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Hong Kong Polytechnic University
The language of trauma: Evidence from domestic migrant workers’ storytelling

Trauma storytelling represents a break not just with a particular form of representation but with the very possibility of representation at all. Extreme suffering is an experience that goes beyond ‘ordinary’ words, and since no vocabulary is available to account for extraordinary subhuman experiences, storytelling which reports on human-inflicted trauma is characterized by voids in the narrative flow. Drawing on a large corpus of more than 400 domestic migrant worker narratives recorded at shelters in Hong Kong and among returnees in Indonesia and the Philippines, this talk analyzes narratives of suffering and humiliation. The women talk about their painful encounters with verbal and physical assault, sexual assault, starvation, and the fear and anxiety they experienced while working for an abusive employer. The talk outlines some of the characteristics of these stories of suffering, including a broken disruptive style, incoherent stories that break with ordinary logic, and lack of appropriate vocabulary to account for extreme suffering. Finally, I discuss how we as researchers (should) deal with other people’s stories of suffering.


Hans Ladegaard studied at the University of Southern Denmark and Cambridge University, England. Prior to his present post as Professor (and Head until 2021) of the Department of English & Communication at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, he taught at universities in Denmark and the UK. His research interests include intercultural communication, language attitudes and stereotypes, language and gender, narratives of migration, and pragmatics and discourse analysis. He is Editor-in-Chief of Language & Intercultural Communication (Routledge).

Zoom Details

Zoom link: https://hku.zoom.us/j/93659393176?pwd=azB0QnplSHRzOTlQUE5yQjkrYi8vdz09

Meeting ID: 936 5939 3176
Password: 438643