The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2018

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OCT 2018 Issue
Books In Conversation

Women and War Literature

Ruth Edgett, Siobhan Fallon, Daphne Kalotay, Judy Labensohn and Ruth Mukwana with Catherine Parnell

Consequence Magazine is an annual journal dedicated to widening the conversation about the culture and consequences of war through the publication of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, translations, and art. In narratives about international conflict, women writers—and writers who identify as women—are marginalized and grossly underrepresented—war literature is dominated by men and veterans. To mark its tenth anniversary, Consequence dedicated the 2018 issue to women, and those identifying as women, exploring the knotty issue of violence, conflict and the repercussions of war. As Ursula K. Le Guin said in 2005, “If you cannot or will not imagine the results of your actions, there’s no way you can act morally or responsibly.” The work in Consequence aims to expose the underbelly of armed conflict in an effort to encourage moral and responsible thinking and action as a path to peace.

Consequence’s Senior Associate Editor, Catherine Parnell, invited five fiction writers whose work appears in the latest issue of the magazine to discuss war writing and women’s place in that genre, the current literary culture, and their fiction. With a focus on their work and a deep dive into their writing process, they address the ways women bear witness to the culture and consequences of war. Ruth Edgett, Siobhan Fallon, Daphne Kalotay, Judy Labensohn, and Ruth Mukwana are a geographically distinct group: Canada, United Arab Emirates, the US, Israel, Uganda, and Sudan (where Ruth Mukwana’s currently working with the United Nations). What follows is their correspondence, conducted via email, during the never-ending winter of 2018.

Catherine Parnell (Rail): Each of you have a story in Consequence’s Tenth Anniversary issue. The exception is Siobhan Fallon, our Fiction Prize judge and author of You Know When the Men Are Gone and The Confusion of Languages. Why have you chosen to write about the culture and consequences of war?

Ruth Edgett: Frankly, my interest in war was nonexistent until I began working with my mother, aunts, and uncles on a book about their early life as lightkeepers on a tiny island off the north coast of Nova Scotia. From their anecdotes of daily chores, education and worship, emerged another story about a father indelibly marked by the battles of World War I. They revealed a man intent upon not revealing himself: a brooding, distant, and largely insensitive father whose discipline was harsh. His behavior bore explaining, yet I knew I could not understand him until I understood the soldier he’d been. My research included a diary my grandmother kept of a trip that she and my grandfather made to Vimy Ridge, France, in 1936 for the unveiling of a monument. Huge and powerfully expressive, it commemorates Canada’s great losses, as well as its first major World War I victory, one Grandpa had a hand in achieving. My grandmother’s words contained a microcosm of that war—not so much in their descriptiveness as in their restraint. It is that restraint I endeavored to show in “Hill 145”: the depth of a veteran’s emotion held firmly below the surface, even when it’s bursting for air; the lingering grief and horror that begs to be let out, yet must be subdued; finally, a man’s anguish that his determined self-containment means that his children will never truly know him. This story attempts to say after his death what Grandpa could never say in life.

Siobhan Fallon: I guess the simplest answer for me is that I take the old writing adage of “write what you know” perhaps too seriously. When I began my story collection, You Know When the Men Are Gone, in 2007, it was hard to find fiction about military families. Actually, it was hard to find much of anything about military families—the image the media was portraying about service members at the time didn’t come close to any reality I knew. I started writing my stories while living in Fort Hood, Texas, as the pregnant wife of an Army infantry officer who had recently returned home from Iraq. I wrote those stories when I had my baby, as I watched my husband and his men prepare for yet another deployment (his third combat deployment in five years), as I listened (and felt) the fears of my fellow spouses about what was to come. I continued to write while my husband lived in a war zone and missed a year of our first child’s life. I paid attention to the small battles and victories of the families at Fort Hood, how their own lives changed while their men were away. I didn’t finish those stories until after my husband and his battalion got back, after I realized that reunions, no matter how longed for, don’t always go as planned. So all of those themes, those moments, good and bad, are in my fiction in some way, buried and braided inside every page.

