Should we read "difficult art"? What if we are tired?
You can receive posts directly in your email by subscribing.
Content warning: abstract discussion of traumatic things that are sometimes listed by name but not discussed in detail (unaliving, abuse, war). There is also a mild spoiler for the first Black Panthers movie.
“We are writing the history that we could not find in any other book. We are telling the stories that no one else can tell, and we are giving this proof of our survival to each other…
“There is no pain in my life that has not been given value by the alchemy of creative attention.” Melissa Febos, Body Work.
I had been tracking this galley for several months, sniffing around, sending persistent emails to people who might know. It is a literary novel set in Sri Lanka in the 1980s, during the escalation of civil war, written by a Sri Lankan American. The 2022 Man Booker Prize had also gone to another novel, in the same setting. I had been there, in that setting, (tbf briefly) and the novel I was tracking was about a teen girl who wanted to be a doctor. I needed this book.
I needed it with an unexamined mix of ambition, compulsion, curiosity, and the queasy anticipation of lifting a log to see what squirmed underneath—or as I had done for a long time, undressing wounds. In the case of wounds, I can quantify and stage them: dimensions, depth, wetness, colors, smells, tunneling. I can probe to see how spongy, if there’s pus, if bone is exposed. Wounds must not be allowed to heal from outside in – or you risk sealing in an abscess. They must heal from inside out. We open them and debride unviable tissue, a polite way to say we scrape, cut, acidify the rot, so healthy tissue can make repairs. Wounds only heal when they bleed.
What I am saying is I, like many people, have an expansive language for physical injury and disease. But not as much for other kinds of dis-ease.
Wound healing, from
I was born in London, then went back to Jaffna with my grandmother as a baby. As war escalated, I went back to England and eventually California. Everyone I personally know (I think)—uncles, aunties, cousins—eventually left too.
Multiple generations of Sri Lankans have lived and traveled through well-worn paths of colonialism and worker migrations– Libya, Qatar, Italy, the Caribbean. In the 1980s, mostly Tamil refugees went to London, Dehli, Toronto, Paris (“Little Jaffna”), Staten Island (“Little Sri Lanka”), Los Angeles, and Victoria, Australia. Like so many other peoples, we were now a diaspora, connected mostly by an aunty gossip network. What I am trying to say is that the diaspora is a multiverse, loosely connected. Some Tamil communities stayed tight, some grew massive, with continual waves of new arrivals. Some were divided by class, new languages, family drama, the Interstate 14 freeway. Altered trajectories are formed, new patterns calcified, shaped by migration paths, sociopolitical forces, and (as per Tolstoy), the idiosyncratic pathos of each family.
“Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience,” wrote Edward Said in his essay “It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted. And while it is true that literature and history contain heroic, romantic, glorious, even triumphant episodes in an exile’s life, these are no more than efforts meant to overcome the crippling sorrow of estrangement.”
I have read about a third of this novel and, although there is minimal graphic violence, it has been devastating. I am plunged deep into grief with every chapter. I am torn by both needing to know and needing not to know.
When Erik Kilmonger was a child, his uncle murdered his father, N’Jobu, prince of Wakanda. N’Jobu, an undercover agent in Oakland, hoped to disburse the vibranium to the African diaspora, to arm an emancipation. Erik Kilmonger grew up in Oakland where his father told him about this fabled, beautiful land, where the sunsets were beautiful. In the movie theater, my heart stopped. I knew that story too. Sunsets over an ocean, where mangos lay at your feet, luscious forests, the IRL aunty network, paradise lost.
Killmonger stays on in America, joining a different imperial effort, training with the Naval Academy, MIT, the SEALS, CIA, then as a black ops mercenary. He nurtures his blood lust and is committed to his father’s mission—the diaspora’s liberation, and sating of vengeance.
Killmonger is played by the charismatic and almost blindingly handsome Michael B. Jordan.
We see him as a fatherless child morph into a savvy, highly-committed, American-trained killer.
