Narrating Forgettingby Hilary Plum
It’s hard to live now
It’s the week of the fifteenth anniversary of the start of the Iraq War, if you mark the history of American violence in Iraq as starting in March 2003. After the sanctions of the 1990s, after the war in ’91, after the Iran–Iraq War and the US arming both sides, after the CIA’s involvement in Saddam’s rise to power.
I’m reading Claudia Rankine’s 2004 book Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, a poetic document of the televised spectacle of the early Bush years, an American existence the poet maps through agonized presence, encounters with mortality, psychiatric medication. Late in the book this line appears: “It’s hard to live now.” A line appears: a book is always in the present tense, until the book itself is lost to history. The waters of the Tigris, we’re told, ran black with ink and red with blood in 1258 when the Mongols sacked Baghdad and its library. This line appears in a passage that begins with the speaker trying and failing to get a cab: “At the bus stop I say, It’s hard to get a cab now.” A stranger responds, “say[ing], as if to anyone, It’s hard to live now.” The passage moves abruptly into what was then the current war:
Hers is an Operation Iraqi Freedom answer. The war is on and the Department of Homeland Security has decided we have an elevated national-threat level, a code-orange alert. I could say something, but… what is there to say since rhetorically it’s not about our oil under their sand but about freeing Iraqis from Iraqis and Osama is Saddam and Saddam is “that man who tried to kill my father” and the weapons of mass destruction are, well, invisible and Afghanistan is Iraq and Iraq is Syria and we see ourselves only through our own eyes and… the coalition is inside Baghdad where the future is the threat the Americans feel they can escape though there is no escaping the Americans because war, this war, is about peace: “The war in Iraq is really about peace. Trying to make the world more peaceful. This victory in Iraq, when it happens, will make the world more peaceful.”
The slippage between absent cab and distant war is the writer’s—the stranger has not said a thing about Iraq; the scene on the street is American and mundane—and is presented here but not commented on. As the fact of race, the possibility of discrimination amid passing cabs, seems present but not remarked upon. It’s hard to live now, but much easier at an American bus stop than in Iraq. Rankine invites this tension—exposing the American stranger’s truth as less than true—but notes it only by redoubling it on a greater scale, by concluding with George W. Bush’s doublespeak (“the war in Iraq is really about peace,” from a speech in April 2003). Bush’s lie is grotesque in its magnitude over decades and, as we reread his words, in our lack of shock at the lie.
Even the dead will not be safe
“We are in the summer of ’91,” the narrator of Etel Adnan’s 2009 story “Master of the Eclipse” tells the reader. “Bombs are falling mercilessly on Iraq; the country is being destroyed; from the start the process looked irreversible and the outcome bound to be annihilation.” The story follows a friendship between the narrator and an Iraqi Kurdish poet, from an initial meeting in the ’70s to a literary festival in 1991, and then, after the poet’s death but as his work has been seized on by an American professor of literature, into the present day, the newest war, the current war:
Now, some fifteen years later, I am again hearing bombs falling on Baghdad. They are shattering my windows all the way here in California. Thousands of dead already and the war is at its beginning, and the National Library, with its medieval manuscripts, has been set on fire and a big chunk of humanity’s memory has been destroyed; all this before large-scale killing has even started. Who is trying to eradicate the past and the present of the Arabs?
“My country has defeated Time,” the American professor asserts. The dialogue between the narrator and the American critic surges into philosophy, mysticism, dream, an exchange in poetic terms whose balance is human life. “We made of the present our empire,” the American says.
The narrator thinks of Walter Benjamin’s Theses, and quotes: “even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins.” The angel of history hurtles through the last pages of the story—“that visionary angel,” Adnan reminds us, “[who] is seeing the chain of catastrophes which affected humanity as the unfolding of a single and continuous event.”
At the end of the story the living writer dreams of the dead. In a dream the dead poet appears to her; in the dream the angels the Iraqi poet wrote of in life are betraying him. “‘They are devouring me,’ he was shouting, ‘they are starting to take my skin off, I am the meat of their banquet, which is being held by the Tigris, in the City of the Balance.’”
Out of every text, even his own, angels descend on the poet. As we read the dead poet speaks in the present tense; in the present tense he is devoured.
