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The Literature of Conflicted Lands


February 15, 2012

Novelists Mirza Waheed, Roma Tearne, and Daisy Hasan on how novels help us understand the strife-filled regions of Asia.

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Photograph courtesy of Asia House London

Kashmir, Sri Lanka, and northeastern India have suffered through decades of conflict. What role can novelists play in calling the world’s attention to these often under-reported wars? And how are novelists able to express the trauma and distress that ordinary citizens may feel in conflicted regions? This past May, three novelists came together at the Asia House to discuss these and other issues.

Mirza Waheed was born and brought up in Srinagar, Kashmir. He moved to Delhi when he was eighteen to study English Literature at the University of Delhi. He also worked as a journalist in that city for four years. He came to London in 2001 to join the BBC’s Urdu Service. Waheed’s The Collaborator was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award last year.

Roma Tearne fled Sri Lanka at the age of ten, traveling to Britain where she has spent most of her life. She gained her Master′s degree at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, Oxford, and was the Leverhulme Artist in Residence at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Her most recent novel, The Swimmer, was long-listed for the 2011 Orange Prize.

Daisy Hasan grew up in Shillong, in northeast India. She spent her youth amidst the political turmoil of the 1980s, feeling a part of Shillong, yet set apart from it, given that she is ethnically from North India. Her first novel, The To-Let House, was long-listed for the 2008 Man Asia literary prize.

“The Literature of Conflicted Lands” was moderated by Andrew Feinstein, the South African writer and former ANC member of the country’s parliament. (He resigned in 2001 in protest at the ANC government’s refusal to allow an investigation into an arms deal that included allegations of high-level corruption.)

Feinstein opened the event with some grim facts: “The twentieth century saw the death of around 231,000,000 people in conflicts between and within states. Sometimes involving those states, sometimes involving non-state actors. The first decade of the twenty-first century has been no less bloody. Global military expenditure is estimated to have totaled 1.6 trillion dollars in 2010 alone. That is $235 for every person on the planet.

I grew up in the conflicted land of apartheid South Africa, far from Asia, where brutal violence enforced a system of legislated racism and oppression. The nature and impact of this system was made clear to me not by newspapers, which were heavily censored, or television—which, when it arrived in South Africa as late as 1976 was a thought-free zone. No news, no current affairs.

So instead, I suppose, the emotional trauma and the surreal nature of living in a society like this was conveyed by the writing of people like Alan Paton, Nadine Gordimer, Zakes Mda, J.M. Coetzee, and others. And that’s really where the insight into this society came from.

In considering and trying to comprehend the conflicted lands of Asia, we are extremely fortunate to have with us three exceptional writers.”

Conversation published courtesy of Asia House London

Andrew Feinstein: From your work I gather that brutal dehumanizations of the other are dependent on extraordinary misinformation and distortion. Is this something that each of you, as you’re writing books about what are very difficult circumstances, very difficult regions”is this something you’re conscious of, that you’re trying to restore in some ways, this loss of collective conscience?

Mirza Waheed: You look into it, the loss of collective conscience. You look into the moral landscape of these times and areas … what happens to normal behavior, the suspension of every day good behavior in a way which seems normal. We come to expect and then accept that this is how it’s going to be. It’s war, and these things happen in war. And then, as a novelist, as a writer, you do want to question that. And you want to explore … so how did we get to this place? What makes brutality banal? How do we come to accept violence as an everyday thing? And as a novelist, I want to explore those things and see … how do we come to a point where killing as many people as possible is a job? And what does it do to the person who’s doing the killing and, obviously, also to the people who are getting killed in that manner.

You know, we live in this strange, bizarre age where the Nobel peace laureate has ended up as a proud assassin. It does sound simplistic from, you know, a naïve and sentimental novelist but, if you think about it, it is quite strange that … How did we get to such a time, and come to process it as just another event? So, as far as fiction’s concerned, you look into those things, you ask questions. I don’t know if there are any answers, or if you attempt to provide answers in fiction. But yeah—I do want to shed some light on the darkness. Because this is all so pervasive in conflict regions.

