My grandmother was a war bride, and I grew up soaked in stories of Nazi-occupied France. My grandfather’s occasional lapses into violent, abusive behavior were attributed to two things – the plate in his head from when he was hit by a car at age 5, and the fact that he had spent a good deal of his time in WWII assigned to hauling bodies out of concentration camps. The combination was bound to make anyone a little loopy.
Immersed in these types of stories, and growing up in the 80’s, an era of violent revolution across Africa and Central America and – closer to home – deep seated fears about the impending nuclear apocalypse, it wasn’t really surprising that I became interested in exploring what makes people turn to violence, why and how revolutions happen, and how engaging in bloody conflicts changes both people and cultures.
Like most folks, when I first started writing about violence, it was just kind of flavor or scenery more than anything. You know, you just shot/impaled somebody and then they died. Clean and neat. Move on. Next plot point.
But violence and the machinations of war are anything but clean and neat, and the more I read first person accounts of actual violence and actual warfare, the more I realized that glossing over what violence does to people and how it changes them was being… well, to put it lightly – not truthful. Pretending that there were no conflicts to creating a violent society, or dehumanizing an Other, really bothered me. People are profoundly and forever changed by violence and warfare, and the complicated mental gymnastics we all must go through in order to commit violence and send others off into it are both fascinating and terrifying.
The turning point in how I portrayed violence and war in my fiction was probably when I started reading through the Truth and Reconciliation Committee’s records in South Africa. During the Apartheid era, horrific things were done on both sides. Incredible acts of violence that you can’t even make up. As a part of the transition process between the old government and new democratic one, people who had committed crimes were asked to come forward and recount them. In return, many were granted amnesty for their crimes. The idea was to break the huge culture of silence that had grown up around these acts, and allowed closure for victims as well as for loved ones of the deceased. Many people simply disappeared during Apartheid. This was the first time victims’ families were given the opportunity to really know what happened. The recounting of all of these acts was recorded and transcribed. You can read them here.
Reading these types of stories changed how I felt about my responsibility as a writer to tell stories of violence. People may go on about all the sex and violence in my books, but pretending that sex and violence have no consequences, no reprecussions, is dishonest. Violence is messy. Hacking people up with machetes is not… fun. And the scars you bear as a victim and perpetrator of this violence go remarkably deep – far beyond what you can see on the surface.
When we elect to go to war, to send our sons and daughters to war, most of us do so without any personal experience or understanding of what that means. We don’t know what it’s like to accidently shoot a 15 year old girl in the back and listen to her and her family keening as you call for a medical team. We don’t know what it’s like to be that 15 year old girl, now paralysed by occupying American soldiers.
We don’t think about how our sons and daughters are conditioned to kill. To dehumanize. And how that dehumanization of others will translate when they get home. We don’t think about piles of broken bodies. Or mangled faces. Or people hacking up their lungs. We don’t think about our own families being brutalized. Our cities being bombed. Our stories of war are still very patriotic ones, with clear bad guys and heroes. It’s very clear-cut WWII stuff – my grandmother the blond French woman whose country is overrun by Nazis, and my grandfather the strapping American hero, storming in to flush the Nazis out. But by sticking to these narratives, we forget the complexities of the stories. We forget stuff like the irony of the fact that my grandfather’s family was German. We forget that my grandmother’s father was part of the French resistance (not all the French were passively waiting around for Americans to save them).
And, of course, the narrative of WWII has also encouraged us to think of every conflict in terms of black/white, and never think that who the hero is, and who the bad guy is, is simply a matter of historic trickery. My grandfather’s role as liberator would have easily been recast as that of American expansionist meddler should things have turned out differently. For over thirty years, the ruling government of South Africa called the African National Congress terrorists. Now the ruling party of South Africa is the African National Congress, and they have become the liberators, the freedom fighters. That is the history that is being written. The truth will always be the truth, but as somebody with a background in both history and marketing, I can tell you that spinning the truth depending on where you stand is laughably easy.
We also never think about what someone must do to be that hero – what they have to do to their enemies, how they must still live with themselves. How their families must deal with the fallout from their time there. And how their own acts of violence effect the people they come in contact with – forever. Even in a black-and-white conflict of occupiers vs. liberators, dealing with death and atrocity leaves a lifetime scar.
It is this kind of complexity that I strive to reflect in my fiction. Do I fail at it a lot? Sure. I’m just as prone to falling into these narrative traps as anybody else. But being aware of how easy it is to fall into them – how easy it is to toe the same old story about patriots and terrorists – does help me identify, interrogate, and, as necessary, flesh out the details of those people and conflicts to make something that makes people think about the complexities of what is actually going on, instead of finding comfort in an single black-and-white story.
The world is not that easy.
Our fiction shouldn’t be either.