I am going to tell you a story. It all began in 1998 during my time as an exchange student at the University of Sussex. Back then, I was seriously considering a future as an English teacher, and so I was very happy to spend some time taking courses for my BA abroad. This particular course was called “Telling Stories” and the teacher, Nat Chase, had us read and reflect on the nature of storytelling.
One course theme revolved around the Vietnam War, and among the texts was an excerpt from the novel In the Lake of the Woods by American author and Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien. I can see myself reading the text for the first time. I remember re-reading one particular passage over and over again. I remember feeling sad and angry and disgusted at the same time. Reading it through, maybe you will too:
"Thirty meters up the trail he came across Conti and Meadlo and Rusty Calley. Meadlo and the lieutenant were spraying gunfire into a crowd of villagers. They stood side by side, taking turns. Meadlo was crying. Conti was watching. The lieutenant shouted something and shot down a dozen women and kids and then reloaded and shot down more and then reloaded and shot down more and then reloaded again. The air was hot and wet. “Jeez, come on,” the lieutenant said, “get with it -- move -- light up those fuckers,” but Sorcerer was already sprinting away. He ran past a smoking bamboo schoolhouse. Behind him and in front of him, a brisk machine-gun wind passed through Thuan Yen. The wind stirred up a powdery red dust that sparkled in the morning sunshine, and the little village had now gone mostly violet. Hutto was shooting corpses. T’Souvas was shooting children. Doherty and Terry were finishing off the wounded. This was not madness, Sorcerer understood. This was sin." (O’Brien, 2006 : 107)
Maybe you now feel what I felt on that day in 1998; maybe you don’t. Maybe it reminds you of other stories or experiences of war and violence; maybe it doesn’t. Maybe you recognise names and places under a thin but skilfully crafted layer of fictional veneer; maybe you don’t. Maybe you are now wondering where I am going with all this. So, to the point.
I am writing this very slowly because I’m trying to get the words just right, and that is not easy. I want to tell you that reading this piece of fiction had consequences. I want to make you understand that for me, reading this story was important. It somehow brought me closer to the horrors of war than anything else I had previously encountered or experienced. It made me ask questions about the meaning of the story, about evil and the Vietnam War and about the awful massacre of civilians in the village of My Lai on 16 March 1968. I felt as if O’Brien was trying to tell me something through the hazy dreams and scattered memories of his troubled character, John Wade / Sorcerer. (Well, not me personally, but me as a reader, you get the point.) I have asked myself questions about this something for more than twenty years and that, I have concluded, is the point. This may sound a bit trite and self-evident, but I think it is important.
My point is that this story made me ask questions about the nature of war and violence, about truth and reality, and about storytelling and the ability of fiction to tell us something about human nature. I now have the luxury of spending much of my time asking some of these questions for a living, reading all kinds of texts about them and inviting new students to come up with questions and answers of their own. I often come back to the harrowing passage from In the Lake of the Woods just to remind myself that this is where it all started for me. The fact that many of my questions still revolve around issues of war and violence feels directly related to this single piece of fiction and the sense of meaning and importance and urgency it impressed upon me twenty years ago. Today, my obsession with questions about the world is what makes me a researcher. I ask questions and in my pursuit of answers, I tell stories.
“The thing about stories”, O’Brien observes, “is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head. There is the illusion of aliveness” (O’Brien, The Things They Carried, 2015 ). I don’t know if you are dreaming along with me now. I am not looking to change anyone’s life here; I am just trying to tell you something about the power of stories to inspire questions about truth, reality, humanity and the world around us. Sometimes, these questions can be quite important. Sometimes, these questions come to define parts of what we are, what we do, and the stories that we tell.
What do you think, Nat, is it a pass?
O'BRIEN, T. (2006). In the lake of the woods: a novel. Turtleback Books.
OBRIEN, T. (2015). The things they carried. London, Fourth Estate.
Joakim Berndtsson currently works as Senior Lecturer at the School of Global Studies. Besides his work as a teacher and researcher, he is also Deputy Head of Department for Education. He finished his PhD in 2009. During his undergraduate studies, he majored in International Relations and Political Science. He also holds a Master degree in English Literature.