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).

Enjoy!

- Shaun Randol, Editor. January 27, 2010

frontispiece and illustrations by Sarah D. Schulman

Moderator's Introduction

What is the role of the writer in a conflict zone?

It is a deceptively simple question, a mere 11 words, but with some reflection the question gains weight, pulling on the conscience and mind. Moreover, who decides the role the writer plays in the face of conflict? Our bookshelves are chock-full of authors who have faced violence and lived to write about it; just as many have met their demise pursuing their literary passion.

But must the writer choose sides in a conflict, and put pen to paper to write editorials or blast propaganda? Should the writer drop the pen and pick up a megaphone and a protest placard instead? Perhaps the writer should abandon the craft altogether, pick up a sword, and join the fight. And if so, which side does he or she choose?

Or, perhaps, in conflict the writer has no obligation at all, and is free to navel gaze in seclusion, letting the bickering sides fight it out while he pursues his own literary interests.

Thanks to Sehba Sarwar, Tolu Ogunlesi, and Vicente Garcia Groyon for their insights into this vexing problem. The floor is theirs.

(Shaun is the Founder and Editor of The Mantle, as well as an Associate Fellow at the World Policy Institute in New York City).

  • For Choice

    Sehba Sarwar

    “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.”

    Read essay »
  • We Must Bear Witness

    Vicente Garcia Groyon

    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.

    Read essay »
  • Art is a Debt We Owe

    Tolu Ogunlesi

    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.

    Read essay »
Moderator's Conclusion

When I launched this roundtable, I had on my mind active, aggressive conflict. War is an endlessly riveting subject. How quickly one forgets that conflict comes in many guises. Vicente and Sehba remind us that conflict can be a highly localized issue, promulgated by meta-abstracts like poverty and inequality. In the face of such violence, words, just like guns, are powerful armaments. In this sense, the pen is very much a sword. The arguments from each of our roundtable participants resonate on so many levels.

Sehba also reminds us that issues dealt with in the streets of Karachi are also fought for in the streets of Houston, literally halfway around the world. Her essay is a reminder that even in the face of adversity, someone on the other side of the globe is likely coming up against the same resistance. Take note of this next time you are in the streets marching against war or inequality—the same fight occurs elsewhere, always.

In his essay, Tolu takes a historical approach to question the role of a writer in times of upheaval. What have previous authors done in the face of such adversity? And what can writers today, facing similar conflicts, learn from their predecessors’ mistakes and victories? It is clear to Tolu that the writer does indeed have a role to play in conflict, and wretched is the one who chooses the side of evil.

Vicente’s struggles in dealing with conflict can certainly resonate with citizens whose country is fighting a distant war (or wars). Conflict out of sight is out of mind, but this is no excuse for ignoring the fact that blood is being shed in the name of state interests. Indeed, the writer, says Vicente, must bear witness to the fight, because apathy breeds ignorance and moral depravity.

The common thread running through each of these essays is that writers do have a role to play in a conflict zone. In times of strife, there are no fence sitters—a declaration, I presume, that reverberates through all societal positions. What is the role of the writer in a conflict zone? Ultimately it is for the writer to decide, just as ultimately the decision is yours as to how to (re)act when faced with the same difficulties.

I'd like to conclude this discussion with some words from the great man of letters, Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom I was reading about while this debate unfolded. Given the underlying, violent tenor of the discussion above, Emerson's thought on writing seems particularly apropos:

"The way to write is to throw your body at the mark when your arrows are spent."