Books

Short Stories: Casualties of War

Frank Vincentz (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

These five stories by Zadie Smith, Mohammed Naseehu Ali, Helen Oyeyemi, Hassan Blassim, and Muna Fadil, highlight the lives of innocents tangled in the machinations of war.

Throughout time, the large-scale violence that entire groups of people inflict upon other groups has been depicted in all forms of art. In the literary arts, in particular, the aesthetics of war have long been glorified or explicated through tales of heroes and tales of disillusionment, chronicles of fighters and resistors, historically accurate accounts and revisionist retellings.

In her 2017 book, Draw Your Weapons (Penguin, 2017), Sarah Sentilles writes about how we create art in response to war. In an interview with Signature, she justified why it is even more necessary now for art to help us challenge conventional ideas, images of war:

I think we're well over the brink of war. We're waging wars in many countries — some conflicts declared and others undeclared, hidden, covert. And there's a war going on right here at home against anyone labeled "other" — people of color, women, immigrants, LGBTQIA communities, people with disabilities, and the list goes on. Part of the work is refusing the image of the "enemy" that's being offered and asking critical questions about who you're being taught to fear and how that fear might obscure both the real danger and possible peaceful solutions.

Steven Pinker is mostly right in his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature (Viking, 2011), that violence, in all forms, has declined greatly across the entire world due to various reasons such as increased literacy and communication. He also says, however, that our awareness of and sensitivity to violence has increased due to some of the same reasons. And this is exactly why, when we do encounter the present-time wars — whether civil or genocidal or terrorism-driven — in the Middle East, Myanmar, parts of Africa, etc., they hit those of us living elsewhere with more force than before.

So, when we hear/read of how certain pro-war individuals deliberately misuse the word "preemptive" to justify offensive military attacks on other countries, it raises our collective hackles that they have been given senior leadership positions for such ideologies. These men and women have focused so much on "winning", they have forgotten how everyone loses in war — most of all, the innocents caught in the middle of it all and struggling to hold on to their lives, their families, their sanity.

In her 2015 Nobel Lecture, the journalist and nonfiction writer Svetlana Alexievitch talked about how stories of the innocents drives her writing. Her books are first-hand accounts, through witness testimonies and interviews, of people involved in or affected directly by war, civil strife, and major disasters.

It always troubled me that the truth doesn't fit into one heart, into one mind, that truth is somehow splintered. There's a lot of it, it is varied, and it is strewn about the world. Dostoevsky thought that humanity knows much, much more about itself than it has recorded in literature. So what is it that I do? I collect the everyday life of feelings, thoughts, and words. I collect the life of my time. I'm interested in the history of the soul. The everyday life of the soul, the things that the big picture of history usually omits, or disdains. I work with missing history.

More recently, Dunya Mikhail's The Beekeeper: Saving the Stolen Women of Iraq (New Directions, 2018) also gave us stories of the innocents.

With the short story form, there have been some game-changing, award-winning collections, from Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, about Vietnam, to Phil Klay's Redeployment (Penguin, 2014) about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. These have not sought to glorify violence but to show us the many individual and heartbreaking ways that wars are waged, witnessed, and resisted.

This month's five short stories focus on the faces of war we rarely get to see in the news other than in terms of numbers, and under the umbrella term "casualties of war". These are fictional accounts but they are filled with the kind of truth and honesty that we don't always find in fact-based news reports. As always, all these stories are available to read online — just click the title links.

Two Men Arrive In a Village by Zadie Smith (The New Yorker)

The setting here is an unnamed African village. And the plural first-person point of view heightens the sense of mystery. As we read on, we understand that it is about a country in revolution and the village visitors are mercenaries. Midway through the story, even with an unreliable narrator's voice, we see that we are dealing with deadly violence. That Smith's storytelling manages to balance all that with a dry sort of irony is no ordinary feat.

Sometimes on horseback, sometimes by foot, in a car or astride motorbikes, occasionally in a tank—having strayed far from the main phalanx—and every now and then from above, in helicopters. But if we look at the largest possible picture, the longest view, we must admit that it is by foot that they have mostly come, and so in this sense, at least, our example is representative; in fact, it has the perfection of parable. Two men arrive in a village by foot, and always a village, never a town. If two men arrive in a town they will obviously arrive with more men, and far more in the way of supplies—that's simple common sense. But when two men arrive in a village their only tools may be their own dark or light hands, depending, though most often they will have in these hands a blade of some kind, a spear, a long sword, a dagger, a flick-knife, a machete, or just a couple of rusty old razors. Sometimes a gun. It has depended, and continues to depend.

