The Long War Forever: Jesse Goolsby’s I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them

Posted April 23, 2015 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: ,

JG I'd WalkI’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them, Jesse Goolsby’s soon-to-be-released novel about three US Army male soldiers bound by shared horrific experience in Afghanistan, offers plenty of reasons to be excited about the expanding possibilities of contemporary war fiction. Both in subject matter and manner of narration, it does things no Iraq or Afghanistan war novel has yet done, which makes it fresh and delightful–though also harrowing–while its determination to tell a different story in a different way serves as a subtle critique of war fiction heretofore published. I’d Walk With My Friends’ greatest achievement is the rich imagining of its protagonists’ lives before they joined the military and long—generations long—after they returned from Afghanistan. Chapters set in Afghanistan ring true in terms of details and emotional exactitude, but Goolsby’s bigger point is that war experience exists in a continuum of life events that precede any soldier’s deployment and play-out directly and indirectly in the days, weeks, years, and decades following, with war’s insidious ruination affecting not just the returning veteran but his or her family and friends, too, incrementally mostly but often cataclysmically. It is this capacious ability to envision the “human cost of war” that distinguishes I’d Walk With My Friends from other war novels, whose tighter focus in comparison seems more a failure of imagination than a literary virtue.

Goolsby’s an active-duty Air Force officer, and I often wondered what the many Air Force personnel I met in Afghanistan thought about the Army folks who by-and-large did most of the fighting. I’d Walk With My Friends suggests that Goolsby,  though not an Afghanistan veteran, has indeed been given to speculation about the men and women who volunteered to serve on the ground in the nation’s recent wars. A tour working in a DoD office charged with managing the military’s human resource programs seems to have made him especially sympathetic towards soldiers whose time overseas, let us say, did not go so well and left him curious about the long-term consequences. The novel’s protagonists are enlisted US Army soldiers who bring their distinctive regional backgrounds, personalities, and family histories to the shared experience of the warzone. Wintric Ellis is a chill rural California kid, a small-town hot shot who dreams of escape and grandeur. Armando Torres hails from an assimilated Colorado Hispanic family presided over by a charismatic con-man of a father whom Armando worships. Big Dax is a 6’6” New Jersey-ite, physically imposing and impressive at first glance, but actually timidly deferential to anyone more self-assured than he is and given to impulsive fits of bravado to try to prove himself. In Afghanistan, the three squad-mates endure a vexing humanitarian mission, survive a suicide bomber attack in Kabul, and together are complicit in the death of an Afghan girl who approaches them on checkpoint duty in the middle of nowhere. One of them is also victimized–let’s not be coy, the incident is a man-on-man rape–on-base in a way that is far more consequential than anything that happens outside the wire—a scenario that suggests the horrible possibility that it is American military culture itself, rather than war, that wreaks the most damage on its members.

But a mark of Goolsby’s skill is that he refuses to blame military service or war single-mindedly on the troubles that befall Wintric, Torres, and Big Dax. They are catalysts, certainly, but it’s more than that. The men’s personalities, as made clear in the scenes depicting life before service, shape—indeed, almost bring them inevitably to—the events they encounter in Afghanistan, as if the nostrum “fate is character” were all too true, and their personalities are also complicit in their unraveling afterwards. Goolsby excels at portraying the complex relationship between character and circumstance. Debilitated by inadequate personal resources, Wintric’s, Torres’, and Big Dax’s inability to deal with their Afghanistan experience is exacerbated by their crumb-bum high school educations and the impoverishment of the junk-food-and-pop-culture American milieu, both feeble preparations for life’s storms. And yet we feel for I’d Walk With My Friends’ tragic heroes, as quotidian as their downward spirals are, much as we do for the befuddled, overmatched heroes of Thomas Hardy novels such as Jude the Obscure and The Mayor of Casterbridge. We can’t hate them, because we recognize ourselves in them, and because Goolsby makes us love them by making their dissolution so vivid.

The vitality stems from Goolsby’s ingenious ability to devise scenes that portray characters in the full clutches of their unique defects and also from the manner of the novel’s narration. I’d Walk With My Friends is related entirely in present tense, which renders a real-time, documentary feel to the episodic events the characters endure. The protagonists’ sagas are not related in first-person, but the third-person descriptions are heavily focalized through the eyes of the main characters, so that descriptions of physical environment are limited to what Wintric, Torres, and Big Dax would actually be observing. There is almost no effort to render interior thinking, so the characters’ thoughts must be dramatized through spoken speech, though Goolsby’s ability to portray realistic and entertaining conversation is, again, excellent. What Goolsby doesn’t offer at all, though, is authorial commentary on the events he portrays, so readers are left to their own wits to make sense of the characters and events described. Nor does Goolsby employ much figurative language; if there is a metaphor or simile in the book that is not offered by one of the characters, I missed it.

So what to make of the lean-and-mean stylistic texture of the book? The parts that Goolsby leaves out by design are the parts his characters repress to their detriment. United by their horrible war experience, Wintric, Torres, and Big Dax lack the power of comprehension and articulation to resolve its complications. Instead, they lie, misrepresent, and refuse to confront what needs confronting most. Life metastasized by war for them is best lived by reducing things to simplicities, trivialities, escapes, half-measures, and evasions, which is basically what they did before before war, too. But now, following war, the consequences–self-destruction unto death and familial wreckage into perpetuity–are far more dire. The beauty of I’d Walk With My Friends lies in the fine-grained particularity with which Goolsby imagines how it is so.

Jesse Goolsby, I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015.

