Trauma as an Exit to New Language
Inga Gaile is the editor for this issue of PEN/Opp. She is a poet, author, and the president of PEN Latvia. The common theme in this issue is how trauma influences the arts and how trauma can be expressed through language. The articles and poems primarily explore women’s perspective. In her editorial, Inga Gaile reflects on trauma and war and its relation to language and literature.
We are distraught. The foundations of our homes have crumbled, and some no longer have homes because they have been taken away by war or earthquake, many no longer have relatives, loved ones, children.
And Victoria, our victory, has died. To be more precise, she has been killed. And I have no words to explain what has happened. There is only pain and anger in me. Victory was killed.
Everything is off kilter. Our system of values. The thinking about what should be achieved, reached, who should be conquered seems pointless and even maliciously selfish.
We are trying to regain the foundations that have slipped from under our feet, using words to assert that we are standing on the right side, while the ground keeps slipping and melting away, disappearing. We notice that some of our fellow human beings have lived like this for a long time, and yet we still have hope that we can regain our ground if only we affirm that we are standing on the right side. To paraphrase a Latvian folksong: I am the master of this land, I am its ploughman. Meaning: I own it. I own it and I stand on it. But what if someone is not fortunate enough and no longer owns the land of their forefathers, if they have literally become part of the land? Am I to share the land of my ancestors, which I still possess? The one which I stand? On the right side of it? Am I going to let a Ukrainian stand on this piece of land that is rightfully mine? A Belarusian? A “good” Russian? A Syrian man? A Syrian woman? A Syrian child? A Chechen? A Russian? No, not a Russian. Not now. But if he explains that he is a homosexual who has been imprisoned, tortured, and, after a miraculous escape, is now looking for shelter, is on the Ukrainian side in every way, donates to them, is against Putin, has worked in a refugee centre sorting the donated goods, and helping until his residence permit ran out? What if now he does not know what to do, is looking to get to Germany, yet speaks only Russian? Right now, I’d say to him that he has to learn a different language from the one spoken by those who killed Victoria. I would say that I don’t want to speak Russian to him, perhaps I’d even lie and say that I don’t know Russian or would ask him to speak English. But what if it’s a child? What criteria do we use for sorting? We use the phrase “I am Ukrainian” to help with our business. Every taxi driver, every person who has not learned Latvian, can now turn out to be an Ukrainian in Riga. Because that’s what we expect. We listen to words. We need people to show that they are with us, on the right side. The definition of the right side may vary, but our firm position that we are on the right side is immutable. We like polite, kind people. We don't like rudeness, shouting, and unpleasant sights. We make a young woman, covered in blood from a wound on her head and with a baby at her breast, into an advertising icon. We do nothing special, just apply a bit of eyeliner, a touch of mascara, we make her part her lips ever so slightly, we paint them red, we enhance the glow of the red blood on her young skin. Of course, she is a saint, of course the main thing is that she survived and so did the baby, but why not make her look more striking? Why not make her more beautiful? It will help her and it will help Ukraine’s cause! Because she will be noticed. It will be useful. But what if the only ones for whom it will be useful are ourselves, since we have learnt to squeeze assurances that we are on the right side out of everything, absolutely everything?
And what if the only ones who can speak unbiased language are those who have experienced trauma - discrimination, war, rejection, exile, humiliation? Because their experiences have made them forget the need to affirm anything, so they no longer waste time affirming that they are on the right side. They talk about what is important. And what they say can be very different: angry, unpleasant, offensive, incomprehensible, desperate.
In an interview with Agra Lieģe Dolezhko, Ukrainian media artist Olya Mykhailiuk says: "I don't know how to talk about it, and I don't know how to be silent about it." Judith Butler, in her "Gender Trouble", says that language as a structure is already the product of violence, something that Walter Benjamin and Asja Lācis implicitly talk about in their jointly written essay "Naples", creating the notion of "porosity". Every word we say, every concept we fix, every stone in the foundation of our house can become a pillar of shame or a place of punishment for someone.
These are difficult times. Our world will never be what it once was. We will never again be able to pretend that we 'did not see it' or 'did not know' that people were being killed, tortured, humiliated, forced to leave their homes, and become refugees. Our world will not be the same. But what was it? Do we know what it was like? Perhaps part of the problem and tragedy stem from the fact that we do not know what it was, or do not want to admit that we have only seen part of 'our world'? What was 'our world' like for a woman writer, an artist in a wheelchair, a woman writer who dared to say what we do not like, what was it like for a Belarusian poet living in Latvia?
In this issue of PEN/Opp, we give voice to people, to women, who will tell us what it is like to be part of the culture of this society. They have professions in the creative field but almost every day they have to struggle, justify and prove themselves. And that means almost every day experiencing the repeated trauma of rejection, working on yourself and saying to yourself: I am worth it, they only reject me because they are used to fighting and only know this form of existence: fighting. But I will not fight. Nor will I admit defeat. I will tell you what it is like to be in this world, and maybe from my story someone will learn and understand that it is still possible not to be a winner, but not to be a loser either. They will learn that there is another way to be human.
Victoria Amelina was a Ukrainian writer, member of PEN Ukraine. She died on 1 July 2023 from injuries sustained during a Russian missile attack. She was having lunch at a Kramatorsk pizzeria.