Words vs. Swords

A few weeks ago, I awoke in the middle of the night with a killer opening line for a short story about a man facing a firing squad. The idea so fascinated me that I got out of my nice comfy bed and fumbled in the dark bedroom to find a pen and paper, then wrote it out by the bathroom light. For days, the idea haunted me, followed me to work, to the gym, on my walks. But I was busy with other things and couldn’t begin on it right away, so I let it simmer.

Today I sat down to begin, but I have no idea whether firing squads are even still in use (they are) and, if so, what countries would use them. This is an essential detail, since it would determine my setting and cultural background for the story. As I perused the long lists of countries and their attitudes toward capital punishment, I remembered Freddy, and his story about how his family fled Tutsi genocide in Rwanda decades ago.

So I called up some background on the Rwandan genocide.

Oh. My. God.

First, let me say I am mostly a pacifist. Violence horrifies me. I am also politically naïve. I don’t understand the drive behind political ambitions and the power-hungry mindset. I don’t get why we can’t all just take care of one another.

I know. I told you – I’m naïve about that stuff.

Still, what I read in a few minutes about the atrocities in Rwanda will probably give me nightmares. Scholars estimate over 800,000 dead in only 100 days, though some estimates place that number at around 1.2 million.

100 days. That’s THOUSANDS of murders EVERY DAY. Most of them were Tutsis, though there were also Hutus, and Twa peoples (who lost as much as a third of their population). Though there were a handful of organizers, many people took part. Some say that if you were in Rwanda during that time, you were either a murderer, or you were murdered. People who refused to kill their neighbors were, themselves, killed. It boggles the mind—at least it does my mind.

How does it make any sort of logical sense to kill a whole tribe/nation/ethnic group of people? I’ll never understand it. There has to be a better way to resolve our differences.

So here I am, this idea for a story about the victim of a firing squad riding my shoulders and whispering in my ear, and I’m too sensitive to even read about a horrific genocide that took place in my own lifetime. I swear, I had to stop reading. It made me physically sick to my stomach. How the hell am I going to write something about a revolution, or a rebellion, or some sort of coup that leads to my protagonist standing before armed men with his hands behind his back, when I can’t even read about such a thing?

Of course, Rwanda was a much larger scale. Much. Larger. (Nearly a million bodies. 100 days.) That’s beside the point.

How can I bring myself to write about a subject so upsetting? I don’t know. But I’m going to write that story. If you are a fellow writer, you may understand what I mean when I say my stories are (sometimes) my voice. They are my way of making a statement. My protagonist facing a firing squad might tell a story that points out the futility of war, or the shame in corruption… who knows? He’s still whispering to me, but I’m not sure yet what he’s saying.

What I do know, without a doubt, is that I have yet to even know what this character looks like, and already he is teaching me. This is one of the things I love about writing—my characters so frequently become my teachers. It goes beyond what I learn when researching a subject. Seeing the story world through the character’s eyes is a way of walking in someone else’s shoes. For me, it helps to breed compassion. Understanding. A different perspective, one I might not have otherwise.

I have yet to write a story that did not change me in some way.

For tonight, I think I am done reading about genocide. I’ve surpassed my effective learning capacity, and lurched headlong into overwhelm. But that story, whether it’s about Rwanda or some other scene of political unrest, will see the light of day. I may not know the names of the dead—they are so many!—but maybe my story can in some small way speak for them.

May I live to see the day when compassion surpasses violence in all the many and varied nations of this beautiful world.

2 Replies to “Words vs. Swords”

  1. I have less trouble reading about that kind of massive slaughter, too many to count, a number so high it becomes an abstraction, than I do reading about a lynching in Louisiana in the 19th century (or, I am terribly afraid, much later), or the torture of one child. I am more horrified by photographs where faces can be seen, where rage and violence glare at me out of the tautened muscles around the mouth of a white supremacist on the lawn at the University of Virginia–a university started by a man who was responsible for the idea that “all men are created equal,” a man who owned slaves, had slaves beaten, raped their women, just because he could. I have the most trouble with the small, daily violence because it comes closer to home. I can more easily read about national or international horrors than about local ones. There is a passage in Annie Dillard’s “For the Time Being” where she is discussing the tsunami with her husband at the table where they are having dinner with their 8 year old daughter. And Dillard says something like, “How is it possible to even think about that many people?” And her daughter say, “Oh, that easy. Blue water. Lots and lots of black dots.”
    But you’re right. It is all violence and it is all unconscionable. I don’t think I am especially politically naive, I guess I’ve just been around and political active for too many decades. But I have grown, over those decades, into a complete pacifist. There is no such thing, for me, as a justified war, and certainly there is no such thing as a good war.
    In the novel I’m working on, that is set is the 19th century in the aftermath of the Civil War, I’ve had to do a lot of research. And, at the time, that war was devastating, part of which was due to the sheer numbers of the dead. I wonder, with you, when we will ever learn.

    1. I feel ya, Dean … violence like this always horrifies me, whether there is one “black dot” in the figurative water or 1,000,000. But you’re right about the smaller incidents coming closer to home. It feels more real, maybe.

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