With an aim to understand the connection between storytelling and empathy for immigrant and first-generation Americans, this research paper investigates how the narration of trauma creates a third space for the reader to empathize with the experiences of Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans in Maxine Hong Kingston’s “No Name Woman.” This study first synthesizes trauma theory by foundational scholar Sigmund Freud, the opportunities for empathy in trauma narratives, and transgenerational transfer of trauma through post-memory. Addressing a gap in previous literature that connects trauma with a readers’ ability to empathize with the immigrant experience, this study then explores Kingston’s multilayered trauma narrative along with silence as a symbol of oppression to understand how ethnic trauma can be transferred across generations and the opportunities for literary empathy for migrant communities. Analysis reveals that Kingston’s merging of collective with individual trauma, personal anecdotes of post- memory, and use of silence as a symbol of cultural oppression helps the audience to empathize with both the inherited and current trauma of immigrants in America. With this humanistic approach to cultural studies, focusing on how characters in stories are defined between cultures rather than comparing societies separately, this literary analysis can inform an investigation of the experiences of today’s first-generation Americans.
The Breaking of Silence: Trauma as the Bridge to Empathy in Maxine Hong Kingston’s No Name Woman
Can trauma be transferred to another person through literature? Immigrants not only move from one geographic location to another; they also must transition from a familiar cultural environment to a new one. Furthermore, while many individuals migrate for pull factors like increased economic opportunities, others leave their homeland because of push factors like violence, oppression, and economic or political instability. These physical and environmental transitions can certainly be traumatic, but what is often less observed is how traumatic experiences from their homeland continue to affect their experiences in a new land and to what extent their children, first-generation Americans separated from past ethnic traumas, inherit these traumas.
Maxine Hong Kingston is a first-generation Chinese American born in Stockton, California in 1927. In her book, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, she assembles autobiographical stories of her immigration background and her experiences with Chinese and American cultures. Her short story, “No Name Woman,” is the first chapter of this memoir, and it recaps Kingston’s childhood experience with hearing a trauma narrative from her mother, a Chinese immigrant. Her mother, Brave Orchid, tells Kingston a story about her aunt who she explains remains unidentified as “No Name Woman” because of the adultery she committed. Old Chinese culture stresses collectivism or prioritizing “attending to others, fitting in, and harmonious interdependence with them. While individualism, specifically American culture, emphasizes independence, self-reflection, and self-expression, (Markus & Kitayama 224). Therefore, from Brave Orchid’s perspective, adultery shamed not just the individual but the collective community. The punishment was the village’s violent raid on her family, the aunt’s suicide, and her family’s erasure of her existence. On the other hand, Kingston begins to develop her own perspective about her aunt, imagining the trauma of rape and social rejection she might have experienced, and weaving these two distinct perspectives into her short story for the reader to digest.
To understand the connection between storytelling and empathy for immigrant and first-generation Americans, this research paper examines how trauma creates a third space for the reader to empathize with the experiences of Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans in “No Name Woman.” Considering the estrangement of immigrants in American society, this study navigates the extent to which storytelling of trauma can help to bridge the understanding gap between native and the “other” through empathy. After synthesizing the trauma theory of foundational scholar Sigmund Freud, discovering the opportunities for empathy in trauma narratives, and implementing the concept of post-memory coined by Marianne Hirsch, it was clear there was a gap in literature that connects literary empathy for trauma with the immigrant experience. Analysis reveals that Kingston’s merging of collective with individual trauma, personal anecdotes of post-memory, and use of silence as a symbol of cultural oppression helps the audience to empathize with both the inherited trauma and current trauma of immigrants in America.
