On Friday the 24th of March, the day after his talk at York St John’s University, Andy Owen kindly allowed me to interview him about his novel “East of Coker” and about the importance of literature and storytelling in conflict writing and more generally in our society.
Q. I found it really interesting both as a reader and as creative writer the fact that you chose to write from the point of view of a woman. Why the choice of that point of view? How difficult was it?
A. My previous novel was written from the point of view of a young man and I think that was very much in my comfort zone, having been a young man. And it is about someone who is excited to go and trying to find adventure and explore the world and I have felt that way myself, so I was very much in my comfort zone. So, I have deliberately tried to challenge myself to see how I could write from someone else’s perspective and, as I said last night, for me a big part of literature is trying to increase empathy. As a writer, if you are not doing that yourself, how do you expect your readers or your audience to do it? So, it is kind of trying to do what you preach, in a way. And I have no idea if I succeeded in doing that but I have certainly learned from trying to put myself in other people’s shoes, trying to think differently, trying to think if I was I woman how would I feel about these issues, which are probably traditionally seen as very male issues although increasingly now that is not the case with female serving in the army forces, writing from the frontline etc.
Q. There is a sentence in the ending of “East of Coker”: “I must tell my story and I must encourage others to tell their stories”. I was wondering if you feel that there is a moral responsibility in storytelling, in sharing these stories?
A. Yes, I think there is. I think it is a really good question. When you are trying to increase empathy you are trying to capture people’s stories and share those stories for people to understand. And, as you are asking, there is secondary responsibility there which is recording those stories, especially trying to record stories and voices that perhaps aren’t heard that widely in society and also, as a writer, trying to find your voice but also trying to find other voices. I think it is in important thing to do, I don’t think it is something every writer needs to do or has to do but I think it is a good thing to do. If you have got that ability to tell a story, then perhaps you do have a duty as well. There has been a tradition in conflict writing of people trying to help each other tell their stories and I think with those they did feel they had to help people who couldn’t perhaps tell their stories
Q. I found very interesting how in your book you talk about how war is life-changing, how people wonder if they will still be the same ones when they come back from war. I was wondering if, even for people who do not suffer of very serious cases of PTSD, is war still life-changing? Do every soldier feel that he/she will never be the same when he/she comes back?
A. I think so, and I think it can be on different levels. I think if you experience an extreme environment and learn nothing from it that would have quite a poor reflection on you. I think everyone should be changed in some way and hopefully for the positive by learning through your experience and being able to share your experiences and maybe look at life in a different way. I think one of the biggest things I took away from the times when I have been to places where I have been to is how fragile life is in some places and how hard people have to work just to survive in some places and I have been trying not to take things for granted as I did before and it has changed my attitude towards life. In a negative way, with people being shaped by those experiences, suffering from things like PTSD, even with people not being diagnosed, how they are haunted by memories, all of that happens but I think one of the things that I am trying to do in the book is to challenge people to see that it is up to you in a way how these things affect you, it is your way of thinking about these things and you have the choice to think differently. There is a lot going on, certainly in the US military about teaching soldiers to focus on what they can control and become comfortable with what they can’t control and I think there is a lot of similarity between some of stoic thoughts and some eastern thoughts as well, about acceptance of the way things are, coming to a comfortable acceptance which is why in the end I turn to the myth of Sisyphus and I challenge us to imagine Sisyphus being happy and I think that is one of the points of the book: you can still move on, you can still be happy if you choose to be.
Q. In “ East of Coker” you wrote: “It has always struck me that what we do has changed so little over the centuries”. Is it for this reason, for the fact that we still have not learned enough from the past, that you feel that we have to tell these stories, so maybe we could one day reach the point of learning something from it?
