That Mad Game: Growing Up in a Warzone By J.L.Powers Now Available through Cinco Puntos Press
“War doesn’t occur in a vacuum,” writes J.L. Powers in her introduction to That Mad Game, a powerful collection of narratives capturing the lives of children in warzones. “It occurs because of the stories we tell ourselves about the world we live in or the world we want to live in.” Most of us are used to thinking of places like the Middle East or sub-Saharan Africa as war-torn, violent, or otherwise unstable. In a CNN-fueled media culture, the most accessible narratives about, say, Congo are frequently punctuated by journalistic shorthand, generic violence, and occasional indignation for one or another atrocity. Lacking context or connection, we tend to objectify, heroize, and even expect violence and suffering from far-off places and people.
By contrast, the young people in That Mad Game, living in places like Gaza, Johannesburg, and Kabul, were neither powerless victims nor tragic heroes. They’re nuanced, imperfect actors who negotiate their realities as best they can. Often, that means facing difficult, even impossible, choices, like Burmese refugee Hlawn Tha Chum in deciding whether to pursue a life in the U.S. without her brother, who must remain behind. Or the community-minded parents in Juarez who refuse to leave the city they love, despite the escalating gang violence that threatens their family. “This is my home,” writes Fito Avitia with palpable resolve. “If everybody good leaves, what happens then?”
There is something of a Ruth Klüger-Still Alive quality in equations like this—a sense that the chaotic ethics of living through war do not match the moral certainty we frequently ascribe to violence and tragedy. But if the voices in That Mad Game are striking in their intimacy, the lives they’re living couldn’t be harder for most readers to imagine. Children like Rwandan native innocent Bisanabo experience and even participate in unspeakable violence and cruelty, and most often the refuge they seek brings them only faintly closer to the childhood they were forced to abandon. Some of the book’s most powerful passages, therefore, come as these young people struggle to maintain their core humanity in the face of atrocity and displacement. For Bisanabo, who walked more than 2,500 miles to escape Rwandan genocide, the inability to put his life at further risk to help others was a haunting revelation, but just as astonishing was the compassion he saw in other people.
As war in the 21st century becomes less about battlefields and borders and more about paramilitaries, counterterrorism, and failed states, more and more young people will be forced to reconcile experiences like these. If another future is possible, writes Powers, it is through narrative.