Contrary to popular thought, an experience is not designated traumatic by its level of extremity but by the individual’s pre-existing mental capacity in dealing with an event. In his essay “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” Sigmund Freud, psychologist, and foundational scholar in trauma theory, claimed that the pleasure principle automatically directs human mental functions. Pleasure principle is the desire for the mind to leave “an unpleasant state of tension” either by avoiding pain, perceived threats in the external world which may be physically or mentally harmful or seeking pleasure to ease the tension (Freud 4-7). While this fundamental instinct can genuinely help to avoid traumatic experiences in the first place, once encountered with one, it can be a barrier to healing. To explain the state of emotional shock, or traumatic neurosis, after a trauma, Freud deemed that an experience had to have some surprise or “fright” for it to be traumatic (8). While a person with apprehension (angst), or the ability to prepare for the pain, or “fear” (Furcht), a notion of the object of their fear, would not reach traumatic neurosis, a person with fright (Schreck) must face danger without mental preparation or understanding, inducing traumatic neurosis (8). It is not how extreme the trauma is which determines the long-term effects on the mind, rather it is the existence of knowledge and preparation which prevents the damaging effects of trauma. Knowledge and preparation function as a defense mechanism for the mind and without it, the mind is vulnerable to the dangers of the external world.
Trauma’s complex formation makes it challenging to heal from. In traumatic neurosis, the person is driven, often unaware, to repeat the unpleasant traumatic experience in their mind, dreams, or actions by the unconscious power instinct to have “mastery of the situation” (Freud 9-11). Yet, because the emotions during the traumatic experience were repressed to protect the overwhelmed mind, the person finds themselves later unknowingly repeating the repressed elements attempting to push itself into consciousness (13-14). Resistance to the repressed information for fear of reliving the painful experience is futile as it subjects the person to reliving repressed material unconsciously and prevents them from packaging the traumatic emotions and behavioral processes into the past. The dreams or repetition-compulsion are “attempts at restoring control of the stimuli by developing apprehension” (25). Freud’s explanation of repetition-compulsion explains why some individuals may use writing to process simmering feelings in the conscious mind that were once repressed in past trauma. Writing forces the person to identify sometimes overwhelming feelings with words, a natural transition from unconsciousness to consciousness. Furthermore, what may have started out as a personal processing of trauma, its public expression facilitates the transfer of trauma and gives others an opportunity to empathize with it.
Literature can be a form of creative processing of trauma that simultaneously acts as a bridge, connecting the reader empathetically with the experiences of the writer. The formation of empathy has been used on a fictional scale to help make fantasy novels more relatable. Elizabeth K. Lundberg found that empathy is crucial for creating effective science fiction especially with posthuman characters and postmodern literature. Imagination, it seems, opens the possibility for empathy. Writers also use literature about trauma as a tool for exposing societal injustices. Sarah Anderson observes that contemporary trauma fiction writers use trauma as a character device to divulge specific social and political situations like cultural oppression (Anderson 8-9). With her analysis of H.D. ‘s autobiography HERmione, for example, Anderson concludes that the female character’s madness was used as a literary tool to protest patriarchy (10-13). The reader empathizes with the woman’s suffering and developing madness, helping them to equate mental illness to the trauma women experience under patriarchy.
Traumatic narratives therefore can also be a powerful tool for helping readers empathize with outsider groups like immigrants. Once considered limited to male-centered experiences of war, natural disasters, or abuse, traumatic experiences now extend to events without physical violence and to those of women and minorities (Sarah Anderson 6). An expansive definition for trauma allows for greater diversity in its creative expression. Individuals internalize the social and economic contexts of their lives through the arts and writing, thus forming the connection between history and literature (7). Empathy, in fact, is the process of imaginatively identifying with the “other” which ultimately removes the “otherness,” (Horn). Therefore, other scholars have found how trade books about the immigrant experience can not only help foster empathy but change societal ingrained perceptions and stereotypes of foreign cultures (Bousalis).
Understanding the extreme “otherness” imposed on minorities, some writers combine imaginative elements with the true stories of trauma to strip down these barriers and effectively build empathy. In Empathy and the Phantasmic in Ethnic American Trauma Narratives, Stella Setka investigates how phantasmic trauma narratives create a third space for a contemporary audience to empathize with past ethnic traumas. Phantasmic trauma narratives are a form of ethnic literature that incorporates the supernatural and other “fantastic irruptions” of the specific culture, which Setka argues, helps the reader to connect the suffering of past traumas with the present through empathy (Setka 2). The phantasmic style offers an ethical path for readers to understand past cultural traumas and relate it back to the larger pattern of human oppression and suffering. Trauma and empathy are interconnected. The inability to respect the trauma victim’s alterity through superficial empathy, for example, is a form of violence because it reinforces the trauma (5). Therefore, genuine empathy is necessary for the transfer of trauma truth and empathy begins with appreciating the differences between people and their experiences without any presumptions or stereotypes. Empathy must be separated from other superficial forms like sympathy which may perpetuate trauma rather than understanding. Phantasmic trauma narratives with their foundation in cultural belief systems spotlight this alterity.