And everything he says—he’s not wrong. Nothing he says is wrong. He is a Marvel cinematic universe villain and he is not wrong. Compassionate, wise leader T’challa was raised in Wakanda, guided and beloved by his family and people. Killmonger was left alone and he survived.
When he is defeated, I feel cut deep inside. All of it is lost—the small child, the beautiful man, the brutal warrior, the eloquent polemicist. There is no justice, for or on behalf of, Killmonger. He does wrong things, under an American flag, but he is not wrong. Killmonger is a hundred, a thousand, a million young men who believed in the cause. Millions of men who act from some deep yearning place of love and loss.
These filmmakers, possessed of storytelling magic, know exactly what they are doing. They are saying: we see this, we hear it. We say the things out loud on this massive stage—but we must hide it in the mouth of a seductive, ruthless villain, and he must die. They made him a Shakespearean tragedy. They did us (the exiles) dirty.
But there it is, the story, metabolized through comic books, meticulously engineered Hollywood grandiosity, gorgeous colors, music and faces. There is catharsis, however subdued.
I am told, there is a clinical definition of intergenerational or multigenerational trauma – “passed down from the generation that experienced the trauma to subsequent generations.” In physiology, I was taught how the stress of the mother is coded into the eggs, pups, the children, through methylated DNA and epigenetic mitochondrial RNA. These are cellular whispers, scars, warnings: a record of drought, war, famine. Remember this world is hard. Find a way to survive. “As children, we don’t understand clearly what’s going on around us, but we still absorb and know there’s something wrong in our families, but we can’t quite put our fingers on it.”
There is also secondary trauma—the impact of hearing the stories. In one study, almost a fifth of human rights worker met criteria for clinical PTSD. As do journalists, healthcare workers, and other helping professions, with renewed attention since the onset of the COVID.
To witness the violence, injury and pain of another, is to share it. This is what empathy does.
Why should I go on reading this novel that distresses me? Like seriously, sad shit is my anti-jam. I need feelings highly pre-metabolized, made oblique, into comedy, horror, science fiction, reimagined as a fictional Murdoch dynasty. Or abstracted into news reports, epidemiology, economic analysis, intellectual platitudes about something something human nature. Anything to keep from looking straight on, at these blinding, drowning feelings.
The book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by psychiatrist and trauma researcher Bessel van der Kolk, had been on the NYT bestseller list for 141 weeks and published in 36 languages. “Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside. They learn to hide from their selves.” I keep meaning to read it, eventually.
In 1967, English art critic John Berger and photographer Jean Mohr published A Fortunate Man. The book portrays the life and work of John Eskell, a physician working in a rural English village. The writer and photographer followed the country doctor, attending to the births, deaths, hemorrhoids, secrets, and dramas of the villagers, against a wild and beautiful landscape.
One critic summarizes the endeavor: “Sassal had made a Faustian pact: he is rewarded with endless opportunities for experiencing the possibilities inherent in human lives, but at the cost of being subject to immense and, at times, unbearable pressures. These pressures manifest themselves as episodes of profound depression, during which he is overwhelmed by, ‘the suffering of his own patients and his own sense of inadequacy.’”
Black and white photos of Sassall, brooding with patients or wandering fields, are interspersed with passages from Conrad, Piaget, Sartre, Yeats, Gramsci. As Sassall examines and turns over his patients, Berger examines and turns over Sassall, trying to make sense of this work. Berger recognizes the good doctor’s purpose is not to heal, not really. “Sometimes a landscape seems less a setting for the life of its inhabitants than a curtain behind which their struggles, achievements, and accidents take place.” Instead, Sassall is there as witness. “He keeps the records so that, from time to time, they can consult them themselves.” The risk is that, in holding their pains, he feels them.
In Sassall, Berger sees a parallel in himself, as a writer and thinker. Elie Wiesel, Nobel laureate, Holocaust survivor, contemporary of Berger, wrote: “If Greeks invented tragedy, the Romans the epistle and the Renaissance the sonnet, our generation invented a new literature, that of testimony.”
