Writing on the Edge: Great Contemporary Writers on the Front Line of Crisis
“To say this of human beings is to say both the best and the worst. They can get used to anything,” Martin Amis writes in his essay about violence in Cali, Colombia. As if to prove him right, in “In Another Life,” Tracy Chevalier, author of Girl with a Pearl Earring, describes her clumsy interviews with rape victims at a Doctors Without Borders/ Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) clinic in Burundi. And in “Quietly in Hope” Joanne Harris describes facing teenagers with machine guns at a roadblock in Congo-Brazzaville, making it easy to forget that the woman riding in a land cruiser with MSF staff is the same woman who penned Chocolat.
From observing mental health patients in Armenia to meeting with malaria victims in Cambodia, these 14 essays and myriad photographs examine artists like Daniel Day-Lewis and writers like DBC Pierre and Jim Crace reporting from the front lines of MSF medical sites. This beautifully designed collection has the outward appearance of a coffee table book and the content of humanitarian treatise. The coupling of impassioned essays with Tom Craig’s striking photographs succeeds because even though readers never forget for a moment that this book is about the MSF, they cannot escape being awed by the stories of what human beings can and will endure.
The danger in reviewing a book where a portion of the sale profits will go to a nonprofit organization is that no one wants to be the jerk taking money away from a good cause—especially one like the MSF, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999. (For those unfamiliar with MSF’s work, it is an international medical organization that provides aid in countries around the world.) However, in this case the essays and the art reflect the nobleness of the organization’s mission.
Amis’s aforementioned essay, “The Return of Death” is notable not only for the characters he meets as he shadows the MSF, but more so for his insight into a culture of machismo and violence. His encounters with men hell-bent on venganza, revenge, leaves him almost immune to shock. A man who has murdered eight people is “nothing much” when compared to one who has killed well over a hundred.
In “Cutting and Tearing,” Minette Walters uses her crime writing sensibilities to describe an MSF operating theater in Sierra Leone where she unexpectedly aids in an emergency birth. “I have no medical pretensions at all,” she states. “I may write about murder but I’m not that keen on blood.” Walters’s self-aware humility is echoed throughout the essays. These writers are not doctors, but they are on the ground reporting what they’ve seen with the unflinching honesty and grit of war correspondents.
The collection ends with Danny Boyle’s experience in Uzbekistan “Disco Shoes and a Missing Sea.” Boyle uses his movie director’s eye to capture the environmental desolation of the saline flats in Muynak and the bodily devastation of multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis. Despite, “the intense sadness that hovers malignantly above this land,” Boyle infuses his essay with gentle humor and hope.
The writing could be complete without the photos that follow, just as Craig’s art could stand on its own, but together the words and images are haunting. A.A. Gill’s observation, “I am aware of the irony of how ancient, wise, and calm starving children always look,” echoes in Craig’s photo of a young African girl seated on a bright carpet. Her floral print shirt is on backwards and her too-thin legs stick out from a colorful dress. Her gaze at the camera seems unflinching and ancient.
Throughout the collection a pattern becomes obvious: people want their stories told. From men in Colombia rushing to get their guns to pose for a photo, to an immigrant in Morocco beseeching author Ali Smith to “please tell people,” across countries people do not want to be forgotten. This collection is just one way of trying to make sure that doesn’t happen.