Looking into the heart of light, the silence

Colonisation is violence, and there are many ways to carry out that violence. – Philip Gourevitch

It’s no small thing that I quote from Philip Gourevitch’s harrowing book We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families at the beginning of my story in We See a Different Frontier, “A Heap of Broken Images”. Read in a summer off from college, it’s a book that has stayed with me in all the years since. Some of it is naturally the sheer horror of the subject matter – wrenching and vivid without feeling prurient, the descriptions of the Rwandan genocide nevertheless slotted neatly into a blood-soaked part of me that has been there since I was very small. I think this is part of why I wrote the story that I did and part of why I continue to write the stories that I do – I’m fascinated by evil, and the evil that most fascinates me is not supernatural in origin but evil in all its everyday mundane banality, the fundamentally casual nature of an attempt to erase an entire people. Supernatural evil always seemed to me like a cop-out, a way to avoid the real problem.

So as a child I was fascinated by the Holocaust. I devoured books, though somehow I never had the strength for films; books were approachable and at the same time immensely more horrific, a kind of horror that I could soak in without the onslaught of images. And yet there were images too; in middle school I discovered Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Keiji Nakazawa’s Barefoot Gen, and my fascination with mass death expanded into the practice of warfare itself. These images were somehow a middle ground between film and prose – I could still use them to approach the truth, to go into dark places.

It was probably at this point that I began to intuit the second thing that has lingered with me long after finishing Gourevitch’s book: the inability to approach the truly evil, the desolate tyranny of silence that reigns when we run out of words – or can’t find them at all. We tell stories as a way to, in the words of Douglas Adams, “sidle up to the problem sideways when it’s not looking” but in the end it always sees us, and we look back, struck dumb.

It shouldn’t escape us, then: the violence inherent not only in silence but in words, not only in seeing but in being seen. Colonialism is an orgy of violence in every sense, violence physical, psychological, emotional, cultural, environmental. All colonialism is, to a greater or lesser extent, a kind of genocide in that the ultimate aim is to cripple or destroy an entire people; all too often throughout history it has been devastatingly effective. It’s a violence that is also fundamentally atemporal: as culture and history are erased, the past is destroyed, with the loss of the past, there is no sense to be made of the present, and without the past or the present the future becomes mutilated and distorted. It’s not enough to call these effects scars, because a scar only becomes a scar when it has healed – it would be more accurate to describe them as rips in the fabric of reality itself, bloody gashes through which something horrible creeps. It’s too simplistic to say that “violence begets violence” – violence is violence and violence devours everything. Violence erases meaning.

Years later, early in my graduate studies, I encountered Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain, another book that’s stayed with me. In the book’s first section, Scarry draws distinctions and connections between warfare and torture, and makes the point that nuclear war is where the lines become hopelessly blurred. Beginning with a singular devastating event, the effects of a nuclear strike don’t end with the fallout; as I had already learned from Nakazawa, the effects go on and on for years, lingering in cells and psyches, destroying lives long after the conflict itself is over. Scarry talks as if nuclear war was unique in this respect.

But I think we know it’s not.

How do we talk about this? Where do we find the words?

What I was trying to do in “A Heap of Broken Images” was not to approach the unapproachable but instead to capture the impossibility of approach. My main character, Shairoven, struggles to make sense of the massacre perpetrated on her people by human colonists, and she does do within the context of a culture that makes this nearly impossible – literally without words to describe the feelings of rage and loss that accompany such an atrocity, there is nothing to say about it. The humans themselves certainly don’t help matters, with their empty gestures and their clumsy attempts at owning what they’ve done while declaring that it’s all right now and clearly it will never happen again. They study the killing as if it were something separate from themselves, as if they were impartial and unconnected observers.

One of the story’s early scenes is nearly lifted wholesale from what was, for me, one of the most devastating images from Gourevitch’s book, where the bones of the dead are viewed where they’ve fallen in a classroom, scattered and clean and strangely lovely:

The dead at Nyarubuye were, I’m afraid, beautiful. There was no getting around it. The skeleton is a beautiful thing. The randomness of the fallen forms, the strange tranquility of their rude exposure, the skull here, the arm bent in some uninterpretable gesture there – these things were beautiful, and their beauty only added to the affront of the place. I couldn’t settle on any meaningful response: revulsion, alarm, sorrow, grief, shame, incomprehension, sure, but nothing truly meaningful. I just looked, and I took photographs, because I wondered whether I could really see what I was seeing while I saw it, and I also wanted an excuse to look a bit more closely.

We went through the first room and out the far side. There was another room and another and another and another. They were all full of bodies, and more bodies were scattered in the grass, which was thick and wonderfully green. Standing outside, I heard a crunch. The old Canadian colonel stumbled in front of me, and I saw, though he did not notice, that his foot had rolled on a skull and broken it. For the first time at Nyarubuye my feelings focused, and what I felt was a small but keen anger at this man. Then I heard another crunch, and felt a vibration underfoot. I had stepped on one, too.

In “A Heap of Broken Images”, what makes confronting the massacre so difficult for us as humans is that we face our own complicity, and our first and strongest instinct is to escape self-incrimination. But there are the bones and there are the broken skulls, and we can’t help but look. And here am I, a white Westerner, existing in the context of a society wherein I have benefited indirectly but greatly from colonialism as an ongoing historical process, as real violence done to real people who I will never meet. So I consider the humans in my story and I think that maybe they shouldn’t say anything at all. Maybe their task – and it’s the most difficult task in many ways, not that they deserve sympathy – is to listen.

And here is where I perceive a flaw in the story: Shairoven and her people don’t speak about the massacre because they lack the words, but the words were not taken away from them by the colonizers; they never had them to begin with. I am sitting here in a world in which my people have stolen words, violated words, erased words, and left our victims to scream into the tyranny of that silence, unheard.

It is possible to use stories to break that silence. They might be one of the few things that can.

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