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Wolf Publishing

 Essay series

Suffering in Contemporary Literature

01 August 2018

Daniela Bücheler-Scott


This is an edited version of a Monash University assignment for English Literature from 27 October 2016

“We should listen to witnesses as though
they were teaching us a history lesson.”

C.Fred Alford, 2008

Thinking Man on Couch

Writing about people’s suffering is an enduring theme in literature. Going back in literary history, even as far as 8thCentury BC, Homer tells of the trials of his hero in The Odyssey. Sorrow, pain and suffering have been covered in its many shapes and forms in countless texts such as: The Bible, William Shakespeare’s tragedies, UlyssesThe Sorrows of Young Werther, War and Peace, A Grief Observed, Empty CradlesPersepolis, Teju Cole’s tragic Twitter micro-narratives “Small Fates”, Baghdad blogger Salam Pax’ “Where is Raed?”, or Bob Dylan’s humanitarian poetry within his songs. 

This essay examines a central problem explored in contemporary literature of how we should respond when we encounter - as we inevitably do – other people’s suffering. What follows is the unpacking of this question by looking at what is meant by contemporary literature, the concepts of suffering, and what it means to ‘witness’. As the question contains the word ‘should’, it implies an expectation of a moralistic response, so I look at ethical ways of dealing with trauma and suffering within literature. I do this by using the example of the two non-fiction novels, Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich and The Tall Man by Chloe Hooper, as a lens through which to investigate the conundrum of ethical ways to respond to trauma. Both these books are award-winning texts and are exemplary for their treatment of suffering in, and representational of, contemporary literature.

Contemporary literature deals with current issues of the 21stCentury, particularly those of race, equality, globalisation, refugee crises, terrorism, climate change, environmental disasters, and other major issues of the present time. Consulting the handbooks of Monash University, Macquarie University and Melbourne University, contemporary literature examines literature produced since World War II. A stylistic writing trend – or some may call it a social movement or genre or even canon (although debateable) - that emerged in the post-war period is that of postmodernism. Kuznar (1997:120-121) claims that, “The aim of postmodernists is not the criticism of Western epistemology and its replacement with improved models of evaluation, it is the destruction of Western epistemology as an end in and of itself.”

However, Kuznar (p121) acknowledges that “this anti-canonical movement nonetheless has generated its own foundational works and canons” and that all postmodernists share elements such as “an elevation of text and language as the fundamental phenomena of existence, the application of literary analysis to all phenomena, an advocacy of polyvocality, a focus upon power relations and hegemony, and a general critique of Western institutions and knowledge.” Most of these elements can be seen in The Tall Man and Chernobyl Prayer.

Chernobyl Prayer, previously published as Voices from Chernobyl, is a book of polyvocality in the series “Voices from Utopia”, about the worst nuclear reactor accident in history. Belarusian journalist Svetlana Alexievich interviewed over 500 people affected by the meltdown – from innocent citizens to fire fighters to those called in to clean up the disaster. The interviewed voices are presented as ‘monologues’, mostly a few pages long, and some fragmented paragraphs. What interests Alexievich is to convey a history, but not history of mere facts in the conventional sense, but an emotional and personal history, because “there are an endless number of human truths” (Flood and Harding, 2015).


Alexivich (2016:24) is concerned with the “invisible imprint of our stay on earth and in time” and making it known, meaning that expression of language and text are fundamental phenomena of existence. The book also exposes power relations and hegemony of the Soviet state and old communism party discipline over the people involved in the clean up after the disaster. In the ‘Monologue about longing for a role and a narrative’, Sergey Vasilyevich Sobolev ponders why people volunteered to dive into the contaminated water at the plant to open the latch on the drainage valve (2016:174):


I had an argument about this with someone. He was trying to persuade me this was because we put a very low value on life. A kind of Asiatic fatalism. The person who makes the sacrifice has no sense of himself as a unique, irreplaceable human being. It is a longing for a role to play. 

Incidentally, in the 2006 edition of Voices from Chernobyl, the above quote does not appear, however. There is no mention of Asiatic fatalism. What it does say is this (2006:132):

They [soldiers] were young guys. They’re dying now, too, but they understand that if it wasn’t for them… These are people who came from a certain culture, the culture of the great achievement. They were a sacrifice.

Both these passages are essentially saying the same thing about communism ideology, but it shows that reading a book in translation can be a slightly different experience. What it may also show is that, occasionally, Alexievich may not use the exact words of the interviewees but a curated version.

Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man also covers power relations and presents a critique of Western institutions, in this case of the police institution of Northern Queensland. On the inside cover, Philip Roth says of The Tall Man: “Chloe Hooper’s masterful book of reportage is a kind of moral thriller about power, wretchedness and violence.” Hooper documents the incident and circumstances surrounding the death of an Aboriginal man, Cameron Doomadgee whilst in police custody in 2004 on Palm Island. The circumstances surrounding his death are highly suspicious and Hooper sets out “to tell the truth the right way” (Warhaft, 2013), because she doesn’t want this to keep happening; and because she shouldn’t live 20 years longer than people on Palm Island; and also because people shouldn’t die in police custody (Hooper in interview with Warhaft, 2013). In other words Hooper is committed to bringing about cultural change by reporting ‘the truth’.

McHale (2007), borrowing Virginia Woolf’s comic statement, “On or about December 1910, human character changed”, points out that, in reality, cultural change doesn’t happen overnight. So too with canonization of literature, or any cultural change for that matter, doesn’t’ occur overnight of course, but over a number of years. Lewis (2012:169) speaks of two waves of postmodernism. The ‘first wave’ ran from the 1960s (at around the time of the erection of the Berlin Wall) to the 1980s (the time when the Cold War was almost over); and a large proportion of writing published after 1990 may be called the ‘second wave’. Lewis (2012:171) states some of the features of both waves include: temporal disorder, the erosion of the sense of time, pastiche, fragmentation, paranoia, vicious circles and the loose association of ideas. Of particular interest to this essay is that, according to Lewis (2012:173), “to the second wave postmodernist writers genre-blending (pastiche) is a sine qua non.”

In a similar fashion, David Shields (2010:3) says that one of the key components of contemporary literature is “a blurring (to the point of invisibility) of any distinction between fiction and nonfiction: the lure and blur of the real” and that “all great works of literature either dissolve a genre or invent one” (Shields, 2010:590). This kind of blending of genres, also with the author stepping in, are on display in The Tall Man as well as Chernobyl Prayer. Both are works of non-fiction, of reportage, mingled with novelistic features. Sometimes this new blend is referred to as ‘creative non-fiction’ or ‘literary non-fiction’. Both novels blend real cases of trauma and suffering with an artistic literary flair in presenting difficult topics so that it becomes almost pleasurable to read them, despite the emotional heaviness of the topics. 

In her Banquet speech for receiving the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature, Alexievich answers to ‘Why do I write’?: “I am a writer of catastrophes. Hate will not save us, only love will save us, and I have hope.” She also says, “the purpose of art is to accumulate the human within the human being.” Chernobyl Prayer is a book about fragments of extremes – tough lives and tragic deaths, mortality of people and nigh immortality of radioactive particles (‘hot particles’ p152), past made future and future made past. Mirroring this is the way the stories are structured in the book in that two stories – both titled ‘A lone human voice’ - of extreme love are at extreme ends of the book.

Chloe Hooper dismisses the term creative non-fiction, saying: “As a term ‘creative non-fiction’ seems slightly laughable, almost twee. I write fiction and non-fiction” (Joseph, 44). However, she admits that, 

Looking at a news story novelistically is essential when organising material into the most interesting, engaging shape. Certainly with a story such as the Palm Island death in custody, which is, by most measures, fairly unpalatable to mainstream Australians, I had a sense I had one shot at holding a reader’s attention (Joseph, 44).

In The Tall Man, the initial paragraph in the prologue – even though that section of the book is not named as such – has a semblance of a story of myth or fiction (p1). There is talk of ‘spirits’, ‘long thin arms and long thin legs’, ‘stretched-out bodies painted in ochre’ and ‘all-seeing white eyes’. The reader is hooked, ready to be transported into another realm. The reader’s attention is guaranteed by further novelistic or literary techniques. Hooper uses character development, plot structure, suspense, descriptions referring to works of fiction, and figurative language and imagery to weave her real news content into an aesthetically pleasing literary work. 

Senior Sergeant Hurley is referred to a “Conradian figure” (p82) - referring to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, “T.E Lawrence back from the wilderness” (p158), “Kafka in the tropics” (p199) and “Gulliver the giant” (p201). Referring to the white men drinking at the pub in Burketown, Hooper writes (p131):

They looked as if they spent their days in chains while eagles preyed upon their livers. Their organs restored by night, they returned to the same barstools, faces slicked with sweat, to resume their stoic drinking. 

