TEXT review

Writing trauma’s cyclical hauntings

review by Michael Richardson


Meera Atkinson
UQP, St Lucia QLD 2018
ISBN: 9780702259890
Pb 296pp AUD 29.95

Meera Atkinson
The Poetics of Transgenerational Trauma
Bloomsbury, New York 2017
ISBN: 9781501330889
Hb 224pp AUD 161.99


Published less than a year apart, Meera Atkinson’s two new books make a profound and original contribution to the study of trauma in the humanities and creative writing practice, as well as the wider public conversation about its rippling effects upon lives and across generations. Traumata (UQP 2018) and The Poetics of Transgenerational Trauma (Bloomsbury 2017) are very different works, one a creative non-fiction account of growing up and living with trauma and the other an academic inquiry into the literary poetics of trauma transmitted from one generation to another. Yet the two books traverse similar terrain in search of answers to similar questions: how does trauma move from one body to another and across time? How is it shaped and changed by the actions of living, the structures of oppression within which it operates and the slow, arduous efforts of survivors to recover? How might language bring forth that most resistant of experiences, the traumatic?

The Poetics of Transgenerational Trauma offers a compelling argument for the importance of literary testimony in grappling with what Atkinson calls the ‘cyclical haunting’ (22) of trauma. Developed from her PhD thesis (and here, in the interest of full disclosure, I should note that Atkinson and I completed our PhDs and published a collection of essays on trauma together), this theoretically sophisticated and politically charged work of scholarship draws on diverse fields of inquiry and lineages of thought in its close reading of literary texts. Moving adeptly between trauma studies in the psychoanalytic tradition of Cathy Caruth, affect theory in the vein of both Spinoza and Silvan Tomkins, and Jacques Derrida’s writings on spectres and haunting, Atkinson makes the case for the contagious affectivity of trauma. Trauma, she argues, is not something contained within one body or another, but transmitted from one body to the next. Among her key theoretical contributions is to develop a familial and intergenerational account of how affect (understood as relational force or intensity) and trauma can become entangled with one another. In doing so, she explores ‘the role of affect in trauma transmissions and the question of what it means for affect to lead the way in literary accounts of those transmissions’ (10). Throughout, the feminist notion of écriture féminine, most closely associated with the French theorist and writer Hélène Cixous, provides a subversive and revolutionary framework for the writing of theory and critique.

The literary accounts chosen by Atkinson are diverse in interest and style. Chapter 1 takes up the challenging of revitalizing écriture femininethrough the reading of two novels, Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept and Marguerite Duras’ classic work The Lover. Atkinson shows how ‘the poetics of transgenerational trauma is aligned with the subversive impetus of (a strange-bodied) feminine and revolutionary writing’ (46), while insisting that écriture feminineoffers much more besides a mode for writing trauma. In the next chapter, Alison Bechdel’s remarkable graphic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic is read alongside Cixous’s fictional memoir Hyperdream to explore the dangerous ethics of writing familial trauma. Drawing on Spinoza’s philosophy of affect and ethics, Atkinson argues that these works involve ‘a particularly complex ethic that surpasses the individual account in its acknowledgment of the sensory and social potency of trauma and its transmission’ (58). In the central and essential third chapter, Atkinson brings to the surface the crucial conjunction of thinkers – Spinoza, Derrida and psychoanalysts of trauma Nicholas Abraham and Mária Török – in her reading of Carpenteria, the monumental novel by Indigenous Australian author Alexis Wright. In this astute and tightly woven chapter, Atkinson summons the figures of spectre and phantom to draw from Carpenteria the cyclical traumas engendered by patriarchy and colonialism. This lays the groundwork for Chapter 4, which analyses Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy about the first world war and its traumatic legacy for soldiers and their families in order to develop the concept of cyclical haunting. This important contribution to the study of trauma emphasizes the circulation of trauma between bodies and across generations, recognising how, ‘in the poetics of transgenerational trauma, micro-macro traumatic memory is written as a ghostly presence and affective feeding backward and forward’ (143). In the fifth and final chapter, Atkinson returns to the work of Alexis Wright. Here, she uses The Swan Book as an entry point and evocation of the capacity for trauma’s cyclical hauntings to spook the non-human as much as the human. As affect theorist Gregory J Seigworth writes in his preface, Atkinson’s evocative formulations, conjunctions and evocations advance ‘the poetic strategies and tactics that can transform how we imagine coming out on trauma’s other side’ (x). In doing so, Atkinson refuses the tendency within trauma studies to be reify the unknowable, the unrepresentable and the aporetic. Instead, she argues for the necessity of writing as an experiment for living with, through and otherwise from trauma.