Daphne Kalotay: I remember my freshman year, my high school history teacher, at a public school in suburban New Jersey, pointing out to us how many places in the world were, at that moment, at war. My knowledge of current events came mainly from what I read in Newsweek, and I’d never really connected the dots, even though my own family had been completely reshaped by war. In fact, I think that precisely because I’m the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, for a long time I avoided writing about the topic. But there comes a point where those family stories gather force and one can’t keep batting them away. And here we are now in a world where the migration of refugees has become all the more visible and contentious, to the point where I really want to remind myself and others of the not so distant past. I think that whether we choose to or not, as writers we eventually end up writing about what most haunts us. 

Judy Labensohn: Every time I enter a public place in Israel, a security guard asks me if I am armed. Yes, I say. I have a pen.

I live in a war zone, so I write about the consequences of war. There are other ways to cope, but writing is my default way of coping with strong feelings. Wars bring out the strongest. The battlefield has moved from outside to inside every home in Israel. Nobody is immune to perpetual violence and its posttraumatic reactions. The violence on the roads, in the fields, vineyards, border crossings, and illegal settlements, has moved into the bedrooms and living rooms of Israeli soldiers. No fence can contain the violence because it is in the souls of the fighters and in the homes of their mothers and fathers, sisters and wives. Soldiers try to flee to India or drugs to forget the unspeakable nights in the homes of Palestinians at 3 a.m. when looking for terrorists demands terrorizing whole families.

Another way of coping with the violence is denial. This is Israeli civilians’ main line of defense. Writing about the culture of war makes microscopic dents in this denial, chips in this inner separation fence. I write about war because I have chosen to live in Israel, where I mark time before ’67 after ’73, before ’82 after ‘87, before ‘91 after 2000, before ’06 . . . the “incursions” to Gaza, I’ve lost track when they took place. These outbreaks have become one creeping cesspool of severe communication break-down between neighbors. There is no glory in failure. Only guilt. I write about the consequences of war to assuage that guilt.

Ruth Mukwana: I chose to write this story because there have been, and there are so many wars around the world, in many countries, impacting millions and millions of people. Wars destroy everything; people, homes, property. Wars kill. Even those who survive are often left broken. The majority of those affected by war are women and children. Women violated, raped, mass raped, in the most cruel and inhumane manner. Through this story, I wanted to talk about how women are forced into war, and what war does to women. “The Minister” takes place after the war is over and while Big Mama, one of the main characters, remembers the atrocities that were committed in the bar, it is the lack of justice that tortures her the most and with it the futility and the shattering of hope. It is this aspect that the story examines: when the injustices that lead to war are left unaddressed, and the perpetrators of crimes become their new leaders. How this is the final shattering of any hope of achieving peace? The question that I am obsessed with: can there peace without justice? 

Rail: Phil Klay, author of Redeployment, noted that, “with war fiction in particular there’s always this troubling issue of authority…Experience and knowledge are tricky things.” How did you navigate this? Experience? Research? I was struck by Daphne’s use of the science of epigenetic inheritance in “The Archivists,” and had to look it up, even though it’s explained in the story. How did all of you ensure you got the details in your work right?

Edgett: I was in my early twenties when my grandparents passed away, so my first authority for this story was my relationship with them. Second came their own writings—my grandfather George’s own life as a lightkeeper, and my grandmother Ruth’s on their trip to Vimy Ridge in 1936 for the unveiling of the Canadian National Vimy Memorial. So, the relationship between man and wife in “Hill 145” is an outgrowth of family history: both observed and read. Authority regarding the monument and detail of the landscape at Vimy comes from a visit I made there in 2013. I’d heard and read that it’s impossible to understand the power of that colossal sculpture until you’re in its presence, but I had no idea what that meant until I was there. My reaction to it informs George’s reaction in the story. Later, as I explored the still-scarred battlefield that is now a park maintained by the Canadian government, the story’s opening gambit came to me: “If we’re going to die, we might as well die trying.” Those words rang true as something Grandpa would say.

