By Charlotte Smith, 2018-19 Web Director and Assistant Director of Social Media
I have often said that I think that literary magazines are very indicative of their time. I enjoy reading old issues and have been known to grab many at a time from The Book Thing of Baltimore. I recently read the summer 2008 “No Way Home: Outsiders and Outcasts” edition of The Virginia Quarterly Review and found it highly interesting, because it felt so ahead of its time. In the summer of 2008, there had not yet been a #MeToo Movement or a Women’s March or even an #OscarsSoWhite. People just weren’t paying as much attention to diversity and inclusion as they are now.
That’s why I was pleasantly surprised when I opened up this old edition of VQR and found an entire section dedicated to poetry by Israeli and Palestinian writers. The poems in this section of the magazine, titled “A Rose from Jericho,” are testaments to the strength and resilience of people whose voices are not often heard, at least in American culture. In “The Time Is Over,” poet Nidaa Khoury writes, “…and I, too, forget to tell him / that these people, in this country, / every day, / are dying.” While this poem talks bluntly about death, other poems in this issue are even more difficult to read because of their gory, vivid descriptions.
I notice that the word “blood” appears more than any other word in all of the poems. I think that is exactly why this is a highly commendable edition of VQR; instead of recoiling from controversy, VQR brings a sense of humanity to the Israeli-Palestine conflict. The poetry offers readers an opportunity to understand (from a more human, less newscast point of view) what is actually going on overseas. These poems confront what many of us don’t even know how to talk about. For me, personally, reading these poems was the first time I felt like I even somewhat grasped what was going on. The conflict always deeply confused me, and seemed so nuanced, so I never fully understood. I feel like I am finally beginning to. Maybe I still don’t understand the long, complicated history of these feuding countries, but I can empathize with the grief of those affected. In her poem, “Listen, Tonight,” Nathalie Handal puts the conflict into human terms that I can understand: “and answer me why we pretended / when we measured the earth / there was no space for both of us.”
In addition to “A Rose from Jericho,” there are also many other important voices in this issue. There are stories, or what VQR calls “dispatches,” from Bulgaria, Iraq, India, and elsewhere. Even closer to home, there are dispatches from the Mississippi coast post-Katrina and Alabama. Each dispatch gives a platform to those who do not often get to be heard. From victims of war and natural disasters to stories about dealing with white supremacists, this journal does not shy away from any topic.
What VQR did in 2008 is something other literary journals still seem to have trouble doing today: promoting inclusivity by representing a multitude of different voices. Because believe it or not, white men are not the only people who can write good poems.