In-between Fact and Fiction. Representing the Traumatization of Child Soldiers in Uzodinma Iweala's "Beasts of No Nation" and Emmanuel "Jal's Warchild"

Examination Thesis, 2017

76 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. What is Trauma?
2.1 Definition
2.2 Traumatic Memory

3. Theoretical Framework - Trauma in Literature
3.1 Trauma and Literary Studies
3.2. Trauma Fiction
3.3. Autobiography: Trauma, Truth and Public Response
3.4. Trauma Theory and Postcolonial Literary Studies

4. Introduction to Child Soldiers

5. Trauma in Uzodinma Iweala's Beasts of No Nations
5.1 Introduction
5.2 Beasts of No Nation as Trauma Fiction
5.3 The Impact of War and Trauma on Agu's Identity – His Struggle for Humanity
5.4 The Representation of Trauma in Beasts of No Nation

6. Trauma in Emmanuel Jal's Warchild
6.1 Introduction
6.2 Warchild as Autobiography
6.3 The Impact of War and Trauma on Jal's Identity – His Need for Revenge
6.3.1 Reasons of Jal becoming a Child Soldier
6.3.2 Being an actual Child Soldier
6.4 The Representation of Trauma in Warchild
6.4.1 The Representation of Traumatic Events
6.4.2 Leaving the Armed Group – Acting out
6.4.3 Working through his Trauma

7. Discussion
7.1. Trauma Fiction versus Autobiography
7.2. Similarities and Differences of the Circumstances and Main Protagonists – Identity Struggle in the Books
7.3 The Representation of Traumatic Experiences in Beasts of No Nation and Warchild
7.4 Testimony and Social Activism in Warchild and Beasts of No Nation
7.5 European Trauma Theory and Postcolonialism in Warchild and Beasts of No Nation

8. Conclusion

9. Works Cited

10. Appendix
10.1 Internet Sources

1. Introduction

Although the use of children in warfare is not a recent issue, child soldiering has received increasing attention throughout the past two decades. Children have lately been exploited on an unprecedented scale in the history of warfare. Contemporary Africa seems to be the epicenter of this disturbing development (Abbas, New Face of Warfare). This trend, along with a raised global awareness on the issue, led to a rapid increase of literary works that deal with the topic of child soldiers, both fictional and autobiographical (Mackey, Troubling Humanitarian Consumption 100). Since the majority of child soldier cases are to be found on the African continent, many of these works are written by either African authors or authors with African roots. Examples include: Johnny Mad Dog ([2002]2005) by Emmanuel Dongala; Allah Is Not Obliged ([2000]2006) by Ahmadou Kourouma; Beasts of No Nation (2006) by Uzondinma Iweala; Song for Night (2007) by Chris Abani; A Long Way Gone (2007) by Ishmael Beah and Warchild (2009) by Emmanuel Jal. The topic of child soldiers often goes hand in hand with the topic of trauma and traumatization. Child soldiers are raised in an environment of severe violence and often commit cruelties and atrocities of the worst kind. This repeated exposure to overwhelming danger and life-threatening experiences can leave children with severe mental ill-health such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and personality changes (D’Alessandra, Psychological Consequences; Wessels, Child Soldiers 126-134; Schauer and Elbert, Psychological Impact 311-312). Literary works, such as those mentioned above, draw attention to the relationship between child soldiers and trauma as well as to the difficult relationship between trauma and representability in this context (Mackey, Troubling Humanitarian Consumption 103). Academic research on the representation of child soldiers in literature and especially on the representation of trauma in child soldier literature is, however, still rare. This analysis, therefore, attempts to contribute to the literary research of how trauma is represented in child soldier literature and to increase awareness of this topic on an academic level. It not only wishes to demonstrate how trauma can be represented in child soldier literature but it also seeks to encourage further research into this complex, cruel but also fascinating topic.

As this analysis is meant to make a small contribution to the literary research on child soldier literature, it merely focuses on two narrations: Uzodinma Iweala's Beasts of No Nation (2006) and Emmanuel Jal's Warchild (2009). These two books were chosen based on the great differences of both the narrations and the authors' background. Beasts of No Nation (BoNN) tells a fictional story, whereas Warchild is an autobiography. Uzodinma Iweala is an African American writer with Nigerian roots who grew up in the U.S. and is well educated. As a matter of fact, Iweala wrote his story as a creative thesis within one year (Deutsch, The Grim and the Dead; Egbedi, Exclusive Interview; Verissimo , Uzodinma Iweala). BoNN can be seen as a postmodern novel as it uses various postmodern narrative techniques and is quite experimental, too. Emmanuel Jal (Jal), in contrast, was born and raised in Sudan and fought as a child soldier in the Sudanese Civil War during the eighties and nineties. Jal grew up in a war-torn society surrounded by constant oppression, death and poverty without the opportunity for a proper education. He, however, managed to educate himself after leaving the armed group and succeeded to become a popular HipHop artist in Africa. Moreover, he campaigns against the use of child soldiers (Boustany, Emmanuel Jal). Warchild is an autobiography about his life as a child soldier, before and afterwards. It mostly uses traditional narrative forms to recount Jal's experiences. Based on these differences, the two books can serve as good examples of how trauma can be represented in child soldier literature. This analysis aspires to answer the question whether these different narrations actually depict trauma in different ways or whether the different narrative forms have no influence on the representation of trauma. Other primary aspects of this analysis will be: how BoNN and Warchild tell the story of their protagonists; what kind of formal structure and narrative techniques they use to represent trauma and what effect they have on the reader; how traumatic events and their consequences are represented; what kind of image about trauma the stories depict; the similarities and differences between the books and their causes; whether the motivations for fighting of the protagonists have a varied effect on their traumatization; why the authors chose their kind of narration and their motives to write their books; whether there is a narrative form that represents trauma better and, at last, a critical examination of existing and established literary trauma theories.

