Confronting the Worst: Writing and Catastrophe
PEN America 7: World Voices
With Svetlana Alexievich, François Bizot, Carolin Emcke, Philip Gourevitch, Ryszard Kapuscinski, and Elena Poniatowska; moderated by Susie Linfield.
This talk was presented, in slightly different form, at the 2005 PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature.
SVETLANA ALEXIEVICH: I’d like to remember the great Chekhov and his play Three Sisters. The main character in that play says over and over, “Now life is terrible, we live in squalor, but in a hundred years, a hundred years, how beautiful, how fine everything will be.” And what has happened a hundred years later? We have Chernobyl; we have the World Trade towers collapsing. It’s a new age in history. What we have experienced now not only goes beyond our knowledge but also exceeds our ability to imagine.
We are turning into a civilization of fear. Because what is a disaster? A disaster is a high concentration of fear. The commodity that our civilization creates in the largest quantity today is fear. The things that are happening to us today are unbelievable. The human mind is incapable of grasping them: They happen with incredible speed. I worked as a journalist for ten years before I started writing books, and realized that you cannot capture with words and language what is going on. Words and language are smaller than the event.
I don’t know what it’s like here; I’m not familiar with American culture. But for people who live in Russia and in Slavic countries, the spoken word is extremely important. I began to understand that what I was hearing people say on the street and in the crowds was much more effectively capturing what was going on than anything I was reading in print. And I began to think that with what’s going on today, it would be impossible for one person to write the book that encompasses everything the way that Tolstoy or Dostoevsky was capable of doing in the nineteenth century. We need a book where lots of people can make a contribution; one person may speak half a page, someone else a paragraph or five pages.
I refer to my genre as “the novel of voices,” and you might say that my work is just simply lying outside on the ground: I go and pick it up and put it together. If Flaubert said, “I am a man of the plume,” I can say that I am a person of the ear. It’s become increasingly clear to me as I’ve worked in this genre, which I’ve done for thirty years now, that there is much about the human being that art cannot convey.
I’m interested in human feelings and human turmoil. I try to make a guess about what’s going on inside of people, and what has meaning for them and what causes them to suffer. Right after Chernobyl happened, when I made my first trips to that region, I saw dozens if not hundreds of journalists there, and I said to myself, “Those guys are going to put their books out really fast, but the book that I’m going to write will take years.” Indeed, I worked on the book for ten years. When I speak of these journalists’ work, I am talking about books filled with facts, with medical information. Because try as the Soviet authorities might to suppress that information, it did get out. Chernobyl gave rise to anticommunist books, anti-Russian books, books against the atom, but the most important lesson that we needed to learn from that event took more time to emerge.
All of us found ourselves in terra incognita. Belarus, a patriarchal society based on the peasantry, was suddenly out there in front of the rest of the world. Imagine this incredibly crazy picture: A policeman is walking alongside a woman who carries a basket of eggs. He walks with her to make sure that she buries the eggs in the ground because they are radioactive. They buried milk, they buried meat, they buried bread; it was like an endless funeral procession for inanimate objects. Thousands of soldiers sliced off the top layer of the soil, which had been contaminated, and they buried it. They took ground and they buried it in the ground. And everyone who was involved turned into a philosopher because there was nothing in the human past that enabled us to deal with this situation. In the Zone, which is what the area surrounding the nuclear stations was called, everything looked as it had before. You had rivers, you had forest, you had earth, but you couldn’t walk through the forest. You couldn’t wade in the river. You couldn’t sit on the ground.
The feeling was that previously in the world, it had been humans who were in charge, who decided what they were going to kill and what they were going to spare. It was as if the earth had risen up and rebelled and was now taking charge. And you felt that you were surrounded by death, but death that had taken on a different guise, which you were incapable of understanding. Radiation is invisible; you cannot see it. It makes no sound; you cannot hear it. It does not have a odor; you cannot smell it. Our five senses, which equip us to protect ourselves, provided no assistance whatsoever.
For the first seven days after the disaster, the bees did not fly out of their hives and the worms burrowed down into the earth. The smallest creatures that creep and crawl on the earth understood what to do and that something was wrong, but we human beings, what did we do? We watched TV, we listened to Gorbachev, and we watched soccer. And we who work in the world of culture, we weren’t prepared either; we didn’t know how to tell people about what was happening, and people didn’t even know how to talk to each other about it.
