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From madwomen to Vietnam veterans: Trauma, testimony, and recovery in post-colonial women's writing

Maureen Denise Fielding, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This dissertation looks at representations of trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and recovery in works by post-colonial women writers, specifically Bessie Head, Anita Desai, Le Ly Hayslip, and Medbh McGuckian. In examining the roles colonialism and patriarchy play among the forces which lead to mental breakdown, these postcolonial women writers depict a variety of manifestations of mental illness and a variety of traumatized characters. These authors identify the patriarchal equation of female sexuality with madness, and repressive and brutal attempts to control female sexuality as aspects of colonial and patriarchal worlds which are particularly devastating for women. At the same time racism, motherlessness, dispossession, disconnection from the feminine, and a hatred for hybridity are also identified as destabilizing conditions for both men and women. Judith Lewis Herman's Trauma and Recovery explicates in detail the similarities between the trauma experienced by men in combat and the trauma women experience in patriarchal societies. The symptoms of PTSD as described by Herman find striking parallels in the Frantz Fanon's work on colonized peoples. The mental breakdowns and neuroses depicted in post-colonial women's writing match these clinical descriptions and can frequently be traced back to the traumatic experiences of war, colonialism, and patriarchy. Chapter one focuses on Head's When Rain Clouds Gather and A Question of Power, and their prescriptions for healing. Chapter two focuses on Desai's Clear Light of Day and Baumgartner's Bombay, with particular emphasis on Partition. Chapter three focuses on Hayslip's When Heaven and Earth Changed Places and Child of War: Woman of Peace, and the interplay of Hayslip's Buddhist philosophy and her attempts to find safety and healing. Chapter four focuses on poems from several of McGuckian's works, but especially Captain Lavender and Shelmalier. I attempt to show connections not only among traumatic experiences in colonized countries, but also to other historical traumas, such as the Holocaust. I use concepts from Kalí Tal's Worlds of Hurt and Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub's Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History to show these connections.

Subject Area

Comparative literature|African literature|Asian literature|British and Irish literature|Womens studies

Recommended Citation

Fielding, Maureen Denise, "From madwomen to Vietnam veterans: Trauma, testimony, and recovery in post-colonial women's writing" (2000). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9966759.