Aminatta Forna

On suffering, trauma, and resilience

James Surowiecki

Aminatta Forna’s recent essay "Who Owns Your Story?" resonated with our readers to such a degree that we reached out to Forna to learn more about the genesis of her piece, how she thinks about resilience in the face of suffering, and why trauma narratives have become so dominant in American culture. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The Editors

JAMES SUROWIECKI Your essay for us, “Who Owns Your Story?,” looks at the way many people have come to think of almost all suffering as traumatic. What was the inspiration for the essay?

AMINATTA FORNA Sierra Leone is the country of my father and much of my life. Between 1991 and 2000 we endured a civil war. I've been writing about war and its aftermath for twenty years. I have witnessed immense suffering. But I have also seen people rebuild their lives, fall in love, enjoy friends and family, create art, build homes, love their pets. In other words, they have gone on to enjoy their lives. If you look at the arc of my work over those years—a memoir and four novels—you’ll see that the last book is called Happiness.

JS Why do you think what you might call the trauma narrative has become so dominant, at least in American culture? What are its costs?

AF Writers have always written about suffering, but I agree there has been a shift toward trauma as plot device. Partly, I think, there is pressure on writers by editors to provide psychological motives for their characters. The consequences and revelation of a past trauma play neatly to plot and character development and allow the possibility of ending with some kind of resolution.

I imagine that, at some point, publishers found that “trauma” increased sales. There was a name for this: trauma porn. “I feel like a car crash everyone is slowing down to look at”: these were words spoken to me by a writer who had described in her memoir the suffering her family had endured while living under a dictatorship. That voyeuristic reaction was not what she wanted or expected. In fact, she was a highly spirited and balanced young woman, fighting to bring understanding to a people's fight against oppression. When I published my own memoir years before, I, too, was taken aback by the fact that many people were surprised to find I was a normal, functioning human being with a lively sense of humor.

In my experience, genuine trauma sufferers tend not to tweet about their pain.

Later, when I moved to the United States, often I found myself sitting in audiences, surrounded by well-heeled people listening to a writer or a poet lay bare their pain. During question time some audience members wanted the speaker to reveal more of their hurt. Each time, I was unsettled.

I described that urging to a friend, a war correspondent, who had a name for it: “narcissistic empathy.” That is when the feelings of the consumer are given greater emphasis than those of putative victim. Maybe what is being gained is comfort in knowing that, cocooned by relative wealth, nationality, or the safety of skin color, this fate will never belong to them.

Finally, there are those who have co-opted the term “trauma” to describe any kind or level of discomfort—typically their own. This does a disservice to those who are truly traumatized, and I will only say this—in my experience, genuine trauma sufferers tend not to tweet about their pain.

JS One of the most interesting parts of the essay focuses on the problem of what you call, after the philosopher Ian Hacking, “looping.” Can you talk about what looping is, and how it helps explain the way overemphasizing the traumatic nature of suffering can actually make suffering more traumatic?

AF I first came across the philosopher Ian Hacking's work when I read his book Mad Travelers, in which he writes about a condition called “fugue,” which was a mental health disorder that began to be diagnosed in the late 1800s. People with fugue were given to inexplicable wanderings, which sometimes left them many miles from home. There have been various hypotheses about who the fugue sufferers were, including that they were deserting soldiers and malingerers. However, some cases seemed to have been real. The striking thing is that the diagnoses of fugue multiplied exponentially and then, apparently just as suddenly, the cases seemed to disappear. By the early twentieth century, diagnoses of fugue by the psychiatric profession had ceased.

For Hacking, this rapid rise and fall of a diagnosis raised questions about the mental health professionals of the time. Were they too quick to discover and diagnose this newly identified disorder? Or were people in genuine distress beginning to express it in this particular way? Or was it some combination thereof? Hacking argues that certain mental disorders can be culture- and time-specific, and that once a condition is defined, it can create a feedback loop that makes it more likely that people will not just be diagnosed with the condition but will also manifest symptoms associated with it.

What people who survive potentially traumatizing events share is an expectation that life won't always be easy.

Now, nobody is saying trauma doesn't exist. But its diagnosis can still be subject to the same influences. Imagine that you have been in a car accident. You read about people who have been “traumatized” by such events and you wonder if this applies to you. You visit a mental health professional who tells you that what has happened could be immensely damaging later in life and that you are going to need help to recover. How easy it would be to believe that. As the range of recognized symptoms grows—as has occurred with the diagnosis of trauma—both you and the professional start to misattribute other things in your life to this single event. This is where it really starts to go wrong. You find individuals and their therapists tracking back through a patient's childhood to find the “critical incident”—what in dramatic terms we would call the “inciting incident” for future behaviors. You can see the crossover with literary plot now, can't you?

Today there are mental health professionals calling for a “wait and see” approach, who believe that people overcome adverse experiences given time and that early intervention and too hasty diagnoses can be unhelpful.

JS As you write about, you and many people you know have endured experiences that I think most Americans would think of as necessarily traumatic but that you think of very differently. Do you have thoughts on why you and people like your cousin Morlai are able to be resilient in the face of suffering? Are there things we can do as a society to make people more resilient?

AF The very many messages I received in response to my Yale Review essay suggest that people both inside and outside America are plenty resilient but are frustrated because they feel their experiences are being hijacked by a conventional discourse of trauma. If they say they are okay, people who feel differently may accuse them of ‘victim shaming.’ So they say nothing.

I think what people who survive potentially traumatizing events share is an expectation that life won't always be easy. Somehow, in the West, we have arrived at a place in which a life free of suffering is used as the benchmark of well-being. This makes no sense to me. None of us will get through life without pain. At the very least, people we love will die. We need to teach our children and students to manage their expectations. Give them a sense of proportion and teach them to learn to laugh a little. Westerners have often remarked to me on the ability of people to laugh across so much of the African continent. And I reply, There's a reason for that.

JS Along those lines, one of the things your essay is about is the way the stories we tell ourselves about suffering can, in turn, shape our experiences of it. How do you seize control of your own narrative and tell a story that seems true to you?

AF We need to stop pathologizing human emotions. A psychologist I was talking to today, on the subject of this very interview, told me that he takes issue with the way sadness is too frequently described as “depression,” which is a clinical condition. And we would do well to recognize that not everyone experiences events the same way. Not all destinations are inevitable. Not all adversity is damaging. Whilst I don't believe pain necessarily produces catharsis, it is useful to think of difficulty as part of life, for who or what would we be without it? Perhaps what we need is to be less afraid and more prepared.

There used to be an advertisement in Britain about spinal damage. It showed a slouching skeleton in a chair. The tagline was “Severe Spinal Damage at 0 MPH.” A life entirely free of pain or risk may yet cause damage to the psyche. I have sometimes asked mental health professionals to describe for me the perfect life, one that would render the individual free of emotional difficulties. What would it look like? None of them had thought about it.

James Surowiecki is a consulting editor at The Yale Review.
Originally published:
April 1, 2022


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