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from the April 2016 issue

Women, Writing War

Since Odysseus paddled home to Ithaca, most of the world’s great war stories have belonged to men. Men have written them and men have starred in them, because, for the most part, male soldiers have occupied the frontlines from Sparta to Verdun. In addition, men’s voices have been the dominant voices elsewhere in literature, why not in war?

In the landscape of contemporary conflicts, this no longer holds true. Now, more women travel to battlefields, as soldiers, aid workers, and journalists. And most of the world’s wars no longer take place on battlefields. Today, civilians, in particular women and children, are often targets. 

Over the past century, according to the UN, the number of civilian fatalities has risen from roughly five percent to more than ninety percent. One of the consequences of this statistic is that male soldiers no longer have the exclusive purview on what war smells and tastes like, and on what it costs.

It’s a dubious privilege that a woman can tell war stories as brutal and devastating as a man can, but it’s certainly earned.

Among the remarkable poems, dispatches, and fictional accounts gathered from soldiers, mothers, daughters, witnesses and survivors, in their native tongues and in translation, this array of women writers have explored what it means to live through the chaos of war smack in the middle of pitched battle or at its quieter, but no less insidious edges.

From the former Yugoslavia, Ajla Terzić, who was born in 1979, and her translator, John K. Cox, bring us the dark humor of her childhood:

In the year that Tito died, I rode my first donkey. A dead donkey, at that—or, to be more precise, one that had been preserved. The animal was on a wooden disk with wheels, and the man who was charging for the “rides” would push it around the beach among the well-oiled ladies and gentlemen with children, all of whom were eating salami sandwiches that they'd pull from little coolers. 

From Peru, Claudia Salazar Jiménez and her translator, Elizabeth Bryer, bring us the PTSD of a former government soldier forced to kill her own while undercover among the guerillas. She can’t make it to the store to buy bread on Sunday morning without flashbacks:

It’s a short distance to the bakery, only five blocks. She entertains herself watching the pigeons that congregate on one corner. It rained last night, and water that has accumulated in a hole in the road has turned into their own little oasis. She remembers being thirsty. Thirsty, all the time. She could stand the hunger, but thirst squeezed her throat, inflamed her tongue, knocked her out. As she recalls, their water had run out and they kept walking. One comrade was seriously sick, but they kept on. They couldn’t give in. They had to leave him behind. She saw his dulled eyes. He didn’t make any requests; he was resigned. She didn’t say anything either, but in truth she was glad each time one of them died. I had to make an effort not to show it so they wouldn’t notice. My mission didn’t permit me to kill them; I had to collect all possible information but not kill them. What I would have given to do so. That time thirst wouldn’t let up. Her voice was evaporating. And those pigeons bathing, flapping about in the dirty puddle of water. Disgusting things.

From Sarajevo, Sonia Ristic brings us the braided tale of Anna, a woman war photographer who has a brush with family demons while in the field:

It’s a crazy and messed-up line of work we’re in. No, you don’t become a war correspondent by accident or by chance, by falling down some rabbit hole into a maze of bizarre life paths. You don’t become a war correspondent because, since you were little, you’ve dreamed of taking pictures of antelopes galloping through the Tanzanian savannah and, all of a sudden, you find yourself in the crossfire of a conflict. No, it’s something you carry inside, I don’t know what it is exactly—a tear in the fabric of your soul, an original war wrought in your childhood, a way of seeing things so clearly, too clearly, your roots inexorably intertwined with the roots of evil . . . .

Each of these stories—and the other singular work here from women in Iraq, Israel, Italy, Ukraine, Brazil, and Honduras—explodes the lens through which we look at war. The value of this work isn’t so much that gender informs how we look at conflict. It’s that as women, these writers occupy startling vantages from which we can observe our own brutality.

© 2016 by Eliza Griswold. All rights reserved.  

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