Daisy Hasan: Yeah and I think what I tried to do was explore, of course, the collective loss of conscience … but also look at how dehumanizing the other can be quite seductive. What are the attractions for the human psyche of dehumanizing and brutalizing someone who you perceive as not … yourself. So, as well as bearing witness, of course—documenting it without necessarily taking a side—I suppose those were my concerns.

Roma Tearne: Well, I think that in this book, what I was quite interested in was taking the exotic and bringing it to Britain. I’m quite interested in the idea that, you know, it’s out there, isn’t it? It’s in the subcontinent, it’s all going on out there, and we’re here, and we have our little problems, whatever they are—unemployment or whatever—but actually, people are people, and the feeling … the feeling is what I’m interested in, wherever it is. And I suppose, as I’m working through the theme of conflict, I’m paring it down to just the emotion. So the mother—any mother, whatever her color is, whatever country she comes from—how she feels. I think that’s bringing it more to Western consciousness in that way.

Andrew Feinstein: And also I suppose what you’re doing is commenting on the violence inherent in our own societies. And we’ve created this language around it: “The War on Terror.” This notion of perpetual war even in leafy suburbs and verdant rural fields.

When you are the perpetrator you have to, you must objectify your victim to the level of complete loss of identity. And that’s the process, that’s how systems of suppression and subjugation work.

Roma Tearne: I mean it’s interesting, isn’t it? Because the Asian novel, the exotic, the other—it instantly romanticizes it and distances it. But actually what is happening in the twenty-first century, this is the great century of migration, so we have people from all around the globe going all over the place, and they have to integrate into a society, that society that exists has to integrate with them. How is this going on? What is happening? Because some of these people, many of these people—I was one of them as a child, and my parents were too—came into a white society where we had to bury our loss. But actually you can’t bury your loss, and there is a burden with this, because it gives the white community that burden of having to deal with people who have a loss, that’s within them, that they’re trying to bury. And so both sides have to work at it. It’s not a one-way thing.

Andrew Feinstein: And within areas that are so obviously in conflict, like Kashmir, the banality is, you describe it, for instance, the cricket match, where you could be almost anywhere, and it so quickly is transformed back into the reality.

Mirza Waheed: Yeah, with the cricket match, even, there’s cricket in the subcontinent and Kashmiris also play cricket. I also wanted to look into power structures and political structures that permit such levels of violence. And how do you gradually become used to the idea of murder as a fact? And then, as a novelist, I also wanted to explore: how do I process those concepts? The relationship between the perpetrator of violence and the victim was one of the main concerns. How does somebody bludgeon an eight-year-old boy, for instance, to death with rifle parts? And it’s an incident and it’s reported in the media and I work as a journalist during the day, and I did want to explore that moment. When you are the perpetrator you have to, you must objectify your victim to the level of complete loss of identity. And that’s the process, that’s how systems of suppression and subjugation work, as far as I understand it. That you make the victim so small that they cease to exist. And that’s how you’re able to inflict such violence on the victim. And it happens, it’s not just Kashmir, that’s how the mechanics of brutality operate. We’ve seen wars throughout history. I do think modern conflict sort of has the brutality of all the wars that have been, and some more, we’ve become more vicious and more violent and more evil.

Andrew Feinstein: You have a different view, Roma Tearne?

Roma Tearne: Well, let’s not go too far. How about the Spanish Inquisition? You know, how about the beheadings in Britain in Tudor times? So, I mean, my view is that human nature is just cyclic and we do what we do. We oppress people, we make our victims small wherever they are, whether they are a black girl in a rural community in, say, America or Britain, or whether it’s something happening out there in one of the countries of conflict. I mean Sri Lanka, the human rights abuse there is appalling, but…

Daisy Hasan: Sorry, just to add, I mean it’s a comment, really. You know, there were a lot of killings and there are a lot of killings in the northeast and somebody made an interesting comment about the mechanics of this brutalization by saying that this is a region where people are used to eating a lot of meat and they slaughter animals on a regular basis, so it’s the same sort of dynamic at play. So I just thought of that comment when you talked about it.

Andrew Feinstein: Daisy, to stay with you for a moment. I’m coming back to this point of power structures, the character of Governor, which is all we know him as, and then the union, play an incredibly important role in the novel, almost dealt with satirically.

Daisy Hasan: Sure, yeah.