The dream of fiction imagines us into the endless present of despair.
The back of the hand
When I’m asked to go somewhere and speak of my first book, I find that I do not remember it. If I reread it, I recognize it—it’s never a stranger to me—but I don’t seem to know it anymore.
The novel imagines a group of friends, Americans of my own generation who make up a sort of new Weather Underground. Futile, not really idealistic. To protest the war in Iraq they set off a series of small bombs. While writing the novel I would daily read news and reportage from Iraq, in this way bearing some form of witness, living a sense of implication that it seemed these characters—imaginary subjects in history whom I created and then, to my surprise, forgot—should embody. Sometimes when asked I’ve called this a practice of attention. The novel was a means to know how absent the news from Iraq was on the home front—not because of any lack of war but because few here listened or asked one another to listen. Few of us “went there”; those few often went over and over again. It was easy to live. The cabs took you anywhere.
I spent four or five years reading and writing this way. When the novel was accepted for publication I felt a new sense of responsibility toward the sources I’d used. I reviewed the manuscript to make sure I hadn’t somehow plagiarized someone, that another’s words didn’t appear somewhere, unattributed in my text. Sometimes it was hard to tell. I could no longer remember which images I’d imagined and which I’d read of or seen on a screen. I’d read especially deeply Anthony Shadid’s great 2005 book Night Draws Near: Iraq’s People in the Shadow of America’s War; there was one image, the aftermath of a bombing, that I believed I’d glimpsed in his work but which I never found again. At around this time Shadid died. He was, as ever, reporting, this time trying to enter Syria, its uprising or burgeoning civil war. This was 2012. There are few ways to speak of the absence of his work since.
The novel was published in March 2013, the ten-year anniversary of the war. When I stopped writing it, Iraq disappeared from me. Not Iraq because Iraq was never present to me. But whatever I had practiced seeing—tried to see—was now obscure. If I didn’t seek out news of Iraq I would rarely encounter it. Soon I found it harder to follow the stories—a few events occurred that I didn’t quite grasp and then their effects were hard to comprehend. I didn’t know what form of knowledge I’d had but I was losing it.
Soon the war in Afghanistan became the longest war in American history. The ongoing war in Syria began.
In 2013 my husband fell ill with a cancer that then metastasized. For some years he was receiving chemotherapy and our lives seemed to occur in the two-week cycles the treatment dictated. Every two weeks, start again. Sometimes I would have a thought, a phrase, that seemed worth writing down, worth not losing. I would go to my study and open a notebook and write. More than once, I found that on the facing page of the notebook I had written the same thought, a week or two or four before: the very same phrase that had just occurred to me. I hadn’t remembered—I’d thought this was new—but there it was, in my own handwriting.
Perhaps what I mean is a line from the poem “The Stranger’s Song” by Ghassan Zaqtan, translated from the Arabic by Fady Joudah: “And something of life on the back of the hand / was narrating / forgetting.”
Lately, in the days of Trump, Bush and his administration are being rehabilitated. Onscreen Bush looks gentle; pundits honor him. They or we obscure the past, though for others it remains the present. Even many on the so-called left in the US seem to think there was more dignity then, more democracy, norms. They are not thinking or speaking of Iraq, or if they say the word Iraq, it is a synonym for American failure, not a place where Iraqis live and where American soldiers have very recently, most recently, killed thousands, hundreds of thousands, one million people. Lately the American left seems to use the word Iraq with a sort of inverted pride, as if this word proves they have always been right about what their country is. About who we are as Americans, though usually we mean other Americans, not ourselves. Here Iraq means the follies of neo-imperialism. Iraq means senseless, cynical tragedy. Iraq means lies and doublespeak and “preemptive strikes” and the failures of internationalism. Iraq means something Americans did. If you want Iraq to mean Iraq, a land and culture and history where the people of Iraq live, you may have a hard time.
In a 2017 essay, Fady Joudah describes this “default mode” of “necropolitics” as an anti-Arab racism that includes and allows for and extends beyond the case of Iraq. Joudah notes how “pro-Arab pieces” in American letters tend to be “pieces about Arab suffering and humiliation—that is, pieces wherein the Arab remains, with an air of inevitability, outside modernity, outside beauty.” Through these representations Arabs tend to appear as already dead or less than fully alive, here and now. “Arabs are only alive on the surface of the liberal psyche,” he writes: “They bob up bloated, are sometimes acknowledged, other times swiped aside.”
