Monday, April 4, 2016

I want to ask you

I want to ask you what it was like working with hundreds of severely traumatized people. I want to ask you how it felt when your work went from interviewing hundreds of severely traumatized people to interviewing thousands of severely traumatized people. How was your work possible? How did you "summarize" your work?

When you were speaking with a severely traumatized person did you manage to look her in the face? When you were interviewing a severely traumatized person what did you read behind his eyes? Did severely traumatized people hold their mouths in a certain way?

I want to ask you. When you were working with hundreds or thousands of severely traumatized people did their stories start to flow together? Did their stories become a molten ball that formed itself into a shape of pain? Did the flow of testimony go on, shapeless for all the years you did these interviews? 

Did their stories sound more like stories or more like testimony as you heard them told? Did they hold immediacy or did they sound to you muffled, deeply buried in the past? Did other, newer memories of the hundreds and thousands of severely traumatized people sneak in when they spoke?

As you listened to hundreds and then thousands of severely traumatized people did you have enough time to hear the details you wanted? Did you hear details you didn't want to hear? Did you wish there was more time to hear the details? Which kinds of details taught you the most? Which details seemed superfluous? Was any detail without information? Did the occasional detail light up the sky or your listening eyes with new light? New insight? A better way to tell the story for the hundreds and thousands of severely traumatized people you were listening to?

Did the severely traumatized people you listened to see you as a simple person? Did you develop your "simplicity" by being quiet? By the twinkle in your eye? By the way you moved your head? Did the hundreds and thousands of severely traumatized people you spoke with expect you to do anything for them? Was it easy to hear their stories? Was there a time or were there times when you didn't want to hear any more stories? Was there a time or were there times when you felt like you couldn't hear one more word of testimony?

When you were hearing these testimonies did you feel a certain energy? Did listening give you energy? Did your listening to people's testimonies give them energy? Did it confer power on your speakers? Did it give a speaker's story a certain right to be told? Could the teller understand that her story was adding to a new corpus of being? Does that make sense? What I'm meaning to say is, did she start her story with conviction but self-doubt but finish her story like she had been given the gift of rectitude?

When you listened to these hundreds and thousands of stories did you start, consciously or unconsciously to classify them? To build a taxonomy? To divide one "type" of story from another "type" of story? Did a pattern or hierarchy emerge? Were there landmarks?

If you discerned landmarks in these stories can you tell me what they were? Did a landmark, if you discerned one, lie somewhere on a timeline, so that you came to predict the ending or at least the next step of each story as you encountered certain landmarks? Could you imagine the trajectory of each testimony or were there surprises? Did you hear any stories that were identical or did every severely traumatized person experience severe trauma in a unique way?

In hearing the testimonies of people did you detect causalities or were the causes of suffering random? Did the women you spoke with feel they deserved their fate? How did they view the rebuilding of their life?

You spoke of people who could only repeat repeat repeat their stories. Some of them, many of them experienced repeated torture. The torture kept on, kept coming, on different occasions and sometimes at different hands but the torture kept coming. Serial torture. What would that do to someone's story?

Did you smell the burning bodies? Is it possible now that you have witnessed this to imagine burning a body? What are the steps? What, do you mind telling me, is going on inside the head of the burner? Can you possibly feel patriotic enough to give you sufficient energy to burn someone else alive? Forgive me, but that's much different from pulling a trigger. 

How did you hear about the burnt body parts being thrown across the wall into the man's garden, landing there from the police compiled next door. Do you remember the day?

Did you keep a log of blood and trauma? Did you have time to record the times and places of bombings? You chuckle when you say the roads were pitted with huge holes from mines. You chuckle when you recall the thirty three checkpoints on the way to Colombo. You chuckle when you talk about the night all the police guns went off for New Years. Or was it Christmas? You stayed in the room we are staying in now. Beneath the chuckle can you tell me how scary these things were on a scale of one to ten? Can you tell me if fear hurt or tore at you in some way?

You said people lived in a world of fear. You were at the epicenter, the ground zero of fear. Does it surprise you that now, so many years later, we still know something of that fear by the emanations of its toxic particles. The fear doesn't go away. It seems to have a half life but it still glows dark and dusty and blunt. 

You said a bomb would go off and someone would tell two or three good jokes and than everyone would run. The streets were full of kids on bikes trying to get home before the roundups. You said a joke might be, "The soldiers are just practicing." That doesn't sound so funny. Did people ever make really funny jokes like "the soldiers ate some bad food and there they are farting."

You said roundups were common. You said roundups happened in particular. Neighborhoods. You said roundups followed occupational or caste lines. You said there were roundups behind the hospital where the washers were. Can you imagine the cruelty of roundups? Were you ever in a roundup? Were people prepared for the roundups? 

You told of a father who hid his children in a pit and covered them and did the cooking over the spot. But they were found. How did the father tell the story? Did it end with "but they were found."

Did you have a chance to look at your work in a broader historical perspective? Roundups and forced marches and concentration camps from other places and times? 

Did you sit in front of the prison with the group of women who were there crying and helpless?

You spoke of "your" trauma or your trauma "coming back." What is that trauma? Have you spoken of it with your loved ones? How does it manifest itself? Do you get dizzy?

You spoke of massacres. Numbers of massacres. How can you hold that? How can you reckon that? You spoke of the massacre of Kokkodachcholai. I told you about the refrigerators of Kokkodachcholai. You spoke of the dugout you took across. I told you about the new bridge. 

Where in your heart is the trust that these efforts you are involved in now will lead to peace?

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