As its title suggests, Witness is a literary journal that tasks the modern writer with bringing to light issues that intrigue, compel, shock, horrify. Issues that demand attention. Tackling everything from child abuse to terrorism, martyrdom to faith, the pieces are often heady, carrying burdens like history, guilt and sorrow. This demands a slow and thoughtful read, indicative of the intellect and research poured into the writing. There is a decidedly international slant to much of the work, anecdotes of what it means to be an American in a foreign land. Yet, the message is much more universal. It is about what it feels like to be in any foreign situation, anywhere, and often, is one of discomfort and uncertainty. The authors of the fiction, non-fiction and poetry tell us these stories -- and as readers, we are forced to bear witness.
Starting with Robert Wexelblatt's "Steppe Story," we become intruders upon things we do not fully understand. The story commemorates the steppe city's "salvation" and "humiliation" through an annual ceremony featuring a man representing the nomadic barbarians. We are distanced, like the foreign businessman who watches from afar, as the man spits at the feet of the mayor and rejects the city's women, reenacting the time in history when the city was spared from the wrath of the barbarian's ancestors. But there, too, is a distance between us and the businessman. The story has an almost robotic quality, as we are never allowed to know what this man feels. We become trapped within a "denatured, intermediate realm," experiencing the feeling of being "nowhere, only between," as he does during his airport bouncing between countries.
We remain intruders in another world in Jess Row's "The World in Flames" and R. Jess Lavolette's "Yasukuni Incident," but are much more emotionally attached to the characters. Row describes an American in Bangkok who finds herself an unwilling partner in a Canadian's plan to create soldiers out of the native Miwa people, under the guise of being a missionary. We share her outrage and disgust when she unearths a plot to attack the last unguarded Israeli consulate, and simultaneously root and mourn for her as the young girl chooses to martyr herself.
She is not unlike the American narrator in Lavolette's story, who believes he is doing what is right as he plans to torch Yasukuni, which enshrines the controversial Japanese Prime Minister, Hideki Tojo, among others. In an eerie twist, the narrator is forced to drink the very gas he planned to use in his destruction. Our own hearts race as the Shogun tells the narrator to "drink up" and see how "presumptuous men are punished." But a strange calm settles over us as the narrator finds a little of himself in Tojo, when he "belches forth the flaming sin," his "scream becoming one with Tojo's."
The theme of the ignorant but noble American can be found in Carrie Messenger's "In the Pines," as well. Arguably the most disturbing story in the journal, it offers a multi-points-of-view account of abuse in a Romanian orphanage. The Peace Corps volunteers from Brigham Young University are mostly concerned with giving orphans highlights and playing Pictionary, and even those who do care are unable to make a difference in the lives of children like Florina, "a girl so distinctly absent she'd created a presence." We not only get different points of view from different characters, but we also see many sides to each character, as they inadvertently illuminate each other within overlapping accounts. For example, even Florina's mother, who leaves her at the orphanage, claims our sympathy with her abusive relationship, black eyes and abortions. She is pitiable when she explains she "didn't need something else to defend."
Set near and far, other stories also explore the complex psyche of children. While perhaps not in situations as dire as Florina's, these characters long for home, too. In Evan Morgan Williams' "Tumble Me Like a Shell in Shallow Waves," a teenage boy who breaks our heart in his yearning to be loved by his troubled mother and her husband who is not his father. She tells him in Yurok, a Native American language his stepdad cannot understand, "When you were little, you were pretty as a girl." Like the boy, we are crushed by the weight of the only tenderness he is shown. And together we realize that while he is drawn to it, he must run from it. The boy knows "that at some later point" he will "give anything to get that touch back," and therefore knows that "at some point in my life I will have walked away from her."