Photo Credit: Volodymyr TVERDOKHLIB /

On March 4, 2022, PEN America organized “Voices for Ukraine” by convening a group of American writers to meet virtually with fellow writers in Ukraine and read their work in solidarity with one another, even as those in Ukraine were under assault from Russian forces.

Instead of reading a poem or a piece of fiction, the American writer James Carroll chose to address directly the Ukrainian writers and their people in this brief statement.

My Dear Fellow Writers,

We all have the habit—don’t we?—of asking for each of the characters we create on the page in novels and stories: What do they want? 

That gives me my question.

What do we, your fellow writers in America, want?

And here, I presume to speak for more than myself.

First, what do we want for you, and your people in Ukraine?

Nothing of the big words.

We want only

an end to your being killed.

We want your children in their familiar beds sleeping safely all through the night… your neighbors and family members back in their own homes.

We want your cities unbombed and your roads clear of invading monster machines.

We want your old people to savor their memories of hope without being told those memories never happened.

We want your thousand years behind to meet a thousand years ahead, a future to match your past. 

We want you to write the story of how you kept your country and returned the world to its soul.

At very least—we want all that for you.

And for ourselves?

Ah, here the big words intrude—because of you.

First, we want to add our voices to the world’s condemnation of Vladimir Putin’s war crimes. Doesn’t that go without saying? No! It does not!! We demand that Putin stop… stop now!

For ourselves, we want a portion of the breathtaking courage you are displaying.

We want to imitate the dignity with which you are standing upright.

We want a recovered devotion to the democratic virtue for which you are living and dying.

We want only—this moment with you, without cheap prayers, false promises, or phony uplift—

a simple being-with—with you, in this crushingly inadequate way, in the realm of absolute concern in the face of the… unspeakable. 

In truth, we are writers without words for once: except these. “Thank you.”

James Carroll is the author of twelve novels and eight works of nonfiction. His works has received the PEN-Galbraith Award and the National Book Award.

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