Andrew Feinstein: And was that, for you, part of trying to, in some sense, disaggregate these power structures?

Daisy Hasan: Yeah, although I wouldn’t equate Governor with the union, because Governor is this very eccentric, often very dark and evil character, but capable of human goodness. So flawed but humane. The union, again, because it’s so many individuals together, it’s an aggregate of all these different, yeah, the will to power …

Andrew Feinstein: And complicated, in some points playing an incredibly positive role, and in other points, a not-so-positive role.

Daisy Hasan: Sure, sure. I guess how it works in the northeast is that the so-called insurgency movements have acquired the status of parallel governments. So they’re not viewed in the same way as the Indian government views them. The Indian government just calls it insurgency and militancy. But they have a lot of moral credibility within the northeast, and I don’t know if that comes through in the novel, but that’s something that I definitely wanted to depict, that people have a very sort of fond relationship with some of these organizations and movements.

Andrew Feinstein: I’m now going to open it to the floor.

Audience Member: Do you think that Asia, sometime probably next century, will become less violent?

Roma Tearne: It’s really difficult to say, isn’t it? Because you can’t anticipate history. It’s only when you look back you see what the Romans did, and what various other empires did, what the British Empire did. We’re now beginning to see the long shadow that it created, so one must be hopeful and say that what’s going on in Asia, that what’s going on in the Middle East, that all these various areas of conflict, that they will pass and move onto another area. But it would seem that the natural order of things is there is this cyclic behavior of destruction followed by a calm period.

Mirza Waheed: I would definitely hope so, that we are more peaceful, and some of us may get out of work, because what do I write about? [laughs]

The work of ideology is done by the elite and they’re not fighting for economic reasons, they’re pampered by the central government.

But you see, all violence is political, as far as I understand it. It’s the political structures that sort of give rise to violence, all kinds of violence. And with regard to Asia, specifically, I don’t think it’s very different from other parts of the world, or other periods in history. Where a political turning, political disillusionment leads to violence. It erupts one day. One can hope that many conflicts are resolved and the reasons for it becoming violent are removed, and then we will have a lovely, peaceful morning.

But it’s difficult and as Roma said, you can’t really predict. And Asia is not, as all of us obviously know, homogenous, you can’t really talk about this huge complex region as one entity. Within Asia, you have bewildering diversity of all kinds. So it may not happen in that manner, that one day all of Asia will be lovely and wonderful. We may see some parts that will be peaceful, and some other parts may then start the cycle of violence again. I wish I had a more hopeful answer.

Daisy Hasan: Yeah, I think I have a more positive answer. I agree with you, obviously, we are going through quite a bloody phase in our history. But also I think we should draw attention to the fact that there’s the parallel phenomenal growth of civil society movements and ordinary people are able to bear witness. Not just writers and artists but ordinary people bear witness to the conflicts going on and are able to document, and comment, and sort of lobby for change. And the growth of the media, particularly in India, has been phenomenal in allowing people to participate in this way in civil society, so I think that, obviously there is a growth of conflict, but there is also a growth of more progressive movements in Asia.

Andrew Feinstein: It’s interesting to me that I’ve had similar conversations about people focused on Africa, and why is it that Africa is in such a brutal moment, a brutal cycle, and I suppose maybe a decade or two ago, a similar conversation occurred in America or South America. And again, none of these are homogenous regions, but there does seem to be this pervasive violence, and the cycles, perhaps, the cycles of peace are far too short.

Audience Member: Is the real problem economic stagnation?

Mirza Waheed: I don’t think so. That cannot be the only reason for violence or separatism or independence movements. The proof of that would be that many states pump a lot money and aid and development into these areas, so by that logic, conflict resolves itself. But no—at the heart of these conflicts is politics, are political aspirations. Kashmiris haven’t been happy with India. That’s why they’re fighting. India pumps billions of dollars into Kashmir, the state runs on aid from India in many respects. And yet, only a few months ago, last summer, around more than a hundred young people died on the streets, fighting in protest, civil uprising. If you gave them money and then said leave it, be peaceful, it wouldn’t work because their anger is to do with many other things than just jobs. If you gave everyone a job in—and northeast is a bad word I happen to use for convenience because it’s as diverse as any other part of India—if you gave everybody a job, would violence then stop? No, I don’t think so. Because people have had political aspirations for fifty, sixty years. And they’ve been fighting wars for those aspirations. I wish it could work. It hasn’t.

