If you’re looking for a collection of fictitious stories that wax poetry on the immigrant experience, Elizabeth Jaikaran’s debut book “Trauma” doesn’t fit the bill. Not that it’s trying to. There’s nothing romanticized about this collection. Rather, Jaikaran wanted her book to capture the lived experiences of Guyanese girls, women, and members of the LGBT community who have experienced systemic abuse and trauma. She wanted to capture the grit and horrific violence experienced by her foremothers and sisterhood, to explore male privilege and how it institutes female suffering. And capture she does.
By way of government records, newspapers, and most importantly, interviews with women from her own community, Jaikaran was willing to ask questions that very few before her have asked and written about with such poignancy.
With her book, Jaikaran accomplished what she set out to do: shed light on the historical and current strife of a people and culture marginalized even within the greater South Asian-American community. We were able to catch up with Jaikaran and gather insights into what stimulated her desire to write this book. Here is her story.
The Teal Mango: Tell us about your background and why you needed to tell the story of your community.
Elizabeth Jaikaran: I am a multi-racial (Black, Chinese, and Indian) woman of West Indian descent. My book delves into each of those backgrounds even if just briefly. I was also raised as a Muslim and that aspect of my identity is discussed in the book as well. I grew up in Queens very much in the heart of my cultural community. I couldn’t walk one block without tripping over culture—for better or for worse. As a result, I wouldn’t say that this informed a “need” to tell any story over another. This community and background and upbringing are facts of my life, just like my eye color and favorite food. They are matters of fact that are indispensable to any honest accounting of the stories I want to tell. There was no choice in the matter.
TTM: In your introduction, you explain how “Trauma” spawned from a class you took which addressed the impact of trauma on collective identities. That, in turn, made you question how experiences have impacted you and the women around you. Did this seminar or your explorations on the subject indicate that collective trauma is received differently by men and women? Aside from the obvious, you being a woman, what really stirred you to focus on trauma experienced by women versus men?
EJ: I decided to focus this work on the lived experiences of women largely because of a desire to illustrate how much of feminine suffering is underscored by male privilege in my culture, in addition to post-colonial realities. It was an opportunity—a slim window of literary staging—through which I could say something important about how women have always been, and still continue to be, subject to victimization institutionally and privately. While Trauma does not explore the differences that exist in relation to male suffering in dealing with trauma, my seminar course did. The findings were as expected: as men are often provided a very narrow margin of emotional exposition or verbalized vulnerability, much of their trauma remains undiscussed let alone processed or even identified. As a result, most male engagement with trauma is more aptly characterized as an avoidance of that confrontation altogether— an avoidance that results in this trauma manifesting in ways that are self-destructive.
TTM: Would you say there is such a thing as institutionalized trauma? Would you say “Trauma” offers hope in ending the systemic cause of collective trauma or was your goal more so to offer a look at the very real people and lives that collective trauma dominates?
EJ: Not institutionalized trauma, no. But institutional trauma—that is, trauma incited by unjust institutions—is very much real. I think the chapter about my maternal grandmother, Pansy, highlights this a bit in terms of the indifferent legal avenues she discovered when fleeing from intense domestic abuse, barely escaping with her life. My goal in telling her story was to demonstrate how institutions can interact with cultural regression to create situations of helplessness. With culture residing in the home and institutions residing there out, there are virtually no outlets for safety in these interactive constructions. Much like Pansy, many women who find themselves dwelling in this cross-section are often left with one option: to flee. This, however, is a financially privileged course of action that not all women are able to seize despite a great desire to do so.
I think halting causation would be a great pressure on this work, especially considering that many of these topics are still not openly discussed within the platforms they should be. Providing a glimpse into real-life manifestations of these issues, however, can assist with interfacing these issues with actual discussion. That was my goal in telling these stories, in tandem with the very real hope that future writers, community organizers, and other influencers will pick up the conversation. There is a great deal of work to be done. It was and is still my hope that hammering the first nail will encourage others to pick up their tools.
TTM: Many of the women’s experiences you capture in your book are those of relatives. Were they hesitant having you deconstruct their experiences through the lens of trauma? In my own experiences, I have found that my foremothers have hesitated to give names or a language to describe/communicate their trauma; by putting it out into the cosmos, the trauma becomes even more so real. Was there anything like this you experienced when collecting stories?
EJ: Some of the subjects of the book were hesitant for sure. After all, these stories are quite literally snapshots of the worst day(s) of their lives. This was mainly initial hesitation, however, and I was able to learn most of their stories with ease. For relatives I’ve written about who have passed on, that was more challenging as I was tasked with speaking to numerous people and deciding for myself how I would tell a single story based on so many different and at times conflicting narratives. I’ve heard these stories while holding the hands of my mother, lying in the laps of my aunties, and having drinks with my best friend. I hope that, for readers, that same sense of feminine story-telling is conveyed; that the warmth implicit in those moments is felt throughout those pages.
TTM: Was there any push-back from your community in your highlighting the sometimes controversial topic of mental health?
EJ: Some community members (albeit very few of them) have felt that the book portrays the culture in a negative light. But I cannot be concerned with criticisms that are more focused on outsider perception than with confronting these problems. With respect to mental health, this book is not by any means the first brush with that topic. Major media outlets have documented the wildly disproportionate rate of suicide per capita in Guyana in relation to the rest of the world. Pushback in this respect is counter-productive to the race of catch-up I’m trying to facilitate here. Staying focused is a large part of the battle. Thankfully, the community has been mostly supportive and conscious—a combination that has been so comforting and inspiring and certainly pushes me to do more of this work.
TTM: How has this book been a labor of love for you – take us through the process. Did you find any surprises about your community, your family, or even yourself that you weren’t aware of when you first set out to write this book?
EJ: Writing, in general, is a labor of love for me so this work, in particular, was like bearing my own child—it is composed of all the stories I carry with me and will continue to carry with me. I wouldn’t say that I uncovered any surprises when I set out to write this book. These issues are known and, sadly, stories like these are common narratives. When I set out to write this, I uncovered a surprising sense of eagerness in myself to document what has for so long been limited to story-telling through generations. Our culture is very much an oral culture. When I started writing this book I was just so inspired to solidify this history while these stories can still be obtained from the mouths of the people who lived them.
TTM: You provide a lot of context and informational chapters of history and resources. Break down why this was important that you do, and what the process looked like in collecting narratives versus collecting research. How did one help articulate the other?
EJ: Contextual paragraphs were necessary for the professors who initially graded this work. I was going to remove them but realized that they were crucial for understanding the world that these stories attempt to recreate. This is not a pocket of the world that many people understand or are acquainted with. In fact, even some community members do not fully understand the contextual underpinnings of these stories. The stories certainly assisted with articulating context, as they helped me identify causal links both in private and public spheres, but not the other way around.
TTM: Let’s talk about resistance. Tell me how that looks now in 2018 versus the time of your fore-parents. Does collective trauma evolve?
EJ: Resistance has certainly taken on a more vocal and bold demeanor as compared to the time of my fore-parents. The ability to resist is a privilege that I recognize every day. While my grandmothers may have been limited to the extent that they were able to be outspoken, today I am able to exercise much more vocal space in advocating issues that matter to me. I don’t think it is my call to label myself a resistor—your work has to earn that characterization from others, I think. I hope that Trauma is perceived a work of resistance and, if not, at least as an outlet for healing through storytelling.
“Trauma: A Collection of Short Stories” can be purchased here. Jaikaran is currently working on a book of poetry and simultaneously developing a work of fiction.