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Cathy Caruth author of Unclaimed Experience: Trauma and the Possibility writes that, literature, like psychoanalysis, is interested in the complex relation between knowing and not knowing, and it is at this specific point at which knowing and not knowing intersect that the psychoanalytic theory of traumatic experience and the language of literature meet (Caruth 182). Fae Ng explores this theory of trauma within her novel Bone. While the novel is centralized around the relationships within the family, Ng concurrently creates a multi-faceted world where Ona's suicide becomes the central traumatic event. Ng's approach starts backwards, creating a Confucian approach where the reasons for an event become the focus instead of the event itself. In so doing, the Confucian style becomes an allegory in which Ng re-creates the definition of 'trauma' by constructing the new meaning within the characters. By studying trauma scholars Kirby Farrell, Elaine Scarry and Cathy Caruth, and analyzing the events within the novel, I will argue that binary perception in Ng's novel manifests in racial trauma, which constructs an ideological system between Chinese and American. Ng's use of physical and social location, specifically in Ona's suicide, creates a boundary between home and the outside world where Ona's jump symbolizes the escape of the shadow that "leads out of Chinatown" (Ng 120).
According to Webster's Dictionary, suicide is "the act of intentionally causing one's own death, often committed out of despairâ€¦attributed to depression" (Webster's Dictionary 2012). However, the concept that depression always leads to suicide creates a false stereotype of sadness as the only link to depression. Within the given definition, Ona's suicide can be argued to be an act of depression. Yet, the stories about Ona within the novel create an image of a woman who does not fulfill the stereotype: "Ona had always been the forward looking one, she was always excited about the next day, she wanted to grow very oldâ€¦and be a smart old goddess" (Ng 88). Ona's death, rather, demonstrates importance through what it exposes about her family heritage, rather than what was occurring in her life time. Ona's death becomes a form of trauma within which the characters begin to shape their discernments of each other while lost in the American and Chinese culture. Ng's style of writing becomes a metaphor for the loss of inner stability for Ona's family, not the common Aristotelian form where there is a logical progression of events within the novel. This is specifically seen with Leon as his location constantly changes because he strongly believes that his hard work will lead to the American dream of prosperity. However, Leon's pursuit of happiness is constantly denied by the events that he faces; such as his long trips out of0020Chinatown which are meant to provide for the family, yet infidelities occur. By creating a scenario where a solution does not necessarily exist for eradicating the problems one faces, the story becomes more challenging. The constant denial of Leon's desires creates his version of mental and physical trauma in that his identity begins to lose meaning: "his concentration was gone, something disconnected between his mind and his heartâ€¦Leon had become lost" (Ng 49).
Kirby Farrell, scholar of trauma, argues that there is more to trauma then its basic clinical definition as "a type of damage to the psyche that occurs as a result of a severely distressing event" (Trauma Answers 2012). Instead, it is a cultural trope where "trauma helps account for a world in which power and authority may seem overwhelmingly unjustâ€¦ the trope may be a cry of protest as well as distress and a tool grasped in hopes of some redress" (Kirby 15). Ng creates trauma through strong dominant authorities who control concepts of gender, race and class. Leon's sense of not belonging causes an outburst at the social security office: "I be in this country long timeâ€¦I never talk good English, them tell me" (Ng 56). This reaction highlights Leon's struggles with racial trauma since Ng creates Leon as a realistic character who battles a life style in which he is at a constant loss, while Ona's bones becomes a social metaphor for Leon's desire for the American dream, her shattered bones become a physical allegory that which he is never able to achieve: "Ona jumped and it was too late, the bones were lost like Ona was lost" (Ng 50). With this in mind, one may argue that Ona's suicide was her escape, and Leon's constant trips are a form of his escape.
Furthermore, Ng shows us the different struggles that Chinese immigrants had to face in order to maintain a life in America, for example, in Chinese tradition, "the collecting and shipping of ancestors' bones to China has been a respected custom for earlier Chinese immigrants, for they value significantly the ancestral continuum and cultural tradition that they have to go back to where they come from after death" (Kirby 76). The struggle to maintain Chinese tradition within the life of Leon and his family creates another form of trauma. Leon's inability to ship the bones of his 'paper father' to China, expresses another aspect of Leon failing as a 'paper son'. In addition, when Ona's ashes are constantly moved around the apartment by Mah and Leon, we feel a sense of misplaced identity for Ona, for the reason that although she has died, her physical surroundings are still controlled by her parents. When her ashes are cremated we are forced to question where the maintenance of tradition lies. Also, Leila, Nina and Ona are not allowed to leave "Chinatown without permission" (Ng 50), as Leon argues that there are dangers outside of Chinatown. This creates physical and psychological immobility for them and forces Ona to relinquish her identity and live along the guidelines set for her.
However, the inability to work through binary perceptions lead to Ona's own traumatic experience which is that she is forced to give up her individuality and bow to expectation- the struggle between Chinese identity and American identity versus Ona's identity. Within the novel, Leila is the daughter who is unable to escape her parents' racial traumatic experience, while Nina is able to move out of the realm of Chinese tradition created for her. This is seen when Leila finds it difficult to leave Chinatown in fear of the outside world. Another example of this is the impossibility of Leila identifying herself with traditional Chinese culture creates a hole where she is stuck in the boundaries of Chinatown: "I thought about our different worlds now, Nina had a whole map of China in her head, I had Chinatown, the Mission, the Tenderloin" (Ng 24). Leila's irresolute view about her Chinese tradition signifies her own loss of identity, and creates a detached persona: "we repeat the names of grandfathers and uncles, but they have always been strangers to us. Family exists only because somebody has a story, and knowing the story connects us to a history" (Ng 35). Where, however does Leila's trauma lie? Elaine Scarry argues that "traumatic pain is stored in the memory of traumatized bodiesâ€¦the body, having once encountered certain foreign bodies, will the next time recognize, remember, and release its own defenses" (Scarry 870). When thinking of Ona, Leila is only able to think of the times where she believes that she treated her unfairly, showing signs of a trauma victim where "traumatic memories become a routine in the lives of trauma victims" (Scarry 872).
Although first generation immigrant parents are usually able to sustain the pressures of living a double life to emigrate to a foreign country for the sake of providing for their families, this is not typically true to the immigrant's offspring. Leila, Ona and Nina experience a difficult task to live a life they have almost been forced into. They fuse aspects of two or more cultures in order to be accepted both at home and in society. Ng uses Mah and Leon to paint a picture of what the truth of an American Dream truly means. While the immigration might appear to others as a ticket to a dream life, this is far from the truth. Both Mah and Leon were forced into a situation that meant poor working conditions and constant humiliation, which became detrimental to Leila's growth as a woman due to enduring cultural confusion and guilt of seeing her parent's life destroyed in the process. Ona's suicide as the central traumatic event in the novel is fundamental for the novel as the family dream for Mah and Leon died with Ona as the pain generated by her death together with the amounting pressures of a life of disapproval of society made an irreparable crack in their relationships foundation. Mah and Leon lost a daughter, cultural influence in the lives of their two other daughters, their social status, and their identities. Ona lost her life, and although Leila and Nina got better lives as benefits of their parents sacrifice, both must live with the guilt and their lifelong struggle to belong, all suffering from racial trauma.