Fallon: I used a combination of experience and research in my work, and took advantage of my active duty Army officer husband’s affection by making him read draft after draft, line after line, asking him to pay careful attention to male dialogue as well as any descriptions of Iraq or deployment details. One thing that remains tremendously helpful are the small journals I keep, especially the one I had when my family and I lived in Amman, Jordan. I jotted down all sorts of details, from meals specific to different regions of Jordan, to the type of cold sweet tea served in a local bathhouse (hibiscus), things I never would have remembered while writing The Confusion of Languages years later. I rely on “place” a great deal in my writing—if I manage to vividly recreate a setting, I feel the reader will sink more readily into the fiction and whatever strange path it might follow.

In regards to experience vs. knowledge, I think experience definitely gives the author an edge. It allows for less Google searches on local custom and terrain, maybe a better ear for dialogue. But having an eagled-eyed soldier husband, or living where your fiction takes place, doesn’t magically sprinkle authenticity on the page. All the experience in the world doesn’t mean you will write something capable of transporting a reader sitting in New Jersey to a Taliban hide-out in Paktika, Afghanistan. That takes tremendous powers of imagination and empathy, of hard work and rewriting, rewriting, rewriting. I may tend to ‘write what I know’ but more importantly I write what I want to know. I think it’s my curiosity and determination to figure out the lives I don’t understand that makes my writing interesting for myself, who will spend years crafting it, as well as for the reader, who I hope chooses to spend her precious time with my pages.

Kalotay: Yes, a friend happened to mention epigenetic inheritance a few years ago, and I’d been meaning to look it up; this story gave me a reason to do some sleuthing, mainly via internet. Other information came directly from my family—specifically, stories from my grandmother of WWII. As for the sections on ballet and lost choreography, my own background as a dance lover allowed me to feel I had a certain authority, which meant I could do minimal research. In particular, I recalled my wonderful dance teacher in college, Ray Cook, an expert in Labanotation and the first person to take on dance notation as an actual profession. He notated work by George Balanchine, Martha Graham, and Paul Taylor, among many others, and through research was able to re-stage lost works by Doris Humphrey.

Labensohn: Yes, Phil Klay, “with war fiction there’s always this troubling issue of authority.” Unless, of course, we broaden the definition of war fiction to that written by writers who experience the war on the home front or through letters of grandmothers or great-grandfathers, journals of uncles, or interviews with aunts. With this broader definition, the writer’s personal experience—like those of us five writers—becomes the basic authority we need to begin to write the story. The rest, as my colleagues here note, is curiosity, research, empathy, and imagination.

Mukwana: Ah, but I don’t claim to be an authority on war. I couldn’t. I cannot. And how can I be when the impact of war on people is so personal, so multifaceted. An event shared, lived, by a group of people at the same time is felt and remembered in varied ways. More importantly, I would separate out writing fiction from becoming an authority on a subject. Being an authority on war would bring with it a responsibility that would in the end constrain my fiction, storytelling, and I don’t want that. I can only take a small piece of war, and even that, through the lives of the characters and narrators I create. To those characters and narrators, I want to be true and authentic. My work has been, and is, in countries that are and/or have experienced conflict especially people who have been displaced, so yes, this was helpful. However, more importantly, I would say, as with all of my writing, research was a core component of this story. Sometimes, I feel I spend more time researching than writing.

