A Q&A with author Carlin Emcke
What prompted you to write these personal letters in addition to writing journalistic articles for a newsmagazine?
Quite frankly, because I felt I had failed to describe what war actually means. I had covered wars and war crimes all over the world, and had written long dispatches from each of these journeys to hell—and yet, I felt that death and destruction somehow surmount our capacity to adequately describe them. Out of this sense of inadequacy, out of a melancholic sense of failure, I began to write to friends, trying to overcome my own speechlessness, trying to give an account of war and its victims.
How are you able to remain detached enough to report on the horrors you have witnessed?
You don’t remain detached. Often you eat the same food as the refugees, you fear the same land mines, suffer under the same sun, run away from the same weapons. You are privileged in comparison to those victims of war, because you have a passport, a ticket, and you can go home. And yet: sometimes you are able to report on what you experienced. Sometimes you are not. And you search for words and clarity and understanding yourself. More often than not, you are involved yourself because war does not distinguish between its victims, whether one is a writer or not.But I am also skeptical whether “detachment” is a necessary condition for writing. Independence seems crucial, precision, the ability and willingness to change perspective, knowledge. But “detachment”? I don’t know. You arrive as a stranger in a foreign country and through experiences of inhumanity and humanity you slowly enter that strange world and make it your own. And you learn to change perspectives, and you don’t miss home anymore, and you feel enriched by the encounters with strangers who treat you like a friend. Detached? No.
When an infrastructure has been destroyed, as in times of war, are the human instincts for survival more selfish or selfless?
Interestingly enough, I would think that in times of war selfishness and selflessness are not mutually exclusive. It may turn out to be surprisingly selfish to take care of others. Generally it seems a strong element of survival to bond with someone, to form pairs, or groups. Who does not remember Primo Levi’s friend Alberto without whom he would not have survived Auschwitz? In regions of war you encounter individuals and couples that act generously and thereby transcend the limits and burdens of their environment. Members of repressed minorities like women, homosexuals, or Muslims in one context, Christians in another, humans who are used to being discriminated against and abused, very often have more sophisticated survival instincts and capabilities. They have a more experienced sense of solidarity that protects them individually and collectively. In that sense, acting selflessly might be the most selfish attitude.
Return to Book Description
File created: 8/30/2007