Tuesday, January 9, 2024

Q&A with Adrie Kusserow





Adrie Kusserow is the author of the new book The Trauma Mantras: A Memoir in Prose Poems. Her other books include Refuge. She is Professor of Anthropology at St. Michael's College.


Q: How was your new book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: In Buddhism, a mantra is a sacred utterance, a sacred sound, a syllable, word or group of words in Sanskrit, Pali or other languages believed by practitioners to have religious, magical, or spiritual power. It is often repeated to aid concentration in meditation.


The Buddhist mantra Om Mani Padme Hum is perhaps the most well-known, which translates to “praise to the jewel in the lotus.”


The irony here is that many mantras aid in helping one realize one’s interconnectedness to all things so the idea of using a Western conception of trauma (often conceptualized biomedically, as deeply individualized, unique to that person, which separates them from others) as a mantra should be seen as jarring and ironic.


Insofar as a mantra is sometimes meant to be said over and over again and connect the self to a larger version of self, beyond ego, desire, thought, it is especially ironic given that the Western trauma narrative can be quite narrow, constricting, and individualizing and have the capacity to alienate the person from the larger world, rather than join them into a yogic collectivist view of suffering.


I wanted to hint at the way the West has fallen in love with Trauma as a diagnosis, to the point that Americans evoke trauma narratives like household mantras, repeating them over and over like a mantra, perhaps thinking the trauma narrative will save them.


Trauma has for some become their raison d’etre, the defining story of their life, the narrative which explains all and holds everything. This has led to our everyday landscapes becoming trigger fields, triggers everywhere.


PTSD is now the fourth most common diagnosis in America. In fiction and literature, trauma has become the Om Mani Padme Om of plot and character development.


I also thought it was ironic that just as Buddhism has come West and meditation/yoga/mindfulness have gone global, so has trauma gone global, the Western version of it. PTSD is being globalized despite the fact that it is not some timeless attribute of our species.


The Western understanding of trauma as “traumatizing,” highly psychologized and biomedicalized is being shipped around the world like Coca-Cola, despite the fact that it is not given similar meanings or even given a specific linguistic designation in some cultures.


Suffering is understood and given meaning in vastly different ways all over the world. The concept that humans might have profoundly different ways of responding to a traumatic event or that we are very biased in what type of event we think will hurt the human mind is hard for Americans to understand.


Furthermore, many cultures view traumatic events as principally damaging the social webs and relationships, not the individual psyche.


Trauma is highly historically contingent. Americans are quick to register and locate so much of reality in the private tightknit closed quarters of the individual psyche.


Nor do all cultures believe distress is best relieved through mental health experts. Many refugees don’t want individual counseling because it takes them away from the healing effects of fulfilling their social roles.


We have so much to learn from other cultures about what it means to live through tragedy. I learned this mostly through my work with Tibetan refugees and studying Tibetan Buddhism.


The irony of the title of The Trauma Mantras is that in the Tibetan Refugee view of trauma, first of all, they don’t really have a word for it (trauma), they tend to downplay negative emotions and strive to move beyond them and not make them into a big personal deal.


They identify suffering as a common component of human life, one of the four noble truths. They tend to view distress as a chance to cleanse negative karmic imprints and develop compassion for all those others in the world that are suffering.


Hence, suffering is somewhat contingent upon how the mind frames an event. Pending on how a person interprets negative events, like imprisonment, displacement, and torture, can cause more or less distress.  


A monk I met when I was lost on a trek told me how he’d fled from Tibet after the torture. He described a resilient mind as one that doesn’t individualize suffering, claiming it as their own unique trauma narrative, but tries to be more like the sky, liquid, spacious, humble, compassionate.

Q: The anthropologist Renato Rosaldo said of the book, “In powerful scenes and unforgettable images, Kusserow captures the force of the sacred and complicates the idea that embracing trauma is a required component of healing.” What do you think of that description?


A: Our ideas about trauma are based in particular Western conceptions of self that often view the self as fragile, triggerable, vulnerable, not very resilient and mostly identified with the biopsychomedical.


PTSD usually focuses on internal states and chemical imbalances inside the individual brain which can actually make the experience quite isolating and alienating.


American culture has one particular highly psychologized and individualized conception of trauma and suffering among many cross-cultural ways of viewing suffering and distress.


The Tibetans have no word for trauma. The concept of trauma as it currently exists in America is not something universal and has a definite historicity to it.


