The Monday review – write what you think when you think about Afghanistan

I’ve had this idea about writing lately that just won’t be stilled. Not wholly my idea (as if they exist) and it’s not limited to, though this review focuses on, writing.

The idea goes like this: perhaps there is something unhealthy about the state of writing today in Melbourne, in Australia, around the world.

Too often it seems our writers, our institutions, our courses and our practices are steeped in introspection, at times, to the neglect of the external world. We are transfixed by the personal, by our own experiences of what it’s like to move through and inhabit this world. Write what you know, we are told. And the only things we know are our experiences and our inner world. Alternatively, we write what no-one knows, as in genre fiction, where the world is imagined.

There seems to be an expectation that readers will be captivated by our experiences and interpretations of life in the world because we, as authors, are ‘creative and special and inspired’.

If we dare to write outside experience, the writing risks becoming artifice or functional writing; absent of mystery, this writing loses the idea that it is art.

I confess, I’m currently a student enrolled in a Melbourne creative writing course. Repeatedly in classes we are told to reflect on our life as a child, on a time we felt happy or wronged, on how we feel about death, on how we felt about death as a child. We are told to explore that feeling and work out in our writing what we’re trying to say, what the world means to us. This is where authenticity in writing comes from, we are told, from an audience seeing the ‘truth’ in the author’s experiences, and appreciating the writerly skill with which they conveyed their joy/ennui/unease.

Where is the writing about ideas? Where are those artists engaging in the enormous world around us? Where are the exercises that say, here are four articles taken from today’s paper, all about Afghanistan – because, yes, there is that much happening there right now – read them, then write? As Ted Genoways said in his oft-quoted article, ‘Young writers will have to swear off navel-gazing in favor of an outward glance onto a wrecked and lovely world worthy and in need of the attention of intelligent, sensitive writers’.

This isn’t a call for a return to works of social realism, or for writing to be devoid of experimentation in content or form. It’s about pausing to read the world around us, and then writing what we think when we think about Afghanistan. Strive for the art, but let this be the starting point.

Which is what the following artists did:

1. Van Thanh Rudd’s, ‘Good Morning Afghanistan’.

2. Tom Cho’s Look who’s morphing. One of my favourites of Cho’s stories, ‘Chinese whispers’, isn’t available online so go to your shelf and read it, or go out and purchase a copy. In the meantime, a ‘responsive’ interview with Tom Cho.

3. Any of the stories from Nam Le’s The Boat, especially the title story.

4. Kalinda Ashton’s The danger game.

5. Randa Abdel-Fattah’s Where the streets had a name.

6. And it would be remiss of me not to mention The Wire (again): Boris Kelly’s review from last week and a Believer interview with creator and writer, David Simon.

Jacinda Woodhead

Jacinda Woodhead is a former editor of Overland and current law student.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

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  1. GOD YES.

    I love this idea. It is probably relevant to mention that I am *this very minute* procrastinating from doing a required assessment for a terrorism subject at RMIT that has just referenced Afghanistan, but there is definitely merit in the suggestion we should take a break from the navel-gazing and try writing (and subsequently, reading) on what else is happening in the big wide world.

    Also, this gives me a chance to include this, Tupac’s ‘Changes’ in Kazakhstan:

    I’m sure there’s some kind of intersection there between Western culture and taking a peek over the back fence for inspiration. Or something.

  2. Jacinda, you’re saying stuff that heaps of emerging/new/struggling/early/what-the-hell-am-I-doing writers will relate to. I’m also doing a creative writing course and while I’m learning a lot I feel confused. Introspection is the go (why should I be surprised when capitalism values the individual over the collective), and so too is writing something that has the potential to be commercially successful. Unless, you write brilliantly about some place on the map like Afghanistan – where the abuse of human rights justifies evermore abuses of human rights – that a tiny percentage of us really give a damn or even know about, an emerging writer is never going to interest anyone let alone a publisher. So why, even though you see the value of it, spend those hundreds, maybe thousands of hours, writing something that no-one will ever publish, or if published, read.

