- The Ethics of Identification: The Global Circulation of Traumatic Narrative in Silko's Ceremony and Roy's The God of Small Things
In Leslie Marmon Silko's novel Ceremony, Tayo's intrusive memories transport him from his quiet life at an isolated sheep camp to the jungles of the Pacific where he fought as a soldier in World War II and back further to his lonely childhood as an orphan raised in his aunt's family. For Estha, one of the twin protagonists of Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things, the inky octopus that blots out his memories of the past can never erase one unforgettable image from his childhood, the broken body of his friend Velutha, beaten to death by the police. These literary representations of trauma, and others like them, document forms of imperial violence whose damaging effects are ongoing and cannot be confined to the past. Perhaps more importantly, these representations also foreground the complex and contested nature of readers' engagements with those ongoing histories of violence and oppression in and through works of fiction. In what follows, I consider trauma—both as a narrated experience and as a formal strategy—through the lens of the global literary circulation in which texts like Ceremony and The God of Small Things are implicated. Despite the very different political contexts that inform these two novels, their similar deployments of traumatic narrative point to a shared concern with engaging distant readers that places them in productive conversation with one another. Traumatic narrative possesses a tremendous power to collapse boundaries but also risks effacing ongoing imbalances of power that place certain readers in privileged positions, a version of the homogenizing effect against which critics of globalization repeatedly caution us. By drawing readers into their unsettling, contagious [End Page 219] narratives, these two novels produce forms of ethical engagement that have the power to traverse both geographic and temporal distance. But they also force us to consider the limitations of trauma as a framework for constructing historical memory or engendering empathy.
It is not unreasonable to be concerned about a scholarly approach, such as this one, that seeks to traverse the geographically and historically distinct histories of imperialism that inform these two novels. Silko's text reflects forms of imperial violence—both physical and epistemological—that are rooted in uniquely American logics of civilization, modernity, and manifest destiny. It is shaped not only by the particular history of white racism against indigenous peoples in the United States but also by the resulting concern with cultural preservation within Native communities, one that frequently takes the form of racial purity and social conservatism, as scholars such as Scott Lyons and Sean Kicummah Teuton have noted. 1 In The God of Small Things, the legacies of British colonialism in India are inseparably intertwined with the competing and at times contradictory logics of caste and class privilege, as well as the specific regional identity of Kerala, a space marked by religious, political, and linguistic difference within the Indian nation. In Roy's novel, culture becomes the site of contestation in the postcolonial Indian nation, where the wealthy speak English and aspire to study abroad and the worldviews of children like Estha and Rahel are shaped by "World Hit[s]" like The Sound of Music. 2 My argument here is not that the imperial contexts that define these two texts are equivalent or interchangeable. Instead, I would like to suggest that the very fact that both Silko and Roy respond to them through the use of traumatic narrative, which they employ both in similar ways and to similar ends, is itself the basis for considering their novels together. The connections these texts seek to forge with their readers, as well as the narrative and ethical challenges they face in doing so, reflect the similar locations they occupy within contemporary circuits of global literary exchange and point toward a new way of thinking about them, together, through the framework of world literature.
In both Ceremony and The God of Small Things, trauma serves a twofold purpose. The fictional representations of trauma in these novels reveal the unacknowledged and unaccounted-for effects of...