In this analysis I will proceed as follows. First, I will give a short definition and overview about trauma. Then, I will elaborate on the theoretical framework of trauma in literature and give a short introduction to child soldiers in general. Subsequently, I will examine the representation of trauma in the books BoNN and Warchild. The results thereof will be discussed and viewed in the light of existing literary trauma theories. At the end, I will draw the conclusion of this survey's findings and suggest possible further directions of research concerning the representation of trauma in child soldier literature and in literature generally.

2. What is Trauma?

Although investigations into trauma began in the late nineteenth century (Rodi-Risberg, Writing trauma 4), the phenomenon was not officially acknowledged until nineteen-eighty. Since then, it is officially termed “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” (PTSD) (Caruth, Trauma 3).

2.1 Definition

While the precise definition of PTSD is contested, most descriptions generally agree on the official definition of the American Psychiatric Association from 1987:

A response, sometimes delayed, to an overwhelming event or events, which takes the form of repeated, intrusive hallucinations, dreams, thoughts or behaviors stemming from the event, along with numbing that may have begun during or after the experience, and possibly also increased arousal to (and avoidance of) stimuli recalling the event. (quoted in Caruth, Trauma 4)

PTSD can be caused by experiences or events such as war, rape, incest, child abuse, natural catastrophes, accidents or chronic diseases (Rodi-Risberg, Writing trauma 8; Vickroy Trauma 17-18). Being traumatized means being possessed by an image or event. Symptoms return against the will of the traumatized person and are surprisingly literal. Trauma becomes part of the survivor’s identity and is repeatedly acted out as though it happened in real time. It is not remembered as something that happened in the past, it is, rather, re-experienced over and over again in the present (Rodi-Risberg, Writing trauma 1). The study of trauma began in the eighteen-eighties and Sigmund Freud along with Pierre Janet became the leading researchers of this newly-discovered phenomenon. Sigmund Freud developed the concept of Nachträglichkeit[1]. For Freud, an event or the memory of an experience becomes traumatic only the second time around, after it has become internally revivified (Rodi-Risberg, Writing trauma 4-5). Freud, furthermore, depicted an explanation how shock generates a compulsion to repeat in the individual (7). In his explanation, the mind belatedly tries to prepare itself for the traumatic event that has already occurred. The individual was not prepared for the shock at the original occurrence of the event and therefore lacked the necessary response. With repetitions, the mind seeks to achieve a backdated mastery over the traumatic event by developing the appropriate response, such as anxiety, over and over again (Anthonissen, Trauma of Child Soldiers 10; Whitehead, Trauma Fiction 119). The repetition has either the effect that the victim remains caught in this constant repetition, or it can help the victim achieve catharsis. The former aspect Freud called 'melancholia' and the latter 'mourning' (Whitehead, Trauma Fiction 87). The following passage illustrates how the mind processes traumatic experiences.

2.2 Traumatic Memory

In the late nineteen-hundreds, Pierre Janet devoted much of his attention to studying how the mind processes memories. During his studies, he developed a comprehensive formulation about the effects of traumatic memories on consciousness. As Van der Kolk and Van der Hart state, Janet viewed the memory system as the central organizing system of the mind (The Intrusive Past 159). Janet was the one who coined the word 'subconscious' for the collection of automatically stored memories that form the map which guides successive interaction with the environment. When people respond to new challenges with appropriate actions, they automatically and subconsciously integrate new information into this map. This procedure is today known as implicit memory, which can, in turn, be distinguished from narrative memory. This “consists of mental constructs, which people use to make sense out of experience” (160). Janet thought that familiar and expectable experiences are automatically integrated without much conscious awareness of details, while frightening or unusual experiences may not easily fit into existing cognitive schemes. These experiences may be remembered with particular distinctness or, under extreme conditions, existing meaning schemes may be completely unable to integrate them. This “causes the memory of these experiences to be stored differently and not be available for retrieval under ordinary conditions: it becomes dissociated from conscious awareness and voluntary control” (160). This traumatic memory, hence, differs very much from narrative memory because it is not adaptive at all, it is inflexible and invariable. It has “no social component”(163) and is “a solitary activity” (163). Traumatic memory can be triggered in situations which have similarities to the original traumatic situation and the individual re-experiences the original traumatic situation with all of his senses. Narrative memory, in contrast, is adaptive, flexible and variable. It has an address and is no solitary activity. Narrative memory can be told without having to re-experience it. It can also be varied depending on the listening person and can voluntarily be remembered as something belonging to the past (163).

Both Freud and Janet claimed that the crucial factor of healing trauma is language and narration. The trauma is relived repeatedly, until a person learns to remember his trauma through access to language and, hence, convert traumatic memory into narrative memory (Van der Kolk and Van der Hart, The Intrusive Past 167; Rodi-Risberg, Writing trauma 1).

3. Theoretical Framework - Trauma in Literature

The official acknowledgement of PTSD in nineteen-eighty marked the birth of contemporary trauma studies and laid the foundation for the development of literary trauma studies. Therefore, an increasing number of literary critics received academic recognition throughout the last two decades (Anthonissen, Trauma of Child Soldiers 12).

