Cultural Expressions of Trauma
by Sarah Rose Goldfinch
Amaranth Borsuk, Handiwork (Slope, 2012)
Cathy Linh Che, Split (Alice James Books, 2014)
Think back. When did you realize that others – that your mother, father, grandparents – felt and experienced pain? As a child, I often asked my dad when we would see his side of the family again. It took a long time to understand that this was a painful request, loaded with trauma that happened long before I was born. It took longer still to understand how my parent’s experiences shaped the way I live my life. Each person is handed down a history. More often than not, that history is riddled with pain and tears. Universally, these experiential inheritances shape the way we view and interact in the world. In Handiwork, by Amaranth Borsuk, and Split, by Cathy Linh Che, the authors explore the paths that brought them to where they stand today.
Che and Borsuk are each given culturally distinct ways of recognizing and handling trauma. Both authors struggle to define the histories that shape their todays. As they begin to write about the stories given to them, Borsuk and Che walk outside the cultural expressions they grew up with in order to say what needs to be said.
In the Jewish faith reliving of trauma is central. Most holidays revolve around remembering inherited stories of warfare, terror, and subjugation. Borsuk speaks openly in interviews about her experience growing up with the constant retelling of Holocaust stories – both those of her family and others. While the Vietnamese people have had a similar history of warfare, terror, and subjugation, they do not actively engage in a reliving of this suffering. As an American in Vietnam, it was my experience that they focus on forgiveness and moving past rather than reliving the years of shared trauma. Che writes of this experience as well, saying “In Vietnam, the landscape is aftermath...No one talked of the war.” In the course of their books, both Che and Borsuk move outside of these cultural norms in their discussion of trauma. The dissonance of their poetry with their individual heritages speaks loudly to the importance of these histories and the way that trauma is a cross-cultural, universal experience.
Che understood that what brought her to poetry “was the need to name experience, to address silences.” Che’s parents’ history of trauma went unexplored in her home. In direct opposition to this, Che speaks clearly and cleanly about her parent’s trauma and its emotional ramifications.
In “Self-Portrait in Summer II” Che describes in frank language the story her parents her lived. At the end of the poem, she counts up the trauma: “twelve years/ as a soldier” and “eleven months/as refugees” putting it on paper in clear black ink, when her parents never discussed it. Such frankness is included in many of the poems surrounding her parents, while Che has been clear in interviews that her parents would never tell their stories in such frank terms.
“I want their voices in the center of a narrative,” Che says of her parents. Che has spoken and written often of how her parents’ experience is marginalized and her need to correct that and to give them a voice. In an interview, Che said, “I’d ask questions, and [my mother would] tell stories. I always felt that I was literally drawing these stories out of her.” By gaining knowledge of these stories, Che has gathered the knowledge necessary to give her parents their voice.
Once she begins, Che is not tentative about retelling the stories she drew out from her parents. Her language is bold and untroubled, “My father does his own dental work. / A power drill and epoxy / and steady hands.” Che’s blunt enumerations of the trauma her parents experienced is loaded with the scar tissue of the emotional ramifications of trauma. Discussion of her father are traced with images of war – shrapnel, explosions, scars, and guns. Che explains, “The images...are images of remnant violence and menace.”
It is clear that Che feels these images need to be laid out. She writes, “leave memory / in the dark, and the cutouts are less visible.” While it may be that by leaving memory in the dark, the damage is shadowed, that does not mean it is not there. She has said that sharing these stories does not erase the trauma, but “allows us to plant a flag and say, Look, this happened. And that act allows us to take that experience back, own it, and say, Look. This is mine.”
Borsuk compares her and her grandmother’s story as “a scab [that] contains a scape.” Unlike Che, who approaches trauma like a band-aid best ripped off quickly, Borsuk approaches the edges of the wound slowly, afraid of breaking open the healing scab. Writing “my me is afraid” at the opening of Handiwork, Borsuk enters a terrain that she finds incredibly difficult to navigate.
“History of Myth” explores Borsuk’s experience of growing up with the persistent stories of the Holocaust; “a reader pores over a text she might / fall into: learning their names.” This experience is a difficult one and has important ramifications for Borsuk, who describes the story she has been told as “a hole / through which the soul seeps out.” The stories were so much a part of her that Borsuk has said that it is “hard to tell where my experience started and my grandmother’s began.”
Borsuk has said that given the constant retelling, she had to repress the story for herself in order to heal “This is how the hand discovers what it knows: / blindfolded / up against the wall,” Borsuk writes in “Blind Contour.” This seems to capture the tone of Handiwork, which often hints at the edges of the story without explicitly telling the reader anything at all. Perhaps afraid to open an old wound, Handiwork is an exploration of the Holocaust that never explicitly names standards of the Holocaust story: tattooed numbers, wire fences, gas chambers, Auschwitz. The word Holocaust cannot be found in Handiwork’s poems.
Borsuk and her grandmother’s Jewish faith demand that Borsuk is given the words to tell the story, but Borsuk’s poems exist in a space where she is frightened to say too much. In many of the poems she uses brackets to indicate that which she felt she could not say or did not have the words to say. The brackets also show where Borsuk removed her grandmother’s original language, leaving only remnants behind.
In the end, Borsuk calls for a type of forgetting that is ultimately more similar to Che’s Vietnamese culture than Borsuk’s own Jewish heritage. She writes, “let survivors survive, let fevers subside.” Throughout Handiwork Borsuk’s avoidance of explicit retelling is a painting of the landscape of the Holocaust’s aftermath, but without the haunting need to relive the pain, terror, and sorrow of the stories that surrounded her childhood.
In interviews, Che and Borsuk have both spoken about the violence in today’s world. As we look out at the landscape of our world today and see the violence, the pain, the sorrow, tears, and loss that will echo through all of our histories, we must wonder: how will our time shape that of the next generation?
Che said that Split “seems to [her] a way to be truthful about [her father’s] experiences, since [she is] reporting [her] lived experiences, too.” Both Che and Borsuk must live with this truth: that the trauma their loved ones have experienced is an integral part of their own lives. Through this struggle, they show that trauma is inherited and that it knows no cultural bounds. Most importantly, these two books show us that there is no wrong way to explore one’s history. Whether it is silences that must be broken, or words that cannot be said, there are echoes of our histories in every motion of today. “Memory, trauma, history—all are un-erasable,” Che writes. The voices of the past demand to be listened too, and our voices, our suffering, our triumphs, will be heard for generations.
Additional Works Consulted
Amaranth Borsuk: Personal interview with Poetry Now class (Apr. 7, 2015)
Cathy Linh Che: Personal interview with Poetry Now class (Feb. 19, 2015)
Cathy Linh Che: Interview (Ploughshares, 2012), Interview (Best American Poetry, 2014), Interview (Critical Mass, 2014)
Sarah Rose Goldfinch is a sophomore at Boston University, studying Special Education with hopes of someday being a special education teacher. This is her first publication, though both her father and his father have published poems and translations, and she grew up around their work.