Fictions of Witness

The Lotus and the Storm: A Novel, by Lan Cao, (Viking Adult), 400 pages

Island of a Thousand Mirrors: A Novel, by Nayomi Munaweera, (St. Martin’s Press), 256 pages

Witness, in the sense of testifying to one’s own or another’s experiences, offers one of the most powerful reasons for writing: to document events that get swept under the societal rug or that are being lost due to deliberate societal forgetting. I believe that the primary motivation behind this tendency to sweeping under is fear. We fear the cruelties we can inflict on one another. We fear the ways our worlds may be changed when we acknowledge the existence—I would say prevalence, even—of these cruelties. We fear that if we believe the stories of those who’ve survived rape, torture, genocide, then we may become victims of these forces ourselves. Because I understand witness in this way, I am convinced that it is an essential part of ethical living, both individually and communally.

That is why I value the literature of witness, why I’m drawn to poems and books that make for uncomfortable reading. I don’t want to be a part of any forgetting. Several months ago I wrote a review of The Poetry of Witness, an impressive (and hefty) anthology from W.W. Norton edited by Carolyn Forché and Duncan Wu. More recently I’ve found myself reading another interesting genre of witness: the fictions of witness.

Witness and fiction may seem antithetical. Witness is the business of truth-telling; fiction is the art of imagining. But as any devoted reader knows, fiction can bear truths every bit as well as non-fiction does. I don’t know how or why writer-survivors make the choice between memoir and novel, but some do and the results can be deeply moving.

Two such novels are Lan Cao’s The Lotus and the Storm and Nayomi Munaweera’s Island of a Thousand Mirrors. The first of these looks at life both during the war in Vietnam and for refugees from that war attempting to rebuild their lives in the U.S. Island of a Thousand Mirrors also originates in civil war, in this case in Sri Lanka. These books—both of them recent releases—are very much worth a read, even though the experience of reading them is painful.

The Lotus and the Storm moves back and forth temporally and geographically and employs two voices. The first is a young (at least in the earliest moments) young girl being raised in a life of relative privilege as the U.S. enters the conflict. The second is her father, who was part of the South Vietnamese Army. Both narrators describe their lives in Vietnam and in the United States. Both are articulate and precise in sharing memories and describing the present.

Island of a Thousand Mirrors tells the stories of women from two families: one family is Sinhala, the community (at least before the war) controlling wealth and power, the other is Tamil, working class and without political power. Over the course of the novel, the lives of these two families intersect in unexpected ways.

Both authors experienced the eras and locales that they write about. I cannot tell which parts of their novels are essentially memoir, which parts draw on and reshape memory, and which are “inventions.”  To have a broad understanding of both wars, one would need to read a great deal of non-fiction. But one also will need novels like these that allow a reader to experience these conflicts from multiple perspectives, that witness (and therefore force readers to see) the brutalities of these times and places.

Pick up these  novels. Read them carefully at a time when you are able (to the best of your ability) to place yourself inside them. Open yourself to the witness being offered.