By Shaun Randol
What is a literary festival without a panel on war writing? The final event I attended at 2011’s Brooklyn Book Festival was simply titled “Writing War,” and it featured authors Juris Jurjevics, Ron Leshem, and Maaza Mengiste (the latter of whom also completed my 2010 BKBF experience). I find myself attracted to these war-themed panels, like adrenaline junkies are hooked on war reporting. My brushes with violence, catastrophe, and unspeakable humanity, however, happen at a safe distance, separated by significant degrees—personal and temporal. In a way, through others, I live vicariously through situations by which I am totally fascinated but hesitant to experience.
What can this panel add to the war writing conversation that I haven’t already heard from similar discussions? (See, for example, here and here). Mengiste, for one, wonders how a writer can capture a grand, historical moment (in her case, an Ethiopian revolution) that contains so many layers, nuances, twists, and turns. How does one do justice to the historical enterprise? The answer, she believes, is to focus the lens on the personal—to highlight families or individuals affected by the events and share personal and intimate experiences so as to put a human face on a diffusive, sometimes abstract, phenomenon.
Which brings me to a Leshem’s point about the purpose of literature, or at least the purpose of his literature, which is: to touch the audience, to connect with them, emotionally. The idea that literature can convey more truth about a complicated situation than nonfiction can is an idea to which I am increasingly drawn. Think of Milan Kundera’s The Joke or Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (among so many other examples); these literary works did just as much, if not more, to humanize the struggle of the oppressed than many contemporaneous journalistic pieces. And so, for Leshem, his aim is to circumvent the didactic nature of nonfiction writing and go straight to the heart of the reader. His is a strategy of hearts, then minds.
QUESTION: Does war writing glorify war, even if the ultimate message of the novel is one of peace?
Now this is an interesting thought exercise.
MORE QUESTIONS: How does one write about the horrors, insanity, and pointlessness of war without detailing these very elements? And in exposing the morbid and mortal details, such as dramatizing the exploits of heroes and heroines, revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries, warriors in battle and peaceniks in the face of it, how does one avoid glorifying the barbaric activity?
AND STILL MORE: If not writing about war diminished its glory, should we stop writing about war? Or, do we do a disservice to humanity by avoiding the subject? If we continue to glorify war, do we also perpetuate war itself? Or does writing about war contribute to the diminishment of the phenomenon?