Among the things I enjoy most about working in a university setting are the opportunities for conversations that prompt us to ask new questions, see connections between diverse themes and experiences, reconsider assumptions and explore the implications for our thinking and practices. I am lucky to be able to have conversations of this kind with people from all over the world. My conversation with Juleus Ghunta has been one of the most sustained of these, one that has deepened and evolved over time. Quite a bit of it has revolved around ACEs and Rohan Bullkin.
I first came across Rohan in Juleus’s MA dissertation, an autoethnographic exploration of his ACEs, their impacts on his life, and the potential of storytelling as a form of resistance and a path towards healing. In that first encounter, Rohan was a real-life childhood friend, one of the other boys assigned to the ‘dunce row’ at their primary school. A boy who earned the name ‘bullkin’ because he stopped crying when teachers hit him. What his peers picked up on, I think, is the way traumatic experiences can lead to numbing, shutting down the capacity to feel. What might it take, from such a place, to recover this capacity, to feel like a person again?
The second time I met Rohan was in an early version of what became Rohan Bullkin and the Shadows. From the start, the fictional Rohan’s story was a form of resistance – a determination not to give in to numbing, to imagine other possibilities, to dream. Often, such stories – whether real-life or fictional – are told in ways that suggest that with determination and hard work, anyone can triumph over adversity. In his dissertation, Juleus called this ‘the agency fallacy’; this too, a kind of resistance against narratives that end up blaming people like the real-life Rohan for not making it out. And yet, the early draft of Rohan’s story felt a bit like that. Learning to read seemed a bit too easy, a case of following Marcus Garvey’s instructions on ‘how to read’: “Use every spare minute you have in reading… Read through at least one book every week.” Its benefits seemed too narrow, more focused on academic achievement than the wonder of discovering other worlds or the possibility of developing a deep understanding of self and others.
Over time, Rohan’s story became richer, more complex, more honest and courageous. The process of crafting Rohan’s story was shaped in part by conversations, questions and responses. I have not experienced childhood trauma or struggled with literacy. So, for me, some of the most important questions were about what these experiences feel like from the inside. How might this be captured and conveyed, both to help others who have lived them to feel seen, and to give those of us who have not a meaningful understanding? How does it feel to be too overwhelmed by toxic stress to focus on trying to read? What is it like to experience the shame of illiteracy, and then the excitement of discovering a new superpower? How can psychosis – making friends with a talking book – be not only scary but also helpful?
Both Juleus’s attempts to articulate these experiences and my attempts to listen have been iterative, work-in-progress. One writing or reading or a single conversation, we have found, is often not enough. There is value in revisiting questions and responses that matter, in giving them space and letting them sink in. There is value in going beyond single stories, including those we tell about ourselves and each other.
At times, I wondered whether Rohan Bullkin and the Shadows is one story or two – one about literacy and the other about ACEs. And yes, telling separate stories about these things is of course possible, as is recovery from trauma via other routes. But over time and while watching Rohan evolve, I have become more conscious of how deeply the two can indeed be intertwined. Much of this, I think, is to do with finding words. Words that can soften numbness and sharpen understanding. Words that inspire explorations beyond the immediate contexts in which we live, that suggest other possibilities. Words that allow us to connect with ourselves, each other, and the world around us. Words that expand what can be said and heard and understood.
One of the things that I have come to understand but will never fully know is how much it has taken for Juleus and I to be able to have this conversation at all, for there to be a context in which we could meet on a basis of equality and dignity, in which we would share words and ideas and argue over narratives and metaphors and commas. And yes, how much of this was indeed determination and hard work and a kind of heroism that I have never had to exercise. How much reading, and writing, takes courage.
In her TED talk What reading slowly taught me about writing, Jacqueline Woodson makes a case for taking time with reading. This too feels to me like a kind of resistance. An important part of her case for reading stories slowly is the knowledge that “some author ha[s] spent months, maybe years, writing them.” Helping to edit Rohan Bullkin and the Shadows has taught me something about the value of words that take time and effort and care to make it onto a page. I think this is especially true of words that emerge from places that had been numbed. For those of us who have not ourselves experienced trauma or illiteracy, perhaps the challenge lies in learning to read more slowly, to listen more carefully, to be more conscious of how taking care with words can also be a way of taking care of each other. Rohan Bullkin and the Shadows is a good place to start.
Ute Kelly is an Associate Professor in Peace Studies at the University of Bradford, UK. Much of her work revolves around the question of how to encourage meaningful conversations about difficult and potentially divisive issues. Currently, she is trying to encourage such conversations on our individual and collective responses to climate change, ecological crisis, and the social justice issues they raise, on difference, otherness and inequalities within and beyond the University, and on how, in difficult times, we might cultivate and practice ‘the moral imagination’ in ourselves and others.