At the end of the essay Joudah prescribes a practice for readers to counter the necropolitics and negative stereotypes of the Arab they ceaselessly encounter, to begin to know beauty and life instead. Repeat this line, he instructs: “The Arab is beautiful.” Of this practice, he writes, “you will see how it changes you.”
Try it now.
Peter Dimock’s 2013 novel George Anderson: Notes for a Love Song in Imperial Time also prescribes to the reader a specific practice, a practice intended to “[rid] the self of its attachment to empire and [create] a true reciprocity of equal historical selves.” The novel is a response—at once searing and intricate, impossible to live yet precisely envisioned—to the atrocity of torture perpetrated by the Bush administration throughout the “war on terror.” Dimock situates this war’s racism and torture in the larger history of American racism and imperial violence. The structure of his proposed practice returns the reader repeatedly to the acts of brutality and torture that constitute the history of American slavery.
“How do we devise a method for living the present moment within a frame of redemptive, universal history?” the novel asks. The novel is epistolary: the practice is being prescribed to a particular reader, who is a fictional stand-in for Daniel Levin, an attorney for the Office of Legal Counsel who played a significant role in the years of the torture memos. Levin was brought on in 2004, in the wake of the 2002 memos that had authorized techniques long prohibited as torture, his task to answer the question of which techniques should be allowed, which forbidden. He undertook this task bodily. He requested that members of the Special Forces perform on him the techniques in question, and he declared many of them, notably waterboarding, to be torture. Yet the memorandum he wrote as a result was undermined by a single footnote, which the White House and CIA apparently insisted upon. This footnote effectively canceled the memo’s arguments against torture and allowed torture to retain its legal status, thus shielding its perpetrators from justice. In the novel, the you addressed throughout is this lawyer, who is in the unusual position of having experienced torture, named it as torture, then permitted the continuation of its legal practice.
The novel’s syntax tells us that you must be the reader; the reader he addresses is you. We are addressed in this site of complicit responsibility, compromised agency. “I do not know how to live this history,” the narrator writes to his interlocutor, this agent of torture with whom he identifies, lamenting their shared place in the ongoing history of empire. “My complicity summons angels singing—I know that you and I are the same person.”
Yet the novel manifests a radical hope. Sometimes on the left the work of literature is described as a form of alternative history. Future readers will know that in these days of empire, corruption, war, despair, and annihilation, some offered voices in resistance, some gave form in their work to profoundly alternative values and visions. Alternative history: I have thought or said this myself. Yet what good is this? Instead I want a vision like Dimock’s, in which there is a way to “[live] the present moment within a frame of redemptive, universal history.” Literature is an alternative present you practice now.
“History is a discipline with which to dissolve an imperial self,” the narrator of George Anderson argues. “History is a discipline to think from a place where you are not.” In the novel this place is imagined as beyond imperialism, a “society of equal historical selves,” a present in which justice, reciprocity, and love—love especially—may be realized. The novel knows that it doesn’t know how to get there, but it senses this place may be both origin and destination. If you change yourself, you may see it. You will see how it changes you.
Love recognizes then changes you.
Readers will perform neither Joudah’s nor Dimock’s practice. Not to the letter, or not at all. Both writers know this, and yet both offer a discipline no one will follow. The only space in which these practices take form is literature. The reader imagines what it would be to be the one who changes. What if? I imagine who I might be in a place where I am not. What language may be shared there? Literature is a place where you and I may still write our history.
What I never knew
In that first book I tried to turn journalism into fiction. The novel’s characters read and discuss journalism from the Iraq War and, tentatively, they act in protest. My second novel (published in spring 2018) extended this inquiry to ask how we read and write “news from elsewhere”: the problems of perspective, subjectivity, power, and agency that we enter as soon as we read. The novel is made up of places, conflicts, situations from all over the world that someone is trying to report on, to report back from. I wanted to represent this fragmented multiplicity and failing responsibility: a chorus of despair that cannot be wholly heard. The novel is about the American reader in a global context; the aim of the novel is to situate the American reader in the so-called war on terror and find a way to speak of what we fail to see, to hear, to know.