Minnesota Turn-and-Burn: War Writing at AWP15

Posted April 18, 2015 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: ,

A “turn-and-burn” military convoy travels from one base to another, executes its business quickly, and then immediately returns home; the mission doesn’t allow for socializing or enjoying the destination post’s amenities. In Afghanistan, turn-and-burns were bummers, because, after risking our lives on the roads to ambushes and IEDs, we felt like we deserved to relax a bit before doing so again. My trip to the 2015 Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference, or AWP15, held last weekend in Minneapolis, was a bit of a turn-and-burn for me, unfortunately, for I arrived Friday morning and by mid-Saturday afternoon I was already heading back to the airport. I packed in a lot in my 30 hours in Minnesota, but I also missed a few panels and chances for fun before my arrival and after my departure.

Minnesota, first time ever to the home of so many of my musical heroes! Dylan, Prince, the Replacements, Husker Dü, and even now the great Hold Steady, and where T.S. Eliot once spoke to 17,000 people in a hockey arena….

Walking to AWP Saturday morning across the Mississippi River to downtown Minneapolis Convention Center

Walking to AWP across the Mississippi River to downtown Minneapolis on Saturday morning

Musical and poetical rhapsodies aside, I wasn’t the only war writer who arrived in town possessed by a sense of purpose. For some, the urgency was born of dissatisfaction with the way war writing was represented at last year’s AWP14 in Seattle (though hopefully not with my panel there). Flashes of War author Katey Schultz, for example, explained that she left AWP14 feeling that civilian voices on war had been neglected. Siobhan Fallon wrote that she was glad to see so many women featured on war lit panels. Taking matters in his own hands, Benjamin Busch recruited an all-star line-up of war authors—Schultz, Fallon, Brian Turner, and Phil Klay—for a panel titled “Telling Our New War Stories: Witness and Imagination across Literary Genres.” Determined not to waste a second, Busch dispensed with author readings and and allowed for only a truncated audience Q&A. Instead, Busch himself interviewed the panelists, asking damn good questions about war-writing craft and politics that elicited thoughtful, thorough responses. For my part, knowing that I wouldn’t be on the ground long, I invited every war writer and scene-supporter I knew to dinner Friday night. It was a somewhat desperate ploy for company, but one that saved me from my usual conference fate—eating alone at McDonalds–so thank you everyone who came.

Name all the war writers and scene supporters in this picture and win a free prize!

War writers, friends, and scene supporters at AWP15

My speaking role at AWP15 was moderating a panel titled “Who Can’t Handle the Truth? Memoirs by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans,” featuring Ron Capps, Kayla Williams, and Colin Halloran. I contributed ten minutes of editorial overview, all which proved totally superfluous given the power of the readings and commentary that followed. Capps, Williams, and Halloran are each fully at home behind the podium, and any one of them could have commanded the audience’s attention for an hour. Their readings recounted harrowing moments during deployment and afterwards; war, military service, and life afterwards have not been easy for Capps, Williams, and Halloran, and their memoirs unflinchingly portray events that made it so and the pain and turmoil that ensued. As I listened, the sense that I got from their books that they had been pretty damn good (conscientious, competent, and energetic) soldiers in uniform was reinforced, and I wondered about the difference between the squared-away soldierly performances and the unraveling of the personal lives—as if a mil-civ divide within had chewed them up and made their lives a tumult. Capps, Williams, and Halloran used the “T-word”—trauma—directly, but sparingly, as if mindful that the word has become an 800-pound IED in rooms where veterans and veterans writing are discussed. Speaking of PTSD, for example, Capps said, “You can control it, but you can’t hope to cure it.” Their readings made clear, however, that their service had been traumatic and that writing about it played a therapeutic, or at least an important part, in their restoration to healthy and productive happiness. The mesmerized audience had plenty of questions, so I didn’t ask the one I prepared:

“18th-century English author Samuel Johnson wrote that ‘no one ever regrets serving as a soldier or sailor.’ In your mind is that statement wisdom or foolishness, either generally or personally? To the extent that you might regret serving, was it war or military culture that did the most damage? To the extent that you do not, what got you through the hardest part—writing, medication, therapy, love, friends, time, or something else?”

Ron Capps, Kayla Williams, Colin Halloran, me.

Ron Capps, Kayla Williams, Colin Halloran, me.

Another panel, titled “Writing as Therapy for War: Developing Stories and Poems with Witnesses and Soldiers,” unabashedly promoted the use of writing as rehabilitative for individuals brutalized by war, as a means of documenting injustice, and as a means of expressing outrage to powers-that-be. Poet, playwright, and essayist Maurice Decaul, head of a New York University veterans writer collective, said that for the collective’s members “writing was not meant to be therapeutic, but it often was.” The new director of Military Experience and the Arts website, David Ervin, an Iraq veteran, spoke openly about how his road to recovery from being “pretty messed up” owed much to writing. Olivia Cerrone, part of the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, described how writing gave voice to Afghan women repressed by their own culture and damaged by war, while Elena Bell said much the same on behalf of Palestinian women in Israel.

