Never the right time: what are the ethics of giving voice to the pain of others

By Cathy Galvin

Last week, I walked under what remains of Grenfell Tower in London towards a hall in the shadow of the blackened building for a meeting with residents and others who work on the Lancaster West estate. “You can tell when someone is an outsider,” one of them said. “Locals don’t look up.”

I had looked up, though not for long. The tower seems smaller than in news footage, the charred curtains fluttering from empty windows a reminder of its frail, human scale. Hand-written notes on fences tell journalists to keep away, or ask that no pictures be taken.

I was there to ask, how should writers bear witness to the tragedy at Grenfell? What words should they use? Here is a community of people often described as “marginalised” – a word that is instantly alienating. Could a group of Londoners living in a 1960s tower block, coming from a range of cultural backgrounds and from every walk of life – young professionals, families, the aspiring, the poor, the elderly – be labelled as simply as that? Are the so-called marginalised, those who are “other”, now the mainstream? Are we them, they us?

So many questions. And perhaps the most difficult of all is, when is it the right time to intrude into the lives of those caught up in a news-cycle of disaster? Who can, should, represent the voices of those still too traumatised to speak for themselves? Bearing witness has been, for me, a lifelong occupation and, sometimes, dilemma.

As a journalist, it was my job for 30 years. Later in life, as a poet, I have come to tragedy “slant”, as Emily Dickinson described her own way of approaching truth, allowing the imagination to open and receive something beyond the immediately visible. And as a writer who is a Catholic, I have looked deeper at my own reasons for bearing witness. To be an observer, has at times meant walking by rather than walking beside. Pope Francis has spoken of accompanying others, particularly those in need. That demands more than getting out a pen and making notes.

I have been lucky – most of the journalists I have worked with have had a strong sense of wanting to celebrate the inspirational and to reveal injustice. And of course it is not just journalists and professional writers who use media channels to ensure the voices of the poor and the voiceless are heard directly: Cafod’s recent Fast Day Appeal remembered Blessed Oscar Romero’s courageous life as an archbishop in El Salvador – and a key part of his work was ensuring his sermons could be heard in the homes of poor campesinos and their families via a radio station.

We live in questioning times that have begun to challenge who has curatorial rights over truth. At worst, all traditional media are painted as villains, delivering “fake news” in a “post-truth” world. At best, this challenges those delivering the news to up their game, to ensure they really do have the full facts and don’t blindly accept the statements of spin doctors and public relations consultants.

In academia, there has been a further exploration of the implications of “cultural appropriation” on a writer’s ability to bear witness. Simply put, what right does any human being have to write about the lives of another whose culture they do not share? For a man to write as a woman? For the voice of a black person to be inhabited by a white writer? Such questions should certainly be asked when the voices and lives of certain individuals have been “marginalised” in fiction, non-fiction and reportage.

But a troubling space is opening up, where too much agonised analysis has inhibited imaginative reflection on traumatic situations and events. Creative writers increasingly fear to articulate the concerns of communities that are not their own.

Such concerns led me to Grenfell Tower. Not as a journalist or as a poet but as someone planning a unique festival on citizenship and literature, exploring the language of belonging and of being heard. How could the rights and duties of citizens be written about and spoken of without reference to a human catastrophe in which the voices of our fellow Londoners had been so clearly ignored by those responsible for their safety?

How could refugees, philosophers and writers such as Ben Okri, Maureen Freely and Nikesh Shukla calmly discuss and debate these issues with festival audiences if we did not open our festival to those touched by tragedy? Whenever there is a public tragedy on this scale, it is inevitable that the agendas of others – political, racial, social, sometimes spiritual – become lenses through which what has happened is viewed.

I listened to the residents and to others on the housing estate and they have responded and will be involved as speakers and members of the audience in the conversations we hope will begin at the festival. Sometimes it is the things not said, the silence, that we should pay most attention to. One resident told me: “There were people who spoke out about the safety issues within the tower; they had tacit support. But many people feared raising concerns that could have them evicted. They learned silence.”

The people I spoke to were traumatised but emotionally fluent and articulate. Two older men cried. Not for themselves. One told me of neighbours, cordoned off from their homes by the emergency services on the night of the disaster. They had experienced the worst bearing witness of all, with nowhere else to look but at the burning building.

In the aftermath of the disaster, the Nigerian-born west Londoner, Ben Okri, wrote an immediate, searing poem. It was published in The Guardian. Young poets, writers, musicians and rappers were inspired to produce songs and stories, not just to raise money for the survivors but to speak of what had happened. As time has passed, other careful work is emerging: the BBC produced a meticulous portrait of all the people who lived on one floor of the tower. The residents I spoke to told me it captured their lives as ordinary citizens, not simply as “the marginalised”.

Established playwrights and writers are beginning to consider the angles and insights they can develop from the tragedy in their work. Which is why it seems vital to open an opportunity for people living in the aftermath of such tragedy into direct conversation with artists living at a distance from their lives. “We are many communities, many voices,” one of the residents told me. “Not just one.”

Liturgy, language and listening all play their part in capturing not one voice or story but many. Some of the most truthful witnessing takes time, careful thought and imagination, so that what becomes a living narrative in memory and history isn’t over-simplified. On the Lancaster West estate, I learned that Christians of every denomination seemed to find comfort in Pope Francis’ rejection of a culture that builds walls between people or reduces individuals to commodities. And from the church at the base of the tower, St Clements, another poem emerged, which was published in The Guardian some months after Ben Okri’s. It was written by Alan Everett, the vicar of St Clement’s, and includes these lines:


Flickering shadows

In the mind

The dead are present

Even when we forget them

Even in the words we fail to speak

But when concerned observers

Publish words of anger or distress

Attempting to be the voice

Of those who have lost the most

We’re left with little more

Than dust on our lips.

Though Everett lives and works with residents and survivors, he thought long and hard before he agreed to his poem being published. “What was my motivation?” he asked himself. Perhaps Pope Francis comes somewhere near to answering the dilemma about when is the right moment to speak about tragedy. “The Gospel tells us constantly to risk a face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction” (Evangelii Gaudium, 72).

To give, we have to communicate, we have to talk. Writers have to be unafraid to write, both for themselves and others, and unafraid to spend longer periods of time simply listening to those caught up in tragedy: to their words and to their silences. There is, in truth, never a right time to write about tragedy. We should always question our motives for trying to do so. But the consequences of being too afraid to search for the words to express the pain of others would be to lead us far away from what it means to be human.

Cathy Galvin: this piece was published by The Tablet in November 2017.