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Award-winning book by Dr. Wales Freedman addresses appropriate crisis response

September 29, 2020

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That “Reading Testimony, Witnessing Trauma” was published just as a global pandemic hit and just prior to a heightened Black Lives Matter movement is serendipitous and timely.

Eden Wales Freedman, Ph.D., vice provost for faculties and academic affairs, describes her book as detailing how we can respond to one another in times of crisis, particularly after people have survived trauma. It was recently selected as the Eudora Welty Prize winner for 2020.

“The specific traumas I analyze have to do with identity, namely people who have survived trauma because of who they are and because of their race or gender specifically. The book explores traumas fueled by racism and sexism in the U.S. and how we can respond to that violence both as intellectuals and as empathic compassionate people,” she said.

“Reading Testimony, Witnessing Trauma” delves into an important area not frequently addressed. Dr. Wales Freedman found an immense amount of literature, both fiction and nonfiction, that explores what happens to people because of who they are. And, she said, theorists have written a great deal about why and how people write about the violence they survive.

”But not a lot of people, no one really before me, has written about what we do with those traumatic narratives once they exist,” she said. “I became concerned that readers and listeners were inadvertently contributing to imparted trauma just by reading or listening to it. If you read trauma and treat it voyeuristically, like gossip, that doesn’t help folks work through the trauma they have endured. Negative reading or listening could actually do more violence to them. Similarly, if we deny what they said has happened, because it’s so horrible we can’t get our arms around it, we can also do violence to them.

“We, as human beings, are really bad at responding to other people’s pain.”

Dr. Wales Freedman said her book, which emanated from her doctoral dissertation, has an academic focus but also a practical community focus. “If we can respond appropriately to one another, even when someone has experienced something we haven’t or we can’t quite comprehend, we can help make the world a better place,” she said.

“The book is academic. It’s about literature. Not everyone wants to read literary criticism. But in terms of theories, the book has a practical element: Here are things you can say when confronting others’ experiences that are helpful, and here are things you can avoid saying that risk doing damage. We are becoming more and more aware of the violence we do to one another, of the suffering that humans endure. Violence and suffering have existed since human beings have existed, but, in many cases, our awareness is new. It’s good to have heightened awareness of others’ experiences. But awareness alone doesn’t change the world. The way we treat one another does. One thing we can do to help heal a broken world is to respond to others with compassion, to listen to one another and allow others’ stories to unfold in a way that feels healing vs. harmful.”

Dr. Wales Freedman will be recognized at the virtual Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium Oct. 22-24. The University Press of Mississippi nominated “Reading Testimony, Witnessing Trauma,” and a committee of faculty at Mississippi University for women made the selection. They wrote, “This was a very strong field this year. The committee felt, however, that “Reading Testimony, Witnessing Trauma” made the greatest contribution to the field by presenting a new approach to understanding Southern Literature and culture, especially through the experience of women writers of color.”