Rail: Author of Abandon Me, Melissa Febos, in a Poets & Writers article, wrote: “For many years, I kept a quote from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet tacked over my desk: ‘The work of the eyes is done. Go now and do the heart-work on the images imprisoned within you.’” Ruth M., you circle around the idea of peace and justice, giving shape (and heart) to them with Big Mama in “The Minister.” And Judy, you write about a woman—a mother—dealing with life in Israel during the 1982 Lebanon War, dubbed “Operation Peace for Galilee.” How did you—and your fellow writers—find your way into characters with “images imprisoned” within them?

Edgett: I had gathered the tangible research for “Hill 145.” What could only come from inside me was the “heart-work,” which I projected onto George and Elizabeth Mitchell in the story. My grandparents seemed to have an easy partnership in which feelings were understood but rarely spoken. Despite never having heard a word from him about it, I knew Grandpa’s return to Vimy must have profoundly affected him. I also knew he would have great difficulty expressing his feelings about that. From my grandmother, I’d always felt what I’ve elsewhere called her “quiet love,” a sense of being greatly cared for without her ever speaking it. I imagined she must be that way with Grandpa, too. But, reading her diary of the trip, it struck me their reactions to what they were seeing began as near polar opposites. Where he must have been reliving past horrors at almost every turn, she was delighting in the newness of her first-ever trip abroad, in such things as the tidiness of the trees lining the old battlefields. Gradually, though, I could see the enormity of her husband’s past effort dawning upon her, including, perhaps, her realization that those trees “with their faces washed and their hair combed,” were that way because the original ones had been annihilated in battle, and that the young trees she so admired had been painstakingly planted to replace them.

Labensohn: My protagonist in “Homecoming, 1982” doesn’t have an “image imprisoned within” her. Rather, I, the writer, harbored two imprisoned images that drove the narrative.

In June 1982, while my husband was a soldier in Lebanon and I sat home nursing my three-month old baby, I watched the Israeli TV newscasters announce the names of Israeli soldiers whose funerals were the next day. I wanted to scream. Thus, I associated the opening mouth of a nursing baby with the open mouth of the anguished mother holding her dead child in Pablo Picasso’s Guernica. This 1937 mural painted during the Spanish Civil War became the iconic anti-war painting of the 20th century. Once I became a nursing mother, I identified with it more strongly. I imagined the baby on my lap becoming a soldier who kills and/or gets killed. Women scream in every decade, raving against the ravages of wars. The mouth is a vessel for milk-giving life and an agent for protesting death-giving war, as well as a producer of song.

The second image appeared in a poem I wrote in 1983 after the Israeli soldiers (not in caskets) returned home from Lebanon. A soldier husband is hiding behind the couch in a living room, digging in, as if in a trench, defending himself against his wife, “the intimate enemy.”

I promise not to kill you, love, says the scared wife to her husband,
If you don’t kill me first . . .

Mukwana: Big Mama is resilient, very resilient. She has survived the war in that she wasn’t killed but she hasn’t survived its impact, which, in essence, is slowly killing her. The memories of the war torment her but it’s the futility of the war that breaks her. The realization that the war, with all the destruction and suffering that came with it, hasn’t given the people of Truck Town, embodied through Big Mama, a better life. This leaves her hopeless, unless she can take control of her life. Hers is a cry, a desire for forgiveness from and for, the girl, Irene, that disappeared under her care, but it is also for peace, justice and hope. I found my way into Big Mama through Big Mama herself; as a character, Big Mama is pushed to the edge; either she dies, by drinking herself to death or does something to change this. This, I coupled with vivid images, metaphors, a careful selection of adjectives, and working through her memory selectively. What she chooses to remember is only a fraction but sufficient to help her find a way to live again. And of course, there is the Minister himself, whose presence and actions give her the impetus to act.

Rail: It’s been said that we must always tell stories so that their specificity reveals some universal truth, narratives that function as an inquiry into specific topics as much as they are a psychological and emotional reckoning. In the last few months—although it feels like years—we’ve been subjected to “fire and fury” tweets and other attacks by the current president, a man who seems to be a stranger to truth even as he spitstorms war language. Your stories address issues we’re facing today—the psychological and emotional reckoning necessary to avoid making mistakes made in the past. How do you see your fiction working toward that universal truth, that reckoning, in this networked age? For example, Siobhan’s The Confusion of Languages deals with the issue of moral grounding in all aspects of life and what results when morality is blinkered by naiveté. What is the universal truth found in your work?

