On Wednesday evening, Phil Klay’s Redeployment won the National Book Award for fiction, making it the first short story collection to win the award since Andrea Barrett’s Ship Fever in 1996. That’s 18 years. But what’s maybe more startling is that the collection, which takes multiple perspectives of people involved in and returning from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, stands nearly alone as a fictional account that has risen to the national level of attention since the war in Afghanistan began in 2003.
About a month before Penguin released Redeployment last March, Klay wrote a short piece for the New York Times, “After War, a Failure of the Imagination.” In it, Klay describes talking to a good friend back in the US after he returned from serving as a Marine Public Affairs Officer in Iraq. As Klay describes it, his friend felt that she couldn’t imagine what he’d been through since she hadn’t been there herself. Klay attaches this sentiment to a larger part of our culture that seems unwilling to “go there” with our service men and women out of a misplaced sense of respect. But Klay argues quite convincingly that we need to create a “commonality of consciousness,” a space for our returning soldiers to share with us what’s really going on:
You don’t honor someone by telling them, “I can never imagine what you’ve been through.” Instead, listen to their story and try to imagine being in it, no matter how hard or uncomfortable that feels. If the past 10 years have taught us anything, it’s that in the age of an all-volunteer military, it is far too easy for Americans to send soldiers on deployment after deployment without making a serious effort to imagine what that means. We can do better.
If we missed it before, maybe we can go now to Klay’s collection as the portal into imagining the reality of this war that has ravaged on for 11 years now. As he said in his NBA acceptance speech (which starts at about the 2:05:30 mark), “War is too strange to be processed alone.” For a quick sample before you go to buy the book, our trusted friends at Electric Literature have “OIF,” a short short by Klay that was recommended by Colum McCann, who has been a teacher and mentor to Klay. The story is filled with military acronyms, the language soldiers must learn to survive at war, but like the best of stories going into what could be unfamiliar territory for its readers, “OIF” (Operation Iraqi Freedom) teaches its readers how to read it. By the end, we have begun to sort the OIF and the OEF (Operation Enduring Freedom), a PFC from an NCO, the KIA from the WIA. By the end, we can feel the weight that can’t be abbreviated into a slick acronym.