PEN 2010: War of the Words

Events Literature War and Peace


War. What is it good for? Writing. PEN World Voices Festival lined up two war-themed panels on the afternoon of April 30, one featuring a bevy of novelists, the other filled with a squad of journalists. Politics remained resolutely to the side of the two discussions. No talk about whether the Iraq invasion was a good or bad idea, no discussion as to whether or not overthrowing oppressive regimes with violence is necessary. Panelists across sessions have been witness to conflict, and they have used it for inspiration in writing. But why? And how? And in the end, what’s the difference between fiction and nonfiction war-writing?


The two events, “War and the Novel” (at the Scandinavia House) and the other, simply titled but heavily weighted, “War” (at Le Poisson Rouge), cannot be divorced in a retrospective review; the themes and experiences of the writers crisscrossed in too many ways. Here, then, in holy matrimony, is a blended essay of the two conversations that were separated only by an hour. And though their subject matter was the same, the approaches each of the participants took to war definitely put them (kept them) in either of their groups (novelists versus journalists).


First, a bit of housekeeping. Representing “War and the Novel” panel were: Bernardo Atxaga (Spain, with translator), Filip Florian (Romania, with translator), Assaf Gavron (Israel), and Atiq Rahimi (Afghanistan, by way of France, with translator), moderated by Susan Kuklin. And for the “War” panel: Deborah Amos (U.S.), Philip Gourevitch (U.S.), Arnon Grunberg (Netherlands), Sebastian Junger (U.S.), and Daniele Mastrogiacomo (Italy, with translator), with an introduction from PEN Executive Director Steven Isenberg, and moderated by Sarah Montague.


Empty chairs on the two stages stood as stark reminders that people are imprisoned and murdered for their words. Nowhere is that thought more relevant than in discussions about war. I find the presence of the vacant seats at PEN World Voices to be deeply moving. Consider also that PEN was borne from the wreckage of World War I, as a way to bridge cultural gaps through the exchange of literature and literary ideas. Today, the writers’ absence was especially poignant.




Not to be too clichéd about the matter, but war and writing have been intertwined as far back as the beginning of civilization. Foundational documents of Western civilization, for example, like Homer’s The Iliad and Thucydides’ A History of the Peloponnesian War, prove how strongly humans cling to the narrative of violence. Put simply: war makes for excellent storytelling. War presents limitless feats of treachery and triumph and of heroism and cowardice on which to draw illuminating portraits of warriors (almost always men), whole armies, or entire nations, peoples and histories. War is a metaphor that is extended to gamesmanship, politics, love, and even the act of writing itself (Emerson: “The way to write is to throw your body at the mark when your arrows are spent.”) War entertains at all levels—high brow (All Quiet on the Western Front), low brow (video games), and in between (Saving Private Ryan). War provides opportunities for the ultimate test of character and fortitude for the warrior, the victim, and the innocent bystanders. War is simply rich and fertile ground with which to sow infinite stories.


Conflict, as Gavron says about the Israel-Palestine conflict, is full of fascinating material and contradictions. And war is, as Grunberg pointed out, more absurd than your imagination could ever conjure. Having never experienced war myself, but seen and read about it many times (in fiction and nonfiction books, news, and film), I have a basic concept of the horrors of war. But the true absurdity of day-to-day experiences I can hardly fathom. Only those who have experienced conflict directly can convey such craziness, which makes for fascinating reading.


To wit: Rahimi intended to return to Afghanistan to attend a conference, but at the last minute the event was canceled because one of the poets had been killed by her husband. Curious, Rahimi went to visit the accused husband, who was in jail and had attempted to commit suicide by injecting gasoline into his veins. The husband was left in a coma. If the wife were alive, Rahimi thought, what would she say to this comatose man? And that’s how his latest novel, The Patience Stone, was born. Grunberg discussed his experiences of sitting in on security briefings in Afghanistan with a Turkish security officer who delivered his reports in Turkish, even though nobody else in the room spoke that language. Gavron described the heightened anxiety of people in Israel during the second intifada—people would get off buses randomly if they got a bad feeling that one of the passengers looked like he might blow the vehicle up. Florian drew on his experiences of having a family chock-full of political prisoners. Mastrogiacomo wrote about watching his driver’s throat get slit by Taliban soldiers. Junger discusses surviving an IED explosion and coming close to death. Amos writes about pretending to be an Iraqi prostitute in order to get closer to her subjects. Gourevitch speaks about his firsthand interviews with people who experienced and/or committed mutilation and torture.