Kalotay: Connection. By that I mean the reality that we are all inextricably connected, whether we like it or not: historically, politically, genetically. Sometimes we’re aware of those connections and feel their significance; other times, no. I see my work as a reminder of that basic truth. Much of what I write moves toward some kind of interpersonal connection, either missed or successful. I want my stories to reflect that reality; in the best cases, we bridge our differences and connect in a way that leads to understanding, even if those moments are brief, ephemeral.

Labensohn: War looks like a simple either/or situation, two sides fighting each other, but in its messy reality the sides are actually intertwined and related at many levels so that the winner/loser dichotomy, as a framework for understanding, is useless. Everyone, eventually, becomes the loser.

Mukwana: I firmly believe that all art should teach us something. Storytelling is an integral part of African culture, and many other cultures, I imagine. Many of us will have stories to tell of sitting by a fire as our grandmothers tell us stories. Almost every story told, had a lesson embedded in it. My teachers at Bennington College drummed into me that a writer’s obligation is to write a good story. It’s a very important lesson for me even as I vehemently debated it. The truth though, I believe, is that novels and stories do indeed inform and teach their readers—or, at a minimum, arouse their readers’ curiosity about places and people hitherto unknown. Often, it’s an unintended consequence but it’s there in the words and we know how powerful words are. Through “The Minister,” I’d like readers to be aware about the destructiveness and futility of war. However, if there is anything I would like anyone who reads “The Minister” to take away from this story, it is the thing I believe so fundamentally, which is that there can be no peace without justice, without addressing human rights violations.

Rail: How do you feel about the claim that all writing is political and personal? Ruth E., I’m thinking of your statement that your “story attempts to say after his death what Grandpa could never say in life.”

Edgett: You can see from the above that “Hill 145” is personal. I suppose it’s political, too, simply because of the nature of the event itself—although I did not set out to make a political statement. Estimates vary, but somewhere around 9,000 Canadian and British veterans and their guests were squired around France and England on a “Pilgrimage” organized by the Royal Canadian Legion; so that, over the space of two weeks, they could attend the unveiling of the monument, be paraded through the countryside, fêted by dignitaries, sailed to London for tea at Buckingham Palace, and toured again through France—all in the name of a monument to Canada’s 60,000 war dead, on the site of a widely-hailed victory that historians now say had no material effect on the outcome of the war.

Celebration of the Vimy victory—freighted as it was with conflicting meaning both in Canada and in Europe—was as much a matter of optics back home as it was of appreciating the soldiers who won it. Only four in ten of my grandfather’s battalion walked away from that fight. Just less than three in ten died or went missing. This statistic was repeated across the battlefield. All of this history informs the story but shows itself only in such moments as the unveiling, where George’s political leaders might expect him to burst with pride, but he feels something more like grief and survivor guilt.

Kalotay: For me this is something of which I’m often conscious, not only in my writing but in the books I read. For some writers, simply to write about themselves or their personal experience is a political act. As for me, I view everything I write as fundamentally about the intersection of personality and circumstance, and much of circumstance is of course the result—whether directly or indirectly—of socioeconomic and, by extension, political factors. In a book like Russian Winter, the character-circumstance intersection is overtly political and more pronounced, with a variety of characters responding in their own individual ways to Stalinism. In my stories and my novel Sight Reading, the political is often submerged, with a focus on the social and emotional, but I always have in mind what Grace Paley said once in an interview: “When you write, you illuminate what’s hidden, and that’s a political act.”

