Please be aware that the essays for Writing Gender #2 contain discussions and personal experiences that some readers and trauma survivors may find distressing.
Writing Gender #2 seeks to explore how writing plays a significant role in making visible acts of cultural, physical and gendered violence against women and trans and gender diverse people.
Our broader aim is to explore such writing within contexts of cultural safety and healing, and the vital necessity of articulation, including the power of trauma-informed narratives to engender greater public awareness and instigate social action. Many of our writers also reflect on, and explicitly narrativise, the potential toll of this repeated re-visiting of traumatic experiences through writing, especially in public and private spaces. We repeatedly ask: What happens when trauma is the conduit to writing in the public sphere? What new kinds of violence can occur when trauma is mobilised through writing for public consumption?
Donna Abela will lead a conversation on these themes between Mykaela Saunders, Eloise Brook, Eda Gunaydin and Amani Haydar on Friday 9 September. Please join us for this free online event at 11am. Register here.
The act of writing from lived experience as a trauma survivor involves making choices beyond the literary and political decisions a writer ordinarily makes. It carries added risks and can have emotional, psychological and practical consequences for the writer. This is particularly so for survivors from racialised communities. In writing my memoir The Mother Wound, which is about losing my mum in an act of domestic violence perpetrated by my father in 2015, it felt important that I tell my story in a nuanced way, resisting self-tokenisation, stereotypes, and sensationalism. There were considerations around mitigating harm without compromising truth, contextualising personal struggles within political realities, and understanding where my work sat within broader conversations about gender-based violence, #metoo and domestic abuse in Australia. Understanding the effects of trauma and building a trauma-informed approach into my writing practice has allowed me to navigate some of these risks and foster a writing practice that facilitates personal healing despite the risk of re-traumatisation.
My trajectory as a writer has been unusual. I loved literature as a child and played with creative writing as a teenager. Sadly, I was discouraged by a teacher in high school who told me in no uncertain terms that a story I had written about a dysfunctional family at a Lebanese wedding was no good and that I should stick with ‘critical analysis’ for my final written project. I believed this feedback and, save for one subject that had a creative writing component, I stuck with an academic approach to writing in my years at university. From graduation until 2015, writing was an important part of my job as a solicitor. I enjoyed writing within my work and could see myself researching and writing about legal issues in the future – but I didn’t think of myself as a writer.
My attitude to writing shifted when I began journaling as a therapeutic tool after my mother was murdered. I didn’t trust myself to write for an audience (yet) but writing presented me with the opportunity to express frustrations and insecurities I feared couldn’t be spoken out loud at the time. During my dad’s trial in 2017, writing was a way to reflect privately on what was happening and how it was affecting me. The act of writing a Victim Impact Statement gave me a sense of agency and involvement in the proceeding which were otherwise disorienting and retraumatising. Even though this represented the end of my involvement in the trial, it had radicalised my approach to writing, and marked the start of discipline and purpose in my writing practice.
Still, I hesitated to start immediately writing for an audience. Aside from having no real idea where to start, I had witnessed the importance of words and all the ways that they could do injustice. Language seemed to have fallen short in the court room and it was words that had been used to shame and victim-blame my mum and the loved ones she’d left behind. The public nature of the case that had left me feeling over-exposed and out of control. My written statements, though infinitely better than silence, seemed inconsequential in the grand scheme of what I’d lost – and the thought of writing about the trial, testifying again, was terrifying.
I could see that other survivors of gendered violence had published their stories in the wake of #metoo and that these acts of public testimony seemed to give them back agency. I illustrated a piece by Lucia Osborne-Crowley for the ABC and followed the story of Chanel Miller, whose Victim Impact Statement had been read the world over before anybody knew her name.
It was clear that articulation had real world benefits. Survivor testimony was being taken seriously as a form of resistance and as a tool for informing policy. It was also clear that to be read I would need to relinquish even more privacy and power. Fiction didn’t seem like a feasible option given that Mum’s story was already a matter of public interest and public record. I wanted to address the interpersonal and systemic issues my family faced directly and plainly. I wanted to deliver the parts of my testimony that were deemed inadmissible in the court room and I wanted to express an unambiguous stance on matters such as abuse and human rights violations. I couldn’t offer a tidy story of redemption, a forgiveness arc, or any reassurance that things had improved for women since Mum’s death. I couldn’t offer solutions to the problems I’d faced, whether religious or secular, and I needed to be explicit about the effects of racism, class, place and gender. Having grown up in a marginalised and racialised community, I wanted to challenge the idea that my experiences were too difficult, too trivial or too ‘other’ to write about for a broad audience. Memoir appeared to provide a space for all these ambitions.
