Humans Responding to Inhumanity

Words have the power to compel, to inspire, to incite change and to unify humanity in the face of trial and suffering. As the world watches Paris to see the unfolding of these immense historical events, we are reminded of the same uncertainty and fear that generations before us faced as they too stood on the brink of conflict and struggle. At times like these the words of great men and women who have spoken out against oppression and injustice serve to remind us of our responsibilities as members of the human race: to be strong, to be just, and to strive for peace even in the face of darkness and terror.


In these difficult moments, we must — and I’m thinking of the many victims, their families, and the injured — show compassion and solidarity. But we must also show unity and calm. Faced with terror, France must be strong, she must be great, and the state authorities must be firm. We will be. We must also call on everyone to be responsible. What the terrorists want is to scare us and fill us with dread. There is indeed reason to be afraid. There is dread, but in the face of this dread, there is a nation that knows how to defend itself, that knows how to mobilize its forces and, once again, will defeat the terrorists.

President Francoise Hollande on the streets of Paris, November 13 2015


During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

Nelson Mandela to the Supreme Court of South Africa, April 20 1964


From every mountainside, let freedom ring. And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old negro spiritual, “Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”

Martin Luther King, August 28 1963


It has come to a battle between the women and the government as to who shall yield first, whether they will yield and give us the vote, or whether we will give up our agitation. Well, they little know what women are. Women are very slow to rouse, but once they are aroused, once they are determined, nothing on earth and nothing in heaven will make women give way; it is impossible.

Emmeline Pankhurst, November 13 1913


So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life, a leadership of frankness and of vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. And I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.

Franklin D. Roosevelt Inauguration, March 4 1933


We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.

Winston Churchill to the House of Commons, June 4 1940


Love is an abstract noun, something nebulous. And yet love turns out to be the only part of us that is solid, as the world turns upside down and the screen goes black. We can’t tell if it will survive us. But we can be sure that it’s the last thing to go.

Martin Amis, The Second Plane (2008)


You can find Calcutta anywhere in the world. You only need two eyes to see. Everywhere in the world there are people that are not loved, people that are not wanted nor desired, people that no one will help, people that are pushed away or forgotten. And this is the greatest poverty.

Mother Theresa


So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, and who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity. This cycle of suspicion and discord must end. The first issue that we have to confront is violent extremism in all of its forms…. We will relentlessly confront violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our security. Because we reject the same thing that people of all faiths reject: the killing of innocent men, women, and children.

President Barack Obama at Cairo University, June 4 2009


I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, and the kind that enables men and nations to grow, and to hope, and build a better life for their children … not merely peace in our time but peace in all time.

John F. Kennedy


‘An Untamed State’ by Roxane Gay – Review

cover_untamed_stateAt first, I didn’t want to review An Untamed State, the debut novel by Roxane Gay, because I found it highly disturbing. And yet I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The novel begins when Mireille, a Haitian-American woman from a privileged family, travels to Haiti and is kidnapped. Her father refuses to pay her ransom, knowing that this could herald the destruction of the fortune he’s taken a lifetime to accumulate. In retaliation, her captors — men from poorer backgrounds — lock her in a small room, torment her and repeatedly rape her. Mireille forces herself to remain strong until she is finally released. She then faces the challenge of re-learning to live her old life and coming to terms with her experience.

One of the most distressing aspects of this novel is reading the details of the violence perpetrated against Mireille. This is in contrast to an essay Gay wrote about her own experience being gang-raped, in which she simply states: ‘They kept me there for hours. It was as bad as you might expect. The repercussions linger.’ In An Untamed State, Gay doesn’t spare the reader the horrific details of Mireille’s experience in captivity — the knives, the gang-rape, the cruel manipulation of her hope. Reviewers have questioned whether this detailed depiction of violence is necessary, with some suggesting it forces readers to become complicit in the brutality. Yet in my opinion readers need to understand what Mireille has gone through if they are to comprehend the strength it takes to rebuild her life. This is the focus of the second half of the novel, told largely through Mireille’s perspective as she begins the gradual journey from a ‘no one’ who is ‘already dead’, back to a mother and a wife and a daughter who can find ways of living with her past.

The novel also pushes readers to consider the extreme inequalities between rich and poor, both in Haiti and in the world as a whole. Mireille’s family live in a mansion, separated from the Haitian poor by thick walls. Her kidnappers, by contrast, live in slums where garbage covers the streets and it’s unsafe for women to walk alone. The book does not allow the kidnappers’ poverty to excuse their sadistic behaviour, yet the conversations between Mireille and her kidnappers do highlight the vastly different opportunities available to them. One of them ‘buys’ her from the other kidnappers so they will leave her for him. He tells her he watches rich women from a distance, with their elegant clothes and perfumes. ‘It’s like the shit of this place doesn’t touch you.’

For me, this book was confronting in part because I’ve been one of those ‘rich women’, working in highly disadvantaged countries including Haiti, living behind big walls and paying other people to cook my meals. I’ve read a lot of books about countries beset by extreme inequality, and few have marked me quite as much as this one. The gripping narrative, believable characters and unflinching depiction of difficult issues make this an unsettling novel, but also one that is insightful, powerful and highly relevant to the world today.

Four stars   

An Untamed State is published by Grove Atlantic.

Penny Jones