(Benjamin Busch, Phil Klay, Siobhan Fallon, Brian Turner, Katey Schultz) It has been argued that credibility requires direct witness, that true war stories can only be told by those who have been there. The fact is that stories from Iraq and Afghanistan are arriving in all literary genres and from multiple perspectives, some using imagination to create equal truths. These five authors, writing through short fiction, essay, poetry, memoir, and nonfiction, will discuss how the fragmentary nature of the war narrative can be written from inside or outside the uniform.
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The panel “Telling Our New War Stories: Witness and Imagination across Literary Genres” benefited from its diversity. The panel was made up of three veterans who have written about their experiences in the military – Benjamin Busch, author of Dust to Dust; Phil Klay, author of Redeployment; and Brian Turner, author of Here, Bullet and My Life as a Foreign Country – one writer whose husband serves in the military – Siobhan Fallon, author of You Know When the Men Are Gone – and one author with no connection to the military – Katey Schultz, author of Flashes of War. This diversity made for an interesting panel exploring form, imagination, research, and observation in writing about the wartime experience.
Busch, as moderator, started by asking the panelists about form and inspiration. Turner described using stanzas in his poems because they mirrored the experience of boredom punctuated by combat: “They were the perfect vehicle for those bursts of combat; then back to boredom.” Fallon described attending a house party in Fort Benning, where she could hear an argument between the neighbors because of the thin walls of military housing, and how she wanted to replicate the eavesdropping culture of military life, where people bump into one another around base. Similarly, Klay expressed using his stories to show how everyone’s war experience is different: “I wanted my stories to rub up against each other. I wanted a bunch of voices that wouldn’t necessarily appear next to each other.” Schultz’s stories started from an initial spark of interest, which motivated her to do research: “I took these moments and drove with them until I reached something to believe in.”
Busch then asked the panel about the difference between witness and imagination and how they may interfere with each other in wartime writing. Schultz describing the importance of her research and how she had to fight to “get close to the characters.” Klay explaining a different kind of fighting with his writing, how he had to “fight past the bullshit you like to tell yourself” to uncover the point of a story. Turner focused on imagination, urging wartime writers to “widen the palette” of tools when writing, to use more imagination.
This lead into a discussion on credibility, authenticity, and truth in wartime writing. Klay described getting “very different kinds of bullshit called out from both sides.” Schultz emphasized emotion in storytelling, how she may not have witnessed war, but she knows the human heart and she knows that curiosity can be just as powerful as human experience. Fallon used an example where she asked her husband to send her examples of porta-potty graffiti commonly found on military bases, but she wasn’t able to use any real examples in her writing, so she had to create her own: “Sometimes you just need to blur the edges a bit.”
One of the most interesting discussions was related to whether writers of the wartime experience are part of the creation of this mythology that veterans must write about their war experience. Busch explained a project where he wants to ask veterans and others who have written about war to write about something other than war, to illustrate that these men and women are more than just this war experience. Klay commented on the political weight readers put on war stories, how we want to sensationalize trauma narratives or glorify war heros. Ultimately, Turner urged writers to focus on the reader, to create work that “lands with the reader,” whether it’s related to war or not.
Bronson Lemer is the author of The Last Deployment: How a Gay, Hammer-Swinging Twentysomething Survived a Year in Iraq. His work has appeared in Blue Earth Review, The Reykjavik Grapevine, & Twentysomething Essays by Twentysomething Writers. He lives in St. Paul.