I also aimed to make visible the experience of victims in court rooms, of Muslim women experiencing both joy and sadness within their homes, of people in crisis waiting in line at Centrelink. Writing could bridge the gap between legal consequences imposed by the state and a victim’s need for accountability in the absence of a commitment to transformation by the person or entity who harmed them. Muslim women may be hyper-visible but are rarely given the opportunity to speak on their own terms. Political experiences as basic as seeking financial assistance after upheaval are rendered private by shame, taboo and an individualist culture that blames financial struggle on the individual rather than systems. I saw writing as a refusal to be silenced or ashamed of the dynamics that shaped my world.
Memoir also presented a chance to examine and document the way violence and trauma had affected my family more broadly. My mum’s story is incomplete without her mother’s story. My grandmother was one of about 1300 civilians killed in attacks by Israel on Lebanon during the very asymmetrical 2006 war. This loss happened in my final year of school and had a profound effect on my mum and the way I related to my family and the world. Other family members survived the attack in which my grandmother was killed but were never provided with adequate support or opportunities for justice.
When I started my background research, I was disappointed to discover that little had been written about the war in the English language. I gathered what I could find; a collection of news articles I’d kept since 2006, a Human Rights Watch Report, a book titled Tragedy in South Lebanon by Cathy Sultan, and a series of translated diary entries by a Lebanese activist and writer Rami Zurayk. Lived experience accounts from the Lebanese diaspora were scant, even though many Lebanese-Australian families had been evacuated. The lack of documentation, analysis and lived experience testimony highlighted how urgent and necessary it was to bear witness to what had happened to my grandmother – not merely as a sad event in my mother’s life but as an injustice in its own right. It was also an opportunity to engage with my mother’s family about how my writing process could include them. They were enthusiastic about this; opportunities for truth-telling are incredibly valuable when justice has been denied.
No matter how well or carefully it is done, writing about trauma entails the risk that audiences will bring their pre-existing attitudes and prejudices into their reading of a survivor’s work. I knew that writing about real events carried the risk of real-life consequences from the people mentioned in it (and I had the foresight to keep the receipts!) Writing in (but not for) the white gaze, as a visibly Muslim woman, about gender-based violence carries the risk of backlash by both Muslim and non-Muslim audiences who might struggle to prevent their pre-existing assumptions from colouring their reading of my work. I had no desire to over-explain faith and community dynamics, or to provide a totalising account of life as a Muslim woman on behalf of every Muslim woman in the country. I didn’t want to write as a good Muslim or a bad Muslim, just as I didn’t want to write while imagining that my father might someday read my work. I wanted to write as a complicated woman, and as a complicated Muslim surrounded by other complicated people. I kept a sticky note on my desk to help me overcome the anxieties associated with these risks; ‘Who are you writing for? Who does your work serve?’
There is also a risk of being misread or co-opted. In writing about our experiences of oppression and trauma, survivors from marginalised backgrounds may be concerned about offering a story that contributes to racist stereotypes, depletes our agency or idealises the West as saviour. I was also conscious of the risk of my story being co-opted as a narrative that supports one-size-fits-all responses to domestic violence, or as a story that feeds the fallacy that individual victims of abuse or violence can (or should) overcome difficulties despite structural inequalities.
I found myself quite tired of my own story by the time I’d finished writing it, so I prepared for publicity by speaking to a coach and a counsellor. We worked through all the different thoughts that were making me anxious at the time. What if I’ve gotten something wrong? What if there’s a backlash? What if the book is unpopular or just crap? What if the work is seen for its subject matter but not for its craft? This fear persisted throughout the writing process; I had no control of the events I was retelling – but craft is a matter of skill and discipline. Had I done enough work to call myself a writer?
