The narratives of historical and personal traumas rely on reliving painful memories to help process past experiences—and to help understand how their effects live on in the future.
Ta-Nehisi Coates considered the national memory of slavery when writing his debut novel, The Water Dancer, which examines the psychological effects of the institution’s torments, such as family separation. The trauma resulting from Hurricane Katrina is also multifaceted, as Sarah M. Broom shows through the loss of her family home in her memoir, The Yellow House.
In her writing on the rape she experienced as a preteen in her memoir Hunger, Roxane Gay not only confronts the pain of that event, and her resulting weight gain, but also criticizes the social structures and shaming that can deepen such traumas. A sexual assault in Siri Hustvedt’s novel Memories of the Future becomes a catalyst for the protagonist’s writing, through which she develops the courage to speak out forcefully against misogyny.
Chanel Miller’s memoir, Know My Name, details how she grappled with her sexual assault, the onslaught of victim-blaming she endured, and her attacker’s lack of accountability. In this case—as with the other books on this list—the paradox of writing about trauma is that one of the many effects of experiencing a devastating event can sometimes be the production of a powerful piece of art.
Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas.
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What Ta-Nehisi Coates wants to remember
“Studied and meticulous, the novel is a slave narrative that depicts the quotidian horrors of family separation. Even so, it’s remarkably tender: The Water Dancer is also a romance.”