Don't Look Away: Journal of Witness Explores Theme of Redemption
Truly seeing can be a revolutionary act, but it’s not always easy. That might sum up the Spring 2013 issue of Witness. The outstanding essays, fiction and poetry direct our gaze toward a wide range of difficult issues, including environmental destruction, child abuse, war, ethnic violence, racism, hate crimes, immigration, and hospice care. The writing demonstrates the often painful and revelatory power of seeing. Yet, the complexity and sensitivity of the pieces make it difficult to turn away.
Witness describes itself as a journal that “blends the features of a literary and issue-oriented magazine to highlight the role of the modern writer as witness to his or times.” The Spring 2013 issue is loosely organized around the theme of redemption and take its readers around the world in search of it. Sally Franson’s nonfiction piece, “The Tour Guide,” shows us Sarajevo, where the history of ethnic violence is still a part of the landscape of the city. In “Saving Violet,” by Pamela Skjolsik, we follow the author’s relationship with a woman on death row in Texas. “Pardon’d,” by Eve Fairbanks, travels to an all-white Afrikaaner community in South Africa in order to explore what redemption means after Apartheid.
Wherever the writing in Witness takes us, the quality never wavers. The contributors are from diverse backgrounds, with impressive literary resumes. Abdul Shakoor Jawad, author of the short story, “The Hasher,” is from Afghanistan, while poet Fiona Sze-Lorrain lives in France. There is one first-time publication in this issue, “The World at His Feet,” by Afsheen Farhadi. The magazine is beautifully laid out and thoughtfully edited. This issue features a full color photo essay by Ed Kashi on palliative care expert, Dr. Ira Byock. The moving pictures powerfully ask us to consider what humane medical care for the terminally ill might look like.
Witness is a magazine aimed at the intellectually and emotionally curious. There are essays and stories in this issues which I could easily see using in college courses on gender, race and ethnicity, and the environment–pieces that would challenge students to think through the complexity of these issues in an intimate way. The magazine takes a broad range of topics you thought you didn’t care about and makes them gut-wrenchingly personal. Kris Saknussemm’s essay, “School for the Dead,” draws you into his painful childhood memories of an abusive teacher. The haunting story, “How Easily Swept Away,” by Kristen Blanco Gottstein, forces us to see the world through the eyes of a bitter woman who feels responsible for her daughter’s death.
The nonfiction and fiction in Witness blend together seamlessly. They’re not grouped together, so you might find yourself looking in the table of contents in order to tell what’s “true” from what’s not. Both fiction and nonfiction pieces range from conventional prose, like Joel Fishbane’s, “A New Widow” and Susan Sterling’s, “The Summer of Uncle Tom,” to more experimental pieces like Nina Rota’s, “Passing” and Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew’s “Snapshots of a Decade.”
The poetry in Witness is free verse and like the prose, wide-ranging in its topics and style. Barbara Tomash’s, “Lives” is a prose poem in which a woman meditates on the historical figure of Joan of Arc. A series of three poems by Tom Daley focus on his interactions with his mother after a stroke. Two poems by Jennifer Duffield White take us to Glacier National Park and LoloPass in Montana. Witness features an almost perfect balance of fiction, nonfiction and poetry; there are twelve contributors in each category.
The Spring Issue of Witness is the first issue under new editor, Maile Chapman. Under previous editor, Amber Withycombe, the magazine transformed from an annual, print-only journal that was on hiatus, to a vibrant, award-winning print and online journal. Witness is now published three times a year. The spring issue is print while summer and winter issues are online. Print issues are themed, though the theme of redemption in the spring issue is loosely interpreted.
When I was young and growing up in a small town in Kentucky, popular magazines like National Geographic helped me feel connected to the wider world. Witness is the kind of magazine that appeals to the grown-up version of that child–the person who wants to see and encounter the world in the beauty and complexity that only great writing can provide