With specifically cultural trauma, there is not only the opportunity for empathy but also the possibility to create cross-cultural competency. The relationship between the writer’s narration of cultural belief systems and the reader’s engagement showcases a cross-cultural exchange through empathy. Setka explains that phantasmic features in a narrative reflect the ethnic author’s cultural reality, disrupting readers’ preconceptions about the other, and helping them to experience and react rather than passively read about their trauma (Setka 8-15). This contrasts with magical realism which focuses on the “otherness” of the events and thereby restricts empathy (15). By stripping misunderstandings about a culture or people, the reader may now be able to view these other belief systems as valid and choose to empathize with the trauma of the other. Phantasmic elements bring a level of engagement to the reading process which heightens empathetic understanding. In trauma narratives with a contemporary perspective, or where protagonists are in the present while the trauma is of the past, the reader can relate to the protagonist’s historical distance and process of discovery thereby connecting past traumas with present consequences (16). Setka claims that phantasmic trauma narratives help readers reach affiliative post-memory using familiar methods of transmission (7). The fact that a “memory” of trauma could even be transferred to another with such emotional depth indicates that the process involves empathy.
Literature can also reveal and facilitate the intergenerational transfer of trauma. In her book, The Generation of Post-memory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust, Marianne Hirsch coins the term “post-memory” to envelop the relationship that the “generation after” has between the personal or collective historical traumatic experiences of others and their own “memories” of the trauma crafted by images, stories, and actions (Hirsch 1). The idea is that an individual does not have to be a direct witness of trauma for them to deeply conjure their own experience of that trauma. This expands the scope of trauma to not only include those who originally experienced it but the generations after who can still feel and incorporate the trauma of the past. Additionally, post-memory claims that future generations are actively connected to the trauma of the past through “imaginative investment, projection, and creation” rather than through passive remembrance (1). This expands the avenues in which trauma is processed. The truth of trauma does not necessarily lie in factual testimony, but it can also be passed across generations and shared through literature’s fictional realm of creativity and imagination. Just as Freud claimed that traumatic experiences are repetitive in nature, Hirsch describes post-memory as a “traumatic recall but at a generational remove” (5). Post-memory places trauma into the possibility of timelessness and shared experiences as the personal experience of trauma ripples onto others through the behaviors and storytelling of psychological recall.
CONNECTING INDIVIDUAL WITH COLLECTIVE TRAUMA
Kingston establishes literary empathy for the villagers’ collective trauma to show that it is the inability to recognize the traumatic experiences of the “other” through silence which caused the tragedy of no name woman. The story takes place in 1920s rural China during a difficult period of “ghost plagues, bandit plagues, wars with the Japanese, floods.” For villagers struggling with the basics of food and safety, “adultery is extravagance…to have a daughter in starvation time was a waste enough” (Kingston 6). Kingston describes how rural Chinese communities relied heavily on women to uphold cultural traditions in these times of disorder. Therefore, a woman’s focus on herself such as “disturbing hair and eyes, a smile like no other, threatened the ideal of five generations living under one roof” (11). Indulgence in the self or ideas of romance were excessive behaviors that could fracture the fragile social ecosystem necessary in times of poverty and famine. Meanwhile marriage, which “promises to turn strangers into friendly relatives- a nation of siblings,” legally bound the community, an essential social need (12). While it meant that individuals had to sacrifice personal freedoms, this innerweb of family provided security to the values and traditions of a struggling community. Kingston establishes this cultural background in the context of these economic struggles for the reader to understand the motivation behind the raid. She describes how “the frightened villagers, who depended on one another to maintain the real, went to my aunt to show her a personal, physical representation of the break she had made in the roundness…to see that her infidelity had already harmed the village” (12-13). The aunt’s unexpected pregnancy was viewed not as an individual trauma but as a violation of the social fabric of the whole community. Silence only furthered this belief.
