As essay talk witness writing

They believe in their ethics. Or, more importantly, their lies.

Even shame. And carrying that shame in our hearts as we go to work.

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I respect the ethical bent, but am impatient with it. In fact, I see it as privilege. It is easy to be righteous; much more difficult, but also preferable, in my opinion, to be real.

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I have told my students the story of a man I never met, and whose only memory I have is his voice on the phone. This was in Ahmedabad in Gujarat after the horrific riots—many have called it a state-supported pogrom—in which rampaging Hindu mobs killed and raped Muslims. I had gone there while working on a book. At a dinner at the home of a human-rights activist, I asked for names of people who were married to someone from another religion, particularly Hindus married to Muslims.

In a widely reported incident, a Hindu woman named Geetaben had been beaten to death with bricks for trying to protect her Muslim husband.

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A journalist at that dinner gave me a number but he said that under no circumstances was I to reveal his identity. The phone number belonged to a Muslim man married to a Hindu woman. The next morning I called the number. A woman answered. She said he was in his office and I said I had that number too and would try him there. I told him I was new in the city and had been at a party where a man, a friend of his, I believed, gave me this number. I was calling from a public phone booth; it was hot and I was sweating.

I said I just wanted to apologize for having breached his privacy and his sense of security. He only wanted the name of the person who had given me his number.

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I had felt bad about calling the man, I felt worse having to lie to him. Yet, I would do the same again. A few months after my return from Gujarat, I did a reading at a university in California. I was talking about the weddings I had seen taking place in the derelict camps in which Muslims had been put.

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In the course of my presentation I mentioned the calls I have described above. I was being considered for a job at that university. After the reading, an objection was raised to my hiring. I was lighting the path that I had taken, removing some of the mystery. Perhaps I was exposing a vulnerability. I was telling my readers that there was doubt in the process, and stumbling, and confusion. And that the act of writing was a dive into my private world, an effort to find clarity. My friends on Facebook warn about the harvesting of data. But Facebook knows nothing about my dreams or lies.

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A benign example of the power of primary witnessing might be the heartfelt response to the picture of the drowned body of two-year-old Aylan Kurdi. But within days Gucci had used it as the basis for a fashion shot in Le Monde. Photographs of dead children have been used for propaganda purposes from very soon after the medium was invented. Those engaged in sustained social action need to be alert to whatever psychological payoff they might be getting in order to be truly disciplined and effective.

For my part, that is coming to terms with a ghost: not exorcizing it, but accommodating it, like the Babadook. When I came to Leeds in , my first job was as a labourer in the Hepworth cloth warehouse. Their head of security was Ken Kitching, who had walked into this cushy job recently after a short spell in open prison as a result of his involvement in a brutal campaign of persecution leading to the death of David Oluwale, a homeless Nigerian Empire migrant. I maintain an involvement with the David Oluwale Memorial Association DOMA , which continues to campaign locally in the same way that the Manuel Bravo Project named after another tragic case offers legal advice to asylum seekers.

DOMA has always had a lot of involvement from writers and poets.

Dworkin and Goldsmith wrote of Zong! God forbid that maudlin and heavy-handed subjects like slavery and mass slaughter overwhelm the form! It very often seems to members of such groups to be merely a continuance of abusive patterns rooted deep in society.

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  • This vision of the avant-garde is relevant because contemporary poetry here and in the USA mainly survives at a professional level in academia, a structurally neotenic environment where avant-garde varieties have enjoyed the highest prestige since the s. When you are so pigeonholed, like the Northern Irish writers during the most recent active phase of the Troubles, you will either be accused of cashing in on or ignoring the predicament of your community, whether or not you feel a part of any community.

    This was another kind of witnessing — for a poet who suffered silencing through a variety of extraordinarily violent factors, beaten to death here in his native city in and then having his stock of books blown up with the Carcanet offices when the IRA bombed Manchester. The multi-award-winning film of their USA tour, We Are Poets , represents in its very title a defiant claim to a status that is only reluctantly accorded to poets whose work has to be witnessed to be fully appreciated.

    I have also read on DOMA platforms with them and listened to them discuss their work, where they have made clear the importance to them of social and political engagement on behalf of vulnerable groups, and the responsibility they feel for representing some of those groups. This community-based environment is very different to that of the academy. Twitter is inevitably a forum for these exchanges, favoured by conceptualists and their opponents.