My new medical school classmates and I cracked open our fresh copies of Fortunate Man under the guidance of beloved teacher Dr. Guy Micco. I have that copy in front of me now. It is simultaneously an enchanting and grotesque portrayal of the deeply committed, wounded healer. Is this what I should be doing too? I later learned that in 1982, the year civil war broke out in Sri Lanka, Dr. Sassall had died by suicide.
How do we read people’s traumas? The brilliant, athletically-well-read book critic Parul Sehgal wrote the notorious Case against the Trauma Plot. Here she argues trauma in storytelling now “comes cheap.” The trauma plot is a psychobabble causal shortcut for the closer observation of human complexity. “Trauma came to be accepted as a totalizing identity,” sloppily leaked out of psychology. She cites Febos and Weisel, along with long lists of examples, a who’s who in fiction and television too--litanies of childhood abuse, genocides, eating disorders, sexual assaults, battlefields, and addictions. “Unlike the marriage plot, the trauma plot does not direct our curiosity toward the future (Will they or won’t they?) but back into the past (What happened to her?).” She argues the trauma plot narrows the experience of survivors with these repetitive scripts. War correspondent David Morris, during his treatment for PTSD, was discouraged from trying to make “wisdom” from his experience. He wonders whether the medicalized script of trauma “prevents veterans from expressing their moral outrage at war, siphoning it, instead, into a set of symptoms to be managed.”
Parul argues we downplay post-traumatic growth and cites an equal and opposite extensive list of artists that defy the constriction of the trauma plot: with irony, hilarity, fantasy, explicitly playing with audience expectation: Michaela Coel, Anthony Veasna So, Sterlin Harjo, Uwem Akpan, and Ravel Leilani, who also play with the audience lust for stories of Indigenous and Black trauma—trauma porn that serves to enforce the hierarchy. She praises authors who use “a wider aperture” to “move out of the therapeutic register and into a generational, social and political one,” where a story about trauma “becomes a portal into history and into a common language.” She cites the influence of Toni Morrison, who tells stories as corrective to history, and Saidiya Hartman who writes stories “as a form of care for the dead.”
It appears that Parul’s main gripe is against flattening over-explanation, trauma as a cheap trick for lazy storytellers. She wants literature that makes space for ambiguity. “The experience of uncertainty and partial knowledge is one of the great unheralded pleasures of fiction,” that contrasts with the didactic “locks and keys” of medicalized theories. Morrison and Shakespeare leave space in their characters to be humans, rather than symptoms within the notoriously colonial clinical gaze.
Parul Sehgal, former senior editor for the New York Times Book Review, now staff writer for The New Yorker. Photo from this excellent profile.
The article provided months of agitated literary blood sport for the Very Online (me). But it doesn't really address the question: How do we read people’s traumas? It seems to say even less about: How do we read people’s traumas that are tangled up in our own? Nor: Should we read people’s trauma? do we have a responsibility to bear witness? How much?
Melissa Febos again: “Listen to me: It is not gauche to write about trauma. It is subversive. The stigma of victimhood is a timeworn tool of oppressive powers to gaslight the people they subjugate into believing that by naming their disempowerment they are being dramatic, whining, attention-grabbing, or else beating a dead horse. By convincing us to police our own and one another’s stories, they have enlisted us in the project of our own continued disempowerment.”
Sehgal notes that flashbacks, a major clinical criterion of PTSD, did not exist prior to the invention of film. “Are the words that come to our lips when we speak of our suffering ever purely our own?” She uses this fact as an argument against the timelessness of the trauma framework. But the fact supports her underlying premise that story telling is deeply influential. Film shaped how we experience the most profound terrors of survival. Before film, we spoke of ghosts, malevolent mists, and animals that stalk our doorsteps. We need the shared tools—the words, art, technology—to make sense of it. Neither the suffering nor the making sense of the suffering are purely our own.