3.1 Trauma and Literary Studies

As chapter two describes, trauma is a phenomenon that shatters our normal memory processing system and supposedly escapes narration. For this reason, the question that contemporary literary theorists ask themselves is how can trauma be represented at all? One of the first literary theorists who has dealt with this question is Cathy Caruth. Her work Trauma: Explorations in Memory was published in 1995 and has since been one of the most influencing works concerning literary trauma studies. In a nutshell, Caruth's theory rests on three different pillars: trauma is amnesiac, trauma is unspeakable and trauma can only be effectively witnessed by fiction (Pederson, Speak Trauma 13, 345). The first pillar is based on her reformulation of Freud's concept of Nachträglichkeit where she emphasizes that the traumatic moment is not fully registered in the first place, therefore, it is “unclaimed” (Caruth, Trauma 6). The horrific moment arrives with such world-shattering force that the sensory manifold keeps recording sights, smells and feelings but the brain fails to work them through. The videographer leaves but the tape keeps recording. Trauma, then, is “an event whose force is marked by its lack of registration” (Caruth, Trauma 6; Pederson, Speak Trauma 3-4). In the immediate aftermath of a traumatic event, the victim may totally forget the incident but later on in life it may resurface in a fragmented form such as traumatic flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive thoughts and repetitive re-enactments. For this reason, the event is experienced as trauma only belatedly. The distances between past and present collapse and, therefore, trauma should be understood as absence rather than as a positive present (Rodi-Risberg, Writing trauma 1; Marder, Trauma and Literary Studies 2; Nadal and Calvo, Trauma in Contemporary Literature 3; Whitehead, Trauma Fiction 5). Besides the assumption that trauma is amnesiac, Caruth claims that trauma is also unspeakable. Caruth's trauma theory conceptualizes trauma as a phenomenon which is resistant to narrative structures and linear temporalities. Memories of trauma may have no verbal component and victims may be unable to describe them in words (Whitehead, Trauma Fiction 5; Pederson, Speak Trauma 3-4). Although trauma may be unspeakable, however, Caruth claims that literature can represent it. In her opinion, trauma narratives demand what she calls a “new mode of reading and of listening” (Caruth, Unclaimed Experience 9). This means to read not only what is there but also what is not there. Trauma, hence, can never be represented directly but merely through gaps, disruptions, displacements and relocations (Pederson, Speak Trauma 3-4; Marder, Trauma and Literary Studies 2; Rodi-Risberg, Writing trauma 2). Trauma, accordingly, undermines any attempt to be recorded historically, since it is an aporia that fails to access and comprehensively reproduce traumatic experience. This problem leads us to the third pillar of Caruth's theory that trauma can only effectively be witnessed by fiction (Collins, Ethics 2). Caruth claims that figurative language is the only properly referential language of trauma. Imaginative literature can represent trauma when normal, discursive language cannot (Berger, Trauma and Literary Theory 578; Pederson, Speak Trauma 2). Consequently, fiction can play an essential role in traumatic human experience and even serve as testimony to a traumatic event (Marder, Trauma and Literary Studies 2).

Other literary theorists who tie the question of representing trauma to literary language and to witnessing are Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub. In their book Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History (1992), they elaborate that historical witnessing is in a crisis because historical narratives are burdened by the incoherences of trauma. Nevertheless, Felman and Laub insist on the possibility of transmitting the truth through a new form of witnessing, namely testimony (Marder, Trauma and Literary Studies 3-4). In Felman and Laubs' opinion, testimony is one of the most viable and vital responses possible to trauma. Testimonial speech differs from most other uses of language as it requires a highly elaborative relationship between speaker and listener. In this relationship, the listener bears a dual responsibility. He has to balance between the necessity to witness sympathetically that which testimonial writing cannot fully represent and a simultaneous respect for the otherness of the experience. He has to receive the testimony without identifying himself with it. In this regard, testimony can be understood as a “discursive practice” (4). It, thereby, teaches us that “we must open our ears, hearts, and minds to the voices of the dead as they continue to speak through the voices of the surviving witnesses” (4). Felman and Laub consider that there is no closure to a traumatic past but, still, we must listen to it and its effects (Marder, Trauma and Literary Studies 3-4). Only through that might we be able to have a future that is not overly determined by the traumatic repetitions of its traumatic past (4).

Dominick LaCapra is another theorist who addresses the difficulty to represent and moreover to listen and pass on a traumatic experience or history. According to LaCapra, a person or even a whole culture can react to a traumatic event in three different forms: Denial, acting-out or working through. A person can deny its traumatic experience or even totally forget about it. Some day, however, the repressed or dissociated traumatic experience returns as compulsive repetitions and is acted out. In LaCapra's opinion, however, trauma should be worked-through (Berger, Trauma and Literary Theory 574-575). But what exactly is acting-out and working through? Acting out can be compared to Freud's concept of melancholia as it is a situation “in which one is haunted or possessed by the past and performatively caught up in the compulsive repetition of traumatic scenes […] In acting-out tenses implode, and it is as if one were back there in the past reliving the traumatic scene” (LaCapra, Writing History 21). Working through, in contrast, is comparable to Freud's concept of mourning as it is defined as an articulatory practice: “To the extent one works through trauma […], one is able to distinguish between past and present and to recall in memory that something happened to one (or one's people) back then while realizing that one is living here and now with openings to the future” (21-22). Working through is an important reaction to traumatic experience since it helps the victim to integrate the traumatic event instead of forgetting or exorcising it (Anthonissen, Trauma of Child Soldiers 17). There is, however, no redemption or full closure for the victim. Even if the victim reaches the state of working through, a relapse into acting out or even into denial is always possible (LaCapra, Writing History 23). Concerning the representation of trauma, LaCapra does not agree with Cathy Caruth's approach, which is that trauma is unspeakable. He thinks that traumatic events may be recoverable (46). Again in agreement with Shoshana Felman, he acknowledges the difficulty of reading traumatic narrative or receiving testimony about a traumatic event. The reader or listener has to balance between overidentification with the victim and being too detached (39-41). LaCapra calls this kind of reading or listening “empathic unsettlement” (41). In order to be able to work through trauma, LaCapra also emphasizes the importance of narrative. Concerning literature, LaCapra favors literary texts that “take readers through a process of working through trauma and put readers into a critical as well as empathic mode” (Vickroy, Trauma 21). 'Empathic unsettlement' forecloses closure because the reader continues to think about the narrative during the act of reading but, moreover, also afterwards. This can even lead to social action (Anthonissen, Trauma of Child Soldiers 20-21).