War. You can’t make this stuff up!


And so, too, war provides an excellent venue for the author to test his or her mettle in the writing craft. But war presents more than just a test, a challenge, an opportunity. Writing about war, it seems, is a calling. Take the novelists of the first panel today. As an Israeli, it is difficult, if not impossible, for Gavron to avoid the conflict with the Palestinians. The people of his country will get sucked into the issue, whether they try to avoid it or not. Gavron, who served in the Israeli army in Gaza during the first intifada, is compelled to write about the conflict: “I do want to deal with it. I do want to write about it. It is my life.” For his part, everything that Rahimi has written has been about war, because war has defined the major experiences of his life. The effects of war in his home country of Afghanistan compelled him to write his novel, because war after war after war has had devastating effects on the psyche of the Afghan people.On the writer who experiences—but abstains from—war, Rahimi says, “Our words take the place of bullets.” And more poignantly, “I write to overcome my weaknesses.”


Journalists are also drawn to war as a subject. Amos says war shows people at their very best [presumably, those coming to the aid of, rather than destruction of, their neighbors]. It is important for journalists to bear witness to war, she adds. Junger takes the more traditional, masculine-warrior approach to writing about war. There is a need, mostly among male reporters, to test one’s character under combat. How do I bear up? But after every war, there is the mess that is left. Cities must be re-built. Hearts must be consoled. The mind must be mended. The psychological detritus left with people when the fighting ends is what draws Gourevitch to post-war writing. The former editor of the Paris Review wants to understand the inhumanity in humanity. How does one live with the memory and wreckage of a conflict? What was won? What was lost?


But unlike journalists who write from the thick of war, novelists, it seems, need some sort of distance from the conflict in order to address it appropriately. The urge and temptation to write about a conflict while in the moment, however, is a pressing convern. For Gavron, he could not NOT write about the second intifada he was living through in Israel. Despite cautions from other writers (namely Norman Mailer) to hold off as long as possible to write about the conflict, Gavron just couldn’t wait. He does agree that at least a physical distance was needed to write about the topic. His novel, Almost Dead, was penned in London. [Note: this brings up an interesting question addressed in The Mantle’s second virtual roundtable. In “Pens and Swords,” three writers from around the world answered the complex question: what is the role of the writer in a conflict zone? Read it here.]


The other writers on Gavron’s panel, however, agreed that both time and physical distance were needed in order to adequately cover the conflicts in which they were involved. For Rahimi, there was a ten year difference between the writing of his novel and the war it covered (the civil war that began in 1996). Literature can be a tool for grief, he notes, but Afghans have not had this time for grieving because they have been at war for decades. Rahimi also wrote his novel from a distance, in Paris, far from the violent streets of his home city, Kabul.


Further, Rahimi indicates that an author shifts perspectives when writing the narratives of multiple characters. A necessary distance is achieved in the writing process when the writer assumes the mentality of the victim or the perpetrator being written.


Time must be given in order to allow the dust to settle on a conflict, Florian said, otherwise the fiction destroys the moment. Pieces of the story (facts?) are seen more clearly from a distance of time, which makes crafting the story a little bit easier. Nonetheless, Atxaga cautions that if the personal suffering of the writer is too strong, writing becomes impossible. The amount of distance in time a writer can put between himself and the conflict depends on the level of suffering experienced.




With an understanding of what draws these various scribes to write about war, how do they approach their craft? How much difference is there between the novel and long form journalism on war? Montague suggested that war-writing (in the journalistic sense) is a literary genre [akin, I suppose, the “war” genre of literature]. Are journalists aware of this aspect when drafting their stories? Gavron, who has also written a novel, says that yes, literary giants like Goethe and Flaubert are on his mind when he is writing. He strives to achieve their excellence. Junger looks for the most powerful and affecting language when he writes his stories, and Amos was aware of writing in the most cinematic and novelistic way in order to attract the largest audience. Gourevitch, on the on the hand, does not consider his writing on atrocities to be of any genre. He simply wants to convey the story as vividly, intensely, and as immediately as possible, bringing all the writing firepower you have to the narrative.


