We’re very pleased that our new novel, The Afghan Vampires Book Club, has been garnering some enthusiastic responses. Jane Fonda calls it, “A riveting story of love and war… A marriage of American Sniper and Heart of Darkness. I read it straight through in one sitting.” Scotland’s “The Herald” writes:  “Partly a satirical broadside against the insanity of war by two writers who have spent years campaigning against violence, The Afghan Vampires Book Club also works as conspiracy thriller, speculative fiction and full-on descent into hell.” Foyle’s Books calls it, “‘One of the most powerful examples of the fiction being written in response to the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan.” And a manager at London’s prestigious Daunt Books has nominated it for his imaginary “Alternate Booker Prize.”  Here is an interview Gary and I did with England’s Foyle’s Books .The Afghan Vampires Book Club

Afghanistan? Vampires? How did you come up with the idea for this book?

A few years ago the two of us were doing what authors do best: bemoaning the state of the book industry. Michael’s first novel, The Possibility of Dreaming on a Night Without Stars, had been published a decade earlier by Penguin. Gary’s first novel, Luisa’s Last Words, had just been published in Dutch by the literary publisher, de Geus. When Gary’s agent showed it to a prominent UK house, they were extremely interested but said, “We already published a title on Latin America this year. If it were only Afghanistan.” Meanwhile the vampire craze was on, along with book clubs. So, there it was, we had the title.

Yes, but…

We weren’t interested in writing a vampire story, certainly not a teen romance with lots of purple, black, and red on the cover. The two of us have spent years writing about and working to end men’s violence. Gary has worked in conflict zones and in violence prevention with men, including Bosnia, Brazil’s favelas, Rwanda, and the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Michael spearheaded an international campaign called White Ribbon which focuses on mobilizing men’s voices globally to end violence against women. We wanted to write about manhood and war and the encroaching surveillance state.

Okay, so if not a vampire tale, what is it?

Our story is set ten years in the future. The US and its allies had left Afghanistan and then returned to be mired again. After two hundred US soldiers are massacred by unknown combatants, rumours fly that one soldier, Tanner Jackson, made it out alive. British journalist John Fox tracks down this story through the underground world of discarded vets, who are causing their own havoc back home. When Fox finally finds Jackson, he hears an impossible tale of war, violence, and revenge, but also a story of enduring love.

One of the newspaper reviews favourably compared it to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

The book is clearly inspired by Conrad—Marlow’s trip up the Congo River to find the horror is transposed to an Afghan war that hasn’t ended and apparently never can. For us, though, the darkness isn’t with some colonial Other. It doesn’t reside in Kurtz. It is with Us.


It’s an anti-war story that highlights the tremendous impact of war on the soldiers who fight them and the society back home that wages the war. NATO isn’t the main victim in Afghanistan, not by a long shot, but young men (and now some women), often from poor or working class backgrounds, are trained to do something that humans really don’t do well—namely kill. All of our souls are corroded in the process.

How does this relate to your day jobs working for gender equality and positively transform the lives of men?

Our nations have long assumed that men can be plugged into the war machine and live that life without being scarred. Our societies believe men should be able to bury their emotions and take whatever is thrown at them, that “war is hell” but they get over it. As the cascade of news stories about PTSD and veterans suicides are showing us, this simply isn’t possible. These stories are in the news, but we sought to use the steroidal power of fiction, which allows us to look at Western incursions in Afghanistan from the 19th century and onward but without being a history textbook. And vampires became a metaphor for … Well, that would give it away.

And your basic hope in writing this book?

To trouble us about the state of warfare and surveillance in the world but in an engaging, entertaining, and intriguing tale that both men and women will enjoy reading. To cast a fictional light on the tragic and misguided wars of the moment; and to use a bit of the surreal to wake us up to the real.

What’s it like to write fiction together?

It’s lunacy, really, but the fun kind of lunacy. Writing non-fiction together is enough of a challenge, but because fiction relies so much on voice and personal idiosyncrasies of style, it’s not for the faint of heart. We decided to work with two narrators. That gave each of us a voice. We would each write our “character” and then pass it to the other to rip to shreds. To paraphrase Nietzsche, what survived was stronger. It would be pretty hard to identify who wrote what at this point.

So your friendship survived?

Absolutely. Some men fish or play tennis together. Writing a novel set in the near-future about themes we care about and still being friends at the end is pretty damn fun. How many friends get to do something so extraordinary together?

And are there vampires in it?

[Response redacted]


We hope you will order it today! (In the UK, Europe and Australia, visit your local bookstore. We don’t expect it in North American bookstores until in mid-2016.) 