A literary theorist who entirely disagrees with the notion that trauma is amnesiac, unspeakable and only representable through imaginative or figural literature, is Joshua Pederson. He, especially, criticizes Cathy Caruth's approach and claims that her literary trauma theory is built on obsolete psychological research from the mid-nineties. Pederson builds his literary trauma theory on the work of Richard McNally's Remembering Trauma (2003), a review of new research that challenges some of the field's sacred truths. McNally's arguments are that traumatic amnesia is a myth, and while victims may choose not to speak of their trauma, there is little evidence that they cannot. For McNally and Pederson, trauma is memorable and describable although it may be altered. For this reason, Pederson outlines an alternative literary theory of trauma based on McNally's work (Pederson, Speak Trauma 334-338). Joshua Pederson offers a framework for the literary theory of trauma which is comprised of three aspects. “First, critics seeking to engage trauma in literature should turn their focus from gaps in the text to the text itself” (Speak Trauma 338). Trauma theorists should emphasize both the accessibility of traumatic memory and the possibility that victims may construct reliable narrative accounts of it. Furthermore, victims' textual narratives of trauma can even have healing power because narrating memories to others is an active speech act that can give order, enable the reconstruction of the victim's psyche and help the survivor to remake a self (Brison, Aftermath 71). Pederson's second aspect is that “trauma theorists should seek out evidence of augmented narrative detail” (Speak Trauma 339). Instead of being elusive or absent, traumatic memories may be potentially more detailed and more powerful than normal ones. Furthermore, “traumatic memory is often multisensory” (339). For this reason, we may need more words, not fewer, to accurately represent traumatic effects in text and readers of potential traumatic narratives should turn not to textual absence but to textual overflow (339). The third aspect of Pederson's framework is that “trauma theorists should focus on depictions of experiences that are temporally, physically or ontologically distorted” (339). As McNally observes, traumatic memories may not only be heightened but also altered. These alterations seem to change the affect of traumatic memories. Time may be experienced more slowly, spaces seem to become fuzzy, the world may feel unreal, or victims experience to become detached from their bodies. In Pederson's opinion, literature, especially modern literature, is capable of capturing the effects of this condition (339-340). Pederson, hence, supports modern creative literature, but he does not dismiss other ways of representation or narration (349-350).

The discussion above reveals that trauma in literature concerns literary theorists who developed quite different theoretical frameworks of how trauma should be represented in literature. Having discussed these theoretical frameworks, I will now turn to more concrete suggestions concerning the representation of trauma in literature.

3.2. Trauma Fiction

Trauma fiction, a term coined by Anne Whitehead, is an emerging genre that is influenced by both Cathy Caruth's and Dominick LaCapra's literary trauma theory (Collins, Ethics 6-7). For many fiction writers, testifying to a traumatic past has been an urgent task in order to attempt to represent personal and collective memories from assimilation, repression or misrepresentation. Thus, their narrative approaches are concerned with the psychological experiences and consequences of wars, the Holocaust, poverty, domestic abuse, colonization and postcolonial situations, slavery and racism (Vickroy, Trauma 1-2; Whitehead, Trauma 3). These fictional trauma narratives not only help readers to access traumatic experience but also put their readers in ethical dilemmas similar to those of trauma survivors (Vickroy, Trauma 1). Trauma narratives are, furthermore, characterized not only in terms of its contents but also through their fragmented form. Temporal and narrative disjunction and repetition reinscribe the traumatic crisis (Collins, Ethics 7) and can be seen as representing the typical traumatic effect of belatedness. Rhythms, processes and uncertainties of traumatic experience are, additionally, internalized within their underlying sensibilities and structures (Luckhurst, Trauma 80; Vickroy, Trauma 2-3). Trauma fictions are often concerned with a small group of individuals who have to live through human-made traumatic situations and, thus, they can serve not only as criticism of the ways social, economic and political structures can create and perpetuate trauma but they can also offer an alternative to the often depersonalized and institutionalized historiography (Vickroy, Trauma 2,4). Trauma fiction overlaps with and borrows from both postmodern and postcolonial fiction (Whitehead, Trauma 3-4). Postmodernist forms and techniques depart from conventional linear narrative techniques and bring them to their limits; trauma fiction shares this tendency. In testing formal narrative boundaries, it seeks to transmit the damaging and distorting impact of the traumatic event (Whitehead, Trauma 81-82, 86-87; Luckhurst, Trauma 81). Postcolonial novelists seek to rescue previously overlooked histories and to bring hitherto marginalized or silenced stories to public consciousness and trauma fiction overlaps with this claim in its concern to acknowledge the denied, the repressed and the forgotten (Whitehead, Trauma 82-83).

