Content Warning: Discussion of trauma
One theme I’ve noticed that has been consistent across most, if not all, the books we’ve read is that they all include portrayals and discussions of trauma of some kind. Yet while all of these narratives are blended by the fact that they include trauma of some kind, each is portrayed in a different way. Each portrayal has strengths, but some are more accurate than others. In this post, I’m going to explore the way trauma is portrayed in Nat Turner, what literary devices help communicate the trauma, and how accurate the portrayal is.
One of the main parts of Nat Turner that particularly sticks out is the lack of dialogue in the novel. The only words that appear in the drawings are ones that act as sound effects (primarily “boom”) — otherwise, the pages are either filled with drawings only or have quotes from Nat Turner’s actual confession.
This separation of experience (represented by drawings) and language (represented by Turner’s narration of the events) is one of the compelling literary strategies that make the novels so jarring — as well it should be, given the subject matter. As readers, we are used to having a narrative context into which we fit the action of a story, a broader framework that grounds us and gives us a sense of clarity about what is taking place. Nat Turner strips us of the connective tissue that allows us to understand each image in context with the next. It takes away language, which is the main tool we use to make meaning out of our experiences, which leaves us disoriented, confused, disturbed, and likely shocked and horrified at the stark violence of the images we, as readers, are facing. We are left only with pictures of violence, such as the image below — a confusing tangles of limbs and blood and weapons that drive home the stomach-churning brutality that characterizes this story. Rather than understanding the image first as a link in the narrative chain, we view it as a snapshot in its own right. This strategy of separating word and image captures one of the central characteristics of what trauma is: an experience too deep for language to capture. According to Bessel Van der Kolk, who is an expert in the field of trauma, those who experience trauma experience “speechless terror … the experience cannot be organized on a linguistic level.” Traumatic experiences such as these bypass people’s capacity to capture them with words and fit them into the context of one’s life or make meaning of them. Nat Turner communicates this fact and even gives readers a tiny taste of what this feels like, as they, too, are stripped of narrative language and left with only sensory stimuli.
Of course, while there is no dialogue or language integrated into the images, the story does have some narration in Nat Turner’s own words. This fact, too, illustrates one of the phenomena of trauma. Sometimes, people do have the capacity to factually narrate what happened to them, as Nat does. But these words don’t connect fully with the experience. It is language from an outside observer’s point of view, devoid of emotion or connection with the experience. The way Nat’s narration is often emotionless and slightly disconnected from the images themselves helps communicate this fact.
Reading Nat Turner is, all in all, a jarring and disturbing experience. The stark violence, portrayed in graphic sensory images devoid of language, contribute to helping readers to enter into and empathize with the experience of trauma. Further, the portrayal manages to capture some deep truths about trauma and how it works from a psychological perspective. Stay tuned for another exploration of trauma in the text in my next post.