Through the years I wrote and revised this novel, I read not only journalism but more and more literature that was beginning to emerge from and speak of this time, these wars, what it means to live now. Works like Wafaa Bilal’s Shoot an Iraqi (2008), Khaled Mattawa’s Tocqueville (2010), Julie Carr’s 100 Notes on Violence (2010), Jena Osman’s Public Figures (2012), Rob Halpern’s Music for Porn (2012), Philip Metres’s Sand Opera (2015), Roy Scranton’s War Porn (2016), Eric Fair’s Consequence (2016), Hayan Charara’s Something Sinister (2016)—a list that will never be comprehensive. One could always return to Etel Adnan’s The Arab Apocalypse (1989). And in these years literature from Iraq that spoke of the recent US war began to appear in English, including Sinan Antoon’s The Corpse Washer, translated by the author in 2013, Hassan Blasim’s story collection The Corpse Exhibition, translated by Jonathan Wright (2014), and the work of Dunya Mikhail. Recent months have seen Antoon’s The Baghdad Eucharist, translated by Maia Tabet, and Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad, in Wright’s translation.
While writing this second novel I grew preoccupied with how hard it was even to read journalism, a seemingly accessible genre: how much of the work of journalism the reader—and sometimes the journalist—may misread or avoid. The novel moves quickly among settings and situations in an exaggerated echo of the daily newspaper and its disorientation, where the story of a new US drone base in Niger yields to the write-up of a wedding in New York, which yields to a follow-up on the long water crisis in Flint. What happens when the reader accepts a brief paragraph as knowledge? What of the language of facts do we truly hear? These questions begin somewhere and proceed through #fakenews. These questions begin in an appetite I too share, a desire to know, a habit of consuming something I treat as knowledge. I wrote the novel to try to learn who I am when I read.
In summer 2017 as I revised the manuscript, I felt how rapidly history was in motion. In its earlier versions the novel concluded, for example, before the rise of ISIS. A figure like Erik Prince, formerly of Blackwater, shadows the book, his private militias threading the map, his Islamophobia scarring the globe. In 2013, when I finished a first draft, Prince had nearly disappeared from American horizons; in 2018 he may be at his most influential, his sister in the president’s cabinet, his voice reaching Trump’s ear. His recent proposals include private forces to block refugees passing through Libya into Europe and a British East India–style private company to administer Afghanistan and execute its war.
The novel includes a backstory set in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In the week I made my last edits, Houston was flooded by Hurricane Harvey.
Who could respond to this iterating history? How to speak of the “unfolding of a single and continuous event” we all may be living? Is the word I mean surviving or dying or living?
“How can I remember what I never knew?” I wrote in that first novel, trying to see something of Iraq and the war my country was waging there, the history we were daily inflicting. A form of this line appears anew in a recent essay by Philip Metres, “Imagining Iraq: On the Fifteenth Anniversary of the Iraq War,” in which he considers the challenges of journalism and literature in the hands and minds of American readers:
The answer to antiseptic coverage (Gulf War) or embedded coverage (Iraq War)… is not merely to provide images of corpses and flag-draped coffins, better body counts and eviscerated flesh. We need to unmake our own imperial narrative, to dial down its noise. Part of that dialing down will require us to listen to Iraqis themselves, who will help us hear again, to remember what we have never known, so that we might not repeat the disasters of the past.
In its original publication the text of the final sentence is a link, sending the reader to an essay by M. Lynx Qualey on “The Literature of Forgetting and Remembering in Iraq” (Qualey edits and writes the exceptional online resource “Arabic Literature (In English)”).
In other words, the question isn’t mine. The question means I need to ask the question.
