The Obligation to Imagine

February 12, 2014 § Leave a comment

The Obligation to Imagine

When a writer enters into a world of historical fiction, he/she enters, as completely as possible, that historical time-frame.  If that world means the trenches of WWI, as in the case of A Generation of Leaves, then the writer must be there and summon the words to create that world. The characters must eat, sleep, and breathe that world and if it proves too much for human endurance, the characters escape literally or figuratively.  But, what right did I have at this remove, never having experienced the WWI reality, to imagine those  situations, those reactions, that dialogue? While I was writing, sometimes, those doubts would intrude, sometimes they would give me pause.  They never ultimately stopped me because, what can I say, I was on the trail.  I had caught the scent.  I had some blind faith, ultimately, in the truth of my imagination.

Recently I read an amazing essay in the New York Times written by Phil Klay, a former Marine who served in Iraq entitled, “After War, a Failure of the Imagination”.

In his moving and bold opinion piece, Klay states bluntly that you don’t honor someone by telling them, “I can never imagine what you’ve been through.” He makes a compelling case for neither civilians or soldiers being excused or excluded from discussion of war.

The imagination provides an empathic and stubborn ground for truths that we often too busily overlook or are afraid to face whether it be the horror of war or the shocking beauty of an ordinary gesture.


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