The purpose of this guide is to help your reading group members enrich their appreciation of The Sayings: A Modern Tale, by W.C. Scheurer. It consists of a brief description of the book, suggested ideas for discussion and a list of related books for further reading.
The Sayings is an ideal reading group selection for many reasons: 1. The book is accessible to a wide range of readers due to its short length, its strong plot line, and its simple language. 2. Its subject matter (war on terrorism; conflict in Iraq) is very timely, yet it addresses timeless themes in its treatment of these topics. 3. In the finest tradition of the literary novella, the book is laced with meaning and beauty throughout its sparse pages, reaching different readers on different levels, all while it entertains the reader with a compelling story.
It is the year 2005, and the war on terrorism has dragged on now for nearly four years. Lt. Marie Bowers, a military intelligence aide fresh out of college, finds herself in the middle of a renewed campaign to capture a Kurdish relief doctor believed to have Soviet smallpox weapons. When the doctor’s security forces capture her and her staff (mostly ordinary people who joined the army more as a job rather than to be soldiers), they lead the captives deep into the heart of Kurdistan, where the Americans witness for themselves the suffering of the Kurdish people caused by years of brutal oppression, betrayal and neglect as a perennial pawn in the geopolitical game. While U.S. warplanes bomb their hideouts, Marie struggles to hold her group together and to uncover whether her captor is a maligned humanitarian or the demented terrorist he is made out to be. She learns the unsettling truth in a hidden cave high up in the mountains of Kurdistan. What she discovers along the way tells her so much more – about herself, about her enemy, and about the common humanity that they both share.
In times of war, people always seem to demonize their enemy. Why is this so? What are some of the ways this was done to Saladin and the Kurds? Do we lose anything ourselves by doing this? What happened as the Americans began to know the Kurds better?
2. Identity & Belonging
This book touches on questions of individual and group identity in nearly every chapter, exploring issues of gender, race, religion and culture. What part does the need for group belonging play in sustaining war? Are the two sides in a conflict really different?
3. Right & Wrong
Were the Americans in this story good or bad? What about the Kurds? Is there a crucial difference between wanting to do the right thing, and believing you are right? Was what Marie did in the end, right or wrong? How would her country treat her for this if it came to light? What would you have done? What if you were part of her unit?
4. Perception & Reality
Character responses to physical sensations – lights, images, sounds, smells, vibrations, temperatures, even energies – permeate this book. The story line itself revolves around “observations” or “sayings” ascribed to the antagonist. A persistent swipe at the role of the media in propagating falsehood also runs through the book. Meanwhile, the American characters spend most of their time trying to figure out what Saladin is really like. What is the author saying about perception and reality? How does this relate to conflict?
5. Power & Responsibility
Accountability for actions, both at a personal and group level, is a persistent theme in this story, as is the gap between those with power and those without. Is there a link between Saladin’s “sayings” on terrorism and hegemony? Is there a difference between what Iraq did with chemical weapons in Kurdistan and what America did with nuclear weapons in Japan? Does committing actions within a group structure relieve one of responsibility?
6. Suffering & Compassion
One of Saladin’s most poignant “sayings” is, “all wounds bleed alike,” this coming from a veteran field surgeon. What is the difference between the sufferings of those caught up in the tragedies of September 11th and those of Hiroshima, Halabja, or the Holocaust? Do members of one group tend to regard their sufferings as somehow unique from others?
7. Different Worlds
The characters sometimes reflect on the vast range of differences among life experiences in this world, to the extent that it is hard to believe people are living on the same planet. What does it add to this story to have characters from diverse backgrounds – inner city black, itinerant army brat, poor white southern, western cowboy, suburban middle-class, first-generation immigrant – drawn into the world of Kurdish peasants and refugees?
8. Literary Structure
This story unfolds as a classical drama in three acts. What does this add to its meaning? How do the titles – of the book, parts and chapters – add to the beauty of this story? How does the author use allusion and allegory to add dimension to this story? Why is the story told through the point of view of those around Marie, and why does it shift to her point of view in the end? How does each of the American characters grow in this story?
Other Novellas: Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad
In what ways could The Sayings be considered a modern redux telling of this classic story? Compare the film, Apocalypse Now.
Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
In what ways could The Sayings be considered a more optimistic version of this classic story? Does it share the same fatalism?
Anti-War Novels: All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque
Three Soldiers, by John Dos Passos
Ghost Road, by Pat Barker
Johnny Got His Gun, by Dalton Trumbo
Good Soldier Svejk, by Jaroslav Hasek
Catch-22, by Joseph Heller
MASH, by Richard D. Hooker
The Ice Beneath You, by Christian Bauman
The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam, by Bao Ninh
Fires on the Plain, by Shohei Ooka
Kurdish History: After Such Knowledge, by Jonathan C. Randall
Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History, by Susan Meiselas
Crescent and Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds, by Stephen Kinzer