Translating Trauma: Witnessing Bom Bali

By Douglas, Kate | ARIEL, January-April 2008 | Go to article overview

Translating Trauma: Witnessing Bom Bali

Douglas, Kate, ARIEL

A readers involvement with the painful details of another's story en-tails both the pleasures of the imagination and the defenses of personal boundaries--and these reactions shape the exercise of identification across the borders of the unfamiliar. (1) Accounts of difficult experience set in motion an ambivalent desire to look, to grapple with teal suffering, and at the same time to look away--to put the book down. This paper contends that this ambivalent response can be part of creating a community of consciousness. The forging of community is both an arduous and Utopian project, but any reader can take a first step toward collective self-consciousness by negotiating pathways of responsiveness and responsibility between what is both strange and familiar, distant and all too close (Miller and Tougaw 20).

In recent years with mass media access, the global community has witnessed repeated civil wars, terrorist attacks, famine, natural disasters, mass murders, and genocide. This witnessing has produced an outpouring of traumatic life narrative texts. These life narrative texts range from popular autobiographies such as Ishmael Beah's now controversial A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier-, to documentaries such as Darfur Now, and do-it-yourself cyber projects such as the countless vblogs and amateur footage found on social networking sites. (2) Life narrative has provided crucial insights into recent political and cultural conflicts.

Life-writing scholarship has focused on the (often graphic, realist) ways trauma is represented and has attended to the potential effects these representations might have on those consuming this material. Scholars and theorists have considered aspects of the effects of witnessing from empathy and mourning, to the transference of trauma, and "wound culture" fetishism. (3) The intellectual investment is such that universities across the world teach courses on trauma and memory. Thousands of scholars and students are being exposed to traumatic narratives each year. However, there has been little discussion of what happens to these readers within these contexts. This essay seeks to understand the following questions: How do they witness? According to what models? And what are the ethical implications of this exposure?

In order to answer them, I provide a case study: I examine the responses of literature students to a particular text--an Australian documentary titled Bom Bali which recounts the events in Kuta on the 12th of October 2002, using the first-person narratives of survivors and the families and friends of victims.4 I document and explore responses to these narratives via trauma and witness theories. In focusing on these student responses, I explore some of the ways in which traumatic texts are received--particularly the ways in which these respondents come to witness trauma.

I. Life Writing, Trauma, and the Second-Person Witness

Literary and cultural critics embraced trauma studies in the late 1990s and have continued to do so well into the 2000s. These studies have focused primarily on the moral and ethical dimensions of representing trauma, and look, in particular, at the Holocaust. (5) Cathy Caruth's Trauma: Explorations in Memory-, and Unclaimed Experienced: Trauma, Narrative and History unleashed a wave of scholarly interest in the links between trauma, memory, history, and literature. Humanities-based trauma studies encourage literary scholars to ask questions about the role that cultural texts play in circulating and interpreting trauma. For example, can literature play a reparative role after trauma? How does literature mediate between trauma and the witness? Trauma has become particularly important in autobiography studies. A plethora of autobiographical narratives recounting trauma emerged during the 1990s and 2000s. Leigh Gilmore argues,

  Autobiographical representations of trauma make an invaluable 
  contribution to the study of literature and culture. … 

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