Sunday, September 18, 2011

Kirk Barrett- The Pittsburgh Conference

Last March, along with five fellow Sigmas, I went to Pittsburgh to the Sigma Tau Delta International Convention. The talent and humor of almost everyone I met was astounding, and if you were there and missed them, the students from Kuwait were the rock stars of literature—they’re panel presentation on pre-Islamic Arabic poetry was nothing short of exquisite. Combining pedagogy and beautiful language they wove a tapestry of words that showed an opulent literary tradition that is sadly absent from most Western education. In any case, the conference was amazing and an integral experience in my own educational path. Pittsburgh was my second conference presentation (the other being Streamlines, in Dubuque), and I hope to present papers at both conferences again before I graduate next May. If you have thought about going to a conference but are intimidated by the prospect, you are not alone. It can be a scary endeavor, but such trepidation is really an opportunity to let your literary courage get some exercise. It’s a privilege to have a paper accepted, and a wonderful experience to read your work in front of your equally trepidatious peers.

After returning from the Pittsburgh Conference, I received a letter from the national office of Sigma Tau Delta. They informed me I had won the Essay on Convention Theme award. Considering the topic of my paper presentations and essay, I am further humbled at the opportunities I have been given by UNCW’s English Department and local chapter of Sigma Tau Delta; my Wentworth Fellowship, Honors Thesis—and my personal writing for the past few years—is focused on the collapse of Jugoslavia and the Bosnian Genocide of the 1990s. It’s may seem an odd thing for a English major to study, but most of the literature surrounding it (films, especially) I have found to be visceral, genuine, compassionate, and incredibly funny. I hope my own work reflects at least some of this.

Below is the Essay on Convention Theme: “Beyond Words.”

An often-heard phrase in Bosnia is:

There is nothing to say about Srebrenica, you just have to go there.

In June, 2010, I journeyed to Srebrenica in the midst of travels through the Balkans. I sought to view the region as a text; without political agenda. I strove to use an unbiased perspective in the region in order to gain some understanding of the motives of violence and methods of survival. That emotional detachment from the subject of study disappeared when visiting Srebrenica.

The location of the worst genocide in Europe since 1945 is set in a geographic region of natural quietude and breathtaking beauty. Dinaric forests cover sharply-cut mountains interspersed with lush stretches of narrow valleys. Disguised among the mountain woods are mines that have been giving up their silver since Nero fiddled with the devil and Goth kids sacked Rome. After the massacre in July, 1995, Srebrenica has been a place of what may rightfully be called a preternatural stillness.

I visited with a native of Sarajevo who had family in the field at Potočari; their names inscribed in stone at the memorial among the 8,372 listed. In July, 1995, Sıdıka’s nephew was 7 years old. In June, 2010, he was still 7 years old; he always will be.

It was the first time in 15 years Sıdıka had gone to Srebrenica.

While she offered prayers under the open-air mosque, I took portrait photos of the stone monument etched with names of the dead. Afterward, we began the six kilometer trek from the memorial at Potočari back to the bus station in Srebrenica.

We walked together without exchanging words. The only sound was my boots on the asphalt road, my boots on the gravel shoulder, my boots on the damp grass and mud. Her gaze might have never lifted from the ground beneath her feet—I do not know; my gaze never lifted from where I stepped.

The wind occasionally spoke to the trees, the grass, the strip of black road. The wind spoke of where it had been, of what it had seen and heard. The wind spoke of how it felt about the terrain it had passed. The wind occasionally spoke in soft hushed gusts while we walked together.

The wind spoke of many things.

We remained silent the entire distance to Srebrenica.

There was nothing to say.

We just had to go there.


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