THIS IS THE 42nd in a series of dialogues with artists, writers, and critical thinkers on the question of violence. This conversation is with Fatima Bhutto, who was born in Kabul, Afghanistan. She is the author of six books of fiction and nonfiction, most recently The Runaways (Verso, 2020).
BRAD EVANS: It’s a pleasure to be able to talk with you about your latest book and how you particularly use literature and poetics to offer a considered political intervention. Now, I appreciate this question might seem somewhat ridiculous given the history of killing and suffering your family has experienced, but if I say the word “violence” what immediately comes to mind?
FATIMA BHUTTO: Violence is more than just a word or even an attack. Violence is atmospheric. Like the weather, it’s a condition that covers over every choice, every human process, and is integral to how we gauge and navigate daily life. To have some consideration toward violence requires that we account for these climates of action and emotion, and I suspect that’s always been the case.
Even when I was very young, before I had so many personal encounters with violence, it still was atmospheric. It was always spoken about. It never left, even if there were sunnier or darker days, you always felt its pressure. Violence for me has always been there, on the minds of everyone in my family. I would even go so far as to say it was the biggest consideration to life. How to live in an environment where violence is ever present and has shaped who I have become.
I have of course always tried to keep a distance, and that’s part of the coping strategy. We try not to let violence in. But sometimes that’s not possible. It can seek you out like a slowly building storm.
I fully agree that if we are to develop a viable critique of violence it is important to account for the atmospherics you describe. Indeed, while we often discuss the emotional field to politics, not enough is paid at an intimate level to the ecologies of violence you make explicit here. Would you say that this understanding is something you try to consciously develop with your writing style?
For me, literature was a way of engaging violence in a way that brings these atmospherics more into the open. My writing is not so much about critiquing violence as it is a means to try and survive it. I have always tried to come to terms through my work with how we travel through violence, especially how we can travel without being corroded and broken by our encounters with it. Violence seeks to break us down. Writing for me has been a form of personal resistance to this.
I think that when you live with a fair amount of violence, which is always hovering like an omnipresent threat — and, in that sense, even if it doesn’t materialize in the immediacy of the moment that doesn’t mean it’s ambivalent — then the critique is far less important than the surviving. And what I mean by surviving is not just to be unharmed, but to not be made ugly by it. Survival is a refusal to be deformed. I just find the focus on critique alone to be too academic.
Violence has this poisonous affect, creeping into everything: every thought, every wish, every prayer, every vision. So, for me, literature is a survival practice that tries to see how other people have thought about it, been saved from it, and how one emotionally and intellectually, even perhaps spiritually, continues through life without being too damaged and ruined.
I am taken by the idea of writing as survival, especially how through writing we don’t end up becoming a monstrous adaptation of the things we find so abhorrent and detestable. I do however also think we need a different understanding of the critical, which I agree can be far too academic. We know violence can create monstrous offspring with persons becoming so damaged the violence has fully colonized them, and that seems to be what’s really at stake here. This makes me think of how we might rethink what justice actually means in these terms.
I think that’s a really interesting question. I used to think in some sense that if one wished not to be colonized by violence and not just be transformed but totally remade or reborn in violence, then we absolutely needed to focus on justice. I can’t say I still think this is the right way to approach it. Being obsessed as long as I was with this idea of justice, in many ways it didn’t exclude violence. It included it as part of a more holistic framework. But it was still all about violence.
For me to have the justice I felt was due to me, I would have had to impose something unfair and cruel to someone else. I now see this was a distraction, even perhaps a failure. I struggled for so long with coming to terms with justice instead of focusing more on the anger and fear I felt. Justice simply allows us to carry these feelings through, as the call to find justice still allowed me to retain my anger and fear. Justice then, perhaps, is simply violence by another name or at least violence displaced.