ELENA PONIATOWSKA: I’m going to read a testimony from a person who helped during the 1985 earthquake in Mexico. It’s a young boy, about eighteen:
We reached the baseball park in the corner of Qualtemo que Nobrero Mundial Avenues known as Del Capar. I choked up as soon as we arrived. We unloaded our equipment—the formaldehyde, the disinfectant, the spraying hoses, and the tanks. Then I looked at the stadium. It was as if we were in the center of a show, but without an audience. All the seats up there were empty. The actors were all there on the stage, but they were dead. Further back stood three tents covered with spot lights. They displayed signs. The first sign was unidentified bodies, the second identified bodies, and the last one said remains. There were limbs and other body parts in plastic bags that I never wanted to see and thank God I never had to see. These smaller plastic bags were handled with the same care and love and respect given to the bags that contained full bodies. People were coming to identify the remains. As a defense mechanism, I think I started to see myself as a spectator watching a movie. The smell of formaldehyde was very strong.
At the entrance, you could hear the click-clack of the clerks as they typed death certificates. The vans kept arriving with more bundles and more bundles and more bundles, but these bundles were bodies. The first thing we did was to establish a line beyond which no one could go without being fumigated. This is called a sanitary pocket. By the time men, women, and children had been dead for a few days, the process of putrefaction was advanced. We created a layer of plastic and tarp underground to serve as a boundary and as the spot where people would stand and be sprayed. We sprayed the people going in and out—the stretcher bearers, the relatives, the people who brought in the coffins. The doctor in charge ordered, “Start fumigating the corpses. Do it now.” Fortunately, I was not involved in the first spray, not even the second. At the distance of some twenty yards, you could see the plastic bags, the dry ice, and the mounds. But those mounds, fully covered with plastic sheets, were bodies. The power hose was so strong that it blew off the plastic sheet, so I thought, I have to overcome my fear. If I don’t do this right, I could be spraying all the other workers and cause a problem. Death is part of life; I must force myself to look. . . .
Maybe in the beginning, we were afraid of contamination, but we soon realized that those of us with the formaldehyde were the best protected. A small, skinny brown guy appeared—the typical Mexican, who has had to work very hard from birth. . . .
“And the coffins?” he asked. “The boxes. What’s the deal on the coffins?”
He needed three coffins. He wanted to know how much they were. How would he pay for them? The poor bastard.
“Have you identified your family?”
“Yes. They are there. But tell me. How much do those caskets run?”
“No. Coffins are free. We will give them to you right away. Are you here by yourself?”
He was there to take his sister and two nieces, one fourteen and the other nine years old. I was profoundly sorry. I prepared the caskets, a big one and two small ones, and I realized one of them had two nails sticking out, but I said, “Too bad, it doesn’t matter anymore.” Later, we saw how the skinny man stepped on the nail with his sneaker, and since that didn’t work, he got hold of a big board and bent them backward. This simple act restored an old human dimension to the piles of bodies in the stadium, because after four hours I thought that the only real thing was the bacteria. But for the skinny guy, those bodies, even all messed up, were his people, his kin. And his bodies had a right to be in the casket where they wouldn’t be hurt by the nails. . . .
“Can we sprinkle the bodies with limestone?” I asked the skinny little guy. “Can I sprinkle limestone on your relatives?”
“Yes, ” he said.
The fourteen-year-old had to be transferred out of her casket because she was too big for the other one. As I sprinkled her, I thought of Hamlet, when Ophelia, after losing her mind, drowns. Hamlet’s mother places violets on her body and says in her mind, “Look, I’ve come to put flowers on your body, the ones I should have placed on your wedding day.” I had exactly the same sensation.
“Girl, I am sprinkling limestone on you so you are all whitened up. You will not live at all.” A fourteen-year-old girl. “There you go. All white.”
You know, all those mental associations that we have about purity, dignity, and untouched bodies . . . but I could only sprinkle limestone on her, not a single flower, just a little, just a lot, of white dust. And that’s how it went.
I think that in extreme situations, people feel the urge to communicate and to be with others. They suddenly have time for themselves and for others. They attempt a new communication with their fellow men and women by improvising their conduct, because barriers and prejudices have been demolished. In doing so, they acquire new knowledge. In September 1985, after the earthquakes, Mexicans witnessed how Mexico City underwent one of the noblest transfers of power in its history: the power that greatly transcended the commitments of mere solidarity, the transformation of the people into government and of official disorder into civilian order. Individuals who were previously invisible became the constructors of a new democracy.