Labensohn: If Grace Paley, quoted by Daphne (DK) is correct, that illuminating what’s hidden is a political act, then yes, all my writing is political. I doubt the ability of my writing, however, to change a political reality. I am neither Thomas Paine or Theodore Herzl, nor was meant to be. I do believe in the power of personal transformation that writing enables, however. If that is political, then we all can change the world, one story at a time, each story shining a small light into the vast emptiness and helping us find our way to a larger light.

Rail: In terms of genre, marketability, and mass appeal, it’s often noted that there’s a dearth of war literature by women. Have you felt the effect of the belief that work by women is less important, less interesting, less worthy?

Edgett: I began my writing career as a newspaper reporter in the late 1970’s—paid less, of course, than my male counterparts; but, that was the way things were back then. My victory, as far as I was concerned, was that I convinced the publisher to hire me for the news pages and not the “Women’s Page.” As for what I wrote—other than earning my place in the newsroom from rookie to veteran (alongside other female reporters)—I never had the feeling that what I contributed was, somehow, less valued than that of my male colleagues. It was more like the (male) editors expected me to hold up my end, no matter what the assignment.

Today, as I write and produce fiction and non-fiction about my newfound interest in the First World War and the part my grandfather played in it, I have not felt constrained by the fact that I am female. Having said that, I am very grateful for the opportunity Consequence Magazine provided in its “women writing war” fiction contest. I seized it as a perfect opportunity for both me and Elizabeth, the wife in “Hill 145,” because she, too, was a woman writing about—and dealing with—the consequences of war. In her time, Elizabeth (a mere housewife) most likely would not have submitted her writings for publication. Perhaps we can say that, eighty-two years later, I’ve done it for her.

Fallon: Are women who write about war viewed as less important, because, as you point out in an earlier question that quotes Phil Klay, authenticity is often desired of our war literature, and the reader wants the author to have “seen action”? There’s definitely a certain testosterone to our American war lit, a whiff of the iconic male authors who served in traditional, or at least swashbuckling, ways, such as Ernest Hemingway (Red Cross ambulance driver on Italian front, WWI), James Salter (Air Force combat pilot, Korean War), and Tim O’Brien (Army Infantry, Vietnam).

I think the issue goes beyond “war writing.” Are the books we women choose similar to the dolls/gender specific toys we might have automatically reached for as children, something we choose out of social expectation? Or do women inherently lean toward reading material that seems to connect more with our lives? And if so, is that why men reach for books by men? I hate to admit this in print, but when I think of my favorite novels, the majority of them are written by women. Writing and reading are subjective passions. Daphne so eloquently sums it up above: “as writers we eventually end up writing about what most haunts us.” But what exactly leads a reader to reach for one book over another? I wish I knew. I applaud the VIDA studies that make us aware of the discrepancies of coverage of male vs. female authors. And I am confident that current women writers will continue to break stereotypes about what can be considered “serious” literature, war or otherwise. Authors like Jennifer Egan, Margaret Atwood, Lionel Shriver, and J.K. Rowling continue to prove to the world that women can write anything.

Kalotay: This is a painful question for me. I feel the effect of this bias every day. I’ve seen it at work in every aspect of my professional life: in the panels I’m asked to speak on (“women’s novels”), in the covers my publishers have chosen for my books, in the subtle, perhaps even unintentional, condescension of certain reviewers. I recently completed a new novel that’s partly about U.S. involvement in wars overseas, with an entire section taking place in Afghanistan circa 2012, and there was a publishing imprint I very much wanted to move to, my dream imprint, which I’ve always thought of as smart and highly literary. My agent showed the book to an editor there, and the question that immediately came back was, “Why is Daphne writing about Afghanistan? Did she live there? She writes so well about dance; what if she made both of the female protagonists dancers?” I could go on, but it will just make me ill.

