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Literature: Left or Right?

Added: Wednesday, May 6th 2009 at 12:37pm by robertflynn

Quick! Who were the pro-slavery writers of the 19th Century? Who were the writers who supported the Confederacy during the Civil War? What about the great Nazi writers? Schopenhauer and Nietzche might have influenced German thinkers but it’s not certain that either would have supported Hitler. Film maker Leni Riefenstahl did support the Nazi party. 


Almost all writers from the Allied countries supported the war effort of the Allies and many were employed in it, with the exception of American poet, Ezra Pound, who lived in Italy during the war, wrote propaganda for the Fascist government, was arrested and tried for treason after the war. He was found incompetent to face trial and spent 12 years in an asylum. After release he returned to Italy for the rest of his life. 


International PEN, founded in 1921, is the oldest international human-rights and freedom-to-right organization. PEN works in schools and prisons to help students and convicts find nonviolent means to express themselves. International PEN was shocked to discover one of its members was accused of serious war crimes committed during the siege of Sarajevo. 


Larry Siems, director of PEN’s Freedom to Write Program, said that writers generally supported the system for time and space to write. Writers were not always a force for good but that he believed that writing was beneficial.


Nadeen Aslam, who was born in Pakistan, said that politics impinged on literature. He had walked around the White House and pondered how the decisions made there had impacted his life. The US recruited, trained and equipped Islamic extremists to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Many of them became Al-Qaida and fought in Kashmir against India. The US also supported Taliban and some politicians, including Kissinger lobbied for US recognition of Taliban so that corporations could do business with a recognized government. “In Pakistan you can’t separate ordinary life from political life,” he said. “I hoped that if I ignored politicians they would ignore me but that was not possible.” If it were not for politics he would not be in America.


Norbert Gstrein, was born in Austria but lives in London and Hamburg. He reminded us that Fitzgerald said to Hemingway that he would never be a great writer because great writers write of war and he had never been in a war. Gstrein writes of war from a distance, particularly World War Two and the war in former Yugoslavia. His latest book is about a Croatian woman who lives in Vienna but longs for Zagreb while her father, a former German paratrooper, lives in exile in Argentina but wants to go home. He said that language was a problem in writing about war because whatever you write about war, war is much worse. Words cannot convey the horror.


Mariken Jongman, from the Netherlands, wondered why she was on the panel. Her brother had studied politics; there are about 20 political parties in the Netherlands and he found they are all the same, she said. She was a vegetarian, mostly because of the way animals are treated but she felt no obligation to involve politics in a story about a thirteen-year-old boy. Her goal was to change an individual in some way. “How can you see or do life differently than your parents?” she asked. Children are dependent. They can’t put their parents into rehabilitation. Her character ponders the problem. In his position, she would have done nothing but he does it better.


Khet Mar found it difficult to write in Burma. At least 15 writers are in jail in Burma. Everything written in Burma was read by a board of censors. Writing in Iowa she didn’t think about censorship and published a book but in Burma she had to leave out sensitive names. So, now there are two versions of the novel. How to get past the censors is now always in the back of her mind.


Domenico Starmone is an Italian high school teacher but also a writer, screenwriter and journalist. Mostly he has written about school and the relationship between teachers and students. “The classroom is a political state in which a teacher has power to control through language,” he said. Television always tries to flatten words into stereotypes to create the world we see. Writers have to resist that and keep language fresh with meaning. In countries without explicit censorship writers censor themselves. What is offensive? What can annoy the authorities or repel readers? What should be unsaid? Being in a war was not important but finding the right words to explain war was. Humanitarian wars kill mostly women and children. 


Whether literature was left or right was lost in discussion of censorship and war. War is the definitive experience of American males. Those who did not serve in the military during the Vietnam War felt the obligation to be militant in opposing it. Participating in violent sports and “gang wars” are virtual ways of defining oneself.


I was in Vietnam during the war and have returned twice since the war. I was in Cambodia when the Vietnamese army controlled the cities but the Khmer Rouge was active in the mountains. In 2006, I was in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia/Montenegro. In Sarajevo I stood in the steps of the assassin who afforded the excuse for World War One, a war that left my father with nightmares and other invisible scars. I had dinner with a widow and her son. She had escaped over the mountains with her boy, an infant, but her husband had remained behind. She wanted NATO forces to remain because she feared the war would begin again.


I have written about war but there are no anti-war novels. I read Johnny Got His Gun, that was intended to be a war novel. I think most young men who read the book felt challenged as I did to endure such loss of everything but thought, and to believe that we could prevail. War is the ultimate human experience because it changes nothing yet changes everything.

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