Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Storytelling, and the ability to sympathize with one’s enemy

This weekend I began reading The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen. 
It is literally the story of a sympathetic narrator. In this day and age of what sometimes feels like a civil war to read a novel from the point of view of a character living in a partitioned country and can yet understand life on both sides is truly refreshing. He puts himself into the head of a cast of characters—even the ones he has to compromise and kill in order to advance ideology.

It’s complicated.

Viet Thanh Nguyen recently wrote an article: "Trump Is a Great Storyteller. We Need to Be Better." 11 December 2016. This is an articulate essay written by an immigrant about the importance of words. When we allow leaders to subvert language and use rhetoric to alienate and hurt their own populations, then we have to stand up—call a lie a lie.

It’s interesting that since his election, several great authors have spoken up about their fears. Aleksandar Hemon has written several pieces around the election of Trump and the direction of America. You see, he comes at the idea of America from a place of absolute chaos: the Bosnian-Serbian War, and the bitter eruptions in both those places for the last 600 years.
Every Bosnian I know had a friend, or even a family member, who flipped and betrayed the life they had shared until, in the early 1990s, the war started. My best high-school friend turned into a rabid Serbian nationalist and left his longtime girlfriend in Sarajevo so he could take part in its siege. My favorite literature professor became one of the main ideologues of Serbian fascism.

Hemon knows personally what it was like when brother turned on brother and neighbor against neighbor.
My grandmother, once told me a story about her father, who had, one Bosnian winter during World War II, found himself on the way to having his throat slit by his neighbors. With his hands tied behind his back, he stood in line watching the people before him being slaughtered and thrown into the freezing river. When his turn came, he saved himself by leaping into the water before the killer could get to him. A few years later, after the war, my grandmother took lunch to his small store next to the local market. Outside the store, her father was drinking coffee with a man. In Bosnia, drinking coffee with someone is an act of friendship and intimacy, but she recognized her father’s coffee mate as one of the neighbors who had taken him to slaughter. “Do you know who this is?” my grandmother’s father asked her. “He was going to slit my throat.”

At this point in the story, I was shocked by the casualness of the exchange, so I asked my grandmother: “So what did the man say?”

She said: “Nothing. He just shrugged.”

Flannery O’Connor in her story “The Misfit” in the collection A Good Man is Hard to Find tells the story of a band of escaped prisoners who take hostage a vacationing family lost on the backroads of Georgia. The violence in the story is downplayed, upstaged by the idea that we are only good when we have a gun to our heads. If the grandmother could have lived her life at gunpoint, so to speak, she could have gained the self-awareness and compassion that she’d lacked.

We are at a point, all of us, where we need to come face to face with our enemies—and they may be the person in the mirror.

AND let’s just keep this in mind—July 18, 2017 Trump administration and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is closing a decades-old office in the State Department that has helped seek justice for victims of war crimes.

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