Agency and Trauma in Syrian Refugee Literature for Children and Young Adults

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Arthur, Susan
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Middle Tennessee State University
ABSTRACT The Arab Spring of 2010 sparked a Syrian revolution that unfortunately turned into a civil war, in which the Syrian government, ruled by the autocratic al-Assad family for decades, crushed any democratic civic movement under the disguise of fighting Islamist terrorists. After more than a decade of conflict, Syria is fragmented into pieces and suffers from famines, diseases, and a collapsed economy. As historian David W. Lesch explains, an estimated $300 billion “will be needed to reconstruct the country,” and “about five hundred thousand Syrians have been killed in the war, with over half of the population either internally or externally displaced” (180). This is the socio-political background for the autobiographies, (journalistic) biographies, fictionalized novels, graphic works, and picture books that address the Syrian war. This dissertation investigates how agency affects trauma for the protagonists in the literature, specifically texts aimed at children and young adults. Research questions include: What actions are the characters taking to increase their agency? How does trauma affect their daily lives? How are the children and young adults supported by the grownups? And what about their situation makes agency particularly important as a coping strategy? The theoretical framework for my analysis is trauma theory and some interdisciplinary approaches in regards to agency. Both trauma theory and interdisciplinary approaches to children’s agency have become major topics in literary fields of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Additionally, trauma studies and approaches focused on agency display strong connections to children’s refugee literature, which was slowly developing at the same time, with works published after WWII. The connectedness of children and young adults to their parents, caregivers, and community at large is the lens I am applying regarding agency as it is reflected in children’s literature. This is a lens that includes in its perspective a positive attitude towards children and young adults with a focus on their capabilities, resourcefulness, resilience, and self-determination and also an optimistic viewpoint on children within their families and communities and their interactions with adults and the adult world. My understandings of agency within Syrian refugee literature for children and young adults rely, for example, on children’s literature concepts from Marah Gubar and Richard Flynn, modern psychological viewpoints from Bessel van der Kolk, and sociological studies from Frederica Cavazonni and others. This interdisciplinary approach demonstrates that agency exerts a powerful and positive effect on trauma, mitigating some of trauma’s devastating (long-term) consequences.
Agency, Children's literature, Refugee Literature, Syrian War, Trauma Studies, Young Adult Literature, English literature