Helen Benedict has paused for the weekend in her Upper West Side apartment en route to an eagerly anticipated residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. During the school year, Benedict has a full teaching load as a professor of journalism at Columbia University, so summers provide a cherished opportunity for uninterrupted writing. “Summers are precious,” she says.
This October, Bellevue Literary Press will publish her seventh novel, Wolf Season, a searing portrait of the lasting impact of the war in Iraq on three women in a small upstate New York community: Naema, an Iraqi refugee; Beth, wife of a Marine; and Rin, an angry American veteran who tends her blind daughter Juney and a trio of wolves on a remote, ramshackle farm. “I wanted to represent the different sorts of people who live in these towns,” says Benedict of her multiple protagonists. “A lot of families go into the military because there’s little else to do; the options for employment are prisons and the military. And there are some 400 Iraqi refugees settled around Albany.”
Naema also appeared in Sand Queen (Soho Press, 2011), the first in what Benedict later realized was going to be a trilogy of novels about the Iraq War. “After I finished Sand Queen, I felt there was a lot more to say,” she explains. “I wanted to follow the Iraq story, because almost nobody was doing that in this country. But I wasn’t quite sure if I wanted to bring all the same characters back—and then into my head walked Rin and her wolves and Juney. They were the ones who got me going with this novel, and I very quickly found that Naema too belonged in the story.”
Naema is a doctor at the Veterans Affairs clinic to which Rin takes Juney for a checkup as Wolf Season begins. Rin’s hostile, disbelieving reaction to an Iraqi doctor grew from Benedict’s dismayed observation of audience responses while on a book tour for Sand Queen when she read passages about Naema. In the trilogy’s first volume, which takes place in 2003, Naema is a medical student whose family is ravaged by the American invasion. “People were so surprised to hear the voice of an Iraqi woman who was educated, because so many Americans don’t know the difference between Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and other Middle East countries,” Benedict says. “They thought that Iraqi women were illiterate, uneducated, all in burkas and kept in their homes. But before the war, 50% of Iraq’s students were women, 40% of the work force was female. Muslim women in Iraq had more rights than in any other country outside of Turkey—all of which we undid, in cahoots with the imams.”
Benedict, 64, is a soft-spoken woman, but she doesn’t mince words. Describing her first job as a journalist on a London tabloid, she says, “It was the lowest of the low: a girl in a bikini on page three—she wasn’t topless, however, because it was a family newspaper—and almost all of it was made up. There was no integrity, there were no rules; it was misogynist, racist—every -ist you could think of. I wanted to write about politics and social justice.”
Female journalists were largely confined to the women’s pages in British newspapers of the 1970s, so Benedict, the daughter of American anthropologist parents, headed to journalism school at UC Berkeley. She found her mission as a writer while executing a standard ethics course assignment on whether or not the names of rape victims should be mentioned in press coverage. “I decided that instead of interviewing editors and reporters, I should talk to the survivors themselves,” she recalls. “What did they want? Isn’t it really up to them? Doing these interviews, I was incredibly moved by the resilience of these women, the way so many of them had turned their trauma into helping others as counselors at rape crisis centers. In the middle of this terribly dark subject there was something very noble and uplifting, which is the amazing generosity and beauty of the human spirit. Without finding that I don’t think I could have spent so many years writing about rape, because it would have been relentlessly horrible.”
Rape and violence against women became the focus of Benedict’s work as a journalist, as well as the subject of her first three nonfiction books. The novels came later, after she was hired by Columbia in 1986. “Fiction was always my first love,” she says. “I’d been writing it all along, but it was hard to squeeze it in while trying to make a living as a freelance journalist. Once I had a full-time job with summers off, I was really able to do it. My earlier novels are about disenfranchised people who are looking for homes, looking for families, looking to belong—I stayed away from sexual assault in my fiction until these last two.”
Sand Queen and Wolf Season both contain horrific scenes of women in the Army being sexually assaulted by their fellow soldiers. This was also a central topic in Benedict’s 2009 book, The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq (Beacon).
I ask the prolific author how she decides what form her writing will take in a given book. “It’s to do with how deep I want to go and how much effect I want to have politically,” she replies. “With The Lonely Soldier or my earlier books about rape, I wanted them to be instructive in a very direct way. Also, I was exposing things that society struggles to recognize, so I wanted to do it with the authority of journalism and research. If I’m going to get people to believe how frequent sexual assault is, how awful the effects are, and how the whole system is rigged against the victims, I’ve got to prove it in a way you can’t do with fiction.”
Benedict adds: “Conversely, if I want people to really feel inside what it’s like to live a life that’s hard or different in some way, fiction’s better for that. No matter how many military survivors of sexual assault you interview, there are limits to how deep you can go. They may not be able to articulate it, they may not even know how deeply they’ve been affected, they may be ashamed and not want to tell you. There are million reasons why there are barriers, and you don’t want to traumatize people by pushing into painful territory. With fiction you can get deep inside without exploiting any real person.”
Benedict acknowledges matter-of-factly that she reaches fewer people with her literary fiction than with her nonfiction: “I don’t need to reach tens of thousands or millions of readers just because people on Twitter think they must. The world is constantly telling you that you’re nothing if you’re not megafamous, and that’s a very narrow way of looking at life. If I just move 3,000 people, if I just move 300 people, when you think about that number of people taking the time to read my book and think about it and be moved by it—that’s amazing, and thank you so much!”