I noticed an odd thing, in the early days of COVID-19. As things were shutting down, kids being sent home from school and people forced to work at home, as stores closed to regular business and everyone was cooped up alone or with co-habitants, as reports came in from China, Italy, and Iran, and then Europe of overwhelmed hospitals and exponential infection rates, I don’t think it’s an understatement to say people were freaking out.
But what I noticed is that particular people among my friends, myself included, were actually coping fairly well. The commonality among us? As trauma survivors, we were always already waiting for something really bad to happen. And then it did. Rearranging our lives around something catastrophic was already old hat. Complicated mixtures of grief, guilt, loss and shame are just part of the resilience package. In moments of crisis, we don’t break down: we make sure everybody around us is okay. And then we make jokes.
So when I was asked to curate this list of books related to my own work or my own interests, I looked for a way to do both. As I write, I am mid-way through a new novel about intergenerational trauma, and when I’m not writing, I am obsessively watching what appears to be a cartwheel towards disaster South of our border, and to perhaps a lesser extent, globally. It is difficult not to draw the line between personal trauma and the dystopian events in the news.
Rearranging our lives around something catastrophic was already old hat. Complicated mixtures of grief, guilt, loss and shame are just part of the resilience package. In moments of crisis, we don’t break down: we make sure everybody around us is okay. And then we make jokes.
Here is a collection of books that approach different kinds of trauma in widely varying ways. Some of these are books I’ve read recently. Others have stuck with me over the years since I first read them. They range from the gritty and sometimes hilarious emotional underbelly of dysfunctional families, to post-apocalyptic imaginings of the aftermath of widespread collective trauma, to soul-piercing books set against backdrops of the cultural traumas of slavery and colonialism. I would put every one of these authors, story tellers and poets on my favourite writers list, and I hope their work resonates with you as it does with me.
This is a collaboration between storyteller Ivan Coyote and musician Rae Spoon about the trauma of growing up gender queer, or nonbinary, or trans, and needing to find a way to make peace with one’s own body, and to unlearn one’s assigned gender. Structured as a sort of call-and-response memoir, it takes the reader through the heart-gouging moment of hearing a pre-teen best friend reveal personal, bodily secrets, through diagnoses for gender dysphoria, through top surgery, and leaving the community that betrays you and finding the one that holds you up.
Webb-Campbell’s poetry collection delves into the cultural trauma of colonialism from her Mi’kmiq perspective, and the further trauma of having that identity officially denied when the Canadian government revoked her Newfoundland community’s status.
This novel explores the cultural and personal trauma of slavery, the possibility of becoming whole and leaving your history behind, and of rebuilding relationships where unspeakable things are buried in the past.
In Dunnion’s dystopic bunker, the whole world is traumatic for the protagonists who have been locked inside for much of their lives. They occupy a patriarchal nightmare in a country supposedly at civil war, where abuser/leader/patriarch Father Ernst inflicts his own inability to cope onto everyone around him. Young members of his family/cult come of age and are faced with terrible choices that involve questioning their faith and violently usurping Ernst’s seemingly all-encompassing power if they are to survive.
Set in a world decimated by climate change, where Indigenous peoples are the only ones still able to dream. Our protagonists are hunted by white settlers who would re-enact extractive and predatory genocidal tendencies to obtain the indigenous bone marrow that will allow them to dream again. But the resistance and resilience of Frenchie and his family (both de-facto and real), and the raised possibility of ally-ship moving forward, offer hope on the roads towards healing.
Brown Girl in the Ring, by Nalo Hopkinson
In post-economic-collapse Toronto, the young and pregnant Ti-Jeanne lives in The Burn, a disenfranchised zone where she has been all but abandoned by governmental systems. Another resource-extractive narrative plays out when the Premier of the province needs a heart transplant, and for political reasons, wants a human one. Ti-Jeanne’s boyfriend, Tony, is involuntarily hired to acquire one—but it would involve killing a fellow resident of the Burn. Tony may be an addict, but he is not a mercenary, and he is resourceful: he turns to Ti-Jeanne’s grandmother Mami for help, and she uses her powers as a Vodou priestess on the to-be-transplanted organ to effect a literal change of heart in its exploitative, power-hungry recipient.
Something of an odyssey through post-apocalyptic life years after a deadly pandemic, interwoven with the turning points that brought it all crashing down. In the troop of Shakespearean thespians, everyone has gone through trauma and profound loss, but they keep going down the road, struggling to create hope through temporary alternate realities (like their plays) and to find ways to cope with their new normal.
Moore portrays a family dealing with aftermath of the father’s death in an oil rig disaster, unflinchingly dissecting their grief in a world where it feels like the worst thing possible has already happened.
Miriam Toews’s depiction of multi-generational mental illness, and the havoc it wreaks on the surrounding family, flays me alive and leaves me laugh-crying. The family that binds us will also tears us apart, and we will need humour to survive it.
This novel is set in the shadow of 9/11, in which Cayce’s father disappeared. As Cayce, a “cool-hunter,” works to unearth the origins of what we might now call a viral meme, her almost anaphylactic sensitivity to brands and logos speaks to a wider cultural loss of a time before the corporatization of culture. We become hyper-aware of the surfaces that have come to replaced substance, with 9/11 the symbolic moment of rupture between Before and After.
Rice’s novel focuses on an Anishinaabe community on Northern Ontario. Some unspecified terrible thing happens, somewhere far outside of their community, and leaves them cut off with dwindling resources, echoing the deep history of indigenous peoples being hung out to dry by white settlers. But their community is strong, and they adapt—the real trouble emerging in the form of a few surviving white settlers who move in and threaten the balance they have achieved. Another great dystopian read about trauma and resilience.
Shared trauma has driven them a world apart; they will need to find each other again to begin to heal
Nightmares still haunt Chloe thirteen years after a fatal tragedy led to the disintegration of her family. Her mother, Jules, has a busy tech career, a long history of chronic pain—and little time for Chloe. After Chloe drops out of university to travel for a year, Jules’s OxyContin dependency quickly worsens. Aftershock follows their parallel journeys: Jules struggles to regain control of her life, while Chloe, after a rocky visit with her estranged father in New Zealand, resolves to go off the map and spend some time alone, travelling. When Jules suddenly can’t find her daughter, the feeling is all too familiar. Mother and daughter will need to address old secrets and the emotional impact they have wrought before they can reconcile with each other, and, finally, with themselves.