Living With Violence: Conflict in Contemporary Cultures

I n spite of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the symbolic end of the Cold War, most Americans would probably agree that we live in an "age of conflict." Every day, newspaper and television headlines tell us of new and not-so-new "wars" in faraway, unfamiliar places—Bosnia, Northern Iraq, Haiti, Rwanda, Somalia. Typically, we find it difficult to understand the nature and sources of these conflicts, to say nothing of their effects on the minds and spirits of those immersed in them.

The books in this series take us into six contemporary cultures in conflict and allow us to examine them from various social, cultural, and political perspectives. Those living in these cultures may not be "at war" in any conventional sense, but they live in a continual state of siege or in its aftermath and must cope with the attendant ambiguities, uncertainties, and suspicions.

The six writers represented here are most often concerned with the impact of violence and aggression on the powerless and in societies typically characterized by political repression and murder, genocide, and terrorism. A comparison of these accounts, individually and culturally, offers us valuable insight into the nature and effects of conflict in our global community.

Sahar Khalifeh’s novel Wild Thorns (1976) captures everyday Arab life in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Usama, a young Palestinian- turned-terrorist, returns to his homeland after having worked abroad in the oilfields and is shocked to discover the changes in all aspects of life brought by the occupation. Usama’s struggle, set against that of his cousin, who has made a kind of peace with the occupation, provides a vivid picture of the polarizing effects of oppression.

Julia Alvarez’s novel, In the Time of the Butterflies (1994), is a fictionalized account of the lives and martyrdom of the Mirabal sisters, who helped form an underground movement in the Dominican Republic to overthrow the dictatorship of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo and were eventually murdered for their part in it. Told from the varying perspectives of the four sisters, the novel conveys the growing political awareness and commitment of the Mirabals without diminishing their human sides as young women growing up. The book shows how ordinary people can become heroes, sometimes in spite of themselves, and summon up extraordinary courage in support of their beliefs.

Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families (1998) is a journalistic collection of eyewitness stories derived from the author’s numerous visits to Rwanda. The book traces the origins and extent of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, vividly capturing the horrors of that period, and examines its lasting aftermath in that small African country. Gourevitch’s moving, and often painful, work raises serious questions about international responsibility in future cases of conflict and genocide and about human nature and the human condition as a whole.

In First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers (2000), Loung Ung recalls her experiences as a childhood survivor of the Pol Pot regime. This is a powerful story of a family forced to flee their life of privilege and to live under the constant fear of discovery, suspicion, and death. Ung recounts her firsthand experience of genocide, starvation, and heroic sacrifice as the family struggles to survive, to reunite, and to triumph in the face of crimes against humanity.

The Indian trader Salim, the narrator of V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River (1979), has moved from his home on the East Coast of Africa to an isolated trading community in its interior. Salim’s role as an outsider and his observations on the political turmoil of the community and country reflect Naipaul’s bleak, sometimes controversial, vision of Third World countries caught between the oppressions of colonialism and the chaos of post-colonialism. The novel has been compared to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in its pessimistic assessment of human corruptibility and its themes of alienation and exile.

Michael Ondaatje’s novel, Anil’s Ghost (2000), takes us to his home country, Sri Lanka, a country torn apart by civil war. Anil Tissera, a young woman educated in England and America, returns to her homeland as a forensic anthropologist sent by an international human rights group to discover the source of the organized campaigns of murder engulfing the island country. She also embarks on a discovery of love, family, and identity. As we follow the mystery, the book powerfully reveals to us the arbitrary nature of violence and the unknown enemy.

Suggested Further Readings

For further exploration of conflict and community in contemporary cultures, look for these titles at your local library or bookseller. The Wyoming Council for the Humanities cannot provide these titles for addition or substitution in this series.

Isabel Allende, The House of Spirits, Of Love and Shadows
Robert Olen Butler, A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain: Stories
Lan Cao, Monkey Bridge
J. M. Coetzee, Disgrace
Slavenka Draculic, S: A Novel About the Balkans
Eduardo Galeano, Days and Nights of Love and War
Yuan Gao, Born Red: A Chronicle of the Cultural Revolution
Jan Goodwin, Price of Honor: Muslim Women Lift the Veil of Silence on the Islamic World
Nadine Gordimer, The Lying Days
Fergal Keane, Season of Blood: A Rwandan Journey
Peter Maass, Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War
Bao Ninh, The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam
Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried: A Work of Fiction
Ahdaf Soueif, In the Eye of the Sun
Tobias Wolff, In Pharaoh’s Army: Memories of the Lost War

Retired Discussion Series

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