Overcoming Speechlessness: A Poet Encounters the Horror in Rwanda, Eastern Congo and Palestine/ Israel
Seven Stories Press (2010)
Within The Fire Next Time James Baldwin wrote: “For the horrors of the American Negro’s life there has been almost no language.” Forty seven years later, Alice Walker pleads with us to find the words to describe modern day suffering. In an age where news is disseminated in a matter of seconds via the Internet, social networking sites and national/ local news, it is easy to learn about the headlines, gasp in disbelief and anger, and forget. Perhaps it is our way of dealing with the seemingly endless barrage of inherent cruelty which permeates the world.
Walker’s latest offering, part travel diary and poem, urges rebellion against a culture of inaction and silence. It’s not enough to simply know about the atrocities, one must speak. This step is an integral part of progress and healing, she writes. The journey begins with her a visit to the Rwanda, years after the 1994 genocide, which left 800,000 men, women and children dead, according to the United Human Rights Council. While here she visits a museum which serves as not only a memorial to the thousands murdered, but provides an overview of the country’s colonial past that pitted one ethnic group against the other.
From Rwanda, the journey moves to the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), another war ravaged country. Four million have perished here in a scramble between rival groups to control mineral wealth such as coltan, an essential ingredient for the manufacturing of cell phones. Rape, long a weapon of war, has taken on a particularly nefarious face in the DRC; often women are victimized continuously.
It is in this setting that Walker embraces a rape survivor, attacked for over a year with every imaginable object; still, she finds the strength to thank Walker for her work with Women for Women International. We are left with the image of an elegant young woman, who has transcended her pain and is emerging again.
The remainder of the Overcoming Speechlessness details the impact of Walker’s sojourn into the Israel / Palestine conflict, a region of the world highlighted continuously on the evening news; still most Americans have little understanding of its roots and even far less interest in following complicated and layered developments.
While Walker provides a historical background, she chooses to move beyond a strictly academic analysis returning to the simple and poetic reflective nature of the work, talking to people on the ground. We meet an older couple who house is in shambles; the parents of Rachel Corrie, the young activist murdered when she attempted to stand between an Israeli tank and the home of her Palestinian friends. Similarities between the Afro-American struggle for human rights are drawn, further solidifying one of the book’s overarching themes – suffering is universal.
Yet one cannot help but feel that Walker spends the majority of her time exploring a conflict which receives constant attention in the press, with a mere two chapters detailing her experiences in Rwanda and Eastern Congo, places rarely covered in the Western press. Readers looking for a list of solutions will be disappointed; There is power in speech, words, Walker seems to whisper from the page. She reminds us of a haunting phrase uttered by the great poet Audre Lorde: “Our silence will not protect us.” Indeed it will not.
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