I think about intergenerational trauma a lot. It frequently appears in my long-form fiction, sneaking into plot and backstory regardless of my intentions. Every once in a while I try to take the classic fantasy writer's shortcut—the single child, the orphaned hero, unencumbered!—and that immediately backfires because I start to wonder who these missing parents were, what happened before they vanished, what is the history of this person, these people, this place?
I can’t help it. It’s what I want to know. And once I figure it out, it changes everything about the story I’m telling.
Here are two true stories for you:
Both sides of my family came to the U.S. after World War II. They fled Poland and Italy respectively, and they locked that shit up so tight that it took me an embarrassingly long time to even realize it was both sides. We don't talk about those things. We don't talk about those things so loudly, I didn't even realize what we don't talk about until this year, when my family continued to very loudly not talk about the state of the world we are in right now. What did it mean, to keep your head down as a teen girl in Mussolini's Italy? What did it mean, to be parents in war torn Poland? I'm starting to figure it out, I think, and I am not pleased with the conclusions I’m drawing. I love my family to pieces, but they taught me a million ways to be quiet, and now I’m on my own, trying to learn how to shout.
I have an ex who dominated years of my life, who dominated those years so entirely that I still think back on that time with a glower and probably always will. He was just like his father, he said. He didn’t tell me this as an apology or a promise to change, but as a simple fact: that is how things are, so deal with it. His father was angry and emotionally unavailable and ignored people for days over the tiniest slights, and therefore so did my ex, and that's that! It wasn't until recently that I wondered about the grandfather who raised that father. In the ten years we knew each other, I learned one solitary fact about the man, mentioned off-handedly years before we dated: oh, my grandfather was Japanese. And now I do the math, and hey, maybe it’s unrelated! Or maybe this war I never saw has influenced my life yet again.
We are story-driven creatures. You shouldn’t need an identical story of your own in order to believe somebody else’s, you just need to know that for every long thread of history shaping your life right now, there are a million others tangling up everyone else.
If I squint at the shape of my life, I can see half a century of history behind it, and there is plenty more I’ll never know. So when I consider four hundred years of history? When I add up the generations from then till now, when I imagine all the many traumas rolled from one person to the next, compounded, plus all the ones still happening because actually, they never stopped? Yeah, I'm not surprised we are where we are. I'm only surprised it didn't all catch fire sooner.
We are all living with the consequences of decisions made before we were born. But here is the important part: we are still making decisions. Cycles can be broken. I can learn how to be louder. My ex could go to therapy if he really wanted to, I guess (sorry, I’m still salty). What you’re accustomed to right now isn’t how it always has to be. You’re reading this because you’re my friend, or you’re an SFF fan, or both—I know you know how to imagine other futures!
So look to your own community. There are people already working toward change, and they need your support. Because, spoiler alert: everything I just said? If you’re one of those movers and shakers, you already know all of this. I am talking to the rest of you, the folks who are used to being quiet to survive, the ones who don’t know how to talk about all of this because you never tried or you did try and you put your foot in your mouth and you rushed back to the personal safety of that quiet. Feel uncomfortable if you need to, sit with it for a little bit, absorb the ramifications—and then go do something.
And, as always, when in doubt, read some books.
More resources at: bit.ly/ANTIRACISMRESOURCES