Our notions of how to heal trauma are based in culturally distinct views of body, self, and mind which not all humans share and therefore not all humans will feel is helpful in healing their trauma or suffering.


The book isn’t trying to deny the existence of trauma as a horrible, painful experience, but rather to emphasize the ways in which we in the West have popularized the term to the point that it is applied linguistically to almost any negative experience.


So much more of our everyday landscapes are now viewed as trauma(tizing). A kind of Traumasphere has developed.


In my anthropology class, I gave them the same PTSD questionnaire as I did South Sudanese female refugee students living in Uganda now. My students scored much higher in terms of trauma than the refugees did!


My book emphasizes how we often hold on to one’s specific and individualized story of suffering vs. viewing this kind of intense focus as a kind of isolating, narrow, limited, entrapment.


It suggests that wider meaning systems, narratives, and discourses (nature, spirituality, morality, religion, tribe, spirit, ancestors) for the self might possibly make us a bit happier. 


Q: The book is described as “a memoir in prose poems”--can you say more about that format?


A: The Trauma Mantras is an ethnographic memoir in mostly prose poems and lyric essays. Much of it focuses on my fieldwork with refugees over the past two decades in Bhutan, Nepal, India, Uganda, and South Sudan, as well as Vermont, where I live.


Long ago, when I was getting my doctorate in graduate school in cultural anthropology, I kept getting frustrated by academic articles, both reading and trying to write them.


They couldn’t hold the subtlety, nuance and multidimensionality of the people I was doing fieldwork with – the language was too constrained and stiff, the format too tight.


I needed metaphor, image, rhythm, poetry in order to evoke the complexity and richness of what I was witnessing. So I turned to poetry, sneaking in classes on the side of my regular coursework.


I also found that academic articles couldn’t hold my presence either. According to the British male social anthropologists granting my degree, I was supposed to be removed, completely objective, literally absent from my writing, which in anthropological field work is never the case.


So I needed a form that allowed me to braid my own experience as a mother, wife, daughter, American into the anthropological perspective through which I was studying the world.


So I’d say my book is a combination of autoethnography, poetry, and lyric essay, but it’s also an anthropological tool. I actually use my ethnographic writing to bring me closer to the people and situations I find myself in.


They allow me a fierce meditation and analysis on the bodily subtleties, nonverbal behavior, and energetic shifts that travel underneath conventional depictions of reality.


It is also a memoir of witness, because I have always felt I should never hide from the inequalities of this world. It is also a manifesto of sorts, at times a feisty critique of Western approaches to the self, suffering and healing.


Early on in the book I interrogate the way American culture prizes a psychologized individualism, the supposedly fragile self. I’ve always had a huge hunger to bust out of such narrow confines of individualism.


I’m always looking for ways to widen the American self so that it includes what so many other cultures include within the self: tribe, family, ancestors, land, trees, animism.


I tried in this book to not let myself off the hook, and much of it is also a rigorous reflection on my own position and commitments. As I travel, I am privy to the ways in which people stereotype the “West” or “East” – and social media has only made this more extreme, so some of what I write about is about these fictions.


I’m also fascinated by the stories we tell about ourselves and obsessively weave from the available dominant cultural meanings that surround us.


For years I wrote ethnographic poetry only, but found I wanted more of an essay that could accommodate my anthropological perspective. So I suppose the book is more of a multi-brid than a hybrid.


Duke had a devil of a time trying to get me to call them prose poems, because I don’t think of many of the one-to-three page vignettes/meditations as poems at all.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Currently I am working on a book called O(M)other…..a book of braided essays/meditations on caretaking for my 91-year-old mother, who lives with my husband and me.


The book (an account of caring for my mother) is braided with discussions of Buddhism, aging, death, and my usual anthropological perspective, as well as some of my mother’s own writings.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I have always preferred looking at the world from a cross-cultural perspective, a large, existential, wide gaze as if looking down on Planet Earth and noticing patterns, migrations, collisions.


I have never been very drawn to confessional poetry unless it points to the ways globalization and cultural values, beliefs, and practices shape the deepest parts of the psyche.


I also feel like I really try and critique myself along with everything else I am critiquing from an anthropological perspective. I am by no means above it all, preaching, I am acutely aware that I very much hold and perpetuate many of the Western psychologized and individualistic conceptions of self and emotions that I critique.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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