Saturday, December 24, 2005
A Human Package
I hail a cab. It is snowing and gloomy, Friday 23 December. People in Belgrade are already hysterical because of the New Year holidays.
Please hurry to the special court, ex military court. Do you know where it is? Of course Madame I know, it is a very famous place these days, it is round the corner, you don't need a cab really.
True, the military court is an old renovated building for new war crimes, a monument to the last wars, my friend Stasa says. It's much fancier than The Hague court room. In my street live some war criminals, so no wonder they made their court there.
We Women in Black are official NGO onlookers. We enter the building with Natasa Kandic, the woman most hated by nationalists in Serbia, Natasa Kandic the representative of the victims and a human rights lawyer, plus the family members themselves: 15 women, all in all.
This is the last day of the first round of the trial of the Scorpions, the paramilitary formation which executed 6 Muslim war prisoners in the days of Srebrenica. During this mass murder of the Muslims, the Scorpions unwisely filmed their own crime. Last July, this video document was screened in The Hague during the Milosevic trial, and then all over the Serbian and international media. Some family saw the faces of their missing for the first time.
Now we see the faces of the arrested executioners. One young woman, a victim's relative says; it is so relieving to see their faces, so soothing, to see who killed your loved one, to see if he is a human, and to hear him speak for himself. It is so important to start making a difference between those who did the crime and those who didn't.That is the whole point in this trial: of the entire accused, only one pleaded guilty: he pulled the trigger, claiming that he obeyed orders.
The incriminated men are relatives themselves, they all look the same, big, dressed in black, bald or short haired, with tattoos on their necks: the symbol of scorpions. When Natasa Kandic asked them about the tattoo, they refused to answer, claiming it was personal.Aleksandar Vukov, who is the last being interrogated, is pleading not guilty. He claims he knew nothing of the execution: he was there in that no man's land only to receive 'ThePackage' as they called in code the ammunition. The Package did not arrive, but instead some prisoners were brought by the same ammunition van, and then executed. Vukov is lying; the judge, a blonde intelligent woman, is politely vivisecting him.
The accused arrives on red crutches, he lacks one leg. He is young, intelligent and well educated: he says, I am a double victim, first of one regime which made me an invalid, and now of this new one which is sacrificing me as a goat. Other accused show sympathy towards this young man who moves me with mixed feelings all the time, I am angry with my emotions. Then I realize he looks and speaks exactly as a very close friend of mine, who instead of being a war criminal is a war deserter, who instead of knowing everything about war games and disciplines plays Internet games. Do we all have our doubles who made the opposite choices in our dark times of no
choices? Is there a Hyde Jasmina somewhere in this courtroom too? This guy is not guilty of crime, the lawyer of the victims tells me, but he is protecting his military superior.
I am sitting behind their family and fans: they all look aggressive and afraid at the same time. They laugh loudly and wave their hands at the accused, through the glass that is dividing us. The five lawyers of the accused are grim and aggressive. They behave as war heroes; no wonder Mladic and Karadzic, the responsable Bosnian leaders, are not yet arrested but respectfully quoted in Serbian books as historical figures.We had great discipline and wonderful moral qualities: nobody was questioning the orders. We were actually protecting the oil fields in the region, and were well paid for that responsible job by the oil company. I joined the group after the Arkan's organization was dissolved and this formation was part of the Vukovar army: Legija was in it, too.
For those who don't know: Vukovar is the place of major Serbian war crime in Croatia, Arkan is the war criminal and bank robber famous for killings and looting of non-Serbian population, Legija is the guy who killed our Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic. And this episode is part of the Srebrenica genocide when 8000 Muslims were executed by Serbian army led by Ratko Mladic. I am facing the best of the worst. My women are sitting behind me very sober; one of them says, I am illiterate but I understand everything he is saying. He is lying.
The one-legged accused is boasting about the fancy uniforms they had and NATO caps... The code they used to say everything is fine was 'Whiskey 55'...the war games played 24 hours, for years on end, reveal energy and volunteerism which resembles our Women in Black peace activism. Only we have no hierarchy: they have a chain of responsibility and system of mafia omerta, as in jails. Even if they are telling different stories in front of the judge, they avoid incriminating each other as much as possible. I remember how the word 'mafia' in its original sense meant solidarity, friendship, support, and high ideals and morality. Now it represents this Horror.