Reflecting on a Doomadgee war memorial saying ‘FORGET’, Hooper writes (p144):

Re-entering mainstream society, he could slip back in with an invisible cloak of whiteness. ‘Forget, forget,’ said all the bitumen roads, neat houses, manicured lawns. But Hurley was like a man returning from a war – a war he couldn’t get out of his system.

Apart from their literariness, both novels also have an anthropological feel in that the authors almost seem to have performed ethnographic research by spending a large of amount of time with their ‘informants’, getting to know their stories intimately and then reporting the findings in an affective way. Tim Ingold (Eriksen, 2001:1) said of anthropology: “Anthropology is philosophy with people in.” To me, creative non-fiction is ‘history with emotions in’.


Yet, Hooper only went to Palm Island about ten times and never longer than a week (Warhaft, 2013). Alexievich, on the other hand, took years to gather her ‘data’. Brintlinger (2016) says Alexievich’s method of gathering victim and witness accounts included receiving anonymous letters, conducting personal interviews, inviting a friend to join in at the interview and being asked to give further names of victims. She was thereby able to create a “chain of human interviews.” On many occasions Alexievich interviewed the same person twice for the reason that, “when a person looks a second time, the person looks with the heart, not the eye of a stranger” (Nobel Prize speech, 2015). Tumarkin (2016) even claims that Alexievich chose ten to twenty interviewees as ‘pillars’ – then returned to the ‘pillars’ up to twenty times each.

So far in this essay I have shown that in both, The Tall Man and Chernobyl Prayer, the authors weave real-life news and personal accounts of people’s suffering into literary novels. These examples show that journalism can go a step further by affective storytelling. It can be argued that both novels reflect ‘New Journalism’ in that they present harrowing news in a palpable way. Shields’ argument that he is bored with the novel as a form “because it tends to be too hidebound by plot, is too traditional and old-fashioned to reflect 21stCentury culture, and that he prefers more reality over fiction” is reminiscent of Tom Wolfe’s argument in New Journalism (Parkes 2005:29). Parkes (ibid) claims that the movement’s loss of traditional objectivity “was a matter of mainstream controversy at the time – and still is today. Entertaining as it was, this school of journalism left a persistent public perception that journalists are about as trustworthy as second-hand car salesmen.”


I argue that it is exactly the opposite – how can you stay objective at witnessing and writing great trauma? It seems to me more inauthentic and morally wrong to witnessing stories and then writing objectively about such harrowing accounts of human tragedy as seen in The Tall Man and Chernobyl Prayer.

This brings me to the concept of ‘witnessing’ and ‘suffering’. Wiesslitz and Ashuri (2011:1037) argue that, “Testimony is driven by a moral purpose. It reflects the hope for a moral community that will ‘hear’ the cry and acknowledge the pain, and thereby usher in a new order.” Hooper’s inspiration for writing The Tall Man was that she felt a moral obligation to make this story known because “we don’t want this [Aboriginal deaths in police custody] to keep happening” (Warhaft, 2013).


Alexievich was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature for Chernobyl Prayer as it is a “monument to suffering and courage in our time” (Flood and Harding, 2015). Wiesslitz and Ashuri (2011:1039) say, “the ‘moral journalist' functions as an eyewitness to evil, and her report gives public visibility to the experience of suffering caused by this evil” and “the testimony of victims… a report on the personal pain of the witness has moral significance because it aims to expose evil and pain, and not, for example, to tell a compelling story” (LaCapra and Peretz in Wisslitz and Ashuri (2011:1042).


Questioning what ‘witnessing’ is, Tumarkin (2016) remarks that it is “not taking someone’s pain and putting it in a box” and then reassembling it later. To Tumarkin it is more like “spending the night with the person in the bio-chamber. The night in which you burn together.” With this she is referring to the first story in Chernobyl Prayer of the married couple (p6-23). Tumarkin goes on to say that ‘the thing’ Alexievich does in the book “has nothing to do with insisting that vicarious traumatisation is an ethical precondition to witnessing, and it cannot be summed up by Dominick LaCapra’s good term ‘empathic unsettlement’.” Tumarkin admits she is not sure what Alexievich does to make Chernobyl Prayer so effective [to Tumarkin] in bearing witness, but in the lecture given at Monash University (7 Sep 2016) she says that it may be because when Alexievich goes in to interview she has no preconceived idea what will come out of the interview.

