Traces of Destruction: The Emotional Work of Studying Painful History -The Toast

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I became preoccupied not only with the unaccustomed sense of freedom but also with the paralysing horror that had come over me at various times when confronted with the traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past…
–W.G. Sebald


Two years ago, I was halfway through earning a degree in history, learning about the kinds of stories people tell in their historical scholarship. I was learning how to write well, and how to stitch together an image of a person or a place or an event from what had been left behind.

This is how we earned our degrees: find a dead man, woman, or place worthy of our time. Many pages later, CTRL+P and then a red grading pen. What happened between our subjects and ourselves was the stuff of one-page reflections and seminar discussions.

Some of us found pieces of advice hidden in our syllabi. I found what I needed in The Rings of Saturn, by W.G. Sebald. Being “preoccupied with the paralysing horror” of our violent human past was something I could understand. For those of us inclined by training or disposition or both to see the violence in the everyday, Sebald has a suggestion: He recommends literally walking it off. Walk, and remember, and write.

Writing about the past means engaging with the before — before an empire fell, or a river was polluted, or genocide was committed and perhaps forgotten. We live in the post-war, the post-9/11, the post-unthinkable. So to go to the before means either living for a time in a space of what could have been, or telling the story of how it fell apart.

But people who decide to study this violent history, people who write it all down — we’re also people who need to mail in tax forms, or put on a pot of coffee, call our dads. This can be difficult work, this act of entering the pre when you live in the post, and then having to be a person, and hand something in by a deadline, and walk away and study and do it again. For writers of colour who choose to study or tell the stories of their own communities, this in-between space is made more stark by the fact that they work within a system that often speaks about them, for them, but not with them. The anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod wrote in 1991 that “the anthropologist is still defined as a being who must stand apart from the Other, even when he or she seeks explicitly to bridge the gap.” But what if you don’t need to bridge the gap? What if your work exhausts you precisely because you are the Other?

Some might wonder — why can’t we just do our work, and take comfort in thrashing ever upstream, with academic rigour and unimpeachable sources? Why muddy the waters of clear-minded analysis with self-indulgent “navel gazing”? It matters because if we agree that it’s generally better to have people speak for themselves and their own communities, then we need to pay more attention to the particular conditions of writing about something both near and far away – how it affects scholars and other people from these communities, and what it costs them.

In The Rings of Saturn, W.G. Sebald recounts a journey he took a year before his hospitalization, on foot through coastal East Anglia. As he walks, he remembers: A lakeside manor causes him to recall the liberation of Bergen-Belsen. A nautical museum reminds him of the mass executions at Jasenovac. Monuments do not bring to mind the splendid achievements of their builders, but rather the sordid and blood-soaked pasts that brought those achievements into being.

I was incredibly relieved when I first read this passage. It wasn’t just me. It seems bizarre to me now, that I ever thought I was alone in feeling overwhelmed by the violence I studied. Perhaps I thought my experience was unique because we weren’t talking enough about how it feels to have your own community’s past discussed in a classroom, so many death warrants signed long ago. It can be comforting to discover that a stranger’s words describe your experience. This sensation of being distracted — always distracted — by how your work is making you feel.

It’s not always horror. Sometimes it’s discomfort. Sometimes it’s a perverse joy. It might have been easier if I were studying history a hundred and fifty years ago, when reconstructing a narrative meant assembling the when, where, and why — and binding a volume with authority. (I wouldn’t have been admitted to my university a hundred and fifty years ago, though. I wouldn’t have been welcomed at McGill until 1884.)

I have read some of what has been written about the particular challenges and methodologies of writing about a violent past one also inhabits. But what helped me more than anything else was talking with my friends and classmates who could relate. They were generous with me, sharing their experiences openly. I talked with them because I wanted to know how other young students and academics of colour manage the emotional work of writing about violence and oppression that has affected their own communities – how they study and try to make sense of their own lived histories and the stories of their people.

Perhaps not everyone from such a background considers their work in history to be exhausting or emotionally difficult. And if they do, they may have different ways of coping. This can mean taking care of yourself, keeping your shit together long enough to go deal with it in private. This happens to be my way — asking questions, talking with people I trust. I have known some of these students for years; others are new friends. They were all kind enough to answer my questions and share their experiences as writers, students, historians, anthropologists, political scientists, and people.