The current war
On March 5, 2007, a car bomb detonated on al-Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad, site of the historic booksellers’ market, famed as literary center. Thirty people were killed and a hundred or more wounded. Soon after, a bookseller in San Francisco, Beau Beausoleil, began a movement called al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here, which would eventually expand to include annual commemorative readings around the world, an anthology of poetry and prose, and other international works of literature, film, visual art, book arts, and translation. I’ve long known of the movement, but when I received an email in January 2018—a general encouragement to organize a local event in March—I was surprised. Is this, I thought, still happening? Of all the losses of that war, do people still mark and mourn that one loss? I heard myself form this question and found it monstrous—this lucky relationship to loss in which one needn’t distinguish, one can prefer to remember vaguely the abstract, but not agonizingly the concrete, the absence here and now. I could see how I needed to remember here and now—how memory is a practice, a discipline that needs you.
I’ve taken this essay’s phrase “the current war” from one of my favorite antiwar poems: “Yellow Rose” by Mark Leidner, from his 2011 book Beauty Was the Case That They Gave Me. “I am against the current war the most / because while it unfolds / I live, and I love / I suppose.” This afterthought of “I suppose” is what makes the line so memorable—an awareness of the hypothetical quality of awareness, of the self’s imperfect formulations. The poem realizes love may necessarily take form as a joke, a shrug.
The poem begins in the cruel pleasures of spectacle:
When it snows I get a boner.
Whenever those tornadoes on the news
lay those colonies of mobile
homes to waste
I get a boner.
On the second page, after a pretty vivid list of things that give the speaker a boner or in whose presence “a boner’s got,” a turn occurs:
and yet there are some things
that do not give me a boner:
the level of tranquility
a Jeep of body bags achieves
jostling off along a twisting gravel
path, bound for home;
the bracing red and white of flags
crisply creased, handed over.
Faces ceasing to exist
the moment they come into being
while a bomb is blowing up
their neighborhood, people being
shot like dogs, like nothing,
on the ground, nothing blood
is just a pool around.
The poem knows how we read, who and how we see: before you these distant faces only come into being as they’re dying, as you take part in the pornography of their dying. At its end the poem returns to a joking mode it means seriously, evidenced by the phrase “to completion”—a sly joke about coming that serves as a gesture of real longing:
I am against the current war the most
because while it unfolds
I live, and I love
I suppose. But who could possibly care
what I have to say about this war?
I could say anything here,
it wouldn’t matter. I could say,
“I am Motortrend Car of the Year.”
“You are the yellow rose
corkscrewing out of the slippery rocks
that gird the river of black water.”
“I have seen a thousand moons
wax and wane to completion
since we last touched.”
Since we last touched. If we could touch. If we were here, now. These last lines make fun of a love they still long for, love we can’t speak of without exposing our absurdity and our complicity in violence continually, spectacularly unfolding.
Insistent, desperate, Dimock’s narrator writes: “I am requesting the touch of your words in the moving air (and the touch of your hand) in the hope that they will help me learn to live my complicity honorably.”
Rankine’s book concludes in a forceful state of presence, a state that asks you—the stranger, the reader—to join her. This poem, too, longs for and offers touch:
… Paul Celan said that the poem was no different from a handshake. … The handshake is our decided ritual of both asserting (I am here) and handing over (here) a self to another. Hence the poem is that—Here. I am here. This conflation of the solidity of presence with the offering of this same presence perhaps has everything to do with being alive.
… Here both recognizes and demands recognition. I see you, or here, he said to her. In order for something to be handed over a hand must extend and a hand must receive. We must both be here in this world in this life in this place indicating the presence of.
Here there is no touch, only text; the handshake remains figurative, abstract. Yet, the poem asks, what if?
“Your lover’s window / has not slept / or overlooked you,” concludes Zaqtan’s and Joudah’s “The Stranger’s Song,” and through the conflicting double meaning of “overlook” (to look down at, to see from above; to fail to see) the lover’s gaze is both absent and present, both negated and still here. Love’s forms are not always possible. Yet there are forms in which the impossible may exist.
Literature is the practice, I am learning, of such forms. Despair sings into the flesh and literature practices a form love may yet take.
HILARY PLUM is the author of the novel Strawberry Fields, winner of the Fence Modern Prize in Prose (2018); the work of nonfiction Watchfires (2016), winner of the 2018 GLCA New Writers Award; and the novel They Dragged Them Through the Streets (2013). She teaches creative writing at Cleveland State University and in the NEOMFA program and is associate director of the CSU Poetry Center. With Zach Savich she edits the Open Prose Series at Rescue Press.