- Narrating Gender and TraumaAn Introduction
Since its emergence in the nineteenth century, the notion of trauma, used to define previously undiagnosed or misdiagnosed psychological conditions increasingly visible in modern societies, has been subject to a variety of interpretations across disciplines, just like other psychosomatic concepts in medical history such as shock and stress. Yet, trauma remains a highly contested term that has seen numerous redefinitions as its place in popular and medical discourse is constantly under scrutiny and subject to adaptations.
This special issue stems from the international conference Trauma and Gender in Twentieth-Century European Literature, organized in March 2016 at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow under the aegis of the Centre for the Social History of Health and Healthcare, and with the kind support of the Wellcome Trust.1 The studies included here explore how the axis between trauma and gender intersects in a range of narratives by men and women writers and filmmakers in twentieth-and twenty-first-century Europe. The issue discusses the ill-effects of war as experienced by soldiers but also its long-lasting impact on civilians as manifested in different forms of trauma. In other words, it looks, from the perspective of gender, into the expression of trauma caused either by the historical context (World War I, World War II, Francoism, etc.) or by personal events. In so doing, it is significant that some recurrent themes emerge, such as silence, rape, illness, death, and, indeed, the trauma of gender itself. [End Page 1]
That the history of the concept of trauma is inextricably linked to warfare suggests that our understanding of trauma has traditionally been tinged by attendant patriarchal discourses. In his influential book Memory, War, and Trauma, Nigel Hunt explains how "in order to understand psychological trauma we have to understand traumatic memory."2 Literature plays a pivotal role in helping us to get a fuller understanding of traumatic memory. Following Hunt, this volume argues the usefulness of fiction—and the creation of narratives through literature, films, or plays—as an effective way to help sufferers cope with their traumatic memories, as well as constituting a significant and untapped source of potential research data for psychologists. Our premise is that the discussion of mental health in literature may help disclose existing views on traumatic conditions, and it may also constitute a subversive discourse and even be turned into a coping mechanism. Through the use of narration as a therapeutic tool, trauma sufferers may find their experiences echoed in the text, hence overcoming a common sense of isolation. The acts of writing and reading become a powerful healing tool. Through the power of stories, the ones we construct and tell ourselves and others as well as the ones we read, we create and shape our identity and, crucially, we also create meaning. In Hunt's words, "in order to successfully process the traumatic recollections, trauma victims must recognise the meaning of their suffering. This is not a matter of reverting to a former state, but an acceptance that things are permanently changed, and thus a learning experience."3 However, although the existing research in various fields from medicine to psychoanalysis delivers a wide variety of interpretations and approaches to understanding and dealing with trauma, it does not generally account for the role of gender in the verbalization/writing of trauma, nor does it conceptualize trauma as a distinctively gendered experience. Luce Irigaray's words in Je, Tu, Nous, "How could discourse not be sexed when language is? . . . Differences between men's and women's discourses are thus the effect of language and society, society and language,"4 remind us how necessary such differentiation is. To address this, some authors, like Lynne Hanley, have taken a novel approach to the subject by publishing a collection of various short stories about the experience of war from a woman's perspective alongside a series of critical essays about the wars, thus inviting the reader to reflect on the relationship between war, trauma, and gender.5 We believe her work constitutes a leading [End Page 2] example of the significance that addressing the intersection between trauma, gender, and literature may have...