While Traumata does not abandon the academic mode entirely, it is first and foremost the remarkable story of a life unable to ever pull fully free of the wake of trauma yet lived with a tenacious commitment to writing. It is a courageous book, unflinching in its honesty and keenly observed even in the evocation of the most harrowing of events. Here, Atkinson is working in a different register [from her previous text]: the transmission of trauma from one generation to the next becomes immediate and lived. The book begins in the moment of writing, the author startled awake in the midst of a storm, but quickly slips into the interlocking, fragmentary narration of past events, reflections on recovery, and hard-edged critiques of an inherently traumatizing patriarchy, which ‘infiltrates our beings and shapes our lives – first from the outside in, then from the inside out’ (3). Throughout, Atkinson traces the knotting together of violence, trauma, oppression and constraint that patriarchy engenders for men and women alike. Beyond the particularities of Atkinson’s own remarkable story and her critical engagements with the literature of trauma and recovery, the great contribution of Traumata to public discourse is its call to arms regarding the deep, intractable entanglement of patriarchy and trauma. Whether describing her rape in a Bondi hotel, or her slide into addiction, or the violence visited on her mother by men, Atkinson insists on the inseparability of personal and collective trauma, and of both from history, culture and politics.

If The Poetics of Transgenerational Trauma is significant in its development of new theories and practices of writing about trauma, one of Traumata’s crucial contributions is its sustained engagement with literatures on trauma and recovery, from the seminal work of Judith Herman to the influential self-help teachings of James Bradshaw in the 1980s. The book moves elegantly between modes, interspersing descriptions of events from Atkinson’s life with reflections on the value and limitations of the approaches of various writers, scholars and therapists. It is the lived experience with which they resonate that makes these critical engagements count. Evoked in direct and at times even sparse language, the traumas that Atkinson lives with are recounted only to return, brought forth in fragments or extended narrations which resurface later and obtain new meaning or provide the entry into some other, apparently unrelated trauma. Newly arrived in New York when the planes strike the towers, Atkinson’s stable, almost placid existence as a married woman is rendered suddenly disjunctive. Her CPSTD (Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) reveals itself yet again, as the traumata of an abusive childhood and youth coheres with that of her mother and her grandmother, and becomes unbearable, doubly so as it is caught within the sense of imposture that a foreigner could be so overcome by 9/11. Throughout the book, the assembling of fragments such as these works to show how ‘new trauma sticks to old trauma like Velcro’ (102).

Towards the end of Traumata, Atkinson returns to the question that underpins the inquiries driving both books: ‘are we powerless over the toxic effects of a history of patriarchy, powerless of the addictions we distract and medicate ourselves with, powerless over traumata and its symptomology?’ (256). As both books make clear throughout, the answer is both yes and no, and inseparable from the practice of writing. This, then, is what binds together these two very different yet equally urgent books. Trauma and The Poetics of Transgenerational Trauma demand that we attend to the bodies of language and the language of bodies, that the transformation of trauma becomes possible – even if fleeting, incomplete or always in need of renewal. ‘Becoming transformed,’ writes Atkinson at the close of her academic monograph, ‘one way or another, aids both personal and political revolution and restitution, and that is the most expansive and liberating traumatic becoming of all’ (199).




Michael Richardson is a Senior Lecturer in the School of the Arts and Media at the University of New South Wales, Australia. His transdisciplinary research investigates the intersection of affect and power in media, aesthetics and political culture. He is the author of Gestures of Testimony: Torture, Trauma and Affect in Literature (Bloomsbury 2016), co-editor of Traumatic Affect (CSP 2013) and a number of book chapters and journal articles that address trauma, witnessing, affect and politics. Among other things, he is currently working on a project about drones and witnessing.


Return to Contents Page
Return to Home Page

Vol 22 No 2 October 2018
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins
Reviews editors: Pablo Muslera & Amelia Walker