Ben Busch’s questions for his all-killer, no-filler line-up of authors focused on large issues of political implication and writerly issues of craft. Brian Turner spoke of “complicity”—his effort to imbricate civilian reading audiences in the circle of responsibility for the damage done by war. Siobhan Fallon explained that part of her motivation in writing You Know When the Men Are Gone was her sense that the American public knew little about the war experience that soldiers and their families were enduring. Phil Klay said that he began to write after returning from Iraq and asking himself, “What the hell was that all about?” Katey Schultz reported that she began to write about war when she noticed how language had begun to grow distorted and then change in the years after 9/11. “A story begins with an unanswered question, and I had a lot,” she said. Turning to issues of craft, she said, “It took me a year to get the uniforms and equipment right and another year to figure out who called who ‘sir’ and then six more months to make the characters come alive.” On a roll, Schultz explained that there are many ways to write authentically about war besides personal witness and first-hand experience. Empathy and research are great teachers, too, she said, and spoke of how Google and YouTube aided her while writing Flashes of War. All the panelists had great anecdotes about the importance of research in bringing not just realistic detail but life to their stories. Turner spoke of reading late at night about a butterfly unique to Bougainville that then became a detail in a passage in My Life as a Foreign Country about his grandfather who fought there. Fallon described asking her husband to send her examples of soldier port-a-john graffiti, which he did, but that she eventually had to make up her own to create the perfect effect in a story. Klay described trying to attain a “thick knowledge” (anthropologist Clifford Geertz reference!) that allowed him to be comfortable “making things up and knowing it’s not bullshit.” Exactly what model of PVS-4 Night Vision Goggles did the Marines use in 2004 anyway? It matters, said Klay, along with a lot of other things that matter. But each knew the limits of journalistic-like quest for verisimilitude, too. Busch quoted Ron Capps to the effect that, “We can all get the facts. It’s what you do with them afterwards.”

On the subject of trauma, though, the authors’ remarks minimized the references that were everywhere in the “Writing as Therapy for War” panel, and they turned to the topic directly only as the panel came to a close. Klay, for example, asserted that war writers should be on guard to avoid “flattening the story into trauma,” an idea echoed by Busch, who asked if we might be encouraging veterans to repeatedly tell a certain kind of story when they speak or write of war. Writing, or life, the sentiment seemed to be, need not be defined by all-abiding concern with suffering focalized through the experience of individual soldiers or non-combatants. I’m sure the panelists are sympathetic to the “Writing as Therapy for War” panelists’ goals–they would probably say they are working for the same thing–and it’s also obvious that the characters in their own stories, poems, and memoirs have been severely rattled by war. But rather than relying on trauma tropes, the authors expressed interest in thinking expansively about what war writing can do and be; even in time of war military service is not only about pain and outrage–and if it is, the subjects can be approached from a variety of directions and perspectives. “Widen the palette,” Turner urged war writers, “use more of the imagination.”

Brian Turner, Katey Schultz, Siohban Fallon, Benjamin Busch, Phil Klay

Brian Turner, Katey Schultz, Siohban Fallon, Benjamin Busch, Phil Klay

So, turning and burning, war writing unfolds upon itself, revealing new problems and possibilities, proceeding in different registers, with varying points-of-view, goals, and subjects of emphasis. A view of things clear-cut to one or many may be problematic or uninteresting to others. Interestingly, the non-war lit panels I attended wrestled with many of the same issues pestering the war writing community. Judging by the titles alone makes the case: “Blood Will Out: Putting Violence on the Page.” “The Politics of Empathy: Writing Through Borrowed Eyes.” “Writing Atrocity: The Novel and Memoir of Political Witness.” How sensationally or how subtly should an author describe graphic violence? What are the problems associated with white men and women portraying dark-skinned characters? Has a war novel other than Sand Queen portrayed the indiscriminate killing, torture, drone strikes, soldier misconduct, and general officer maleficence that are unfortunately-but-undeniably now part of the American way-of-war? I didn’t know the authors on these panels, but was surprised at many turns about the relevance of their comments to war writing, and I’ll be seeding upcoming posts with their ideas.

A blog post about AWP15 war lit panels by Christopher Meeks is here.

A blog post about AWP15 by Andria Williams of the Military Spouse Book Review is here.

A blog post about AWP15, racism, and violence by Vanessa Martir is here.

Thank you to my fellow panelists Ron Capps, Kayla Williams, and Colin Halloran.  I’m humbled by your eloquence and bravery and honored by your friendship.

***

Introductory Remarks, “Who Can’t Handle the Truth: Memoirs by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans”

The American Civil War, in my understanding of things, was the first war to generate a subsequent “battle of the memoirs” in which Union and Confederate generals entertained readers with first-hand accounts of battlefield exploits and decisions, while also serving as correctives to other accounts, all the while cajoling for their places in history.

After subsequent wars, such as World War I, World War II, and Vietnam, memoirs written by generals and statesmen were also common, but they were joined and even supplanted in public interest by accounts written by veterans far farther down the chain-of-command than the vaunted army commanders of the North and South. We value the private soldier’s memoir, we seem to feel, because we think his, and now hers, recollections speak most truthfully to what it means to serve in combat and within a military culture that seems so increasingly foreign to civilian and peacetime life.

We honor these personal testimonies because we see in them an honesty and authenticity about war that we are not likely to get from journalism and history. We enjoy these sagas because we respect the impulse to document war and suspect that memoir writers use the power of memory and language not just to tell us about places and events that are thrilling and exotic, but to remind us that war is a brutal experience—one that requires careful retrospective handling by its participants to assess the exact nature of its horror and aid the memoir writer’s transition to effective, contributing member of the society that sent him or her off to war.

Perhaps the most striking memoir of the kind I have in mind was J. Glenn Gray’s The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle. First published in 1959, 14 years after Gray returned from four years of combat in Europe to become a professor of philosophy, The Warriors contains many insightful formulations about what a memoir written by a veteran might be and do. Glenn writes from his position as a university teacher in 1959: “Now it is almost as though [the war] never took place.” But he immediately reverses that sentiment, in the next line stating, “Yet something is wrong, dreadfully wrong.” Tempted by the impulse to forget, he fights back, for he knows that forgetting is not just a cop-out, but ultimately impossible. “What protrudes and does not fit in our pasts rises to haunt us and makes us spiritually unwell in the present,” he writes, and commits himself to the act of remembering. Noting that “war compresses the greatest opposites into the smallest space and the shortest time,” he feels a personal and social obligation to not to “continue to forget.” Gray writes, “The deepest fear of my war years, one still with me, is that these happenings had no real purpose.” If the effort to remember through writing did not have “some positive significance for my future life,” Gray concludes, “it could not possibly be worth the pain it cost” [to either live through the experience or write about it afterwards].

