The ethics of writing about tragedy

I hate this part of being a writer.

I’m often inspired by horror, sorrow, real events. By news articles. By the unknown of a tragedy.

I’m currently trying to write a poem about the missing Malaysian Flight 370. I have written about desaparecidos, the forced disappearances of Chileans by the military dictatorship; about Futaba and radiation from the Japanese Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster; about a stowaway on a flight to Heathrow from Angola, a stowaway who hid in the undercarriage of the plane, died, and fell out onto a Heathrow street.

Part of me feels it’s ok to write about these events because I’m offering a voice to those who weren’t able to have—who were stripped of—their voice. But who am I to give a voice to these people? Who am I to serve as a voice to the voiceless? Is it fair? Is it ethical?

I wasn’t there. I didn’t experience what they did. How can I possibly write about it?

But I’m also a poet. I also try in every experience to understand people, to understand the inscrutability of life.

Isn’t that creativity? Isn’t that what writers do? We think up or put ourselves into different people, different lives, and we write about it. We try to share our thoughts, any insight we may have, our own grief. We try not to taint the lives of those lost in tragedies, but we must explore and discuss, because we are intrigued. And a past left silent is a past forgotten.

I hope when I write about these events I’m not doing harm. I hope in some small way I’m helping to explore, understand, and keep alive through words. Words last longer than all of us.


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