Writers on Writing #85: Sylvia Chan
The Autobiographical Trauma
There is a recent, though hardly new, trend in trauma writing. In particular, trauma is often the first and sometimes, only, aspect relayed in the writing – we as the readers know the manipulation, the abuse, the violence, the mental and physical breakdowns. And while it can be satisfying to know the trauma firsthand, I find that isn’t my compulsion as a reader. I’d rather know the experience of trauma, or at least have a chance at reading it; I’d rather write and read the constraints of the disturbing experience, the real and figurative room where I could be placed, and the heightened and muffled sensations of physical and emotional injuries. In other words, I don’t necessarily want to be told the trauma. I don’t think that name-dropping and fact-giving is as important as simply writing what it means to have been traumatized.
Of course, names and facts can be a part of the trauma writing; that isn’t what I question. I think “giving away the trauma” is an easy excuse to avoid writing what can be written. It’s what I did for a long time, writing narratives which gave away the trauma in the first line and never returned to them. I avoided confronting what I’ve been trying to write by giving it up to begin with.
I spent the latter half of the past spring editing and rearranging my poetry manuscript, an act I’ve tried to avoid. The idea of revising and revamping my thesis was daunting not so much because of the act, but because of the content. I couldn’t write the trauma. I couldn’t write in standard written English, “This is my trauma, and here is what it comprises.” I couldn’t even tell myself what I wanted to write, though I knew it. I thought the world knew about my writer’s block, and I started to avoid talking about my writing, which wasn’t the easiest feat while finishing up an MFA degree. Everybody talked about their writings, and if they didn’t, they asked about mine. This was a comforting sense of community, but also an enclosed one, seemingly heightened by the limited MFA writing days I had left.
Finally, Jane Miller called me into her office to give me a preview of my thesis defense, though the preview was precisely yet imprecisely not how my defense would play out. She asked about my use of trauma in my poetry, and why I felt compelled to withhold its details on the page. “Because,” I said, “you don’t need to know the trauma. You as the reader want to know how it feels to write the experience; you don’t need the vehicle of trauma to tell it.”
“Very interesting,” Jane said in that comforting, allusive, and prelude-to-a-backhanded compliment way she has. “It is striking how illuminating you are about the act of writing for someone who doesn’t pay attention to her own life.”
I wouldn’t think about trauma and trauma writing until two months later, when, in pre-July 4th festivities, my friends and I trekked to Tucson’s Best Western for karaoke night. The bar was fairly empty for the Thursday night with only a handful of mostly older, male rednecks singing drunkenly to ‘70s and ‘80s tunes. My three male friends surrounded me on all sides and told me to ignore the men. Still, they left at some point for drinks, the bathroom, cigarette breaks. Three guys came up and flirted with me, but gave up when I didn’t budge.
Then a couple walked into the bar, already boisterous from drink. The woman, a forty-something, talkative German, introduced herself as a tourist. She introduced herself to each of my friends, but when she got to me, she stopped and pointed at my lips. “Are you Korean?” she asked. “I can tell by your smile; all they do is smile.”
Never mind that I’d shake my head and say, as nicely as I could muster, that I wasn’t Korean, and that her assertion was racist and rude. Never mind that despite my attempts to avoid her, despite my saying, “I’m busy; let me respond to this e-mail,” she’d come back to me and say, “When you smile, I can sleep better at night.” Never mind that when she introduced me to her husband, he, too, would place a hand at my nape and squeeze it.
The thing about trauma that’s easy to remember is its inherent fear. I could write that I’m a strong-willed and stubborn writer in my mid-twenties, that I easily lend my opinions on politics, literature, and jazz. That I was seized with fear – an old fear which has roots in as early as my eight-year-old self, and from similar situations with grown men and women who were preoccupied with what has been termed my “exotic looks” – made me incredibly shamed and reserved. That’s why I didn’t tell my friends that the woman was bothering me, more than they had seen. Private shame and fear, arguably the most binding tenets of trauma.
When one of my friends went to get another drink and the other two stepped outside for cigarettes, I went to the one place where I thought they couldn’t bother me – the bathroom. When I opened the bathroom stall, I found myself face-to-face with the German lady, who had followed me into the bathroom. “Slanty gook,” she said. “Why won’t you smile for me?”
I don’t know how many racial epithets were thrown before I realized I hadn’t left the stall, and she was blocking my exit. I stepped forward and she didn’t budge. I asked her to move and she stepped forward, partly into the stall. I said I needed to pee again and made as if to close the door, and I slammed the door hard into her stomach.
“Blöde Fotze!” she yelled, falling back against the nearby sink counter. She didn’t seem fazed, though. “Why are you so exotic?” she asked, as I ran out the bathroom.
It took another fifteen minutes of Bon Jovi and Bonnie Tyler and Sinatra before I started crying, and my roommate led me to the car and said we were going home. Even after he realized she had been harassing me, and said he loved me and wanted to know, I didn’t say what had happened. “Nothing,” I said.
“Do you pay attention to your life?” he said. “You are crying, and you never cry. You can tell me anything. I’m not going anywhere.”
And that’s how Jane Miller’s Two Cardinal Rules for Writing and Living came into mind. “One,” she always told me in and out of class, “Pay attention to your goddamn life.”
“And two: connecting with people – maybe there is nothing else more important on this earth.”
Why the attention to detail, then, of what can hardly be easy to admit? To relinquish trauma, to recount details of shameful and scary moments which still provoke my nightmares and make me wonder if I’ve done anything to elicit my traumas? What is the purpose of beginning to write and speak about what most disturbs me?
One: my writing. Once I returned to my poetry manuscript and wrote, “The sex was cut/ in the print of a meadowlark,” I felt I had written a truthful experience, even if might be blurred and at times, possibly imagined. I commanded the autobiographical “I,” and this “I,” even as I don’t identify entirely with my poetry’s speaker, is mine. All mine. Nobody, least of all a drunk German tourist, can take that away from me.
And that’s freeing. So is talking to the people around me, the ones who are there for me despite my trauma at being harassed at karaoke night for something other than my singing. This is the “I” whom I want to write, the writer who doesn’t shy away her friends – all of whom said they would’ve gotten down and dirty and defended my honor had they known – and the one who isn’t ashamed of her voice, which can do more than I’ve been giving her credit for. Ariana Reines says it best in Coeur de Lion:
Now that I am not addressing you
But the “you” of poetry
I am probably doing something horrible and destructive.
But this “I” is the I of poetry
And it should be able to do more than I can do.
Sylvia Chan is a poet and fiction writer. Recent work appears in Seneca Review. A San Francisco East Bay native, she teaches creative writing and composition at the University of Arizona.