ANU academic: How literature can help heal the trauma of genocide

A Literary Studies Convention at The Australian National University (ANU) has heard that art forms addressing trauma can help to recast and even heal collective trauma such as genocide.

Senior Lecturer in French at the ANU School of Literature, Languages and Linguistics, Dr Leslie Barnes looked at how over the passage of time, a memoir and a film about the genocide in Cambodia moved from a place of vengeance to a proposition of forgiveness.

The memoir, First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, was written by Loung Ung in 2000 and Angelina Jolie’s adaptation of that work into the film, First They Killed My Father, was written 17 years later. Dr Barnes said after the passage of those 17 years, the film does not resist the temptation for closure on the genocide.

“Since 1979 in Cambodia, the genocide by the Khmer Rouge has been a story of silence. It’s been a story of guilt, fear, trauma and recrimination, but it has not been a story that has been shared.”

“The majority of the Cambodian population is under 30 and they don’t know very much about this part of their history. Some of them think it’s fiction so that this story has been told in Cambodia by Cambodians and premiered in Siem Reap is a really big deal in itself," said Dr Barnes.

Dr Barnes said the film provides an essential vehicle for Cambodians to encounter and reflect upon their history; to criticise and discuss it.

“But Jolie’s film also asks the audience to leave behind the preoccupying, dominating desire for revenge found in the book and move to a space where former victims can live in peace next to former perpetrators, where they can forge a collective future not bound by the past,” she said.

“Is this too much to ask of the Cambodians? I leave that question out there.”

Ung and Jolie wrote the screenplay of the film together, but Dr Barnes believes they were only able to propose forgiveness because there has been retribution for some of the perpetrators in the meantime.

“In the interim between the book and the film, tribunals in Cambodia have convicted 3 of the top cadres of the Khmer Rouge and sentenced them to life imprisonment. I think the punishment isn’t exclusive of forgiveness, I think the punishment is the necessary condition for this forgiveness to even be imagined.”



Dr Leslie Barnes  

Senior Lecturer, ANU School of Literature, Languages & Linguistics

T:  (02) 6125 1879

M: 0438 699 490


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