The first accused in the chain of responsibility, who denies his guilt of any war crime, says: I take off my hat to this young man who was my deputy and a neighbor. I saw him grow as a kid. His orders were to take off the heads of the Muslim prisoners not their hats. Those Moslem kids too were his neighbors and kids he saw grow up, but the code word for them was The Package. A package of flesh and blood turned into movie extras.
Nazis too filmed their genocide endeavors as art or war victories. Now that they are sitting and breathing only a few meters away from me, I feel painfully the difference between virtual and real. The silence of the dead is overwhelming: we who support the victims and their families are suffocating in the back rows behind the glass screen. It's been 10 years now since the genocide was successfully committed, and nobody is yet convicted. How can you tell good from bad guys anymore, who is the Jekyll who is the Hyde: the war invalid and the war criminal cannot control his transformation anymore? He is the same person.
The President of Serbia, after the trial, shook hands with the family of the victims for their courage to come to Belgrade, to attend the trial. To make us see that difference, to make the virtual become real.
Thursday, December 22, 2005
Still...I know that peace groups are being infiltrated; if not by the police, then by the right. In doing some online searching about CODEPINK, I found that one conservative blogger signed up for CODEPINK alerts under the name of "Lilith Vagina" or something of the sort, so he could keep tabs on our actions and blast them on his blog. A few years ago, I received a slightly menacing email from someone from a local Republican politician's office, referencing information that he only could have known by subscribing to the local peace group's listserve. But we can't let such creeps dissuade us. We still have freedom of speech, we still have freedom of assembly, and we need to take full advantage of these beautiful freedoms. Speaking of which, if any of you are in the Riverside area tomorrow night, please consider joining this candle-light peace vigil:
Peace on Earth Now
Sponsored by the Inland Communities Fellowship of Reconciliation (ICFOR)
A quiet, respectful memorial for all victims of recent and current warfare and a call for No More Victims.
Bring candles if possible.
Signs will be provided. Further info: 951.204.0818
Location: in front of downtown public Library, Riverside; Mission Inn Ave. & orange street (near the pagoda)
Time: 6:00 – 7:30 p.m.
Date: Friday, December 23rd.
Hot beverages & holiday snacks for all at nearby Universalist Unitarian Church following event
An Istanbul editor is to appear before a court here over a novel by a Greek author that prosecutors say is insulting to the Turkish nation, a spokeswoman for the publishing company said on Wednesday.
Abdullah Yildiz of Literatur publishers risks up to three years in jail for "denigrating the Turkish national identity" by publishing The Witches of Smyrna by Greek novelist Mara Meimaridi, Eylem Ozcimen, the spokeswoman, said.
The novel, which is in its 25th printing since it appeared in Turkish in October 2004, tells the story of a Greek woman who uses magic spells to find suitors and climbs the social ladder in the western Turkish city of Izmir (Smyrna in Greek) during the last years of Ottoman rule.
In our own country, immigration officials have denied a Chinese author, Yiyun Li's, petition to become a permanent US resident. The USCIS rejected the claim that she is an artist of "extraordinary ability," even though she's
had stories published in prestige magazines such as the New Yorker and the Paris Review. She's won the Pushcart Prize and the Plimpton Prize for New Writers. Random House has signed her to a $200,000, two-book contract, which Executive Editor Kate Medina calls -- in what qualifies as a serious understatement -- "most unusual" for a literary writer at this stage of her career. Her first book, a story collection called "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers," was published this fall to wide praise.She has appealed the USCIS' decision, and should get her answer in a few weeks.
"Things change a lot," as a character in one of Li's stories says. "Within a blink a mountain flattens and a river dries up. Nobody knows who he'll become tomorrow."
Wednesday, December 21, 2005
Tuesday, December 20, 2005
Thirteen months ago, when Bush was reelected, the despondent around me seemed to think that our future was graven in stone. But in the best and worst of ways, in this wild, wild year that ends so differently than it began, it has turned out to be written in water. Much of the news is grim, but the best of it is being lived out by nurses, immigrant farmworkers, Korean farmers, campers in the grass of Crawford, Texas, marchers in the streets of Washington, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Hong Kong, and elsewhere, scribblers on various blogs, volunteers in various crises, and the immeasurable force of people everywhere who won't let the official version go unchallenged anywhere.
Kick out Bush
He told a lie
Well, it looks like impeachment may really be on the horizon. I can't express how exciting it is to see the call for impeachment move from the supposedly-fringe peace movement to the mainstream. The oven is pre-heated, ready for that pie. My mouth is watering...
