Literature as Witness

Witnessing doesn’t always mean expressing words out loud. Or even in written form.

You act as a witness, every day, in one way or another, merely by living. Witnessing can be as simple as waking before the sun rises, shuffling to the kitchen, waiting while the coffee gurgles through the filter, peeling a bruised banana, wondering what the day will bring.

Your breath bears witness to the presence of life. Breathing in, breathing out, with each inhalation, each exhalation you take in unseen atoms and molecules, in a soft and almost silent witness to Life itself.

To bear witness is “to show that something exists or is true.” That’s the informal definition. And the one that many Christians take to heart in proclaiming the messages of the Gospels.

A more formal meaning of these words conveys legal overtones: “to make a statement saying that one saw or knows something.”

To be a witness is to be aware. And writers in general bear witness with every word they write. Whether it be a novel or an article or a diary entry, the sense of witnessing shimmers underneath all the verbiage.

When I think of the literature of witness, I include memoir among the ranks. Consider Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club. Karr acts as a witness to her strange and harrowing childhood. Jeanette Walls did the same in her version of childhood, The Glass Castle. You might believe that witness literature only chronicles the personal. And much of it does just that.

There is, however, a type of witness literature that extends beyond the memoir in its present, softer manifestation. Witness literature of this sort becomes perfected in the cauldrons of conflict, of war, of injustice, and of unspeakable horror.

But I believe that witness literature also blossoms from the personal experience and thoughts of a writer to a sense of outrage so fierce that a fire burns in the belly. So strong is this blaze that sometimes the impact of a writer’s outrage causes paradigm changes and revolutionary upheavals in society.

Consider the following five works, each an example of the power of words to change the world or, at the very least, to raise consciousness about injustices in the world.

All five of these examples represent literature that had long-term, long-lasting effects on the world.

Words leap right off the page into the world and nothing is ever the same again … .

Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson

Diet for a Small Planet, by Frances Moore Lappé

The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair

Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe

The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan

I am sure you could add to this list, and I hope you do.

Sometimes words must ferment. Sometimes years might pass before the full impact of a writer’s witnessing becomes apparent.