Trauma, Australia and Gail Jones’s Fiction (1996-2007)

by Pilar Royo-Grasa (Author)
©2022 Monographs 254 Pages
Series: MUSE: Munich Studies in English, Volume 48


Australia’s official Reconciliation project confronted Australians with the continuous violent dispossession suffered by the country’s Indigenous peoples and the pressing need to offer a public apology to them. While trauma became a tool whereby to create paths of empathy and reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, it was also a manipulative strategy to deny the country’s shameful history. This book examines Gail Jones’s literary contribution to such debates. It examines Gail Jones’s questioning of Australia’s victimology narratives, and offers an insightful discussion of the transmedia, transnational and multidirectional approach to trauma in the reconciliation-related novels she published during John Howard’s vexed Liberal Government (1996-2007).

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgements
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • Trauma Studies
  • Literature and the Australian Reconciliation Process
  • Gail Jones and Gail Jones’s Literary Contribution
  • Book Structure and Rationale
  • Chapter 1 Gail Jones’s Subversion of National Myths
  • Chapter 2 The Pain of Unbelonging, the Pain of Loss: Uncanny Witnesses and the Creation of Bonds
  • a. The Function of Photography in Sixty Lights
  • b. The Function of Surrealism in Black Mirror
  • Chapter 3 Shakespearan Echoes: The Function of Intertextuality in Sorry
  • Chapter 4 Transnational Heartbeats
  • a. The Museum
  • b. The Mirror
  • c. The Cinema
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Series Index

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This monograph aims to identify and discuss the main symbolic and literary techniques that Gail Jones uses in three novels of hers, namely Black Mirror, Sixty Lights, and Sorry. It will examine Jones’s literary contribution to the contemporary debates around the concept of trauma as defined by Cathy Caruth (1995, 1996) in both literary and trauma studies, and more specifically, in the context of the Australian Reconciliation process. Thus, each of the sections that follow this introduction offers extended information on these issues. The first section discusses the main definitions of the concept of trauma and the debates that exist around the boom of trauma studies in the 1990s. The second section focuses on the main historical, political, and cultural events and reactions concerning the passing of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation Act in May (1991) under Australian Labour Government and the 1997 report, “Bringing Them Home: National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families.” The third section connects Gail Jones’s academic and fictive production to the narratives of reconciliation that were published during John Howard’s Liberal Government (1996–2007).

Trauma Studies

Since the coining of the term “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” (PTSD) by the American Psychiatrist Association in the 1980s, and the rise of trauma theory in the early 1990s at Yale University, there has been an on-going proliferation in both the production and critical analysis of the so-called “trauma fiction.” Originally, PTSD sought to name and expound the most common symptoms shown by Vietnam veterans, such as shell shock, traumatic neurosis and delayed anxiety, mainly in order to offer guidance and support for the overcoming of such effects. In the 1990s, the term crossed the borders of research strictly focused on psychology, cognitive science and law, and entered the field of literary criticism. Trauma theory elaborated on the ethical and cultural implications of trauma and its interrelation with literature (Whitehead 2004; Luckhurst 2008).

At first sight, trauma and fiction are two opposing concepts, as trauma has generally been described as a collapse of the individual’s sense of self, time and place (Felman and Laub 1992; Herman [1992] 2001; Caruth 1995; 1996). Drawing from Freud’s notion of Nachträglichkeit, Cathy Caruth defines the concept of trauma as the response to an overwhelming violent event or events which, due ←9 | 10→to their shattering effects on the individual’s mind, can only be acknowledged at belated stages, when the trauma seems to repeat itself in forms of nightmares or flashbacks. Therefore, Caruth argues, the “traumatic experience” entails “a certain paradox: that the most direct seeing of a violent event may occur as an absolute inability to know it” (Caruth 1996, 91–92).

