I am fascinated by the intersection where war and the novel collide, which is why I found myself, for lack of a better word, positively giddy at the prospect of attending yet another back-to-back discussion on the topic. At PEN American Center’s World Voices Festival of International Literature this summer, I attended two panels of similar ilk: at that event, authors in one panel discussed writing fiction centered on violent conflict. At the next panel, journalists discussed the ins and outs of war reporting. At Brooklyn Book Festival 2010, the tables were turned.
An hour earlier I had attended the panel War in Words in which four journalists discussed war reporting from Iraq and Afghanistan. I now found myself at the enticingly titled When the Shooting’s Over, where three authors shared insights on writing novels centered on war and conflict. For me, it doesn’t get much better than this. I’m like a chubby kid at a cupcake factory at this point…
Lined up for this reading and discussion: authors Susan Abulhawa (of Palestinian descent), Feryal Ali Gauhar (Pakistan), and Chang-rae Lee (Korea).
What became clear from all three authors is that when the shooting’s over, the violence continues. Be it a leftover landmine that is accidentally stepped on one day, or in screaming nightmares, or in simple random, daily recollections of war, the violence continues, in the mind and in reality.
Ali Gauhar fired first, reading a few excerpts from her novel No Space for Further Burials (Akashic, 2010), which had the ring of stories like Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner or Atiq Rahimi’s The Patience Stone. Ali Gauhar is a natural storyteller, both in words and practice. I kept my eyes closed for much of her reading—the emotion and inflections in her voice, combined with her vivid language were transporting. Next, Abulhawa took us to Jenin, Palestine, a place fresh in my mind thanks to Rick Rowley’s passionate storytelling in the previous panel, with her reading from Mornings in Jenin (Bloomsbury, 2010). Chang-rae brought the readings to a close with the only e-reading of the day, an excerpt from his The Surrendered (Riverhead, 2010). I want to compare him to Hwang Sok-Yong, but do I dare? (Does The Mantle audience have an opinion on this matter?)
But then the real shooting began, started by yours truly. With the aforementioned PEN World Voices panel in the back of my mind, I asked this of the three authors: how much physical and/or emotional distance from the conflict about which you write was required for you to write your novel? I asked this because, as I recalled, all the authors featured in that PEN panel needed distance, both in time and place. All of them wrote their “war books” from outside their home countries, years removed from the conflicts. They needed time and space in order to absorb and digest the horrific experiences in their novels.
The answers at BKBF, however, surprised me, as they ran the spectrum: Abulhawa, for one, said that being close to Palestine helped her greatly in writing her novel. Thus, no physical and hardly any temporal distance from the violence experienced in Jenin was needed to pen the story.
Chang-rae thought my question a good one, admitting that if he had directly experienced the harsh realities of the Korean conflict, he likely could not have written his book. The Surrendered draws on his father’s experiences, not his own. Thus, Chang-rae was removed in time (by decades), physically (by oceans), and emotionally from the events in his book, allowing a sort of ruthlessness to push the story in ways that might not have manifested otherwise.
Ali Gauhar choked back tears in answering that no distance is necessary to write such fiction. Indeed, she pointed out that my question assumed that some distance is needed. Not according to her, because for Ali Gauhar and her Pakistani countrymen, there is no distance from war. It continues, on and on. War doesn’t end for those who experience it daily, she told me. Therefore, she must write about it, she has no choice. To put any sort of distance between herself and the conflict when writing would be like writing in a vacuum.
Ali Gauhar’s response to my question sounded much like the journalists I had just heard in the previous panel, and the journalists at the war panel at the PEN event. Journalists, after all, must live in the moment and report it as it unfolds. To report on conflict from a distance (physical or temporal) would be anathema to their very craft. Ali Gauhar echoed the same sentiment, but from the authority of a novelist.
Isn’t it utterly fascinating to explore the nexus of the novel and war? The approaches journalists and authors take to writing about violent conflict are simultaneously distinct and similar—it’s enough to make you drunk on the intellectual and creative brew the collision of the two professions stirs.
I’ll end this post on this note, and hook it right back to the previous panel with Jeremy Scahill et al: On writing about war, Abulhawa states that violence and destruction are often well-reported in the media; it’s the intimacies of the personal experiences of war that must be documented by the writer.
I’m skipping the next panel on war and torture and staying put for the last event at the international stage today. This one promises a happy ending...
BKBF 2010, Journalism, Korea, Pakistan, Palestine, Susan Abulhawa, Feryal Ali Gauhar, Chang-rae Lee