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Writing to Change the World

Words, images, and medicine focus on world's hell-holes.

Sudan, photo by Tom Craig

Sudanese father & daughter await aid.

Veterans come in all kinds. Read this "coffee table book" and you'll find a smidgeon of hope mingled with awe at what a good writer can do with an impossible situation.

I'm talking about Writing on the Edge: Great Contemporary Writers on the Front Line of Crisis, a book by Tom Craig, edited by Dan Crowe. The idea was to get some big names like Martin Amis, Tracy Chevalier, Jim Crace, Daniel Day-Lewis, Ali Smith, and others, to take them out of their comfort zone (to put it mildly!) and place them in some really harsh locations around the world. There they saw first-hand and then wrote about the work of Doctors Without Borders.

(By the way, in other countries, and in the book, the doctors and other volunteers usually refer to the organization by its more internationally known name, Médecins Sans Frontières [MSF].)

The stunning photos by Tom Craig, an award-winning photographer, appear after each chapter, and each writer tackles some neglected region---Burundi, Cambodia, Congo-Brazzaville, Sierra Leone, The Ukraine, Palestine, and eight more--with understated and moving brilliance.

Whether writing about refugees, about women, about children, about hopeless thirsty dying young men waiting for scarce medical aid, these authors make you feel as though you're there, up close, overheated, not nearly as patient as those who are actually suffering. I only meant to read enough to get the gist, but it's not that kind of book. The human stories told in this way---gritty and frighteningly real, with the emotion carefully parcelled out as only the best writers can do--turn out to be utterly compelling.


Each writer brings his or her own perspective as they try to get answers to different questions while they watch the doctors (and sometimes, in a pinch, find themselves called upon to render aid). Many of us surely wonder, like Hari Kunzru does in Assam (India):

At home..., we watch the crisis on TV, the crisis that is always going on somewhere and is always framed in the same way, with the same shots of nursing mothers and drought-struck farmland and thin, young men in army fatigues waving rifles. ... We watch this familiar story and think, they should do something about this. Why don't they just go in and sort it out? We rarely stop to unpick that "going in" entails, the delicate negotiations, the many shades of compromise.

These are hot countries, each described as hotter than the last. A.A. Gill, in Chad, puts it this way:

Chad is a slave to the land on which it precariously squats, earth-blasted and dominated by the sun. This is the hottest place I've ever been. ... It's like living with a bright murderer. Achievement is not measured here, as it is in the damp, green First World, by invention and energy, but by the ability to do as little as possible, for as long as possible, in as much shade as possible.

And finally, why do they do it, all those doctors who spend months or years in nearly 70 of the world's most desperate nations? Joanne Harris writes from Congo-Brazzaville:

I fly back to England tonight, but it's hard to leave... I want to know what happens next... Maybe this is why people risk their lives to work for MSF, to live on a tiny salary, in primitive conditions far from their families, all the while knowing that one individual can never, ever do enough, but doing it anyway, quietly, in hope.

Copyright (c) by Susan K. Perry

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