The Niche of Trauma in Modern BAME Literature

Happy new year, readers! We've decided to kick off 2019's series of reader submissions with this piece by Hadiyyah. Enjoy! 

image source / image description: poet Rupi Kaur, author of Milk & Honey

Growing up, I read little about my own culture and more about the culture of mainstream Canadian and American literature - one of my favourite authors to this day is J.D Salinger and I continue to enjoy reading Jean-Paul Sartre and Dave Eggers. These are the authors I go to for advice about the world; the philosophical nature of their novels seems to me to rely on a certain kind of mainstream luxury. It’s the privilege to write about anything you’d like and have a higher chance of becoming popular. Salinger writes about a certain kind of people—the Glass family struggles with their humanity and spirituality, Holden Caulfield struggles with growing up. Most of his characters grow up in New York, fitting easily into society, but have the time, the means, and the luxury to complain and dissect their lives.

The literature considered popular, or part of the canon in the Western world, is made up of mainly white male authors (e.g. books like The Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby) but when we look to the ‘diverse’ section of this overarching canon, we see works like Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart which are incredible pieces literature and literary history themselves: however, the works by authors of colour all seem to fall under a lens of tragic criticism. Many narratives that have become popular in North America are centred around how the West saved the East, narratives of struggle and escape that do a lot to boost the ego of the Western world.

Zora Neale Hurston is an author I admire for writing simply about life. Her stories in the work The Complete Stories take place within her community and are just simple tales that focus on certain members of a community, Eatonville. There is no big tragedy that Western audiences will imperialise into a lengthy sympathetic discussion of racism. There is just life. There is a ‘we’ in all of her stories, one that is accessible but never written for a (white) audience. Her writing blocks out Western voyeurism by using local slang and unapologetically stating situations unique to the community. These Hurston stories didn’t actually reach circulation until after her death in 1960. She never got to enjoy any of the praise that came with their modern successes.

I’m the daughter of Guyanese immigrants. I write a lot about the feminine consciousness and the nuances of life and I appreciate writers like Salinger for speaking to parts of my mind I thought no one else understood. I am thankful for a lot literature I was introduced to it school. But it’s only in the past two or three years that I’ve began to feel more attached to my culture, to appreciate classic Bollywood films and music, ask about the history of my own family members. These things have become important to me. Writing about them is important to me. I write from a range of experiences, most have which have not been tragic. There are beautifully un-tragic aspects of my family’s collective life that are just as interesting as the traumatic ones.

There’s something that’s always bothered me about the way brown bodies are presented in the Western canon. Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, for example, tells a narrative of the white West acting as a refuge for brown women in trouble because of brown men’s abuse. It’s a story we don’t just hear in books, it’s a stereotype, and although there is truth in the abusive culture of many communities, it seems that brown women are placed under the umbrella of Scorned Woman.  

In my first year of university, I took a course about art and social issues. We were asked to bring in material to discuss its controversy: I brought in Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey. This book was the first poetry by a brown woman I had ever read. I liked it. I felt that her softness was a welcome change from the world’s harshness. She was brave for sharing her story, and she was a great visual artist as well. With annoyance, one of my classmates pointed it out to me that Kaur based a lot her work on the premise of the 1984 Sikh genocide and so is based on based upon collective South Asian trauma. Any part of history shapes the fabric of the future; however, it’s clear that there are some who would rather this history is passively pitied instead of actively shaped by its readership, which makes me rather uncomfortable. Kaur has even become a meme, criticised for her simplistic language and the observation that her fan base consists heavily of ‘white girls.’ Poetry is poetry, and this is the way she chose to express herself, but I think some of the ridicule comes when fabric of South Asian trauma viewed from the lens of angst and young white teen-hood.

Having said this, I do believe that it is vital for the work of artists of colour to be supported. People like Hosseini and Kaur have given a specific type of voice to modern BAME literature but there’s room for textual diversity in literature as well. Just like there are BAME artists making bedroom pop, rock and roll, R&B and practically every other accessible genre out there, writers of colour have room to expand their content, not to write for the Western eye. This is not to say that trauma should be dismissed or suppressed in writing, but that the extent to which it has become a niche is problematic. It creates the idea that every writer of colour must be an activist for something related to the colour of their skin and the trauma inflicted upon it. Being an artist of colour should not equate to writing about only sadness, or even about strength. Expanding thought, creating a plethora of platforms and channels is the only way we can truly call ourselves true consumers and creators.
Modern literary fiction I recommend based on this piece:

The God of Small Things - Arundhati Roy

The Complete Stories - Zora Neale Hurston

Kafka on the Shore - Haruki Murakami

White Teeth - Zadie Smith

The House on Mango Street - Sandra Cisneros


Hadiyyah is an emerging writer based in Toronto, Ontario, and her writings have been published with Haloscope Magazine, Guided Magazine, The Strand, and The Hart House Review. Her work is also forthcoming in Cosmonauts Magazine, Pink Things Magazine, and Jellyfish Review. Find her on Instagram, her website or her personal blog.

Looking for a chance to have your work featured on the Risen site? Check out our submission guidelines here.