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How do you recognise ‘peace literature’? It is the new boom in South Asia

The number of peace prizes and literary awards in other categories keeps growing, but what stops civil society from recognising those writing for the sake of peace?

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Ever since the Nobel Peace Prize was first conferred in 1901, the list of peace prizes has only grown, with honours being instituted each year to recognise the efforts of people. That was a century that saw much war. A host of humanitarian workers, social leaders, faith actors, and human rights activists have been conferred these awards for their work. However, there is a manner of peace work that warrants more recognition — the literary kind.

After World War II, the printed word has become the most popular weapon for the fascist and liberal alike. Ideological wars must be fought on literary grounds. This proposition perhaps finds its strongest endorsement in the powerful opening line of the UNESCO Constitution: “Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.”

Those who craft these visions of peace and put them on paper deserve recognition and reward just like activists do. The Dayton Literary Peace Prize is the only annual literary award that “recognises the power of the written word to promote peace”. Some of its renowned recipients include Margaret Atwood, John Irving, and Gloria Steinem. Introduced in 2006 in the United States, this award recognises “adult fiction and non-fiction books published within the past year that have led readers to a better understanding of other cultures, peoples, religions, and political points of view.”

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What is peace literature?

The criteria to recognise and award peace literature, defined by the organisers of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, seems simple enough. So why aren’t there more such awards? The number of peace prizes and literary awards keeps growing, but what stops civil society from recognising those writing for the sake of peace? The difficulty lies in defining peace literature. Peace itself is an elusive idea, with innumerable ways of understanding and seeking it.

For an urban person of privilege, peace could be a lofty goal of complete nuclear disarmament, or perhaps a vacation on a luxury island. Whereas for a person living in a war zone, peace could be something as fundamental as a good night’s sleep with no threat of shelling. And then, in more academic domains, peace may be spoken of in categories such as negative peace (absence of war or conflict) and positive peace (conditions conducive to a wholesome life). Peace could even be situated in personal, social, political, institutional, and ecological contexts. Further, it is associated with a cluster of co-dependent values such as justice, equality, freedom, solidarity, dignity, and tolerance – all of which contribute toward the creation of peaceful lives and societies. Thus, any literature that engages with and upholds these ideas and parameters may be deemed as ‘peace literature’.

While this may make the genre of peace literature seem vague and vast, Anthony Adolf, author of Peace: A World History (2009), affirms that the genre is not static. In his introductory essay titled What Does Peace Literature Do? An Introduction to the Genre and its Criticism in the Peace Research Journal (2010, Vol. 42, No. 1/2), Adolf wrote that rather than attempting to define it, “it is more productive to ask what peace literature does and can do, as this leads to opportunities for thought and action”.

He emphasised that unlike other literary genres that are defined by writers’ identities, the form or structure of language, peace literature is often identified by its stance. Indeed, the expansiveness of its scope may be sampled in his definition where he sees peace literature as “tragicomedic, doubly empathic and cathartic; as active in the limbic discursive spaces between epics and novels; as social acts that are pragmatic both philosophically and linguistically; …scholarly articles, journalistic articles, books, blog posts, tweets, interviews, videocasts, and so on. Peace literature as a genre does not rest upon formal or structural traits; it does, however, rest upon the consistent agreement and recognition of the people who produce, consume, discuss, and act upon that corpus.”

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Peace flows from their pens 

A lot of literary writing recognised as peace literature is retrospective, as few writers set out with the intention to write about peace. However, in a couple of new releases, the intention is rather palpable. Sahana Ahmed’s Amity, which released in December 2022, is an anthology of 95 poems by 47 writers from France, India, Israel, Japan, the Netherlands, the Philippines, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America. The poets reflect different ideas and interpretations of peace. All that Ahmed wanted when she first sent out the open call for contributions was honest writing about what peace meant to a person. In response, she received entries from all kinds of poets and with various poetic styles — amateurs to award-winning poets, structured to free-form poems, explicitly political to the deeply personal.