On Authority 

Alexander Kpeglo-Hennessy: It’s hard to write about a shared history from the perspective of someone who is mixed-race. That’s not to say that people like me didn’t exist in the past. However, they often got lumped into more rigid categories. A good example of this would be the one-drop rule in the United States. I often get incredulous responses when I tell people that my mom is black, but only a few decades ago I would have faced the opposite reaction.

It’s also easy to fall into the trap of essentialism. Do the people who I could regard as historical ancestors fit into the categories that I place myself into? I think that it can be very difficult to say, whether I’m asking from the perspective of my racial identity or sexual orientation.


On Recognizing and Defining Violence

Jacob Omorodion: Given what/who often constitutes both the audience and judge, I feel like an ambassador. There is this sort of diplomatic shroud one has to put on where you must deliver your truth/words in a manner that is in the vernacular and terms of the audience/judge.

I also feel as though I immediately must consciously maintain an official distance from the matters about which I am writing. A diplomat is in many ways both a representative and exception to his/her people, yet someone also molded to appear and present as someone of their audience and milieu — an identity tightrope to tip along, which to some extent I experience, however internally, as an academic.

George Kibala Bauer: When thinking and writing about people around me, and [the people] I grew up with, I often think about the violence of omission. It makes me recognize my privilege, and humbles me, as I know that there are so many voices, and points of view that are silenced, unaccounted for, and ridiculed.

In my research, I have become very frustrated with the language of crisis as the dominant language in the study of Africa. It reminds me of a quote that I read by Achille Mbembe: “Africa is the mediation that enables the West to accede to its own subconscious and give a public account of its subjectivity.”

Patricia Johnson-Castle: It seems so strange to me that non-anthropological academics are seemingly unaffected by their research, and it’s puzzling that other departments don’t seem to think it’s pertinent information for the papers they are producing.

At a talk I attended at McGill by Dr. Charmaine Nelson (she happens to be the only Black tenured art history professor in Canada), she emphasized that no one should be able to plough through historical documents about traumatic histories like slavery without being affected. That not being affected by those documents demonstrates a form of dehumanization.


On Justice 

Priyanka Soundranayagam: There is always pressure to do justice to the work when you’re dealing with ethnic conflicts, but it’s particularly acute with the Sri Lankan war. I’m dealing with material that hasn’t gotten nearly enough attention in the scholarly community I operate in, and there is a sense that I don’t have as many resources to validate my research, to tell me that my interpretation of events isn’t completely misconstrued. This also means that I feel more responsibility than I would in any other case to study the topic, and learn more about it.

Monique Flores Ulysses: Whenever I am engaged in writing a historical piece, I always feel responsible to the historical subjects (whether human or non-human)… It is an indescribable feeling to try and convey; yet I know even what that moment tastes like, to feel that kinship with those people or places about whom I am reading or writing about.

I often think of what the reverse would feel like – to know that someone who feels this kinship with you, despite never having met, is writing about your history and your life in a near or distant future. I don’t know what to think of that. It’s still something I’m working through. But I think about it often.


On Identity

Alexander: I am frequently able to “pass” as white or straight. It’s similar to what W.E.B. Du Bois called double-consciousness. He described it as a “peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” (From The Souls of Black Folk)

Paulina Personius: I have to constantly remind myself that there are certain cultural differences between diasporic Latino culture and that of Latinos who live in Latin America, and that, as much as I hate to admit it (or [as much as] it brings up uncomfortable/hard to deal with questions and topics when I admit it to myself), my own writing toes the line between an outsider’s and insider’s perspective. I think this is especially true considering that my mom’s family is white and U.S.-born, and that I identify equally with the culture and history of both sides of my family.

I think that many diasporic writers tend to identify with the place their family came from when writing (at least with my experience in an academic history setting), and while they have a right to do so and should do so, I think it is also important to recognize that living in another country (especially if one is born and raised there) gives one a unique perspective that cannot be considered the same as someone who has only lived in their family’s native country.

