Conflicts are historically documented. Great battles and wars are ingrained and embedded on our past. Facts after facts are compiled in order to make history. But what tends to be forgotten are the individual people, the individual dilemmas and the hardships endured during those periods. This is where fiction can have an important role.
For debut novelist Daisy Hasan, writing about the forgotten dispute in Northeast India, the daily life within a conflict tends to be normalized. One carries on, goes to work, goes shopping. It’s the daily habit of living, says Mirza Waheed, author of The Collaborator. Despite the conflicts raging all around, the mundane aspects of one’s life are still there, still need to be attended to. But this normalization can only happen to a limit, says Justine Hardy. “Every day people are being exposed to violence, either directly or indirectly”. She cites the example of a woman at the Friday Market in Srinagar, the summer capital of Kashmir. The woman is there to buy essentials after Friday prayers. A grenade is thrown, blowing up a fish seller and his stall in front of her. She has been buying fish from the man for all of her adult life, and every week he has asked her how her family is, and how her children are doing at school. Though the woman loses her hearing for a while, it comes back as she finds her way home, and she is otherwise physically unhurt. Once home she tries to get on with her life, but the following week, when she returns to the Friday Market, all she can see in her mind are fish flying around her as the grenade rips through the fish-seller’s body again. She has to leave the market without buying anything. The replay in her mind begins to takeover her nights as well, until she can no longer sleep. The hallucinations become so graphic that she is too afraid to leave the house anymore.
Situations like this stir very basic human emotions in each individual, a constant feeling that something is wrong, that something is displaced. Waheed says, “People feel angry and they want to protest, they want to scream. Sometimes the problem is that there is no closure to the people’s suffering.”
Hardy, author of In the Valley of the Mist and other works of fiction and non-fiction, warns against the dangers of writing fiction about conflicted lands. The conflict’s nature is often misinterpreted, either falling in the category of “the full flak-jacket and blazing machine-gun style, or the voice of loss and grief.” The emotional complexities of war and conflict are very hard to bring onto the page. Nothing is either black or white – it is even hard to know if there are different shades of grey. “Conflict regions are very complex, they don’t work in binaries”, says Waheed, a BBC editor who was born in Kashmir and grew up amidst the raging conflict in his homeland.
Daisy Hasan has a very pragmatic view about writing on the subject of conflicted lands. The story becomes compelling because of the way the author works with it. “I approach conflict through character and conflict is useful for me in the sense that it enables my characters to explore larger existential questions”, she says. The ability to raise awareness is the great opportunity that fiction can present. Mirza Waheed thinks that fiction of conflicted lands should go beyond the facts, it must shed some light on the darkness, without transforming itself in a history lesson. Fiction can and must go beyond information, beyond what can be found in newspapers. As Hasan puts it “[fiction] might help to raise awareness. If enough people are eager to approach contentious issues through dialogue and debate, then I think my work could be said to have some kind of influence which would compliment and contribute to the work that others are doing to raise awareness and resolve conflicts.”
Mirza Waheed, Daisy Hasan and Roma Tearne will be discussing The Literature of Conflicted Lands at the Asia House Festival of Asian Literature, on 19 May.
Justine Hardy will be in conversation with Tamara Chalabi and Ali Allawi at the Asia House Festival of Asian Literature, 23 May, in the session Iraq – Lost Homeland or Salvageable Nation.
This article was first published on the Asia House Festival of Asian Literature website. Follow the festival on Twitter or Facebook.