If this fall were to have a narrative arc, it would read like a bibliography full of texts on narratives, memory, and patterns of violence, with titles like Killing Civilians and Precarious Life and Extremities: Trauma, Testimony, and Community.
James Dawes, whose own book Evil Men has also dominated my thoughts and research this fall, speaks of the moments in between. Dawes and his team, consisting of a photographer and a translator, interviewed convicted war criminals who committed atrocities in the second Sino-Japanese war. He had the following to say about the moments in between the interviews and, while he is referring to interviews and field work in situations of mass atrocities, his words also ring true of the moments next to those consumed by research and thinking about mass atrocities:
“I don’t understand how to put these things next to each other. It is like somebody has taken a crowbar and pried open the seams of the everyday, so that the evils we cover over, block out, are now suddenly there, implacably next to us. next to everything. In fact, that is how I think of the time the three of us spend together. They are the “next to” times: what happens next to the interviews. This makes them sound unimportant, and at first I think they are, but over time I begin to change my mind. It matters so much that there is a “next to,” whatever it is. I keep thinking about what it means to be next to something, about what fits together.”
When I read that passage, I think about what it means to transcribe interview after interview of my own research on enforced disappearance and then step out my front door into the crisp air for the sheer purpose of photographing a leaf.
The ‘moments in between’ have consisted of not letting a single leaf fall unphotographed.
They are made of walks – walks from work to class to the library, walks home, to the sounds of Fonseca and Carlos Vives and Carla Morrison. They are the sounds that accompany me as I walk bundled in all my knits and which transport me to a time of sweat drops forming on my head in a jungle, away from the crispness and closer to the topics I now read about. We carry all our homes with us.
The moments in between are made of notes. Notes scribbled from my reading on Ralph Waldo Emerson or Oliver Wendell Holmes. Notes scribbled at conferences, like journalist Michele Montas’ reflection on the earthquake in Haiti as “having erased our last places of memory,” or Professor Perry’s prompt to “not write the kind of book that can be read just by browsing the index.” The moments in between are also made of talks — talks constructed in the old-fashioned way by putting pen to paper and letting the blank page stare at me until I either panic or muster the courage to walk onto a stage and lay claim to a tiny corner of narrative as my own.
The moments in between are made of plane rides, and my newfound fear of them. They are, incidentally, the only moments in which I watch television, courtesy of JetBlue, and either become engrossed in cooking shows even though I don’t understand half the terminology or become fascinated by how differently one approaches the news when she watches them, rather than reads them.
The moments in between unfolded between Texas and Guatemala, where I have continued to face my demons of paralyzing self-doubt and my ever-recurring questions on where the “I” fits in a narrative about conflict, violence, and atrocities. They involved eating what felt like all of Guatemala’s avocados within 48 hours, grinning at the “do not pee here” instruction graffitied onto every street corner wall, and realizing – upon searching for food at a Texas airport – that I was the tiniest thing within view for miles.
There were moments for meeting a self-pronounced mentalist, and the astronaut who hopes to be on Guatemala’s first mission to space. Moments for hugging the women who make the International Peace Scholarship possible, thus enabling my own education, and moments for explaining to yet another person at yet another airport “what a girl like you is doing in war zones.” Those, incidentally, were the moments I chose to explain the difference between “gender” and “women” and “war” and “conflict,” telling you everything you need to know about what crossing an immigration checkpoint with me may be like.
The moments in between were the moments of Indian food, usually on Wednesday afternoons, always with the same girls, always with garlic naan, always with giggles.
There were moments of dancing and red wine — but those are never the ‘next to’ moments, they are the moments. They are part of the main narrative. As was the search for beauty, and the hope, and all the love because it is only ‘next to’ them that the study of atrocities can become more palatable.
But mostly, when I recall this fall between the moments of transcribing interviews and researching mass atrocities and collective memory and writing writing writing and reading until I am bleary-eyed, I see leaves. I hear them crunching under my feet, I hear their rustle in that crisp wind of New England fall that I have so come to love. I see autumnal light.