Is literature important during times of conflict? Some say it’s life-changing

Is literature important during times of conflict? Some say it’s life-changing

Navigating turbulent times through the power of literature

by Suswati Basu
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The significance of literature during periods of conflict has been a topic of contemplation for generations. In a world fraught with violence, wars, and social upheaval, can books, poems, and stories truly make a difference? This question has elicited varied responses, and in the words of Mary Kaldor of the London School of Economics, we are now living in an era of “new wars,” distinct from the trench warfare of World War One.

Exploring the power of literature in times of conflict

The Great War marked a turning point in the role of literature during conflict. Renowned poets like Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Rupert Brooke brought the harrowing experiences of battle into sharp focus, using their words to reflect on the horrors they witnessed and the profound societal changes that ensued. However, modern conflicts, as exemplified by the protracted violence in places like Syria, Bosnia, Northern Ireland, and Egypt, differ in nature and complexity. And even more so now with Israel and Palestine.

“Why do you lie with your legs ungainly huddled,
And one arm bent across your sullen cold
Exhausted face? It hurts my heart to watch you,
Deep-shadow'd from the candle's guttering gold;
And you wonder why I shake you by the shoulder;
Drowsy, you mumble and sigh and turn your head....
You are too young to fall asleep for ever;
And when you sleep you remind me of the dead.”

Siegfried Sassoon, The War Poems

Post-conflict literature and its emerging significance

The emergence of post-conflict literature as a field within literary studies is a testament to the evolving role of literature during and after times of strife. It represents a self-conscious examination of literature’s capacity to interrogate and explore the legacies of political conflict worldwide. At its core is the belief that literature offers a unique lens through which we can understand the world and gain insights into our social well-being.

As Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” demonstrated, literature can serve as a vehicle for addressing traumatic events indirectly. Foer used the lens of an autistic boy searching for answers about his father’s death on September 11, providing an allegorical exploration of an event too emotionally confronting to approach more directly.

Voices from conflict zones

Tetyana Ogarkova, a Ukrainian literary scholar and journalist, highlights the challenges faced by writers and readers during military action. Writing for the Guardian, she states: “We write and read to understand reality.” The profound impact of war on one’s ability to think and dream, reiterates the difficulty of maintaining creativity when confronted with the stark realities of war. Nevertheless, she underlines the enduring importance of literature in helping us understand and invent reality, even in the darkest of times.

Read: Askold Melnyczuk remembers Victoria Amelina as Ukraine war rages

Author Victoria Amelina, who tragically died in a Ukrainian airstrike, exemplified the role of literature in documenting war crimes as author and Arrowsmith Press Askold Melnyczuk told me this week. Her work stands as a testament to the power of words to bear witness and seek justice.

What the experts say: literature as a platform for discussion

A Digital Media Company creative content specialist, Julie Keating, underlines the enduring value of books as a means of communication during times of division. She told How To Be Books that these works provide a platform for expressing opinions and fostering discussions, where readers can engage with ideas without interruption or censorship. The permanence of written words allows for a fair and honest exchange of ideas.

“[Books] are concrete meaning that quotes and ideas cannot be swayed or used in any other way than written.”

Julie Keating, Digital Media Company Creative Content Specialist

While Rebecca Forster, a USA Today bestselling author, offers a contrasting perspective, suggesting that during the heat of conflict, books may not hold as much immediate relevance. However, she recognises their significance in the aftermath, adding: “Books will matter after the dust settles, scholars write about and analyze the conflict, novelists are inspired by hindsight.”

A path to empathy and understanding

Hannah Gomez, a doctoral candidate in language, reading, and culture at the University of Arizona, stresses the power of literature to prevent conflict by fostering empathy, critical thinking, and perspective-taking. The Kevin Anderson & Associates Cultural Accuracy and Sensitivity Senior Editor points out the importance of seeking literature from diverse voices and perspectives, enabling readers to better understand both the context of war and the lives of those affected by it.

“When the conflict has already hit, I don’t pretend to think that handing out books to people fleeing bombs is useful […] but I do think that for those of us who don’t live where the conflict is taking place, it is our social responsibility to read literature in order to understand the context of the conflict AND the lives of the people whom the conflict is affecting.”

Hannah Gomez, Kevin Anderson & Associates Cultural Accuracy Senior Editor

Inviting empathy through literature

Christine Stoddard, a published author and essayist, underscores literature’s ability to invite readers into the hearts and minds of others. The Quail Bell Magazine founder adds: “We enter a frame of mind and step into a heart that may differ greatly from our own.”

“It is a mental and emotional journey in making others possible. Often, it encourages us to have regard for others’ experiences, versus pity, perplexity, or anger.”

Christine Stoddard, Quail Bell Magazine Founder

From a generational point of view, publishing strategist Tresa Chambers, advocates for literature as a tool to bring greater understanding between the divide. Books offer a respite from the overwhelming deluge of social media and provide a means to broaden perspectives and develop empathy.

“During times of conflict, people are bombarded with so many messages from different sources. Reading literature that focuses on the perspective of individuals going through conflict can create empathy and broaden perspectives.”

Tresa Chambers, publishing strategist and Literary Advocate

The educational impact

At the same time, Kathryn Starke, Creative Minds Publications CEO and a former teacher, recognises the vital role of literature in elementary schools during times of conflict. Children’s books teach valuable life lessons and provide a lens into societal issues, allowing young readers to better understand the world around them.

“Since classrooms are often a lens into society, incorporating books to teach make an impact in readers of all ages.”

Kathyrn Starke, Creative Minds Publications CEO

Literature as a source of hope

Finally, E.L. Johnson, a historical mystery writer for Dragonblade Publishing, acknowledges that in times of struggle for survival, literature may not be the primary concern. Yet, the London Seasonal Book Club founder draws attention to literature’s ability to offer hope and distraction, inspiring, entertaining, and amusing readers during tumultuous times.

“[It’s] important we don’t underestimate the power of a few words on a page. A good book can be life-changing.”

E.L. Johnson, Author

Consequently, the role of literature during times of conflict is multifaceted. It offers insight, empathy, and a platform for discussion. Whether through direct reflection on the horrors of war or indirect allegorical exploration, literature remains a powerful tool for understanding, documenting, and coping with the complexities of our world, even in the darkest of times. As we navigate through times of turmoil, the written word continues to provide solace, understanding, and a glimmer of hope.

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