FRANÇOIS BIZOT: In 1971, I was caught by a revolutionary communist in Cambodia. I was chained and condemned to death and before that, interrogated by a young man who asked me about what I used to do with my father. I wanted to ask him, “What about your father? What about your work? Where were you born? How old are you? And so on.” For three months we spoke together and he chose to not beat me.
I think, as I was suspected to be a spy working for the CIA, he thought it was clever to speak with me openly to see how I would answer his questions. And maybe he thought if he tortured me, I would have a special secret strength in myself, as I would have been trained for that. Anyway, we spoke together every day, and in a few weeks we started to know each other quite well. There were about fifty condemned to be killed in the camp; one by one, I saw them going with the guard. Of course, I was very much afraid. I knew that this young chief, the Cambodian revolutionary with whom I spoke every day, was beating them. And he gave the authorization to kill the condemned.
When we spoke together, I realized, without clearly knowing it, that I was in a very rare situation. He explained to me why he went to the forest to fight the American soldiers. He was a true thinker; he was very involved in justice in Cambodia. He wanted his country to be free enough to have a good life. In a certain way, he was very much like the friends I lived with in Paris who were communist and against the war and against poverty, against injustice.
Going near him every day and seeing sometimes his fragility and sometimes his anger, I realized he was a monster. At that time, he was a small monster. But four years afterwards, I think we can see he was a big one because we recognize fourteen thousand victims. From 1975 to 1979, he was the chief of this huge prison in Cambodia, and organized all the deaths and the torture and the interrogations. To be so near a monster was much more frightening than I had expected. That is the start of the book that I was to write thirty-five years afterwards, because what I saw was not the monster I was waiting for. In fact, he looked like other men, an ordinary person. Sometimes I realized that he was looking a little bit like me. That was much more frightening than what I thought I would see.
After our conversations, he decided I was nuts. He did not want to kill me and so his chief, Pol Pot, ordered, “Let the Frenchman go.” That’s why I am here now. In 1999, which was a long time afterward, I realized that this person that I’d met thirty years before had given me a tremendous opportunity. We have learned that we should try to identify ourselves with victims, to suffer in our flesh what they suffered. Knowing my interrogator was not married, knowing he was a good scholar, a math teacher, knowing him intimately, I started to identify with him.
That was the reason for the story: I think we should maybe have the courage to identify ourselves with and humanize the torturer. Maybe we should look at ourselves, instead of saying “Never again,” which does not work. We could maybe try to ask a new question, as well as a very old one: “How is it possible?” We may find the answers in ourselves.
RYSZARD KAPUSCINSKI: I have been a roaming correspondent in Africa, Asia, and Latin America for a long time, have seen many catastrophes, and have often had to write about them. There is a nexus between the disaster and power. Most of the victims of earthquakes are the poor living in slums and shantytowns. One little earthquake or tropical downpour can raze those poorly built neighborhoods, killing and maiming the inhabitants. Corruption as well as poverty contributes to the number of casualties of natural disasters. Many contractors received huge government grants to guarantee the cost of safe construction but build cheap, miserable houses that fall apart during the first minor quake.
When dealing with natural catastrophes, the media limits itself to single out-of-context images of rescue teams looking for buried people or relief workers bringing medical aid and food. The context of those catastrophes is far more dramatic than we see on our television or read in the paper. Each disaster has not only direct casualties but also aftereffects.
Two weeks after the 2004 tsunami, a fine photographer showed me some pictures of an Indian town ravaged by the wave. He was in despair because no one wanted to publish them—the event was already considered out of date.
CAROLIN EMCKE: I’m not an expert on natural disaster, but on man-made disaster, namely wars. I assume that all of us have received the same question over and over again: “Why do you do this job? Why do you go to these places where you get shot at, arrested, deported, threatened, or beaten up on a relatively regular basis?” Probably for a complex set of motivations—some personal, many political—and it’s difficult to disentangle the various reasons because they are so intertwined with who I am as a person. Whatever explanation we give is somewhat retroactive; it provides a rationalization for something that at the core feels like a need, and reflects an impulse as you would reach out to catch a glass of water that falls off the table. It’s really an impulse. For me, it’s an impulse to respond to violence and to wars. What I really care about is the relation between violence, trauma, and the loss of language.