On the other hand, it is precisely this view of trauma as that which resists comprehension and representation that intrinsically links it to the concept of narrative. As Roger Luckhurst puts it, “in its shock impact trauma is anti-narrative, but it also generates the manic production of retrospective narratives that seek to explicate the trauma” (2008, 80). The emergence of trauma studies has provided writers, and I would also add literary critics, with new tools to represent and analyse the concept of trauma. In Anne Whitehead’s view, the “encounter with trauma” has transformed fiction, giving rise to the emergence of a new genre, which she labels as “trauma fiction” (2004). This type of writing appears to emulate the workings of trauma through its formal and stylistic features. Imitating the traumatised subject’s split identity, disrupted memory and experience of post-traumatic symptoms, trauma is characterised by the use of a fragmented and disrupted structure, time and space discontinuities and overlapping, seemly illogical change of narrative voice, and some key stylistic features such as intertextuality and repetition, Whitehead points out (2004, 3; 84).

For Caruth and other critics such as Kai Erikson (1995), Bessel A. Van der Kolk and Onno Van der Hart (1995), and Dominick LaCapra (2001), these acting-outs, that is, the re-experiencing of the past event at a later stage and as here and now, represent a way to break the amnesiac circle which entraps the victim. Since the event is not fully acknowledged at the moment when it occurs, but is repressed and locked in the unconscious, its after-effects symbolise a return of the repressed which seeks to be finally explained. Bearing these ideas in mind, the aforementioned critics concur that the notion of trauma challenges the straightforward referentiality of history and demands its rethinking. In this sense, Caruth argues, trauma may be seen as “a link between cultures” (1995, 11), since some unveiled truth and knowledge can be gained by listening to the other’s wound. As she points out, the belatedness of trauma brings to the fore the fact that “history, like trauma, is never one’s own, that history is precisely the way we are implicated in each other’s voice” (1996, 24).

This interest in the other’s voice and challenging of history’s grand narratives is the main feature that binds together Caruth’s arguments and postcolonial theory. In keeping with Caruth’s appeal to pay attention to the other’s wound, Whitehead argues, “postcolonial novelists seek to rescue previously overlooked histories and to bring hitherto marginalised or silenced stories to the public consciousness.” ←10 | 11→As she continues, “trauma fiction overlaps with postcolonial fiction in its concern with the recovery of memory and the acknowledgement of the denied, the repressed and the forgotten” (Whitehead 2004, 82). Therefore, it should come as no surprise that many of the stylistic features that have previously been mentioned as characteristic of trauma narratives can also be found in postcolonial trauma narratives.

On the other hand, the relation between these two critical fields, trauma studies and postcolonial studies, has not always been an easy one. In Worlds of Hurt: Reading the Literatures of Trauma (1996a), Kalí Tal complained that most of the critical literature on trauma that arose in the mid-1990s laid heavy emphasis on Euro-centric Western psychoanalytical frameworks and traumas, while neglecting other traumas and outstanding critical voices, such as that of the Afro-American W. E. B. Du Bois. More recently, the editors of the special issue on postcolonial trauma novels that was published by the journal Studies in the Novel criticised what they regarded as trauma studies’ “one-sided focus” (Craps and Buelens 2008, 2) on Western traumas, with the trauma of the Holocaust being its touchstone. Although Caruth’s trauma model insisted on the binding function between cultures that her concept of trauma can have, the tendency of trauma studies to “ignor[e]‌ and marginalis[e] non-Western traumatic events and histories and non-Western theoretical work” appears to have had, according to Steff Craps and Gert Buelens, the opposite effect: rather than promoting solidarity between cultures, trauma studies’ heavy focus on the West seems to “assist in the perpetuation of Eurocentric views and structures that maintain or widen the gap between the West and the rest of the world” (2008, 2).

