A Reading List ‹ Literary Center
My first novel, Posttraumatic, follows Vivian, a lawyer in a psychiatric hospital who begins to deal with the psychological and interpersonal scars of her violent childhood after a dramatic family reunion. In writing the book, which explores post-traumatic consciousness, I looked for a new way to write about extreme experiences. I rejected traditional versions of traumatic fiction—the sentimental family saga, the lyrical fragment book, the ghost girl tale, and the harrowing coming-of-age graphic novel—in favor of a lucid, darkly comic and cerebral.
I also wanted to avoid certain genre tropes: I refused to extensively detail abuse or center an abuser in my story, and I didn’t write from the perspective of a child or a passive, silenced character. Instead, my novel features dynamic adult survivor best friends with strong points of view. Vivian and Jane are black feminist intellectuals who speak out about their traumas, engage in cultural criticism, and discuss moral duties to abusive family members. Despite their (serious) challenges, my characters are cheeky, analytical, self-aware and very much alive.
As I wrote, I was looking for art that took stylistic risks with dark materials. Despite critical protestations to the contrary, there are in fact many subversive trauma books that reject easy pathos and martyrdom, books that are not written in otherworldly records, and books that do not peddle traumatic porn. Just search more carefully for them, as they often get less attention than average fares, and many are published by independent presses. The books on this list constitute an alternative canon of traumatic writing. They are funny and intelligent, elliptical and digressive, provocative and mean. They encourage us to move beyond traditional genre pieties, offering approaches to writing about trauma and its aftermath that are aesthetically singular, dynamic, and new.
Bronte Purnell, Since I laid down my burden
It is a short, dark picaresque of loss and survival. The main character, DeShawn, is a black gay punk who returns to his hometown in Alabama for his uncle’s funeral. Once there, he thinks back to his chaotic upbringing in the community he still loves. The book is structured around the deaths of boys and men DeShawn knew, but if it’s an inventory of the losses, it’s not depressing. Topics such as abuse, drug addiction, and suicide are tackled quickly and factually, but Purnell lifts this material with humor, well-drawn minor characters, and DeShawn’s tender ideas. “He learned that the only way to beat an enemy bigger than you is to outlive them. It’s hard. It distorts the soul. But it is a strategy. »
Virginie Despentes, fuck me
The ultimate rape revenge novel, fuck me is a rapid descent into feminine antisocial chaos. Manu is a tough slacker who drinks a lot and swears a lot. Nadine is a sex worker who obsessively watches porn and hates her tasteless roommate. We meet them in short alternating chapters written in a sarcastic and irreverent style that can only be described as very Gen X. After Manu is raped and Nadine’s friend is murdered, the couple brazenly “man hunt “for sex, then goes on a killing spree. . Throughout the novel, Despentes describes the violence in direct, unsentimental prose. She takes the image repertoire of pornography and violent cinema and applies it to men, who are mocked, sexually objectified and murdered without guilt. “I have to stay alive,” Manu said at one point. “Do anything to stay alive.”
Percival Everett, Trees
Trees is a darkly comedic police procedural interwoven with a supernatural racial revenge story. In Money, Mississippi (site of Emmett Till’s murder), white people are murdered in grotesque fashion; the same mysterious black corpse is found in every scene. Two black detectives from a big city, Ed and Jim, are sent to investigate. They find a town mired in the racial codes of the past, and they greet it with anthropological humor, noting that Money is “full of peckerwoods who know nothing…living proof that inbreeding does not lead to extinction.” . In this book, white people are both the victims and the targets of the joke. As the violence spreads, the book morphs into a resounding narrative about the political and spiritual importance of writing and storytelling.
Myriam Gourba, Mean
“The post-traumatic mind has an advanced set of artistic skills,” Gurba wrote in his tragicomic memoir, Mean. (In a way, this line sums up my whole aesthetic philosophy.) The book begins with a tale of the rape and murder of a woman named Sophia, which haunts the narrator as a tragic counterfactual, then deviates into a verbose narrative and daring of The Youth of Gurba in Southern California, his own violent aggression and the miracle of survival. Gurba is a master of the gallows humor and high-low pastiche, throwing in lines like “avant-garde aggression” and “stranger’s rape reminds me of Camus” that upend writing expectations. traumatic.
Gayl Jones, Eva’s man
Eva Medina Canada is one of the most subversive black female characters in the history of American fiction. When this delicate and provocative novel begins, Eva is in prison for committing a horrific act of violence against her lover, Davis. The book alternates between the present, where Eva refuses to explain her actions to various interlocutors (her cellmate, her psychiatrist, and the police) and an episodic account of the sexual abuse Eva has suffered in her lifetime. By refusing to offer clear justification for Eva’s crimes, the book rejects the psychological and narrative pressures toward trauma resolution and character readability in favor of preserving Eva’s autonomy and mythological composure. . (“I am Medusa…Men look at me and get hard. I turn their dicks to stone.”)
Jana Leo, Rape New York
Posttraumatic is in dialogue with feminist visual artists whose work explores gender-based and intimate violence: Ana Mendieta, Nan Goldin, Jana Leo and myriad others. Leo is a conceptual artist whose memoir begins as a story of home invasion and rape, but expands outward to become an analysis of New York real estate speculation, landlord neglect, and the relationship between crime, space and power. Immediately after her rape, Leo began photographing the physical evidence left behind: her bed, a plastic cup, her rapist’s cigarette butts, and her own body, becoming an archivist and investigator into her assault. To support his memoir, Leo collected his photographs, police and court records, therapy notes and interviews with his abuser in a public records exhibit, emphasizing the profound public repercussions of the rape.
Anne Tyler, Dinner at Homesick Restaurant
I’m breaking my rule about family sagas by including it here, but it’s a rich novel about family dynamics and the various ways children react to unpredictable and angry adults. After her husband abandoned the family, Pearl Tull raises her three children alone: sometimes she attacks them violently. Later in life, she can’t understand why they all seem to resent her: “They were so frustrating…closed off from her in a perverted way that she couldn’t quite put her finger on it. … She wondered if [they] blamed him for something. The novel is presented as a series of fast-paced life sketches, isolating the specific incidents that shape the perceptions and motivations of each family member.
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Pola Oloixarac, mona (tr. Adam Morris)
mona begins as a wickedly funny and disrespectful satire of the literary world and veers into apocalyptic terror. When we meet Mona, she is heavily medicated and flies to Sweden to attend an awards ceremony. Throughout the book, she follows the search for a missing Peruvian girl, brags about her exploitation of American identity politics (“playing the role of an overeducated Latina adrift in Trump’s America” leads to academic opportunities), vapes, jokes, and judges people. But there is an atmosphere of darkness here: Mona is covered in bruises from an attack she suppressed and she sees strange things. Then, during the awards ceremony, something very strange happens.
Anna Burns, Dairy
An entirely original exploration of individual and community survival strategies in the face of political violence and sexual surveillance, Dairy is probably my favorite novel of the last decade. Set during The Troubles in Northern Ireland, the novel follows an unnamed 18-year-old girl who disassociates herself from the chaos of her world by engaging in solitary activities, namely “reading while walking”. The young girl is harassed by an older paramilitary man known only as “The Milkman”, but her community misinterprets the harassment as a consensual affair, and the growing rumors lead to fatal consequences. The book is written in gnarled, digressive, confusing, and often highly amusing prose, as Burns highlights the moral clarity and deep political insights that can emerge from surviving political and gendered terror.
At Chantal V. Johnson’s Posttraumatic is available now through Little, Brown.