Labensohn: Before I wrote “Homecoming, 1982” I had to silence the inner voice that harped, Who are you? Another stressed mother feeling sorry for herself while her husband is putting himself in the line of fire to save the country! I argued with the voice, claiming these husbands come home and bring their wars with them, saying my sons would have to be soldiers too. We better go into the bunkers in the living rooms to see what’s going on there if we ever want the wars to end. The critical voice subsided and permitted me to write. Then it only took another fifteen years. Maybe that’s why there is a dearth of war literature by women. They’re at home trying to make sense of an experience they never had—fighting on the battlefield. They’re picking up the broken pieces, trying to mend, repair, rebuild. Until the next war, when the men feel again the pressure to fight and destroy. To everything there is a season . . .

Mukwana: I really have to stop and contemplate this: I am not sure if this is just about war literature by women. I would circle back to the general challenges and limitations that make it difficult for women—in any profession—to progress at a similar rate in comparison to their male peers. At an extreme level, in many countries today, the girl child still cannot access education and health services, etc., but even educated women with similar qualifications are still asking for equal pay. I could go on. The catalogue of these inequalities show that the playing field isn’t levelled. I would argue that if female writers had the same opportunities in publishing, owned more publishing houses, etc, then there would be more stories by women which would have a knock-on effect on war literature by women writers. I also find that a lot of war literature falls within the literary genre, a genre that is quite difficult to define, and here I am getting to the issue of the stories that publishers would like to publish. If a war story is not palatable to the audience, or will not sell; it will not be published. All these issues do contribute to the dearth of war literature by women writers.

Rail: In Continental Drift Russell Banks wrote: “Go, my book, and help destroy the world as it is.” What would you like your fiction to destroy or create? Remind? Reinforce? Put another way, what do you hope readers will experience through your writing?

Edgett: Perhaps “Hill 145” reinforces the idea that, although the methods of fighting wars and the people who fight them have changed in the century since The War to End All Wars, the personal consequences of war—on soldiers, on their families—have not. This is not profound; it should be self-evident. I hope this story reveals “the universal within the particular” by showing how war affected one soldier and his family. And, through it, perhaps readers can be reminded how wars have intergenerational reverberations that are both personal and political. Consider the animosity between English and French Canada that blew up over the issue of conscription in the First World War and continues to fester today. Consider that, in a budding nation of less than eight million people, six hundred thousand sons were sent to war, and that sixty thousand never came home. How many farms and businesses were not passed down to the next generation? How many planned marriages never took place and children were never born? In total, 18 million soldiers and civilians died in that war. How can we quantify the potential that was lost to the world; or know if it has been, or will ever be, replaced? But humans are a warring species and these kinds of questions are only asked by writers after the wars are done. So, go my little story, and see what you can do to change this.

Fallon: I guess I’d like my writing to be an antidote to the question that proceeds this one. I try to write stories from the outlines of war that show the repercussions of our American military presence in the Middle East, stories that still have tension and conflict without “men-blowing-sh*t-up” scenarios. How amazing would it be if everyone who loved National Book Award winner Phil Klay’s short story collection (ahem, Mr. Obama…), about American military men in Iraq, decided to read about American military men in Iraq as well as the lives of their families at home, and picked up my story collection, You Know When the Men Are Gone? That would be pretty incredible.

Kalotay: Ideally, I want the reader to be transported in the way that I was as a child, back when I was old enough to read on my own but had no other responsibilities or thoughts knocking around in my mind. I want the reader to be fully submerged in a story so that it becomes “real.” Because, for most of us, it takes seeing other lives and worlds to reach outside ourselves, to find our empathy and imagination, to envision and believe in other possibilities for living in this world. 

Labensohn: I’d like my work to destroy the belief that violence has borders. I want to crush the belief that war happens only on the battlefield where bombs and mortars explode. I want to decimate the belief that violence can be contained in a specific place by a wall or a fence. Once unleashed, violence continues over generations. On the battlefield the violence is expressed as killing, maiming or torture. At home, it continues as sexual, physical, or emotional abuse. The women, be they mothers, sisters, wives, or daughters, pay a heavy price for men’s need to fight and kill.

