This, Too, Is War

June 15, 2020

A photograph of an empty bench facing the ocean

In this letter to a friend, a health-care worker, Mahtem Shiferraw traces the devastating effects of war and how, with Covid-19—this war “that bloomed itself out of nothing, that continued to shapeshift and elude us in more ways than one”—we can choose different outcomes.

Dear J.,

Grief has finally settled in. It has found corners and nooks I didn’t know I had, mapped out this body as if it knew it intimately, as if it has been there before, and knew its way around. I’m not surprised at all, and yet this is a new kind of grief, one I have refused to make room for, but accepted it placidly anyway; what choice do I have—

To be honest, words feel inadequate right now. What is there left to say? I know the entire world is burning, so I won’t ask you how you’re doing. I know you must have been breaking too, as I have, as many others have. But to think that you’ve been witnessing so much dying is also a new kind of breaking. I’ve always wondered how health-care workers deal with death and dying all around; I am afraid to ask my mother, but I suspect she doesn’t have much room to allow this kind of grief; you see, she has been mothering so much of it before, I think she has already been sharpened by it.

*

When I first hear about the lockdown and nationwide closures, dread takes over, slowly. The news I receive from loved ones in different continents is mixed; some are ahead of us in the death timeline and constantly paint the new sorrows that are forthcoming. I am grateful for the information they give me, but also filled with anxiety, like everyone else. I call my brother in Italy; I don’t ask how he’s doing, I can’t bear to know that we are so far apart, so helpless, so foolishly human. Instead, I ask, what did you do today, because in a time like this, one can only think about the immediate present, the nearest objective, as that is all we can do to keep ourselves together, if not for us, then for our children’s sake.

I called my mother to ask, What is this, as if she knew the answer. It must have been at the beginning of March, which seems like long ago now. This is Asmara, she said. I knew it in my bones; this dread that was quietly filling our spaces—this, too, is war.

*

My memories of war are not that many in number. And yet they have filled my life, my capacity to breathe, to be easily frightened at loud sounds; they have reshaped my entire existence without my knowing. Everyone has different memories of the same war, because it never presents itself the same way, it is a ruthless shapeshifter, undefined by the rules and boundaries we have established for ourselves, unbothered by the amount of lives it takes, the lives it affects, all the internal and external trauma it causes. We may remember the big events it chooses to define itself by—the deaths, the bleedings, the bombings—but it is always the small things that stay with us—the grief, our inability to help others, the sudden realization that our humanity is so volatile, so fragile. And these knowings churn and churn away, and the grief grows and blooms quietly, affecting everything we do, everything we are. We promise ourselves that we will not be defined by this, we will not be defined by tragedy; but this kind of collective grief is expansive, ever-growing, multiplying on itself, and roams freely claiming those who continue to refuse it, as if to say, this is not your choice, mourning is not a choice. And perhaps it isn’t.

*

Dread is the thing I remember most. It is not a distinct memory, rather a thing housed in my body without my knowing, without my permission. It has always been with me, though it, too, assumes different shapes depending on the circumstances that arise; if I’m walking down the street alone, it resembles a bleeding purple shade, pulsating burgundies all over; if I am stopped by the police, it quickly turns itself into an all-consuming fire; if I am crossing a new land that has not welcomed my people, it becomes an ashen shadow I cannot get rid of, a second, third self, walking ahead and behind me, absorbing all the insults and gut-punches, flashing a warning sign, do not go into the abyss of rage, where all the colors have folded upon themselves, refusing to lift me back up. When it is in the bones, dread becomes something else; a way of life, a way to carefully navigate the world, creatively, humbly, so I can continue to stay alive. But the dread of war is different. It bears no colors, it doesn’t carry a warning sign with itself, it doesn’t lull me into believing that things will be resolved, that things will be okay. Because, mostly, they won’t.

When it is in the bones, dread becomes something else; a way of life, a way to carefully navigate the world, creatively, humbly, so I can continue to stay alive.

 

*

The key to surviving a war almost always includes misremembering, for the sake of collective healing, but also remembering and storytelling. Remembering what it was like before this war, which will give us hope for what’s to come in the future, in the aftermath of all of it. And storytelling because we must continue to remind ourselves of the things we have survived, the things we are grateful for; how we persevere and rise up is always a testament to our collective strength.

The key to surviving a war almost always includes misremembering, for the sake of collective healing, but also remembering and storytelling. If we are not a little bit broken now, then we have not been paying attention to the world.

I am grateful for many things; I am grateful for water and power, which I didn’t have in other wars. I am grateful for my loved ones, who continue to persevere, wherever they are. I am grateful for art, and music, and poetry. I am so grateful for poetry, I want to immerse myself in it and never completely resurface. I am grateful for health workers like you, who continue to provide care for those who are sick. I am grateful to have this kind of time with my family, which I never had before. I am grateful for so many things, but most of all, I am grateful for our humanity, for the acts of kindnesses it has yielded, for the beautiful fruits it continues to bear, for all the difficulties it continues to survive.

