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Phil Klay Comes to Carbondale

The Illinois Humanities Council, in partnership with the Illinois Library Association hosted three public readings in Illinois by then National Book Award nominee Phil Klay, author of Redeployment. The readings were held at the Urbana Free Library on November 11, Veterans Day, the Carbondale Public Library November 12, and the Old State Capitol State Historic Site in Springfield on November 13. View photos from the readings here.  

On November 19, Phil and his book were awarded the National Book Award for Fiction. 

Diana Brawley Sussman of the Carbondale Public Library wrote this short article about Phil Klay’s reading at her library. It will be published in the December 2014 issue of the Illinois Library Association magazine and is published here with their permission.

Phil Klay Comes to Carbondale

In its heart, Carbondale is a hippy town. It’s my hometown, and it shaped me. It’s why I help coordinate huge community-wide explorations of peace. I struggle with this notion that Phil Klay, the author of Redeployment, is somehow fundamentally different from me. He served in the Iraq war, as a marine. That’s not to say that soldiers don’t want peace. In fact, I get the impression that the desire for peace motivates him, but a person who voluntarily joins the military sees different solutions than I do. Some of the characters in Redeployment grapple with these conflicting views.

When the Illinois Humanities Council partnered with ILA to bring Phil Klay to the Carbondale Public Library, I expected the program to broaden my thinking—as all great programs do. But I didn’t expect the experience to feel so compelling.

I admire good books, and the short stories in Redeployment are expertly crafted realistic fiction. I also admire good writers, and Phil Klay is—with his thoughtful demeanor—disarming. Honestly, the guy kind of glows. Maybe that’s what happens to authors when they become National Book Award finalists. They glow.

He read to us from his book. The room was standing-room-only, and there were several veterans in the audience. The discussion that followed touched on some important issues, such as the misperception that all soldiers are traumatized and damaged, and therefore, perhaps dangerous. War is traumatic, but PTSD is not the only possible response to trauma, and those with PTSD should certainly not be stigmatized as dangerous, as they sometimes are in the press.

We discussed the notion that the characters in Redeployment manage to simultaneously tell, yet not tell, their stories—a defensive style of communication. Phil Klay almost told us why he’d joined the military. He debunked the idea that people join either because they are overzealous fighters, or they are economically desperate. He said he didn’t fit into either extreme, but before he could expound on that, the conversation veered away as though we were collectively engaged in the same evasive communication as his characters. Of course, that’s the nature of discourse when forty people are invited into a conversation. Together we place dots on a connect-the-dots picture. We have to go home, think, read, draw the lines for ourselves.

Prompted by the audience, he commented on his New York Times article, “After War, a Failure of the Imagination,” in which he encourages people to stop saying to veterans, “I could never imagine what you’ve been through.” We’ve all experienced trauma to some degree, and one person’s trauma is not so different from another’s, so can’t we at least try to imagine? It’s our duty, he implied, as citizens of a country that sends people to war to imagine the consequences and respond with something more than apathy. So few people have served in our post-911 wars. If the rest of us fail to imagine it, we’ll forget about it. That is, after all, one purpose of fiction: it allows us to imagine another person’s experience.

Can I now fully understand the choice to join the military, and what that experience would be like? No. But everything about Phil Klay, from his writing to his demeanor, seems to graciously ask us to understand those choices and those experiences. So, I will try to imagine.

Diana Brawley Sussman is the Director of the Carbondale Public Library . Her writing has appeared in Subtle Fiction, Mobius: The Journal of Social Change, ILA Reporter, Library as Incubator Project, the anthology Revolting Librarians Redux: Radical Librarians Speak Out, and elsewhere.