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War is Murder: Writing Fiction In An Age of Perpetual Warfare

Friday October 25, 2013
07:00 pm

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It took many years for the events of the Vietnam War to manifest themselves in fiction. In marked contrast, novels and stories about the contemporary American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are being published concurrently with those invasions. The institution of war, by its very nature, is bestial, and the instruments of modern warfare, by their impersonality, have stripped warfighting of any remaining vestiges of chivalry and heroism. More, the effects of mechanized slaughter bedevil both combatants and civilians long after the formal ‘conclusion’ of warfare: consider, on the one hand, the continuing consequences of the use of depleted uranium ammunition on the health of civilians in Iraq, and, on the other, the fact that veteran suicides in the US have overtaken combat fatalities. American casualties are smuggled in during the dead of night; civilian non-combatants are charred to cinders by unmanned drones. The ethical task of writing then becomes to depict, as it were, the mass murder of human beings. It becomes an act of memory, a channeling of sorrow, but also of anger, a dwelling in mourning, not for the sake of seeking forgiveness or absolution, but in order to simply go on. Necessary sorrow, therefore, of a kind alien to our political masters, and necessary grief, absolutely necessary remembrance.

 

Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya was born in Jamshedpur, India, and educated in philosophy and politics at Presidency College, Calcutta, and international relations and political philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania. His first novel, The Gabriel Club (Granta, 1998), set in Budapest and Vienna against the background of the Velvet Revolutions in East-Central Europe, won the Grand Jury Award at the Budapest Book Festival in 2001. He is currently at work on two sets of three novels, both located in the Muslim world. The first set, the ‘peace cycle’, features the culture and history of the Muslim world. The second set, the ‘war trilogy’, tells the story of the American invasion of Afghanistan. The first novel in the ‘peace cycle’, The Storyteller of Marrakesh (W.W. Norton, 2011) dealt with oral storytelling traditions and was a variation on Tales from the Arabian Nights. The first novel in the ‘war trilogy’, The Watch (Random House/Hogarth, 2012), a retelling of Sophocles’ Antigone relocated to contemporary Kandahar, was the inaugural title in Random House's 2012 relaunch of Virginia and Leonard's Woolf's Hogarth imprint, and was simultaneously published in Australia, Canada, the UK and the US. The Watch was shortlisted for the Boeke Prize (South Africa) and selected as Best of Fiction 2012 by Publishers’ Weekly,Open Letters MonthlyThe Independent(UK), and The Belfast Telegraph, among others. Next year will see two novels, Like A Perfect Circle Drawn on Water, set in Iran and dealing with Islamic calligraphy & Sufi poetry; and Mortal Immortal, the prequel to The Watch, set in the mountains of Kandahar and based on a retelling of Aeschylus’s The Seven Against Thebes. Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya lives in Rhinebeck, in the Hudson Valley.  His work is published in fourteen languages.

 

Helen Benedict, a professor at Columbia University, is known for the theme of social injustice in her novels and nonfiction work. She is the author of six novels and five books of nonfiction. Her latest novel, Sand Queen (2011) tells the story of the Iraq war from the points of view of both an American female soldier and an Iraqi woman. Culled from real life stories of female soldiers and Iraqis, Sand Queen offers a story from the perspective of two young women on opposite sides of a war. 

 

Her last nonfiction book, The Lonely Soldier, broke the story of sexual assault in the U.S. military at war in Iraq and Afghanistan and inspired the Oscar-nominated documentary, Invisible War.  The Lonely Soldier won several awards, including the EMMA (Exception Merit in Media Award) from the National Women's Political Caucus and the Ken Book Award, both in 2010. A play Benedict wrote based on her interviews with women soldiers, The Lonely Soldier Monologues, was produced in 2009 and 2010 at two New York City Theaters, The Theater for the New City and La Mama Experimental Theatre Club, and is currently being performed at several campus theaters around the country. Her articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times Book ReviewThe Washington PostThe NationThe Women's Review of Books, and in many other newspapers and magazines.

 

Roy Scranton is a veteran of the Iraq war, having served from 2003-2004. His work has appeared in the New York TimesContemporary LiteratureBoston ReviewWall Street JournalThe Massachusetts ReviewLITTheory & Event, and elsewhere. He is co-editor of Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War (Da Capo, 2013).  His forthcoming novel about Iraq is entitled Babylon.