AWP2015: Writing Atrocity: The Novel and Memoir of Political Witness

Panelists: Jocelyn Bartkevicius, Dan Reiter, Erika T. Wurth, Emily Strasser, Glen Retief

Jocelyn Bartkevicius: Many Americans, including Bartkevicius and her Irish-American mother, are so conditioned to find humor in the extremes of life and to view atrocity as some kind of spectacle, from which we are so far removed that we can laugh at it without understanding the full weight of the situation.

Much of Bartkevicius’s Lithuanian paternal grandmother’s family was trapped behind the iron curtain, and ultimately were sent to a Siberian prison camp. Yet her grandmother often held back from talking much about these circumstances, once telling Bartkevicius that as an American she couldn’t understand. When Bartkevicius reconnected with that part of her family and began to learn their tragic story, her first impulse was to write about it as spectacle, but it didn’t work.

Barkevicius left us with a series of questions, among them:

  • How do I as an American get to write this?
  • Who is going to be an audience for it when people find it so hard to understand and/or face?
  • Is there a way I can write this without spectacle, without falling into those traps?

Dan Reiter: Reiter has written historical fiction based on the true experiences of his grandparents during the holocaust.

It was not until later in life that he began to wonder more about his grandparents, and in investigating turned to an interview his sister had done with them 10 years ago. This oral history was the skeleton that Reiter fleshed out with research to tell his grandparent’s story.

Reiter stresses the importance of accuracy in detail, because getting little things wrong could cast doubt on the rest of the truth of the narrative.

Tragedy, says Reiter, obliges repetition as a cautionary tale for future generations. It is, perhaps, an evolutionary trait that the worst events in human kind produce the most vivid memories so that they can be passed on.

Erika T. Wurth: As a Native woman writing fiction about her community as she sees and understands it, Wurth’s work has often been criticized as being too dark. The question of representation comes up constantly, yet her attempts to write the truth of these experiences are too uncomfortable for many readers from the mainstream culture.

There is something very important about writing about people who are ignored, misrepresented, and criminalized because what they’re going through is normally pushed away out of guilt. Wurth hopes to hold up a mirror to their experience to show that it is not isolated.

Ultimately Wurth’s job as a writer is not any different from any other writer’s which is to poetically render what she knows. She has reached the conclusion that she must focus on writing what she loves, even, and especially, when it is dark, because love occurs so often in the darkness.

Emily Strasser: Strasser has struggled with the question of authority throughout her project of writing about Tibet, which began in part because she wasn’t finding the things she wanted to read about Tibet. If she could not be an eyewitness, at least she could witness the witnessing of others. Yet ultimately questions arise. How do you represent someone else’s pain responsibly, honestly, and artistically if you can never fully claim to grasp the extent of that pain?

Anyone writing about atrocity is writing not the truth, but a truth – a version. Given the potentially dire consequences of letting the fragments be lost, or of providing no push back against the controlled, dominant narrative of events, the writer has the right and the responsibility to try to shape the fragments and create that version.

Strasser’s solution to the question of accuracy and representation is to make the process of creation and interpretation apparent in the narrative.

Glen Retief: The struggle Retief faced in writing his own memoir of witness is trying to find a balance between avoiding the political altogether and writing thinly disguised propaganda. The key is to seek honesty about both certainty and ambiguity.

The right question to drive a work of nonfiction will be personal, heartfelt, and it very well might be unsettling, politically incorrect, or less than sensible. In his own case, writing a memoir about the abusive hazing and bullying he experienced in his all-white, militarized boarding school in apartheid South Africa, he had been asking “What were they thinking?” or “How could that have happened?” but was struggling with self righteousness. The solution was introspection and pondering, what question might a good mentor tell me to ask/not ask? Finding the right question was key.

To nurture writing of witness, Retief insists that we must dispense with the idea that atrocity is somehow fundamentally alien to the average U.S. college student. Experience with #BlackLivesMatter, mass incarceration, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and campus sexual assault are all ways that the political intersects with the U.S. campus. Students need to be assured of safe space and confidentiality to be able to tell such stories.

Libby Kalmbach is a nonfiction writer and student in the Master of Arts in Writing and Publishing program at DePaul University in Chicago. She writes about immigration issues, among other things, and also tweets– @libbykalmbach.


Visit Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies to browse our recent issues (Fall 2014 and Spring 2015), explore our classroom resources, and to subscribe to the journal (it’s free!).

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