    And so here I go trying to write about an issue that I think is enormously important but framing it in a genre that’s popular. Anyone who knows anything about audience would tell me it’s never going to work.

    But a wrecked and lovely world – art as the starting point – yeah, that’s what should be inspiring us.

  3. I’m afraid I have to disagree with you Trish. I think it’s way too easy for us to say ‘I care about this stuff, but no-one would publish it, so why bother?’

    My opinion is that most writers are not writing his kind of stuff, and therefore most publishers don’t get an opportunity to consider it.

    One of the first poems I published (which also won an award) was called ‘Sewn Shut’. It was about female circumcision.

  4. Yes, perhaps many emerging writers are not taking risks with first novels/short stories, writing only to get published which is not only venal but probably the surest way not to get published. However, in writing courses we’re told not to take risks – risk-taking is for experienced writers.

    I just want to add though, that I was not wanting to imply ‘why bother’, quite the opposite.

    Where can I find ‘Sewn Shut’ – I would like very much to read it.

  5. Yes yes yes! Brilliant thoughts Jacinda. ‘Where is the writing about ideas? Where are those artists engaging in the enormous world around us?’

    As an editor, the most exhilarating work I ever did was on ‘Dead Europe’ – I can still remember the unique thrill of discovering I was working on a novel of ideas. They are rare and exciting creatures.

    And as a writer one of the most challenging, vertigo inducing and exciting things I ever did was write a 1001 word piece for Barbara Campbell’s ‘1001 nights cast’, an online performance work ( Every morning for 1001 nights Campbell posted words from an article on the Middle East written that day and a writer had to engage with those lines to write a 1001 word story in time for Campbell to perform at sunset.

    So similar to what you’re suggesting with your four articles on Afghanistan. The writers didn’t have to engage directly with the Middle East or war, but find some imaginative way into it. Was a brilliant exercise. And effectively we did exactly what you’re suggesting and express so beautifully: we paused to read the world around us, and then wrote what we thought when we thought about that particular Middle East story or the words Campbell had selected from it, striving for the art but with that as the starting point. I think you’re onto something.

  6. I think you’re onto something as well Jacinda.

    Trish – that’s awful, being taught not to take risks. In my C/Writing degree we wrote Dadaist manifestoes and collaborated on surrealist prose for some assessment tasks.

    I didn’t mean to imply that you yourself are of the ‘why bother?’ school – it’s more that I ponder how many swear off social/human interest or political writing because they are genuinely disillusioned about the prospect of getting published as opposed to those not wanting to admit they’re just not interested.

    There’s a re-post of Sewn Shut over at my poetry blog: (though it was written and first published/performed in 2006)

  7. I am studying the same course as Trish are we are taught a very mainstream approach to writing novels and that risks should be taken when you are more experienced. I don’t agree with this at all.

    I agree with you Jacinda on some level, but I do believe that the best art stems from some truth which the artist has lived; a truth that has shaken their foundations and challenged their beliefs. That’s not to say that other themes and issues of which the artist has not lived cannot be integrated into a piece of art. For example I bring a lot of American/English/Cypriot politics into my novel because I have an interest in it. That’s the beauty of fiction, you can start with reality and end up somewhere completely unexpected.

  8. I wonder if it depends on the institution. I’m doing my creative writing postgrad through Monash, and while the very first exercises in the very first class in the undergrad subjects were of the “think of a childhood memory” variety, they pushed past that pretty quickly. We were (and are) encouraged to take risks, to challenge ourselves, to write about what is new and different, because *that* is what catches people’s eye. Writing about what you *want* to know. The “learn the rules before you break them” mantra applied more to technique and to the technical elements of constructing fiction rather than the subject matter. We tried to make it clear that while the intimate and the particular are what allows a reader to relate to the text, the best fiction usually makes some point on some level about the wider world.