Another issue that has given rise to thorough debate in the field of both trauma and postcolonial cultural studies is the question concerning the commodification of trauma. Kervi Farrell defines trauma as a trope. According to him, trauma is not only an injury but “the interpretation of an injury” (1998, xii) and, as such, it runs the risk of being unethically appropriated and ideologically manipulated (21–22). Likewise, in his essay “Trauma Envy” (2000), John Mowitt warns against the moralising discourse that has accompanied the concept of trauma since the rise of trauma theory. He observes the rise of some kind of trauma envy among some 1980s neoconservative groups, whose moral authority had been challenged in the 1960s by the denunciation on the part of some minority groups of the abuse, marginalisation and suffering to which they had been subject throughout history. Therefore, neoconservative groups saw in the appropriation of the wound a chance to regain the moral authority which they had lost. In like fashion, LaCapra (2001) cautioned against hyperbolic affirmations concerning trauma, and emphasised the importance of distinguishing between ←11 | 12→different subject positions. As LaCapra warns (xi), the belief that we live in a wounded-culture may lead us to conclude that we are all equally traumatised, and thus block any ethical response to trauma. Society may fall prey to self-gratifying victimhood.

The study of historical psychological traumas such as the Holocaust, which, as has been stated before, has been taken as the template model for the analysis of other traumas, has generally focused on the effects that the traumatic experience has had on the individual’s mind. However, as Dolores Herrero and Sonia Baelo-Allué and other critics have also contended, the understanding of trauma as a personal psychological experience presents several flaws when trying to apply it to the analysis of colonial traumas. Firstly, Herrero and Baelo-Allué remark, it runs the risk of opening a wide gap between facts and causes, “thus blurring the importance of the historical and social context, which is particularly relevant in postcolonial trauma narratives” (2011, xi). Similarly, Ruth Leys (2000), Victoria Burrows (2004; 2008) and Irene Visser (2011) criticise Caruth’s vision of trauma as a bond between cultures for not having taken into consideration important issues, such as the historical context, power structures, gender, social, racial and class factors. Secondly, as Laura Brown (1995), Steff Craps and Gert Buelens (2008), together with Lucy Bond in her co-authored volume with Craps (2020, 108–109), have pointed out, the understanding of trauma as the consequence of an unprecedented violent event also appears to be insufficient for the study of colonial traumas. As these critics observe, the traumas suffered by some minority groups, such as women, people of colour and homosexuals, do not stem from the occurrence of a single event, but from their constant exposure to violence and a patriarchal, racist and homo-phobic discourse that marginalises them. Finally, unlike psychological trauma, “colonial trauma is […] a collective experience, which means that its specificity cannot be recognised unless the object of trauma research shifts from the individual to larger social entities,” Craps and Buelens state (2008, 4). The psychoanalytical suggestion that recovery from trauma may be achieved by the individual’s introspective and psychic process of working through is regarded as inadequate, as it seems to disregard institutional responsibilities and the demand that victims should be socially compensated for the damage and injustice committed against them. In this sense, the application of Caruth’s model of psychological individual trauma to the analysis of cultural traumas can be seen as a way to evade personal and public responsibilities.

In an attempt to address these concerns, like Craps and Buelens, Herrero and Baelo-Allué (2011) called for the need to supplement the definition of personal trauma “with the social context that the notion of cultural trauma seems ←12 | 13→to provide” (2011, xiii). As was argued by both Jeffrey C. Alexander (2004) and Arthur G. Neal ([1998] 2005), both individual psychological and cultural trauma appear to be governed by a negative effect which can only be appeased at a belated stage. However, there are important differences between the two types of trauma. While the former centres on the effects that trauma has on the individual, the latter pays attention to its effects on collectivities. Unlike psychological trauma, cultural trauma shatters, not only individuals’ personal sense of identity, but also their sense of group identity. As Herrero and Baelo-Allué point out, “events are not inherently traumatic, since the effect of trauma depends on the socio-cultural context of the society affected” (2011, xiii).