Daisy Hasan: I think in the northeast it’s overdetermined. Sure, there are economic reasons why people are fighting, but there are ideological reasons as well, as Mirza has pointed out, and I think we have to be quite conscious about the class structure in the context of the unions in the northeast. The work of ideology is done by the elite and they’re not fighting for economic reasons, they’re pampered by the central government. But the money that the central government sends doesn’t filter down to the rural areas, and those people are actually fighting. The foot soldiers of these movements are fighting for economic reasons so probably if there were a more equitable distribution of money, you’d kind of take away the masses from the movement and probably stunt them in that way. But I think these movements are overdetermined.

Mirza Waheed: One of the first so-called militant leaders in Kashmir, who started the insurgency, went to the best school in Kashmir, to a very elite school and his family was very well-off, they were rich. And yet Ashfaq Majid Wani, I remember the name now, he became a separatist, a militant, a terrorist—depending on what side you’re talking about.

Audience Member: In the context of south Asia, the conflicts that you are writing about … all of them are separatist or independence issues, all of them have gone cross-generational. Do you think there is a tipping point that has maybe a little bit of cultural paraphernalia or … that just a certain generation gets so exhausted or worn down? You’re all exploring this through fiction; do you personally feel that there is a point where people just say, “Enough.”

Daisy Hasan: Yeah absolutely, I do. In the context of Shillong people have … the insurgency had a lot of support when it started. People respected these movements, these parallel governments. But over the years because it’s just been an endless cycle of violence, and no sort of of political end in sight. Your people have gotten exhausted, and you know they’re looking for alternatives and that’s why civil society has grown phenomenally in the regions, so I do agree there is a tipping point.

Roma Tearne: I beg to disagree. Look at Northern Ireland. I was talking to an Ulster woman yesterday, and she said to me … “We can’t forget. Why can’t we forget?” Reconciliation is one of the hardest words. We almost forget, but there’s always a little group that can’t. And looking at Sri Lanka … there is a half-hearted attempt to have some kind of reconciliation but people who have lost loved ones … it goes on for generations. If you look—if you go to Israel, and you see what’s happening there—they can’t forget. Because they are several generations removed from what happened with Hitler, and remembered memory is much more powerful than actually having your own memory. So when you hear it from your grandmother, it somehow incenses you far more … and that’s why I think this whole business of truth and reconciliation is wonderful, and it almost works, it almost works in various parts of the world but it doesn’t quite get there.

Mirza Waheed: Yes, very short answer; there is a tipping point. With regard to Kashmir history, what happened from ’47 until 1987 is what sent Kashmir through a set of successful client elites who essentially function as vassals of a medieval state who were there for their own good, their own money. And they managed to do that for more than forty years. But the underlying conflicts, and the underlying reasons never go away. That’s how years of pent up frustration, anger because there are these people, Kashmiri people, for instance, who are India’s clients in Kashmir, and they manage Kashmir. In ’87 people had enough and they said we can’t do this anymore and that’s how the eruption of the separatist movement begins. Reconciliation—it’s a wonderful word and peace and reconciliation are very important. But you know, to people, where there’s been a lot of killing and death and tragedy, they do see romantic notions from the West. You cannot sell reconciliation commissions to a mother whose 8-year-old boy was killed in front of her house. She wants justice and she also wants resolution. Reconciliation cannot happen from power structures that are dominant. You cannot do reconciliation when terms are dictated by the state, by a more powerful state, it doesn’t work. It is desirable, I wish it worked like that, but you cannot force reconciliation, you cannot impose those terms of reconciliation unless you address the basic causes of the conflict.

Daisy Hasan: I wanted to go back to the issue of culture because in many ways these struggles have been struggles for cultural autonomy as well as political struggles. To ask whether you feel in the process of the conflict the very thing that has been fought for culturally gets destroyed.

Mirza Waheed: So it gets what?

Daisy Hasan: Gets destroyed. Does it survive the conflict? The thing that was fought for in the beginning.