Mukwana: The short stories I’ve written, am writing, are a very deliberate choice of mine. They deal with social, economic, political, human rights and conflict, which are endemic in several African countries. A big part of (my) our job in my organization is to communicate to the world the impact of war, of natural disasters on an individual(s). One of the ways we do this is by writing various types of reports. And yet, the reports we write don't reach the majority of the people we wish to communicate with, and when they do, they are not read or remain statistics, shocking, yes, but easily forgotten. To be honest, it’s difficult to articulate how much suffering surrounds us, especially in today's world where there is exhaustion with conflict, where modern media has drastically shortened our attention, human connection and interaction. It’s not uncommon to hear someone from a country experiencing conflict to describe that country as peaceful. Such is the nature of localized conflicts; they can be far removed even from fellow citizens. Through these fictionalized stories, I hope that one reader or two or thousands or millions can connect with the characters and learn something and/or be aware about these issues.


Ruth Edgett is the author of A Watch in the Night (Nimbus, 2007), the story of her mother's family and their lightkeeping life on a tiny island off the north shore of Nova Scotia, Canada. “Hill 145” is inspired by her grandmother Ruth’s diary of the 1936 Royal Canadian Legion Pilgrimage to Vimy Ridge, France, site of a major Canadian victory in World War I. Originally from Prince Edward Island, Ruth lives and writes in Southern Ontario.

Siobhan Fallon is the author of The Confusion of Languages (Putnam 2017), and You Know When the Men Are Gone, which won the 2012 PEN Center USA Literary Award in Fiction, the Indies Choice Honor Award, and the Texas Institute of Letters Award for First Fiction. Theatrical productions of her stories have been staged in California, Colorado, Texas, and France. More of Siobhan’s essays and fiction have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Guernica, New Letters, Huffington Post, Washington Post Magazine, and Military Spouse Magazine. Siobhan and her family moved to Jordan in 2011 and they currently live in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

Daphne Kalotay’s books include the bestselling novels Sight Reading (2013) and Russian Winter (Harper 2011) and the fiction collection Calamity and Other Stories (Doubleday 2006), shortlisted for the Story Prize. Her work has received fellowships from the Christopher Isherwood Foundation, the MacDowell Colony, and Yaddo, among others, and her interviews with Mavis Gallant can be read in the Paris Review’s Writers-At-Work series. She lives in Somerville, Massachusetts and for the 2017-18 academic year is teaching at Princeton University’s Program in Creative Writing.

Judy Labensohn is a multi-cultural writer and teacher, raised in Cleveland, Ohio, living and writing in Israel since 1967. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Lilith, Brain Child, Michigan Quarterly Review, Ilanot Review, Kenyon Review, Creative Nonfiction, Hadassah Magazine, and Southwest Review among others, as well as in college writing textbooks. In 2013 she was a Pushcart nominee. Currently, she lives in Tel Aviv where she grandmothers and teaches writing. She blogs occasionally on her web site

Ruth Mukwana is a fiction writer from Uganda. She is currently working for the United Nations on humanitarian affairs in Sudan. She’s a graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars (MFA), and has a Bachelor’s degree in Law from Makerere University. Her short story, “The Smell,” has been published by Solstice Magazine, and her short, “Taboo,” was runner up for the Black Warrior Review 2017 Fiction Contest. 


Catherine Parnell

Catherine Parnell is an independent consultant and occasional university lecturer as well as an instructor at Grub Street in Boston. She’s the Senior Associate Editor for Consequence Magazine. Her non-fiction chapbook, The Kingdom of His Will, explores the culture of war, and recent publications include work in Redivider, Jewish Journal, The Rumpus, TSR: The Southampton Review, Post Road, The Baltimore Review, and other literary magazines.   


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2018

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