Generational Trauma and Healing: Not Just For Humans

By: Maria Pawlak, Abby Anderson, Makayla Williams, Elizabeth Roos, Hallie Edic, Francheska Colon, Emilee Coughlin, Lidabel Avila

More than a decade after the infamous Boxing Day Tsunami left hundreds of thousands dead, the Krakatoa caldera threatened to once again bring death and destruction to Indonesian shores. The area is extremely seismically active, particularly in the Sumatra region. As the region’s residents and those throughout the country received warnings that their worst day might be one-upped by a similar volcanic force, many found themselves forced to face the possibility that everything they had worked to rebuild could be washed away by something over which they have no power. Considering how long the Krakatoa caldera has been active, and how many deadly natural disasters occur in the area, one could wonder why generations of people choose to stay, suffer, rebuild, and stay again and again. However, it’s a very human instinct: to react and rebuild. This instinct is on display throughout N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy. 

This sci-fi/fantasy trilogy features a world called the Stillness, which experiences cataclysmic events with an alarming frequency. Entire cities, continents, and peoples are wiped out and rebuilt and yet, Jemisin’s characters continue living doggedly on, through grit teeth and white knuckles, but also through love, family, and culture. A mirror of that same human instinct is found when considering the caldera itself. Recently after the initial, extremely lethal tsunami of 2004, the caldera exploded again, bringing new death and destruction with it. Strangely, this new destruction arrived with a new name: the Child of Krakatoa. Humanity’s instinct to map patterns of familiarity onto trauma is stark, made evident by the generations of people living where their ancestors perished, people who had the instinct to call a consecutive event of destruction a child. As a way to refer to the repetition of destruction and the generational experience communities have within it, we will use the term “generational trauma.” This term has become a buzzword, which strips away meaning, but it’s our aim to use it specifically as a way to refer to generations of people and land who survive through repeated ruinous events. Through examining how art intersects with trauma in seismic events of death and destruction, we can investigate humanity’s determination to make sense of suffering and rebuild generation after generation.

To fully understand the seismic generational trauma of the area, we must first detail the repeating history of the cataclysmic events in the Krakatoa region. Starting the morning of December 26th, 2004, a 9.1 quake ruptured a 900-mile stretch of fault line where the Indian and Australian tectonic plates meet. The quake caused the ocean floor to suddenly rise by 40 meters, triggering the massive Boxing Day Tsunami. More than 100,000 people died in the city of Banda Aceh after the first of several hundred-foot waves hit the shoreline, pounding the city into rubble. By the time the water receded, nearly 230,000 people were killed, making this one of the deadliest disasters in modern history—claiming casualties in Thailand, India, Sri Lanka, and even South Africa. Since this disaster, many governments and aid groups have prioritized disaster risk reduction and preparedness. However, years later, in December 2018, the volcano of Anak Krakatau, the ‘Child’ of Krakatoa, underwent ongoing eruptions in the Sunda Strait that caused undersea landslides, triggering a tsunami that struck beaches in Sumatra and Java. However, there was no warning prior to the disaster, resulting in the deaths of over 400 people. Since this occurrence, the Indonesian government is now working to add volcano sensors to its warning system. Data now shows that the Anak Krakatau has continued to erupt as frequently as every year since 2018, and research shows it will continue to do so for many years. This record of the area’s seismic activity depicts not only the repeated damage done to Indonesia and its surrounding areas, but also the human efforts to rebuild after each of these devastating events.

Before continuing to speak about the human story of the Boxing Day Tsunami, it’s important to pause and examine the environmental story. Beginning with a  prologue, the effect the seismic event had on the environment right before the tsunami hit is compelling. According to the presentation Social and Economic Impact of December 2004 Tsunami, just before the tsunami struck the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, there were “changes in bird calls,” as well as an overall shift in bird and marine animal behavior. After the tsunami hit, however, there was a decrease in local fish populations, as well as salt intrusions into freshwater water sources. Additionally, there was “severe damage to ecosystems such as mangroves, coral reefs, forests, coastal wetlands, vegetation, sand dunes and rock formations, animal and plant biodiversity and groundwater,” as well as a “spread of solid and liquid waste and industrial chemicals,” greatly polluting the water of islands hit by the tsunami that would not clear until years afterward. Thankfully, eight years later, the ecosystems of the islands hit by the tsunami have greatly recovered. The changes in the photos of locations such as Banda Aceh, Sumatra, Indonesia, waterways have been cleared of debris and greenery such as grass and trees have returned, even as these locations have been developed by humans.

