Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Have You Lived Through a War?

As bombs continue to rain down in the Middle East and Egyptians are once again filling Tahrir Square, I am aware that I have never lived through a war in my neighbourhoods, not even a turf war.

In 2005, eighteen terrorists were arrested near Toronto.  They had plans to behead our prime minister and blow up the CBC headquarters and the Canadian Parliament Buildings.  They were somewhat inept though.  While training at a camp north of Toronto, they were monitored by 200 police.  Even their trainer was a police mole.  That's the closest I've been to an enemy attack since the Cuban missile crisis.

In a war, you might be surrounded by people who want you dead because you seem to belong to a different side.  They may fire rockets and bullets at you.  They might slice you with machetes.  You might also fire at them.  It's impersonal and also extremely personal.  I live in a neighbourhood of immigrants and refugees, people who have been in wars and have found their way to Canada where they can live with less daily, traumatizing fear.

One of my former students writes me a rambling email in the middle of the night. It includes these lines:

I know almost nothing about politics, history, or religion.  All I know is that my grandmother got a piece of grenade shrapnel in her breast, that my dad was shot at by a sniper, that the dog died of epilepsy after the war, that I haven't seen my uncle or cousin in 20 years, that I got beat up by groups of hooligans in Slovenia who would ask me if I am Muslim or Serbian then proceed to beat me up regardless of what I said (I am in fact technically both, and neither, since I know nothing about either and never practiced and neither did my parents).

He probably lived through war.

Our Canadian/American parents and grandparents probably lived through war.
Almost all of my grandmother's family lived through war in Europe.  A brother hid in Brussels, another in France.  The rest were murdered by Nazis.
My father lived through war as a US soldier in WW2.  A landmine blew off his foot.

My favourite Somali-Canadian hip-hop singer K'naan lived through war.  To face the trauma directly, he writes and sings.  He has no real faith in his "wavin' flag' - which always reverts to the pre-freedom non-waving:  "and then it goes back, and then it goes back, and then it goes back."

Andrei Codrescu gave a talk a few years back at the Key West Literary Seminar.  He is a novelist, poet, essayist, and NPR broadcaster originally from Romania.  His panel topic was "What does an immigrant writer know that a non-immigrant writer does not know?"  Among his answers were the following:
  • The immigrant writer knows that the non-immigrant writer doesn't know he's a non-immigrant writer.
  • The immigrant writer struggles and wrestles with language.  The non-immigrant writer takes his language for granted.
  • The immigrant writer knows more about pain, including the pain of Nazism, communism, Castroism, Pol Potism.
  • The non-immigrant writer knows about the pain of bad parenting, nervous breakdowns, divorce, the terrible career choice to be a writer, alcoholism.
  • The non-immigrant writer has the uneasy feeling that his suffering is inferior to the immigrant writer's.  

I don't like to compare suffering:  suffering is suffering, but I know I'm a non-immigrant writer, and I have not lived through war.

Have you?  

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