EVENT REVIEW: Writing from Conflict at Durham Book Festival

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Saturday 10 October
Palace Green Library

Review by Rachel Patterson

I expected to leave Writing from Conflict with Michelle Green and David Constantine with a deeper understanding of what it was like to experience a conflict and then write about it. Before the event I pictured the two authors would be talking about wars and famine and devastation. This was, of course, discussed, most illuminatingly by Michelle Green, who spent a year in Darfur in 2005. What I wasn’t expecting was conflict at home, such as David Constantine’s experiences of helping at a Young People’s Mental Health Unit, to be linked so strongly to conflicts abroad. Overall, this created an eclectic event, exploring everything from responsibility in war, to most surprisingly a debate on whether factual errors in books matter.

The event began with both authors reading from their short story collections. Firstly, Michelle Green read from her collection Jebel Marra. In her collection, she pieces together the conflict in Sudan from the point of view of fifteen different narrators. The story, The Waiting Room takes place in a hospital in a refugee camp, but also links back to the narrator’s troubled young adulthood, involving drugs and AIDS. Green manages to make these links in a way that they illuminate and connect the narrator to the situation in Sudan without minimising the horror of either situation. Green’s exceptional talent for spoken word only heightens the effect of her characters who epitomise the human cost of war. The most striking of these is her character of an old woman who cuts off one of her fingers every time somebody in her family dies in the conflict. This presents the conflict in a deeply emotional way.

The theme of psychological and physical conflict being interlinked led into David Constantine’s story ‘Asylum.’ This again linked conflict at home and conflict abroad through the exploration of the meaning of the word ‘asylum.’ The extract he read formed a conversation between Madeline, a mentally ill young adult and her teacher as they discuss the story she is writing about a young asylum seeker. Constantine captured the voice of a seemingly fiercely intelligent but also deeply troubled woman perfectly, it almost felt as if the conversation was happening in the room. This immediacy of feeling ran through the whole event, but really linked together when a debate about whether factual mistakes matter in fiction was concluded by both authors stating that fiction is much more about capturing the ‘life of the situation’ rather than fixating on exact factual details..

Overall, the American poet Brian Turner’s words (whom David Constantine quoted): ‘the history books will get it wrong’ sums up the theme of this event. Instead of reports and enquires, this event explored the human cost of conflict, from Constantine’s tortured Madeline questioning the meaning of asylum to Green’s fingerless old lady. The history books may get it wrong, but this event certainly got it right in its exploration to seek, as Michelle Green stated, the often ‘unspeakable’ truth about witnessing conflict; chaneling these complex emotions through fiction is sometimes the only way it can be expressed.

Rachel Patterson is a Reviewer in Residence at Durham Book Festival.

Reviewers in Residence is a Cuckoo Young Writers programme ,which allows young critics to develop an in-depth relationship with a venue or art form, and take part in exclusively tailored writing masterclasses.