Today, we have a chance to take stock of the Iraq and Afghanistan war memoir by listening to three notable authors of the genre. Each of our readers has explored not just what it means to go to war, and be in war, but to return from war and live healthily and happily afterwards. The journey for each has not been easy, and I salute them for the toughness they displayed in confronting challenging episodes in their lives and then the candor, insight, and sense of perspective revealed in their writing. I know from my own experience writing about war and its aftermath that such tasks are not easy—it means being honest with oneself and taking risk in revealing the full dimensions of one’s struggles with reading audiences. I’m honored to be the host and moderator for this panel and eager to hear what they intend to share with us.

Our first reader is Ron Capps, a retired Army and State Department veteran who currently is director of the Veterans Writing Project, a Washington, DC-based organization with national reach that promotes veteran writing through workshops and its publication 0-Dark-Thirty.  The wars of the 21st century were fought by members of the millennial generation, a group of young men and women notorious for their disrespect or obliviousness to age and precedence. But Ron Capps has been at the military and war fighting business for a long time, and his memoir Seriously Not All Right (2014) documents not just his experience as an officer-in-uniform in Iraq and Afghanistan, but a longer pre-history as a State Department official on-the-ground for extensive periods in Kosovo and Africa. It is this larger, broader, longer view that I think distinguishes Capp’s perspective.

Our second panelist, Kayla Williams, has written two memoirs about her service in Iraq and afterwards. Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the US Army (2006) came very early in the game and immediately staked out a position as an insightful, almost definitive articulation of what it means to be a woman in uniform, in the 21st century, during not just war but a period of intense reformulation of our ideas not just about women-in-uniform but gender and sexuality in our society at large. To my mind, no one more than Kayla has spoken as frankly about these issues as they pertain to the military that took men and women for the first time in significant numbers together overseas to fight and when not fighting co-exist together. Kayla has also published a second memoir, Plenty of Time When We Get Home: Love and Recovery in the Aftermath of War (2014) that is equally candid and insightful about the rocky road of marriage she and her husband Brian, who was seriously injured in war, have traveled together since first meeting on a remote hilltop in Iraq.

While Ron Capps represents age on our panel and Kayla Williams signifies what is strikingly new about contemporary war and war authorship, our third panelist, Colin D. Halloran, embodies a much more traditional authorial position—that of a young, literary, middle-class male—Colin was 19 when he deployed to Afghanistan as any infantryman—with no particular inclination or aptitude for soldiering before he joined “to see war” and “serve his country.” Colin turned to poetry to portray vividly the physical experience and even more intensely the emotional experience of combat, service, and life afterwards. His Shortly Thereafter (2012), a memoir that combines verse and prose, is not just one of the very few instances of poetry written by an Afghanistan veteran, but is one of the few biographies of war written by a young enlisted soldier—a doubly-curious phenomenon given the library shelves full of memoirs written by former officers and Navy SEALS. A few years older now, Colin teaches writing at Fairfield University in Connecticut. But Colin, as I know him, will be the last to ever forget where he came from and is currently at work at both another volume of poetry and a memoir that addresses his war years using the arguably more direct medium of prose.

***

Thanks to Roy Scranton for turning me on to J. Glenn Gray’s The Warriors.

Yea for Minnesota, so below’s a special video insertion, the Hold Steady’s ode to the Minneapolis punk-rock scene, “Stay Positive”:

The Ever-Changing War Lit Scene

Posted April 12, 2015 by Peter Molin
Categories: General

Tags: , ,

petescandystoreTwo weeks ago I was invited to read fiction on stage in a Williamsburg, Brooklyn, bar called Pete’s Candy Store. Pete’s often hosts readings, but only once a year dedicates a night to veteran writing. This year’s event was hosted by Kaboom author and Words After War mainstay Matt Gallagher, who had many nice things to say about me and my fellow readers Paul Wolfe, Teresa Fazio, and Brandon Willitts. Wolfe, a former Army officer now at Columbia, read fiction set in Iraq. Fazio, a former Marine officer, read from a memoir-in-progress. Willitts, a Navy enlisted veteran, read fiction set in the American west. I read an adaptation of a myth I first encountered in Ovid’s The Metamorphoses called “Cyex and Alceone.” My adaptation, called “Cy and Ali,” holds true to the outlines of Ovid’s myth, but I placed my updated story in the modern era, with action set in Afghanistan and back home. The story wasn’t new—I first published it on my old blog 15-Month Adventure then later republished it in Time Now, but no one seemed to notice or mind. Two listeners liked the way I included a woman’s point-of-view, which was cool. Another told me that the story made her choke up a bit. That’s what you get I guess with stories based on myth: big emotions. “If you want to make your readers feel loss, make them love something and then take it away,” the writing workshop maxim goes.

Brandon Willitts, Matt Gallagher, me, Teresa Fazio,  Paul Wolfe

Brandon Willitts, Matt Gallagher, me, Teresa Fazio, Paul Wolfe

I’m working on a series of stories based on Ovid. The war lit scene has done ancient Greece to death—Sparta, Odysseus, Penelope, Antigone, etc.—so my schtick is to do classical Rome. The physical transformations of Ovid’s The Metamorphoses, when updated in the vernacular of fiction, give your stories a magical realist bent, with people changing into trees and birds and such things, which really wrenches your stories out of the mode of journalistic rendering of realistic detail in a hurry, if that’s what you want. I’ll let you know how it works out.

