AfterWords: Reconsidering Narratives of Trauma and Violence in the Humanities’ probed the benefits and limitations of literary and creative expression in allowing us to “become someone else” and encouraging empathy and understanding of the experience of violence and trauma.

The conference featured 40 speakers across 12 panels (both in-person, and online) with experts from more than 10 different countries looking at topics such as depictions of mass shootings in the USA, representations of gender violence through different media, portrayals of traumatic histories and how they are memorialised in prose, poetry, and the visual arts, and the relationship between individual and collective trauma in relation to war, migration, and other socio-political and historical contexts. The conference culminated in a thought-provoking roundtable discussion with Dr Ailise Bulfin (UCD), Dr Rachael Hoare (School of Languages, Literatures and Cultural Studies, TCD), and Professor Gillian Wylie (School of Religion and Peace Studies, TCD) on reconsidering narratives of trauma and violence in the humanities from each of their different perspectives.       

Organised by Elena Valli and Ginevra Bianchini of Trinity’s School of English, the conference (which received more than 80 proposals) sought to look at the ways in which violence is represented and how this influences its reception and integration within the cultural imaginary.

Speaking about how the idea for the conference was conceived, Ginevra and Elena said: “We met here at Trinity (though we studied for the same undergraduate degree at the University of Bologna without knowing each other!) where we are doing our PhDs in English. We are both in our third year. Though we are working on quite different topics, we found that we had similar questions on how to approach and discuss our research themes. Even beyond our projects, these questions were prompted by contemporary events and how they are reported in the news, and we wanted to explore these issues in more depth.”

Elena Valli and Ginevra Bianchini

Elena’s PhD, funded by the Fitzroy-Pyle scholarship, explores how three late 20th century authors - Elizabeth Bishop, Anthony Hecht, and Geoffrey Hill – draw poetic techniques from Early Modern religious meditation to discover the role of spirituality in modern conflict and to find ethical ways of representing individual and collective historical trauma. The ‘meditative methods’ employed by these poets were revisited to contemplate and bear witness to  some of the most violent events from the 20th century, including the two World Wars and the Holocaust. “All three poets were affected to various degree by these historical dynamics and were preoccupied with the same moral conundrum: while they felt a duty to remember the violence done to others and wished to commemorate it and remember it as accurately as possible, they thought it unethical to represent and potentially appropriate someone else’s experience of pain.”

“By meditating on episodes from this difficult, tragic time,” Elena explains, “these writers attempt to imagine the experience of sufferers and victims without ever fully aligning with them or ‘becoming them.’ While this isn’t a perfect solution, it allows them to create virtual realities which emulate the immediacy and the detail of the historical moment, and which let the reader understand the past less abstractedly, not just as a notion but most importantly as an experience which affects individuals directly.”

Ginevra’s PhD with the School of English looks at the contemporary depiction of sexual violence in the United Kingdom and North America with an interdisciplinary method. In particular, her thesis considers how the intersections between race and gender affect these portrayals as they aim to represent real-life experience. The project engages with three contemporary case studies from female-identifying authors of colour: Kara Walker’s silent film Testimony: Narrative of a Negress Burdened by Good Intentions (2004, USA), Katherena Vermette’s novel The Break (2016, Canada), and Michaela Coel’s TV series I May Destroy You (2020, UK). Her research is rooted in Kimberlé Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality (1989), an analytical approach that considers how encounters between certain social and political identities can produce discrimination or privilege.    

“The texts relate to each other in the emphasis put on healing and resolution, highlighting different possible paths for recovery deeply rooted in their cultures of origin,” Ginevra says, adding that they “provide more self-reaffirming ways to regain sovereignty over the body, tightly linked to their non-mainstream ethnic identities: African American (for Walker), Métis Indigenous Canadian (for Vermette), and British African (for Coel). My research focus emphasises the element of healing from the trauma of sexual violence, an essential aspect normally elided from previous academic criticism or not featured in earlier primary sources from these geographical areas.”

Both Elena and Ginevra agree that although their projects are quite different, they “have led us to think about similar questions”: why are certain stories considered more important than others? How geographically, culturally, and socially inclusive are these narratives? And, most importantly, when it comes to trauma, how ethical and accurate can its depiction be when reported by someone else? And how do we, as young scholars, deal with a world constantly rife with conflicts, and how can we incorporate these topics effectively and ethically into our work?

“We believe many researchers in the Humanities and Social Sciences struggle with these same questions, especially at the beginning of their careers. We hope to be able to at least partially unpack some of these issues, and that our conference will spark further conversations on these topics.”