War and the Writer-Witness by Theodora Danek

By Wasafiri Editor on May 8, 2023 in Essay

We’re pleased to share an exclusive extract from ‘”An Act of Politicised Attention”: War and the Writer-Witness’, our review essay from Wasafiri 113. The essay features writing on three texts in translation – What Have You Left Behind? by Bushra al-Maqtari, translated by Sawad Hussain; Lucky Breaks by Yevgenia Belorusets, translated by Eugene Ostashevsky; and Five Days Untold by Badr Ahmad, translated by Christiaan James – where the writers write about war — ‘a war that is not a memory, a war that is not seen from abroad, but war as it is felt daily’.

Read the full article online, or in Wasafiri 113, which is available to purchase via our shop.

In March 2022, my friend developed an obsession with troop movements. Russia had invaded Ukraine, 400 km from our hometown, and the Twitter accounts tracking flight paths and tanks seemed to exert a fascination that I couldn’t understand. We argued. What was the point of following flight trackers, I asked, when refugees were arriving in our town every day, when the specificity of an unfolding catastrophe was so obvious? Why get sucked into the military minutiae of a war that made it feel like a computer game, a quest, a second-rate Hollywood film? My district was packed with Ukrainian cars. Everyone knew someone who’d just gotten out, whose parents had come to stay, or had a friend who had taken a car with a bunch of strangers to get over the border.

The argument was pointless. We’d ultimately chosen similar approaches to engage with the news – the microscopic, the detailed, the specific – as a means to build empathy. Soon we began to share the work of Ukrainian writers and visual artists who documented what was happening in their country – life in a constant state of crisis – and I kept thinking about the importance of the writer-witness. That spring, as the Kremlinologists seemed to go into overdrive and as I listened to historians, political scientists, journalists, and politicians analyse national psychologies and leadership personas, Yevgenia Belorusets, a Ukrainian photographer and writer, published a daily diary of life in Ukraine in Der Spiegel Online (available in English in Greg Nissan’s translation on ISOLARII). For over a month, she chronicled the situation in Kyiv in diary entries accompanied by photographs: dog walkers on the street, the smoke from explosions in the sky, a young woman with flowers, a single soldier at a checkpoint. Life in a city under attack. Later that year, the project would become part of the exhibition This is Ukraine: Defending Freedom at the 59th Venice Biennale. When asked why she was keeping the diary, she told The Atlantic’s Gal Beckerman that

[t]here might be some sense of responsibility among people who are working with ideas to preserve a very complex picture of reality at a moment when war has turned everything incredibly awful. (np)

A very complex picture of reality — I was reminded of how Iris Murdoch defined art in ‘The Sublime and the Good’, as ‘the discovery of reality’ (51). Murdoch connected the arts and morals with love. To her, the three were essentially the same: the ‘perception of individuals’, the ‘extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real’. The writer-witness’s act of care, in this sense, is their work. A diary, the focus on individual stories, all of these are also elements of what will, in a few months or years, be part of micro-history. Prioritising the individual in art becomes, once again, an act of politicised attention — even more so when these individuals are ignored by the wider world.

It seems impossible that an ongoing war can be ignored, and yet the war in Yemen was cited often following the Russian invasion in Ukraine in spring 2022 as a ‘forgotten’ conflict, an ongoing humanitarian catastrophe that had seemingly disappeared from the public eye of, at least, a European audience. Ukraine, too, had suffered from a ‘forgotten’ conflict, as Eastern Ukraine had been in a state of civil war since the Russian invasion and Russian-backed insurgency in 2014. This conflict, the ongoing disruption of civic life, provides the background for Yevgenia Belorusets’ collection of short stories, Lucky Breaks, which finally arrived in Eugene Ostashevsky’s English translation at the same time as her online diaries, four years after they had first been published in Russian in 2018. The ignored victims of the Yemeni war, on the other hand, are the subject of Bushra al-Maqtari’s and Badr Ahmad’s books, both also written around 2018 and now published in English translation by Sawad Hussain and Christiaan James, respectively.

Beyond chronicling and fictionalising tragedy, the approach these authors take is programmatic and analytical. In her foreword to Lucky Breaks, Belorusets explains that the stories ‘focus on the deep penetration of traumatic historical events into the fantasies and experiences of everyday life’ (10). Al-Maqtari, too, ends her introduction with a programmatic note. The voices of the victims, she says, are

a finger in the eyes of the murderers and the hunting dogs whom they hide behind. They are a testament to ward against forgetting, against feigning ignorance, against indifference. They are a balm for the souls of all those who have been killed, those whose loved ones have been left behind, left with nothing but memories. (19)

This approach calls to mind Walter Benjamin’s reminder that our concept of history must depart from favouring the winners, the powerful. In On the Concept of History, he wrote

The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. (257)

To choose as protagonists and subjects those that are oppressed becomes an act of pushing back against structures of power. There are added elements to reading these books in translation, years after they were first written. They preserve a historical moment in time that is now past, a present that has turned into history — and they are not written with the voyeuristic global reader in mind. There is no overexplaining here, no simplifications. The specificity is the point.

These are three writers, then, who write about war, a war that is not a memory, a war that is not seen from abroad, but war as it is felt daily. Though the form is different – fiction and non-fiction, novel and short story, reportage and invention, sincerity and irony – the focus is the same. What neither al-Maqtari, nor Ahmad, nor Belorusets are particularly concerned with is what happens beyond the sphere of the individual. Politics, diplomacy, strategy — they are largely absent from their pages, even though their indistinct shape and influence are naturally felt throughout. It is the lived experience of individuals that al-Maqtari, Ahmad, and Belorusets are interested in. They remain with their protagonists, with refugees from Eastern Ukraine stranded in Kyiv, or civilians stuck in what al-Maqtari refers to as ‘this giant prison called Yemen’ (16). This can perhaps be understood as a counterpoint to our collective focus on the bigger picture — or perhaps it is simply the remit of art to make the individual felt and visible. In any case, what makes these three books so important is the visceral detail with which they describe the varying effects of war’s pervasive intrusion.

Theodora Danek lives in Vienna. Previously a project manager and managing editor at English PEN, Tilted Axis, and The White Review, she now writes, edits, and solves publishing problems on demand.

Wasafiri 113 remembers author and professor Sara Suleri with touching tributes from Kamila ShamsieAmina Yaqin, and others. Also featured in the issue are the winners of the 2022 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize and the 2022 Essay Prize, interviews with Lorna GoodisonCristina Rivera Garza, and Sarah Booker, plus our usual range of fiction, life writing, poetry, and reviews.