The expanding and permeable borders of the veterans writing scene continue to admit new members and permute in interesting ways. In the audience at Pete’s were two Army friends, Sean Case and Erin Hadlock. Both veterans, each has contributed significantly to veterans writing. Sean, who keeps an eye on the latest-and-greatest in Arabic literature, was the first to alert me to Hassan Blasim—until someone tells me otherwise, Case was the man who “broke” Blasim in America, no small achievement. Hadlock recently published an essay co-written with Sue Doe in Generation Vet: Composition, Student-Veterans, and the Post-9/11 University (2014) called “Not Just ‘Yes Sir,’ ‘No Sir’: How Genre and Agency Interact in Student-Veteran Writing” that was referred to left-and-right in panels at the recent Conference on College Composition and Communication. Apparently, “military literacy genres”—think awards, evaluations, mission orders, field manuals, storyboards, etc.—are red-hot subjects of study in academia. But Hadlock’s bigger claim to fame is that she was Matt Gallagher’s first squad leader in ROTC way back when at Wake Forest. Now that’s saying something….

Me, Erin Hadlock, Sean Case, Matt Gallagher.

Me, Erin Hadlock, Sean Case, Matt Gallagher.

Thanks to Jillian Capewell and Lindsay Hood, the organizers of Pete’s Candy Store Reading Series.

Comp Lit, ComiCon, and Contemporary Iraqi War Fiction

Posted April 4, 2015 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: ,

At the American Comparative Literature Conference last week in Seattle, I participated in a seminar titled “What Does War Look Like? Visual Trauma and Representation.” Organized by Brenda Sanfilippo, a UC-Santa Cruz professor whose husband is a former paratrooper, the seminar explored the ethics and aesthetics of photographs, films, comic books, and graphic novels depicting war, conflict, and violence. My own contribution was a discussion of an Israeli theorist of photography named Ariella Azoulay. In The Civil Imagination: A Political Ontology of Photography (2012) and two previous works, Azoulay advances a concept called “the photographic situation.” Properly understood, “the photographic situation” expands our understanding of how we might interpret photographs, while suggesting that photography, as a visual medium, uniquely and importantly engages us with the modern world. Heady stuff for sure, but I’ll save the detailed explanation for another post.

Most of the other presentations focused more specifically on actual photographs or other popular culture artifacts. Two presentations that especially interested me were on comic book series, one by Spencer Chalifour on the Hellblazer series and the other by Najwa Al-Tabaa on DMZ. I didn’t know either Hellblazer or DMZ, each of which address war in Iraq or a generalized state of emergency post-9/11, or much really about comic books at all, but am perfectly willing to consider that comic books, graphic novels, cartoons, and comic culture directly or indirectly channel the zeitgeist that envelops the hearts and minds of soldiers who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. If we expand our definition of comic culture to include video gaming, role-playing games, and animated movies, I know it. Among a million other data points, I could point to Chris Kyle’s admission in American Sniper of his love for playing Command and Conquer, a shooter-killer video game, in-between real-world sniper missions in Iraq. He wasn’t the only soldier whose entertainment choices—more visual than textual—blurred and blended with his or her experience of combat.

Hellblazer

DMZ

As it happened, next door to the ACLA conference, the Emerald City ComiCon, or “ECCC,” was taking place at the Washington State Convention Center. Needless to say, ECCC’s attendance dwarfed ACLA’s, and its attendees looked like they were having a hell of a lot more fun. The Convention Center grounds swelled with thousands of comic culture nuts, costumed to the hilt, gathered to celebrate their favorite comic book, animé, cosplay, sci-fi, fantasy, and role-playing-game works, heroes, authors, and creators. It was impossible not to be jazzed by the explosion of imaginative energy and cheerful sociability. There was a critical edge, too, of a sort, to ECCC, though quite unlike the super-serious tone of ACLA. “How to Make Beer Money with Your Comic or Zine,” ran one panel title that caught my eye. Noticeably absent from the ECCC agenda, however, were testosterone-soaked shooter games such as Call of Duty and action-adventure games such as Grand Theft Auto, the likes of which soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan by the hundreds of thousands enjoyed. The ComiCon crowd is not shy about its fascination with darkness, perversity, evil, and violence, but it is a very stylized engagement—very girly and geeky and progressive–that eschews militarism and modern war, not that that’s a bad thing….

Fellow ACLA attendee and US Army major and Iraq veteran Deborah Dailey and me at Emerald City ComicCon, 2015.

Fellow ACLA attendee and US Army major and Iraq veteran Deborah Dailey and me at Emerald City ComicCon, 2015.

Meanwhile, back at ACLA, I was delighted to listen to a paper titled “The Spread of the Camp: Power, Law, and the ‘New Democracy’” given by a University of Delaware professor named Ikram Masmoudi at a panel on contemporary Arabic literature. Masmoudi, as if in answer to a question I never asked because I didn’t know who the heck to query, catalogued a number of novels published in Iraq since 2003 that portrayed “Operation Iraqi Freedom” from the perspective of Iraqis. Specifically, Masmoudi examined representations in recent Iraqi fiction of American “camps,” or what we might call more often a FOB:  armed enclaves of foreigners that spread parasite-like across the country in the 2000s after the American invasion and, as these things happen, now are being replicated by Iraqi factions themselves as new-fangled communal living spaces organized to meet the demands of civil war.