Very often, victims of violence are not terribly injured physically, but they’re mentally, emotionally, and psychologically injured. What goes along with that psychological injury is the loss of language, the loss of their ability to describe what actually happened to them. I’ve never in my life—not in one region of crisis or war, not in one area of conflict—met a victim of violence who had lost memory of what had happened to him or her. Not once. Rather than what the contemporary scientific research on trauma wants to make you believe, I’ve never once encountered a single victim of violence who really could not remember what happened. The first thing you lose is trust in the world. People lose their language or their ability to give an account, to give a narrative of what happened to them, because they lose trust that anybody will care. They lose trust in the sense of community or the sense of belonging to the same world, which is a precondition for talking. It’s a precondition for dialogue, a precondition for even making an effort to reach out to another person, assuming she wants to share your suffering and your sorrow.
What upsets me particularly, what makes me go to these areas, is anger at the fact that if people lose the ability to describe what happened to them, the perpetrators win twice. Basically, if people aren’t able to give an account or to give an account that we consider intelligible—maybe it doesn’t sound reasonable anymore, maybe they can only stutter or mumble—it’s only proof that the perpetrator was right.
If we are talking about writing and catastrophe, what the writer has do is give voice to people who have become silent. It’s a creative rush: You have to decipher the broken narratives; you have to try to make sense of something that might sound distorted. No one ever asked me for money, for food, for direct, practical help. But over and over again, people have asked, “Will you write this down?”
In the beginning, I have to admit that I was slightly scared because I feared they would hope that my writing could change the situation they faced. Over the years, I’ve come to think it’s actually something else. They’re not so naïve to think that if I write, something will really change. Rather, people who are victims of violence, of long-term discrimination, of long-term exclusion from society, people who experience injustice and violence over long periods of time, at some point—when the situation continues and nobody intervenes—they begin to wonder whether what has happened to them might actually be right. At some point, they lose the sense of the injustice. They lose their faith in the world.
So rather than do that, they begin to ask whether what happened to them might be right. What they ask of a writer on catastrophe and war is to say, “No, what you are enduring is not right, it’s wrong. It’s wrong.” This reassures them of their own sense of right and wrong, of justice and injustice, and includes them again in the community that they were excluded from. The writing is also about creating a weave—a normative weave, a moral weave, a weave that is bigger than the realities in these war zones or the realities that these people find themselves in. We somehow all believe in the power of words to ban horror and fear, and yet it doesn’t work. Sometimes events and horrors and injustice and wars are just overpowering. And they don’t lose their ability to haunt us and traumatize and terrorize us, even if we can describe them properly. That’s the paradox of the witness of war: You always fail to reach that state where you can say, “Yes, I adequately described what was going on.”
I’ve written articles as a journalist, as it is my profession, and yet I had this sense of failure. So I began to write letters to my friends, who, I have to say, weren’t terribly good at asking questions about where I was, and I wasn’t terribly good at describing what I experienced. So, out of that frustration and that sense of failure, I began writing letters that I would send via e-mail to friends across the world—long letters that tried to make sense out of what I experienced in these areas of war, and also tried to reflect on our own role in this. Now it’s turned into a book, which is slightly strange because strangers read it and not just friends. It hasn’t stopped the sense of failure and inadequacy, but it also hasn’t stopped the drive and the need to continue to travel and try to give people a voice.
PHILIP GOUREVITCH: I don’t think of myself as a writer of catastrophe, which might sound strange because I’ve written about Rwanda and Cambodia and other troubled places. I think of myself more as a writer of aftermath. I’m not somebody who, like a combat photographer, stands up when there’s shooting to get a better picture. I wait until it’s just calm enough perhaps to have a conversation with people again. I like to go in after the press has gone home or the story has moved off the front pages. In that sense, I suppose, part of my work as an aftermath man is to try to slow down our attention span, or at least my own. Writing in long form in our different ways, and ultimately in book form, is a way of trying to accumulate an experience after it has happened, to not let it slip away, and to get a better take on a story than you often get in the heat of the moment—a deeper take.
One question we were asked to consider was “What drew you to the work you do?” I suppose there are several reasons. One, from very early on, would be a sense of family history. Like a lot of Americans, I was part of the first generation of my family to be born here. My parents had come from abroad and, also like many Americans, they came as refugees,. A sense of the way that history can intensely shape private lives was always part of my experience as I grew up. What everybody was supposedly yearning for was an extraordinary level of peace and civility and an expectation of more of the same, and there I was, growing up in a New England town with all the blessings you could possibly ask for in that respect. Not to say it was a place without questions, or without turmoil, or without much to scratch one’s head or to be outraged about, but it was a place where there was extremely good reason to believe that nobody was going to shatter the fabric of social existence with violence at any moment. One of the other things that made me write is what makes all others write, which is reading. Reading other people’s writings and hearing stories from family members from another time, I started to think that maybe I was living outside of history in some strange way. Maybe there wasn’t anything going on. Then I started to realize that it was going on elsewhere. But I felt confused when reading newspapers. A lot was going on, but I was feeling that unless I went there I wouldn’t have a good sense of it; I wouldn’t be able to slow it down and grasp it.