But getting into the conflict at hand is another matter. Journalists nowadays can choose one of two options to cover a war: they can either embed with a group, or fly solo at their own peril. Each of these choices presents its own advantages and disadvantages.


In order to tell their war stories, Junger and Grunberg chose to embed with American and Dutch troops in Afghanistan (Junger with the Americans, Grunberg spending time with both sets). But you’ll notice above that I purposefully omitted a descriptor for “group.” That’s because Mastrogiacomo and Amos embedded with nonconventional (i.e., non-military) units—Mastrogiacomo with Taliban troops, Amos with Iraqi civilians. In each embed case, the journalist is made available to nuances of character and behavior that could otherwise not be discerned from being outside the group. Note, also, that Mastrogiacomo sought Taliban troops to report on their activities, only to be kidnapped by them and held for weeks as their prisoner, thus affording a wholly different an intimate experience than he first sought. Of course, being this close to your subjects dismisses all chances of objectivity, but more on that shortly.


The novelists didn’t need to address whether or not they used especially novelistic writing to attract an audience, of course. And all of their writings were inspired by events experienced firsthand, so there was no need for embedding on their parts. Instead, two intriguing questions were posed by Kuklin: How do you get inside the head of the enemy? Does it change you?


Rahimi balked. Sort of. Originally he intended to write about the Afghan conflict from a soldier’s perspective, but was completely incapable of getting into the soldier’s mind. He couldn’t write a single word. Instead, he delved into the mind of the new protagonist of the novel, the wife of the soldier. Florian, however, could easily get into the minds of his “enemies.” They are all invented, so they become your own, he mused. You love them, even if the characters are despicable. If, however, you write about a real character which you hate (say, Ceauşescu), it is difficult to escape the feelings of hate you have toward the real person.


Which brings us back the journalists and their embedding. How did they get into the minds of their “characters”? Embedding was the tactic to get close, but how could they write about what their subjects were thinking and feeling? And how does this obscure an attempt at “objectivity”? Well, each of the panelists admitted that objectivity in war-reporting is impossible, so let’s start with that as a given. Junger’s very safety depended on the men with whom he was embedded. And after a while, a genuine bond between him and the soldiers formed, thereby eliminating objectivity. “Objectivity is a dangerous illusion,” he stated.


For Amos, the reverse was true: in being embedded with civilians, their safety was her responsibility. With civilians, she said, you have to blend in as much as possible to not tip off potential enemies that you are not who you seem to be. If you give yourself away [as an American, in her case] then the safety of those whom you are trying to report on is compromised, and this is a very serious responsibility for the journalist.


Mastrogiacomo, however, claimed a sense of objectivity or neutrality in his depiction of the Taliban. Why? Because being their prisoner and seeing and speaking with them every day, and even going on military missions with them, he was able to erase physical distance from his captors, but at the same time, the differences between he and they became so apparent that he could claim an objective report of the group. [I don't buy this claim of objectivity].




The irony of it all

After hearing from so many writers and journalists speak about their craft and their experiences with war, I have tentatively come to an ironic conclusion: When it comes to war-writing, perhaps the novelists are more truthful and objective than the journalists could ever be. Every journalist admitted objectivity could not be maintained in war reporting. Their biases come out in their reports. The reading public accepts that, to some extent, objectivity is compromised in news reports.


The novelist, however, does not need to feign neutrality or objectivity. In essence, their words report exactly what is happening in the story. If the soldier in the novel does this, he does this. If the soldier thinks this, he thinks exactly this. There is no counter-narrative. There is no “other side of the story.” Fiction forthrightly reports what actually happens, the Truth. Journalism can never reach this ideal.



Journalism, PEN 2010, Atiq Rahimi, Bernardo Atxaga, Filip Florian, Assaf Gavron, Susan Kuklin, Deborah Amos, Philip Gourevitch, Sebastian Junger, Arnon Grunberg, Daniele Mastrogiacomo, Steven Isenberg, Sarah Montague