Assad's Forgotten Atrocities, White Women's Fiction, and How My Imaginary Cat Didn't Get Me a House

By Lewis, Helen | New Statesman (1996), December 4, 2015 | Go to article overview

Assad's Forgotten Atrocities, White Women's Fiction, and How My Imaginary Cat Didn't Get Me a House


Lewis, Helen, New Statesman (1996)


In 2013 a military policeman code-named "Caesar" fled Syria and his job working for Bashar al-Assad's regime. With him was a memory stick containing more than 50,000 photographs of people tortured to death in Syria's jails. Academics call such photographs "perpetrator images" - a deliberate record of atrocities made by those carrying them out. The Nazis did the same with their death camps, and the Khmer Rouge with their prisoners. Isis also makes perpetrator images of its beheadings and burnings.

You might have seen some of the photographs taken by the latter groups, but few in Britain have seen the "Caesar images": row after row of starved bodies, pockmarked with wounds. "Some people had deep cuts, some had their eyes gouged out, their teeth broken, you could see traces of lashes with those cables you use to start cars," Caesar told the journalist Garance Le Caisne. "There were wounds full of pus, as if they'd been left untreated for a long time and had got infected." At one point, Caesar photographed the corpse of a man he had known well before the war: but after what had happened to the man during two months in prison, he didn't recognise the body.

In January this year, a journalist raised the existence of the photographs with Assad, who claimed they were "funded by Qatar" and not verified. But the images, and their metadata, have been examined by forensic investigators, and shown in the European and British parliaments. If you can bear it you should see them. We might look back in five years and realise the effect of our air strikes was to stabilise the rule of the man who ordered those beatings and gougings.

Pander popped

Since winning the Booker Prize, Marlon James has emerged as a fierce critic of the literary establishment. On 25 November, he wrote a thought-provoking Facebook post saying that "we writers of colour spend way too much of our lives pandering to the white woman", and that he had failed to win an unnamed prize twice before because the judges were only looking for stories that followed a template of "bored suburban white woman in the middle of ennui, experiences keenly observed epiphany".

There's plenty to agree with--the majority of worker bees in publishing are indeed white women, and the industry is guilty of assuming that fiction readers (again, mostly women) really only want to read about people like them. We all lose out as a result.

Secret society

Still on James, I have to admit my eyebrows lifted at his assertion that "if I pandered to a cultural tone set by white women, particularly] older white female critics, I would have had ten stories published by now". His Booker-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings was reviewed in the Telegraph by Nicholas Blincoe, by Ian Thomson in the FT, Zachary Lazar in the New York Times, Christopher Tayler in the LRB, Kei Miller in the Guardian and Randy Boyagoda in the New Statesman. All men. …

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