Writing about Bad, Sad, Hard Things

Writing is not always easy. Sometimes the writing flows and sometimes it doesn’t. But writing about things that are emotionally weighty, heavy, and disturbing is a different kind of not easy.

Monday morning I wrote a political asylum report for a victim of political violence in Nepal. Monday afternoon, bombs exploded near the Boston marathon finish line, killing several people, injuring hundreds, and stunning many (including this Massachusetts native, runner, and former Boston resident). The next day, I read about a twenty-year-old Tibetan mother who self-immolated and died in Tibet, and I wrote two more Nepali political asylum reports, one especially gruesome, and then collapsed on the couch, paralyzed in a sort of grief and shock and despair at the bad things human beings do to other human beings.

Writing felt necessary but debilitating. I could only write about the particularly horrific asylum case in short increments, writing a sentence or two, then turning to something that would allow me to breathe freely, breathe in some goodness and hope, and then exhale the horror. Write the horror down. Make sense of the horror for a judge. Or at least try to.

How is it that I have unconsciously developed a relative scale for how “bad” another’s suffering is? And yet, some cases are just unbearable to read, to sit with, to know. I can’t even imagine the “to live” part. What is the responsibility of the writer, of the anthropologist when stories of people’s suffering are in our hands? How do we meet that responsibility when we feel melancholy in the writing?

I’ve long written about politically charged topics—Tibet, guerrilla warfare, the CIA, menstrual blood and bullets, and so on. However, it wasn’t until I started serving as an expert witness in Nepali political asylum cases that I came to experience other people’s suffering in a deeply personal way. As expert witness, my role is to testify that the claimed details of an asylum petitioner’s case are consistent with the political conditions in the country. As an anthropologist, my job is also one of testimony, of speaking truth to life (not just to power), of representing and interpreting people’s lives as ones mired—for better and for worse—in cultural systems composed of contradictions. Both of these require the ability to get at insider and outsider understandings of any given situation, to make the one understandable or minimally translatable to the other.

Last April, one year ago, the journal Cultural Anthropology published a special collection of essays on the self-immolations in Tibet. Duke University anthropology professor Ralph Litzinger and I edited the collection, working over a two-month period with eighteen other scholars and writers to write about the thirty-some Tibetans who had set themselves on fire and died; that number now is roughly 120 Tibetans who have self-immolated, eighty more in just one year. Both painfully and poignantly, we collectively tried to speak to this unfolding phenomenon, attempting to provide context, background, acknowledgement, recognition, and to provide answers to questions we knew we could not answer. One day, after having spent 72 hours straight reading and editing the final versions of the essays, I realized a depression had set over me. The weight of so many stories of death, of bodies burning, of political intractability, and the feeling of being so small in the face of all this was overwhelming. Yet, the collective power and strength and compassion of the writers was also there, especially the unanimous sense among the contributors that our writings were needed, could contribute something, were meaningful in some way including, but not limited to, our own individual feelings of humanity and obligation as we witnessed individual after individual setting themselves on fire. And still, the heaviness of it all.

What are the stakes of writing about emotionally difficult topics? The social and political stakes are clear to me; I write about issues I feel are important, issues that should be better known, issues on which we collectively need to hear new and valuable perspectives. The personal, emotional stakes are not always as clear. I still feel unprepared for my own deep-felt reactions. The emotions generated from writing on hard, sad topics are real and need tending to. I have multiple strategies for addressing them—stepping away from the computer, reaching out to friends and family, going for a run, focusing on positive things, reading poetry, finding music that feels right in the moment, turning to a ritual such as making a pot of homemade chai, reminding myself that what I feel is but a tiny fraction of the pain felt by the person who experienced it firsthand.

I am grateful for those anthropologists and other writers who have led the way, whose works on violence and suffering I have read and I have taught and I have learned from: Val Daniel and Gina Athena Ulysse and Veena Das and Michael Taussig and Ruth Behar and Donna Goldstein and so many others. I am grateful I have knowledge that sometimes can be used to help others. And, I am grateful for the power of writing, for when I return to it after pausing, each and every time writing ultimately enables me to address, to engage, and to remain undefeated by bad, sad, hard things.

I am an anthropologist and historian of Tibet, and a professor at the University of Colorado. I conduct research, write, lecture, and teach. At any given time, I am probably working on one of the following projects: Tibet, British empire, and the Pangdatsang family; the CIA as an ethnographic subject; contemporary US empire; the ongoing self-immolations in Tibet; the Chushi Gangdrug resistance army; refugee citizenship in the Tibetan diaspora (Canada, India, Nepal, USA); and, anthropology as theoretical storytelling.

6 thoughts on “Writing about Bad, Sad, Hard Things

  1. Helpers are compassionate, empathetic and at risk for vicarious traumatization. Good self-care is essential.

    Trungpa, Pema Chodron and other mindful types might suggest welcoming the troubling emotions when they show up. Invite them to sit for tea. This is a means of stripping them of their power.

    On the other hand, I do enjoy the escape found in The DailyMail.co.uk and TheChive.

  2. Thank you for writing about this topic, Prof. McGranahan! Amen to the power of writing, indeed. Meryleen

  3. Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

    Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.

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