*

A friend sends us a note; he says, This will not break us. But it has, though, hasn’t it? If we are not a little bit broken now, then we have not been paying attention to the world; it has been bruising, and bruising, and bruising.

*

Los Angeles is an immense city, but today it feels small, contained. Every street is like a new threat to be conquered, every trip to the grocery store feels like an impossible mission. It’s odd how we all have been humbled by it, the knowing that no matter what we have and who we are, we may catch it one way or another, and we may or may not survive. For reasons that are completely out of our control, which is infuriating at best.

I walk to the Pacific Ocean; I want to see if it’s still there, I want to scream, Have you heard the world is on fire, and what are you doing about it. I am a fool to think I will be heard; the water sits still, its blue a sudden somber shade, which I choose to believe is for us. And for those we have lost.

I think of the loss often, don’t you? I keep a secret log of the numbers, how many in my city, how many in the county, how many in the state, in the country, in the world. Sometimes the numbers triple overnight, and in rare cases they remain stagnant, which is a victory these days. Every life saved is a giant triumph over this war; one more thing we can rejoice over. But I know for every life saved, there are many more who won’t make it, and countless who will continue to carry the grief with them.

You asked me how to cope with grief. The truth is I don’t know if you can. I mean, we can try, and we have different means to cope with grief. But how does one cope with this kind of grief? It bears the likeness of a familiar being now, and we must make room for it, and allow it to stay, so we can move with it. How else do we carry forth the memories of those we have lost—

*

Before the pandemic, I had forgotten to enjoy the simpler things in life. Human contact. A mindless trip to the grocery store; traveling to meet new people, reading poetry in community, breaking bread in community, simply marveling at the sea of people that is swallowed by buildings—malls, beaches, hiking trails. I had forgotten how much of a luxury it is to simply sit down and talk with others—I had forgotten that an introvert, too, needs the world breathing and pulsating strongly in order to survive, in order to thrive. I had forgotten those seemingly small acts that give us dignity, humanity; to be able to say to someone grieving, here, I am here for you, to be able to touch, to express all the things our words would be too inadequate to carry; to be able to show up, which now is a dignity we cannot allow ourselves to have. You see, the deaths are the first things we mourn but are not the last ones; our humanity, too, has become a thing we do not recognize, the mourning we have to bring forth may be too great to carry on our own.

I had forgotten that an introvert, too, needs the world breathing and pulsating strongly in order to survive, in order to thrive.

*

Before the pandemic, I found myself in conversation with other writers, talking about immigrant communities. How do we continue to support and build immigrant writers, we asked ourselves. It was a question that asked us to go beyond our mere personal experiences, to extend ourselves into such diverse people and communities, all connected by the immigrant experience. No singular conversation can resolve this issue, and many more attached to it, of course, but I was mainly thinking about fear. The fear of having to identify as an immigrant, the fear of undertaking a perilous journey to a new land, the fear of assimilation, the fear of retribution, fear of not ever feeling like one belonged, fear of too many boundaries cutting deeply into our bodies. You see, I have been an immigrant in my own countries too, so no land has claim over my flesh and blood. But this fear does not really go away, the fear of always being othered, no matter our circumstances, no matter our efforts, no matter our best intentions.

This thing has now othered us forever, alienated us from one another in ways we couldn’t have imagined.

And here, again, with the pandemic, I find myself trapped in the same space. This thing has now othered us forever, alienated us from one another in ways we couldn’t have imagined. The one thing all wars have in common is this: they take away our capacity to see the humanness in others, in ourselves, for us to imagine that there could be a better future; wars present themselves as the only possible solution. But here, with this war that bloomed itself out of nothing, that continued to shapeshift and elude us in more ways than one, with this war, we can choose not to be othered, not to treat others with fear, we can choose to remember our basic dignities, and strive to survive, and to be better in our survival. With this war, we can choose to remember than we were once human, filled with light and laughter, and though the grief might be too great for us individually, it is one we can continue to carry collectively, as we will have been shaped by it for generations. So even though we have to distance ourselves, and may not be able to see each other in person, I know you are mourning a great loss, and all I can say is that I see you, I see you, I see you.

Los Angeles

Mahtem Shiferraw won the 2016 Sillerman Prize for African Poets. Her collections Fuchsia (2016) and Your Body Is War (2019) were published by the University of Nebraska Press. She is the founder of Anaphora Literary Arts, a nonprofit organization working to advance the works of writers and artists of color, co-founder of the Ethiopian Artist Collective, and executive editor of black lioness press. You can read several of her poems and her pandemic dispatch, “This, Too, Is War,” in WLT.

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