Books for Big Brains: Meera Atkinson’s ‘Traumata’ + Q&A

Every so often we’re sent new books that are written by women. We’ve decided to take advantage of this by publishing short, succinct reviews that give you the lowdown on the quality content found within each book’s pages. These reviews form part of an ongoing series: Books for Big Brains.

How could it get any better, you ask? Well, we want to give YOU the books for FREE. If you’re Brisbane based and would like to be among the first to get your hands on the latest publications, all you have to do is provide us with your opinion on the book you’re sent in the form of a 200-300 word review. Sound like a sweet deal? Get in touch with us!

Q&A with Meera Atkinson, author of Traumata

Hot Chicks with Big Brains: Hey Meera! Please can you tell us a bit about who you are and what you do?

Meera Atkinson: I’m a Sydney-based writer and academic. I’ve been publishing short-form across genres for a long time. My first literary title, Traumata, was published by UQP in April this year. I’ve also published two academic books and numerous articles and book chapters to date. 

HCwBB: When did you decide to write Traumata, and how did you begin?

MA: In retrospect, I can date the book’s unwitting beginnings to the first time I published in the quarterly journal Griffith Review. Having returned to Sydney after living in NYC, I was introduced to Julianne Schultz by a friend. Julianne was launching the journal as its founding Editor and was looking for talent. Griffith Review is a themed journal, and it had an upcoming issue with the theme of ‘Making Perfect Bodies’. That rang some bells and I had an idea for a piece, which I originally conceived of as a journalistic exploration of beauty and perfectionism. I had no intention of writing memoir but having pitched it to Julianne I talked a bit about my experience of beauty and perfectionism in my family during a subsequent phone conversation. She seized upon that and said, “That’s the story. I want you to write about that.” So I did, but it retained a journalistic aspect.

Without setting out to do so I had started to write both memoir and hybrid.

I continued to write for Griffith Review and to publish elsewhere and in 2010 I undertook a PhD exploring the poetics of transgenerational trauma, which involved another creative project. Somewhere along the line Julianne started encouraging me to write a book-length memoir, but I resisted. The reasons for that resistance were complex, but it partly came down to a lack of interest in writing my story as a traditional memoir. I also wrangled with the question of whether the world needed another “fucked up childhood/young person” narrative. My mind was pretty closed to the prospect, but Julianne persisted, and the day came in early 2016 when I realised there was a way to do it that excited me and that felt important. I applied for what was then known as the Griffith Review Contributor Circle Prize, won a residency at Varuna, and began writing there in earnest at the start of June. I had a first draft down by the end of that year. 

HCwBB: Tell us about your decision to use memoir alongside your research?

MA: It emerged organically out of my Griffith Review pieces and the PhD, or perhaps more accurately, out of the combination and culmination of both. My decision to finally take up Julianne’s suggestion and start a project based on my formative life experiences had a lot to do with the promise of hyper-hybrid writing and a sense that there was a way to write this story that didn’t collapse into the pitfalls that can be occupational hazards of ‘life writing’.

That approach was also the result of the realisation that the short form memoir pieces I’d written over the years could be conceived of as a ‘personal is political’ testimony to the toxic and traumatic effects of patriarchy.

Once I connected those dots, I became intrigued by the challenge of trying to structure and pull together a whole book. 

HCwBB: How do you practice self-care, and how important has it been for you throughout your career and since commencing work on Traumata?

MA: I’m probably a contradiction in terms on this front in that, on one hand, I’ve learned a lot about self-care—I’m good at identifying my needs and finding suitable resources—and I take it seriously. I have to, or I fall apart. On the other hand I’m still a massive over-achiever, by which I mean I still tend to push myself too hard, despite my efforts to learn other, gentler, and more reasonable ways of being, and my having made progress with that, I remain a fairly driven person. In part that’s a deep-seated factory setting, but it’s also because of where I find myself in life at this point. I think I’ve only recently hit my stride as an artist and reached my prime as a person. I’m very focused as a writer at this stage, but I primarily survive financially as a sessional (casual) university teacher, and that means I essentially have two big jobs with very few breaks and often too little downtime.

You have to be a little mad and willing to sell yourself short on self-care to produce two books back to back while teaching three semesters a year as I’ve done over the past two and a half years. It’s not a viable ongoing way of life.

Yoga classes are important circuit-breakers, and I walk most days. I get more massages than I can afford, and I get support when I need it. 

 

HCwBB: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced throughout your career to date, as both a writer and an academic? 

MA: There have been more than I can mention, but If I consider my ‘career’ as beginning when I first started writing poetry as an adolescent that’s a significant stretch of time and the challenges have changed substantially over that period. For instance, I’d say back then my biggest challenge was being an active alcoholic and addict, being a chronically traumatised person with little awareness and no unharmful means of dealing with all that.

It’s a long time since those were problems in my life, but something no one talks about when they talk about trauma is how time and energy consuming it is. I spent years busy with addiction and many focused on addressing those issues.

