Trauma and Migration Studies, The Book of Job, and Babylon

Exploring Babylon Chapter 20.2

Chapter 20.1 focused on monsters and storytelling, touching on the intersection of migration experiences and trauma. In follow up (with apologies for the delay), a few notes about the academic fields of migration and trauma studies and their relevance to #ExploringBabylon.

To begin, David W. Stowe discusses the application of trauma and migration theories to biblical studies* and, in particular, to his exploration of Psalm 137.

Migration and Trauma

On trauma theory and bible, Stowe writes:

Certainly the Bible provides voices that resonate with pain caused by the experience of the Exile in Babylon….

Reading the biblical literature through the lens of trauma theory suggests an agonizing experience during the Golah [Babylonian Exile]. Recent work in trauma theory and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) shows that symptoms associated with psychosis and other mental illness are symptoms of the human psyche struggling against an overload of anguish. Distortions in verbal and written communication [which Stowe and many others identify in the Book of Ezekiel, for example], even a failure to communicate at all — to become mute — reflect strategies of self-defense….
— Stowe, Song of Exile, p.8-9

Stowe looks at migration theory in the same context:

Because we learn so much about Moses’ long attempts to win freedom from bondage for his compatriots, we assume that Egyptian slavery must have been harsher [than that of Judean exiles in Babylon]….

To flesh out this monochromatic picture of the Golah experience, scholars have brought to bear analytic tools from the social sciences, in particular the recent field of migration studies….An important contribution in the recent scholarship lies in drawing distinctions between different categories of people who formerly might have been simply labeled “exiles” or “refugees.” These blanket terms obscure a host of subtle variations: between migrants, exiles, refugees, and members of a diaspora; between voluntary and involuntary migrations; between internal migration and migration that crosses political boundaries.
— Stowe, Song of Exile, p.10

Stowe’s specific discussion of Psalm 137 awaits another day and another post. Meanwhile, though, his remarks above link back to Junot Díaz’s Islandborn: how differing immigration experiences lead to different recollections and relationships around the country departed — including, in many cases, a silence hard that can make it difficult for younger generations to learn their family’s past.

Stowe’s remarks also relate to a very different style of biblical study.

The Book of Job

The Book of Job offers linguistic, literary, and theological challenges when it comes to assigning authorship or even declaring the century in which it was committed to writing, in whatever form. See, for example, these authorship pieces by Columbia’s Brennan Breed and Elon Gilad of Haaretz. Moses Sokolow explores Talmudic ideas about authorship and elaborates on those with another suggestion.

Sokolow first argues, in Tanakh: An Owner’s Manual (full citation below), that three or four of the seven Talmudic suggestions for Job’s authorship overlap chronologically so as to suggest a consensus around authorship in the time of the Chaldeans (Babylonians). He then goes on to present a hypothesis:

Since Ezekiel lived during the era of the Chaldeans and was the only biblical author acquainted with Job, it is not a priori unreasonable to ascribe the Book of Job to him, particularly if we now take note of the one Talmudic opinion [of seven] we have thus far omitted: “Iyyov lo’ hayah ve-lo nivra’” – “Job never existed”; his story is only a parable (Bava Batra 15a).

The usual understanding of the Book of Job is that it addresses the question of theodicy….

But what if Job were the personification of the Jewish people? What if the destruction of his home, the loss of his wealth, and the death of his sons were parables for the destruction of the Temple, the forcible exile, and the many concomitant deaths and privations suffered by the Jewish nation? Ezekiel’s prophetic mission was devoted to reassuring the exiles that God’s presence was among them even in Babylonia, and that there would be a return to Zion and a restoration of the Temple. Could the Book of Job, then, not be Ezekiel’s own “Holocaust theology,” offering the conventional explanation for suffering (sin), rejecting it, and replacing it with the reassurance that there was a divine plan for history as there was for nature, and that our inability to perceive the former is in no way different from our like inability to comprehend the latter?
— Sokolow, p.43

Sokolow’s suggestion is presented in a different framework from biblical studies working from predominantly Christian sources. Both methodologies lead, however, to further discussion of trauma and migration in relation to biblical stories.


on this 27th day of the omer, making three weeks and six days

NOTES:

Here are two fairly recent relevant collections on migration, trauma and other theories of exile:

Interpreting Exile: Displacement and Deportation in Biblical and Modern Contexts. Ranier Albertz, ed. Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011.

By the Irrigation Canals of Babylon: Approaches to the Study of Exile. John J. Ahn and Jill Middlemas eds. NY: T & T Clark International (Continuum), 2012.

