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Why I Wrote

And a tale of a manuscript I left on a train...

· musing

Occasionally a letter drops through the virtual box from Penguin/Random House, or PanMacmillan, or Bellevue, reminding me that my book continues to sell. It always amazes me that my scribbling could have such longevity, and remain apparently as relevant today as it was timely then.

In the tens years since I wrote it, I've often had pause to stop and tally the consequences of that act of defiant recording. There were many, good and bad, so my tally has often led me to ask whether I would do the same again in the same circumstances, especially when feeling downcast by ordinary vicissitudes.

The choice to write a book was not, on face value, as a personal calculation, as a costed item in life's ledger, a rational act in linear and familiar terms. It was not "a smart career choice." It did not provide obvious benefits. To the contrary, it threatened relative hardship and uncertainty, and certainly contributed to the end of my married life.

Edinburgh 2011, where I was invited to launch the book at the city's literary festival.

After all, I had been offered a handsome promotion following my three year stint in Sri Lanka, a job that would have set a natural course for my UN career, in a posting to a beautiful, glamorous, and peaceful city where my family could have settled comfortably. Security, prestige, money, a job perfectly suited to me, and predictability.

Instead, I resigned from the UN, cashed in my pension, and followed my disgruntled then-wife and little piglets back to the country of my birth - the very last place I really wanted to live when Buenos Aries, Istanbul, Palermo and Prague offered better. But I also followed the better angels of my nature.

The crime writer Robert Eversz and my then girlfriend Lucie, Spain

Now, I've always regarded myself as primarily a writer, in whatever guise I was adopting in life. I say so because I have always written - bad poetry, competent essays, short stories, letters, plays, short screen pieces, a couple more books (unpublished), journalism, radio documentaries, and a huge output in other professional circumstances.

Prijedor, Bosnia 1995. On the trail of miscreants...

When I was in despair, I did not write, because the kind of writer I am cannot write from despair. I can write only from hope, gratitude and, wherever possible, in a kind of ecstasy that I frequently felt was inspired by being in love with a woman, by a social circle within which I found myself, or mostly by just being in love with the act of living itself.

There were years at a stretch during which I stopped writing and when I became not a writer, but somebody who had written. These were hugely wasted years, but I was so caught up in what felt like the struggle to survive (middle-class anxiety mostly, yeah), that I couldn't locate the spirit to do so.

The writer and economist Javier Marroquin, Spain

So why such an irrational choice to write a book? It was a simple calculation. My life was a good one, and I had lived amongst people whose lives had been smashed beyond repair. I took seriously then (and do now) my oath to the UN and the purpose for which we are meant to work - the betterment of humanity and planet.

T.E. Lawrence left the first copy of "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" on a train...

I wasn't in a position to do more inside the UN with regard to what had happened in the final phase of Sri Lanka's civil war, but I thought I could do something effective outside the UN by writing a masterful piece of strategic communications in the form of a cohesive narrative linking history, geography, warring tactics, geopolitics, and pure narrative into a highly readable account.

But if there was a single conclusive measure for me, a benchmark for my choice, it was this: What would I say to my daughter in a decade when she asked me, "So what did you do?" It was the same question that might, in another world, have saved the dozens of my family who had been killed in the maw of a monstrous bureaucratic killing device, the Holocaust, including my own father's father.

Catalina, aged 7 in "Catalina's Gully," close to our home in Australia, my little benchmark.

Writing a book was a joy. Sometimes I wrote at a desk, sometimes deep in isolation in a country cottage, and sometimes surrounded by the bustle of a coffee shop or bar, when the commotion and prattle of other people's lives helped me to concentrate, and kept isolation at bay for a brain bursting with the fever of research, narrative construction, and purity of purpose. It was a delirium.

So a decade on, when I flew recently from Australia to Kenya on Qatar Air, the plane was virtually empty. Most of us were masked against Covid.

Bhuj, Gujarat, shortly after the earthquake which killed around 40,000 people,

when I photographed these beautiful children...

Towards the end of the flight into Doha, a steward nervously asked me if I was Gordon Weiss, the author. I was startled. This young Sinhalese man went on to say that as a teenager in Sri Lanka in the last years of the war, he had held a uniform view of the war that was nationalistic, without nuance, and was filled with fear of Tamils. My book had changed his view, and while he was glad to shake the hand of the man whose work had enlightened his views, I was glad to receive the accolade, once more, that my book had worked minds.

In manuscript form, and before publication, it had been used by two UN inquiries, and by the U.S. Office of War Crimes. When published, quite apart from the huge and unexpected sales, it was reviewed by some of the world's great publications – a blind trial by my contemporaries that is unlike any other form of professional test.

A Spanish goatherd

The book drew people together who in 2012 formed the International Crimes Evidence Project, a cooperation by some lawyers, me, and former Hague Tribunal experts in investigations, military forensics, prosecution and defence, and jurisprudence. The brief of evidence that was amassed to international criminal legal standards – including dozens of highly protected witness statements and classified documents from a variety of partner governments – fed into the UN Human Rights Council's 2014 war crimes resolution on Sri Lanka.

I was also invited by multi-ethnic groups in New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the U.S., and the U.K. to act as a trusted interlocutor, given the 'balance' that I had so carefully struck in the construction of my book, as attested in the reviews.

The cottage on the Greek island of Othoni where I wrote some of my first book

The Sri Lanka experience, and my work on it, were factors that led directly to the UN's "Human Rights Upfront" initiative, a monumental adjustment which, in theory, is meant to inform the decision-making process of every senior leader in the UN who is confronted by human rights abuses in the course of their work (confrontations that continue to confound and frustrate UN leaders in the fog of war).

"The Cage" continues to sell largely, I am guessing, to students at universities around the world which have included it on their political science and history courses - such as the Kings College War Studies department, and SOAS.

Javier and Maja, Barcelona

The war correspondent Martha Gellhorn once wrote, "I have come to believe that the act of bearing witness, of keeping the record straight, is worth it because of its own sake, because it is a form of honourable behaviour involving writer and reader." For me, writing was a matter of personal honour and obligation as a man privileged to have witnessed so much hardship throughout the world. No matter the ill-judged choice, it was ultimately the right one.

 

But it wasn't the book I wanted to write.

Martha Gellhorn, locked and loaded

When I had published, my ex-wife read the completed book. I had always read excerpts to her as often as I spat them out, or she had read completed chapters, but she revealed one truth to me which was that I had written a much better book years before, when we first met.

She kept me honest: Tea for Two, Galle, Sri Lanka, 2008

Then I was living in Barcelona. I had a written a picaresque book about life itself - joyful travels, multiple escapades whilst engaged in various fields of work, bagatelles and peccadillos written with a lyrical joy and self-amusement.

I didn't leave it on a train exactly, one of the legion of stories of lost manuscripts (the implication being that they might have been great works of literature, lost for all time, which my book was not!).

Market boy, Bhuj, 2000

Somehow, between the updating renditions of Apple programmes and my constant travels, the electronic version had frittered away, but I didn't think to check until the very day I was tearing up the printed manuscript in my Passeig de Gràcia apartment - to save space, the perennial worry of a man on the hoof all the time.

Sweetly, and with great determination, my then girlfriend picked it out of the bin, and painstakingly pieced it together in order to read it.

Yet crazily, and in a way I cannot even imagine possible except by explaining it as a subliminal disregard for Self, I managed to lose even that final version, so that she remains the single reader of this literary 'gem' (I am being ironic) now lost forever.

Can't remember who took this shot of me in Galicia, Spain, writing, fresh from Syria...

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