Turning to The Runaways, I was taken by some of the notable references to figures from history — especially the way you introduce Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X. I am wondering here about the journeys both these icons went through, from anger to political justice. Might our problem be precisely in the way we conceptualize justice as a form of punishment or revenge? Not then justice that demands some violence, but a justice that breaks away from its very presence?
There’s something that’s already contained within justice that claims to have taken up beyond violence. It can be presented as comforting or even bringing about peace and harmony. But it still retains the anger. It still includes that someone else must lose something for justice to be served.
So, while there is a certain contact and closeness, what we might say is a humanism to justice, the only way we seem to conceptualize it is ultimately that a perpetrator must suffer and give up something. That’s why for me there was a need to abandon the concept. I don’t ever want to be responsible for somebody else’s pain, however enlightened or fair the claim to justice is presented. I never want anyone to feel the pain I and so many others have felt. Maybe we could turn instead to the idea of surrender instead of justice. And by this, I don’t mean forgiveness, which starts from the presupposition that you can bestow something. It’s more a submission. This is not to be confused with apathy or doing nothing. To surrender is to continue.
This makes me think about the role of witnessing, which again I know is so close to your family history. How does witnessing enter into this condition, especially in the contemporary moment? And what is the role, if any, that you think literature has to play when dealing with the witnessing of violence?
Right now, it seems like it’s almost a frenzied act to be a witness. We are at a point where nothing means anything anymore. Everything can be said, but nothing meant. Everything can be seen, but not changed. This means there’s no real accountability for the violence, even though everyone can see it. People can be violent in a hundred different ways and still sneak through any attempts to characterize them as being violent or even slightly perverted. That’s why today, to claim to be a witness seems almost like a hysterical act which everyone is in on.
When I began writing, I actually started out in journalism and working on articles. I was in Lebanon when the 2006 war with Israel happened. While I was distressed, the experience taught me that the act of witnessing wasn’t about me but about being alert to the lives of others. And this wasn’t about some grand narrative or revealing some massive truth. It was being alert to the small details, the intimate fears and worries at a time when violence could come from any direction.
When I then later wrote Songs of Blood and Sword, my feeling about witnessing changed slightly. I already promised my father I was going to write this book a few days before he was killed. Given the circumstances, however, I never wanted to write the book, at least not in that way. But I was compelled to write it, largely due to the unaccountability and corruption of the trial. And so I understood if I didn’t write the book that things would be erased from history. This wasn’t about justice. It was about ensuring the past remained truthful. So here, the act of witnessing was more than reporting — it was all about preserving. It was about a realization that memory is so thin, fragile, and untrustworthy that it can simply vanish within a generation.
This does raise a very important consideration concerning what we are actually bearing witness to. Bringing this onto a more conceptual terrain, I’ve noted in your work that in a marked difference to, say, Hannah Arendt, you argue that power is violence, especially when it’s linked to a sense of immunity and to being able to operate beyond the law. Can you explain more what you mean by this?
I always have such a visceral reaction to that Arendtian claim. In my experience, power in all its forms contains violence. It’s never so easily separated. Power structures violence. It legitimates it. Gives immunity from it. And I don’t just mean political power. Power can structure violence in a relationship, in the home, in a workplace, or in any other network of human relations. It can even happen between a man and a dog.
Violence is coded into power. And it is the imagination of power that brings forward the desire for violence. It’s like that idea about power corrupting. I don’t think you need power to be corrupt. The allure is enough. The very idea itself is corruptible. And it always carries a potential for violence. I think at this point in the world, it’s so obviously transparent that violence accompanies power.
This is really what concerned me in The Runaways — or more accurately I really wanted to look at the opposite of this. What about the violence of the powerless? How might we understand this process? And what about the ways violence has this incredible ability to seep into everything? I have been thinking about what Helen Garner says in This House of Grief. Paraphrasing, she says the world is full of men whose hearts are broken and who have no way of expressing this to themselves. And those are the men who become dangerous to themselves and the world. Stepping over into this world has been my focus and concern for a number of years now. This is not about the kind of violence I have experienced. It has a different feeling. It has a different frequency. It tells a different story that moves across different terrain.
