Pens and Swords
Welcome to The Mantle’s second virtual roundtable. I am particularly excited about this fascinating discussion because the problem at hand has been weighing on my mind for nearly a year: what is the role of the writer in a conflict zone? It is not an easy question to answer, as you will see in the comments below. The complexity underlying the question makes for a fascinating conversation because, it seems, there are no right answers—certainly no easy ones!
The Mantle brings together three acclaimed authors and poets to tackle the issue. The discussion between Sehba Sarwar (Houston, USA/Karachi, Pakistan), Tolu Ogunlesi (Lagos, Nigeria), and Vicente Garcia Groyon (Manila, Philippines) is profound, provocative, and delightfully informative. Their backgrounds and life experiences are diverse, bringing to light alternative perspectives and approaches to the role of the writer in the face of hostilities. But these three are more than just writers—they are journalists, activists, teachers, parents, children. They are, in many ways, ordinary citizens who regularly come into contact with violence in all of its forms: real and perceived, active and passive, near and far.
Alas! Sehba, Tolu and Vicente are writers. It’s in their bones, so write they must! The violence these three live with informs their writing, and we are all much richer for having shared in their experiences.
To follow the roundtable, “What is the role of the writer in a conflict zone?” see my introductory remarks below. Then click on each of the participants to read their essays and responses. At the bottom of this discussion page you can view my concluding thoughts to this remarkable debate. Letters regarding this roundtable are welcome and can be sent to letters [at] mantlethought.org (subject: Letter%20re%3A%20Pens%20and%20Swords) (letters(at)mantlethought.org).
- Shaun Randol, Editor. January 27, 2010
frontispiece and illustrations by Sarah D. Schulman
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James Joyce famously suggested that an artist functions as the conscience of his race. Filipino National Artist F. Sionil José declared that writers must serve as a nation’s memory. My own belief is that the writer’s task, his role, is to bear witness—to see what others cannot, or will not, see, and to show it to them.
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“A woman’s body is no longer her own after she becomes pregnant,” says the protestor as she pickets outside the Planned Parenthood headquarters in Houston, USA. “It’s our job to give women other options.” She looks straight in my eyes. “I know a girl who went into Planned Parenthood for a pregnancy test, and she was forced to have an abortion.”
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No writer could possibly exist in isolation. Even if she succeeded in engineering a spatial isolation (think of the farthest reaches of outer space), psychic isolation from the rest of humanity would be impossible. At the very least a writer is also a citizen—with all the requisite responsibilities: paying tax, participating in local politics, and obeying the rules and regulations established by the state. She is a mélange of family ties, societal status, religious beliefs (or lack of them), biases, memories, romantic impulses, political affiliation and imaginative capacity.