Bellevue Literary Press Conversations: Helen Benedict & Nina Berman
This article was originally published as part of the Bellevue Literary Press: Conversations series, a series of dialogues between people whose lifework, like BLP’s mission, explores the creative territory at the intersection of the arts and sciences, and has become a testament to how science the humanities can join forces to educate and inspire. This online series is inspired by E.O. Wilson and Robert Hass, whose talk about the connections between science and the arts was published in our book The Poetic Species: A Conversation with Edward O. Wilson and Robert Hass.
In this conversation, two faculty members of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, who work in very different mediums yet are just as much artists as they are journalists, discuss common themes in their most recent books. Helen Benedict—author of the novel Wolf Season, among several others, as well as an essayist and journalist—and Nina Berman—a photographer, filmmaker, and writer whose most recent book is An Autobiography of Miss Wish—tackle social injustice, violence against women, and the devastating effects of war while pushing back against the stereotyping of victims. This conversation is part of the BLP Conversations series from Bellevue Literary Press, featuring dialogues that explore the creative territory at the intersection of the arts and sciences.
Helen Benedict: In your stunning multimedia book about Kim—your photographs, her drawings, both of your writings—I see two prominent themes: One is to expose the brutality of sex trafficking and violence against girls and women. The other is to show us the dignity and resilience of a survivor, as well as respect for the humanity of a person too many of us reduce to mere victim. I, too, write about those who are often reduced to their victimhood in my new book—a blind child, a one-legged boy, a scarred refugee, a war veteran, a rape survivor. Would you talk about how you approached these themes and what else you hope this book will accomplish—for Kim, you, and the public?
Nina Berman: We are accustomed to seeing stories about post-traumatic stress in the military, stories both you and I have covered. What is less common are deep and complicated stories around the mental health impacts and PTSD caused by sexual violence against children and young women, the consequences of this violence over time, and the connections among sexual violence, poverty, and addiction.
That is Kim’s story. And so one of my aims, and Kim’s aim, was to show that the homeless person hustling for change on the subway has a history and didn’t just arrive at that moment because she’s lazy or dumb or stoned, but, in fact, is struggling to keep it together every moment because of what she’s seen and experienced. So rather than treat those in our midst with disdain, or criminalize or discard them, we need to face the reality that we live in a culture of violence, and we need to regard those who have been harmed with compassion and understanding. Kim also hopes that the book can show women who are frightened that they can speak out as she did. She also hopes the book will help people understand the dynamics of addiction and how drugs, while perhaps providing short-term relief, are a major obstacle to healing.
In Wolf Season, you create richly detailed, beautifully felt characters, whether American or Iraqi, the latter of whom stand in sharp contrast to stereotypes of Iraqis seen in the popular media—if Iraqis are seen at all outside the larger construct of Muslim terrorist. When crafting plot and character, did you take into consideration the larger media landscape of how Iraq and the Iraq War has been seen or not seen?
HB: I began my cycle of writings about the Iraq War long before ISIS existed or Trump was even a candidate, but already I saw the parallells between post-9/11 Islamophobia and anti-Semitism and racism. When on tour for Sand Queen (my 2011 novel that introduces Naema Jassim, a major character in Wolf Season), I often met people who didn’t know that Iraqi women could be educated English speakers and doctors—they didn’t know the difference between Iraq, Afghanistan, or Saudi Arabia, for that matter. So yes, part of my goal was to push against growing Islamophobia by presenting my Iraqi characters as every bit as human and understandable as anyone else. But I also wrote—and still write—about Iraqis because here we are, the U.S., still as responsible for tearing their country apart as ever, while paying virtually no attention to who Iraqis are in our art, our literature, our politics, or our conversations.
To get my Iraqi characters right, however, I did need to spend time interviewing Iraqis and reading as much Iraqi literature as I could find in translation. For your book, Nina, you and Kim worked together much more closely than that. Could you describe how you did this, and how involved she was in the process?
NB: Kim and I have known each other for over twenty-five years, but it was only in 2014 that the idea emerged to do a book together. At a residency at the Blue Mountain Center, I spent time looking through all Kim’s materials—her written account of her life in England, her archive consisting of diaries, drawings, documents, letters, etc. Then there were all my photos, sound recordings, and videos. I made a first pass at it, creating a physical narrative framework mounted on a wall. I reproduced this for Kim, and from there we worked with a book designer. Kim provided input with each iteration of the design, including the selection of photos and texts, sequencing, and editing. Together, we also made a list of pictures I still needed to make, and she served as my guide, via text messages, when I returned to England to shoot more images. I configured the narrative arc of what became her spoken words from years of interviews, and she looked through my writing at the end and gave feedback. Nothing in the book is there without her approval.
How did you research Iraqi refugees and American soldiers for your book, and did you ask for feedback from them before publication?
HB: I spent over three years interviewing some forty American women who had served in Iraq for my nonfiction book The Lonely Soldier, and later some Iraqi refugees here in New York City, as well as upstate in Albany, where some four hundred have been settled by the U.S. government. But Wolf Season is a novel, not a work of journalism, so although those interviews were useful, nobody in my novel is a thinly disguised version of a real person, or is even based on anyone I’ve met. Had I done that, I would have written bad journalism and bad fiction. One must let go of research to allow the imagination to reign free. So my interviews were to gather background information, not actual narratives. In short, our methods were similar, but our goals very different.
