I've lately had some wonderful discussions with my son about the writer's identity. Flannery O'Connor says that we can't escape our roots from injecting themselves into our writing, even when we're in conflict or out of step with where we've come from.
Like O’Connor, I was raised Catholic in the American Bible Belt. The things I can tell you about southern American writers are charms on my bracelet – the influence of religion, the sexism, racism, poverty, the music, the good food, the distillation of human nature living that close to the swamp. But as aware as I thought I was, there was something else wanting my attention.
‘Why do you write about war?’
I couldn’t understand why people asked me that. IEDs and high velocity weapons aren’t gender specific. If I were a man, blah, blah, blah, until Rush Limbaugh would burn my bra if only I’d shut up. I heard the words they said, but not the question.
A not infrequent scene around my house.
So ask me again. Why do I write about war? I was born into a medical military family and after my son was grown, married into another medical military family. After three years of writing about military doctors, I realise how conflicted I am over that aspect of my life.
I write about war because those are the vibrant colours on my palette. At nine years old, a man proudly shows me his stump and tells me that my father cut off his leg. Several decades later, I grip the phone as my husband, 3600 miles away, can’t get the words to come because there’s too fucking many burned children in the field hospital.
War to me isn’t patriotism or national security or world domination. It’s personal. It’s people I love and their participation in something that makes no sense. Worse, they participate in something brutal. War’s a vicarious blackness inside me that demands expression and at the same time, makes me want to vomit. It’s part of my psyche. Which is to say it’s part of my identity as a writer.
Sometimes I want to correct the dissonance.
That would be a mistake. Holding dissonance as dissonance is genuine, even when it’s not PC. It leaves the writer vulnerable, invites the nasties in, makes people turn away, raises things in the mirror that a writer doesn’t want to see. It’s probably why some of us go mad.