Trauma in Contemporary Short Stories
Nov 19, 2015
by Angela Mergentime, Colorado Review Associate Editor
As a graduate student pursuing a master’s in English Literature, I have to shift my literary gears each time I read submissions for Colorado Review. I’ve lately been spending a lot of time reading historical and theoretical material for my master’s project—in addition to my ongoing habit of reading novels written by long-deceased authors—and these texts are very unlike the contemporary fiction and poetry we publish in CR. So each time I open up the fiction queue or read a story we’ve accepted for publication, I put on a different pair of reading glasses. I change my lenses so that I’m looking for captivating fiction, rather than the most applicable version of trauma theory.
Nevertheless, my theoretical work in literary criticism seems to spill over into my view of contemporary short fiction, and I can’t help but notice trauma in many of our submissions. Not only do I often see trauma in what I am reading, but I’ve come to a deeper understanding of why the profound psychological struggles of characters are at the root of what makes us want to keep reading. Those outside the literary community might not always understand why we are drawn toward stories without happy endings, or stories that depict dark themes or personal damage. But I think that as readers of literary fiction we are drawn toward this psychologically disruptive material because it speaks to us, and just as any form of art might, it makes us feel something.
When I read fiction from the perspective of literary criticism, I often discover an ongoing pattern of trauma. This pattern comes from pluralistic trauma theory, which I used in my master’s project to analyze D’Arcy McNickle’s The Surrounded, a modernist novel from the thirties about Native Americans and mixed cultural identities. The version of pluralistic trauma theory that I used comes from Michelle Balaev’s The Nature of Trauma in American Novels, and it has shifted my perspective of psychology and trauma in fiction. Some of the main points of Balaev’s pluralistic trauma theory include the claims that:
Trauma is a disruptive experience that shifts one’s relational identity and perspective.
Narrative dissociation reflects the disruptive impact of trauma on identity. Narrative dissociation techniques may include the “disjunction of time,” “imagistic scenes of violence that lack emotional description,” and “a doubled consciousness or point of view” among other techniques that “show the multiple sites of tension that arise within the protagonist” (Balaev xvi).
Victims reconstruct their memories of trauma differently each time they recall them.
Victims of trauma sometimes experience traumatic nightmares or flashbacks, which are often accompanied by psychophysiological reactions (such as a pounding heart, sweating, and trembling).
In fiction, landscapes are often representative of traumatic experience and they are directly connected to both identity and memory.
Victims of trauma can make progress toward recovery by speaking about their trauma and/or by participating in non-verbal actions or rituals.
There is no universal way of interpreting trauma, since it manifests itself differently depending upon contextual factors and individual psychology.
Although trauma is frequently present, not every story we admire or publish in Colorado Review is necessarily rooted in trauma (many of our stories do, however, seem to be tied to some form of psychological disruption). But when I reread the Fall/Winter 2014 Colorado Review, I found all of the elements of pluralistic trauma theory in Greg Schutz’s “To Wound, to Tear, to Pull to Pieces.” At the end of the story, Schutz’s narrator says that when you face your trauma, “you’ve found the ghost you need.” In the Spring 2015 Colorado Review, I also found this pattern of trauma in Brenda Peynado’s story “Storage.” Interestingly, at the end of “Storage,” one of Peynado’s characters draws a conclusion very similar to Schutz’s: that when you face your trauma, “you’ve finally found your ghost.” I discovered that I could apply every element of this theory to even minute details of each of these stories, and I found it fascinating that both authors explored very similar psychological patterns of trauma—a condition often at the heart of what captivates us in literary fiction.
As readers, we relate to trauma in fiction because it reminds us of our own psychological disruptions. It connects us with the human drive to make sense of the things that hurt us, to understand why our perspectives and identities have changed. When characters relive traumatic events, it reminds us of our own reconstructed memories and our own attempts to understand the traumas of our past. Stories that use narrative dissociation weave a pattern of trauma for us to follow and relate to. Narrative techniques such as a disjunction in time or multiple points of view speak to us because they mimic the way that the human mind imagines, remembers, and processes trauma. When we encounter fictional landscapes that reflect traumatic damage, such as the foggy marsh in “To Wound, to Tear, to Pull to Pieces” or the storage center in “Storage,” we see how our own traumas have changed the way we look at the world around us. We read literary fiction to contemplate our human condition, to reflect on our own psychology, and to better understand ourselves. We are not reading for a happy ending, because we are not trying to feel better. We are not looking to forget our wounds, because we are endeavoring to comprehend and appreciate them.