Mirza Waheed: It does get damaged, definitely, and it’s inevitable, it can’t stay intact. Because there’s a disruption of everyday life, of how you do culture, how you live your culture, there’s disruption, which means it can be damaged. And it’s tragic. Because there may come a point where you look back and you think what you’ve been fighting for is not there anymore. But that’s inevitable, that’s an inevitable outcome of all conflicts. I don’t think it gets destroyed completely. Because the germ, the sentiment behind the uprising, or rising with arms, is there, in that collective consciousness of … well those words are quite problematic if you talk about nation and culture and those things because you always have to take into account the internal diversities and … well, yes it is damaged of course.

Daisy Hasan: Often I think the goal of conflict, particularly in the context of the northeast is … at one level it is pristine and sacred, at another level it’s also very fluid and because these conflicts have gone on for years and years … things get added on to the cause. At any one point people might be fighting for a variety of things and they might forget older goals and new ones might be added. The other thing I’ve noticed is that … particularly in the northeast, I don’t speak for the rest, the conflict constantly becomes fragmented, people might be fighting for a particular region and then suddenly there is a lot of infighting. So it never … there is just no resolution it’s just self-perpetuating.

Well I think we have to be realistic. This thing, reconciliation, isn’t perfect, but we also must have hope. Without hope, there is nothing. So let’s hope.

Roma Tearne: It’s really a very interesting question, because you get a community, you get an area where there’s a conflict that has gone on for fifty, sixty years but one of the things that happens is that some of the people involved in that conflict emigrate, they migrate, they go somewhere else in the world. They go and they try to set up a little community in another country, which is fine, and they try to keep their culture going, but then they have children and these children are growing up in a new place and so the culture changes. Like rap music. Like all of the communities in Britain where the parents, the first generation immigrants, are trying desperately to keep their language and their culture. I know some Tamil people who are doing this at the moment, but their children are saying “we want to speak English at home, we are English.” And that’s the stress point where original cultures have to evolve and that’s quite painful.

Andrew Feinstein: I will answer very briefly and then ask each of the panelists have their final word briefly. The South African example of the truth and reconciliation commission is what I would describe as a partial success. I think that from the outside it looks largely as though it is a success. I think there are many people, many mothers of people brutalised by the apartheid system who feel extremely hard done to by the process. Where some people have admitted to certain crimes and have not faced any justice, but at the same time, others who are known to have admitted to similar crimes who have not owned up to those crimes have also not faced justice. So I think that there is that concern. But I think that one should also bear in mind that proportionately South Africa suffers from the highest murder rate in the world. It is an extraordinarily criminally violent society. So while political violence has, thank goodness, declined remarkably, criminal violence has continued to increase, and I think that raises certain broader questions about the success of the truth and reconciliation process, but rather than let the South African experience influence what our panelists are going to say, perhaps a word to draw together this final question and some of the others that have been asked.

Roma Tearne: Well I think we have to be realistic. This thing, reconciliation, isn’t perfect, but we also must have hope. Without hope, there is nothing. So let’s hope.

Daisy Hasan: I think I’d like to end by talking about another kind of struggle that is going on at the moment in Manipoor. It’s the struggle of a woman named Irom Sharmila and she’s been fasting for the last 11 years to have the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which gives the Indian Army unlimited power to shoot on mere suspicion and kill people, and she’s been protesting this act by fasting and denying herself food for eleven years. So I think that sort of beckons to a new kind of struggle in the northeast and I’d just like to end by remembering her.

Mirza Waheed: Yes, reconciliation could work. With regard to South Africa, the reconciliation is linked to the end of the apartheid, so if India solves the conflict in Kashmir, reconciliation will happen. And I do think the onus is on India with regard to Kashmir, more on India than Pakistan, because Pakistan is more of less out of the game on Kashmir. They’re not on the same kind of wicket that they used to be in the ’90s because they are distracted by small wars of their own. So the onus is on India that it has to make a sincere, serious, out-of-the-box solution possible, and then reconciliation will follow. I’m quite sure of that. But it won’t happen unless you resolve the core dispute.

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To contact Guernica, Andrew Feinstein, Mirza Waheed, Roma Tearne, or Daisy Hasan please write here.

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