The Writer as Witness

Why We Need Literature to Document Atrocities—at Home and Abroad

For a long time, I cringed whenever I heard someone talk about a novel or a poem bearing witness. The word “witness” bothered me. It felt hollow and privileged. It felt like something an entitled American writer would say, a writer who could author a book and walk away. I was not that person, or at least I didn’t want to be.

And I was not the only one who had reservations. The poet Natalie Diaz observed in an interview that “bearing witness” is a curious phrase. “Most people don’t …