In Literature, Concealing and Revealing Torture

A few days ago, the New York Times ran an op-ed from a creative-writing instructor and confessed torturer:

cia“I was an interrogator at Abu Ghraib,” Eric Fair writes. “I tortured.”

But when Fair discusses his creative-writing class at Lehigh University — in conjunction with his experience as a torturer — he writes not about investigating Mahmoud Saeed’s “Lizard’s Colony” or perhaps scenes from Elias Khoury’s Yalo, but Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” He writes about showing his students a cigar box filled with stuff he bought at the Baghdad International Airport.

Fair seems focused on keeping the issue of torture at the forefront of the American imagination, which is good. But in effect, by reading his essay, we are asked to sympathize exclusively with the torturer. We know about Eric Fair, and about his black fleece coat, and about his son, who rides a bus to school.

We don’t know about any of the Iraqis who he tortured. The only Iraqis who really exist here are in shadow — selling trinkets at the airport, being (abstractly) tortured just beyond our gaze.

Contemporary torture is a strange thing. Although many were (rightly) shocked by the redacted CIA report that was recently released, torture is also a commonplace in the American consciousness. Even the extreme torture in the Game of Thrones TV series fails to shock. We have seen so much of it on television that the experience has been flattened. Leached of its essential horror.

South African novelist J.M. Coetzee, who has written about torture in his novels, has said that representing torture is particularly difficult, and that one is caught between ignoring it and reproducing it.

The Nobel Prize-winning novelist has said that realistic representation — as we see on TV — sometimes “validates the acts of torture, assists the state in terrorizing and paralyzing people by showing its oppressive methods in detail.”

Validated or not, torture has clearly been something that humans have done for millennia: A show of force, an act of anger, a demonstration of superiority. It is perhaps only recently that we have come to rationalize it not as the right of kings or a punishment, but as a cold, necessary act for intelligence-gathering.

Novelist Teju Cole, also writing in the NYT.

Let’s acknowledge torture for what it is: It is punishment, vengeance. It’s the kind of havoc you wreak on an enemy or bystander merely because your rage needs an outlet. It has vanishingly little to do with intelligence-gathering. It spreads grief, and though it intends to do so, it spreads even much more than it intends. It destroys the perpetrators too. Rage is not a precision weapon.

If we acknowledge this, then we cease to write about it in cold, distant terms. We must shift from looking at it from the outside to looking at it from within.

Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury, who wrote vividly about torture in his 2002 novel Yalo, said in an interview with ArabLit two years ago, “I don’t agree with Coetzee, although Coetzee is a great writer and I admire him. I don’t agree with this concept because in my personal experience, while writing Yalo, I was not reproducing torture. I was tortured myself, I felt torture itself on my body and on my soul.”

Indeed, the reader also feels tortured while reading Yalo. Unlike in film reproductions, where we sometimes stand outside the lives of those being tortured and gaze down on them, in Yalo we are one with the character being tortured. We experience it along with him.

Yalo,” Khoury further said, “was a testimony against torture and for me it was dangerous because in the sense that I went also through these things, through this horror and I had to stop writing several times, I couldn’t continue. But at the end, I saw it was worth it because I was giving a very special testimony about the situation in my country and in the Arab world.”

“Writing is a mechanism of resistance, a mechanism against torture,” Khoury said. “It is much more complicated than our friend Coetzee said.”

Iraqi novelist Mahmoud Saeed, who wrote about American torture of Iraqis in “Lizards’ Colony,” trans. William Hutchins, said in a 2012 interview with ArabLit that he “pulled from what I had seen in 1963 and 1980, in prison [in Iraq], and some of articles were published about Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.”

“In my opinion,” Saeed said, “writing about torture is the best way to eliminate such barbaric practices: the harsh treatment of prisoners and even the mistreatment of ordinary people. Reproducing these crimes in art will highlight the ugliness, but most writers flee from this kind of creativity, because describing the suffering of others is very difficult. Not every writer can expose it.”

I haven’t read any of Fair’s creative writing. But in the NYT, he writes vaguely about torture. There are no horrors in his essay. Anal rape is called “rectal rehydration,” even if it’s in quotation marks.

Fair praises Lehigh University’s decision to hire him as a creative-writing instructor, writing that the “school’s willingness to put a veteran in the classroom is the very thing this country needs to be doing in order to collectively process what the last 13 years of war have wrought.”

But this sort of “processing” of torture, in which we are only listening to our own voices, is merely a different sort of overwriting, of forgetting.