If yesterday’s search for sources on the courage and the plight of 14-year-old attempted assassination target Malala Yousafzai awakened your interest, you’ve probably already noticed an editorial and an Op-Ed column about her in today’s New York Times.
Your classmate Kevin O’Donnell said yesterday that this topic is hard to write about, and he’s right for two reasons. Malala’s story has such broad implications she’s almost too big a topic for an essay. At the same time, we’re so overwhelmed by the atrociousness of her attack we’re almost literally dumbfounded: made speechless.
The editors of the New York Times, in, “Malala Yoiusafzai’s Courage,” turn Malala immediately into an icon, an emblem of the “only hope for Pakistan.” Their writer’s tactic depersonalizes the girl so she can be handled. Weeping may be the only appropriate reaction to looking at her as a wounded girl, but it can’t be done on paper. Outrage and vengefulness may waken in our hearts, but we need to reason those demons onto the page so we’re not just ranting. So instead of attending closely to the brutalized child in her hospital bed, writers who wish to retain their composure have to look to the side, or above or below her, or examine her through filters, in order to say something intelligent about her.
The Op-Ed Column
Nicholas D. Kristof can’t stand to look at Malala closely for long either. In his Op-Ed: “Her ‘Crime’ Was Loving Schools,” he hurries away to find another example of a girl devalued by her society. His tactic is to make Malala part of a trend, and then immediately find the irony that girls worldwide are disrespected publicly during the week that marks the first international Day of the Girl this Thursday.
I don’t cite these examples to criticize the writers. I offer them to you as models of how to write about the unthinkable and unspeakable. Writing does have purpose in responding to atrocity, more than weeping does, more than shouting does.
Is Malala an emblem of Pakistan’s future? Of course she is, if we make her so. Is she just another example of how little the world in general values its girls? She is that too because we can’t help but make her so in our attempt to process the vicious attack on her.
Mr. Kristof’s point is quite brilliant, of course, and helpful to us who are trying to unsee the image of a Taliban extremist deliberately aiming and firing his gun into the head of a child on a school bus. He ironically identifies Malala’s advocacy as a “crime” that had to be punished, the same way the Indonesian girl in his article is punished for having been raped, the same way girls in the US are arrested for being trafficked by pimps.
Odd, isn’t it? And so human of us, that to stomach an unspeakable scene we have to summon up equally nauseating scenes for context. Why that reconciles us to our world I can’t say, but it’s what writers are best at doing for us and may be the best you can expect from your own work: to look at Malala until she stops being a wounded child in a bed clinging to her courageous life and starts being something that doesn’t just make us want to weep and shout and wish death on someone else.