This fear of failure was accompanied by a fear of success. What happens when the art we make about trauma is a triumph? How do we handle the cacophony of emotions that comes with experiencing joy and success out of something that you’d rather not have happen to you? Trauma may have become the most urgent thing to write but what could I have achieved or written if those events hadn’t consumed me for so many years? What might it have been like to write through a period of security and safety, without distractions from children, a pandemic and international catastrophe like the Beirut Port explosion? What happens when public attention blurs the line between advocacy and publicity? And finally, how might survivors celebrate creative triumphs without becoming complacent about ongoing injustices?
Some of these fears and risks are an inevitable part of writing within the white gaze and others arise from the fact that writing about trauma requires us to wrangle the most complicated parts of our lives into neat layers to make incomprehensible events comprehensible. Gabriele Schwab writes in Haunting Legacies, ‘Trauma attacks and sometimes kills language. In order for trauma to heal, body and self must be reborn, and words need to be disentangled from the dead bodies they are trying to hide.’ For writing to be healing, it must be done with an awareness of the way trauma affects the body, the mind, and the writing process.
I have found that the writing and publishing processes benefit from a trauma-informed approach. Understanding that my body will react to my writing process allowed me to be proactive about support. Understanding that reading large amounts of court material, including the transcripts and judgments from my father’s trial, would be triggering allowed me to break the task down to manageable chunks. These strategies don’t make the work less difficult and I was surprised at how strongly feelings of grief and displacement returned. Writing about mum’s funeral and about my homeland were some of the most visceral parts of the process, giving rise to fresh nightmares, irritability and weight gain owing to emotional eating. When my flight response was activated, I found myself avoiding my manuscript for weeks, and when my fight response returned, I wanted to write to the exclusion of everything else. It didn’t help that a lot of this work was happening during a lockdown! Being trauma-informed meant that I could observe and accept these shifts in mood and behaviour, recognising them as valid reactions to my work rather than something to be suppressed or avoided.
Being trauma-informed includes developing an understanding of the ways that reporting on gender-based violence can make the problem worse, negatively affecting survivors and even emboldening abusers. I wanted to avoid sensationalising my mother’s death. In The Mother Wound I acknowledge my hesitation to include possibly gratuitous detail about my mother’s final moments of life. Survivors don’t need this, I thought. But I balanced the risk of unnecessary detail with the importance of providing a complete testimony and resisting erasure. There isn’t always a right way to write about violence, but it helps to be aware of the possible consequences.
An understanding of the ways in which PTSD can affect memory and articulation is of immense benefit to survivors who write. A narrative arising from trauma does not need to be linear or chronological. It might be cyclical, it might acknowledge gaps in memory, self-doubt, deceit. It can reflect the way that a body living in a state of anxiety for a long time often foreshadows and pre-empts the next disappointment or catastrophe. It can be whatever feels safe and authentic and it can preserve boundaries about some matters while being lucid about others. The Mother Wound even includes a fictional chapter.
Despite the work I had done to mitigate the impact of the writing process, when I was finally done in early 2021, I felt depleted and doomed. My anxieties shifted as my focus turned from the writing process to publicity. How would I meet the demands of my book tour? How could I be sure that I’d gotten it all right? What if there was backlash? With the right support I was able to settle most of this before the release date. I reminded myself of the reasons I’d written a book in the first place and the fact that one survivor’s act of sharing becomes another’s permission slip to do the same.
When it comes to guilt or fatigue from speaking publicly about my work, I have learned to mention something about who Mum was as a person, her interests and achievements. Victims of crime are often remembered by reference to their victimhood only, but it is important to be able to remember their agency and happiness too. I have developed a range of practical strategies that make my work sustainable; learning to space out big speaking engagements to allow for variety and rest, letting go of the desire to control the way I am perceived or represented, and embracing positive feedback from the generous readers who have connected with my writing.
Just because a story is triggering doesn’t mean it should be avoided. It can be incredibly healing to write through it. Fostering a trauma-informed approach in creative spaces allows us to recognise survivors as strong, creative, capable rather than needing to be handled like a carton of eggs. To have our creative output taken seriously is empowering. Writing has allowed me to give narrative structure to otherwise chaotic events and a way to share the personal and political aspects of my story on my own terms, free from the rules and expectations of the courtroom. Despite the risks that accompanied every stage of my writing process, it has allowed me to reconnect safely and meaningfully with other victim-survivors while reclaiming a sense of chronology and stability. It has liberated me creatively by dislodging cyclical thoughts, freeing me to explore new material and tell other stories.