Carolin Emcke: Confronting the Worst: Writing & Catastrophe
Carolin Emcke:  Confronting the Worst: Writing & Catastrophe

By Carolin Emcke  |   Listen

I’m not an expert on natural disaster, but on man-made disaster, namely wars. I assume that all of us have received the same question over and over again: “Why do you do this job? Why do you go to these places where you get shot at, arrested, deported, threatened, or beaten up on a relatively regular basis?” Probably for a complex set of motivations—some personal, many political—and it’s difficult to disentangle the various reasons because they are so intertwined with who I am as a person. Whatever explanation we give is somewhat retroactive; it provides a rationalization for something that at the core feels like a need, and reflects an impulse as you would reach out to catch a glass of water that falls off the table. It’s really an impulse. For me, it’s an impulse to respond to violence and to wars. What I really care about is the relation between violence, trauma, and the loss of language.

Very often, victims of violence are not terribly injured physically, but they’re mentally, emotionally, and psychologically injured. What goes along with that psychological injury is the loss of language, the loss of their ability to describe what actually happened to them. I’ve never in my life—not in one region of crisis or war, not in one area of conflict—met a victim of violence who had lost memory of what had happened to him or her. Not once. Rather than what the contemporary scientific research on trauma wants to make you believe, I’ve never once encountered a single victim of violence who really could not remember what happened. The first thing you lose is trust in the world. People lose their language or their ability to give an account, to give a narrative of what happened to them, because they lose trust that anybody will care. They lose trust in the sense of community or the sense of belonging to the same world, which is a precondition for talking. It’s a precondition for dialogue, a precondition for even making an effort to reach out to another person, assuming she wants to share your suffering and your sorrow.

What upsets me particularly, what makes me go to these areas, is anger at the fact that if people lose the ability to describe what happened to them, the perpetrators win twice. Basically, if people aren’t able to give an account or to give an account that we consider intelligible—maybe it doesn’t sound reasonable anymore, maybe they can only stutter or mumble—it’s only proof that the perpetrator was right.

If we are talking about writing and catastrophe, what the writer has do is give voice to people who have become silent. It’s a creative rush: You have to decipher the broken narratives; you have to try to make sense of something that might sound distorted. No one ever asked me for money, for food, for direct, practical help. But over and over again, people have asked, “Will you write this down?”

In the beginning, I have to admit that I was slightly scared because I feared they would hope that my writing could change the situation they faced. Over the years, I’ve come to think it’s actually something else. They’re not so naïve to think that if I write, something will really change. Rather, people who are victims of violence, of long-term discrimination, of long-term exclusion from society, people who experience injustice and violence over long periods of time, at some point—when the situation continues and nobody intervenes—they begin to wonder whether what has happened to them might actually be right. At some point, they lose the sense of the injustice. They lose their faith in the world.

So rather than do that, they begin to ask whether what happened to them might be right. What they ask of a writer on catastrophe and war is to say, “No, what you are enduring is not right, it’s wrong. It’s wrong.” This reassures them of their own sense of right and wrong, of justice and injustice, and includes them again in the community that they were excluded from. The writing is also about creating a weave—a normative weave, a moral weave, a weave that is bigger than the realities in these war zones or the realities that these people find themselves in. We somehow all believe in the power of words to ban horror and fear, and yet it doesn’t work. Sometimes events and horrors and injustice and wars are just overpowering. And they don’t lose their ability to haunt us and traumatize and terrorize us, even if we can describe them properly. That’s the paradox of the witness of war: You always fail to reach that state where you can say, “Yes, I adequately described what was going on.”

I’ve written articles as a journalist, as it is my profession, and yet I had this sense of failure. So I began to write letters to my friends, who, I have to say, weren’t terribly good at asking questions about where I was, and I wasn’t terribly good at describing what I experienced. So, out of that frustration and that sense of failure, I began writing letters that I would send via e-mail to friends across the world—long letters that tried to make sense out of what I experienced in these areas of war, and also tried to reflect on our own role in this. Now it’s turned into a book, which is slightly strange because strangers read it and not just friends. It hasn’t stopped the sense of failure and inadequacy, but it also hasn’t stopped the drive and the need to continue to travel and try to give people a voice.


Emcke, Carolin, 2005, ‘Confronting the Worst: Writing & Catastrophe’, World Voices 2005, PEN American Center, accessed 12 Aug, 2010.

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