Note, please, that Stowe, like many other scholars in the field called “biblical studies,” cites predominantly Christian sources. Moreover, some remarks in Song of Exile suggest his exposure to Jews is limited (see Song of Exile page) — which is not uncommon in Christian biblical studies. For more on this topic generally, see also “Babylon and Adventures in Bibleland” as well as “Babylon Basics.”
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Tanakh: An Owner’s Manual: Authorship, Canonization, Masoretic Text, Exegesis, Modern Scholarship, and Pedagogy. Moshe Sokolow. NY: Ktav, 2015.
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More on Monsters and Storytelling

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Exploring Babylon Chapter 20.1

A Monster Chronology
On March 15, I watched author Junot Díaz interact with a room full of youngsters, introducing his new book, Islandborn (Dial Books for Young Readers), discussing the writing process, and exploring the concept of “monsters.” I subsequently told everyone who would listen about how much I’d enjoyed seeing the students and the author respond to one another and how exciting it was to hear their conversation.

In our brief interview after the book event, I was really struck with the way Díaz answered my question about addressing monsters with young readers: “I don’t think they need to hear anything from me about the monsters they face….If their lives are anything like mine, they know.” It seemed clear he was including very personal monsters as well as the kind that took over “the Island” in his book and in real life. For better or worse, though, I left this topic right there and shifted focus to public libraries, which was the issue I’d been sent to cover.

I filed my story, “Junot Díaz, Monsters, and Ward 7,” in late March, and it appears in the April edition of East of the River magazine. I shared related thoughts in a post here, “Monsters, Exile, and Storytelling.” And then, a week ago (4/9/18), The New Yorker published a piece of personal history from Díaz: “The Silence: The Legacy of Childhood Trauma” — a heart-breaking, powerful, brave, healing story of abuse and returning to self (April 16 print issue).

Monsters’ Defeat

In the week since Díaz’s personal history piece was posted on-line, I have found myself returning again and again to the way I saw Díaz address young readers who wanted details about the specific monster in Islandborn or answers about monsters more generally. Look, he told them several times, returning their attention again and again to one spread in the book: Look at the way the monster was defeated, through people joining together.

Islandborn

(c) Diaz & Espinosa.Islandborn. Dial 2018.

That’s what he told me, afterward, too:

The key is to help [young readers] confront and work through their experiences [with monsters], forge friendships and solidarities.

And a version of that is what he tells us in “The Silence”:

I was fortunate. I had friends around me ready to step in. I had good university insurance. I stumbled upon a great therapist….

He also explains in “The Silence” a little of how his children’s book and his decision to share his personal story relate:

Over the last weeks, that gnawing sense of something undone has only grown, along with the old fear—the fear that someone might find out I’d been raped as a child. It’s no coincidence that I recently began a tour for a children’s book I’ve published and suddenly I’m surrounded by kids all the time and I’ve had to discuss my childhood more than I ever have in my life. I’ve found myself telling lies, talking about a kid that never was. He never checks the locks on the bedroom doors four times a night, doesn’t bite clean through his tongue. The cover stories are returning. There are even mornings when my face feels stiff.

There will undoubtedly be more to say — from the perspectives of literature, sociology, or other fields — on Islandborn and “The Silence.” There is definitely more to say about trauma and storytelling, in- and beyond #ExploringBabylon. There is much more to discuss, for example, around the popular academic theory that trauma affects so much of the telling, and omissions, around the Babylonian exile. In addition, the period of the Omer — between Passover and the Revelation-focused holiday of Shavuot — has related undertones.

For now: Immense gratitude to Junot Díaz for his writing and his in-person teaching, for his bravery and his compassion; and wishes for continued healing to him and to all in need.

— On this 16th day of the omer, making two weeks and two days

Diaz_Book1

Junot Díaz shares Islandborn at Capitol View Library in Northeast DC. 3/15/18. (Photo: V. Spatz)

Diaz_Students

Junot Díaz discusses “monsters” and other topics with students from Ward 7 in Washington, DC. 3/15/18. (Photo: V. Spatz)

Monsters, Exile, and Storytelling

UPDATE: The event described here, including the brief interview with Díaz, took place on March 15, 2018. The piece below was posted on April 1. The New Yorker article, “The Silence: The Legacy of Childhood Trauma” — which has a LOT to say about monsters and trauma — was not published until April 16. See also, “More on Monsters and Storytelling.”


Exploring Babylon Chapter 19

A new picture book, by Dominican-born author Junot Díaz, has a few things to tell readers of all ages about trauma, exile, memory, and the importance of storytelling — good topics for Passover and #ExploringBabylon.

Islandborn

Islandborn relates the tale of young Lola — who attends a school where “every kid…was from somewhere else” — trying to draw a picture of her native country for a homework assignment. Having left “the Island” before she could remember, she enlists help from community members, and one older neighbor tells her something shocking:

“A long time ago, long before you were born…a monster fell upon our poor Island.

“…For thirty years the Monster did as it pleased. It could destroy an entire town with a single word and make a whole family disappear simply by looking at it.