Masmoudi’s presentation was very exciting to me. I know well the achievement of Hassan Blasim and am somewhat aware that Sinan Antoon’s The Corpse Washer and Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad lurk out there waiting to be read. Now, thanks to Masmoudi, I know that other Iraqi fiction writers have been busy, too. A short list includes:

Madmen of Camp Bucca, by Shakir Noori
Green Zone, by Shakir Noori
The Freedom of the Bagged Heads, by Jassim al-Raseef
The American Granddaughter, by Inaam Kachachi
Beyond Love, by Hadiyya Hussein

War and OccupationA translated version of The American Granddaughter exists and is available for purchase on-line, while Masmoudi herself is translating Beyond Love. The first three await translation from Arabic, but based on Masmoudi’s account of them at ACLA, they have much to offer American readers interested in seeing what the war looked like from the other side. Masmoudi also has an academic study coming out later this year called War and Occupation in Iraqi Fiction (Edinburgh University Press). Now who would have predicted a full-length scholarly study of Iraqi war fiction would appear in English before one examining war novels written by our own citizens? Let’s get busy, ye fellow American literature scholars.

Thanks to Brenda Sanfillipo and Najwa Al-Tabaa for organizing our ACLA seminar and inviting me to participate, and thanks to everyone who presented. I haven’t finished thinking about your papers yet.

Sailing the 4Cs: Veteran Literary Organizations and the Composition Classroom

Posted April 3, 2015 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags:

The Conference on College Composition and Communication is a big deal for English 101 teachers. Imagine 10,000 strong of us—for I am one—descending on a town near you and geeking out to presentations with titles such as “Rhetorics and Ecologies of Scale: Composing Across Environments and Disciplines.” We party, too, believe it or not. A composition textbook giant, Bedford-St. Martin, throws us a big annual to-do, complete with free bars and buffet spreads. This year, in Tampa, the party was held in the Florida Aquarium, so the party went down with manatees and sharks circling in the background.

Brandon Willitts couldn't make it, so the 4Cs got me.

Brandon Willitts, pictured here, couldn’t make it, so the 4Cs got me.

I presented twice at 4Cs this year at panels interested in veterans in the composition classroom. I was proud to be there and gladdened that the composition teacher community takes the issue so seriously. One presentation was titled, “When the Vet in the Classroom is the Teacher.” That was mostly about me, so I’ll spare you the details here. I was supposed to be in the room to support Brandon Willitts, the executive director of Words After War, as he presented to college teachers interested in veterans literary collectives. When Willitts couldn’t make it, I filled in. Below are my remarks, complete with copious quotations from Willitts and Matt Gallagher. The assembled English teachers were interested in Words After War because of its proven success at joining military and civilian writers in common dialogue and the techniques it uses to encourage writing workshop participants to throw themselves into their work.

“Writing After the War: An Inclusive Community-based Approach to Understanding War and Conflict through Literary Programming”

My discussion of Words After War, a New York City literary organization, compliments the essays in Generation Vet: Composition, Student-Veterans, and Post 9/11 University (2014), “I Have to Speak Out” by Eileen Schell and Ivy Kleinbart. about the Syracuse Veterans Writing Group, and “Closer to Home” by Karen Springsteen, about a national organization called Warrior Writers.

The subject is what Schell and Kleinbart call “a parallel movement of ‘self-sponsored’ community writing groups led by and for military veterans” (119). They are parallel to and complement composition courses on college campuses designed around the needs of veterans. The goal is to create forums outside academia, or partially affiliated with academia, in which veterans write about and process war experience in the company of other vets and sympathetic, interested civilians. The writing is often neither non-academic nor artistic, but aimed at personal expression and explanation.

The specific subject today is Words After War—a New York City literary organization notable for its rapid rise to prominence, built on a sensibility deeply connected to its New York City location and an expanded sense of what a community writing group might do and be. The two names most prominently associated with Words After War are Brandon Willitts and Matt Gallagher. Willitts is a former Navy enlisted sailor who served in Afghanistan and Gallagher is a former Army cavalry officer who served in Iraq. Gallagher’s blog Kaboom was one of the first blogs from the war zone and served the basis of his memoir Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War (2010). His novel Young Bloods will appear later this year.

Willitts provides the vision and organizational drive, while Gallagher’s experience as an author and combat soldier lends Words After War great credibility and supplements his deft touch as primary writing instructor. I am not officially connected to Words After War, but I am friends with Willitts and Gallagher, respect their achievement enormously, and have attended and participated in several Words After War events. But my support of the vet writing scene is more than just supporting Words After War—I have engaged with vets-in-the-classroom issues on several campuses and have participated in or familiarized myself with a variety of vet writing organizations, such as Voices From War, the Veterans Writing Project, and Warrior Writers.

So what is special about Words After War?

Its website describes it as a literary organization, one dedicated to encouraging writing about war, while having conversations about war, primarily as it is represented in literature. Its belief is that literature—art and expression—is an effective tool (or medium) for communication and growth organized around the sharing of stories. The active writing component of Words After War lies in its effort to create a supportive, creative community through workshops, studio retreats, literary mentorships and a writer-in-residence program. Therapy is not the avowed aim; Willitts writes, “we do not aim to be anything more than a literary nonprofit that serves the veteran community (and interested civilians).” “I believe,” reports Willitts, “above all else, our success is based on our inclusive model and our adherence to quality writing. Quite simply, we aim to be good, competent, progressive, thoughtful, and interesting.” A stated goal and reason to applaud Words After War is its demonstrated success at bringing veterans and civilians together in the same writing, reading, and conversational space. A New York City writing workshop takes place weekly at Mellow Pages, a storefront reading room and library in Brooklyn, while out-of-city workshops of longer duration have also taken place at Marlboro College and Canisius College, with another event at Wesleyan College in the works. All have featured roughly equal numbers of civilian and veteran writers.