Monday, December 19, 2005
I managed to get into the prisons in Kabul and Kandahar (luck and persistence) and in Kandahar, there was a 12-year-old girl. Guess why? Her mom had been shot one night by the Taliban, so her father was the sole parent, and one evening in a restaurant, he gave her away to a man HIS AGE as wife. She was balking at this (brave child) and apparently also flirting with an 18-yr-old shopkeeper. The discipline? slap her in jail!I asked Masha if I could share the story here, and told her how in awe I am of her brave and powerful work. She wrote back to say "don't be in awe of anything do to with me. It's these women who are INCREDIBLE. truly. I came away so moved." Sorry, Masha, I can't help it. I'm totally in awe. And I'm grateful that you're able to capture these stories, bring them to light, so we can see how incredible these women are, too (and so we can see how much still needs to be changed in the world.)
Then I got to interview the Chief Justice of Kandahar, a man with a beard to his knees, literally, who had been chief justice during the Taliban period, so his interpretation of Islamic justice dated from then. He said "I am sorry to tell you, but women in our country are not able to take care of themselves, financially, emotionally, physically." (this despite the enormous numbers of households headed by women while men either fought or died in a quarter-century of civil war.) but he went on to say I shouldn't worry; they would get that girl out of jail within two or three months and marry her off (if he'd still have her) to the man her father had chosen...
(phew. what a relief, huh?)
I also have to mention that Masha just sold her new novel. I can't wait to get my hands on it. Tell me, does this not sound like an utterly profound and compelling read?
Masha Hamilton's THE CAMEL BOOKMOBILE, the story of an idealistic American librarian who leaves home to work in Africa for a relief organization that sends books on the backs of camels to nomadic tribes where most people had never held a book in their hands, to Jonathan Burnham and Claire Wachtel at Harper, in a good deal, by Marly Rusoff at Marly Rusoff & Associates (world English).Congratulations, Masha! Thank you again for your fearless work.
Matt dropped Arin off at the school this morning on his way to work. I emailed him to ask how it felt; he wrote back with this:
"It wasn’t confidence inspiring to find out
That the place is called TRD driving school
Turd school? How good could it be?"
I laughed so hard, tea shot out of my nose. Even with the name of the school, I imagine Arin will have a much better drivers' ed experience than I did. I signed up with one of my friends, but on the first day of behind-the-instruction (which, strangely, came before the in-class instruction), she was sick, so it was just me and the creepy teacher in the stuffy yellow car. I had only driven once before in my life--and that time, I drove onto someone's lawn when I tried to make a turn--but this guy led me onto Green Bay Road, which was not only the busiest, fastest street in town, but also featured twisty curves through a ravine. I was feeling shaken and dizzy afterwards, so the teacher directed me into an empty parking lot at a school.
We sat there in silence for a while as I caught my breath. Then he leaned toward me and said, "Lick my finger." This request put me into a panic, but I was feeling vulnerable and trapped, and I couldn't bring myself to say no. I opened my mouth. I did what he asked me to do. His finger tasted like metal. I had no idea what he'd ask me to do next; I was terrified. I had never even kissed a boy before. He reached his finger towards my face. "You have something in the corner of your eye," he said, and wiped it slowly off with my saliva, grinning lasciviously the whole while. It makes me sad that I didn't feel like I could speak up, deny his request, say "this is weird". It makes me sad, too, that I didn't feel like I could tell anyone about it later; it was years before I mentioned it to my parents, who, of course, were horrified. This guy should not have been teaching teenagers. In further behind-the-wheel lessons, with my friend in tow, he would often ask us to speed up because he thought a woman in a car up ahead wasn't wearing a shirt. He did this several times, and we didn't even think to report him. Once the classroom instruction started, I heard several girls refer to him as "Chester the Molester," so it was pretty clear my experience was not unusual. I wish I could go back to my younger self in that car and tell her to stand up for herself, tell her to trust her instincts, tell her that she is strong and autonomous and doesn't have to put up with that kind of manipulation. Of course I can't do that; I can just try to teach my kids to stand up for themselves so they won't have similar stories to share in the future. I am eager to hear Arin's drivers' ed stories when he comes home...
