With both Easter and Passover happening this week, we’re invited to reflect on past suffering, and to ask ourselves how we can best prevent it in the future. The dropping of the world’s largest non-nuclear bomb this week ironically and painfully coincided with this week of reflection. Second World War veteran Kildare Dobbs writes in his searing anti-war manifesto in Reading the Times, “To think about any kind of warfare with less than the whole of our mind and imagination is obscene. This is the worst treason.” So, how do we stop thinking about war in the abstract? We must connect with the people who are suffering on a human level, and one of the best ways to do that is to read their stories. This week’s book club invites you to read difficult but rewarding volumes that chronicle genocide and attempted genocide, survival, and a human spirit that can be both unspeakably disturbing and impossibly beautiful. These books encourage us to say “never again,” and mean it.
1. Remains of Life by Wu He, translated by Michael Berry ($28): On October 27, 1930, members of Taiwan’s Atayal tribe killed 134 Japanese people during a sports meet at an elementary school on the Atayal reservation. Japan responded with a heavily armed militia, airplanes, and poisonous gas that slaughtered most of the tribe, leaving a few remnants to live in the mountains. Decades later, in the 1990s, writer Chen Guocheng decided to visit Atayal territory to determine exactly what had happened in an anthropological study.
“I was forced into the army…for the first time I clearly felt that on our land there existed such a thing as a ‘nation’ — an entity in which a system of authority and power is embodied in, and transformed into, a system of violence — that invisibly controls the heart and resources of this island nation…” Adopting the pseudonym Wu He (Dancing Crane), he interviewed the descendants of a people and culture nearly lost to genocide but found them suspicious of the outsider, asking him why he wasn’t researching the crimes of his own people, the Han Chinese (a question the author gives much thought to over the course of the work). Wu He is determined to insinuate himself into the Atayal ways, living among his “subjects” as best he can.
The effect of atrocity is hard to properly voice, and the heartache in the book takes on the form of essentially a novel-long paragraph, a stream-of-consciousness tale of remembrance in the voices of the author-turned-fictional-character Wu He and three other characters named Girl, Elder, and Cousin. Remains of Life was called a masterpiece of Chinese experimental literature when it was originally published in 1999 in China due to its unique style, philosophical tone, and imaginative language. It’s now available in English for the first time. It’s not an easy read — nothing about genocide is “easy” — but it’s a valuable one.
2. Music of the Ghosts by Vaddey Ratner ($26): Between 1975 and 1979, Cambodia suffered a genocide of approximately two million of its people. When Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime seized power at the end of the Cambodian Civil War, they instituted a program of forced labor, executed anyone deemed a political dissident (the “new people,” urban dwellers who were driven from the emptied cities to live in the countryside, were particularly suspect and mistreated), and condemned their citizens to death from disease and starvation. Vaddey Ratner, who as a small child lived through the genocide and became a refugee to the United States at the age of 11, follows up her critically acclaimed debut In the Shadow of the Banyan with this novel, which she calls a smot: a form of Buddhist chanting, a poem often sung in honor of the dead.
“Suteera wakes amidst the high grass to a tremor several meters away. She is confused for the first few seconds, thinking it music, the quiver of a plucked string. One of those ancient-looking instruments her father used to play for her when she was very little, a lullaby to help her sleep. She’s forgotten many things — the taste of real food, her father’s voice, who she was before her mother and brother died, before hunger and fear.” The story has some parallels to Ratner’s life, as 13-year-old Suteera escapes Cambodia near the end of the regime with her aunt Amara: “There is nothing, no one, to tie them to their homeland. There is no more home, only this land of open graves.”
Settling in America, their lives are much better, but Suteera cannot forget her father’s disappearance. She returns to Cambodia 24 years later, after her aunt’s death, to visit a Buddhist temple that houses the memorial her aunt donated to the victims. At the memorial, Suteera meets Tun, a musician who claims to have the instruments her father gave him during their imprisonment, and Dr. Narunn, Tun’s friend, who left a monastery to run a clinic. All of them must deal with the guilt and loss they feel over the past. Madeleine Thien, author of Do Not Say We Have Nothing, writes, “Vaddey Ratner speaks to the choices confronting all of us, and she does so with compassion, forewarning and courageous wisdom.”
3. Stolen Girls: Survivors of Boko Haram Tell Their Story by Wolfgang Bauer, translated by Eric Frederick Trump, photographed by Andy Sprya ($25): One of the worst crimes against humanity in recent memory is that of Boko Haram’s terrible violation of the women of Nigeria, beginning in April 2014, when the radical commando unit kidnapped 276 girls from the village of Chibok. Forcibly taken from their homes and the streets in horrifying attacks that left most of the men around them dead, they were forced to marry their attackers. Amazingly, in a triumph of ingenuity and spirit, many of the women managed to escape their oppressors, even those who were heavily pregnant from being brutally raped. In this book, German journalist Bauer interviews these survivors and invites them to share their necessary and powerful story with the world.
Award-winning journalist Bauer (Catholic Media Prize, Bayeux-Calvados Prize for War Correspondents) is best known for his work for the German newspaper Die Zeit. Here, he provides needed information and context about the conflict for those who want to expand their understanding of the events. Mostly, though, he lets the women speak for themselves, because the raw impact of their stories is enough to compel any reader to action. “The morning after Ahmed betrayed us, they whipped every girl my age ten times. Women the age of my mother they beat fifteen times. Children younger than I they whipped five times,” reports one woman of an earlier, failed escape attempt.
Not only are these stories powerful reminders of courage and humanity of these women, but they are also paired with arresting photographs. It’s a not-so-subtle reminder that we need to look victims and survivors of terrible atrocities in the eye — and to work to change our world and not be complicit in actions that make it impossible to do so.
What books ignite your compassion? Tag us in your next humane read @BritandCo.
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