Generational trauma as a result of loss or violence was the theme of this year’s Brooklyn Book Fest held on Sunday, September 22, at Brooklyn Borough Hall.

This year’s festival, entitled “My Brother’s Keeper: Tragedy and Trauma,” centered around grief within immigrant communities, and how that grief is recycled again and again when it remains hidden or willfully ignored. Featured authors and speakers David Chariandy (Brother), Maria Tumarkin (Axiomatic) and Edwidge Danticat (Brother, I’m Dying, The Art of Death and Everything Inside) explored the harrowing topic of generational trauma and how it informs a huge part of their writing and narrative.

Moderator Anderson Tepper, of Vanity Fair, led the authors – all first-generation immigrants – through an examination of their work and their influences when writing about grief and loss. 

Chariandy’s latest work, Brother, deals with death in the black community, where violence is prevalent and, all too often, the end result for family members. 

“Complicated grief,” he said to a packed media room in Borough Hall, “applies to the circumstances where a death is so difficult and traumatic, it becomes difficult to mourn that death.” 

“The idea of the good migrant or good refugee does not leave space to grieve, because to grieve is to be ungrateful, especially if you were rescued from another country,”

It is a type of grief that can take on various symptoms, including the inability to recognize or acknowledge that death has taken place, he said. In his book, an immigrant mother grapples with complicated grief when she is unable to come to terms with the violent and traumatic killing of her son and when the cause of his death is unacknowledged.

For Tumarkin, her experience as an emigrant of the former USSR influenced her collection of essays and memoirs on grief and loss: She noted the expression, “Time heals all wounds” was not always true, particularly for her family where grief infiltrated and remained stuck. 

“The idea of the good migrant or good refugee does not leave space to grieve, because to grieve is to be ungrateful, especially if you were rescued from another country,” she said. “I come from a country where millions of people couldn’t grieve– the former USSR, where people were taken away and perished, particularly in the 1930s.”

She looks at happens when grief is not expressed and resolved in the first generation. The result? Families, communities filled with people carrying unresolved, walking trauma.

l to r: Maria Tumarkin, David Chariandy and Edwidge DanticatEdwidge Danticat were the featured authors and panelists at the 2019 Brooklyn Book Festival
Photo: Keishel Williams for BK Reader

Danticat agreed. Her family immigrated to the United States from Haiti when she was a child. She pointed out how trauma within her own family often penetrates her work. 

“I’ve always been interested in generational grief and how sometimes the silence of one generation can prevent the next generation from knowing what the full horrors are, [in order to] grieve what the previous generation has been through,” she said. 

This influenced her exploration of how this type of grief impacts children. Writing about children who survived trauma or live with unresolved generational trauma helped to shape some of the stories in her latest book, Everything Inside.

“In the case of my family and families like ours, our big generational trauma was the dictatorship which lasted thirty years and then the years that followed, and most certainly the earthquake and some other recent events,” Danticat said.

“My father used to say, we never have time to pause to linger too much on one type of grief before the next one shows up.”

Nevertheless, the author believes literature, “gives us different entry points into grief” and helps as both a reader and a writer.  After not being able to fully mourn her own mother’s death by doing the rituals that may have normally been performed while in Haiti, Danticat said reading became a ritual that helped. 

“I would read something and feel like, ‘Oh this is exactly how I’m feeling.’ And I would feel less alone.”

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Keishel Williams

Keishel is a Fashion, Arts & Culture Journalist

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