As Kingston describes the social and economic trauma villagers in China were experiencing, she also weaves in her imagination and empathy for the individual trauma her aunt might have gone through. For example, Kingston deeply empathizes with the trauma of rape that her aunt might have experienced, writing, “I want her fear to have lasted just as long as rape lasted so that the fear could have been contained. No drawn-out fear. But women at sex hazarded birth and hence lifetimes. The fear did not stop but permeated everywhere” (7). Kingston demonstrates how the trauma of rape surpasses time because of its long-lasting emotional and permanent physical impacts. While Kingston cannot change the past, she reveals her understanding of the permeability of emotional trauma across time and generations. Her intent to write her aunt’s story and thereby disobey her mother’s and Chinese culture’s expectations for silence is to stop the fear and trauma from continuing to perpetuate.
Kingston connects the individual with the collective trauma for her contemporary readers which empathy could never bridge in the past because of silence. Kingston contextualizes the trauma of rape in old Chinese culture, wondering, “My aunt could not have been the lone romantic who gave up everything for sex. Women in China did not choose” (6). Her aunt’s ability to have a choice with her sexuality was forbidden in old Chinese culture because of ingrained gender roles. This cultural setting in turn limited the possible understanding and empathy of villagers for any perceived offense of these values. Kingston imagines how these cultural rules may have contributed to her aunt’s trauma. She suspects her aunt’s rapist “was not a stranger…His demand must have surprised, then terrified her. She obeyed him; she always did as she was told” (6-7). Her aunt’s inability to refuse a sexual advance and cultural expectations of female obedience may have contributed to the emotional trauma of rape. Indeed, Kingston visualizes how her aunt was shamed by her family for her pregnancy, perhaps having to eat “at an outcast table” as punishment for her grave disobedience. Her rapist, likely a villager himself, symbolizes how the aunt was traumatized by the very community and family she was born to commit her whole life to. Individual pain clashing with societal trauma prevents the necessary empathy for healing, a perfect storm for tragedy.
POWER OF SILENCE IN PERPETUATING TRAUMA
In the story, silence represents suppressed emotions, a symbol of shame under cultural oppression. When the aunt got pregnant, she was silent. Her silence likely reflects her shame as she feels uncomfortable sharing her suffering. However, her family and community continued the pattern of silence. When they noticed her pregnancy, “no one said anything. We did not discuss it” (3). Deliberate silence, or the refusal to connect and discuss, often represents underlying shame. The fact that all members of the community were silent as a collective unit indicates that the aunt’s actions had breached communal values. The silence appeared to be caused by suppressed emotions because the village’s mute “counting” during the months of her pregnancy erupted into a sudden, violent raid on her family’s house. Villagers cried while raiding, releasing pent up emotions of sorrow and rage, as they destroyed the family’s most valuable items: food, animals, water, and the comforts of their home. Emotional reactions like when the villagers “swept a broom through the air and loosed the spirits-of-the-broom over our heads. ‘Pig.’ ‘Ghost.’ ‘Pig,’ they sobbed and scolded while they ruined our house,” reveal the more complex experience of trauma and humanize the monsters the villagers might otherwise be perceived by the reader as (5). The fact that they are sobbing and leave the house with “sugar and oranges to bless themselves” indicate that enforcing the punishment was perhaps unwanted but motivated by a deeper fear of the girl’s pregnancy as a threat to the established sense of community they worked so hard to secure in these uncertain times. As their fellow villagers “threw eggs and began slaughtering our stock,” “encircled us…eyes rushing like searchlights,” “smeared blood on the doors,” and carried “knives dripped with blood,” Brave Orchid and her family “stood together in the middle of our house, in the family hall with the pictures and tables of the ancestors around us and looked straight ahead” (4-5). As the villagers appeared crazed and dangerously violent, the family members reacted with still observation and numbness. Surrounded by their ancestors, the aunt had failed to uphold their family name. The raid was a punishment not only on her but also on her family and deceased ancestors. While silence could be the culturally expected way to handle emotions in China, it ultimately prevented the family from processing the traumatic humiliation, betrayal, and fear. This unprocessed trauma has the power to transfer from one generation to the next.
