Much has been said in recent years about “witness literature,” writing that can feel like a blend of reporting and lyrical prose, bringing poetic attention to headline news topics that are often painful, tragic, and complex. By extension, witness literature can provide healing to the writer and the reader. It may even potentially create opportunities for activism, calling out ignorance, numbness, or indifference to certain subjects. While some critics point out that witness literature can feel superficial or even exploitative—a figurative chance to rubberneck and then leave, without any meaningful engagement—others note that all writing to some degree is witness literature. “At the very least, then, a literature of witness that deserves the epithet has to observe things that need pointing out,” writes Ian King, “and, at least for some, motivate us to act in some, perhaps prescriptive, manner in order to remedy something.”
In Witness: Stories, Jamel Brinkley, winner of the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence and a finalist for the National Book Award, masterfully explores the role of witness in ten short stories placed in New York City. The perspective he takes, however—be it through the eyes of a lonely woman who writes letters to her food delivery person, a single father facing ghosts of past and present as he sells his childhood home, or a mother navigating the dangerous behaviors of her obstinate teen daughter—shifts more to the internal, to the subtleties and complexities of how we treat each other and what we endure.
In “Comfort,” Simone is a young Black woman grieving her brother’s murder by a white police officer. Finding escape in sex, Simone wakes one morning unsure of who is sleeping beside her. Simone gazes at her lover’s body and “wonders again about Officer Brody’s wife, the quality of sleep she gets lying next to her husband. …[T]he appalling intimacy of sharing a bed with a man like that. Opening your eyes in the morning and watching his vulnerable sleeping body, a body that has shown the horrible cruelty it is capable of when awake.”
Silas, the narrator in the titular story “Witness,” which was a 2021 O. Henry Prize Winner, struggles to find work while living with his sister Bernice. Bernice’s headstrong nature and familial support are not enough to keep her safe in a medical system that fails her. “Our mother arrived in the city to lend Bernice strength. […] When the doctor told us one day that Bernice would be able to go home soon, our mother asked how on earth he could think such a thing. When he said the tests were clear, she said, ‘Well, how many more tests you got?’ When he said Bernice’s pain was under control, she asked him how he could possibly know.”
Daisy Hernández writes in her essay “The Writer as Witness: Why We Need Literature to Document Atrocities—at Home and Abroad,” that “[w]hile it may well be that no book has ever prevented genocide or fascism, we still have a necessity for literature to testify to the political conditions of our lives—not only so that we might have a record of those we have lost, but also that we might have a reason to gather with others to read and to continue resisting.”
Racism, police brutality, failing social support systems, violence in social media, economic hardship—Brinkley bears witness to these topics through his characters, while he, with searing beauty and grace, also explores the intricacies of identity, friendship, family, community, growing older, and more—topics at the heart of the many broader, larger issues we face in America today.
by Jamel Brinkley
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published on August 1, 2023
Monika Dziamka is a Polish-American writer and editor living in her hometown of Albuquerque, NM. Visit her at www.monikadziamka.com