Aside from those personal reasons, there are three words that probably most motivate my reporting on the aftermath of political violence: unimaginable, unspeakable, and unthinkable. These are the reflexive words by which political violence is almost invariably described, and what bothers me is that they give voice to its magnitude without actually addressing it. They are the words by which the press gives you permission to forget and ignore. They are the words by which we let ourselves off the hook. They’re supposed to be grand. If I say, in a deep, ponderous voice, “unspeakable,” you all shudder and we feel that we’ve had a shared experience of confronting something, when in fact all we’ve done is shrugged it off. I noticed that these words were applied constantly to Rwanda. “Unbelievable” is the casual form of all three hooked together. But what are writers to do except to imagine, speak, and think? Or imagine, think, and speak. Preferably, you think before you speak.
This is something I started to realize as I got involved in journalism and reporting and actually going places to see what has happened rather than writing from pure imagination or from pure outrage. And I think outrage is probably a large motivator for everybody here, whether it’s personal or not. Some of the books that first inspired me were novels, works of the imagination. Then I began to understand that reporting, too, is a work of the imagination. That does not mean that it is not also necessarily factual. Facts are problematic; facts can be abused; facts can be distorted; facts can be misunderstood; but facts are nevertheless the essential touchstone that distinguishes fiction from nonfiction. Both fiction and nonfiction will be judged by whether they are truthful. The real trick in nonfiction is to be stuck with facts and somehow be truthful, and for that you need a certain amount of imagination. And you also need other people’s stories. It often requires imagination to understand the parts that they aren’t telling you. People do want to speak. I think they want to speak for some of the reasons that have been addressed; I think that they want to speak so as not to be annihilated. Often in situations where there is a sense of doom, a sense of crushing forces very close to the bone, I think people speak simply to exist, and when we go to them as reporters we are amplifiers of that existence.
At the same time, I’m also quite skeptical of the idea that anything we do has an immediate effect. I’ve never believed it did. I’ve never thought of what I do as human-rights reporting. Yes, human rights have been violated, but I find that to be a very narrow, technical rubric in which the only real question is the assertion of blame. It assumes there is a perpetrator and a victim, and the question gets complicated when you have a conflict in which there is no clean side. That does not mean that both sides are equally unclean. I think that can be an easy refuge for journalists—this fiction that the vantage point of neutrality is always the wisest one. Objectivity is obviously wise and useful, but neutrality in the face of genocide seems to me obscene. It’s a kind of complicity. Neutrality can be used to let us subtly off the hook.
Part of our job is not just to imagine and not just to speak, but also to think along the way and to pass judgment. There is no accurate reporting that isn’t based on a series of difficult judgments. That’s why I think it is worthwhile to what I do even though there is a kind of existential futility in it from the short term, activist point of view. The activists who say, “I will go, I will make visible what is invisible. I will speak for those who are voiceless and things will change,” are going to almost always end with a certain level of frustration. The history of wars is pretty much inseparable from the history of humanity. I think that conflict will always be with us. You can say, “If conflict is going to be with us and if horrible things are going to perpetually happen, why do this?” I think there is a cumulative effect—that if we stopped what we’re doing, the world would be worse. And if you believe that at all, you have to accept that there is value in the cumulative power of truth-telling, of making and keeping a record, and keeping track of what has happened.
In that sense, I think the project we’re all involved in of writing in the longer form and writing slowly over time—ten years for a book on Chernobyl, thirty years for a book about an experience in Cambodia—implies a consistent view of history. Probably most of us are a bit pessimistic about history. You see the things that we’ve seen, study the places that we’ve studied; it’s not chipper stuff. But alongside that pessimistic view of history, implicit in the kind of activity we’re engaged in, is a sense that over time this kind of record informs, instructs, and is absorbed in some way that’s a part of the balance for the good. If the world’s a crushing, horrible place filled with nasty people doing terrible things, it’s not a bad way to spend your time.