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Externalising internal pain through commemorative writing practices

The first workshop in the textual strand of the Mellon-Sawyer Seminar Series Post-War: Commemoration, Reconstruction, Reconciliation brought together a panel of experts working at the intersection of literature and human rights: Iraqi poet Dunya Mikhail; Professor of Law, barrister and author Philippe Sands; Lord John Alderdice; Professor Jeremy Treglown from the School of Advanced Study, University of London; and Professor Elleke Boehmer from the University of Oxford. Each offered a distinct and illuminating perspective on forms of textual commemoration in a range of post-conflict settings.

As a doctoral student researching contemporary Iraqi literature, I was particularly struck by a comment from Dunya Mikhail that in their commemorative capacity poems are like x-rays; they do no heal the wound but they reveal it to others. They can externalise internal pains.

The other panellists developed this idea further by reflecting on the internal and external nature of commemorative writing practices. The act of composing poetry or transcribing one’s memories, particularly painful memories of violent conflicts, is an intensely personal and distinctly solitary activity. Yet the public engagement that follows inevitably transforms such writing text into a public, communal activity.

During the break-out sessions that followed the panel talk, the private/public status of commemorative texts came up again. My particular group consisted of individuals from Iraq, war veterans who had served in Iraq, and researchers working on Iraqi or American literature. This collection of experiences, perspectives, and interests led to lively conversations around phenomena that might inhibit the publicity of certain commemorative texts, particularly in a setting such as Iraq where strict literary censorship has been in place for a long time.

This discussion has since led me to reflect on my own work, particularly the levels of publicity that life-writing emerging from the Iraq War has received. Various creative writing initiatives have encouraged veterans of the Iraq War to write about their experiences of personal loss or injury. Some of this writing has then been published. These texts are often publicised so as to make clear to readers that the writing emerged from an individual’s personal experience of therapy. The private relief the writing has offered the individual is emphasised before readers are invited to participate in the commemorative text. Texts produced by authors of Iraqi origin are often more immediately emphasised as writing that articulates a national, or at least communal, form of commemoration that depicts, and provides relief for, the collective fragments of contemporary Iraqi society. It is interesting to consider the ways in which cultural differences in commemoration, markets of world literature, and the political structures that demand different narrative strategies influence the private and public functions of such literary texts.

Appropriately, my own strand of private thought was brought about through this edifying interdisciplinary public event, which brought a diverse range of perspectives, experiences, and expertise into dialogue.

You can watch the panellists’ presentations here.


Annie Webster

PhD candidate, SOAS