    I think a lot of new writers / emerging writers are afraid of taking risks – with content, not so much with form perhaps? – not out of fear of not being published, but because they’re worried they don’t know enough about whatever their topic is to be able to write with that “truth” quality.

  9. I have to be fair and say that it is most usually in technique we are told not to take risks not so much content. Nevertheless we are not encouraged to look at the bigger issues such as Afghanistan or climate change or asylum seekers as Jacinda suggested – yet it seems so obvious that as writers we should be thinking and writing about events that affect the lives of so many.

    There’s also the fee-paying mentality we see in universities now (I hope not so much in creative writing courses), that we’re paying for a service and expect teachers to deliver. Certainly, in our course none of us object when teachers tell us they’re there to get us published.

    Something I’ve grappled with though, is do I write something profound that 10 people will read like a thesis or do I write about an important issue but frame it in a way that is entertaining so that it reaches beyond the already converted.

  10. Yes, agree with Trish, it’s not the content, but we are encouraged to write from life and mix it up with fiction to create believable characters etc. What I’m saying is you can do both and I do think writers need to be aware of world issues and bring relevant issues into their writing and address them. I prefer novels where I am challenged by the content and learn something new. So what I’m saying is a mix of both creates a believable world.

  11. Thanks for all the generous responses.

    Trish, an aversion to risk-taking has also been my experience in my course, and not just in form – most noticeably in content. Writers are encouraged to write about what they have some form of ‘ownership’ over, and nothing outside those borders, unless it’s non-fiction, and even then, we’re limited.

    Our ideas and assumptions are rarely challenged or set fire to (and not just in writing courses).

    I don’t think this is a matter of what publishers will or won’t publish (look at Jane’s experience with Dead Europe), and whether the audience already exists. I think it’s about reflecting a complex (and wrecked and lovely) world in it’s many guises.

    We all live in this world, and we have ideas about that and ways of reading these ‘lived experiences’. But everything we’re now expressing in writing has been expressed before, so why say it again? Why say it now? Why write?

    If we’re not thinking about this every time we put pen to paper, what are we doing?

    (Jane, the 1001 project is awesome. I’ve started working my way through the archive.)

  12. Yes, again I agree with what you say Jacinda – and love the way you put it: ‘Our ideas and assumptions are rarely challenged or set fire to’ etc. I’d say that’s pretty much the essence of our task as writers.

    And Koraly, I agree totally that ‘the best art stems from some truth which the artist has lived; a truth that has shaken their foundations and challenged their belief’, but it doesn’t always have to be one you’ve directly experienced, as I think you imply. You can take your own experience and use it to relate to different people in different situations. Like Tolsoy writing about Napoleon. And Christos in ‘Dead Europe’, using his family stories to address the myths, symbols, politics, economics of Judeo-Christian Europe and its contemporary manifestations in Euro trash, 21C capitalism, the Balkan wars, the migrant experience, etc. That’s mind firing. And if you write with enough engagement, enough fire, enough skill about ideas, it seems readers do to it. ‘The Slap’ is an excellent example.

    The 1001 nights project was/is totally amazing. The word prompt for my first piece was taken from an article about sealing off the West Bank from the Gaza strip to prevent contact between them. To write my piece for Campbell I had to find a point of entry to that story, an emotional connection, something that resonated with me – and I found it in the closing lines, about the gunning down of a 13-year-old boy, which brought the death toll for that Thursday to at least 16. Collateral damage. The moment I read that, I was away. It’s something we can all connect to and those connections lie at the heart of all art, all writing, all reading. Which is why Hollywood can keep rehashing Homer in films like ‘Troy’ and David Malouf can take a fragment from the Iliad and retell it in the 21st century and still move his readers.

  13. Speaking about writing on Afghanistan, here’s Jacinda doing just that in today’s edition of New Matilda. The piece begins:

    Imagine that you woke this morning to discover a rocket had blown up 27 Victorian children as they travelled to school by bus. These were, of course, 27 children with parents and siblings who loved them, parents and siblings who will now grieve, with the kind of grief that can’t be escaped; the kind of grief that prevents eating, thinking, living.

