The Things We Carry
During the last weekend in March, I heard Tim O’Brien speak in Columbus, Georgia, to a group of undergraduates from Columbus State University and other people who were there for the Southern Literary Festival. Like many writing and literature types, I had read, studied, and taught The Things They Carried, and was certainly looking forward to O’Brien’s talk. What I did not anticipate was that his talk would be one of the best I’d heard about writing and the legacy of war—not just Vietnam, but all wars—in America and the places we fight. It was obvious that, despite all the accolades and honors O’Brien has been awarded, his moral duty as a writer to continue to examine our personal and collective guilt in war was what mattered most to him. According to O’Brien, living with and calling out the hypocrisy in our own country was what makes writing a “true” war story so problematic. No matter what your intentions when you go to fight, he said, there’s no way out of it. War is evil. Period.
I was thinking about O’Brien’s comments about a war that ended almost forty years ago and his attempts to write about it in the context of our own most recent wars: one arguably just ended, the other ongoing. Occasionally in my creative writing classes, I have read to my students Australian writer Geraldine Brooks’ complaint about American short stories in her introduction as guest editor to Best American Short Stories from 2011. Brooks says that (among her other “carps”), “There’s a war on. The war in Afghanistan, in the year it became America’s longest, appeared as a brief aside in only two of one hundred and twenty stories.”
When I’ve asked my students why they never wrote about a war that they’d lived with for half their lives, they’ve usually looked at me quizzically. The idea had never occurred to them, they’ve said. It doesn’t affect us, they’ve said. I wouldn’t know what to say. I usually reply: Certainly, you have something to say about living in a country that has been at war for ten years. And if you don’t, why don’t you? Can’t we at least examine that?
Perhaps American readers and writers are getting ready for more examination. Perhaps it takes a decade, or longer, to wrap our heads around what our country has done and continues to do. At least three novels, David Abrams’ Fobbit, Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and Kevin Powers’ Yellow Birds, were literary standouts of 2012. These works also happen to be about our war in Iraq. In this past year, I’ve also seen more literary journals calling for stories about “war” (loosely defined) for special issues on the topic. These are a few signs that we are ready to start a conversation of the ramifications of these wars on us and others.
In response to Brooks’ “carps” about the American short story, series editor Heidi Pitlor felt the need to defend the reasons she’d selected those one hundred and twenty stories for Brooks to read. “But for me, the quality of writing always takes precedence over the author’s choices of content or form” (italics mine). For me (no “but”) this defense rings hollow, and is myopically ignorant of the political ramifications the decisions international writers make about form and content, whether in post-9/11 America, a Stalinist Soviet Union, war-torn Bosnia, or apartheid South Africa, to name a few. Her comment echoes that of the editors at the literary journals who defensively and self-righteously defend publishing a majority of males year after year on the grounds of some supposed objectively established aesthetics. Like Pitlor, these editors claim that they choose stories to publish because of the quality of the writing, that they can’t help it if those stories happen to be written mostly by men, and that the VIDA count should not politicize “art.” Their attitude promotes the status quo, refusing to examine the subjectivity of our own aesthetics.
But also for me, Brooks has too easily accepted the status quo, assuming those one hundred twenty stories are representative of what is being written and published in North America. A cursory look at the hundreds of journals publishing fine work in print and online will tell you that stories about foreign countries, wars, religion, and other topics Brooks claims are absent are indeed out there. Brooks’ complaint that Americans are not writing short stories about the above topics is similar to another one leveled against the VIDA count by our poor put-upon editors—they’d publish more women if only they submitted more. This abdicates the responsibility of the editor to seek, find, and publish what the editor believes will contribute most to a vibrant literary culture, instead of passively waiting for the work to roll in.
These thoughts have been on my mind as we read for this latest issue of Drunken Boat. With its foundation in poetry, experimentation, and international representation, Drunken Boat will always celebrate the playfulness of language in an international context. We often publish writers for whom English is a second (or third or fourth) language, writers who may have a different relationship to English because of this, who write in English for reasons both political and personal. For this issue, I’ve paid special attention to stories that speak of things that I don’t believe we speak enough about. For Drunken Boat 17, this focus is on war and its effects. Of the eleven stories, four are about war (Vietnam, Bosnia, and Iraq) and those living inside and outside of it. The other stories play with short story content and form, whether as ekphrastic short pieces echoing Sebald, a riff on Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain,” or a contemplation of how to live in the world as one is mysteriously dying. Five of the stories are written by women, six by men, and all of them, it goes to say, display a high “quality of writing.” But also like Tim O’Brien, these writers engage with the moral implications of and commitment to content and form.
Sybil Baker is the author of The Life Plan, Talismans, and Into This World. She spent twelve years teaching in South Korea before returning to the States in 2007. She is an Assistant Professor of English (Creative Writing) at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where she serves as the Assistant Director of the Meacham Writers’ Workshop. A recent recipient of a MakeWork grant for Chattanooga, she teaches in the first international MFA program at City University of Hong Kong and at the Yale Writers’ Conference. She is Fiction Editor at Drunken Boat.