"Original Traumas": Narrating Migrant Identity

Ulrike Tancke


In White Teeth (2000), Zadie Smith uses the phrase "original trauma" to capture the sense of unbelonging and uprootedness experienced by those involved in the mass migrations of the twentieth century. Taking this phrase as its thematic cue, this paper seeks to investigate migrant identity in two novels written by and about contemporary British Muslim women – Monica Ali's Brick Lane (2003) and Leila Aboulela's Minaret (2005). Drawing on trauma studies and theories of narrative and identity, it attempts critically to revisit the notion of hybrid selfhood that is central to postcolonial criticism. Each novel centres on a love affair between the female protagonist and a younger, politically radical and/or staunchly religious man. At first glance, the texts seem to suggest gender-specific coping mechanisms in response to the traumatic experience of migration: the radical answers provided by the male figures are countered with a "feminine" strategy of compromise, negotiation and pragmatism. This neat division along gender lines is complicated, however, by the fact that the female figures initially fall prey to the allure and seduction of the extreme; moreover, the pragmatic stance that they eventually settle for is far from straightforward; it is painful and defies closure. Tracing characters' attempts to reintegrate their traumatic experience into a coherent narrative, both texts question the very possibility of a narrative reconstruction of the traumatized self and imply that the quest for coherent subjectivity is a flawed one. What the novels suggest, then, is that trauma refuses narrative integration – in fact, the very attempt is destructive in itself. Far from creating alluringly hybrid identities that flexibly respond to varying global contexts, the "original trauma" of the migrant experience repeats itself in a fundamental sense, creating new traumas even as older ones are being worked through.


trauma; narratve; identity

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