Rick MacInnes-Rae on Cara Hoffman, women and war


(AP Photo/Ariel Schalit, File)


A story opens with a soldier returning home from war. The soldier is relieved, full of anticipation, and terrified that everyone will ask what it was like being in the thick of it. That deeply unsettled veteran could be any number of profoundly damaged male protagonists in fiction about war. But in the case of Cara Hoffman's new novel, Be Safe, I Love You, the veteran is Lauren Clay, who's coming home from the Iraq War to her fragile family in a run-down military town in New York state.

Be Safe, I Love You is being hailed as a landmark of women's writing about war. Cara Hoffman joined guest host Rick MacInnes-Rae on CBC Radio's The Sunday Edition. You can listen to their conversation in the audio player below:

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Rick MacInnes-Rae recapped the interview for CBC Books, which you can read below.

Sergeant Lauren Clay is going home, and going mad.

A murder-by-misjudgement in Iraq has overwhelmed her with suicidal guilt in Cara Hoffman's harrowing new novel, Be Safe, I Love You.

It's a narrative often recounted in non-fiction works by male reporters, who've covered male soldiers.

But novels by women, about the impact of war on women, are less common, especially when they delve into Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Hoffman told The Sunday Edition guest host Rick MacInnes-Rae, that "it was time to see in literature, a story of a woman who was coming home from combat, and who was facing all the things people face went they come home."

But Hoffman goes further than that, casting the dearth of Female War Literature as one of society's dirty little secrets. "The obvious answer is misogyny" she says with a laugh. "In the past, there weren't too many stories for example of women doctors or women lawyers. And I think because of restrictions that are put on women, and have been historically put on women, you don't have stories of them -- of us -- doing things that everyone does."

Hoffman comes from a military family, though she herself has never served. Instead, she boasts an eclectic background. She's been a farmhand in the middle East, a tout pushing cheap hotels on tourists in Greece, a reporter, and is currently a teacher of writing and literature at New York's Bronx Community College.

The reporter clearly informed the writer as she sought to construct a voice as authentic as possible for her character Lauren Clay to reflect the inner turmoil of PTSD. "If the landscape was sound it would be high and precise and white," she said of writing in Clay's tormented voice. "Arvo Pärt had once called his music white light, comprising all colours. And the blending of the melody and the voice he described as one plus one equaling one. That was what she wanted. That was the equation she wanted. But she would settle for one plus one equaling none."

"I did extensive research" she said. "I talked to many women who had served in the military. I worked with people in Colombia's Department of Epidemiology so I could get sort of behind the science of what happens in a person's brain when they're experiencing these things.

"And experiences within my own family, having a brother, and having many Uncles and my Godfather. People who had all seen combat."

People who'd experienced PTSD?


And in the course of her research, she discovered PTSD continues to kill American soldiers at an alarming rate.

"We have in the United States, 22 veterans a day who are committing suicide and one active duty soldier a day committing suicide, and it's this epidemic."

That's more than eight thousand deaths every year.

Hoffman doesn't confine the emotional pain of war simply to women who served. She is at articulate pains to point out the price paid by soldier's wives.

As she writes in her book; "The mall was like an ethereal plane between war and commerce and real life, where they could take shelter. They were shadows of themselves, meandering the food court, the hungry-left-behind wives accumulating some comfortable pounds, trying to put flesh on a feeling of not being there at all."

"A huge part of the book is wanting to show that a deployment affects everybody" she tells The Sunday Edition. "It's not simply this rugged or existential story of one soldier."

With the draft over in America, the U.S. military is now a volunteer Army. Some of the old obstacles to women have fallen away, meaning more will join up. More will write about it. And more will contract PTSD.

Some will enlist out of patriotism. Others, she says, out of poverty. Military service is the only way some will ever get higher education or health insurance.

"Lauren Clay represents very well the average soldier who's enlisting, which is somebody who really needs the money" Hoffman said.

"One of the things we don't think about, but again is a natural part of how misogyny works in the world -- is that women are poorer than men generally. So this new option for women to be in the military, you're going to see a lot of women who need the money doing it."

Follow Rick MacInnes-Raw on Twitter @rickmacinnesrae.