Writing about War: There’s Room for Fiction, Too

by Nate Haken

I’m sitting in the Amsterdam airport lounge, drinking another espresso, watching broadcasters broadcast news of massacres in Syria on TV.  I’m on my way back to Washington from Nigeria, where I work on issues of conflict assessment, early warning, and prevention.  There’s a ton of content being churned out every day about international conflict issues.  Like everybody else, I do my part in this: essays, reports, papers, memos, alerts, articles, tweets, blurbs, and posts.  But these things aren’t enough.  Fiction is essential. Facts and analysis will only get you so far.

Somewhere back in the 1900s, with the ascendance of New Criticism, American literature recoiled from all things socio-political for fear of the didactic, for fear of the trite.  A work of fiction was to be understood as self-contained, absent any inference of author’s intent, absent the reader’s own subjective lens, as much as possible.  That’s all fine and good.   You can see they had a point, epistemologically.  But as a result, the experience of fiction became a highly technical exercise in navel gazing. 

Meanwhile, American writers pushed the boundaries of New Criticism with the explorations of polyphony by folks like Faulkner, Joyce, and Woolf.  New Critics had no problem with the intersubjective presence of dynamic space between the characters themselves, but it took a more social constructionist view of reality to take that to its logical conclusion and introduce the reader and the author into the system.  After that happened though, we went all the way down the postmodern rabbit hole with our celebration of metafiction, eschewing the presumption of the existence of reality altogether (intersubjective or otherwise).  And thus fiction became utterly solipsistic.

Fiction became an exploration of the mind.  Books like Hemingway’s In Our Time, a series of short stories meant to represent a whole generation, were no longer being written in America. And this makes me sad, because I love that little booklet and how it situates me in the fabric of life.  This is what fiction used to be about, I think.  I thought.
Nigeria is the land of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. It is the land of Chris Abani’s Song for Night.  When I first read Achebe’s trilogy, it kicked me right in the ass. This was a book about the experience of real people in the real world.  It was individuals interacting with the stuff of politics, power, justice, religion, economics, and violence.  Chris Abani’s Song for Night was also about those things.  He denies it, but to me the book is clearly a magical realist take on Nigeria’s Biafran civil war.  Reading books like these helps me to see Nigeria in a way that Christiane Amanpour (bless her heart) does not.

At its best, fiction is about empathy and understanding.  In the words of the Reading Rainbow theme song: “I can go anywhere/friends to know/and ways to grow/a Reading Rainbow.”   Yep.  It’s not really all that complicated.   

But let’s face it.  Fiction’s not enough either.  You need facts and analysis.  You need Twitter, too.  A few months ago, the great Nigerian writers, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, and J.P. Clark apparently came to this same conclusion and jointly published an unliterary press release warning the country about the possibility of renewed civil war:

“The fears we have all secretly nursed are coming to realisation. The nightmare we have hugged to our individual breasts, voicing them only in family privacy, or within trusted caucuses of friends and colleagues – lest they become instances of materialising evil thoughts – has finally burst through into our social, physical environment. Rumblings and veiled threats have given way to eruption, and the first cracks in the wall of patience and forbearance can no longer be wished away.”

So here’s my call to action:  As writers, let’s join these guys.  Let’s climb up out of the rabbit hole.  Let’s broker empathy.