There are a number of key stylistic features which tend to recur in trauma fictions: intertextuality, a dispersed or fragmented narrative voice and repetition (Whitehead, Trauma 84). As the relation of a text to its intertext can be seen as emerging traces of the past in the present, intertextuality can suggest the resurfacing of forgotten and repressed memories but it also can allow formerly silenced voices to tell their own stories (Whitehead, Trauma 85). Dispersed or fragmented narrative voices serve the purpose of engaging readers to help reconstruct traumatic experiences, of representing the complexity of traumatic memories and of putting them in similar disoriented positions. The multiplicity of voices and positionings can either occur within characters or narrators or between them. Thereby, readers can experience something analogous to splitting, which is a common defense mechanism of trauma (Vickroy, Trauma 27-28). Repetition mimics the effects of trauma, hints at the insistent return of the event and disrupts a narrative chronology and progression. Words, phrases or motifs are repeated that are narratively dissociative but affectively overdetermined (Vickroy, Trauma 29-30). But still, although trauma fiction may be symbolic and fictional, it might not necessarily be false or untrue. Authentic trauma fiction has potential for historical truth in its ability to convey a plausible feeling for traumatic experiences as well as some critical distance. Trauma fiction does not simply represent stories about trauma, it engages readers in traumatic experiences that point to pain, breakages and loss and, thereby, demand deliberation, critical thinking and sometimes even social action (Vickroy, Trauma 11, 21-22).

Trauma fiction is, however, not the only genre that concerns itself with the representation of trauma. During the last two decades, there has been an explosion of memoirs and autobiographies, written by trauma survivors with several diverse backgrounds. Emanuel Jal's Warchild is one of these autobiographies. This is why the next chapter is concerned with the genre autobiography and its relationship to trauma.

3.3. Autobiography: Trauma, Truth and Public Response

The term autobiography derives from Greek and means “self-life-writing” (Anderson, Autobiography 1,7). Defining autobiography simply by its lexical meaning is, however, too broad for an appropriate definition of the genre. Philippe Lejeune offers a more precise definition: “[a] retrospective prose narrative produced by a real person concerning his own experience, focusing on his individual life, in particular on the development of his personality” (Anderson, Autobiography 2). The main feature of autobiography is, thus, structured around identity formation and character development as a result of life experiences of the author. There are several common characteristics: the identity of the self, self-reflection, introspection, first person singular perspective, one narrative strand, logical and chronological sequencing as well as that the narration should contain a true story. It is important to note that the identity of author, narrator and protagonist has to be similar but is not identical (Berryman, Critical 71; Anderson, Autobiography 2; Hughes, Recycling 566-70; Quigley, Grammar of Autobiography 106-107). As a form of introspection, the author reveals the character's intentions, thoughts and emotions and in this way he evaluates why events occurred as they did. The author explains what happened in the past in order to express to the reader how the self evolved. This requires that the author can distinguish between the present and the past (Bacon, The Genre of Autobiography). Postmodern theories, however, claim that the truth cannot be objective but is subjective. In their book The Voice Within: Reading and Writing Autobiography, Porter and Wolf state that: “Truth is a highly subjective matter, and no autobiographer can represent exactly 'what happened back then,' any more than a historian can definitively describe the real truth of the past” (5). Since the author cannot describe events objectively, even the most accurate autobiographies, thus, have fictional elements. This contesting of the truth has led to a crisis of autobiographies. Readers of such narratives normally expect that the text represents a real story, based predominantly on verifiable facts. Philippe Lejeune called this understanding the “autobiographical pact” (Quoted in Miller, The Entangled Self 538). When a reader, thus, finds some inaccuracies in the story, he might think that the autobiographical pact is broken and, hence, might feel betrayed and question the authenticity of the whole story (538). The problematic of writing the 'truth' becomes even more complicated when autobiographies attempt to narrate traumatic experiences because traumatic memory is fallible (Hesford and Kulbago, Autobiography). The act of witnessing and giving testimony in an autobiographical form, furthermore, takes a great personal risk as the private and public life of the trauma survivor intermingle. When an autobiography, then, becomes the subject of scrutiny and judgment it can have serious consequences for trauma survivors. One of these consequences is that the risk of being accused of lying can threaten the survivor into continued silence. As trauma survivors very often do not only want to tell their story but achieve public attention and sometimes social action as well, being caught in a lie can become a costly mistake, as the reader might be less inclined to act (Gilmore, The Limits of Autobiography 3-8; Nance, Can Literature Promote Justice? 31). The problem of being accused of lying can, however, be avoided by the writer through confessing that he or she simply does not know everything and that his or her memory can be fallible. The writer must be honest and should not claim that he or she possesses the truth, but should rather insist on “the provisionality of all versions of the truth, including one's own” (Nance, Can Literature Promote Justice? 38). It is, hence, very important that the writer can be accepted as being honest and authentic by the reader because, thereby, it is much harder to criticize narrative inaccuracies.

Since both books discussed here are stories about a child soldier in a civil war of an African and thus non-Western country, they can also be seen as postcolonial trauma books. Therefore the relation between European literary trauma theory and postcolonial literary studies will be explicated in the following section.