Monique: I have lived the majority of my life in Lekwungen + W̱SÁNEĆ Territory. The relationships we have as people of colour to the Indigenous Peoples on whose territories we live on in a settler colonial state also need to be deconstructed and evaluated, whether it makes us uncomfortable or not. And I understand that [although] I want to see more people from marginalized groups studying their own histories, that doesn’t mean that I therefore get to tread into spaces of other racialized or marginalized groups and say “I am marginalized, too” and think that means I have a claim there. These are also conversations I think we should be having if we hope to make safer spaces in academia.


On Emotional Work

George: Self-care is important, especially when studying at universities whose knowledge production is not decolonized, and who do not recognize the existence of systems that prevent that very decolonization. For me it happens through writing, reading, but especially through exchanging with people whose narratives are informed by marginalization and self-empowerment.

Priyanka: It’s unfortunately not all that rare as a student of history to have to study gratuitous violence, particularly in ethnic conflicts, so I’m not overwhelmed by the details of [the war in Sri Lanka]. What I do find hard to grapple with on an emotional level, where it becomes difficult to detach myself from the work, is the constant reminder of the lack of documentation/attention to the war on the part of outsiders. It’s one of those rare conflicts where everyone knows of it, but very few people know about it. It will always be listed on the Power Point slide for the lecture on ‘Ethnic Conflicts’ in your average Intro to Poli Sci course, but so few people know what actually happened – only the snippets from the news back in 2009 when things became particularly violent. And as time passes, it seems less and less likely that the international community will do its part to see war criminals tried for their actions. And just that fact alone is so incredibly infuriating to me – a hundred thousand people died, and there is no one held accountable for it?

Paulina: When dealing with histories of violence, I would say that sadly little surprises me, and I usually feel prepared to deal with whatever I come across. That being said, I can find myself getting angry when dealing with histories of violence, and have to remind myself to channel the anger into something productive. This is especially true the more personal the history is.

Monique: You find yourself caught in a constant fluctuation between exhaustion and exhilaration. Exhaustion, because the emotional labour surrounding histories of violence takes a toll on you, no matter how prepared you might think you are. And exhilaration, because you arrive at these little moments throughout the process of writing history that remind you how privileged you are to be dedicating that portion of your life to researching and writing.

Sometimes, self-care might take the form of talking on the phone with my partner and venting everything that I’ve been holding in while inhabiting certain academic spaces. Other times, my self-care might take the form of trying to set down the struggle for an hour or two and watch a favourite movie with my friends. But there are times when we are conducting research or working as a teaching assistant for a course, for example, [that] permeate our core so deeply that it is hard to even get to reach the point of deciding what form our self-care might take in that moment.

Patricia: You have be gentle with yourself when your research involves reading the violent experiences of others. This means knowing that it may not be possible to sit down for a set number of hours and read on the subject you’d like. You might need to take a break.

The author would like to thank the following people for their contributions.

Alexander Kpeglo-Hennessy is a fourth-year Political Science student at McGill University, originally from Vancouver, B.C.

Patricia Johnson-Castle is a graduate of McGill University who is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in anthropology at the University of Cape Town. She is a beneficiary of the Nunatsiavut land claim.

Jacob Omorodion holds a B.A. with Honours in Political Science, Economics and German from McGill University. Originally from Newmarket, Ontario, Jacob’s work focuses on institutional development and regional integration.

George Kibala Bauer recently graduated with a B.A. in Economics and Political Science from McGill and is now pursuing a Master’s at Sciences Po. He is of Congolese and German origins, and in his free time he enjoys literature, African politics, and basketball.

Priyanka Soundranayagam is a student of History and International Relations at the University of Toronto. Born in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka, and raised in Scarborough, Ontario, she writes on the history of ethnic conflict and colonialism in the Global South.

Monique Flores Ulysses is a Canadian-born Mexican/Cypriot student of history and writer. Monique is interested in the oppression and subsequent resistance that racialized groups of peoples in the Americas experience and how gendered experiences of race and racism are represented in twentieth-century popular culture as related to American Empire.

Paulina Personius is a Latin American Studies major at McGill University. She is originally from San Francisco, and is interested in issues surrounding environmental justice in Latin America and gentrification in the U.S.

Disha Jani is a writer based in Toronto. She is interested in the intersection of politics, narrative history, and lived experiences.

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