One of the very best things about my home town is its reputation internationally for its role in promoting peace. It seemed to start with the Dayton Peace Agreement, which was brokered at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in November 1995, and more recently, the continual international influence of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, which started in 2006.
Because I’m on a budget, I cannot attend the gala event Sunday evening or the private meeting with the peace prize winners. However, there is an opportunity for those with less money to spend: the Sunday morning conversation with the authors being recognized.
The writers selected by the peace prize committee are always an interesting and diverse mix of writers–some well-known and others not so familiar to me. The 2018 honorees were no exception.
Check out this list:
- John Irving – The Ambassador Richard C Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award
- Fiction honorees
- Hala Alyan – Salt Houses
- Min Jin Lee – Pachinko
- Nonfiction honorees
- Ta-Nehisi Coates – We Were Eight Years in Power
- Michelle Kuo – Reading with Patrick
There is no way I can summarize the many insightful and measured opinions shared by these accomplished writers in their pursuit of promoting peace. One common theme, however, stood out: “Peace,” they agreed is a big word with many meanings, so the pursuit of “peace” in literature (and in society) can and should take many forms.
Michelle Kuo, author of Reading with Patrick, believes that our country’s greatest challenge is economic inequality, which is at the root of much conflict and violence. David Wood (a previous recipient for What Have We Done), was raised a pacifist, but found himself unexpectedly working as a war correspondent. His path toward peace is to bring the damages of war to light, through the voices of those directly experiencing conflict, not by superimposing his views or values. Moral injury is the theme he explored in What Have We Done. In his words:
“Each of us, of course, has experienced at least a twinge of moral regret and sometimes deeper and lasting moral injury. History is marked by immense human calamities and periods of unspeakable moral violation. Yet the moral jeopardy of war, especially in the wars the United States began and fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, is different. These wars demanded the intense and prolonged participation of a tiny fraction of the nation’s youth in sustained campaigns built on the intentional violation of the ancient sanctions against killing. Those who returned did so without the healing rituals of cleansing and forgiveness practiced by past generations. Threads of anger and betrayal run through their stories: violations of their sense of ‘what’s right’ by the Afghan and Iraqi civilians who turned violently against them, by an American public that turned its back on the war, and by the lack of clear victories in Iraq and Afghanistan that might have justified their sacrifices.” The nominating judges note: “…moral injury occurs when a person violates his or her own conscience and cannot recuperate easily afterward.”
John Irving, whose extensive body of work covers much territory, believes that writers should not be burdened with being political or pressured to make every book about a social issue. Instead, he allows his characters to evolve within the story, and if a particular character is faced with a moral dilemma, social sanctioning, or political choice, Irving gives that character the space to question, decide, and act. He feels that just two of his books overtly address a social issue: The World According to Garp, which dealt with sexual hatred, and The Cider House Rules, which explored the volatile theme of abortion and a woman’s right to her own body. I’m embarrassed to say I have not read the latter, but it seems to me this theme is even more relevant today and perhaps should be widely read and re-read. (BTW: The World According to Garp is one of my all-time favorite books. Also deserving of a re-read.)
Let me finish by saying that every author honored this year and every past recipient is worth your attention. no matter where you fit on the political spectrum. Yes, themes may seem “left-leaning” on the surface, but only because we have grown to believe that “left,” “right,” “independent” and “in-between” have nothing in common and can never work together to make our country the best it can be. There are no books here by current or past politicians, no former White House folks with an axe to grind. These writers are people first, who want to make sense of issues that puzzle them and share what they learn. But, these are people who also want to crystalize their own thinking by exploring conflicting viewpoints. By seeking discomfort. My call to action alluded to in the title: Read more. Learn more. Explore discomfort. Perhaps then I can be a better citizen of the world.
From Michelle Kuo:
“To be educated meant you read books and entertained ideas that made you feel uncomfortable. It meant looking in the mirror and asking, What Have I done that has cost me anything? What authority have I earned to speak? What work have I put in? It meant collapsing your certainties and tearing down your self-fortifications. You should feel unprotected, unarmed, open to attack.”
In the meantime, keep on creating in any way you can. The world needs you.
PS: Ben Rawlence of Wales, was the 2017 nonfiction runner-up for City of Thorns. He was supposed to be part of the panel at this year’s event, but a few days ago he was denied passage to the US, even though he was a prize-winning author, human rights activist, and had a legitimate reason to fly to Dayton, Ohio. The reason for his denial: He had recently visited Somalia to further research the plight of refugees (the topic of City of Thorns). This book is next on my reading list.