As to what happens in a Words After War workshop, I’ll quote Gallagher at length:

We’re in our fourth semester of the Brooklyn WAW workshop now, and in every one, it’s been half veteran, half civilian. While that was the design of the idea on a macro level, we’ve never influenced actual enrollment numbers to match that, it’s happened organically (10 to 16 people per semester). What they’re seeking can run the gamut, but the most common refrains I’ve heard from students are 1) an MFA-lite experience 2) a writing community 3) exposure to war and conflict literature they’d otherwise have missed by themselves. Obviously, the experience and literary ambitions can vary wildly, and we have had some students there who are seeking a more “writing-as-therapy” experience. The groups have always been pretty generous, though, so a person like that doesn’t get their piece workshopped the same way our gruff, uber ambitious neo-Hemingways do.

Each semester has 10 workshops. 8 of those 10 are more seminars than anything – I’ve sent out reading materials to discuss ahead of time, so we can talk craft for an hour. Then I use those craft lessons to intro 2 or 3 writing prompts, allowing students 30 to 40 minutes to work from those prompts. The idea being, maybe any material generated from those prompts can be a seed for something students want to take home and really refine, if they choose to. 

2 of the 10 workshops per semester are full, MFA-style writing workshops – 4 students will have submitted up to 10 pages of material ahead of time, and those submissions are the class’s sole focus for the two hours we’re together. The student being workshopped cannot speak or respond until they very end. I set a basic structure of conversation for each piece (i.e. let’s talk about this piece’s structure, character development, tone) and the rest of the students deliberate over those matters, usually starting with what worked, then progressing to what didn’t. Not every student chooses to submit for these workshop sessions; generally speaking, about 70% of participants do, though. 

Memorable moments – I always love having the class read “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” by Katherine Anne Porter. It’s a good way to energize our civilian students, as thinkers and writers, to prove to them that this giant, awful subject of war is theirs, too, if they want it. And it’s a good way to shut down the neo-Hemingway vets who are convinced the only way to write about something is direct experience. Sets the tone for the WAW vision, I think – good writing is good writing, let’s talk craft, not amount of chest hairs.

A vast majority of our WAW participants are working on short stories, novels and memoirs, with a slight majority skewing non-fiction. (Sign of the publishing world times, is my guess, and a natural entry point for a young writer with a story to tell.) A couple have and do dabble in poetry, and we have a returning cast of Columbia Journalism students, though they tend to come more for creative escapism than as a means to hone their journalism craft, from what I’ve gathered. 

Words After War’s New York City location also makes it unique in several ways. The location allows Words After War to draw on the tremendous pool of veteran writers living in New York, many of whom are not just talented, but already published or very ambitious to make a career in letters. It also connects them to the larger art and creative scenes of New York and Brooklyn. Not only are its weekly writing workshops held at Mellow Pages, a venue that features obscure titles by likes of Slavoj Zizak and Alain Badiou, and Words After War readings that I’ve been to have been staged in venues—bars, performance spaces, and historical sites—that can be described as very cool or very hip, depending on which generation’s vocabulary you employ. New York City also gives Words After War access to the publishing world and MFA program scene, so events often are staged in conjunction with bookstore and publishing media campaigns, or academic writing circles. Words After War also interacts with (and to a certain extent compete with) other war writer groups such as Voices After War. New York City also brings proximity to the city’s pool of non-veteran writers, and many events feature writers who are not veterans reading from works not directly concerned with war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Willitts reports that one of the most surprising developments about WAW is the interest in and participation by civilians. He tells me that one of the first signs that the organization had legs came in fall 2013 when he staged a reading at Brooklyn performance space that over 50 people attended, most of whom were unknown to him. “To get over 50 people to an event in New York City,” Willitts claims, should always be considered a success, given the number of competing cultural events on any night.” New York City also gives Words After War easier availability to New York City press possibilities. The organization has been featured not just on PBS, but in the New York Times and even Vanity Fair. Finally, Words After War’s location presents fundraising opportunities not necessarily available to other vet writing groups. Willitts has put a lot of his own money into standing up Words After War, while also relying on private donations, but promises to initiate a new fund-raising strategy later this summer.

Brandon Willits’ love of literature and his desire to encourage war writers are true and energetic, but he’s also an aggressive social entrepreneur who in a short time has developed a healthy list of contacts in media and publishing. He’s not above leveraging them on behalf of veteran writers, most of whom, I would say, harbor dreams of making it into print. It’s interesting to think about the possibilities and problems of Words After War’s rapid emergence as a big-time player not just on the war lit community, but the national publishing field.

One way to think about it all is that Words After War’s vision and record of achievement is as an inspiring, positive, and an almost inevitable organizing of a vibrant New York City war writing scene and bringing it to the attention of the world. It’s also possible to think of Words After War as an industry leader—one that models a number of possibilities for vet writing groups elsewhere and inspires others to create similar organizations. One goal, in fact, is to create a series of writing workshop programs exportable beyond the New York City area—one day, two-day, and week-long events that are run in conjunction with colleges, community writing groups, and veterans organizations across the nation. Because Willitts and Gallaghers’ ethos is one of inclusiveness and encouragement, I can easily imagine a war writer in some other part of the country hearing about Words After War and growing very excited about the possibility of moving to New York City and plugging into Words After War events and activities in the name of being where the “the action is,” so to speak.

A reason to be more ambivalent would be a suspicion that the Words After War endeavor seems slightly, or greatly, careerist and self-promoting. One might wonder how long it might preserve its grassroots, democratic ethos as members receive literary plaudits and compete for publishing contracts. We might also ask if its very emphasis on notions such as “community” and “support” encourages a groupthink or otherwise limits creative and interpretive possibilities. Words After War, for example, does not seem invested in aligning war writers with political outspokenness, nor (as I have said), in viewing writer as a therapeutic vehicle for dealing with trauma.

A final possible criticism could be that Words After War really hasn’t been as productive as its own ideals and publicity might suggest. The writers-in-residence, studio retreat, and literary mentorship programs currently exist mostly as good ideas on paper, for example. Other vet-writing organizations such as Warrior Writers and the Veterans Writing Project have been around a lot longer than Words After War and might wonder when their work too might be featured on PBS, to say nothing of Vanity Fair.