By writing “No Name Woman,” Kingston juxtaposes the power of silence’s shame in perpetuating trauma transfer with the voice’s power to build empathy and break the cycle of trauma. Silence perpetuates the unfortunate transfer of trauma because it empowers shame and prevents the emotional processing of trauma. For example, the story states, “‘You must not tell anyone,’ My mother said, ‘what I am about to tell you. In China, your father had a sister who killed herself. She jumped into the family well. We say that your father has all brothers because it is as if she had never been born”’ (15). Brave Orchid separates Kingston’s aunt from the rest of the family by defining her identity as a spite suicide. The aunt, “she,” is literally separated from the family (“the family well”) in the sentence which reflects the family breakage. The aunt is kept nameless, and she is defined by the end of her existence. Additionally, all responsibility of this nameless identity lies on the aunt as she was the one who “killed herself” and who “jumped into the family well.” The last sentence “as if she had never been born” highlights feelings of resentment that her death was more than an individual choice with singular consequences, as it impacted her family and their reputation. Given the family’s perceived passive role in her death, the deliberate silencing of her life story and identity reflects how the family was traumatized by the humiliation of public shame. By telling this story, the mother hopes to deter her daughter from sexual experimentation, but simultaneously places the burden of shame onto Kingston’s shoulders with her demand for silent secrecy. The traumatic experience is then transgenerational. The pain of rape and rejection motivating the aunts’ suicide develops into her family’s refusal to acknowledge her existence and is then passed onto Kingston to maintain this silent punishment.
TRAUMA TRANSFER & EMPATHY FOR IMMIGRANT EXPERIENCE
While Brave Orchid’s motivation to tell the horror story could be to warn her daughter away from sex using fear, her reliance on fear as a warning tool demonstrates that she has not completely processed her own trauma. Afterall, Brave Orchid was the primary witness of the aunt’s suicide. She “found her [no name woman] and the baby plugging up the well” (5). The word choice of “plugging” demonstrates a lack of humanity and empathy for her death. Her diction is also a reflection of a larger denial of the aunt’s pregnancy leading up to the raid and her death. Brave Orchid consistently emotionally separates herself from her sister-in-law by calling her “your aunt” and refusing to give a name besides “her.” She still has questions about the aunt’s pregnancy but refuses to consider possibilities other than adultery as that means accepting a more traumatic reality of the rejection and suicide of an innocent rape victim. For example, she contemplates out loud how “she could not have been pregnant, you see, because her husband had been gone for years… She was ready to have the child, long after the time when it could have been possible” (3). While she is trying to help Kingston rationalize the pregnancy as adultery, these statements are a rare insight into Brave Orchid’s own incomplete comprehension of the “crime.” The thought of adultery was foreign, traumatic to Brave Orchid’ and the rest of the village’s norms and values. As Freud explained, trauma is caused by the inability of the mind to understand the experience and considering the devastating historical context and cultural views on gender, adultery could be considered traumatic.
By telling the story then, Brave Orchid is resurfacing the event from suppression in order to prevent the traumatic event from repeating with her daughter. However, her premises for using the story to prevent the traumatic event from recurring are rooted in fear rather than a mastery of the emotions that signify the processing of the trauma. For example, she says, “‘Don’t let your father know that I told you. He denies her. Now that you have started to menstruate, what happened to her could happen to you. Don’t humiliate us. You wouldn’t like to be forgotten as if you had never been born” (5). By highlighting that her husband still denies her existence, Brave Orchid is warning her daughter that their family has the power to forget hesr just like her aunt. Therefore, Brave Orchid’s motivation for retelling the trauma hidden behind the words “don’t humiliate us” is because she is afraid of her own capability to deny the existence of her daughter if she crossed this cultural threshold. The mentioning of “the villages are watchful” signifies that they are observing both Kingston’s behavior as well as her mothers’ expected reprimand if this threshold was crossed.
