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WORD VIEW: What they’re writing on

Esther Phillips

WORD VIEW: What they’re writing on

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There is the view that it is the work of the artist that best interprets the authentic life of any society.
Historians, social scientists and the like provide information based on statistical, empirical or other kinds of “scientific” evidence. It is the creative imagination, however, that is perhaps best able to transcend so called facts, thereby affording us the opportunity to embrace a deeper reality.
It is often the pen of the writer that is able to pierce through the surface of things, to cut to the heart of human experience and push the reader past all previously known boundaries.
For the past weeks I’ve been engaged in an exercise that required me to read a good number of books from across the Commonwealth – a formidable exercise in more ways than one.
How true it appears to be that conflict and trauma produce the climate most conducive to memorable artistic expression. It is in such troubled times that the senses are most acute, thoughts and ideas bombard the mind, and imagination may well become the sole house of refuge. The only catharsis is to write, even if to recall the experiences of others.
For obvious reasons I will mention neither the titles of the novels nor the writers’ names. But once again the tragedy of Rwanda came alive; not by means of a news broadcast outlining the facts, but through the eyes of a young Tutsi boy who is a naturally gifted athlete and dreams of becoming his country’s first Olympic medal winner in track. What threatens this dream, however, and eventually destroys it is the horrific violence between the Tutsis and Hutus.
It is the writer’s skill in presenting us with stark contrasts that is particularly memorable: the beauty of the Rwandan landscape and the horror of the bloodshed that stains large tracts of the land; the warmth of family life and the innocence of young children as opposed to the cruelty of machete-wielding men in the night who slaughter without compunction; who choose to forget in their blind madness that those whom they destroy were once their friends, neighbours and even relatives.
The scenes of cruelty are graphic and haunting and become even more so because we see them through the eyes of characters whom the writer draws with such tender empathy.
Not surprisingly, the novel of a Sri Lankan writer revolves around the conflict between the Tamil and the Sinhalese. The writer’s style is lyrical and her poetic imagery powerful. But this only intensifies the dark tragedies that permeate the novel. Particularly striking is the female character who is brutally raped and then joins the rebel soldiers as a means of revenge. This character is a study in the way a personality may become twisted by violence and hatred. She becomes a killing machine to the point where she relishes the feel of a machete slicing through a young child’s flesh. This character, once an innocent young girl, eventually becomes a suicide bomber.  
Political, religious and social conflict is the dark thread running through much of the work: the Muslims and Christians in northern Nigeria, the captured child soldiers in the Republic of the Congo, the Chinese and Vietnamese in Saigon. We are reminded, in heart-wrenching detail, of the exploitation of the Aboriginal people in southern Australia and the sex trade engineered in Nigeria by powerful and ruthless individuals.
No matter the horror, however, many of the books testify to the resilience of the human spirit under the worst atrocities.   
I couldn’t help but muse on the reason for there being only one entry shortlisted from the Caribbean: a rich and well executed evocation of life in a Jamaican slum. Not all the 21 books shortlisted have to do with the horrific conflicts described above. But all the writing is engaged with the inevitable tensions and complexities of human existence presented in ways that are unique and unforgettable.
Of course, I reflect on Barbados where there are at present no ongoing tribal or other wars. Poverty, though reportedly on the rise, is still not stark, we are comparatively politically stable and women are not denied education and other opportunities because of gender. Life is relatively peaceful.
But I’m also aware of growing tensions, dissatisfaction and suppressed anger seething in the society. It should be interesting to read about the events that would trigger a shortlisted Barbadian novel in time to come.
• Esther Phillips is an educator, poet and editor of BIM: Arts For The 21st Century.