Close at its heels, another anthology titled Peace through Poetry: An Ethnographic Journey into Peace was released in January 2023 by the Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar International Research Centre, University of Mumbai. Co-edited by Arushi Sharma, Aishe Debnath, Manisha Karne, Satishchandra Kumar, and Rajesh Kharat, this book takes a deliberate scholarly approach to peace. The ‘Write for Peace’ workshop organised by the Southasia Peace Action Network (Sapan), conducted by Pakistani poet Mohsin Tejani and his Indian counterpart Lee Krishnan in October 2022, also indicates that a certain consciousness about peace literature is emerging. The poems produced in the workshop will be compiled and released by Sapan soon.

Other anthologies such as Rivers Going Home: 71 poets in Solidarity (2022), edited by Ashwani Kumar and A Thousand Cranes for India: Reclaiming Plurality Amid Hatred, edited by Pallavi Aiyer are similarly robust in their intention to set precedents though their titles may not be as explicit.

Naming the wrongs

In any case, titular alignment doesn’t necessarily promise the beauty and comfort that the word ‘peace’ invokes at first. Standing above the rubble: An anthology of peace poetry from Waziristan (2021) by Ashraf Kakar, A Desolation called Peace: Voices from Kashmir (2019), edited by Ather Zia and Javaid Iqbal Bhat, and Peace Has Come (2018) by Parismita Singh address themes like insurgency, displacement, and immigration — creating a deep sense of discomfort in the reader. The blurb of Singh’s book ominously reminds us: “When violence has seeped into the very soil and water of a place, the peace that follows is poisoned too.”

Similarly, Aanchal Malhotra’s Partition trilogy, the Miyah poetry of Shalim M. Hussain and his Assamese-Bengali peers, and Haroon Khalid’s works highlighting the position of religious minorities in Pakistan remind the more fortunate among us of the distress of those who don’t or can’t belong. Some other works in this category include Suketu Mehta’s This Land is Our Land (2019), I Am a Rohingya: Poetry from the Camps and Beyond (2019), edited by James Byrne and Shehzar Doja, and Then There Were No Witnesses (2018) by Packiyanathan Ahilan.

Displacement, lack of agency, and loss of human dignity are experienced by individuals across borders, and these themes show up in the writing of many South Asian writers who are witnesses to extremely skewed social structures. Feminist and subaltern writing, championing the cause of women and the oppressed classes, may well be ensconced in the broader genre of South Asian peace literature. The Adivasi poet and writer Jacinta Kerketta has been writing consistently on the lives and losses of indigenous communities, especially of the Oraon community in Jharkhand. There is Yashica Dutt, who wrote the widely-recognised book Coming Out as Dalit: A Memoir (2019). These writers now stand alongside literary stalwarts such as Mahasweta Devi, Sara Aboobacker, and Namdeo Dhasal, who wrote against caste hierarchy and gender oppression.

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Priming for peace

Naming what is wrong with society is a natural concern in peace literature because there can be no peace without justice or equality. The foreshadowing of violence and pain has been and will remain the essential first step toward creating a culture of peace. However, as the new peace poem anthologies indicate, more and more writers and poets are stepping up to churn literary salves to soothe exposed wounds.

Indian Tamil writer Jeyamohan’s stories reflect the essentially benign core of humankind. The recent anthology of his translated works Stories of the True (2022) “explore(s) the capacity of humans to hold on to their intrinsic goodness in the face of both the everyday and the extraordinary, and how their response in such moments of truth finds expression in multitudinous ways – as anger, compassion, fortitude, a capacity for suffering, self-discovery, a life of silent protest or even eccentric activism.” Each of these acts is an act of peace.

While they name the wrongs, literateurs are naming the right, the beautiful, and the ideal too. In writing about the harmonious, the unifying, and the peaceful, they are arming us with gentle vocabularies. Before the activists can carry the torch of peace forward, these peace writers are lighting its flame where it matters most — in the minds of men.

Urmi Chanda is a Mumbai-based culture writer, peacebuilder, and interfaith research scholar. She is associated with a number of Indian and international nonprofit organisations working towards peace. You can reach her at Views are personal.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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