Published on 12:00 AM, September 07, 2018

Women writing the war

My introduction to war lore was an intimate one, removed from any political agenda—they were stories of fear, simplicity, and sheer resilience in the face of ultimate crisis. They were also tales that involved mostly women, of my then middle-aged grandmother, her young daughters, and nieces fleeing from one village to another. She told me of their escape from the 'Punjabi' forces during Bangladesh's War of Liberation in 1971, crossing rivers and creeks and walking miles in search of refuge.

In later years, I came across many a literature on war, though I noticed that most of them were written by men on 'war waged by other men'.

War literature—at least those considered to be the greatest—is almost exclusively penned by men. In a list of 'The greatest war novels ever written' put together by Pan Macmillan, an international publishing company, out of 10 featured novels, only two were written by women: Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell and Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. A quick skim through other lists of top war novels feature the usuals: Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia or war photographer Robert Capa's autobiographical Slightly Out of Focus. Both fiction and non-fiction are littered with familiar male names—Tim O'Brien, Sebastian Faulks, or Kurt Vonnegut. While their literature is in no way to be discounted, I feel, the narratives are often limited to the rhetoric of heroic masculinity in describing war and do not take into account the 'emotional casualty' of war. Women writers have often been judged for narratives that are considered “too narrow" or which are deemed “sentimental” as they tend to focus more on domestic topics.

That war literature is dominated by male and masculine voices is something war veteran and novelist Cara Hoffman seems to agree on as well. In an op-ed published in The New York Times in 2014, she argued that “war narratives—in prose, poetry, and film—have always been, and continue to be, dominated by male voices. From the Greek classics to modern story collections, these tales focus exclusively on the male experience of battle, and of return; the stories of women at war, on the other hand, are nearly absent from our culture.”

Hoffman's argument also made me think back on the few war novels I have read and it reaffirmed my desire to read more about women stuck in warzones, of my longing for everyday stories of people stuck in war rather than ones of combat written mostly by men.

Starting from reading of the experience of Anne Frank when she was in hiding for two years with her family during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands in The Diary of a Young Girl to the correspondence of two by-chance friends in Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad, war literature does not have to be limited to the ones written directly from the field of battle and warfare. It can be of consequences too, of the after-effects of war.

Take for example, Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway. Almost a hundred years since the novel, it continues to remain relevant. It was one of the first modern works of fiction that aimed to look at the aftermath of World War I. Woolf wrote of the experience of shellshock—years later, it came to be known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—that she relayed through her character Septimus. With him, Woolf succeeded in making her readers question and spark a dialogue on the lasting effects of wartime violence.

Or why not explore Cara Hoffman's Be Safe I Love You: A Novel. Much like Woolf's Mrs Dalloway, Hoffman takes a look at the effects of war on a veteran struggling with PTSD after returning home. But unlike Septimus in Mrs Dalloway, Hoffman's protagonist is Lauren Clay, a woman soldier who served in Iraq.

One of my favorites though is the correspondence between Bee Rowlatt and May Witwit in Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad. Bee, a journalist with BBC World Service, develops an unusual friendship with May, a lecturer of English literature stuck in war-torn Iraq. The book is a story of their emails, contrasting Bee's stories of everyday life in England as a journalist with two young children to May's struggles in trying to get fuel for her car as bombs explode in the background. It is also a story of May's strength in the face of war and how, through her friendship with Bee, she manages to secure an escape both for herself and her husband by getting a position for a PhD in England.

For stories on war, we can also look closer to home. Nearby in South Asia, Pakistani writer Kamila Shamsie in Burnt Shadows writes about the shared histories of two families. She writes of their final days of the second world war in Japan, and India on the brink of partition in 1947, to Pakistan in the early 1980s, New York in the aftermath of September 11 and Afghanistan in the wake of the ensuing US bombing campaign.

Nayomi Munaweera, on the other hand, writes about the Sri Lankan civil war in her book Island of a Thousand Mirrors. The author's debut novel looks at the devastating consequences of the Sri Lankan civil war. It takes an intimate look at the lives of two young women and their families—Yasodhara, from a Sinhala family, and Saraswathi, from a Tamil family. These are two people on the opposite sides of the war, their lives separate and yet connected.

And finally, right at home in Bangladesh, how can anyone forget the impact of writer and political activist Jahanara Imam's Ekattorer Dinguli (Days of '71)? The book that was an immediate bestseller in Bangladesh can bring to life the passion ignited by events that happened long before we were born. The genocide inflicted by Pakistan on what was then East Pakistan between March and December 1971 was one of the worst of the century. Imam's diary of 1971 seamlessly dances between topics of great political importance to domestic concerns. It is the story of how she watches her teenage Rumi go off to the war, return bearded and disheveled only to be taken away by the oppressors to never return again. It is of violence happening right outside the home and life going on within it.

The Liberation War of Bangladesh has produced other great books as well. In Ami Birangona Bolchi, Bangladeshi educationist and social worker Nilima Ibrahim highlighted the courage and perseverance of war heroines of the Liberation War. While Nilima Ibrahim worked in 1972 following the war with various national and international organisations to rehabilitate the raped and tortured women of the Liberation War, she interviewed some of these heroic women and kept a detailed journal of her experience, which she later published in book form in 1994. 

Almost all the above novels are narratives dealing with consequences of battle or set on the periphery of a warzone. Traditionally, it was men who had gone out to battle and then returned to write of their experiences. But women too have been at war; however, their stories often reflect the trauma dealt by the conflict rather than of the conflict itself. That too is changing slowly, because women writing on warfare are growing as well. As more and more female reporters, photographers, war correspondents and defense personnel go out to the field, they are writing of stories of combat and their experiences on the battlefield, such as Lindsey Hilsum writing on Libya in the Sandstorm: Libya in the Time of Revolution or Janine di Giovanni writing of her experience in The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria.

The time has come for the definition of 'war writing' to be extended. It is necessary to use a wider definition because war isn't only about combat. Civilians directly experience war through bombing, dislocation and loss of family members. When we extend how we define writing about war, the field does become larger and with time, we might find more narratives of war by women on women.