Witness is, according to the editors, “an internationally recognized journal that blends the features of a literary and an issue-oriented magazine to highlight the role of the modern writer as witness to his or her times.” A publication of the Black Mountain Institute of the University of Las Vegas, Nevada, “an international literary center dedicated to promoting discourse on today’s most pressing issues,” this issue’s theme is “Disaster.” As the description suggests, the magazine is provocatively responsible (yes! one can be both!), of consistently high quality, and, in this issue, ruthless. The world is more full of disaster than you might want to know.
But what is disaster? Outgoing Editor Amber Withycombe points out that “our fascination with the documentation of disaster far outpaces our ability to comprehend the contours of its impact” or even its definition. Maybe disaster is a cancer diagnosis (“Here I Am,” poetry by Hugh Fox). Maybe it’s falling asleep at the wheel, obliterating one’s own face in the ensuing wreck (“God Created Night and It Was Night,” poetry by Sarah Blake). Maybe it’s three friends alone in a wilderness hut, each with his own peculiar ghost (“Snow Leopard,” fiction by L. Lee Löwe).
At least in these three examples, however, something makes the disaster shimmer with possibility. Fox’s speaker knows love and appreciates a heroic poet. Blake’s protagonist turns his disfigurement into art. And the ghosts? Well, that piece shimmers with mystery, the aesthetic triumph of impossibly braided grief. It’s a remarkable story.
So disaster + art = something else, something beyond, through, above or in addition to mere calamity. It foregrounds the “torture of the opposite, the fact that it could exist,” as in Robert Shuster’s “The Existence of the Opposite,” a story about Middle Eastern war and the grief of women searching for their dead men. War. Disaster. These affect women in specific ways: “The history of girls is always told as a tragedy,” as in “The History of Girls,” a story by Ay?e Papatya Bucak, in which a boarding school explodes and all the girls die but one, buried by the rubble. War, violent death, the necessity of living in the midst of heartlessness and waste—these are all disaster. “Growing old is a tragedy and so is dying young.” But the compassionate storyteller can raise it above itself.
So maybe disaster + art is just someone’s disaster used in a beautiful way by someone else. Many of the pieces in this issue are about poverty. One is transcribed from a blog by a homeless man, Oggy Bleacher, “themaninthevan,” who describes a day spent looking for and avoiding backbreaking temporary work (“The Saga of Poco Diablos”). One is a poem, “Rent the Elements,” by Weston Cutter, lamenting that “there’s / no limit to the MacGyvery lengths gone to by those / who tend but don’t own.” The center art exhibit, a set of colored photographs by David Wells, captures the shock, despair, and strangeness of foreclosure. Isn’t all disaster like that—shocking, estranging, driving its victims to desperation?
Sometimes it drives its victims, and the ones on the sidelines, to rumination or to unexpected action, or inaction. Imagine Katrina, the Iraqi War, 9/11: “And what, after all, does a monument do but usurp tragedy?” says Colin Rafferty, in “Notes Toward Building the [Pennsylvania] Memorial”:
42. When they build the monument here, it will lose the spontaneity of this temporary wall. It will lose this nearly frantic desire to leave something, anything that the people who come here feel . . . The new wall will only say:
43. Here is the site, and here are the names of the people who died.
44. What will be lost? What will be saved?
Helen, the mother in Chris Gavaler’s “A Very Light Fever,” cannot face that her son Brian has been accused of rape, by an anonymous postcard in a feminine script. For her, it’s an unimaginable disaster, and the vacation she has planned with her husband (who is, she says at one point, just like Brian) is ruined.
There are more disasters covered by the literary works in this issue of Witness: forced emigration from a loved home in Algeria (Marisa Handler’s story “Blood and Honey”); upheaval in China (Yang Zi’s poem “1976,” translated from the Chinese characters by Ye Chun, Melissa Tuckey, and Fiona Sze-Lorrain); and plagues (Colleen Kinder’s essay “Measure the Sky Over Mexico City” and Kevin Haworth’s essay “Plagues”). And even more, brilliantly arranged and arrestingly diverse. Besides its annual print issue, Witness publishes two online issues every year; this one takes its subject matter to breathtaking literary heights.