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The vast majority of people who kill and commit acts of violence are men, but it would be wrong to assume that men are hardwired to harm others, says Gary Barker in this guest blog pegged to the UK release of our new anti-war novel, The Afghan Vampires Book Club.

More than 400,000 people are murdered each year globally and more than 50,000 are killed in armed conflict. Some 80 per cent of those killed are men. And more than 97 per cent of those who carry out homicides are men.

‘Our war machinery is nothing less than a societal project to overcome our natural resistance to violence’ (Photo: Reuters)

As we watch the latest killings of hostages under Isil, or the daily drug-related murders, or the faces on the front-line of any of the world’s conflicts, it’s easy to assume that men – and angry young men in particular – are natural-born killers. Or at least to think that boys are born with a natural propensity to kill that only takes a spark to ignite.

In my lifetime I’ve witnessed two of these killings. One was the killing of a young man by another young man in my high school cafeteria when I was 16, in Houston, Texas. The other was on the streets of Medellin, Colombia, during the height of its drug wars. In that case it was also two young men: a young male police officer killing a young man presumed to be involved in the drug trade.

Both in Texas and Colombia, I saw firsthand what it took to turn young men into killers. These young men were not born trigger-happy and with weapons in their hands. Lethal weapons were available and commonplace, as was the daily normalisation of and exposure to violence on the streets and in their homes. In the case of the police officer in Medellin – like the recent publicised cases of killings by police in the US or Brazil – we can presume the homicide was authorised, perhaps even encouraged, in the name of public security.

Contrary to what Fox News and faulty science would say, it takes a huge effort to turn boys and men into killers. From primatologists to evolutionary anthropologists, we know that neither women nor men are killers by nature.

Extreme trauma, humiliation, shaming, social isolation and intense indoctrination are nearly always part of the making of men who kill. Other researchers have shown how the effects of toxic childhoods and damaging relationships distort our human nature and turn us into killers. The anger that some young men feel in the face of poverty and discrimination may be natural or normal; using lethal violence is not.

All of this research affirms that killing is not natural nor biologically rooted, nor is it associated inherently with any given cultural, social or religious group. Yes, we are biologically capable of killing and can be induced or conditioned to do so. But we know that militaries, police forces and other armed groups around the world have to invest hugely in systems to teach and inculcate boys and men, and sometimes women, to kill. The reasons for killing among these three groups are often vastly different, of course, but the process of encouraging men to kill is similar.

Turning young men into lethal combatants, whether in standing militaries, insurgency groups, police forces or violent gangs, or as lone killers, is extremely time- and resource-intensive. It takes months if not years of constant breaking and rupturing of basic human connections; it often requires systematic cruelty and brutality; it requires intense indoctrination; it requires rupturing relationships or having family members or peers who encourage killing rather than discourage it; and it requires the systematic “othering” of the “enemy.” None of these things are hard-wired into us as human beings. Indeed, the research, from Darwin onwards, is overwhelming that we survived and thrived as a species because our biological and social propensity to live in connection and close cooperation with others is vastly stronger than any propensity to kill or harm each other.

We are good at teaching men to kill. And how we’re horrible at helping them recover from it.

Our war and security machinery – whether among our standing armies or insurgent or terrorist groups – is nothing less than a societal or group project to overcome our natural human resistance to violence. And the social costs over staggering. To give one example, there are more than 25 million war veterans in the US alone. This means 25 million highly trained veterans who are mostly taught to respond to threats with violence.

One in five US veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars came back with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In our recent anti-war novel, The Afghan Vampires Book Club, my co-author Michael Kaufman and I highlight just how good we have become at teaching and socialising men to kill. And how we’re horrible at helping them recover from it.

It may give us slim consolation that the young men (and women) turned into killers are being pushed against their true nature rather toward their true nature. But it is a place to start. To understand that there is nothing natural about killing – that killing is the deepest rupturing of our humanity – is to feel the outrage necessary to question where it comes from and how we can prevent it.

It’s time we spent much more time, energy, and resources helping boys and men tap into their natural and biological desire not to kill. It’s time that we look at every young man, in low income urban areas, or in the Middle East, or in the epicenters of drug violence, as human beings who were taught and conditioned to kill. Not as natural-born killers for whom the only response is repression and more killing.

