In her 2018 debut, Eggshell Skull, Bri Lee recounts her entry into the legal profession while battling her own sexual assault case. The book became a runaway publishing success. It also prompted an “outpouring” of correspondence – much of it involving disclosures of readers’ own traumatic experiences, often for the first time.
“It’s a huge privilege, and I’m very grateful,” Lee said in a phone call. “It’s amazing that people take the time and care to share these stories with me.”
It was also extremely difficult. At first, Lee responded to every message – but the sheer volume made it unbearable and inevitably had an emotional and psychological impact. She only recently deactivated her Instagram DMs. “It just got to a point where I couldn’t take it anymore,” she says. “Frankly, it was too upsetting.”
More and more Australian writers are having to deal with the consequences of sharing their stories in the public domain. An analysis of this year’s high-profile releases suggests a lingering appetite for writing that deals with personal pain – Bertie Blackman’s Bohemian Negligence, Shannon Burns’ Childhood, Janine Mikosza’s Homesickness, Shannon Molloy’s Fourteen, adapted this year for the Stage, Nothing Bad by Heather Rose Ever Happens Here, It’s a Shame About Ray by Jonathan Seidler, A Kind of Magic by Anna Spargo-Ryan, The Ninth Life of a Diamond Miner by Grace Tame and Tell Me Again by Amy Thunig , to only cite a few.
But after revisiting old wounds to tell their story, these writers must then sell this. So the question is what the industry will do with it next.
“Trauma has become this kind of buzzword”
Trauma memoirs aren’t exactly a new trend. “People just can’t get enough of it,” says Australian Booksellers Association chief executive Robbie Egan, pointing to the phenomenal success of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes (1997), or more recently Working Class Boy (2016). by Jimmy Barnes. ). “[But] I think we talk about trauma in a much more sophisticated way now.
Some of this can be attributed to social media, where, according to Toyah Webb, professor of creative writing and bookseller at the University of Sydney, “trauma has become this kind of buzzword.” Memoir also lends itself to more media promotion than fiction, through interviews and first-person plays with clickable titles. As Lee says, “It’s not surprising from a business perspective [that] writers and publishers are thrilled to find young people willing to tell these stories.”
But the journey from there is far from straightforward. “It can be traumatic to have to relive the experience through the editorial process and the promotional process,” writes Madonna Duffy, publication director at UQP, by e-mail. “Writers often find that they are the recipients of other people’s traumatic stories when promoting their books, which can be very difficult.”
And for writers from marginalized and vulnerable communities, it can be even more difficult.
A flow-on effect?
Writer and scholar Wiradjuri Jeanine Leane has been aware in recent years of “a real trend and movement towards traumatic and deficit narratives, particularly from writers of color and First Nations writers.” Currently teaching creative writing at the University of Melbourne, she says, “there is pressure to produce narratives of minority group traumas and deficits at the expense of narratives of resilience and agency that readers tend to unless associated with minorities”.
Emerging writers in particular can be expected to meet certain expectations of identity – an experiment articulated in Jumaana Abdu’s recent essay, A Manifesto for the ‘Diverse’ Writer.
“[There’s] a misconception that if you’re covering this genre of writing, then you’re really nailing it for diversity,” Leane says. To center agency stories on those sold on titillation, mainstream publishing needs to “step back,” she says — to “accept stories that are community-driven” rather than market perceptions.
While exploring the darkest times in the lives of their authors, these books also aim to tell stories of resilience, strength and joy, helping “more people who have experienced this trauma”. [to] not to feel so alone,” Duffy says. “Any writer who addresses their trauma in their work shows extraordinary courage.”
With recent reports that up to 1 million Australians are living with PTSD and over 2.2 million suffer from long-term mental health issues, the impact of this cannot be overstated. While Ultimo Press publishing director Robert Watkins acknowledges that “many publications have used trauma as shock value,” he sees a growing emphasis on emotional impact, rather than “centering trauma on something to shock”.
Amani Haydar’s award-winning 2021 memoir, The Mother Wound, explored the devastating murder of her mother by Haydar’s father, against the backdrop of intergenerational trauma and war trauma. Writing it was “exhausting,” says the author and artist; sometimes she wondered if she hadn’t overdone it. “But the result is work that I can support,” she says. “[It] brought me a sense of closure and justice that I had struggled to find elsewhere.
Moreover, she says, the huge public response to the book has been “incredibly empowering”: she reassures that her work “has contributed significantly to ongoing conversations about the impacts of gender-based violence”.
Prior to publication, Haydar made a conscious decision to put support in place – through family and counsel. Lee, whose debut came a few years earlier, was less prepared.
“It’s not something I knew I was anticipating,” she says. “I wish I had decided to set clearer boundaries for myself early on…but that said, no one expected Eggshell Skull to be so successful.”
The biggest problem wasn’t the stories from the readers themselves (which she insists she feels honored to have received) but what the deluge of messages revealed: the number of people who don’t feel not able or should not reach out for support services – or do not have easy access to them. “What also worried me a lot is that I’m not a therapist, or a psychologist, or a psychiatrist, I’m not even a counsellor,” she says. “I am certainly not qualified to give legal advice.”
Questions about the supporting infrastructure also extend to the education sphere, Webb says. While she’s excited that students feel empowered to “get the jugular and write about things like trauma,” she says more pastoral care and training are urgently needed. trauma – for students and staff. “This needs to change at university level, to make these kinds of classrooms completely safe spaces for the students – but also for the teacher.”
“Commercializing someone’s trauma requires care”
Everyone who spoke to the Guardian agreed that it is up to the industry to develop a trauma-informed ethic and to push much harder for a variety of perspectives and experiences at all levels. A superficial approach to “diversity” that stops at writers risks not having enough support from editors, publishers or executives – where a lack of understanding can lead to dangerous blind spots.
Haydar benefited from being able to work with an editor who “had knowledge about domestic violence and was sensitive and open throughout the editing process”, and a publicist who gave him agency on publicity engagements. “It was very important to me because I am aware of how victim-survivor stories can be misunderstood, co-opted or exploited. Having a choice and being able to ask questions beforehand, for example, made the experience safe and respectful,” she says.
“Just as lived experience has shaped public policy on domestic violence, I believe it can shape and improve the publishing industry.”
Egan questions the “moral hazard” inherent in the publishing process as a whole. “At the end of the day, a publishing house’s job is to sell books,” he says. “So… you are marketing something that is extremely personal. Commercializing someone’s trauma. It requires extreme caution, and it’s a balancing act.
“I’m sure there’s still a lot of work to be done to figure out how to publish and promote this work in a positive rather than titillating way,” agrees Watkins. Echoing Haydar, he and Duffy particularly emphasize the publisher’s role in establishing an advertising process in which authors feel secure. In Lee’s case, for example, that meant having a publicist present in the signing line. “[That’s] something, for example, that my editor does very well,” she says. “It was always really, really good. I felt very supported not being alone in that space.
The best advice that came to her from Helen Garner, she says, about touring: “Specifically, that you’ve already been very generous in writing the book. You don’t owe anyone else anything.