What I also try to convey with the book is perhaps the idea that you cannot run away from anything. This is especially the case with violence. Believe me, I tried; it doesn’t work. The past is always trying to catch you. It’s not possible to escape the violence of your past and the history you carry. That doesn’t mean to say you can’t feel uprooted. This again is something I can relate to. Though it is strange to say now, but when I look back upon my time living in Syria, I remember it fondly as a time of peace. I certainly didn’t feel as hunted there.
Somewhat anecdotally, I was in Karachi a few years ago and was coming back home from a wedding. The street coming up to my house was closed, and there were armed paramilitaries (who are not some rogue but federal force) policing the area. For someone who grew up in Karachi in the 1980s when it was very violently policed, this episode brought back all the memories of “Operation Clean-Up,” which was as disturbing as it sounds. In fact, I was even more affected as my father was killed on the street in front of my house. Having been stopped on a number of occasions by these rangers who insisted my street was a no-entry zone, I eventually made it home and turned on the television. There was absolutely no reporting of any incident, the same was the case for social media. So here you have a situation where on a major street in the city, the Rangers could effectively shut things down. In that moment, I realized that they can do anything to anyone. There was nothing at all about what was happening on a major street on TV, in the news, not that night, not the night after.
Back to your concern with the violence of the powerless and the dispossessed, how would you respond to criticisms that in the work (especially due to its literary qualities) you are complicit in humanizing violence?
We’ve had over 20 years of the condemnation of those who commit violence. This was part of the essential trope that either you are with us or you are against us. Of course we are against violence, but we still haven’t stopped it. And for all the screaming and shouting, we still have no understanding as to why someone would pick up arms, not only against strangers, but against their own world, their own families, their own brothers and sisters. One of the things that haunted me when writing The Runaways was: How much anger do you need to be in to set fire to pretty much everything you have known?
The work of literature is to pay attention to the most intimate moments in the life of another. It is to be attentive to the moods, the tensions, the failures, the emotions, the aspirations, and the outrage felt. But regardless of the subject, you can’t do this without a certain compassion and understanding. Literature requires an empathetic eye. And I think it’s what we need in our understanding of radicalism today. We are not going to get anywhere if we simply point out how superior we are to it, which in turn means impressing how superior our violence is to it. This is something the West has missed entirely. It has been too busy presenting itself as a counter-image to radicalism, like a foil, without even questioning why radicalism has become so seductive. They really don’t or don’t want to understand how an entire generation can be swept into its embrace. And yet, tragically, this is something that organizations like Daesh truly understand. Their argument is not a hysterical one. The argument they present is incredibly seductive. What they offer is a claim to dignity, a vision for a life in a world where people feel they don’t fit, and a way for someone’s voices to be heard. Yes, they offer you power and violence and all that ugliness, but Daesh understands loneliness and is able to convert it into a message of agency. It is all about communicating a message of power — you won’t just be a leader of men but will be a King, you won’t just have power but control and violence over the lives of others. But when you think about it, this is a pretty modern argument. This is not to praise them. On the contrary, to say they are modern should be the condemnation.
In conclusion, I’d like to really press you on your literary influences. If during this period of global lockdown you could have kept only one book with you, what would it have been and why would you choose it?
I had to think about this, and it was difficult. If I could have chosen only one writer, I would have taken James Baldwin. But I couldn’t pick only one of his books. I had the same thought with Toni Morrison. It still seems cruel to have only one book, so I’m going to give myself two options: Beloved or The Fire Next Time.
Photo by Pankaj Mishra.
Brad Evans is a political philosopher, critical theorist, and writer, who specializes on the problem of violence. He is the founder/director of the Histories of Violence project, which has a global user base covering 143 countries.