This article was first published in The Telegraph (UK) on June 5, 2015.  Gary Barker is my co-author of the anti-war novel The Afghan Vampires Book Club (World Editions), just released in the UK. He is also founder and international director of Promundo, an NGO that works in violence prevention and gender equality in Latin America, the US, and sub-Saharan Africa

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This article first appeared in The Daily Beast on January 6, 2015

Tony has been accumulating identities. He’s the son of Mexican immigrants; his father was abusive. He’s a high school drop-out. He was a gang member and then an inmate who’d been jailed for gang activity and the use of a deadly weapon. Gang tattoos are still inked onto his face, like scarlet letters.

MenCare poster 1But on that cold night in southwest Chicago when we interviewed him, a symbol of his most powerful identity is sleeping peacefully in his lap. Tony is also a father, 19 when we spoke to him. He says his one-year-old daughter is the reason he changed.

Tony isn’t unique among men formerly involved in gangs or those men who have lived in America’s high-risk neighborhoods yet managed to stay away from the violence. And his story isn’t so different from men we have interviewed in slums in Rio de Janeiro or in conflict zones in Africa and other parts of the world.

Caregiving transforms men: in one of the largest studies ever on gang violence in the U.S., researchers followed 1,000 low income young men in high-risk neighborhoods in Boston over forty-five years starting in the 1950s and found that being a father was one of the strongest factors for men to stay out of gangs and criminal activity.

The same picture emerges from middle class men in the U.S., Canada, and the Nordic countries. Evidence is piling up that as men do more of the caregiving, violence against women falls. Delinquency declines. The health, happiness and well-being of men, children and women improve. Couples report better sex lives. Women’s income increases. And battles between the sexes diminish.

MenCare Poster 3

We also have a growing body of biological research showing that fathers, like mothers, are hard-wired to care for children. Analogous to women’s hormonal changes when they become pregnant, breastfeed and care for children, men’s bodies respond with similar hormonal shifts.

Human evolution has left men as deeply wired for emotional connections to children as women are. When fathers hold and play with their children, oxytocin and prolactin kick in, priming them for bonding. These are the same hormones that are released when women are breastfeeding. The more we care for children as fathers and mothers, the more our bodies respond to the task, literally pulling our attention and energy to caring for our child.

With all we now know about the importance of fathers, and the ability of men to care for children, caregiving is, for the most part, still seen as women’s work. This status quo has a cost: debilitating poverty, persistent gaps in women’s pay compared to men, poorer societies and fewer educated children in the U.S. and around the world. Just to give one example of the power of equal caregiving: economists estimate that the U.S. GDP would be 9% higher if women did as much paid work as men.

How do we encourage more men to do the caregiving? Paid paternity leave is certainly one way. For the last 20 years several Scandinavian governments have offered on average one year of shared, paid parental leave that either parent can use. In Sweden parents can use those days up until the child turns 12.

During the time either parent takes leave, they are paid at 85% of their salary via the country’s social security system. Sweden and its neighbors have learned the following: parental leave must be paid, there must be a portion reserved specifically for fathers, and workplaces must create a culture that supports men in taking leave.

Some seventy-plus countries currently offer some paternity leave or parental leave days reserved for the father. But outside of a few European countries and Quebec, this leave is usually two weeks or less and usually unpaid.

In short, fatherhood gets little attention in policy debates. It gets scarce mention in UN reports on the burden of unpaid care work on women, and it seldom shows up in the reports of international aid organizations that work for women’s empowerment in the global South.

Try to find a father in the logo or in the reports of UNICEF, the UN agency dedicated to children’s rights. With all the years of women’s empowerment and the push for gender equality, we still have trouble imagining that men can do the care work, that they matter for children, and that they matter for women’s equality.

The UNICEF logo re-imagined with a child, mother and a father. (Michael Kaufman / Julian Kirk-Elleker)

The UNICEF logo re-imagined with a child, mother and a father. (Michael Kaufman / Julian Kirk-Elleker)

Getting men to do their share of care and domestic work is a key overlooked strategy in reducing poverty. Women are now 40 percent of the global paid workforce and half of the world’s food producers.

Women’s incomes have increased relative to men’s although they still lag behind: globally women earn 22 percent less than their men counterparts. The main reason: women and girls still do the lion’s share of the care and domestic work—two to ten times more than men.

This unequal care divide keeps girls out of school, holds women out of the paid labor market or in part-time work, cuts women off from the social world and continues to be the single largest driver of women’s unequal pay relative to men.

In middle and upper income countries—the U.S. and Europe—we have achieved something closer to pay equality and something closer to equality in terms of who does the domestic and care work. In these regions, men are now doing between 30 and 45 percent of the care work.

But even there, we have yet to shatter the glass ceiling for women. Expensive day care pushes women out of the labor market while men continue to work outside the home. Men’s incomes go up. As their careers get repeatedly interrupted, women’s incomes hit a wall. The pay gap has lessened somewhat in recent years—and quite a bit in some sectors of the economy—but it has proven stubbornly resistant to change.