    Imagine that the public statement made about the rocket attack was almost a pro forma. “I have made it clear to our forces,” the relevant military officer said, “that we are here to protect the Victorian people, and inadvertently killing or injuring civilians undermines their trust and confidence in our mission.”

    Imagine that, a few days later, you learned that another eight children, ranging in age from 11 to 17, had been taken overnight from the school in which they were sleeping at in rural Victoria, handcuffed and then executed by foreign soldiers.

    Imagine that the teacher present had tried to explain that the children were just children. But the soldiers didn’t speak English. Later, the teacher will explain, “First the foreign troops entered the guest room and shot two of them. Then they entered another room and handcuffed the eight students. Then they killed them.”

    Imagine all of this, and you have a glimpse of life in Afghanistan in 2010.

    Read more here

  14. Thanks for that Jeff. (The hyperlink doesn’t work for me but I’ll check it out on New Matilda website.)

    Brilliant Jacinda. That’s exactly the sort of thing I was trying to talk about in my last garbled and almost nonsensical post. (I meant that the ART doesn’t always have to be about something you’ve directly experienced. You can apply truths you’ve lived and imagine them into different lives, different locales, find the connections.)

  15. Jacinda, that was an excellent post and a very moving article. Maxine, a beautiful poem; thank you for providing the link to it.

    The human experience is universal. If a writer is writing from a position of empathy, there will be nothing lost in translation about the humanness of experience, no matter where he is writing from. If the writer manages to write this empathy with artistry, then magic is created.

    Creative writing courses are taught by one person with one vision. The writing is then workshopped into submission, where the majority tries to steer a writer to a more neutral position more acceptable to the class and the individual prejudices in that class – and where most of the individuals are middle-class and white, you can expect these prejudices to be commonly held with a resulting pressure on the writing to conform.

    The product from such workshopping may be creative writing but it’s not art. The individual vision and urgency – the most important things a writer has – has been quashed. A writer should push back and not so easily conform to peer group pressure.

    Similarly, wherever there is unrestrained navel gazing, there is a deadening in the story, and readers won’t put up with it – which could explain the struggles of literary fiction and poetry in the anglo world. Much writing of energy is coming out of South America and Eastern Europe where writers have something to say, and sense the urgency to say it.

  16. Great post and lively discussion. You’ve hit a nerve here Jacinda. For an incendiary view on merits or otherwise of creative writing course see Lisa Pryor’s recent opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herlald

    I find the most compelling writing to be that in which a distinctive voice invites me to see the world anew. In a way, the subject matter is less important than the power of the voice in cleansing my eyes. Mining one’s life experience is a given for most writers of fiction and a reading of The Paris Review interviews will confirm this. However, this is not the same as solipsistic introspection of the type described in previous posts. One’s psychological musings are of value only to the extent that they can illuminate the world we live in.

    Jane, I was also a regular contributor to Barbara Campbell’s 1001 project and I found it immensely challenging and often confronting. Not just because of the technical contraints of time and form it imposed but because of the rawness of the response to the world it compelled me to give. The immediacy elicited so many often conflicting emotional, political and creative options. I’m not sure the writing was always good but it was utterly engaged with the urgency of life during a time of war.

  17. Interesting Boris that you also wrote for 1001 nights cast. Yes, I agree it was challenging – and you put it well, ‘not sure the writing was always good but it was utterly engaged’. I felt the same about mine.

    Jacinda, if you’re interested in more on 1001 nights cast, I wrote a piece for Meanjin about the evolution of the project:

    And yes, I agree too Boris that ‘mining one’s life experience is a given for most writers of fiction’ – I just think our gaze shouldn’t be guided inwards or kept on the literal details of our own life and experience, if that’s what some creative writing teachers are encouraging. For example, War and Peace came from Tolstoy’s experience fighting in the Crimean War but was about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia forty years earlier, before he was born.

