Writing War and Conflict - Not Here, Not Us, Stories of Syria - Bronwen Griffiths

Those of us who write are always more than just writers. We are parents, children, workers, volunteers, gardeners, tree huggers, high-flyers, low-flyers, all types of flyers. I am a writer who sometimes combines writing with social activism.
In 2013 I became a volunteer activist for Syria Solidarity UK.  We work with refugee and other activist groups, and we campaign against the bombing of civilians by the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian allies. The Coalition forces who bombed Raqqa to defeat IS also caused civilian deaths. As readers will no doubt be aware, the moderate opposition to the Assad regime has suffered in an appalling manner, and even now, in parts of Syria, the Islamic State and other militant factions have taken control further complicating an already complex and tragic war.

I make no secret of, nor do I apologise for my partisan approach to this conflict. However, as a fiction writer it is best not to preach to readers, and is important for writers to consider the moral grey areas. As writers, we must attempt to think our way into the motives of others, even those we disagree with, or perhaps abhor. There is also the difficult question for any writer who is an outsider (I am not Syrian and I have no direct experience of the horrors of war) which concerns the moral legality of writing about the plight of others - and/or of co-opting others’ stories. This is an endlessly contestable area, as it is for journalists and war photographers.  When does writing about, or photographing a dead child on the street, turn into voyeurism rather than an important piece of journalism or writing?  Writers must always question their intentions but we all have a common humanity, and writers have a duty to write about the world as they see it.
            When I first attended writing classes there was some emphasis on ‘writing what you know’ as if writers were not able to see inside the head of person from history or different culture. Yet in one sense, in writing these pieces, I am writing what I know. My activism has enabled me to meet and talk to Syrians, both on social media and in my day to day life. I have read extensively on the history of the country and the conditions that led up to uprising and subsequent war, and though I am lucky never to have endured war myself my mother brought me up on first-hand accounts of her life as a teenager during the Manchester blitz.  She lost her older brother and father in the Second World War and that tragedy has walked through my life, and our family’s life, as a dark shadow.
The project which became Not Here, Not Us – Stories of Syria – was not pre-planned. It just grew over time. I began to jot down small pieces – my emotional responses to the war – and later, refugee friends told me their stories, while other pieces came to me after reading newspaper articles and blogs, or as I was out on the streets demonstrating. All the pieces are short and some are only a couple of lines long, but this short form seems to fit the subject matter. I intentionally used different viewpoints and narrators – from refugees to refugee workers, from combatants to victims, as well as my experiences and thoughts – though I did make a decision not to write from the regime side, except for one story, The Reluctant Soldier.
            Usually it is men who wage war and men who write on war. Today female fiction writers and journalists are tackling the subject of war and conflict in larger numbers although few women write about the experience of combat. I think it is still harder for women writers to be recognised when writing ‘big’ subjects. An expectation continues to persist in some quarters that women will tackle the domestic stuff, both in their real lives and their writing.  I’m not criticising the domestic – I love to read those kinds of stories – but women writers should never feel this is their only forte.
            On a final note, I’d like to stress the importance of us listening to the voices of Syrians and Syrian women.  Syrian women are writing about the war – through blogs, poems, short stories, and in other ways. Some write in English, or have been translated into English. Others remain untranslated and many others will not be able to write until they have reached a place of safety and distance.  I would like to point readers to the poetry and fiction of Maram al-Masri, Mohja Kahf, Najat Abdul, Dima Wannous and Dima Yousf. Samar Yazbek has written two factual accounts of the Revolution, and Wendy Pearlman has collected the voices of Syrians in her book We Crossed a Bridge and it Trembled. I am sure there are others I have not heard of, and yet others whose voices will rise from the ashes.

A version of this article appeared in Women Writers, Women’s Books, December 2016

For each copy of Not Here, Not Us sold – Women Now – a NGO that works with women in Syria and the diaspora, receives a £1 donation.



Griselda Heppel said…
If anyone - not directly affected, ie not in the warzone itself - has a right to write about the Syrian conflict it would be someone as involved in the human experience of this horror as you are, from your detailed study of the history and circumstances that set it all off to your close attention to the voices of the victims, through their blogs and the accounts of refugees. Yes, we need to be sensitive about making fiction out of other people's suffering; but to avoid any story set in contemporary conflict zones because of the fear that we have no right to do it feels like a cop out.

I'm reminded of the extreme view of some who criticise writers for creating characters from a cultural background different from their own, that the writer has no right to create these. And then the lament goes up that eg children's books have far too few BAME characters in them. Difficult to get it right!
Umberto Tosi said…
Kudos to you for writing about the horrendous Syrian war, a horror that goes on and on, but seems more and more ignored by Americans and Europeans washing their hands of it. Syria has become the most infamous and most ignored war on the planet today. As for fictionalization, you are in good company. The compassion and precision of literary writing -- whether fiction or nonfiction -- has the power to move people, and should be put to use by those who have the knowledge to do so, as you obviously have. I look forward to reading Not Here, Not Us – Stories of Syria.
julia jones said…
Some very good questions here. Thank you

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