Negotiated Truths

Chapter 1 Blog

Chapter 1. “The Negotiated Truth”

In 2006, I read an essay by the novelist JG Ballard in the Guardian newspaper (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2006/mar/04/fiction.film)

In it, Ballard describes the process of writing Empire of the Sun, a work of fiction that draws heavily on his harrowing childhood experiences as a prisoner in the Lunghua Japanese war camp. He begins the essay by reflecting on the “huge staying power” of memories, noting that “like dreams, they thrive in the dark” and survive “for decades in the deep waters of our minds like shipwrecks on the sea bed.” If those memories are painful, he observes, bringing them into the light “can be risky”. Indeed, in Ballard’s case, that risk was so great that he avoided writing about his childhood for forty years:  “[t]wenty years to forget, and then 20 years to remember”. He was, he confesses, entirely unable to bear witness to that time in his life until “it occurred to me to drop my parents from the story” just as “they had moved out of my life in Lunghua even though we were sharing the same room” .

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By removing his parents from the story, in other words, Ballard was free to recount what he felt to be the truth of his “real existence,” his sense of surviving the war on his own. “Once I separated Jim from his parents,” he reveals, “the novel unrolled itself at my feet like a bullet-ridden carpet” .

 

So, despite the significant change he made in representing the circumstances of his past (ie by portraying young Jim as in essence an orphan in the camp) Ballard believed that  “enough of it was based on fact to convince me that what had seemed a dream-like pageant was a negotiated truth”.  The art of Ballard’s novel, in other words, its narrative negotiation with the “risky,” “dark” and “shipwrecked” memories of its author’s traumatic past, and it is precisely this strategy of negotiation with the truth, rather than its documentation, that I find in all the posttraumatic autobiographical projects I examine in The Art and Science of Trauma and the Autobiographical: Negotiated Truths.

From legal and rights testimony to traditional and graphic memoirs, from prison poetry to autobiographical fiction, from virtual to material monuments to traumatic histories, I see Ballard’s “negotiated truth” as the key rhetorical figure of the posttraumatic autobiographical. Indeed, as I shall explain in a future blog, it is an approach to recounting traumatic past experiences that I have used myself.