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  • The Trans/Historicity of Trauma in Jeannette Armstrong's Slash and Sherman Alexie's Indian Killer
  • Nancy van Styvendale

We're carrying a pain that is 400 years old.

Alanis Obomsawin

The ongoing domestic colonization of North America has a specifically "traumatic" impact on the Native peoples of this land, but what is the "event" or referent to which such an effect can be traced? Is it possible to locate the traumatic event of a (post)colonial history that is, as Alanis Obomsawin makes clear in the epigraph, centuries old and, I would add, nations wide? Or, as this paper will argue, does the trans/historicity of Native trauma challenge the very assumption of trauma as rooted in event, where "event" is defined, as it most commonly is, as a singular, recognizable, and chronologically-bounded incident? These questions draw attention to the commonplace understanding of traumatic events as singular, recognizable incidents, inviting our consideration of the problematics engendered by recent attempts to theorize the intergenerational colonial subjection of Native North American peoples through the lens of trauma theory–especially that which focuses on individual psychic trauma. Cumulative, collective, intergenerational, and intersubjective, the trauma of Native peoples, when understood as trans/historical, exceeds any attempt to fix its location or define its event, even as it demands our attention to historically specific atrocities. In order to explore the trans/historicity of trauma and, in particular, its unique articulation in Native North American literature, this paper situates two representative novels from the Native literary canon, Jeannette Armstrong's Slash (1985) and Sherman Alexie's Indian Killer (1996), within the nascent conversation between trauma theory and Native experience. [End Page 149]

By using the word "trans/historical" to describe the trauma crafted in Slash and Indian Killer, I run the risk of reinstating, through my own diction, the idea of trauma as transcendent of historical conditions and material realities; indeed, the Oxford English Dictionary defines "transhistorical" as "(Having significance) that transcends the historical; universal or eternal." As a descriptor of the intergenerational trauma of Native communities, the word "trans/historical" thus fails to do justice to the complexity of this trauma. Still, I will maintain and nuance it here because of the way in which it gestures toward a trauma that takes place and is repeated in multiple epochs and, in this sense, exceeds its historicity, conventionally understood as its singular location in the past. Also, in its very failure to approach this excess as something other than transcendent or outside of the historical, the word "trans/historical" reminds us that the English language circumscribes the way in which we might think about and refer to a traumatic event-which-is-not-one.

As literary texts, Slash and Indian Killer both express and craft a distinct understanding of "traumatic temporality," a term coined by Cathy Caruth ("Interview" 78). Rooted in a psychoanalytic and poststructuralist methodology, this term refers to the way in which traumatic events, because they cannot be known or integrated by the survivor as they occur, are indirectly accessible only as symptom–that is, in their belated return to the survivor as repetitive dreams, flashbacks, and reenactments of the event. Caruth's notion of traumatic temporality famously challenges the assumption that the history of trauma involves a one-to-one correspondence of reference and event and ushers in a performative theory of trauma, which understands trauma as dis-located in its reiterative return rather than in its origin–an origin that therefore remains elusive at best. The trans/historicity of Native trauma, as constituted in the work of Armstrong and Alexie, nuances this theory, prompting an exploration of the temporal and spatial dis/location of a trauma that is centuries old and nations wide.

A note of clarification is necessary before I proceed: this paper analyzes the specifically literary cultivation of trauma as trans/historical and thus contributes to Jeffrey C. Alexander's approach to trauma as a performative reality rather than a natural occurrence.1 However, along with looking to how literary constructions of trauma can advance the purview of trauma theory, I also argue that trauma theory, along with the recent sociological application of this theory to the post...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1934-1512
Print ISSN
0039-3827
Pages
pp. 149-169
Launched on MUSE
2019-03-21
Open Access
No
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