“[Eventually…] heroes rose up…got tired of being afraid and fought the Monster….The Monster tried all of its evil tricks but in the end the heroes found the Monster’s weakness and banished it forever.”

Islandborn, Díaz’s first children’s book, is illustrated by Leo Espinosa, originally from Columbia. (NY: Dial Books for Young Readers, 2018). See Random House and Publisher’s Weekly.

Islandborn

(c) Diaz & Espinosa.Islandborn. Dial 2018.


“The Monster”

The name of “the Island” is not specified. The name of the Monster is also omitted, along with those of heroes who “banished” the Monster.

Many readers will undoubtedly think of the Dominican Republic, where Díaz was born, and the dictator who ruled ruthlessly from 1930-1961, before the author’s time. But the book itself and publisher’s descriptions deliberately do not offer any historical details.

Díaz has explained in public events that he intentionally left the island unnamed so that the reader could bring their imagination to the story. He adds that there are monsters in many countries and there are many kinds of monsters (not all are dictators); he wanted this story to be about more than one place or experience.
Social Justice Books

In addition to allowing for readers to use their imaginations, though, the idea of leaving “the Monster” unnamed has a particular resonance for Jews and other Hebrew Bible readers: After an enemy attacks the most vulnerable members of the community during the Israelites’ trek through the desert, God gives Moses the strange commandment to remember to forget the enemy’s name:

And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘Write this for a memorial in the book, and rehearse it in the ears of Joshua: for I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.’
— Exod 17:14

…thou shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; thou shalt not forget.
— Deut 25:19

When I told fellow Jews, over a recent Shabbat, about Islandborn and how the book relates its tale, each one mumbled some version of “blot out the name!” And that heritage has raised many questions over the centuries about what and how we remember and what and how we re-tell.

Legacy and Response

Social Justice Books suggest that “one place where young readers could handle a more accurate narrative, than what is offered in the book, is in the description of what happened to” the unnamed heroes:

Lola was told, “No one knows really [what happened to them.] It was so long ago.” The truth is that we actually do know what happened to the Mirabal sisters and countless others….A response that children could handle would be “Sadly, many were killed, but others survived. Their children, like you, continue to work for a better world today.”

Some social studies teachers and individual parents may want to discuss the specifics of Dominican history around Islandborn or use it to discuss motivations behind much immigration. Díaz, however, prefers to steer the conversation in more universal directions.

At a recent Islandborn book talk for young readers and writers — 1st through 5th grade, accompanied by a few pre-schoolers and adults, at a DC Public Library branch — the first young person to speak declared: “Monsters aren’t real.” In response, Díaz spoke generally, first agreeing with the student and then explaining that his home country was, in fact, once “taken over by a very bad man who was kinda like a monster.” The author never mentioned the Dominican context again and never got more specific.

After the event, I asked Díaz if he ever addressed young readers — like those at Capitol View Neighborhood Library, where we met — by helping them name monsters in their lives. Again, he rejected a more specific path: “I don’t think [local youth] need to hear anything from me about the monsters they face….If their lives are anything like mine, they know.”

Instead, the author argues: “The key is to help them confront and work through their experiences, forge friendships and solidarities.”

Toward that end, Díaz asked young readers to look at how the people eventually defeated the monster. He drew attention to the illustration above, noting that all monsters have a weakness that can be used against them, and that people joining together is essential….Students at Capitol View noted, based on the illustration and their own experience, the role of singing in uniting people.

How We Tell the Tale

The tenor of the Islandborn youth discussion at Capitol View remained largely philosophical and literary, rather than historical. Several young readers asked questions around why monsters do what they do. The author suggested several reasons, including the example of an older sibling wanting more than a fair portion of a treat meant for sharing. In response to another student, Díaz raised the concept of literary tropes around monsters.

Still, one ten-year-old did wonder, “What about the good people who are killed by the monsters before it’s defeated?” Díaz suggested, given that the age range present and how close to the end of the allotted time the question arose, that the young person talk to him following the group gathering.

In a similar vein, a local rabbi recently shared that his very young children do not know about the tenth plague [death of the first-born], despite its prominence in the Passover story. Of course, age and maturity of audience must influence content or emphasis in storytelling. Beyond age-appropriateness, however, the question of what to tell and what to omit is a deeper issue:

  • If we don’t relate the horrors, how will we ensure that victims are remembered and future generations informed?
  • How do we ensure memory and sensitivity, without perpetuating trauma?
  • Depending on the depth of our storytelling, how do young people — and the older people they become — relate to our state of exile?

At one point in Islandborn, after neighbors have opened up to Lola about the good and the horrible on “the Island,” child and grandmother have a key exchange:

Abuela, did you know about the Monster?”
“Of course, hija. Why do you think so many of us are here in the North?”

— on this second day of the omer, 5778