Kingston’s retelling of this traumatic story provides a bridge for American readers to connect with the immigrant and first-generation American experience through the shared understanding of trauma’s effects. Brave Child’s inability to fully process the emotions from the trauma reflects the larger problem that the Asian immigrant community faced in the United States. As Kingston described, “those in the emigrant generations who could not reassert brute survival died young and far from home” (5). America, Kingston describes, was a place of survival or lonely death, something that perhaps contemporary American readership may be unable to relate to. These survival tactics included a commitment to “necessity” such as investment in vegetable gardens instead of unnecessary lawns (6). Her parents had to balance their inherited traumatic experiences of food scarcity in China with the newfound immigrant trauma of hard labor and discrimination in America which affected their American children. Childhood experiences like carnival rides were clouded with guilt as “our tired father counted his change on the dark walk home” (6). From Brave Orchid’s perspective, telling the story of “No Name Woman” to her daughter was also necessary to help her “grow up” and “establish realities” (5). Kingston is revealing that her mother’s motives for telling the horror story of the no name woman had multiple purposes such as a warning against crossing cultural lines as well as out of love to strengthen her daughter for survival in America. By exposing her mother’s complex motivation to American readers, she helps her audience be open to those who have not experienced immigrant survival.
By revealing her personal experience with post-memory, Kingston leads her audience to empathize with the first-generation Chinese American experience. After hearing the story of no name woman, Kingston was beyond frightened of sexual relationships. “As if it came from an atavism deeper than fear,” she writes, “I used to add ‘brother’ silently to boys’ names…Made them less scary and as familiar and deserving of benevolence as girls” (12). The word choice of “atavism,” or a return to something ancestral, mirrors the process of post-memory. As a child she used behaviors to protect herself from sexual encounters that she expected given the traumatic memories of her aunt passed down to her. Adding “brother” to boys’ names, helped her to equate them to girls. It was a mechanism to override her fear of boys. Again, the silence demonstrates her shame for feeling this fear. This time, shame stems from American culture, as the practice of associating “brother” with non-relatives is foreign. Kingston also lived decades in fear of harming her own family with the trauma she carried. “I had believed that sex was unspeakable and words so strong and fathers so frail that ‘aunt’ would do my father mysterious harm…And a wrong word would incite the kinspeople even here,” she wrote (15). Not only was sex dangerous but she believed that her father was still emotionally traumatized by his sisters’ humiliation and death that speaking up about her own fears and questions would open a festering wound. Furthermore, she expected her neighboring Americans to violently react just as her mother had described the villagers did in China. Without a fully formed identity as a child, Kingston couldn’t differentiate between American and Chinese culture and as a result had to balance both cultural expectations to protect herself from social rejection and trauma. She used silence, the method taught by her mother, to protect her family from repeated trauma without realizing the pain and shame growing inside her. Indeed, personal stories can provide message about the larger social issues (Asmus and Antel). When she is older and able to incorporate the Chinese and American cultural elements into her own multicultural identity, she writes “No Name Woman.” Although her aunt still “haunts” her even “after fifty years of neglect,” she now chooses to write her story, an acceptance of American values of individualism and expressive speech (16). Yet, she still worries that the ghost of her aunt does not “always mean me well. I am telling on her, and she was a spite suicide” (16). Through these personal anecdotes of post-memory, Kingston helps the reader to understand the long-term emotional effects of both inherited and current traumas of Chinese Americans.
This paper explored how Kingston’s merging of collective with individual trauma, personal anecdotes of post-memory, and use of silence as a symbol of cultural oppression in “No Name Woman” help to foster literary empathy for the immigrant experience with both inherited and current trauma. Sometimes ostracized from American society, immigrants face trauma from their past homeland as well as experiences like discrimination, social rejection, and violence in America. First-generation Americans, like Maxine Hong Kingston, face the unique challenge of feeling “American,” yet they carry a multicultural mixture of values and traumas when both inherited and current immigration experiences merge. Without the primary experience of their homeland like their parents, storytelling then plays a key role in the transfer of these cultural values and traumas between immigrant parents and their first-generation children. Brave Orchid’s sharing of no name woman models this interaction. On a similar level, storytelling of first-generation immigrants to a contemporary American audience, such as Kingston’s written narration of “No Name Woman,” may transfer the unique traumas of the immigrant community to the native American population. This transfer of trauma knowledge offers the special opportunity to bridge understanding between native and the “other” through empathy.
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