How short a story is too short? When it comes to contemporary fiction, the limit keeps dropping, particularly as the Internet encourages the growth of “microfiction,” complete tales that are often startlingly brief—sometimes 100 words or less. Also known as “flash fiction,” the genre dates from the days of cuneiform tablets but has grown more popular in recent years, in part because many Americans do most of their reading from a computer screen, a medium that encourages single-page texts and also inhibits portability. Our growing use of instant messaging and phone texts has also whetted our appetite for the short and punchy.
Or is the popularity of this literary form simply another example of our diminishing attention span? One need only pick up any popular newsweekly from the 1950s to see the difference in length, complexity of argument and literary polish from that era to our own (note also that the average item on America’s Current Comment page is only 250 words long, which means that this self-deprecating aside has cost us 13 percent of our precious word count). For whatever reason, as a culture we are embracing brevity. The heyday of the 8,000-word article is long past; so too may be the era of 5,000-word short stories. (Links to microfiction Web sites available right here.)
Enthusiasts of microfiction must still kneel before the master, however. Literary legend holds that eight decades ago, Ernest Hemingway was challenged to write a complete short story in only six words. His rejoinder? “For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn.”Australia’s Apology
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on Feb. 13 issued a national apology to Australia’s indigenous peoples, in particular to the so-called Stolen Generations. “We reflect…we apologize…we say sorry,” he repeated, for the mistreatment, the suffering and hurt of the Stolen Generations. It is estimated that from 1910 to the 1970s, 100,000 indigenous children were taken from their parents to new homes or institutions—some of them run by Christian churches—where they were not allowed to speak their language, nor in many cases even to see their families again. In the peak years of the 1920s and 1950s, one in three indigenous childen were removed in this way. This first act of Mr. Rudd’s Labor government, on national television, brought a standing ovation from members of parliament and cheers and tears from millions.
Mr. Rudd’s apology included a look to a better future, but he ruled out setting up a government fund to compensate the victims, a move called for by many Aboriginal leaders. But this apology is a first step in the right direction. He promised to ensure that within five years every four-year-old Aboriginal child would attend kindergarten. On this landmark day, Australians were justly proud of this willingness to look honestly at their history and make amends.
Coming at the beginning of the Christian period of Lent, Mr. Rudd’s action reminds one of the public apology of Pope John Paul II on the First Sunday of Lent in the year 2000 for offenses perpetrated by Catholics during the last millennium. Australia’s apology also serves to remind the United States and other nations of the grace-filled possibilities that lie beyond denial of past and present actions against minority groups and the weakest members of society.Darfur’s Displaced People
The conflict in Darfur has displaced over 2.5 million people. Most are living in huge refugee camps “the size of cities,” according to a report by Amnesty International. Others live across the border in eastern Chad, where a dozen camps shelter over a quarter of a million people fleeing the ongoing violence. Since 2003, more than 200,000 people have died from conflict-related causes.
The report, Displaced in Darfur: A Generation of Anger, notes that armed groups are using the camps—in both Darfur and Chad—to recruit young fighters. With virtually nothing available in terms of work or education, some youths are joining these armed groups. Tawanda Hondora, deputy director of Amnesty’s Africa program, has noted that most camps are awash with weapons. As a result, security inside and around the camps is deteriorating. In some, $25 can buy a handgun. Consequently, robberies and assaults within the camps have multiplied. Women are increasingly at risk of rape both in the camps and when they venture out in search of firewood.
Complicating the situation is the fact that some camps include members of more than two dozen ethnic groups, and many youths form vigilante gangs based on ethnic origin. Amnesty urges that steps be taken to ensure that the government of Sudan removes impediments to the complete deployment of the U.N.-African Union forces in Darfur, which now are needed not only to bring stability to the region, but to protect the camps’ increasingly threatened civilians.