Confronting the Worst: Writing & Catastrophe
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.