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‘A vital alternative’: survivance, trauma and shame in the life writing of women of colour from the Caribbean and Australia

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posted on 2023-01-19, 11:26 authored by Caryn Rae Adams
Submission note: A thesis submitted in total fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy to the School of Humanities, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, La Trobe University, Bundoora.

The study of trauma and its effect on the marginalised has become a major point of critical enquiry in the work of a range of academics across diverse disciplines. While debates still exist about the efficacy of ‘Western’ and ‘non-Western’ approaches to trauma, I seek to find an alternative method to examine narratives of terror by the oppressed. The colonial project has irreparably damaged the psyches of the stolen and the dispossessed, making healing from past traumas problematic. I suggest that the life narratives of women of colour from the Caribbean and Australia, which document these historical traumas through personal stories (which also have communal relevance), can be read through the lens of survivance. A Native American paradigm, survivance privileges the experience of historically subjugated groups by appropriating a number of culture-specific narrative strategies and departs from realism and individualism. These include but are not limited to the use of language which conceals and reveals traumatic experience (cryptonymy); the privileging of non-Standard English language registers; polyvocal narration; non-linear narrative structures; trickster hermeneutics and the valorisation of alternative systems of beliefs. Survivance, according to Gerald Vizenor, is “more than survival, more than endurance or mere response; ... [it] is an active repudiation of dominance, tragedy and victimry” (15). The study surveys the 'boom period' of writing for both groups of women (the 1980s and 1990s), demonstrating that despite differences in colonial history, cultural mores and geographical distance, colonisation has had a similar debilitating effect on the formerly colonised. The four primary texts under analysis are Erna Brodber's Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home; Sally Morgan's My Place; Oonya Kempadoo's Buxton Spice and Roberta Sykes's Snake Cradle. As narratives of resistance, these texts highlight how the trauma and shame associated with colonisation and forced white assimilation recur in two major themes: the inability to construct and maintain stable cultural identities; and race-based violence which continues to threaten the lives of many. Addressing shame, silence and denial, these narratives, through the aforementioned culture-specific literary techniques, promote survivance in the aftermath of intergenerational historical trauma, demonstrating that continued resistance against colonial oppression needs to work past more optimistic, consoling and limited notions of healing and reconciliation.


Center or Department

Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences. School of Humanities.

Thesis type

  • Ph. D.

Awarding institution

La Trobe University

Year Awarded


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