In line with these ideas, the most recent publications on trauma to date tend to move away from a Euro- and event-centred approach to trauma towards a more cross-referential and transcultural vision of it. Trauma scholars’ scope of analysis has broadened up. They do not consider the Holocaust their single topic of discussion; instead they growingly tend to consider it in connection with other traumas. Traumatic experiences such as those derived from “slavery, colonialism, apartheid, Partition and the Stolen Generations,” Bond and Craps highlight (2020, 104–105), are gathering a growing interest among the academic and reading public. There is also an increasing number of publications devoted to the study of texts which escape the modernist aesthetic with which trauma works were said to comply (Craps 2013, 2014; Rothberg 2014; Bond and Craps 2020). In like vein, trauma studies are also been used to study traumatic phenomena whose traumatic effects do not stem just from the occurrence of an unexpected event, but from individuals’ constant exposure to several forms of violence. “In an age of globalized neoliberal capitalism”, Rothberg foreshadowed in his preface to The Future of Trauma (2014, xiv), the traumatic effects of “systemic exploitation” (xiv) and “climate change” (xv) are two of the main relevant topics that demand global attention. The diversification of the topics and disciplines from which the concept of trauma is approached, Rothberg (2014) and Bond and Craps (2020) concur, demonstrate the versatile nature of trauma theory. This theory has been a useful tool to raise awareness of the injustices and problems suffered by individuals and communities. It can contribute to enhancing the empathy between people and thus incite people and societies to “wor[k]‌ towards genuine change” (Bond and Craps 2020, 141). Yet, for trauma theory to fulfil its diagnosing, vindicative and reparative aspirations, it needs to be aware of its own limitations and escape any monolithic approach to it. “Trauma theory […] is […] one possible mode of inquiry among others, valuable but only in consort with other approaches and methodologies, which it cannot and must not displace,” Bond and Craps observe (2020, 142).←13 | 14→

Literature and the Australian Reconciliation Process

In the Australian context, the concept of trauma has also been a matter of discussion, especially because of the revelatory events and reactions that preceded and followed the passing of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation Act in May 1991 under the Australian Labour Government. The Enquiry made by the 1987 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and their subsequent 1991 report made evident the over-representation and outrageous high rate of Australian Indigenous people’s unexplained deaths while being in prison, and the pressing necessity of addressing the disadvantages and differences regarding housing, education, health, employment and justice between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Historians’ publications on the frontier wars that were fought between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians questioned the myth that the British colonisation of Australia had been a peaceful process.1 The 1992 Mabo and Others v. Queensland (No. 2) decision2 by the Australian High Court questioned the principle of terra nullius—the fallacy that Australia was an uninhabited land owned by no one prior to the arrival of the British First Fleet at Botany Bay in 1788—which the settlers had used to justify their legitimate free possession and exploitation of the land. The decision ratified Eddie Koiki Mabo and his Torres Strait Islander co-claimants’ argument that the Meriam people, to whom they belonged, were and had always been the customary owners of the Murray Island and its surrounding islands and reefs. The Court recognised that their rights over those territories still prevailed, as they had not been extinguished by the British Crown’s annexation of the islands to the British colony of Queensland in 1879. While the “acts of State” through which the British Crown obtained the territory recognised the Crown’s sovereignty over the islands, these acts did not turn the Crown into “the beneficial owner of the land, which remained in possession of the indigenous people” (Short 2008, 37). Like the Mabo decision, the 1997 publication of the “Bringing Them Home” report also questioned the fairness of Australia’s discriminatory laws. The report confronted Australians with the testimonies of the so-called Stolen Generations, the thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who had been ←14 | 15→wrenched from their families and brought to missions during the period of the assimilation policies. The report denounced the atrocities that the Indigenous Australians had suffered and called for the need to acknowledge Australia’s indigenous heritage and carry out reparations.3


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2022 (March)
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2022. 254 pp.

Biographical notes

Pilar Royo-Grasa (Author)

Pilar Royo-Grasa is Assistant Professor at the English and German Department of the University of Zaragoza, where she teaches courses on English Language and Literature. She has been a Visiting Scholar at the Universities of New South Wales (Australia), Northampton (U.K.) and Regensburg (Germany). She has widely published on Gail Jones’s fiction in internationally indexed journals. Her research interests include contemporary Australian fiction, postcolonial literature, trauma studies, human rights and migration narratives.


Title: Trauma, Australia and Gail Jones’s Fiction (1996-2007)
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