Look, I have done little to answer these questions. Why should we, why do we, how do we read difficult stories? The ones that hurt, that slice up our insides, open trap doors in our brain, flood us with feelings and memories. Or worse, flood us with memories with no content, just anxious malaise, that somehow, somewhere there is a shoebox, aggressively sealed with duct tape.
An entire generation of punditry has earned its keep huffing and puffing about trigger warnings. But look, if literature is any good, it’s going to be little triggering. That’s the point—to tell stories of hard things as much as joyful things, to incite memory and empathy for humans thousands of miles away or thousands of years dead, to shine light on our own baffling pleasure and pain of existence. This is an astonishing technology. It cannot be taken lightly. Stories, like mitochondrial genetics, pass on something about our world, open to interpretation. But it is not necessarily a whisper, it is easily a bludgeon—depending on the story, depending on the listener. We don’t slice open a patient’s wound then wander away. Nor should we open a person’s psyche without care. But who is responsible for that care?
The first possible answer to: how do we read difficult stories? We don’t. In this scenario we must be responsible for our own care. There is no need to read this difficult book at this time. You don’t have to. Maybe we will revisit this work in the future. Maybe we won’t! Perhaps the artist or presenters of art can give us a clue to help us navigate that decision. Often, we stumble into it ourselves.
One time I was super pregnant and attended a production of Euripedes’ tragedy The Trojan Women, a lamentation of the unfathomable cruelty of war, including infanticide. Throughout the play, multiple audience members in the intimate black box theater glanced at me. The play is devastating and beautiful, but I was too busy trying to hide my little wine glass (its fine!), calculating when I could lumber to the bathroom yet again.
Last month, my 5-year old, the one who had been in my belly at the theater, made an L-shape out of his forefinger and thumb, pointed to his sister, and said bang! It was difficult to rein my fury. He does not know that, just the day before, an armed gunman had breeched the high school down the street, where his own teachers’ children attend. He does not know that is why there is no milk in the house, because I could not reach the grocery store parking lot, because that is where the frightened students and staff were evacuating. But I know. Neither Eurepides nor my 5-year old can anticipate fully the impact of their play. Certainly Euripides is more intentional, knows his audience, makes artistic decisions. Sometimes artists do not know what will cut into us—and sometimes they do. Sometimes we celebrate them for this skillful provocation. Sometimes we punish them. Sometimes, I decide not to tell my 5-year old things, who does not understand why his mother is mad. Sometimes we let wounds heal by leaving it alone. Sometimes teaching, mothering, artisting all amount to the careful art of not-doing.
“I'd three times sooner go to war than suffer childbirth once.” Eurepides.
A second answer: we read the difficult story, even if it is difficult, but carefully.
How? Nurses, doctors, therapists, lawyers are trained to cultivate a skilled distance in their empathy. Sometimes, they do this poorly. It is a difficult calibration: distance enough to make it sustainable, but so much as to be an asshole; to be empathetic enough to do the job right as a compassionate human, but to not drown. Watching a dying patient be resuscitated multiple times while their family wails is traumatic. An ICU is sometimes an HR Giger nightmare scape. but the job is to claw out, for this beloved human, safe passage, using the brutal and sometimes effective technology of modern intensive care. As the famed medical satire House of God’s Rules #3 and #4 state respectively: “At a cardiac arrest, the first procedure is to take your own pulse” and “the patient is the one with the disease.” Empathy is a necessary vulnerability in the psychic immune system, like our mouths and eyes break the protection of skin (What would Sassall have made of all this?)
Perhaps Parul Sehgal, too, is in this business. She can read all these harrowing books about difficult experiences because, like the medical resident, she is in the service of something better. She is trying to answer the other side of “How do we read people’s traumas?” of “how do we tell the stories of hard experiences?” Perhaps poorly told stories—like an extractive and cruel medical system—are far more harmful than we appreciate. Such stories narrow our palate, erase the complexity of ourselves and each other, and that is worth fighting.