3.4. Trauma Theory and Postcolonial Literary Studies

Postcolonial literary studies examine literature that relates to postcolonial contexts and recently they grew interested in the field of trauma theory, specifically in its practicability beyond European contexts. Trauma theory has its roots in Western culture and, hence, it is legitimate to ask whether this Western concept is appropriate to a place like contemporary Africa (McKinley, Post-Colonialism in Literature; Kurtz, Literature 423). Postcolonial theorists challenge the usefulness of Western trauma theory for understanding colonial traumas and, rather, argue that traumatic experiences, their consequences and treatment should be culture-bound (Craps and Buelens, Postcolonial Trauma novels 3). A related problem is the fact that the study of trauma has traditionally tended to focus on individual psychology. Colonial trauma, however, is often a collective experience which means that the object of trauma research should shift from the individual to larger social entities, such as communities or nations. The focus of the Western trauma model on individual psychological suffering ignores the important fact that cultural trauma can only be overcome when including material recovery such as restoration or restitution and, more broadly, through the transformation of a wounding political, social and economic system (Craps and Buelens, Postcolonial Trauma Novels 4). It is, furthermore, essential to consider complicity, guilt and agency in traumatic postcolonial settings, especially when it comes to child soldiers. Both main characters in BoNN and Warchild are not only victims but also perpetrators. A theory that merely covers the victim part of traumatic experiences does only cover half of this complex problem. (Self-)critical scrutiny of complicity should be envisaged in postcolonial trauma narrative. The empathic, other-oriented ethos of trauma theory as articulated by Felman and Laub does, however, not include it (Visser, Trauma Theory 276). Postcolonial literary studies, additionally, criticize European trauma theory's emphasis on the debilitating effects of trauma as “a kind of injunction to maintain the post-traumatic condition. To be in a frozen or suspended afterwards” (Luckhurst, Trauma 210). This means that trauma theory poses the preservation of trauma and orients approaches and interpretations towards themes of victimization and melancholia without stressing the possibility that trauma can be overcome and even be healed (Visser, Trauma Theory 276-277). People who work closely with trauma victims, however, tend to be strikingly optimistic about the possibility that victims can recover from trauma (Siegel, Neurobiology of Psychotherapy 53). In addition to that, non-Western cultures may have healing strengths of their own as for example religious belief systems and spirituality (Visser, Trauma Theory 278 ; Kurtz, Literature 429-431). Consequently, trauma narratives in postcolonial settings should be forward looking and striving for subversion of the traumatic experience (Visser, Trauma Theory 279). Postcolonial theorists, furthermore, reject the Eurocentric insistence on formal criteria of narrative rupture and aporia concerning the representation of trauma. Postcolonial theorists point out that this insistence is too “prescriptive” (Luckhurst, Trauma 88). Traumatic experience might be characterized as fragmenting but African writers and critics do not claim that this leads to incomprehensibility or unspeakability. Many African texts portray a real sense that there can be comprehension and that a story must be told and can and should be grasped by others, especially texts that are addressed to the West. The reason for this might even be a political one. Many of the traumatizing events in African and other non-Western countries, as for example civil wars and the problem of child soldiers, are not finished but are still continuing. For this reason, traumatic events are attempted to be transferred comprehensibly, because without anyone grasping them, perhaps nothing will be done to stop these horrible conditions. These texts, which “are not simply affective works but are also aimed explicitly at pricking Western consciences”, can be called “engaged literature” (Eaglestone, You Would Not Add to My Suffering 82) as they try to influence, explain and educate at the same time (Kurtz, Literature 425; Eaglestone, You Would Not Add to My Suffering 81-83).

Having discussed the theoretical framework and the streams concerning trauma in literature, it is now time to give a brief introduction to the topic of child soldiers.

4. Introduction to Child Soldiers

The existence of child soldiers is a global problem that dates back, at least, until the Civil War in the United States (Rosen, Armies of the Young 5). Today, child soldiers exist predominantly in the non-Western world, such as in Asia and Africa and children serve as combatants in over two-third of current or recently ended conflicts (Wessels , Child Soldiers 8). The official definition of child soldiers is as follows:

A child soldier is any person under 18 years of age who is part of any kind of regular or irregular armed force in any capacity, including but not limited to cooks, porters, messengers, and those accompanying such groups, other than purely as family members. Girls recruited for sexual purposes and forced marriage are included in this definition. It does not, therefore, only refer to a child who is carrying or has carried arms. (UNICEF in Wessells, Child Soldiers 7)

Since both books discussed here are about child soldiers who carry weapons and actively participate in fighting, however, I will focus mainly on child combatants here. Most child combatants are between thirteen to eighteen years old but many non-Western cultures regard persons under eighteen as adults as soon as they have undergone specific ceremonies. The fact that this happens normally around the age of fourteen, however, shows that both main protagonists in BoNN and Warchild are still considered too young to be adults and, thus, soldiers in such non-Western cultures as well (5).

