WHAT is trauma? We know it as a negative experience that has physical or psychological impact. However, an academic text called Trauma, Memory and Transformation: Southeast Asian Experiences takes a closer look at the topic, addresses it from multidisciplinary perspectives, broadens its definition, as well as explores how societies recover from it.
Editor Dr Sharon A. Bong says that the volume is a “unique contribution to knowledge in two ways” – it addresses an under-researched area and it redefines society’s understanding of trauma, memory and transformation and “how these concepts intersect”.
Bong, who is an associate professor at the Monash University School of Arts and Social Sciences (SASS), says that the book was produced as a result of a conference organised by SASS. Eight of the book’s contributors were presenters at the conference.
A contested concept
“Essentially, what counts as trauma, who decides this and for whom?” she says, adding that trauma is a “contested concept” that cannot be fully understood, represented or known.
While the work contains chapters that address obviously traumatic events like the Indian Ocean tsunami, the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia and the ethnic-religious conflict in Southern Thailand, there are also others that recognise that trauma is not always a “singular, catastrophic event that results in mass murder, deaths or injury”.
“Rather, it often takes the form of drawn-out ethnic tensions that are worsened by the lack of political will to redress these tensions,” says Bong, who contributed a chapter on the Allah issue in Malaysia.
The chapter focuses on how Malaysians responded to the issue through an analysis of news reports.
Although the book is the result of academic study, Bong says that it was not just written for academics.
“It was written for a mix of readers,” she says, citing one of the highly moving chapters in the book – Please Compose Yourself: Testimony, Remembering and Emotion at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia by Sina Emde.
“Sina had acccess to documents and live testimonies from the tribunal court.
Her chapter was based on the testiomonies of the survivors,” says Bong.
As the survivors were regularly breaking down emotionally during their testimonies, the court officials had to repeatedly instruct them to “Please compose yourself”, hence the title of the chapter.
No clear line
“It’s very blurry who the victims are and who the aggresors are because the latter also had family members killed. So there’s no clear line separating them. It’s really complex and a very human story,” she says.
Although each of the chapters are studies of traumatic events, Bong says that the takeaway for scholars and other readers are stories of “survival, healing and hope”.
According to Bong, trauma studies in the past have been “strongly rooted” in psychology and medicine but now has been applied in other fields of study.
“The book extends this reach by privileging trauma in connection with memory – how and what we remember as individuals and collectives – and transformation – reconstruction and healing as a nation, forgiveness and healing from past hurts and suffering,” says Bong,
“That’s the added value of the book and how it builds onto existing scholarship or research.”
Based on the research in the book, trauma is something that affects more than just one’s psyche; it affects all levels and aspects of society, from its tourism to education to politics.
“Dark tourism, where trauma and memory are commercialised, is an emerging trend,” she says, giving examples like the tsunami museum in Banda Aceh or the killing fields in Cambodia.
“The move away from traditional fields of study where trauma is concerned is apt and timely,” says Bong.
She says that there are areas that student researchers and experts in the field can follow up on.
Trauma, Memory and Transformation: Southeast Asian Experiences was launched at the recent KL Alternative Bookfest (KLAB) 2014.