So what is our collective moral duty in witnessing, in other words - how do ‘we’ as a society witness? Nigel Denning (in Tumarkin, 2016) says the role for society in witnessing is: “Saying it happened, it was wrong, and as a society we’re doing things for it to stop.” Susan Sontag, in her book Regarding the Pain of Others (2003:7) says, “No ‘we’ should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain.” Each and every individual’s personal experience is valuable in its own right. Brintlinger (2016) remarks, “Individual experience and memory must be valued and remembered as counter weight to official experience and memory.”

Nietzsche says that already in the Greek tragedies suffering in life was always viewed as sublime because “humans are sense-seeking beings” (in Powell, 2007:51). In other words suffering gives meaning in life, or even the fatalistic idea that ‘everything happens for a reason’. However I agree with Milan Kundera’s approach who decries the lyrical tendency to make suffering appear sublime (Powell, 2007:20). Tumarkin (2014:183) opposes writing that prefers “pathos over tragedy”. In her essay on the limits of storytelling she says that the platitude du jour of our times – storytelling with the Flaubertian desire of ‘longing to move the stars to pity’ “is not strong enough to speak of the essence of what happens, of what gets passed on between humans, in the act of communication” (Tumarkin (2014:184).


Trauma theorists often speak about the ‘unrepresentablitiy of trauma’. Harking back to Freud, Caruth (in Koopman, 2010:238) states that the traumatic memory is belated: the traumatic event “is experienced too soon, too unexpectedly, to be fully known and is therefore not available to consciousness until it imposes itself again, repeatedly, in the nightmares and repetitive actions of the survivor.” Koopman (ibid) further states that, according to Caruth, major trauma like the Holocaust are beyond representation because “linguistic presentation fails.” However, like Adorno, Caruth still stresses that literature – and art in general - should address trauma. Her main argument when it comes to expressing traumatic experiences, then, is that conventional ways of knowing should be relinquished. When telling about trauma (as well as when listening to it) one should start from the position of not knowing (ibid). Caruth even emphasizes that literature would be the most appropriate medium to explain the unexplainable, because it supposedly uses the type of language that defies, even as it claims, our understanding (ibid). Koopman (ibid) singles out Julia Kristeva as a primary example of this tendency, and says: “Kristeva sees a potential for revolt in the way innovative, poetic language ruptures the symbolic, destabilizing the signifier (e.g. Intimate Revolt 2002, 7–13).” 


Alford (2008:226) says that when a witness remembers a traumatic event, the witness recalls from their ‘deep memory’, meaning they come to relive it and not just remember it. This is because deep memory is body based, raw, visual, expressed in images and emotion and physical sensation. This deep memory has the quality of what Julia Kristeva (in Alford, 2008:226) characterizes as the semiotic aspect of communication, which Kristeva distinguishes from the symbolic. Alford further explains (ibid): “The symbolic refers to what philosophers might think of meaning per se, conveyed by the grammar of symbols. The semiotic element is the organization of drives in that pre-linguistic space Kristeva calls the ‘semiotic chora’, drawing upon Plato’s term which is often translated as womb or receptacle. Without the symbolic element of signification, there would be only sounds and psychotic babble. Without the semiotic element, signification would be empty, lacking vitality, lacking Eros – the feeling that one’s words are not empty, but filled with the rhythms of life.” Put simply, “we have a bodily need to communicate, the realm of the semiotic; the symbolic provides the structure necessary to do so” (Kristeva in Alford, 2008:226). 


In this essay I have shown the ways in which Chloe Hooper and Svetlana Alexievich have approached writing about other people’s suffering. Brintlinger (2016), referring to a New Yorker article from 2014, says with Chernobyl Prayer, Alexievich does what the best literature does best: “Respond to life and death with writing that—by its voice and its substance, its soul and its urgency, its truth and, above all, its wisdom—enlarges our understanding and experience of our world and our being.” I believe the same can be said about The Tall Man. Both writers have shown moral integrity and a respectful way of responding to other people’s suffering. Chloe Hooper, when asked how she found the right way to cover the story said: “I was working outside the conventions of journalism and anthropology, but I had my own personal Code of Conduct” (Warhaft, 2013). As writers – be that fiction or non-fiction or a blend of sorts - we must all adopt our own code of conduct, be culturally sensitive and act with moral integrity. 





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Alexievich, S., Gunin, A., trans., & Tait, A. L., trans. (2016). Chernobyl prayer : A chronicle of the future. UK: Penguin modern classics.

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