Why is child soldiering so popular today? One important reason is that today's wars are mostly civil wars. The actual fighting happens around communities where combatants blend into the civilian population (18-19). This makes it quite easy for armed groups to recruit children. Fighting, furthermore, often erupts along religious or ethnic lines as fights against oppression, to achieve liberation or to reform a political system, just as it happens in Sudan in Warchild. In those conflicts, children are at great risk of becoming soldiers because they might see this as an opportunity to gain revenge and end oppression. Hence, although the prevalent picture of child soldiers is that they are brutally abducted and forced to become soldiers and to kill, children also voluntarily join armed groups and Emmanuel Jal is one example for that (20-22). Further significant factors for using children as soldiers are that, in developing countries, they are often cheap and convenient and nearly always available in abundance (2, 34). They, additionally, can easily be manipulated and controlled through terror, their early level of psychological development and willingness of obedience (35-36). The training of child soldiers is mostly about breaking children's will and achieving high levels of dominance and control. They are often reeducated in favor of the armed group's aims and goals (57-58). Although most children experience a mixture of disgust, guilt and self-contempt at first, over time many children learn to embrace the life and the values of a soldier and to devalue human life. Killing is normal and the core values are self-preservation and following orders. They now live in a revised moral space just as Emmanuel and Agu do for a long time (64-65). Generally speaking, there are two types of child combatants: those who fight reluctantly, kill only when necessary and constantly look for escape opportunities, which are often abductees like Agu, and those who learn to enjoy combat and redefine their identities as soldiers, which applies to Emmanuel Jal (74). Additionally, commanders use drugs to harden children for combat; drug usage for child combatants often leads to a deadly mixture of fearlessness and uncontrolled violence (76-77). Child combatants leave their armed group in several different ways. Some manage to escape and others are released from their groups. Many former child soldiers have faced multiple losses and difficulties of coming to terms with bad memories of past horrors. They often show signs of trauma, such as nightmares, and they experience shame and guilt. They, additionally, have to survive in a complex mosaic of psychosocial impacts such as health problems, loss of education, lack of training and job skills, stigmatization, social exclusion, disability and living in chronic poverty (126).

BoNN and Warchild are two books that concern themselves with the modality of how war and soldiering affects the life and psyche of their child protagonists. I will, therefore, subsequently analyze how those two books specifically depict the lives and traumatization of their main protagonists.

5. Trauma in Uzodinma Iweala's Beasts of No Nations

5.1 Introduction

Beasts of No Nation (BoNN), written by Uzodinma Iweala and published in 2005, tells the fictional story of the school aged boy Agu who is forced to become a child soldier in an unnamed country. Before the war, Agu is a normal boy who lives with his parents and his sister in a small village, who loves to go to school, to play with his friends and to read the Bible together with his devoutly religious and loving mother. When a civil war breaks out in his country, Agu gradually loses everything, including his family. His mother and sister are rescued by UN peacekeepers and his father gets killed in front of his eyes during an attack. Agu manages to escape but soon afterwards he is discovered by guerrilla soldiers who coerce him to become a soldier. He befriends with the mute boy Strika and together they face the crimes and hardships of war: looting, rape, killing and starvation. Additionally, he and other boys are repeatedly raped by the ruthless Commandant in return for small tokens. Agu understands very little of what is going on around him; he hates the seemingly never-ending killing and fighting and the sexual abuse of the Commandant, but he does not resist as he fears he will be killed by the Commandant. Drugs, his close bond with Strika, his will to survive and his hope to someday escape war help him to keep going. When, eventually, the circumstances of the guerrilla war become almost unbearable, the soldiers, lead by the fearless soldier Rambo, kill the Commandant and walk away from the front line. During this journey, Strika dies and Agu loses his only true friend. After Strika's death, nothing is the same anymore and Agu eventually decides against soldiering and leaves the group. Luckily, but deeply traumatized, he comes under the care of a missionary shelter where he has problems to talk with the white social worker Amy about the evils he had to go through. This time in the care center marks the end of the novel (Iweala, BoNN).

The author Uzodinma Iweala never experienced civil war himself and therefore turns to fiction in order to attend to the topic of child soldiers. The fact that BoNN is a fictional story does, however, not hinder Iweala's attempt to write about traumatic experiences as “fiction may well explore the traumatic“ (LaCapra, Trauma Studies 132). The novel is set in an unnamed country but there are implications that point to Nigeria as the title is an intertextual reference to a song of a Nigerian musician and also landscape-wise there are elements of Nigeria. (Egbedi, Exclusive Interview; Hawley , Biafra as Heritage 21)

5.2 Beasts of No Nation as Trauma Fiction

The novel can be seen as trauma fiction, as Iweala illustrates Agu's experiences not only through its content but also through its form. The story is characterized by intertextuality, temporal and narrative disjunction, repetition, dissociation and experimental narrative techniques (Deutsch, The Grim and the Dead; Center for Global Development, Child Soldiers).

BoNN does not have a lot of intertextual references, but the ones that exist are related to pain, human rights violations, uprisings and especially dehumanization. The title 'Beasts of No Nation' refers to a song by the Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, which is about political leaders who metamorphose into “animals in human skin” (Hron, Ora na-azu nwa 40) and “dash us human rights” (40). Similarly, dehumanization is also an important topic in BoNN (40). The fact that Iweala begins his novel with two quotes that also point to animality and bestiality from totally different times and continents reinforces, together with the setting in an unnamed country, Iweala's statement that child soldiering and its consequences is a universal issue that isn't bound to any country or time in history.

The story of BoNN is told by a first person singular narrator from the child Agu's point of view with all of his childlike and age-based receptions and impressions. In order to enable the reader to empathize with Agu and his experiences, the story focuses on visual images, the affective states of Agu, on his inner thoughts, emotions and senses. How Uzodinma Iweala exactly manages to mediate this will become clear through the other, following narrative techniques.

