- Violence and Suffering in Shobasakthi’s GorillaConfigurations of Trauma from the Postcolonial Peripheries
One of the most compelling trajectories in recent scholarship on twentieth- and twenty-first-century literature can be charted at the intersection between postcolonial and trauma studies, in the conceptualization of colonialism as trauma and in the investigation of colonialism’s traumatic recurrence in postcolonial legacies of race, gender, class, and identity. Such work seeks to not only broaden the scope of contemporary trauma studies, which has tended to focus on predominantly Western voices, experiences, and texts, but also to consider whether existing concepts of trauma are useful for understanding history, society, identity, and representation in the postcolonial world. This article contributes to such work by considering Shobasakthi’s Gorilla (2001), a narrative of social and political violence arising from the Sri Lankan civil war. In its portrayal of violence and suffering, Gorilla foregrounds a context and a conflict that are on the peripheries of the global stage and similarly on the peripheries of postcolonial and trauma studies.1 While existing trauma theory may help us to understand the representation of suffering in Gorilla, it is also a text that can participate in reconfiguring notions of the relationship between language and traumatic experience, the dynamics of address between the witness and the listener, and the definition of trauma as an individual and singular event. Moreover, it is a text that questions whether the notion of trauma, as it is currently defined, is the most appropriate way to analyze the response to suffering in different contexts. [End Page 105]
The potential perspectives that colonial and postcolonial contexts present for trauma studies are not new. As a young psychologist in French Algeria in the mid-twentieth century Franz Fanon identified the trauma of colonialism in his study of the psychology of the colonized subject. In Black Skin, White Masks (1952), Fanon describes the way in which the denigrating gaze of a young white child causes him to feel "battered" by racial prejudice.2 Fanon employs a language of embodied impact and wounding to convey the psychological shock of encountering the racialized view of himself: "What else could it be for me but an amputation, an excision, a hemorrhage that spattered my whole body with black blood?"3 His sense of self is profoundly "dislocated" as he recognizes his objectification via a corrosive litany of stereotype that renders him "abraded into nonbeing."4 The psychological wounding and alienation caused by the colonial encounter, attested to so powerfully by Fanon through a language of physical trauma, has critically informed postcolonial theories of experience, subjectivity, and representation. However, it has on the whole been marginalized in mainstream trauma studies, which has yet to meaningfully incorporate the chronic suffering arising from structural violence—the inequalities that determine categories of race, gender, and class—in colonial and postcolonial social and political formations.
Scholars working at the intersection of postcolonial and trauma studies have made a significant conceptual move to "theoriz[e] colonization in terms of the infliction of a collective trauma and reconceptualiz[e] postcolonialism as a post-traumatic cultural formation."5 Building upon the pioneering work of figures such as Fanon, those who seek to engage with the concept of trauma in relation to postcoloniality investigate how traumatic experiences of colonial racism and oppression return and recur in the psychological, social, and material conditions of the postcolonial world. Trauma theory, in the main, conceptualizes World War II and the Holocaust as, in the words of Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, "the watershed of our times" and as "not an event encapsulated in the past, but as a history which is essentially not over, a history whose repercussions are not simply omnipresent (whether consciously or not) in all our cultural activities, but whose traumatic consequences are still actively evolving."6 As precisely such a repeating and evolving history, colonialism and its legacies remain largely unacknowledged in contemporary trauma studies despite the extensive [End Page 106] debates about colonialism’s psychological, social, economic, and political repercussions that have animated postcolonial theory.
The reiteration of colonial trauma is borne out to particular effect in postcolonial conflict zones where the structural violence of...