On Fear, Fearlessness, and Intergenerational Trauma

On Fear, Fearlessness, and Intergenerational Trauma:

Some excerpts from Monica Sok’s essay:

Now that I live in Brooklyn, I try to visit Lancaster some weekends, with the intention of interviewing my family. I listen for anything from my mother. Anything from my aunts. My mother’s older sister insists on keeping her experiences locked up. Why say them now? She has spent thirty some years trying to forget them. Years ago, I found my oldest aunt weeping in front of the mirror as she was getting ready for her second shift at the Reeses’ Peanut Butter Cup factory. When I walked in, she told me it was her son’s birthday—Kasaul, a cousin I never knew I had. He would have been in his thirties by now. The persistent trauma that fills my family life, is staved off as work at the factory goes on, and time goes on, and life goes on. But that period of history is not over for me, and I am drawn incredibly and painfully closer to it in our silence. 

There are times when my mother is compelled to say something, entirely unexpected and purely out of unresolved grief, a restlessness that expresses a world of things my mother keeps inside herself, and away from me out of love, fear, and protection.

“I don’t know what happened to my brother,” my mom says, washing the dishes one afternoon. She rinses plates bordered with gray flowers. I don’t know what reminds her of her brother in this moment washing dishes—what brother?—or other times when we’re driving in the rain, wipers clearing the windshield, back and forth sweeping across glass.

And it has taken me a long time to understand my mother’s suppression as her way of coping with trauma. I’m still trying to understand today.

“She’s writing down his name,” my mother says to her sisters. “Look, she’s writing down our brother’s name.”

Here the women in my family remember together. Undoing the alone time spent inside of themselves. One sister opens up, and another can begin. In my grandmother’s kitchen, I listened to them chatter, correcting one another’s details about where Samon went to school, recalling the time they went to Tuol Sleng prison to look for his face, his face which was not among the photographs.

Like many Cambodian immigrants, my mother suppresses her memories, but she can be fearless, and not without deep-rooted vulnerability, which means in fact she is not free of fears at all, but rather goes toward that suffering, pain, and remembering that I’ve come to recognize as fearlessness. The words of my professor: You should be fearless. She meant go toward that suffering for your poetry.

But I can’t pretend. I never thought of fearlessness as an option in the context of intergenerational trauma. If fearlessness, in this case, means going toward that trauma then, it means writing about Tuol Sleng, about a country ridden with land mines, about the Khmer Rouge, without letting those same narratives overpower the poetry that must be written. My trauma is that historical trauma, that family trauma, and yes, that biological trauma.

How do you go toward that suffering in your writing when it also leads you and others to trauma? How do fear and trauma work in different ways?

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