Temporal disjunction can be seen as representing the typical traumatic effect of confusion and belatedness. During the whole story, there is no real sense of time to be recognized. This is partly due to the disrupted time narration of Agu. The story starts in medias res with the discovery of Agu by the guerrilla fighters who coerce him to become a child soldier. Thereby, the reader is immediately thrown into action. It is not until his first kill that the narration shifts back to Agu's idyllic childhood before the war. The time shift is confusing for the reader, at first, because Agu mixes past and present tenses during this narration. The flashback happens because Agu feels guilty about his first kill. He knows that killing is wrong and needs his neutralizing innocent memories, together with the justification that soldiers are supposed to kill, in order to feel better (31). This can be seen as a defense mechanism and survival strategy as the event of killing is so overwhelming for Agu that it shatters his protective psychological shield. The story, then, shifts back to him being a soldier and Agu narrates more details of his life as a soldier, among other things the brutal slaughter of a woman and her child. After that, the narration flashes back into the past and recounts how war came to Agu's town. Again, past and present tenses intermingle. After that, the story shifts back into the present and from now on the story continues chronologically. This confrontation between Agu's idyllic childhood and his contemporary war reality increases the horror and darkness of the story (Birnbaum, Uzodinma Iweala). At the end, there is a time jump into the future where Agu finds himself in the care of a rehabilitation center. The reader, however, never gets to know how Agu got there. Agu's confusion and another hint for his traumatization is the collapse of temporality throughout the novel. Agu loses more and more track of time during the story. This becomes obvious through expressions such as “it is night. It is day. It is light. It is dark. It is too hot. It is too cold. It is raining. It is too much sunshine. It is too dry. It is too wet. But all the time we are fighting. No matter what, we are always fighting” (117). Everything around him changes without him knowing exactly for how long. The only constant in his life as a soldier is the fighting. Agu's timeless expressions make the story seem surreal like in a bad movie. It seems as if he stumbles through the story and becomes more and more detached from his former idyllic life as a normal child. This shows how child soldiering can crush a child's identity and its connection to the world.

In his narration, Agu uses numerous similes in the text such as when he describes pain “like flat side of machete” (3) and the blood spewing from his first victim's head “like milk from coconut” (21). Through these simple similes, traumatic experiences are described and transferred to others without losing their emotionally disturbing force. In point of fact, it is exactly the simplicity of these similes that conveys the emotional force. This technique is outstanding and unique. The novel, furthermore, uses metaphors. One of the strongest metaphors is that “killing is like falling in love” (12) because Agu has to stop thinking about it and just let it happen. It, additionally, implies that killing sets free similar endorphins as falling in love does because it makes Agu feel “like electricity running through my body” (21) and he grows hard between his legs (22). This metaphor, hence, lets the reader get an impression of how it feels to kill someone.

The most striking narrative feature in this novel is Iweala's experimental language, which is his own adaption of Nigerian Pidgin English and which gives Agu a more authentic voice (Birnbaum, Uzodinma Iweala). Iweala's experimental language dismisses traditional grammatical formalities, involves aspects of Nigerian Pidgin lexis and some simplification of tenses common in pidgins as a whole. The narration misses quotation marks of direct speech, articles, it blurs singular/plural forms of nouns and the comma placement is wrong especially in connection with repetition. Other syntactic features include infinitives, inconsistencies of singular/plural agreement, verbs formed from adjectives and tag questions that are common in West African English (Lambert, Graceland and Beasts of No Nation 290). Additionally, sounds are often recorded with onomatopoeia such as “GBWEM!GBWEM!” (66) for shelling and bombing and capital letters that indicate shouting such as “COME ON! COME ON QUICK QUICK QUICK!” (123). These onomatopoetic techniques make the narration more graphic and, thus, more alive. Repetitions are a frequent occurrence in Agu's narration. In line with other trauma fiction writers, Iweala creates effects of the initial account of Agu's traumatic memories with repeated words, phrases or motifs that are narratively dissociative but affectively overdetermined. In many situations, Agu's narration is full of repetitions of verbs, adjectives, nouns or even whole phrases as for example when he is “just standing there crying crying, shaking shaking, looking looking” (18) before his first kill. These repetitions enforce the severity of the situation or event and succeed in putting across Agu's affective, threatened, confused, scared and thus traumatized state of mind to the reader (Birnbaum, Uzodinma Iweala). The most striking feature of Agu's language is the almost continuous use of the present progressive. This provides an immediacy that heightens the impact of the language and the urgency of the story. Especially in connection with repetitions in killing scenes, the progressive form serves as a forceful impact of those horrible actions in the story as for example when Agu states that “I am chopping and chopping and chopping until I am looking up and it is dark” (51) during the scene when he kills the woman and her daughter.

In summary, Iweala's experimental language, his deft use of language and his penetrating child's perspective make it possible for the reader to not only witness the graphic, gory violence of war, but also to viscerally experience Agu's victimization, trauma and remorse. The language mimics the confusion that is typical of trauma and as such the reader experiences a similar feeling of disorientation (Lambert, Graceland and Beasts of No Nation 284).


[1] Translated as “belatedness“ or “deferred action”

Excerpt out of 76 pages


In-between Fact and Fiction. Representing the Traumatization of Child Soldiers in Uzodinma Iweala's "Beasts of No Nation" and Emmanuel "Jal's Warchild"
University of Constance  (Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
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Child soldier, trauma, Warchild, Beasts of No Nation, Emmanuel Jal, Uzodinma Iweala, Trauma Literary Studies, Representation of Trauma
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Anne-Karen Fischer (Author), 2017, In-between Fact and Fiction. Representing the Traumatization of Child Soldiers in Uzodinma Iweala's "Beasts of No Nation" and Emmanuel "Jal's Warchild", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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