Reflections on Writing Torture in Fiction

I’ve been reading lately about the 1977 Egyptian revolution — well, “bread riots,” they’re called now — and found my way back to Mahmoud al-Wardani’s Heads Ripe for Plucking (2002, 2008 trans. Hala Halim), for which I’m finding new appreciation.

Heads has interesting science fictional aspects, layering them with a number of histories and contemporary stories, almost all of which are pleasantly page-turning. I also found interesting commentary on another issue that obsesses me: How to write — or how not to write — about violent torture in fiction.

I am probably engaged by this question in large part because Elias Khoury is engaged by it: The intersection of narrative and violence. J.M. Coetzee as well: He has noted that the writer who depicts “the dark chamber” faces moral dilemmas.

In the words of scholar Susan Van Zanten Gallagher, Coetzee has said that the writer “must find a middle way between ignoring the obscenities performed by the state, on the one hand, and producing representations of those obscenities, on the other.” Realistic representation sometimes “validates the acts of torture, assists the state in terrorizing and paralyzing people by showing its oppressive methods in detail.”

Heads Ripe for Plucking points to another, perhaps uglier aspect of this vicarious participation. After describing ancient tortures in detail, a chapter concludes:

“For example, the bloodthirsty al-Hajjaj could not restrain himself from masturbating as he spent most of his evenings watching his latest torture techniques and contraptions. In Andalusia, al-Muatamid ibn Abbad took such delight in contemplating the heads he had ordered hacked off that he had them planted in the garden of his house in place of flowers and fruit trees.”

Here we “aestheticize” torture, turning it into beautiful art (and profiting off the pain of others), shaping their heads into “beautiful” things to be planted in our gardens in place of flowers and fruit trees. Hollywood movies, of course, do this x1,000.

But, as Van Zanten Gallagher notes, “These acts must not be hidden, either.”

Open Democracy recently asked Iraqi novelist Haifa Zangana about how she writes about torture:

Haifa Zangana, from Alwan for the Arts.

I tried my best not to go into great details of torture which I was either subjected to or witnessed. Intentionally, I kept the scenes of torture relatively sketchy — not because a realistic depiction might validate the act of torture but because I felt that I should not subject the reader to a minute-by-minute acount of inhuman behaviour. My main dilemma was: do I want to “torture” the reader? Or to give her/ him the feeling of what had happened at that particular time?  I chose the latter. Probably what was leading me at the time of writing, also, was my feeling a sketch can be more powerful than a painting.

I don’t think I worry about causing pain to the reader. I worry much more about fetishizing torture, shaping pretty gardens out of skulls.

One of the most torturous tortures I have read were the fragmentary glimpses in Samar Yazbek’s Woman in the Crossfire. These were not shaped, aestheticized, placed into gardens. Coetzee says that the challenge is “not to play the game by the rules of the state…to establish one’s own authority”.

Is Yazbek playing the game of the state by bringing these sharply painful story-fragments to us, sometimes as hard to swallow as glass? I don’t know what by what rules Bashar al-Assad is playing, but no, I don’t think so.

Other reflections on writing about torture:

Elias Khoury’s Yalo (trans. Humphrey Davies, trans. Peter Theroux) is one long reflection on writing about torture.

Poetry and Torture. A World Literature Today interview. (The full text, free, including bibliography.)