Fronting up to do my first degree (BA in Communications at University of Technology Sydney—I also have a Master of Arts from the University of Queensland in addition to the PhD) in early sobriety was a huge challenge and learning curve. These days, my biggest challenges are around negotiating juggling my literary writing with being a precariat academic. 

HCwBB: How did you, or how do you continue to, overcome it?

MA: I do my best to grow on all fronts, to be the best writer, scholar, and teacher I can be, and to be gentle with myself. I try to focus on what I love and find most meaningful about writing, researching, and teaching, and on being grateful that I get to do work that I enjoy and that perhaps makes some contribution. 

HCwBB: Who are some of the women who inspire you most and why?

MA: So many (both women and reasons). To note a few who come to mind in no particular order: Patti Smith, for her singular voice, for being a poet in a rock and roll world, and for her artistic integrity over the long haul. I have a lot of time and admiration for the women writers at the forefront of Indigenous literature, people like Alexis Wright, Natalie Harkin, and Evelyn Araluen. They are producing some of the most important and exciting writing in the land and I’m inspired by the way they manage to write fiercely political yet intimate works via innovative experiments with language and form. And, like most everyone else who has seen her show or recently caught it on Netflix, I’m in awe of what Hannah Gadsby does in Nanette. Watching it, I couldn’t help feeling a sense of simpatico between what I set out to do in Traumata and what she’s doing in that routine. There are differences in our stories, but we both subvert our forms and use the personal as a portal for the political in service to critiquing patriarchy, and we must have been writing around the same time in 2016/2017. But Gadsby wins because she manages to make it outright funny (until she doesn’t). You can’t not be inspired by that combination of skill, vulnerability, and power.

HCwBB: What do you do to unwind outside of work?

MA: Apart from the aforementioned yoga, walking, and massages, I smooch with my cats, read, watch streaming fare, catch up with friends. Nothing very original I’m afraid. I’m not remotely sporty and I don’t really have hobbies as such, but I make music with my partner under the name of Theories of Everything when there is time.

HCwBB: What’s next for you?

MA: Good question!

Marian van Sprakelaar reviews Traumata

☆☆☆

Traumata (plural of trauma)

1. Pathology 

  1. Bodily injuries produced by violence, or any other extrinsic agent.  
  2. The conditions produced by this; traumatism. 
  3. The injurious agents or mechanisms themselves. 

2. Psychologically startling or distressing experiences which have a lasting effect on mental life; shocks. 

(Greek: wound)

Meera Atkinson is both a literary writer and academic. In her new book, Traumata, she skilfully weaves together characteristics of a novel and insightful scientific observations. Atkinson addresses different forms of trauma—family violence, intergenerational trauma, sexual abuse, and addiction—and tries to decipher what creates and holds trauma in place. She explores her own traumatic experiences in relation to psychological, feminist, and social theories, taking her readers on both a personal and scientific journey. 

Meera Atkinson has been able to create a beautiful balance between the more theoretical parts of the book and those detailing personal anecdotes. The story unfolds slowly but steadily; Atkinson never rushes, taking her time to describe events in detail. Her personal stories are emotional, but by taking it slow she never overwhelms her reader. Atkinson has mastered the art of leaping back and forth between critical analysis of social constructs and her own story, and she never loses the red thread of the book: uncovering the roots of trauma.

In the end, the question that Meera Atkinson poses is: Can you recover from trauma?

‘You want to know where this book has taken you and if there’s a happy ending to this story. I’m thinking about how to respond.’ 

As with so many important life questions the answer isn’t black and white. Yes, Atkinson writes, she does have good days on which she is able to escape the grief. But yet so many more are filled with anxiety, pain, and stress. On that note, Traumata doesn’t necessarily have a depressing ending. Instead, it has a rather realistic ending. Atkinson emphasizes that there is no way to escape the psychological damage caused by traumatic experiences; the only way out is through. Trauma needs to be faced and its existence has to be acknowledged, on a personal and social level. Only then might we be able to break the devastating cycle that trauma can incur. 

HCwBB: Would you have bought this book for yourself?

I would have picked it up in a bookstore because the cover appeals to me, but after reading the back cover I probably would have put it back on the shelf. 

HCwBB: What kind of person would you buy this book as a gift for?

The first person who comes to mind is a friend of mine who studied psychology and now works as a social worker with families.  The book gives a beautiful insight into the complexities of family relations. 

HCwBB: What sort of book would you give a 1 star rating?

A book that I wouldn’t be able to finish. I always try to read at least half of a book, but if I’m still struggling to continue reading by that point I give up. 

HCwBB: What sort of book would you give a 5 star rating?

A book that I can’t put down. One that keeps me up late at night and makes me want to read rather than go to sleep. This can be fiction or non-fiction, as long as the story is surprising, clever, and makes me think in new ways about life and its dilemmas.

Buy Traumata from UQP for just 29.95!


Compiled and Edited by Emma-Kate Lewis

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