OCTOBER 2, 2013
I FIRST MET Janine di Giovanni in the bathroom of the Brooklyn Brewery one sticky night in June, though she had been haunting me for weeks. Perhaps “meeting” is the wrong word, because we did not speak, but I had followed her into the bathroom with every intention of speaking to her. Then, upon realizing our encounter could only be perceived as stalkeresque, I washed my hands and went to wait in line at the book table like a normal person.
I hadn’t known who she was at the onset, had attended the Brewery’s panel about war correspondence for reasons unrelated, but I recognized her about halfway through, during some offhand remark about Sarajevo. It was old news for her, wars away, and of little interest to the young crowd, most of whom were looking to launch themselves into the Middle East. But it was enough for me to connect the dots — she had written that article in Harper’s, the one with which I’d been consumed even before I read it.
I’d seen “Life During Wartime: Remembering the siege of Sarajevo” in the April issue’s table of contents, my roommate’s copy, and managed to avoid it at first, knowing full well the foul mood it would evoke. But I lasted only a few days before the old feelings took over, that nostalgia and disquiet that tied me to the Balkans like an umbilical cord.
The piece chronicles a reunion of journalists in Sarajevo, 10 years after the start of the siege. Di Giovanni reminisces about her time there: the budding romance between her and her now ex-husband, their navigation of daily life stationed near the infamous “Snipers’ Alley,” and an almost gleeful divulgence of their toileting practices in a city without running water. One can practically feel the author elbowing an American audience — Isn’t it crazy? We had to live without toilet paper! At the reunion, the journalists think fondly of a few of their colleagues gone from this world, most by suicide. Then they go home.
After I read it I was in a funk. I had the uneasy feeling that someone had stolen my stories — and those of my family and friends — with the interjection of that foreign “I.” My roommate eyed me with suspicion as I sighed on the couch. When she left, I pilfered the magazine and took it to my own room. I went to bed, but could not sleep.
My thoughts had wandered the corridors of the Holiday Inn Sarajevo ever since. And now, as I stood in a queue to meet the author responsible, I scoured my brain for something intelligent to say.
The arrival of journalists in Croatia, then Bosnia, had been welcomed. Hopes were high that they would expose the concentration camps and ethnic cleansing campaigns and encourage NATO, or the UN, or someone, to care. But for too long there was only silence from the Western powers, with the NATO bombing campaign against Serb forces in 1995 coming four years after the start of the war.
And yet, the plight of journalists — in that war and others — is a popular topic on the Western literary scene: di Giovanni’s Madness Visible and Peter Maass’s Love Thy Neighbor recount the war in Yugoslavia, while writers like Woodruff, Barker, and Fung have detailed their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. Others, including Philip Caputo’s Means of Escape and di Giovanni’s latest, Ghosts by Daylight, are perhaps the most problematic works — career retrospectives, decontextualized mishmashes of all “their” wars.
On first glance it is only logical that journalists should be writing books about life during wartime. Journalists work in war zones and speak to the people on the ground. Journalists have the skills, resources, and editorial contacts to produce such books. The contention, though, lies not in who the author is, but in the content of the stories. When the vast majority of journalists sit down to write memoirs, they, as any memoirist does, write about themselves. The real victims of war become, at best, supporting actors in the journalist’s own war story. At worst, they are not characters at all.
The popularity of this type of memoir seems indicative of a broader cultural sentiment — a Western audience’s interest in world events only insofar as they affect the West. Reading a journalist’s memoirs has become an emotional shortcut for First World citizens, who can avoid contending with the voices of Other, different people, and still feel the satisfaction of having understood wartime suffering at book’s end.
That’s not to say we should begrudge di Giovanni, or other journalists, their memoirs. Their lives are undeniably interesting, exciting, and complex. Nor can it be argued that journalists’ memoirs definitively squeeze out other accounts of war — literary successes like Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone, or Dave Eggers’s recreation of Valentino Achak Deng’s story in What is the What disprove this. Rather, the real issue lies in the tendency toward lumping both journalists’ and victims’ narratives under a singular umbrella of “war experience”; assigning equal value to both kinds of accounts ignores the inherent inequality of life in a war zone. War correspondents are unquestionably in danger as they work, but should they be counted as survivors of other people’s homelands? What about the fact that they arrived in war zones on purpose, on a salary? What about the fact that they can, and do, leave?
These differences in circumstance are important. The journalist’s war narrative is inevitably whitewashed by their distanced perspective, always on some level artificial. And, like di Giovanni and her colleagues, who count dead bodies in the field then fly to safety via news network helicopters for weekend breaks in Paris or Berlin, American readers of journalists’ memoirs get a voyeuristic tour from a relatable guide, viewing the excitement and terrors of war without understanding what it actually means for the people who live through it, what it is like — a total surrender, loss of control, and an inability to escape.
Are the limits of Western empathy really so shortsighted that a single British or American citizen being shot at is of more interest than hundreds of thousands of Yugoslavians enduring the same or much worse fates? Judging from history, the former has both more literary and political currency. Sarajevans living for years without running water in their besieged city were easy enough to ignore, but a few Westerners without toilet paper get two-book deals. When Harper’s decided to commemorate the siege of Sarajevo, they did not bother to speak to a Sarajevan.
In this era of widespread unrest, the answers to critical ethical questions about the way wars are to be fought depend on the developed world’s understanding of life during wartime. How can American congressional committees make informed decisions about drone warfare when they are so well protected, geographically and culturally, from its effects? Now, as the future of millions of civilians in Syria seems increasingly dependent on developed countries’ military and diplomatic stratagems, I can’t help but think giving people the journalist’s version of war zones, as fascinating places through which to pass before going home, rather than the reality of war zones for the people living and dying in their homes, skews the West’s perception of the consequences of its own actions, and inaction, in times of conflict.
Of course, reading an infinite number of any books cannot amount to lived experience, but the fact that journalists’ memoirs are intrinsically misleading poses a particular quandary. While these memoirs provide part of a country’s war story, they must not be the war narrative. Somewhere along the way, mainstream culture has forgotten that the great strength of writing — of all art — is its capacity for making diverse worldviews accessible, if we will only let it, not just to make diverse places accessible through the same worldview.
Back at the Brooklyn Brewery, I found myself standing before di Giovanni. I stared at the tablecloth and mumbled something about the war. When I finally made eye contact, we were both trying not to cry.
Looking at her then, scarred in her own way, I realized that her books were symptoms, not the causes, of what was missing in the Western understanding of war. She could do better, yes; she could acknowledge the limitations of her point of view. We all could. As she spoke, I let the resentment I’d been feeling toward her dissipate. She gave me her book, we shook hands, and I went back out into the night.