Moving from the environmental impact to the human impact allows us to witness the instinct to react and rebuild. The first novel of N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy opens with the quote, “Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we? Get it over with and move on to more interesting things.” The blasé tone the narrator takes demonstrates his repeated exposure to massive destruction, similar to the people of the Krakatoa region. It’s commonplace. While that apathy is not identical to our world’s reaction to destruction, there is something to be said for how areas of repeated seismic events carry “generational trauma” with them. In terms of the 2004 Tsunami, the human impact was overwhelming, with 220,000 human lives lost. Countless more were deemed missing. To make things worse, in the 2018 tsunami, Jakarta’s tsunami detection buoys were mysteriously non-functioning, leaving people scrambling at the last minute to find safety when the disaster was imminent—resulting in more deaths. 

However devastating the human impact, it was not ubiquitous throughout the region. Countries with more funds, greater access to western support, and charity found themselves in better positions. Thailand suffered more losses than that of Sri Lanka or Indonesia, though they were able to rebuild their country, but places like the Banda Aceh in Northern Indonesian are in real need of assistance to rebuild. By 2014 Indonesia had been fully rebuilt, but it took an entire decade. Regardless, the trials for the Indonesian people haven’t ended with the rebuilding of infrastructure. In Jemisin’s world, many mental illnesses plagued the people of the Stillness; for Indonesia, after the tsunamis the rate of post traumatic stress reactivity increased significantly, and remains in the minds of those who underwent this disaster.

The death and destruction of the tsunami have been transformed by artists as a means of finding peace in chaos, showing humanity’s need to create something beautiful from pain and rebuild the community. In The Stone Sky, Houwha the tuner learns the difference between art and utility upon encountering an engine created differently than others: “It had the same fundamental structure as other plutonic engines. Only its purpose is different—no, no. That’s too simple an assessment. What’s different here is…philosophical. Attitudinal. The Plutonic Engine is a tool. This thing? Is…art.” Examples of art are seen through the events that occurred after the Boxing Day Tsunami. For example, in the Aceh provincial community, World Food Programme personnel developed a school meals program for survivors in which children were allowed to sketch images of their experiences. Ten of the children were reunited with their drawings a decade after the life-altering event. Fir, a survivor, made a sketch of loved ones he had lost. He reveals, “It was bittersweet. I am really glad that my house and [immediate] family were not affected, but on that day I lost something greater, my relatives.” Fir uses this experience as a way of finding peace in what he lost in the tsunami. As most humans do, Fir employs art as a means of recovery from trauma and loss. These creations show the necessity of the human race to find beauty in destruction and use art as a method to comprehend and heal. 

In examining the colossal seismic events at and as a result of the Krakatoa Volcano, and the art that has emerged from the events’ equally destructive aftermaths, our attention is brought to a variety of issues which trace a pattern of human response and resilience to natural disasters throughout history. Additionally, we see that some people are vastly limited in their access to resources to combat these ramifications. Those who are responsible for this lack of accessibility, or for the practices that lead to the catastrophic event themselves, are never the ones highly affected by either. While attempts were made in relief efforts after the tsunami in 2004, they were not adequate for the community of people in the area that were already subject to external discriminatory factors before the event. Exploring these impacts can highlight the necessity for better safety education and accessibility to resources. 

Lastly, it’s difficult to reconcile our explosive, violent planet with the gentle image of Mother Earth, which is why N.K. Jemisin’s depiction of the planet is not only male, but aggressive. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy takes this long-upheld personification and twists it; in the Stillness, Father Earth is fully alive, completely aware— endlessly bent on revenge after being exploited. In doing this, Jemisin emphasizes humanity’s need to keep personifying the earth, but their contradictory practice of dehumanizing it in its treatment. At the same time, her protagonists also feel the effects of dehumanization; Essun spends her formative years being polished into a weapon, and her fear of how orogenes are treated causes her to train her daughter, Nassun, in the same emotionless way. This reiteration of abusive methods of control is just one way Jemisin acknowledges the cyclical way trauma takes effect. In the same way the earth and orogenes alike are and have been taken advantage of with no consideration for their safety, people in impoverished and underserved communities devastated by the tsunamis in the Krakatoa region are not fully supported before or after decades of destruction. Talk about generational trauma.

Not very gneiss.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.