That said, I did ask certain Iraqis and veterans to check over passages in my novel for accuracy of detail. This was important because, as neither a veteran nor an Iraqi, I had to make sure I wasn’t making ignorant or prejudiced mistakes. What, in your experience, are the pros and cons of the kind of collaboration you did with Kim?
NB: I would never have done the book without her full participation, nor would it have been interesting for me to go it alone, because I value her creativity and opinion. It is our book together. The drawback was that I had a dimension of doubt and worry beyond what is normal for an author. I wondered if, once she saw the book for real, she would be satisfied, feel let down, or if it would prompt a new crisis in her life. Then there is the promotion. Making a book and pushing it out into the world are two different things. We imagined doing certain events together, but the reality is that my ideas may not be right for her at that moment, which is OK. So the hard work of bringing the book to an audience, defending and explaining it, almost entirely falls on me, which sometimes makes me sad. I’m trying to find forums that won’t put pressure on Kim, and also forums where I feel comfortable speaking without her.
The most striking aspect of our work we have in common, Helen, is our burning passion for social justice, especially when it comes to women. We both deal with violence against women in our books. Where does your passion for justice and women’s rights come from, and when did it begin?
HB: As the child of anthropologists, I lived in the Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius and the Seychelles, both British colonies at the time and desperately poor, where I saw starving children, leprosy, elephantiasis, drunken violence in the streets. I was deeply affected. Add to that my adolescence in 1960s Berkeley—Black Power, feminism, Vietnam—and my passion for social justice was born. As an undergraduate, I worked in a prison for teenage girls in England, where I learned that 80 percent of the girls had been raped by relatives, a fact that so outraged me I began to focus on rape and violence against women and girls early on in my days as a journalist. My first novel, A World Like This, was set in that prison, and most of my nonfiction books have also been about sexual assault. I have always felt that sexualized violence expresses the essence of misogyny in our society, and so must be constantly addressed.
But above all, I have to credit the feminists I read in the late ’60s and ’70s: Susan Brownmiller, Simone de Beauvoir, Germaine Greer, Kate Millett, Robin Morgan, Marilynne Robinson, Phyllis Chesler, and so on. Where did you get your passion for social justice and women’s rights?
NB: I remember seeing documentaries on television at an early age: one on Hiroshima and one on the Palmer Raids and Sacco and Vanzetti that completely seized me and burned an outrage into my brain that something horribly wrong and monstrous had happened to people who didn’t deserve it. And then, growing up when I did, when girls were second to boys, and living through the era of feminism and women’s liberation and reproductive choice, I began to focus my attention on injustice and violence and the bravery of those who resisted and stood to tell their stories. My first professional reporting on the subject of women and violence was in Bosnia in 1992–1993 around rape survivors and perpetrators. I realized I could listen patiently and closely to women and they felt safe talking to me.
You, too, have written women’s direct accounts of rape and assault, both in civilian life and in war, a subject that comes up again in Wolf Season, with your character Rin’s memories of serving in Iraq. What drew you to write about sexual violence in war, and war itself?
HB: I was drawn to writing about war the minute the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, an act of blatant injustice and dangerous absurdity—not only drawn to it but unable to write about anything else. Then, when I found out that more American women were serving in Iraq than in any war since World War II and that 30 percent of them were being raped by their so-called comrades while serving, I knew I had to attack that subject, too. Add to that the outrage of bombing and slaughtering and displacing innocent citizens of a country that had never attacked or even threatened the U.S., and I was compelled to raise my voice as a writer, as a novelist, as a journalist, and even as a playwright. Why did the subject of war draw you?
NB: It’s not really war so much or the actual fighting that interests me. It’s how the whole project is justified, how consent is manufactured, how people wrestle with their participation—combatants and civilians alike—and how those harmed find a way to survive, resist, stay human, and in some cases, make amends. Living in a country driven by a war economy and, since 2001, with a stated purpose of perpetual war, I feel an obligation to look closely at what this all means, and so I have had a running conversation in my work with the U.S. military for several years.
Along these lines, I noticed that several of your characters, civilian and military, young and old, express racist and Islamophobic sentiments as though this is normal. Can you talk about the connection between violence and racism in your work?
HB: Like you, I am aware of how much our perpetual wars have penetrated the lives and minds of Americans who might never have given a thought to our ongoing military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, let alone elsewhere. Indeed, the long reach of war is the overarching theme of Wolf Season—how, even in a small American town, people are twisted and morals are deformed by the violence and corruptions of war. Thus, a little boy, a grown woman, a local cop—all these people unthinkingly spout ugly epithets, because they hear them on TV, in the movies, in conversation, maybe even from the pulpit. Racism and Islamophobia have sunk deep into American soil, and it is up to artists and journalists like us to work constantly at rooting them out.
Helen Benedict, a professor at Columbia University, is the author of seven novels, including the recent Wolf Season, a Military Times “Reading Guide” selection, and Sand Queen, a Publishers Weekly “Best Contemporary War Novel.” A recipient of both the Ida B. Wells Award for Bravery in Journalism and the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism, Benedict is also the author of five works of nonfiction, including The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq, and a play, The Lonely Soldier Monologues. She lives in New York.
Nina Berman is a documentary photographer and filmmaker, author of three books, associate professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and a member of NOOR images, a photography and film collective based in Amsterdam. She has received awards from the World Press Photo Foundation, New York Foundation for the Arts, Open Society Institute Documentary Fund, and Aftermath Project grant. In 2017, she was the inaugural Susan E. Tifft Fellow in Documentary and Journalism at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.