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Karen Malpede interviewed on her anti-war play Prophecy

US writer Karen Malpede talks to Christine Lewis about her play on lives shattered by the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, which has recently opened in London

Issue No. 2118

Lives shattered by war. Artwork for Prophecy

Lives shattered by war. Artwork for Prophecy

The play centres around Jeremy, a young working class man who joined the army to get money to go to college.

But he was traumatised by his experience in Iraq. His teacher Sarah – who campaigned against the Vietnam war – is the only person who can help him deal with his suffering.

But the earlier war left her enduring a trauma of her own.

What motivated you to write Prophecy?

When it became clear that the US was going to war with Iraq, it triggered memories of the Vietnam War. I was a student and very involved in the anti-war movement during Vietnam and the despair of those years came flooding back.

I also have training in trauma counselling and I interviewed people who had witnessed the 9/11 attacks. One young man had been in the army and was in a reserve unit when it happened, so he was called back. He worked for two weeks picking up body parts at the World Trade Centre.

The war was approaching. Many of his friends had re-enlisted and he was very upset about it.

I wrote a short story called Prophecy, which was about someone about to ship out to Iraq, and it developed from there.

We had five readings of the play in the US with a fabulous cast – but no producer would touch it. In all the readings we had full houses. The response was incredible. People came up to me after and asked what they could do to help get it shown.

We felt that we couldn’t let this play go unseen and thought that perhaps the best thing to do it would be to bring it to London.

There’s a lot in the play about the Vietnam generation and how the Iraq war is reopening old wounds.

Vietnam was a life-shaping experience – for the pro-war camp as well as the anti-war.

When soldiers come home from war there’s a divide in how they’re treated. Generally the whole country agrees that they should be cared for in some way.

But there is no care system to look after them in the US. So there are many suicides, murders and broken marriages.

A huge percentage of homeless people, whose lives were just never put back together, are Vietnam veterans. This is going to happen again with Iraq.

Young men come home not only having seen terrible things but having done terrible things. Kids have killed whole families.

But people don’t want to think about what the soldiers have done.

How did the Vietnam era differ from the current US situation?

One of the things that really moves me when I see the play performed is thinking about the situation that young people are facing today – how much worse the world has become.

In the play Jeremy has been damaged by the war and one of the young Arab characters, Mariam, is struggling to be a voice of dignity. Their dilemmas seem to be so representative of the young.

We have a backdoor draft now and that is poverty. There is a class thing going on. People joining the army are often from little towns or rural towns – places where the mills and the factories have closed.

The recruiters lie – they tell people they’ll get an education. Then people join the army and they either get trapped or paid to re-enlist.

Any high school that gets government funding – the ones in poor areas – has by law to give to the army the name and address of every eligible young person.

So the recruiters go to the kids’ homes and knock on the doors. They hound them. And they get them to enlist.

Your play has strong female characters. Did you want to say something about the role of women?

Traditionally in wartime women are the caretakers – they get the wounded guys back.

Wives and mothers are putting nappies on their husbands and sons who are now brain dead after returning from war. They’re the ones dealing with the violence and the drug addiction.

In the play Mariam and Hala are the voices of the victims, the people who are being bombed. For some this will be controversial. If you have to confront the fact that you’re killing people who have as much human worth as you do then you’re in a moral crisis.

Mariam puts on the hijab very much as a political action. It is a cultural statement of independence – it says, “I’m not a sex object, I’m a person and I want to be treated with dignity.” This will also be controversial.

How do you see the relationship between art and politics and what do you hope the play will achieve?

Nothing in my play is exposing anything that isn’t known, but I’m trying to get people to feel it.

In a way I’m trying to use the theatre as a place of witness. The great thing about the theatre is that people are sitting there together and the people on the stage are alive so it brings people together.

Until our culture as a whole acknowledges the full extent of what the soldiers have been through – including what they’ve done – there is no chance for healing.

Prophecy is my tiny “pebble in the ocean” attempt to bring some of these issues into the public arena.

Prophecy is being performed until 5 October at the New End Theatre, London NW3. Go to »

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Tue 9 Sep 2008, 18:55 BST
Issue No. 2118
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