Monday, October 17, 2011

Conflicting evidence

War Stories: Michelle Green & Zoe Lambert, Saturday 15th October 2011, 1.30pm, Libeskind Room, Imperial War Museum North

Words by David Keyworth.

A sunny Saturday lunchtime in Salford Quays is a world away from Darfur, Bosnia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo). These war zones are the settings for short stories by Comma Press authors Michelle Green and Zoe Lambert.

As the event gets under way, there are only a handful of empty seats in the Libeskind Room – a kind of seminar venue, away from the Imperial War Museum’s main exhibitions.

Michelle Green, whose short story collection is scheduled to be published in 2012, reads first. Her story may come under the heading of fiction, but its authenticity is testament to the time she spent working for a humanitarian organisation in West Darfur. The Waiting Room is set in a clinic where victims of conflict go to be examined. One of her stories’ major concerns is the tension between the real experience of war and the version we get in official statistics. The shadow of HIV haunts the story but it is an unacknowledged horror – especially because it can be passed on through rape.

Despite the bleak subject matter, the style is not over-dramatic. The author makes her point through the accumulation of detail and the day-to-day struggles of living in a conflict zone.

Zoe Lambert gives us the first sections of two stories from her debut collection The War Tour, just out. In When the Truck Came, young boys in DR Congo are taught to treat the battered guns they are given as objects of reverence. The indoctrination of child soldiers gives the story an ominous sense of foreboding.

The War Tour, the second story from which Zoe reads, lets in a little more humour. A young Manchester couple take a train to Sarajevo and visit "houses cracked with shell-marks" and tunnels where food was smuggled during the siege. James, one half of the couple, grumbles that the tour is a kind of "war Disneyland".

The audience is a good mixture of ages and gender. It contains a strong contingent of what marker researchers call Young Professionals. The post-reading discussion is confidently chaired by Comma Press editor Jim Hinks, who talks of his "immense pride" in giving a platform to Michelle and Zoe.

Topics include research, character development and the use of irony. Michelle says that it took her a long time to get around to writing her stories because the material felt so personal. She talks about the difficulty of re-adapting to British life after being in Darfur. The sound of a helicopter, for example, could bring back unsettling memories.

Zoe talks about the importance of empathy in helping her stories to progress beyond the ironic detachment of a Western author.

Jim rounds off the discussion by asking what British people can do, if anything, to help people in war zones. Michelle argues that we should let those who’ve gained asylum here know that they are welcome – an attitude which is not always apparent in our newspapers.

Visitors to the Imperial War Museum will know that it is not concerned with glorifying conflict but is primarily concerned with "how war shapes lives". This stimulating event made a powerful contribution to this aim.

David Keyworth’s poetry has been published in Smiths Knoll, The SHOp, Rain Dog, this year’s Cinnamon Press anthology Feeding The Cat and elsewhere. He is the chair of the Manchester-based group POETICA (email He is currently completing the NCTJ journalism qualification with News Associates.

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