But what does “skilled distance” even mean? I drew this from some deep recess of medical training. When i discussed with my friend Elena, the philosopher (self identified management consultant lifting bro), she prompts the distinction between distance versus feeling supported and resourced enough to feel the empathy, without being overwhelmed.
Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön: “The only reason we don't open our hearts and minds to other people is that they trigger confusion in us that we don't feel brave enough or sane enough to deal with. To the degree that we look clearly and compassionately at ourselves, we feel confident and fearless about looking into someone else's eyes.”
Often, I am neither brave nor sane enough. Without the resources and support, distance is only a form of numbing. Numbing oneself repeatedly over time is deeply injurious.
Kate Mann, a philosopher I greatly admire, wrote a book Down Girl: the Logic of Misogyny, an erudite analysis of how misogyny operates in our world. It deeply illuminated to me the mechanics that underlay experiences in my life, and thus how to regard myself and navigate this world . But to make her case, she brings to bear extensive research in gender-based violence, show how it creates and enforces the power structure of misogyny.
These are gruesome stories that sear into the amygdala. It is not only the second-hand trauma of acknowledging a horrible thing that happened, but acknowledging that horrible thing happened because of a trait that you share with them—a violence committed (repeatedly) against a category of people to which you belong. Not only might the horrible thing be directed at a category of people to which you belong, but it might be literally directed at your actual family—your family that fled sectarian violence, or your chosen family of queer and trans people in their places of safety. That is…a deeply unsettling experience. That is fundamentally the logic of “terrorism”— to terrorize, to use violence as a means of enforcement, “to make an example of.” The original act harms a person or persons, but the stories of that act injure a community.
But the story is also meant to liberate. As my friend Orisá, the visionary and physician, observes: a story, like an incantation, shapes reality for us (a fundamentally story-telling species). Money, gender, race are stories with material consequences. Propaganda and advertisement are attempts to manipulate truth with false story. Being able to articulate our own truth is to claim dignity, power, and to change material conditions.
War, as portrayed in art (Washington Crossing the Delaware, Emanuel Leutze, oil on canvas, 1851)
Also war, as portrayed in art (The Apotheosis of War, Vasily Vereschagin, oil on canvas, 1871)
Anyhow, once I tweeted @ Kate Manne about how she is able to write about such difficult topics. She answered graciously: “Lots of bad TV, good podcasts, time with family, and trying not thinking about the hard stuff 24/7 to pace myself. I can only write for maybe 2 (at most 3) hours a day at the moment, both logistically and emotionally. It's enough.”
So, you can read a hard book with preparation, with resources to sit with painful truth. Tell your therapist, go slowly, stop often, wear protective gear, clear the afternoon for crying. It requires trusting your body as a reliable instrument of perception and self-protection. Wounds need scalpels, acid, debridement but also dressings, sterile procedure, comfort and rest. Perhaps in addition to the psychology and sociology, we need the language of what we are not yet able to capture in MRIs, neurotransmitters, economic analysis. Perhaps we need the language of ghosts, demons, exorcism, shadows and the moon. We need ritual, soup, art, each other.
Or you don’t. Arundhati Roy, one of the most masterful story tellers of our time, like a good surgeon, masterfully wields her craft—which means knowing when not to use it. “And the air was full of Thoughts and Things to Say. But at times like these, only the Small Things are ever said. Big Things lurk unsaid inside.”
In Other News
If you enjoyed this essay and/or are interested in updates, subscribe and share.
Things I am reading:
On process: I have been successfully accruing rejections
Have you ever played 6-8 hours of lego play with your children followed by repeated viewings of The Lego Movie? Disney and Lego have mastered world-building, and now we are all in it.
Speaking of Disney (Moana <3 ), and the erasing myths of white supremacy, here is a fascinating, gorgeous history of ancient mariners.
Do you need your career change or whatever-life crisis articulated with tarot archetypes? I am obsessed with this podcast.