Ravalushan by Mohammed Naseehu Ali (Bomb Magazine)

Staying with that first-person plural point of view from above, here is another story about a revolution. Ali gives us a crowd as a collective protagonist while also giving us individual memorable characters from within that crowd — again, no mean feat. This particular point of view is fascinating because, for a while, it was overdone, then fell mostly out of favor, and is now coming back. It's a tough one technically, though, because everything described has to be what the group/crowd can observe or know, and nothing else.

The story is set in Zongo Street, a fictitious community in West Africa that's going through a dictator's takeover. Ali is from Ghana and based the story on a real dictator's coup in the country during the '70s. The story is in Ali's collection, The Prophet of Zongo Street (Harper, 2006). It was also selected by Junot Diaz in the Best American Short Stories 2016 anthology.

Listening to his angry speech one could have sworn by the Quran that Sergeant Leader, the name we instantly gave the new head of state, was sent by Allah himself to rescue us. To lift up Zongo Street from its poverty, to give us the opportunities other tribes enjoyed, to buy some respect for us and all the common folks in this land. The speech lasted not more than six minutes and, before concluding, the Sergeant Leader explained that some anti-revolution soldiers were trying to stage a coup to counter his "Uprising," and that in order to stabilize the situation, a six-to-six curfew had to be imposed nationwide, "Until further notice."

Wallahi, this man is a man of action, we cried. A man of the people!

My Daughter, the Racist by Helen Oyeyemi (BBC National Short Story Award 2010)

While this story contains three generations of mothers and daughters, the story is mostly about the narrator — a widowed mother of a precocious, spirited child. Their country is occupied by foreign soldiers. Their village is filled with the usual conservative, gossipy folks that make life hard for a single mother trying to raise a strong, independent girl by herself. The child stands up to one of the soldiers, who then becomes a friend. But, of course, tongues start wagging.

Despite the grim setting and context, Oyeyemi's narrator has a wry sense of humor and we see where the child gets her own sharp wit. There is much sadness and even danger here for mother and daughter, yet we see how the mother tries to keep both their spirits up and uses difficult moments as gentle teaching experiences for the daughter.

One morning my daughter woke up and said all in a rush: 'Mother, I swear before you and God that from today onwards I am racist.' She's eight years old. She chopped all her hair off two months ago because she wanted to go around with the local boys and they wouldn't have her with her long hair. Now she looks like one of them; eyes dazed from looking directly at the sun, teeth shining white in her sunburnt face. She laughs a lot. She plays. 'Look at her playing,' my mother says. 'Playing in the rubble of what used to be our great country.' My mother exaggerates as often as she can. I'm sure she would like nothing more than to be part of a Greek tragedy. She wouldn't even want a large part, she'd be perfectly content with a chorus role, warning that fate is coming to make havoc of all things.

The Abandoned Village by Hassan Blasim, translated by Jonathan Wright (Literary Hub)

Hassan Blasim is an Iraqi-born writer who writes in Arabic. His short story collection, The Iraqi Christ, won the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. This story is part of a collection of five contemporary Arabic short stories. It was one of 24 published in The Common Mag, Issue 11, which is dedicated to new fiction from across the Arab world.

The narrator here is a ghost, yet it is not a ghost story. Also, though we all have read news accounts of such abandoned war zone villages and incidents of lone soldiers being tortured by enemy forces, reading about these things here gives them a different kind of immediacy and intensity. Most troubling of all, of course, is the central story about the mother and her daughter, both waiting for the father to return as he had promised them.

Sawsan's mother was too frightened to move to another town without her husband. Her familiar life in the village where she had always lived had been torn apart, and the woman was now living a nightmare. She had heard that the regime militias were committing atrocities. People called them the "ghosts" and said they raped women and girls but preferred those with fair complexions. So the mother decided to give Sawsan a suntan. She forced her to sit in the sun for hours on end. Maybe they would leave her daughter alone if her skin were the color of burnt barley bread. The woman took other precautions. She had a pistol, and she had gathered all the village dogs in front of her house in the hope that they would frighten off anyone thinking of coming close. Sawsan was as frightened as her mother. More than once she thought of running away, but she had no idea where she could go.

Prisoner of War by Muna Fadil (Fiction Southeast)

This is another Iraq story. At under 1,000 words, it's a brilliant piece of flash fiction that shows us a man attempting to return to his family life after having lived in captivity for 20-some years. He finds it hard to get accustomed to a world of new objects and create some sort of normal existence for himself. His daughter, whom he had last known as a five-year-old, is also working to adjust to having him around. Both lives have been disrupted by war and both are trying to re-acclimate in their own ways.

Sahira was standing in the doorframe, watching her father grow transparent as the morning sun glowed in her bleach-white kitchen. He sat at the marble table, gutting a radio transistor. The sun washed right through him. Sahira reached out for him, but Saleh shrugged away and disappeared like a mirage against the white walls.

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