Jebel Marra, short stories, and writing war
I used to work for a humanitarian aid agency in the UK, and in 2005 I spent six months working for the emergency relief effort in the centre of a war zone in Darfur, Sudan. It was my day (and night) job, unrelated to my writing, and I had no intention of writing about my time there, until I came back. The UK I returned to was full of vast shop windows and adverts, newspapers that said nothing about the place I’d just come from, said nothing about the war, and it was bewildering. I returned to the UK with a head full of questions and rage, shocked at how silent even mass slaughter is when it’s far enough away. That’s when I started writing. It wasn’t fictional, at first. Fragmented vignettes at live literature events, written with something like compulsion. Pieces of memory and broken things that I was holding on to, didn’t know where to place, and at every event people would approach me afterwards and ask about the war, confessing that they didn’t know about it. There were never more than fifty people in those rooms, and it wasn’t enough. I still had questions, and rage, and no idea what to do with it.
How do you write about a war, a vast and ongoing violent struggle, tactical oppression, the tearing apart of whole communities, whole people? How do you write about something that huge? Well, for me, it was with help from a few committed others. Jebel Marra became a single-author collection of short stories, but it wasn’t built by one person.
It was built with a mentor, a very skilled and experienced writer who laid out a path for me and guided me through the early drafts of much of the book. It was built with an editor, the kind of committed, hands-on editor that seasoned writers tell me is a rarity these days. Someone with his eye on the literary potential, someone who could push and encourage in equal measure. It was built with support from a group of fellow writers – novelists, mostly – who knew about stamina and finding words for difficult things.
Each of them helped me write my way through the thicket of questions and rage, the close up personal view of absolute disaster that had thus far spoken to me only in wordless flashes. My way was lit by others, standing beside me while I slowly (very slowly) turned flashes into words, and, eventually, words into worlds, into stories that have their roots in something far bigger than anything I can create.
Jebel Marra is out now with Comma Press