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Guest Bloggers

An Interview with Adrie Kusserow on her book, The Trauma Mantras: a Memoir in Prose Poems [by Elizabeth A I Powell]

Adrie Kusserow's The Trauma Mantras, a memoir in prose poems, explores the warp and weft of existence as she examines Buddhism, American culture, and global refugees.Trained in comparative religion and cultural anthropology, Kusserow is a Professor of Anthropology at Saint Michael’s College in Vermont. In this brilliant collection,  she critiques Western conceptions of trauma and suffering, sparing no one, not even herself, in these fierce, beautiful meditations.  Kusserow’s ethnographic fieldwork with refugees, as well as her role as poet, mother, professor, daughter, and noted psychological anthropologist inform and commingle around themes of self, place, violence, death and the giving up of desire. 

Ultimately, this collection is a powerful witness to human resilience, skillfully woven in a series of connected prose poems that form this innovative hybrid memoir. As Yusef Komunyakaa says in his foreword: “These poetic prose pieces are well made actions-not merely generated but lived-with jagged edges. And the reader must be ready to go there, to feel and dream the rhythmic burn of language as rage and beauty converge, and to arrive at a place of needful contemplation.”

One of the most striking aspects of The Trauma Mantras is Kusserow's unwavering commitment to truth-telling, to peeling back the curtain that obscures reality. What sets The Trauma Mantras apart from the quotidian is its innovative style, exquisite use of language and figuration, and a keen anthropological eye for observation of the world whirring around her. It is a testament to the power of language and art to inspire reflection, empathy, and ultimately, transformation.

What do you feel unites all of the prose poems in this book?

I think in large part, a kind of hunger, an impatience, to bust out of the confines of what sometimes feels like the narrowness of American individualistic conceptions of self, emotions, trauma, suffering. My years of doing fieldwork all over the world as an anthropologist have introduced me to a wide variety of cross cultural conceptions of self and suffering. Over and over I learned that humans can have profoundly different ways of experiencing their identity not as we are used to in America, (in largely biomedical, psychological and individualistic ways), but identifying the self with gods, spirits, land, clan, trees, animals, environment, family, tribe, planets, seasons, creation myths. Whether I am writing about getting through chemotherapy, sitting with a refugee in a psych ward, teaching American students prone to being triggered, contemplating my mother’s death, “mothering” my own children, or talking to a monk in Nepal, underneath it all is a kind of Buddhist sensibility that resists the notion of self as separate, bounded, independent, fixed and solid. I suppose I am trying to hint to the reader that there is a liberation and joy inherent to a widening of the self from its usual biomedical, psychologized and individualized definitions. The culturally available stories we tell ourselves about ourselves (whether it be I am connected to all other beings, sadness helps me be a more compassionate being,  or,  I am unique, separate and no one else is like me, I have a disorder) has a tremendous impact on the intensity and experience of our suffering.  

In some of these pieces you write of refugees being exposed to trauma narratives upon resettlement quite different from the meanings suffering was given in their own culture. Can you talk about this?

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

One of the fictions we seem to maintain in America is that all refugees are traumatized. I’ve seen refugees with schizophrenia almost die because doctors were hell bent on insisting they had PTSD. I kept trying to convince the case workers and social workers that one refugee I knew was schizophrenic. I watched him run ragged and wild, paranoid, terrified, misdiagnosed until he was skin and bones, homeless.  By the time he arrived at the psych hospital he was starving, convinced his relatives were poisoning his food, convinced they were plotting against him at CVS, where he worked as a cashier. He slept on benches, in the chilly, mud Vermont spring. afraid to go home, he wandered the streets arguing with authorities in his head. It’s not PTSD I said, I’ve known him for years, when he goes off his meds, the paranoia warps his mind. He’ll die if you don’t intervene 

Is there a particular group of refugees that has taught you the most about how to deal with human suffering?

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. 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. 

What are some other anthropological themes you explore in this book?

Many, many anthropological themes. I’m fascinated by the stories humans tell themselves, as ways of making meaning out of suffering, that are often woven from the available dominant cultural meanings that surround them. Another theme I explore is what happens when cultures create fictions of each other, that come to be supported by global media’s stereotypical generic and simplistic images and discourses. How are these fictions spread and maintained by social media? 

I also explore the impact of technological saturation on human consciousness. I’m especially interested in how this kind of technological saturation and stimulation feel in the bodies of humans? What kinds of emotions and illnesses is it producing? What kinds of feelings is it causing us to experience more than others? A few of the pieces explore mismatch theory – the mismatch between what hominids were designed for and the kinds of super saturated technological lives we are actually living, otherwise known as mismatch theory. 

Widespread global inequality is certainly a theme in the book, and the way I struggle with these jarring disparities as an anthropologist acutely aware of her privilege. As anthropologists who engage in “thick description” I believe we have a responsibility to write well, to write poetically, to grip the reader and engage every cell of their being. 

Explain the title. Why do you call the book The Trauma Mantras?

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. 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. A personal Trauma Story has for some people 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. 

What is this book trying to say about trauma?

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 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.  

How do you use poetry/creative writing as an anthropologist and use anthropology as a creative writer?   

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 also explore how this influences things like how we raise our children and think about and experience postpartum. 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 1-3 page vignettes as poems at all. 

What does this hybrid form (autoethnography and prose poems) make possible for you as a writer?  

Ethnography is the process of writing about, representing recording and describing another culture. Autoethnography is qualitative research using self-reflection and writing to explore personal experience and connect this autobiographical story to wider cultural and social meanings and understandings. Ethnographic poetry is part of a growing movement of experimental approaches to ethnography and anthropological inquiry that have gained momentum since the 1990s. Like many anthropologists, I was looking for the most nuanced ways to represent and understand issues encountered in my research in Uganda, South Sudan, Vermont and Bhutan and was particularly drawn to the ways in which form, metaphor, image, rhythm and affect could convey profound subtleties of meaning and bring me to places of fresh insight. During my research, I found that poetry was not something I waited to write until after fieldwork was complete but was helpful in the process of observation itself. Ethnographic poetry could give rise to aesthetic, less linear ways of thinking about the field experience. Ethnographic poetry is not just about accurately describing an experience but using the insight of its acutely nuanced language and artistic aesthetic to bring a wider array of meaning(s) to these facts than conventional wisdom offered. Far from being a kind of epiphenomenal icing on the cake, poetry encouraged a more rigorous analysis and theoretical understanding of what I observed. In this way, poetry embodied and emboldened my ethnographic research, requiring me to probe behaviors with all my senses. It also gave me the tool of metaphor, which helped me express and pay more deliberate attention to the many ways culture is embodied in the senses of those we study and attempt to represent for others. Vague and generic words do not help anthropologists or their readers crawl into the rich, multi-dimensional places most humans inhabit. Hence, ethnographic poetry is not something that simply reflects an initial ethnographic insight; it is an active ethnographic tool, a deep and refined phenomenological probing, as opposed to a dreamy, distant musing. The tentacles of the ethnographic poem, through image, metaphor, language, form and rhythm, enable me to inch even closer to the complex, subtle experiences I am trying to describe and understand.

Anything else you want to say?

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.

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman


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