In Cara Hoffman's novel Be Safe I Love You, Lauren Clay, a young combat veteran from the Iraq War, returns home to her working class roots in small-town upstate New York. Lauren's struggles to readjust to civilian life ultimately manifest in full-blown PTSD, and Hoffman's prose provides a lyrical, harrowing reminder of war's rippling repercussions. But Lauren's story is as much about the society she lives in as her mental state, as the novel centers more on class and gender than bombs and battalions.
Since its release last year, Be Safe I Love You has been named one of the five best modern war novels by the Sunday Telegraph. It's currently being made into a movie by Saudi director Haifaa Al Mansour, and the paperback edition is set for release on April 21.
VICE spoke with Hoffman about the dual roles of nurturer and aggressor that falls on female soldiers, the surprising statistics about rape in the military, our perception of gender in combat, and what relationship Lauren Clay bears to Jeanne d'Arc:
VICE: Be Safe I Love You has received more praise than we could fit into this article! What do you attribute the book's overwhelming reception to?
Cara Hoffman: 2014 was a good year for women. There was a rise in groundbreaking work by women, from Jen Percy's Demon Camp to Virginie Despentes's Apocalypse Baby. There's a growing interest in women's lives outside of the retrograde, domestic tale. That's part of it. I think the other is that it was simply time for this story to be told.
It's strange to me that war writing is considered a genre, like adventure, or science fiction, or romance.
Why did you decide to write about a woman soldier?
People who can give birth are now training to kill and taking life in higher numbers than they ever have before. It's more complex than the tales we've been reading for centuries about war. I wanted to write about [a woman soldier] because [this story] reflects the time in which we live. Lauren Clay is, in many ways, a typical American soldier in that she comes from the working poor and enlisted to get the signing bonus and support her family. Hers is not a story of privilege and ideology, and neither are the stories of most enlisted people.
Lauren becomes obsessed with the Jeanne d'Arc basin oil fields in Canada. Why?
Jeanne d'Arc is a salient symbol throughout the novel: a teenage soldier who had to disguise herself as a man and who suffered hallucinations. She's the precursor and also the counterpoint to Lauren. Jeanne d'Arc becomes a saint the way most saints do: through connection to religious phenomena, and through terrible torture. Lauren's view of religion is cynical at best and often hostile, but she holds things sacred and makes sacrifices, she's inspired by holy music and recognized for her gifts, and she has visions brought on by trauma and hypothermia. The Jeanne d'Arc basin is also a mirror of the oil field she guarded in Iraq.
Related: Watch our HBO special on veterans with PTSD:
Do you consider yourself a war writer? What's your connection to the military?
I come from a military family. My brother served two combat tours in Afghanistan and was disabled there. I'm not a war writer. It's strange to me that war writing is considered a genre, like adventure, or science fiction, or romance. Be Safe I Love You is about war and trauma, but it's also about holy minimalist music, arctic exploration, sibling relationships, class, and religion. There are great works about war of course, but generally that one note that has been struck with the myth-making literature of war since Homer is very tired.
Female soldiers seem to exist in the popular press and public consciousness only when stories about sexual assault in the military and whether or not women should be allowed to fill special operations roles come to the fore. What do you think the result of this very narrow focus is?
I think mainly that it's unrealistic. The fact that women can do the same jobs as men is not news, but it still gets brought up as if it's significant. The issue of women being sexually assaulted in the military needs to be addressed, but again the narrow focus on women prevents people from seeing the bigger picture.
Which is what?
The armed forces has a rape problem that transcends gender. Rape in the military preceded the rise of women enlisting. [Some statistics show that] 35 percent of men in the military are raped. In 2012, 14,000 men in military service were raped. That's essentially the same proportion as women who are assaulted in civilian life. And because more men enlist than women, that means more men have been raped in the military than women; far more, over a far greater period of time.
When military rape is discussed around issues of women being victims, or arguments about whether they should be serving beside men, all intelligent discourse goes out the window. And the fact that a significant part of the military population engages in rape goes unexamined. That the military has similar male on male sexual assault stats as the prison system is something no one wants to talk about. There was a great article by Nathaniel Penn in GQ on this issue that everyone should read.
The majority of people who suffer from PTSD are civilian women who have been physically and sexually assaulted.
From "shell-shocked" veterans after World War I to veterans with PTSD today, several stereotypes of a traumatized soldier have emerged: The veteran who descends into alcoholism, drug addiction, and general burn-out, and the seemingly-fine ex-soldier who suddenly shoots up a military base or kills a family member being the most common. What do you think of these stereotypes? How accurate are they?
The most interesting thing regarding stereotypes and PTSD is not that they are inaccurate or that they unfairly make some soldiers out to be troubled, but that they are profoundly sexist. PTSD is in the news and in public consciousness because of the recent wars, but the majority of people who suffer from PTSD are civilian women who have been physically and sexually assaulted.
To put this in perspective: Since 9/11, 6,800 American soldiers have been killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and 50,000 injured, but 20,000 American women have been murdered in their own homes. [Around 300,000] women are raped every year. That's more than 4 million since 9/11. The fact that rape, assault, and fear of being murdered can cause PTSD is not news, yet national interest and funding to address PTSD has been linked almost entirely to war.
Our perceptions need to catch up to reality: The facts are that more men get raped in the military than women because there are simply more men in the military than women, and more women suffer from PTSD because civilian life carries greater risks for them.
I don't explicitly talk about these things in Be Safe I Love You. Lauren is not sexually assaulted while deployed, nor while at home, and like most soldiers, she has a relatively good experience in the military. But it's the convergence of the war and the war at home that women face in one way or another—as caretakers or objects of desire and aggression—that leads to her undoing. Her survival is based in art and love and camaraderie among men and women. It's in giving up the delusions we cultivate when killing or allowing others to kill on our behalf.
What are you working on now?
I've just finished my third novel, set in Athens, Greece, and am now working on the fourth. I'll be consulting on the script for Haifaa's movie based on Be Safe I Love You. And there are some interesting things in the works with my first novel, So Much Pretty. It does seem like things are moving quickly. But we're all making up for lost time. It's easy to forget it was illegal for women to vote in this country less than 100 years ago. If you keep it in mind, it's incredibly motivating. We have a lot to get done.
Check out the paperback edition of Cara Hoffman's Be Safe I Love You, out April 21 from Simon & Schuster.
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