The Artist as Witness

I was conducting a virtual school visit with a fifth-grade class the other day, talking about my children’s books about World War II, each of which are inspired by real people I interviewed. I’d already explained to the kids I wasn’t alive during the war, so I was surprised when one boy asked, “Did you witness anything you’ve written about?” The word “witness” struck me, but since we were almost out of time, I went with the quick and obvious answer, “No, I didn’t witness the events because I wasn’t born yet. I did visit some of the places I wrote about and I did lots of research, but I didn’t witness it.”

Oddly, though, I have felt like a witness to history when I’ve conducted my interviews and written my stories. And then a few days later, I heard author Ariel Burger put it this way on an On Being podcast, “When memory is transmitted, it makes witnesses. Witnesses are activated people who now are telling other people’s stories.” He goes on to ask what a community is, if not a group of people telling other people’s stories.

I did not physically witness the attack on Pearl Harbor, but I felt the ground move, “as if you were walking on ice skates,” as one woman told me. I did not live through the day-to-day struggles of the war, but I did feel it in my soul when one woman told me she cried every day when she thought of her husband fighting overseas. With my inner eye, I saw the American flag come down and the Japanese flag go up on Wake Island, a memory that stayed with the gentleman I interviewed for his entire life.

We artists and writers are witnesses. We are “activated.” We keep the stories alive. We do it for our families when we pass on oral tradition and for the public when we capture moments of time in our art. As Rabbi Burger says, being a witness is different than being a spectator. It takes courage and strength. It asks us to open our hearts to carry a story for someone else. Sometimes it means telling their story when they can’t. It can be hard and heavy at times, but it can also take you into places of joy and wonder. To me, community includes everyone. The human experience is not a monolith. And even in times of great strife, not everyone will experience those times in the same way, which is why we need to hear from all our storytellers and we need a diverse group of witnesses to capture those stories.

We writers and artists agreed to be witnesses when we undertook our art, but anyone can be a witness. Whose story will you carry today?

Teresa R. Funke

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