Blackbird: A short story
Virginia Konchan is a remarkably talented young writer, and someone who I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know over the past year. When we Spektrals first began hatching the idea for “Theatre of War” I immediately set up a time to meet her for coffee and talk about possible literary sources for works on our program. She introduced me to some excellent poets (including Brian Turner’s amazing book “Here, Bullet”), but when she humbly offered up her own work “Blackbird” I knew we had found something perfect for what we were planning. Here are some thoughts from Virginia about her short story, which will be adapted for the stage by director Molly Feingold. You can catch more of her writing in the April 30 issue of The New Yorker as well!
VK: “Blackbird” arose out of a need to position two implicated speakers, through dialog, at the crux of the debate surrounding our actual motives for establishing a military presence in the Middle East, particularly the accusation leveled at the US of attempts at neo-imperialism. I wanted to elaborate fully the anguish of the main character, a traumatized solider, while maintaining narrative control, just as Mitch narrates his own story while maintaining self-control. The depiction of Mitch’s inner
world was my answer to the following question: if we recalibrate the toll of war on past, present, and future generations from a psychological as well as literal (death-toll) perspective, how can such “smoke and mirror” wars, as Mitch describes the Iraq War, be justified, particularly by those in higher chains of command who aren’t risking their actual lives in the barbarism and chaos that is warfare in the 21st century?
VK: This story arose out of a larger frustration about the means by which the US processed and ritualized our collective grief in the wake of 9/11—namely, through military aggression and establishing military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. The live question of whether democracy can successfully be “introduced” (i.e. superimposed) upon another culture notwithstanding, I thought an examination of one soldier’s conscience and mental state while not yet discharged from military duty would make an interesting political statement about the minimizing of mental health issues in our country. Doctors readily prescribe medications which treat
the symptoms rather that the cause of psychological distress, the clout of pharmaceutical companies shape public policy and the treatment of mental illness, and both the medical community and our culture at large has little patience with psychological wounds which require a form of healing other than psychotropic drugs. I chose to tell the story in media res from the perspective of a soldier still enlisted in the army to illustrate the bleak vision of the individual while the exposure to the traumatic event is still being experienced. In terms of the story’s provenance, though, I read an article about the US military’s initiatives
to deal with the many soldiers who returned home from Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan with psychological disturbances or clinically diagnosed PTSD. While these efforts struck me as honorable, and are certainly better than nothing, I ultimately chose to satirize the notion that the psychological and often bodily damage that results from sustained combat could be successfully treated with a few psychotherapy sessions. The integration of traumatic experience into so-called normative experience is a long process without an easy fix. This story argues for a paradigmatic shift from viewing collateral damage as civilian casualties to include the emotional terror and helplessness felt by those serving on the front lines and by their loved ones, who also must pay the “price of survival” upon the soldiers’ safe return.
AW: As a musical performer, I always have immediate response from people to the work I produce live. I imagine that’s really different for a writer, as that response rolls out more slowly. How has that changed as your work as been released more widely? Also, what do you anticipate it will be like to see your work in action live on stage?
VK: You’re right, writers rarely have the opportunity to register an immediate response to their work, public readings and comment streams on online content aside, and I think that delay in public reception can be a gift. I mean, I wonder whether it’s possible that with real time feedback, the impetus to write stories or poems which challenge rather than entertain or please would subside. All artists must develop a resistance to wanting an audience to appreciate let alone acknowledge that elusive quality of “authenticity,” to borrow a term from Walter Benjamin, that good art can inspire—even if the audience or reader is ultimately the judge or at least the purveyor of said authenticity. Maybe less so in contemporary fiction and poetry, but I think most if not all dramatic as well as rhetorical situations presuppose an audience or a reader. The reader might become more “real” as time goes on and one begins
to receive more feedback, positive or negative, on one’s work, but I think that internalized reader is always there, and for me is often the addressee (conscious or unconscious) of the story or poem.
I am tremendously excited to see my story adapted for the stage. Both poetry and prose have their roots in oral literary traditions and cultures, whereby the works were conceived to be performed aloud and passed on in that manner through the years. Any means by which literature can “come alive” through theatrical or filmic adaptations or an oral performance honors antiquity while representing a coming-to-fruition of the work. While I believe every writer aspires to create cinematic images in the mind’s eye of the reader, the opportunity to see one’s work “given flesh,” as it were, is quite rare. This transformation confounds genre distinctions as well as the distinctions between textual versus embodied realities, and I am incredibly grateful for this chance to witness “Blackbird” become an entirely new creation, as envisioned by a group of talented artists, and for this opportunity to detach myself from my own interpretation of the piece, so as to see it anew.