Narrative features, Storytelling and narratives
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Field notes from Colombia: Trauma and stories

From the spaces in between: between sunshine and rain, between trauma and dreams, outside of Bogotá, Colombia

There is a rhythm to the stories that come into my life through my work here in Colombia.

The nature of my research is such that I am steeped in inquiry every day, putting the accents on Cómo’s and Por qué’s. There is repetition to this process: I ask questions, I record the responses, I transcribe the responses from my notebook to my computer, I code the data, and then I repeat this loop with each different interviewee and his or her story. Trauma is a constant companion on this story-sharing journey. The individuals who offer responses to my questions often have to revisit their individual or collective trauma, which I then revisit myself when I become acquainted with their story anew by copying it from my notebook to my computer and from there into spreadsheets and flipcharts. Though I prefer to keep the specific subject of my research private until the completion of this stage of field work in order to best protect the privacy and security of the individuals who are answering my questions, it is this uninvited omnipresence of trauma that has made me wonder before how we can justify — if indeed, we can — the high cost which our quest for knowledge sometimes requires.

In a Guernica piece echoing many of these themes, Legacy Russell interviewed James Dawes to discuss storytelling, trauma, and memory in the wake of mass atrocities. When discussing Dawes’ book Evil MenRussell, the interviewer, articulates a sense of responsibility in storytelling with which I, too, strongly identify:

Every word is a reminder of the responsibility we take on as readers in bearing witness alongside Dawes, taking cuts into these histories, making and unmaking them. In reading this text, in experiencing these stories, in reveling in these histories as we work our way into the center of them and then attempt to find our way back, our hands are bloodied too.

The idea that reading testimonies of conflict is a form of bearing witness resonates with me — and it also gives rise to the question of how to tell those stories. If the reader feels some sense of responsibility to the narrative, what does that responsibility consist of? What (re)action do I hope the stories I am telling will inspire? At their heart, I wish for these stories to be truthful and moving, and certainly not moving at the expense of truthful. To what end is the reader being moved? How can storytelling transcend the “well, that was a lovely tale to read” effect in order to shift into meaningful action?

Dawes offers what I consider a cautiously optimistic response to these dilemmas. He posits:

“It was because as human rights workers, I realized, the work they did was primarily the work of storytelling. Telling stories to make people act, to make people care, to make people stop doing things or start doing things.” Yet, in a different place Dawes cautions: “I began this project with the… assumption… [that] bearing witness to atrocity… is a good unto itself. […] I am not so sure anymore.”

What about the writer’s responsibility, which in an interview setting in qualitative research, is the listener’s responsibility? How do I re-tell the story of trauma in a way that does it justice while also preserving the original storyteller’s agency and dignity? Most often, the individuals with whom I work do not use the language of trauma. They do not identify themselves as traumatized or their narratives as traumatic. I listen to these stories as a researcher and humanitarian practitioner who has received trauma sensitivity training, but is by no means a trained psychologist or an expert in psychosocial support in the wake of mass atrocities. Is it fair for me to attach the word ‘trauma’ to experiences when the person who lived through them does not? How do I fulfill my responsibility to the person who shared the story with me, as well as to the person reading it?

Dawes shares these thoughts on trauma (emphasis mine):

“This is one of the basic paradoxes of trauma: we must tell the stories and we must not tell the stories. The reasons for giving voice to trauma are basic. We need to create an accurate record for history. We need to tell the stories so that survivors are not forced to undergo the additional trauma of living in a world that denies them what they’ve been through. Silence is morally unacceptable. But, at the very same time, putting such trauma into words is morally unacceptable. Trauma defies language. When you take something as awful and senseless as experiences like these, and you try to put them into the common words we use everyday — you lose something. You have literally translated it. And in that translation, it’s not just that you are losing something, it’s that you’re taking something, taking something away from the victims and survivors.”

Part of how I try to resolve the paradox of trauma Dawes describes is by relying on the words of my interviewees to describe their own situation, as opposed to embellishing it with words of my own. At the level of primary research and qualitative fieldwork, that is relatively easy to do: It is the testimonies that lie at the heart of the research, prompted by questions that I have crafted with care to ensure they reflect a spirit of curiosity and openness. But as more layers form in my research, as I start to code data and place testimonies in conversation with one another, my own words inevitably creep in. There is value to synthesizing stories, particularly in the context of mass atrocities. There is value to identifying patterns, to seeing how stories cross paths and where they diverge. But it is in those moments that I feel my responsibility as a researcher heightens, and the lines between trauma, truth, silence, voice, and memory intersect in a blur.

At times I wonder if the titles matter and, if so, how that affects those of us who inhabit multiple spaces.  Russell asked Dawes a similar question: “Are you a storyteller? A witness? An author? A historian? Is there a difference between these categories that you believe to be significant to your approach as you build out these texts?” Dawes responds:

Maybe the best answer is this: What is most important is not the difference among these categories but the commonality. In the time I spend with each man, what I tried to focus upon was the process of being present to somebody — entirely present to them, in the fulness of their identity, without judgment or ego interfering.

I relate and aspire to this — but the second half of Dawes response caught me slightly by surprise:

This [presence] meant, obviously, suppressing negative emotions elicited by their horrific personal stories. But it also meant suppressing a certain kind of empathy — that is, the empathy that makes you want to literally feel for another person, in place of that person, substituting your own emotional reaction for simply being present to their own.

Never have I been good at empathy suppression, in part because I have not earnestly wanted to try. I had not conceived of empathy as the interruption of mindful presence in the face of someone else’s story and, in that sense, Dawes’ articulation of it as such is both instructive and jarring. At the same time, empathy, for me, remains both a choice and an intuition, both a muscle that strengthens by practice and an un-inhibitable reaction to others’ stories. In that sense, my interviews feel more like conversations because even when I do not explicitly comment on the interviewees’ responses to my questions, empathy itself is a form of response.

Which, in turn, makes me wonder: where does my story fit within these narratives? Is there a place for my own trauma, both vicarious and self-accrued? Two years and several conflict zones ago, I argued that “we cannot extract ourselves from the stories we tell. We walk into them with our lenses, our preconceived notions, our pre-held perspectives and, even after we leave the war zones, the stories continue to travel with us and affect us. That which lends a story bias also lends it its life: the breath of human honesty and the vulnerability of telling a story about oneself.” While I still stand by that assessment in certain settings, I see the limitations of that perspective in the context of mass atrocities. Telling a story about oneself, about myself, in that setting feels inappropriate. My trauma feels secondary. The stage belongs to those who have survived, to those who experienced the atrocities to which I bear witness as an informed, compassionate outsider — but outsider nonetheless.

At the same time, even if my trauma does not belong in the narratives I write about mass atrocities in my academic or professional capacity, it is still part of my own narrative. It is still part of my story, demanding attention and self-care, screaming when it is ignored. And, more often than not, my response to trauma — to that of others and my own — is empathy. It springs not from the act of sheltering and compartmentalization, but from the messy art of getting closer.

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