But I’ll conclude by once more emphasizing positive aspects over the concerns. Words After War has grown so rapidly in its first two years of existence, that its unfair to yet judge it on what it hasn’t yet accomplished at the expense of celebrating its achievements. The talent in New York City’s war writing scene is impressive, with many writers only at the beginning of what I think will be long careers as writers and public intellectuals, and I support all organized efforts to promote their rise in the world of letters. Leaving Willitts with the last words, I’ll quote his response to my question of what he thinks the achievement of Words After War has been:

“For a long time I didn’t know what I had built, probably because I was too close to it to see the total picture. It took a friend of mine to sort of show me that, no matter what happens in the future, I will have built of community of supportive readers and writers who came together during an important time in our nation’s history. I guess I never saw it before, but maybe I did do that. Or, then again, maybe they would have come together on their own. But the evidence does suggest that we had something to do with the current state of affairs, as no one seemed to be talking to one another much before Words After War and a lot more folks know one another now because of Words After War.”

****

If you’ve read this far, I salute you. I have two veterans in the classes I teach this semester. I hope I am making the experience enjoyable and productive for both of you.

So many thanks to Sue Doe and Lisa Langstraat, co-editors of Generation Vet: Composition, Student-Veterans, and the Post 9/11 University, for organizing the 4Cs’ presentations on student-veterans and for all you do in support of veteran-students at Colorado State University.

On the way to Tampa, I stopped at the house in Orlando, where Jack Kerouac wrote The Dharma Bums in 1957.  Brian Turner lived here, too, for a while, and now lives around the corner.

On the way to Tampa, I stopped at the house in Orlando where Jack Kerouac wrote The Dharma Bums in 1957. Brian Turner lived here, too, for a while, and now lives around the corner.

Time Now Live and Coming to a Town Near You

Posted March 25, 2015 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags:
Who built these things? An abandoned fortress near Spera Combat Outpost, Khost province, Afghanistan.

Who built these things? An abandoned fortress near Spera Combat Outpost, Khost province, Afghanistan.

Last week I presented twice at the Conference on College Composition and Communication in Tampa, Florida. One presentation was part of a panel called Community Writing Programs for Veterans; my contribution was a discussion of the New York City writers’ collective Words After War. Two days later, I read a paper titled, “When the Veteran in the Class is the Teacher” as part of a panel on student-veterans.

This week, I read original fiction at Pete’s Candy Store, Brooklyn, NY, as part of their annual veterans reading night event. Also reading will be Teresa Fazio, Chris Wolfe, and Brandon Willitts, hosting will be Matt Gallagher.

My next stop is the American Comparative Literature Association conference in Seattle, where I will join a seminar titled, “What Does War Look Like? Visual Trauma and Representation.” My paper is called “Ariella Azoulay and the Photographic Situation of War in Iraq.”

Then on to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference, or “AWP” for short, in Minneapolis. I’m moderating a panel titled “Who Can’t Handle the Truth? Memoirs by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans” that features Ron Capps, Kayla Williams, and Colin D. Halloran.  Capps is the author of Seriously Not All Right and the maestro of the Veterans Writing Project.  Williams’ two memoirs are Love My Rifle More Than You and Plenty of Time When We Get Home.  Halloran is the author of the poetry collection Shortly Thereafter and has a memoir and another volume of verse in the works.

Last stop is the American Literature Association conference in Boston. I’ll be on a panel called “The Politics of Contemporary War”; my paper will be on canon (not “cannon”!) formation within the contemporary war body of fiction and poetry. The panel will be moderated by Aaron DeRosa, and also presenting will be Stacey Peebles and Laura Clapper. DeRosa and Peebles are currently co-editing an upcoming issue of Contemporary Fiction Studies dedicated to 21st-century war fiction; Peebles is also the author of Welcome to the Suck: Narrating the American Soldier’s Experience in Iraq, the praises of which I’ve sung many times in Time Now.

Spera Combat Outpost, a combined US-Afghanistan outpost on the Pakistan border.

Spera Combat Outpost, a combined US-Afghanistan outpost on the Pakistan border.

A Yik Yak Prose-Poem, Found Near Fayetteville, NC, Outside Fort Bragg, Home of the 82nd Airborne Division

Posted March 14, 2015 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags:

First Yak:

Appreciation yak
Only thing I like about Fayetteville is all the eye candy. Military men are the best men. I’m in heaven every time I come home from school.

Subsequent Yaks:

I’m the opposite. They’re not really my type, but so many of them message me on dating sites (sad I know, but it’s convenient) since so many live around here.

Really… I feel like most military guys are super sweet, plus they stay in shape… Which is greattt.

My type is more like, k-pop boy band kinda guy lol.

Haha, they’re cool too.

I dunno, I guess something just kinda scares me about masculinity. At least you have plenty to be happy about in this city lol.

That’s about the only thing…

Yep nothing else pretty much. Like I’m trying my hardest to think of something to do here other than shopping.

I’ve been watching Netflix like it’s my job.

Except when their PTSD does something bad to you.

That’s not always the case…. Can’t be afraid of people because of possibilities.

I can be afraid of anything I want, thank you very much. And PTSD scares me. I know from first hand.

First replier here, I agree the PTSD can be potentially very harmful for both in a relationship, but another reason for me is, I wouldn’t be able to handle the times he has to go off and fight.

That is such a good point! My friend’s boyfriend just got deployed for nine months.

Yeahh… loneliness, lots of worrying., and trust issues on my part (or his part, too). It wouldn’t really work out for me I think.

YikYak


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