Culture & Conversation

Women and trauma


Women Writing Survival, Writing Trauma, May 3rd

“They stuffed the brain into her chest,” reads Elise Moser as her character recounts an autopsy in the novel Lily and Taylor.

Moser is one of three authors [Editor’s note: and a Rover book reviewer] who formed a panel on Women Writing Survival, Writing Trauma. Moser is compelled to write graphically in revealing the ordeals of the two friends Lily and Taylor. She wants to de-immunize readers from the violent images that are so pervasive in the media. Readers need to “hurt” for the violence in the novel to be meaningful and to show its power.

In The Never List, author Koethi Zan was aware of the potential for sensationalism when writing about teenage girls abducted and held in a dungeon at the hands of a sadomasochist. She sought to avoid a graphic approach: when violent scenes are described, her characters speak about their experiences in the first person. This puts them in an active role.

The characters in Moser’s and Zan’s books overcome their struggles: they become survivors. In their writing, the authors are aware of the greater social concerns behind their individual stories. Both describe themselves as feminists.

Ann Charney has a different starting point. Nerina, the main character in Life Class, has experienced trauma. But Charney set out to write not about trauma but about resilience. The title of the book alludes to Nerina’s life lessons and experience as a live model in a painting class in Venice, her new home after the former Yugoslavia broke up. Nerina’s traumatic background is merely suggested.

“Violence is more powerful in the imagination,” says Charney. “We see news all the time. We don’t need to spell it out.” Charney aims to show resilience, how women help each other, how men help women and one another. The author’s worldview informs her approach to characters: “Optimism is a choice,” and “no one can make us feel small if we don’t let them.”

“Do you think women enable violence?” asks Jeannette Kelly, the panel moderator and host of CBC Radio’s Cinq à Six. The question seems to throw the panelists off guard. Moser insists on the difference between individual lives and societal structure. Zan acknowledges that women can do things that are not always in their best interests. Charney reminds us that women are human beings, and all human beings may act in ways that invite violence. In short, there are no binary agendas here: the authors produce complex characters who find themselves in complex situations.

This intriguing panel added books to the reading list along with lingering questions that probe our understanding of life and the world.

Note: Spoken word artist Moe Clark grounded the audience with her moving performance of “Twist Tobacco,” a piece she dedicated to honour the more than 1,000 missing or murdered aboriginal women in Canada.

The Blue Metropolis Festival runs until May 4th. Consult their website for more information.


Elvira Truglia is a Montreal-based freelance journalist who writes about the intersections of culture, politics and social issues.

-photo: Jiri Hodan via Wikimedia Commons

  • 3 Responses to “Women and trauma”

    1. Elise Moser

      I don’t think Koethi told us she had experienced an abduction. I understood her to say that she had had trauma in her own life, but chose to write about abduction because she felt it was an extreme form of violence which, being so much worse than her own experience, helped her gain perspective. Unless you can confirm that she really did experience an abduction, it’s important to be very careful about making that kind of assertion.


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