Writing Threat and Trauma: Poetic Witnessing to Social Injustice and Crisis

By | 15 September 2022

Contemporary Poetic Witnessing to Social Injustice-Crisis

As a concept and mode of communication, testimony emerged in the second half of the twentieth century. It is a central tenet of Holocaust Studies, which arose in the wake of WWII. For prominent theorists of literary trauma studies first wave, such as Cathy Caruth (Trauma: Explorations in Memory, Unclaimed Experience), the paradoxical problem was that though testimony is crucial to healing and social accountability, traumatic memory, and the limits of language, especially in the face of traumatic experience, pose a challenge to testimony. As some have argued (Atkinson, Hirsch; Schwab), this by no means leaves language at a complete loss; creative writing has distinctive capacities for traumatic testimony, and literature can create ‘an alignment between witnesses’ (Felman 14). Kilby and Rowland speak of the continued relevance of witnessing and testimony in an increasingly technologised and globalised 21st-century environment. ‘As a meeting point between violence and culture,’ they write, ‘the future of testimony is guaranteed. Less predictable is how we will understand its ongoing importance’ (1).

Creative writers have responded readily to both climate emergency and the pandemic across online platforms. Unsurprisingly, the essay form and diary/memoir dominate in both environmental disaster and pandemic testimony. Examples include essays from the Fire Flood Plague: Australian Writers Respond to 2020 anthology, edited by Sophie Cunningham and published piecemeal in The Guardian, Bronwyn Adcock’s ‘Living Hell’ essay in The Monthly, ‘Margaret Atwood’s lockdown diary: life as an eccentric self-isolationist,’ published in The Guardian, and Arundhati Roy’s ‘The pandemic is a portal,’ which appeared in The Financial Times as the virus took hold around the world. Writers have also conducted informal experiments. For example, Ghassan Hage challenged fellow writers on Facebook to produce 300-500 words of speculative pessimistic autobiographical pandemic writing. Poetry has also made a good showing, demonstrating its distinctive agency and capacity for getting to the heart of collective traumatic experience. Digital technology has enabled near-instant distribution of writing that shows threat and trauma as linked to social injustice-crisis from within the eye of the storm.

Toby Fitch’s ‘Dust Red Dawn,’ was published in May 2021, but the poem itself suggests it was written amid the Black Summer fires of 2019-2020. While the poem was not published as closely to a defining social injustice-crisis event as other examples in this article, it speaks to the rolling threat and trauma of escalating social injustice-crises. ‘Dust Red Dawn’ triangulates a relationship between the eye of multiple storms raging across time, or rather storms perpetually present in the limbic collective unconscious, that have been rendered timeless by their traumatic nature.

Historical trauma theory is a relatively new concept in public health that focuses on populations historically subjected to long-term, mass trauma, including ‘colonialism, slavery, war, genocide’ and disease development (including subsequent generations) as a result (Sotero). Despite this emergent field of inquiry, existing research has not examined how contemporary writing testifies at the intersection of public health and social justice and what this means for the status of witnessing and testimony. Social movements connected to endemic, structural traumas and public health crises have traditionally relied on slow-moving communication forms such as localised meetings and pamphlet distribution. Manuel Castells states that ‘multimodal, digital networks of horizontal communication are the fastest and most autonomous, interactive, reprogrammable and self-expanding means of communication in history’ (16). Heady stuff, but as Deborah Lupton argues, claims about social media’s ‘unique power to influence social change’ warrant some critical perspective (141). What is apparent, is that social justice movements, literary writing, and witnessing practices have historically evolved in tandem with the advent of new technologies. Yet the question remains: how do we understand the operations and impact of creative writing testimony that witnesses to collective social predicaments like climate disasters and zoonotic pandemics in the contemporary moment? Mette Mortensen proposes the term ‘connective witnessing’ to describe contemporary witnessing practices combining ‘personalized political participation and connective action in the recording and sharing of visual documentation (1393). This highlights the fact that research exploring the rise of a technologised ‘trauma culture’ (Rothe; Meskell; Kaplan) has to date focussed more on the visual than the linguistic.

‘Dust Red Dawn’ enacts personalised political participation and connective action that hints at historical trauma in the writing and publishing of literature. That it was published digitally matters, even if there was a time gap between writing and publication because publication in an online poetry journal (Cordite Poetry Review) renders the work readily available to, and accessible via, the ‘multimodal, digital networks of horizontal communication’ Castells lauds.

The poem references the day of writing as ‘another “scary fire day”’ harking back to an earlier blood-orange sky – the dust storm of 2009, and then further still to colonisation. Vision and sound are layered throughout the poem, with colour repeatedly referenced. A sonic explosion stretches across time:

The sound of an invisible cannon-shot thunders
and echoes from the sandstone and concrete

And is later elaborated:

Twenty more bangs go off and, with each, a further
twenty echoes are delayed by what seems
two hundred years or more. Sky turns maroon.

Imagery, both literal and metaphoric (‘Through the windscreen, a dirty rainbow’), paints an impressionistic portrait of the poet and his daughters in a world burnt by ‘tipping points that have already been breached.’

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