Women & War: Interview with Helen Benedict
Columbia Journalism School blog, December 7, 2017
Years before pussyhats and #MeToo, Helen Benedict explored the ways in which many women experience sexual violence—only to be blamed for their own victimization. An author of seven novels and five works of nonfiction, and a journalism professor at Columbia University, Benedict has focused for the past decade on the women who served in the Iraq War. Her 2009 nonfiction book The Lonely Soldier described the experiences of women fighting in the war and the astonishing abuse they endured by their male fellow soldiers. The Lonely Soldier inspired the Academy Award-nominated documentary The Invisible Warand instigated a landmark lawsuit against the Pentagon on behalf of victims of military sexual assault.
Benedict developed the book into a play, The Lonely Soldier Monologues, and continues to shed light on the experiences of women and war through two novels—Sand Queen, a Publishers Weekly “Best Contemporary War Novel,” and now Wolf Season, just out from Bellevue Literary Press. Benedict is currently writing a third book to create a trilogy of novels about the Iraq War.
Wolf Season picks up where Sand Queen leaves off, following Naema, who had been a medical student from Baghdad in the first novel, experiencing displacement and the torture of her father, and is now a widowed single mother and physician at a Veterans Affairs clinic in upstate New York. When a hurricane hits their small town, Naema is injured, and her life becomes entwined with a veteran who has survived gang-rape by her fellow soldiers and whose husband was killed in Iraq. The wife of a Marine, who rapes and abuses her while home on leave and then is killed when he returns to Iraq, is also central in this story. The three women are torn by their experiences with war, and their children are likewise wounded in literal and figurative ways. Wolf Season reveals that the traumas of war, particularly for women, never dissipate.
In this interview, Benedict shares her motivations, methodologies, and thoughts on current politics.
What initially motivated you to research women in the Iraq War?
All my writing life, I have examined and exposed the way women are treated by the world, so when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, I became determined to do the same in the context of war. This grew even more urgent when I learned that more American women were serving and dying in Iraq than in any war since World War Two, yet some 90 percent were being sexually harassed and nearly a third were raped or assaulted by their supposed brothers-at-arms. Nobody was exposing this at the time, so I felt I had to. Out of this work came my nonfiction book,The Lonely Soldier, and a play called The Lonely Soldier Monologues.
At what point in this project did you decide that one genre would not be enough for you to express everything you wanted to express?
Sometimes, during my interviews with women veterans, they would hit memories so painful they would fall silent, hands shaking, eyes filling with tears, unable to speak further. This moved me profoundly, and I came to understand that the true story of war lay within those very silences: the private, internal experiences of war and trauma hidden deep inside every soldier’s heart. I knew I could only reach that internal story through fiction.
But soldiers’ stories are, of course, only one side of what is going on in Iraq. I wanted to tell the other side, too, that of civilian Iraqis, a side that has been missing from American public discourse ever since we invaded. So, I found some Iraqi refugees and talked to them for hours, just as I had the soldiers. They, too, were generous, courageous, and eager to help me. They, too, wanted to be heard. D.H. Lawrence once said, “…war is dreadful. It is the business of the artist to follow it home to the heart of the individual fighters.” I wrote Wolf Season because I, too, wanted to follow the war home to the heart.
For you, what are the limits of journalism? Of fiction?
The limits of journalism are the limits of the human being. A journalist who wishes to render the inner, private, profoundly human reaction to an event is limited to what her sources are willing or able to say. Nobody can be entirely open, self-aware, or honest all the time, and memory is a malleable and fickle creature, so it is very hard for a journalist to know when she is hearing the truth.
Fiction can fly right over all these obstacles, taking the writer and reader out of their skins and putting them in the skins of others. What is more, a fiction writer can do this without exploiting, pressuring, exposing, or hurting real human beings.
As for the limits of fiction, I see none but those of the commercial market. Fiction isn’t taken as seriously as it used to be. Novels were once seen as the place to go to for an understanding of the human heart, motivations, and society. Now people go to movies, TV, nonfiction, or self-help books for this. Yet nothing can teach compassion and empathy like a novel.
What courses do you teach at Columbia? How has your work with journalism students informed your own journalism—and fiction?
I teach long-form narrative journalism; a style course; and a reporting class. My students bring me real life stories from all over the city, often the world, which enriches my knowledge. Best of all, they bring me their curious, generous-hearted, passionate selves, burning with the desire to, as Joseph Pulitzer put it, “Afflict the comfortable, and comfort the afflicted.” That is a priceless gift.
Is your work feminist?
Absolutely, my work is feminist! Feminism, which I define as the belief that all people should have equal freedom of movement, respect, opportunities and rights, informs all my work.
I think I became a feminist as soon as I learned to read. Like many writers, I was a loner as a child, partly because my father was an anthropologist who was always whisking us off to live on islands in the Indian Ocean, where I didn’t go to school and had few playmates. So I spent my time reading Mary Poppins, Pippi Longstocking, the Oz books and C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books – all, I realize now, featuring brave, adventurous girls. We traveled in Africa. Almost got wrecked in a hurricane aboard ship. Watched an elephant eat our roof. I wrote a novel at age 8 and another at 11.
At 12, I read Jane Eyre, a book that infected me with a passion for social justice. When I was in my teens, we moved to Berkeley, CA during the time of Black Power and the Panthers and demonstrations against the Vietnam War. I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Soul on Ice, and my passion for social justice grew into something more adult and political.
When your readers close this book, what do you want them to experience?
Primarily, I want my readers to be moved – no surprise there. But I would be extra gratified if they also feel compassion for my characters and are able to bring that compassion to real life refugees, veterans, and all those affected by war.
Posted on https://journalism.columbia.edu/women-and-war .