A recent U.S. study found men get a “daddy bonus” —employers seem to like men who have children and their salaries show it. A study over 15 years in the U.S. finds that men’s salaries increase 6% for every child they have while women’s salaries (who work full-time) decrease by 4% for every child they have. Why? Some of the gap has to do with the fact that men work more hours after having children, while women shift to jobs with more flexibility and fewer hours.

But most of this gap, say the researchers who carried out the study, is due to discrimination. Employers—both women and men—think mothers are distracted by family duties. They not only believe that fathers won’t be distracted by these duties (because they don’t do as great a share), but they believe that fathers are more responsible and motivated workers than childless men.

MenCare Poster 2

In Scandinavian countries this discrimination has been dramatically reduced. As colleagues in Norway have told us, an employer who interviews prospective employees in their late twenties or early thirties knows that the odds are about equal that, whether those interviewees are male or female, they are likely to take the generous family leave at some time in the next few years.

Men will likely take less, but still, in the case of Norway, more than 90% of men who are fathers take at least six weeks of paid leave. Family leave–for men and women–has become a fact of life, a government sanctioned benefit as sacrosanct as paved roads and public transportation.

So, how do we achieve such equality in the U.S. and other parts of the world? Certainly paid paternity leave is part of it (and in the U.S., we need paid maternity and paternity leave). But we need to start even earlier and go much deeper. We need to start with how we raise our sons and daughters. Boys are taught early in life to devalue care, to be hyper-competitive, super-achieving men. In the process, we get straightjacketed into emotionally distant, competitive lives. To break this cycle, we have to promote men’s caregiving early on.

Programs like Roots of Empathy (based in Canada) or Program H, our curriculum for work with young men and young women that has been implemented in schools in more than 20 countries around the world, do just that. They provide opportunities for boys and girls to question out-dated notions of manhood and womanhood, and provide opportunities for both to practice involved caregiving in the classroom and beyond.

Another obvious entry point is during pregnancy. In Rwanda, Brazil and elsewhere, Promundo, the organization we’re affiliated with, is engaging fathers via prenatal visits. In addition to providing basic information about the birth process, men are encouraged to take on a greater share of the domestic work and the care of children.

Before we started this work in Rwanda, men said they needed hands-on experience; none of them had ever held babies before and their wives said they didn’t trust their husbands to hold babies. So we asked a women’s cooperative to make dolls that weigh about the same as real babies. The men use the dolls to practice the basics of caring for babies.

In one of the activities men practiced putting the dolls gingerly on their backs to carry them. These are young fathers, rural farmers, usually growing banana or coffee or subsistence crops. They had rarely seen their own fathers carry small children unless their mothers were ill.

A few months later, after their children were born, we visited the men and women again. The men were holding their babies. The women looked on, smiling. We know from evaluating the intervention that when men do a greater share of the caregiving, women have more time to work in income generation activities, which in turn means more income for the household and reduced child poverty.

Indeed, study after study affirms the benefits of involved fatherhood for women and children. Children in households with more equitable participation of men show better health and development. Girls raised in households with more equitable fathers show lower rates of unwanted sex. Men who report stronger connections to their children tend to contribute more of their income to their households, so their children are less likely to grow up poor. Women are more likely to recover sooner from birth and less likely to experience postpartum depression. In the global South, women and children are more likely to get life-saving health care when men are involved and support prenatal care.

And caregiving is good for men themselves. We have richer, healthier lives and more meaningful relationships of all kinds. We learn that our job is not everything. We value women as being our equals.

Where we’ve seen change happen—men embracing caregiving in Scandinavia or Africa—the shift feels irreversible. You don’t have to spend much time in Oslo or Stockholm to see what it looks like when men do a nearly equal share of care work. There are parks filled with men pushing strollers and coffee shops where fathers meet their friends, babes in arms. Everyone expects men to do their share of caregiving.

In Rwanda, as we watched the young fathers hold their babies, we saw a contented look in their eyes. We thought of the research confirming the changes that happen in men’s bodies when they care for children. And we thought back to that winter night in Chicago when we interviewed Tony, the former gang member, who smiled softly as he told us that his daughter was the reason he would never return to “that life.”

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White Ribbon Campaign

This year marks the 23rd anniversary of the White Ribbon Campaign, men working to end violence against women.  What started as an idea three of us discussed around a kitchen table has now spread to 75 or 80 countries.  Visit www.whiteribbon.com or campaign sites around the world.
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