— Dr Adam James Smith (@elementaladam) March 23, 2017
A. I am probably not overly optimistic that we will get to that point. I think that is the practical element of soldiering that hasn’t changed in centuries and probably millennia. The technology has, we have different technologies now, which has maybe changed the directness of it, because you lose that personal element, if you are not the person being there, seeing it, smelling and being in the context, you are perhaps a thousand of miles away doing almost a nine to five job, going home to see your family after it. There is a lot of interesting aspects about that and I know that they have put MRI scans on pilots when they are making these decisions and it is parts of their brains, compared to a soldier on the frontline, which are a lot more rational rather than emotional that control those decisions. In a way that is also a metaphor for the wider aspect: we are still doing as a society the same things that we have always done. Someone who has always influenced me is an English writer called John Grey who talks about this myth of progress that we have in which whilst we are making clear advances in technology we are still the same creatures and we still have the same emotions that we did have two hundred years ago, thousands of years ago. As creatures, we have not changed that much even though we use different technologies.
Q. There is an interesting part in the book about how civilians perceive soldiers, in a scene in which you describe the soldiers arriving in a house full of women and children and they looked at them as if they were rapists. I think it communicates very well the feeling of being hated for what you represent and not for who you are, of being hated by someone who doesn’t really know you. How do you feel about it?
A. Yes, definitely, I think the point is that the misunderstanding across cultural boundaries works both ways and I certainly felt as an individual going to the places I went to that I was incredibly naïve. We had some hours’ worth of cultural training which wasn’t in any way enough, we knew very little about the countries we were going to and the cultures we were going to encounter. And I think that people who were there knew very little about our culture and what we thought we were doing so the misunderstanding was from both sides and I think it is fascinating to try and find out more about how some of the people that live in the countries where we have been to have understood us and seen us and I think, certainly in Iraq and definitely in Afghanistan as well, we were often used as tools in local conflict which were completely unaware of. I think the idea of how cultures keep history alive and deal with history is really interesting looking at Iraq and Afghanistan. In Afghanistan people saw a direct continuum from last time we were there whilst we did not see that continuum at all, we were very unaware of what we had done in the country before. The average soldier on the ground had very little knowledge of the British role in Afghanistan, that was a lot of ignorance around it but of lot of Afghani people knew that and that was almost modern history to them because they saw history in a different way to how we saw it. There was not only a cross cultural confusion but also almost like a temporal confusion and you couldn’t help it, driving through some places in Iraq, but feel like you had gone back in time, in history.
Q. I feel like the most powerful message in war literature is that while wars are perhaps decided to change borders or keep borders, when you read about the human experience of war you realize that there are no borders because people who actually experience war they experience it in the same traumatic way. Would you agree with that?
A. Yes, definitely. And I think it is easier to get that in Second World War literature, it was times where soldiers from both sides felt that they had a lot more in common with each other than they did with the people back home that they were representing, those shared experiences they were having, the shared hardships. I think it has been less evident in some of the recent wars because the differences in cultural have been greater. If you look at differences in cultures between Russia, Germany, Italy, France back in that time, they were at pretty similar points in their developments and as European culture they had a lot more similarities I think. But I think definitely it has been interesting for the current book I am working at to look from a soldier’s point of view at what actually motivates them, what it is important to the soldier, how quickly any sort of ideology that you might have gone to war with because you believed in it and a lot of people do it becomes it is actually me surviving with this tiny group of people in this tiny bit of land and it becomes about a hill, a wood or a trench rather than a nation and a city and wars are fought for the most part in small bits of territories. In the current book, it has been interesting going through the official war diary that might have a one line entry describing an incident and yet in someone’s diary you find described in two chapters that one line because for that individual it was such a momentous happening in their life.
Q. Do you feel that the projects you support with your writing, like the war writers campaign, the fact that is about supporting people telling their stories, connects with what we have said before about the moral duty of storytelling?
A. Yes, I think so and I think it is in the concept of having associative duties so all of us, by being in a community or by being in an army unit, have duties to the people who we live with. And that sense of duty becomes really heightened in an army environment in which you have specific duties to your comrades and for most people those duties do not end when you leave that operational tour or even when you leave the forces, you maintain those duties. I think that for all of us in the wider society, we have duties to each other and I think we are all narrative beings, we need to tell our stories. In that way, putting all that together, we all have the duty to help each other tell our stories and I think that goes for each individual with their families and friends helping them telling their stories, keeping those stories alive, having those private conversations and what happened to people reach a wider audience.
I would like to thank Andy Owen for his availability, his kindness and for answering all of my questions and Dr. Fraser Mann for setting up the interview, for introducing me to Andy Owen and for having supported me during the interview.