Voices of the Silenced

Celebrity chic, however well intended, always risks of the unexpected. It’s hard to feel otherwise, as I Live Here, by the American actress Mia Kirshner and a group of talented artists and writers, clearly illustrates. The four sleek pamphlets relating stories of the displaced from the war in Chechnya—and comparable atrocities in Mexico, Burma, and Malawi—burst with creative energy but simultaneously fall flat on the emotional level. The empathy they are intended to elicit in readers is largely missing, having been displaced by a numbing emotional distance.

In an interview that appeared in Glamour.Com (September 2008), Kirshner stated that in 2001, after a series of successful movie and TV roles, she felt that her life was empty and she needed to explore something more meaningful. Thus began a seven-year journey that took her to some of the world’s most troubled places, where she met and interviewed displaced people typically ignored by the complacent inhabitants of the stable Western world. The result became four “graphic” narratives, a project of the I Live Here Foundation in Vancouver. The nonprofit is “dedicated to telling stories of silenced and unheard people through a series of books and other projects about our world. We establish creative writing programs where we work, building an artistic dialogue between strangers.”

Part of the problem for me is Kirshner’s presence at the beginning and sometimes in later sections of each story. I found her perspective intrusive, bordering on the “oh gosh” level: “Is this really me observing all this misery?” That may sound unfair because the goals of the foundation are worthy and there is ample documentation that if traumatized people can put their feelings into words, illustrations, even photographs, catharsis may result. Second, although the stories of several abused and afflicted peoples are related here, sometimes quite powerfully, how can catharsis for the victim result if it is western artists who create the illustrations or even record the narratives of their misery?

The four booklets read together depict a world where the downtrodden have few options that can lift them beyond their oppressive environments. The first booklet traces the lives of thousands of refugees who have fled from Grozny, Chechnya to Ingushetia, the nearby city in Russia. There, they live in squalor and a refugee status that has undermined any possibility of family stability. Men in these conditions appear to live by their worst instincts. Women, usually left to take care of children, become possessive caregivers. One woman remarks that if “her daughters had stayed with her husband, they would not have been virgins for their wedding days.” Thus, refugee status brings out irreconcilable tensions within families, to say nothing of the authorities who want to control them.

The lengthy graphic narrative called “Chechen War, Chechen Women” not only chronicles the misery of the Russian/Chechnya war but describes a history of negative encounters between the two populations. The repetitions of history are particularly depressing in this sequence, as one is reminded of other global hotspots that have become little more than replications of earlier events—the endless nightmare of repression from encounters between one cultural or ethnic group and another.

A second booklet chronicles the stories of young (often pre-adolescent) boys conscripted into military action for the warring factions in Burma. In these camps, traumatized children are initiated into adulthood by the violent brutalities they observe around them. A second part of the Burma sequence describes the brothels on the Thailand/Burmese border where young girls—like the young boys kidnapped to become soldiers—are forced into prostitution and often early deaths from AIDS.

The focus on the abuse of women continues in the narrative closest to our own borders: Ciudad Juárez, in Mexico. Ostensibly a commentary on the disappearance of hundreds of young women in the city, the focus is primarily on one young woman named Claudia and her mother’s attempt to grapple with her disappearance. I found the reality of the story belabored, felt it would be much better served by mainstream journalism.

The final booklet utilizes the convention of an illustrated children’s storybook to narrate the sad account of a Malawian child’s awareness of his pregnant mother’s “wasting disease,” AIDS. Malawi’s a pretty sad country these days, not just because of AIDS but also because of extreme poverty.

I’d like to think that some good will come of Mia Kirshner’s project for the I Live Here Foundation, but I’d need to be more of an optimist than I am.

I Live Here
By Mia Kirshner, J. B. Mackinnon, Paul Shoebridges, and Michael Simons
Four mixed media pamphlets.
Pantheon, $29.95

CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.


Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.