as it recommends wonderful books that one may not hear about otherwise. I, to, read Love Medicine by Erdrich. The book is beautifully written and gives the reader a view into the cultural struggles this tribe had with the forced changes. It points out intergenerational, cultural, historical, and complex trauma faced by this tribe. Thank you for your recommendations and your request for more books readers may recommend. I have two books that I recommend.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez has written many books. He passed away this year back in April; he has left a legacy of writing that highlights Latin American history and culture. The book One Hundred Years of Solitude is a beautiful example set in a fictional town of Macondo. Marquez uses a combination of history, repetition, spirituality, and time to create a tale that points out the struggles many places in Latin America have had to develop and succeed in our society. The book is deep in the culture of this society and peoples, but also pointing out the particular struggles this culture and town faces with underdevelopment and dependence as the town tries desperately to grow and succeed throughout many generations (Marquez, 1967).
Anne Fadiman wrote a great book that points out spiritual/religious differences and culture and how these differences intersect with other culture and United States laws/policy with sometimes unfortunate and fatal results. The Spirit Catches you and you fall down: A Hmong child, her American doctors, and the collision of two cultures is a book that tells the true story of a refugee family from Laos. The daughter is diagnosed with a severe form of epilepsy that threatens her life in her new home in the United States, but her family hold different beliefs about her condition that are intrinsically linked to their spiritual beliefs and cultural beliefs. Fadiman points out the lack of understanding and communication that occurs between this family and the medical system that leads to major problems with the treatment of this child. The book is a great example of how a combination of trauma informed principles and service delivery can be effective and helpful in the treatment of all people, especially considering culture and spiritual beliefs. It also highlights basic human rights people have to both medical care and to religious beliefs that need to be understood in relation to each other, especially in conditions when the medical system and culture may collide (Fadiman, 1997; (Gawande, 2009).
Fadiman, A. (1997). The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong child, her American doctors, and the collision of two cultures. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
Gawande, A. (2009). The Checklist Manifesto. New York: Henry Holt & Company.
Marquez, G. G. (1967). One Hundred Years of Solitude. New York, NY: HarperCollins.