“We need to grow…”
“There’s been this huge sort of burst of Iraq and Afghanistan war literature,” said Helen Benedict in an interview with The Michigan Daily. “99.9 percent of it has been written by White men, most whom have MFA degrees. Those have really, really good novels among them, but if you think about it from a larger perspective, it’s a very, very narrow way to look at this war.”
Benedict, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has made it her mission broaden the identities and experiences represented in the literary narrative of war, one that has been dominated by the perspective of the White male American veteran. Benedict’s “Sand Queen,” a Publisher’s Weekly “Best Contemporary Novel,” became the first book about the Iraq war written from a female viewpoint whose leading character, Kate Brady, is an American soldier.
Following “The Lonely Soldier,” a nonfiction account of five women who fought in the Iraq war between 2003 and 2006, Benedict’s release of “Wolf Season” marks the third work in her succession of books representing female viewpoints of modern war in the Middle East.
“‘Wolf Season’ is mostly about the aftermath of war… how they bring the war home,” Benedict said.
And Benedict is bringing her account of the effects of war to our home of Ann Arbor this coming Tuesday. Literati will welcome Benedict to share an excerpt of “Wolf Season,” speak on her extensive research to “explore the effects of war on the human heart” and open a dialogue with the audience to answer questions.
After the U.S invasion in Iraq in 2003, Benedict embarked on three years of research into the effects of war, first by interviewing veterans from the Iraq war — male and female — and going on to expand the reach of her research to include those perspectives of Iraqis who had fled to the United States in search of refuge.
“My interviewees would go deep deep deep in their stories and memories, and sometimes they would hit a wall where they reached a memory that was … too painful to say aloud or even to remember,” Benedict said. “I came to realize it was in those silences, in that territory … where the real people couldn’t go, that the true inner experience of the war lay, like what it does to your heart and your soul … that’s the territory of fiction.”
Rin, an Iraq veteran, Naema, a doctor who fled Iraq with her wounded son and Beth, a wife whose husband is deployed in Afghanistan, represent female viewpoints from three different conditions of war experience. After a hurricane devastates their small upstate New York community, the events that follow expose the ways that war has affected these women and their community.
In the fictitious domain of “Wolf Season,” the story of these three women communicate the emotions and experiences of war that real people can’t –– the kinds of feelings and memories that caused Benedict’s interviewees to fall silent.
“If we read fiction that takes us deep into their hearts … we understand them the way we understand friends,” Benedict explained.
It is in this way that Benedict believes that an understanding of the havoc war wreaks on the human heart can be made more accessible for those to whom the effects of war are less visible in everyday life.
“It’s an integral part of our lives even if we don’t realize it,” she said.
Benedict reminded me that we have a say in war, too. With our right to vote, we elect the politicians who make strategic military moves and who approve our country’s defense budget, and we should be conscious of our voice in war.
“The way we react to war is a reflection of who we are in many deeper ways,” Benedict said. “War is so dramatic and so awful … it really exposes the human heart, and it exposes our morality in a way that almost nothing else does … In the end it’s not about war, it’s about human beings, what it is to be human and what it is to be moral.”
The best way to make moral choices is to understand the experiences of others. And fictional literature like “Wolf Season” can take us to a heightened level of understanding about the experience of war.