  18. On Afghanistan, the cynicism of the professional pundits knows no bounds. Here’s Clive Williams in Drum.

    Australia’s stated reason for being in Afghanistan is countering terrorism. The real reason is maintaining the close alliance with the US. In fact, our military presence in Afghanistan is more likely to lead to acts of terrorism in Australia than prevent them.
    Given our real reason for being there, we are more likely to score points with the US if we accept a prominent role, rather than hiding behind someone else’s possibly less competent leadership. In fact, leadership by another nation in Oruzgan could, ironically, lead to more Australian casualties. Furthermore, any reluctance on our part to take on more dangerous tasks under new leadership could contribute to our shrinking violet image.

    Translation: the public have been completely deceived about the reasons for war, which is in fact making them less rather than more safe. But that doesn’t matter in the slightest. Indeed, we should engage in more violence as part of a cynical campaign of realpolitik.

  19. I was struck a couple of years ago when I heard a young Afghanistani woman politian, Malalai Joya, speak about the struggle in Afghanistan being only prolonged and complicated by the current occupation from the west. She was most concerned about the corrupt and no-so-wonderful alternative to the Taliban, the Northern Alliance, which from my inadequate knowledge, I think are the only viable alternative to the Taliban.

    I remember clearly the sentiment of her message was that Afghanis need to be left alone to work their governance out for themselves. I was struck by her certainty, her bravery, and her grace. It’s worth following up what she’s got to say. As for hyper links, which I gladly would have put in, not only do I have trouble getting them to work, I don’t even know how to make them possible. Google – is it possible it’s becoming old technology?

  20. I like the words of Ilya Kaminsky, who set up a poetry reading organisation (Poets for Peace) in the US in 1997 to raise funds for refugees from the Balkan wars (and now for various international relief organisations), when he says (in the current issue of the US Poets and Writers magazine at that although writing “is a very private, magical process,” and as a writer, he writes what he wants and values that freedom, he doesn’t believe the work of a writer should be done in a vacuum. He says: “Whatever poetic aspirations or interests one may have, one first of all is a human being, and that carries a responsibility to other human beings.”

    The work of this group of poets is inspiring. Most participants in the readings can easily say they have no direct connection with war, poverty and famine, but can see that as humans, they are connected to this kind of suffering and therefore should try to do something, to use their voices to speak up for those who cannot speak or be heard.

    PS: On the occasional (?) solipsism of creative writing courses, I recently found it very interesting to see that one is unable to enrol in a straight ‘English literature’ degree these days at a number of tertiary institutions in SA, but is forced into the ‘creative writing’ stream in order to be able to study the writing of others.

    The other question which arises is how daring and representative can literary journals be when they are often sourcing their contributions from creative writing students enrolled in the universities from which the journals derive their funding? And how incestuous is all of this? I wonder what kind of chance does a real outsider have to get published in a journal these days. These (increasingly) self-serving arrangements must be a significant factor in the general lack of readership penetration from which many of these journals unfortunately suffer.

  21. Thanks for this post – found it prodded me enough to try and write something on the wider world, which I usually feel hideously unqualified to approach!

  22. Jacinda, I was so moved by your piece in New Matilda in which you took a human tragedy happening in a place that seems and is a world away, making its sorrow and tragedy more real by a simple re-arranging of geography.

    You also made me think of something that moved me equally a couple of years ago by Andrew O’Hagan who delivered this wonderful address at the Sydney Writer’s Festival about fiction being the news that stays news If you would prefer to hear the audio and O’Hagan’s wonderful Scottish accent

  23. Write whatever you want to write. Just write. Don’t listen to restrictions. Write what you know or what you don’t know or both. Write something that somebody else knows. Write something that somebody else doesn’t know. Don’t follow fashions, trends, modicums of apparently sensible teachings, maxims, aphorisms. Don’t worry about publishers, editors, perceived mediocre “mid-tone” audiences, politicians, society, academics, reviewers… Simple. Just write. Or do worry about it and intellectualize it and never write a word.

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