7 Books About Life After a Civil War
From the Biafran War to Nakba, Hasanthika Sirisena, author of "Dark Tourist," on what happens once the fighting has stopped
I remember traveling in the north of Sri Lanka, two years after the civil war, in areas where some of the worst fighting had taken place, and seeing yellow caution tape cordoning of large tracts of land. Signs warned in several languages of land mines. Later, I sat, safely ensconced in a Colombo café, as the leader of an NGO showed me pictures of women, protected by nothing more than plastic visors, crouched over piles of dirt and sand with implements that looked surprisingly like the kinds of rakes and hoes you find at a local Home Depot. The work clearing the land of mines, she told me, would likely take two decades.
I started working on my latest collection, Dark Tourist, after that 2011 trip as a way of exploring aftermath. Once the fighting has stopped, the ceasefire arranged, the peace treaty signed we turn our attention to the next conflict, too often ignoring the repercussions of the trauma and the attempts to heal. I wanted to explore the ways that grief both marks us and also the ways we manage to survive, to persevere, and to reckon with and make stories of our memories.
I have over the course of writing about Sri Lanka, about my family’s immigration to North Carolina, and my own struggles with recognizing and learning to live and find joy in my queer identity, turned to other writers as models. The following books are extraordinary in their scope, their willingness to unflinchingly face brutality, and their attempts to reckon with the toll of war and conflict—particularly on women. Some of the books explore the impact of conflict on individuals who are trying to manage deep traumas. Others document the impact on generations one or two decades removed from the fighting. All the works are testament, to the need for fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry to document and give voice long after the journalists and the NGOs decamp to other hot zones.
A Passage North by Anuk Arudpragasm
Anuk Arudpragasm’s novel A Passage North begins with an invocation to the present:
“The present, we assume is eternally before us, one of the few things in life from which we cannot be parted.”
The novel goes on to carefully unravel that opening assertion. The present of the protagonist, Krishnan, is impinged on by multiple losses: the death of his father in a bombing during the height of the civil war; the estrangement of a lover, an activist who refuses to return to Sri Lanka; the imminent death of his aging grandmother; and his duty to her former caretaker. As Krishnan undertakes the titular voyage, the novel transforms into a meditation on loss and grief and also a reckoning in the ways his sorrow often blinds all of us to the suffering around us.
The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui
In a reversal of the traditional immigrant story, Thi Bui, in her graphic memoir, sets out to understand why her parents, both refugees from Vietnam, have failed her and her siblings. Bui’s delicate ink wash drawings provide a careful and detailed reconstruction of her father and mother’s experiences during the Vietnam war and their losses: the separation from family members, exile from home, the death of a child. As the memoir progresses, it becomes clear that Bui’s intent is not merely to document but to reconstruct, to revision, and finally, with deep care and compassion, to make her parents’ story truly part of her own.
Don’t Come Back by Lina Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas
Lina Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas genre-bending essay collection combines Colombian myth, the history of the country’s nearly five decades of civil war, and personal history. But the heart of the collection is Cabeza-Vanegas herself. Her fierceness and resourcefulness manifest itself not just in her will to survive and tell the stories of her family but in her determination to go beyond the newspaper clips and forefront and make visible a history that is too often ignored or reduced to clichés about drug trafficking and guerilla war.
The Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez, translated by Megan McDowell
A young schoolgirl slices away pieces of her body. A young woman steps through the doors of a house and is never seen again. A feral boy eats his neighbor’s cat alive in front of her. Each of the fabulist horror stories in Enriquez’s collection is deeply rooted in the aftermath of Argentina’s decades of dictatorship and the Dirty War. What makes the stories remarkable is the way that Enriquez shifts subtly between the fantastical and the real creating stories that unsettle not simply because of their graphic depictions of violence, but because it becomes hard to tell what is real and what is the result of trauma to psyches that have been warped by decades of exposure to war and to terror.
Grass by Keum Sek Gendry-Kim, translated by Janet Hong
In this graphic novel, Gendry-Kim recounts the story of Lee Ok-Sun, a former Korean “comfort woman.” Gendry-Kim stays close to her source material providing a recounting of Ok-Sun’s early childhood, to her parents’ choice to put her up for adoption in hopes that a new family could give her a better life, to her kidnapping at the age of 15 by the Japanese Army and her experience as a sex slave. Gendry-Kim’s clean, elegant black and white drawings renders Ok-Sun’s story without editorializing or sensationalism. The result is both a masterwork of literary journalism and a testament, a gifted artist ceding her extraordinary talent to give voice to someone who otherwise might not be seen or heard.
Happiness, Like Water by Chinelo Okparanta
The ten stories in Okparanta’s Lambda award-winning collection split between Nigeria and America. Civil war and unrest mar and mark her protagonists’ lives forcing them to make choices and accept strictures out of fear of reprisal in a culture that accepts violence as part of life. The assault at the heart of “On Opeto Street” reveals the truth of a husband’s devotion to his dutiful wife. The protagonist of “America” lies in order to build a new life in America with her female lover only to come to regret her untruth. The child protagonist of “Fairness” inflicts a deep cruelty on a family servant out of a mistaken need to meet a standard of beauty. Throughout the collection, Okparanta’s portraits are deeply empathic and felt, recognizing the ultimate dignity of her characters in the face of inhumanity.
Minor Detail by Adania Shibli, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette
The first half of the novel, set in Israel after the 1948 Nakba, focuses on a brutal reconstruction of a now nearly forgotten war crime. The second half follows a young researcher trying to uncover the truth. Part war narrative, part detective story, this novel is ultimately a smart, brutal, and occasionally witty deconstruction of the illusion of boundaries: those drawn on a map and those that make us believe we are civilized and morally superior. Minor Details is a slim novel but profoundly ambitious. The final, surprise ending also hinges on a careless gesture, one that upends everything that comes before it.