Sunday, December 18, 2005
Friday, December 16, 2005
I found this image at SFGate's Day in Pictures feature and thought it was so lovely and heartbreaking all at once. Here is the caption:
264-foot batik chronicling last year's deadly tsunami is unrolled in Bangkok as part of a one-year memorial. The batik is the work of 25 former Khao Lak hotel workers who lost their jobs after the disaster.Art can be so healing, so cathartic. I've seen drawings and paintings done by children who survived the tsunami, and they are both chilling and inspiring--giant waves carrying whole families away, dead bodies floating around, etc., as well as families holding on to one another, safe. I am grateful that we as human beings have so many ways to express ourselves, to process and share our most profound (and mundane) experiences.
"Turkey's image as a dynamic, reforming country negotiating its way into the EU has taken a hammering since the country moved against the prize-winning novelist for making what many outside Turkey would regard as a tame remark in an interview with a Swiss journalist."I am grateful that novelists are not being jailed in our country for speaking our minds, at least not yet. I hope our freedom of speech will survive this administration. It was recently revealed that the Counterintelligence Field Activity, an agency of the Department of Defense, has been spying on individuals and organizations who are speaking out against the war in Iraq.
The Independent Communications Network found 16 journalists had been put on trial in Turkey in the first nine months of this year, with 12 of them being found guilty.
The Publishers Association said that, in the 18 months until this summer, 37 authors were tried for criminal offences in connection with the publication of 47 books.
The American Friends Service Committee, one of the peace groups under surveillance, has drafted a letter regarding this issue that you can send to your senators and representative with the push of a button. The letter ends with these lines:
The Department of Defense has characterized these groups as threats. I see a government agency spying on Americans exercising their rights as the real threat.I hope many of us will speak out on the issue so we all can continue to speak out freely.
Thursday, December 15, 2005
My niece Mollie and I are both jellyfish nuts (but not jelly donuts, as far as I know.) I definitely wouldn't want to come upon one of these 6 ft wide, 450 lb. creatures, though. I'm sure Mollie feels the same way. The giant jellyfish are terrorizing fisheries in China, South Korea, and Japan, killing and poisoning fish and breaking nets. It's wild to think of this sort of underwater life; it's like a whole other planet down there.
In nicer deep sea news, researchers recently discovered that mother squids nurse their eggs for months. It was commonly thought that all mother squids abandon their eggs immediately after laying them, so this was a surprising find (and a sweet one, too.)
Wednesday, December 14, 2005
One of my students wrote a very sweet story for me--he cast me as an elfin queen who saves the world from an evil Bush-y empire. I love the story. It helped me see myself more clearly, too. In the story, the elfin queen has a nervous habit of tucking her hair behind her right ear. I didn't realize I did that until I read the story! Now I notice myself doing it all the time. I've also been noticing the fact that I have a tendency to pinch my lips with my fingers when I'm thinking. I am pretty sure this is a new habit (maybe to replace my tendency to put my tongue over my top lip when I concentrate) but it could be something I've been doing for a while and just didn't notice until now. I'm not sure how it came to my attention--no one alerted me to it. I just caught myself with my mouth in my hand one day. Strange the things we do on a subconscious level. I try to be mindful and awake, but there is so much that escapes me. Matt once pointed out the fact that I tend to hold fruit pits in my hand for a long time after I've finished the plum or peach. A theater director once noticed that I had a habit of holding my left forearm up, like Cher (embarrassing!) I wonder what other weird quirks will be brought to my attention down the road...
They did him in, Tookie; it is my first capital punishment in California. They say, however, that Texas held the first place in executions while Bush was the governor.
Now Bush has the whole world to sample, to decree who deserves to live and who to die, who is a terrorist and who is a patriot, who can have scissors and who can have guns. Good and bad guys, it all looks like Hollywood and cowboy films. It not only looks like it, it is really is like it.
This Tookie, this black Californian, I don't care if he is guilty or not, I say when interviewed by a TV, as if my opinion mattered: the death penalty is barbarism and a crime against humanity, like torture.
How do you feel? the reporter asks me with tender feelings. What does that matter, I scream, it is not about feelings, it is about human rights. In point of fact I feel awful. We are standing in front of a federal building where we try to squeeze in, as if we were employees, in order to use their toilets during a protest lasting longer than two hours. I am bleeding, and it is not my heart. I am hungry, and it is not my soul. Six TV reportage cars are parked around us, only a few cops and a lot of free lance photographers.
People, not that many yet, but not as small as these crowds can be. Faces I know: pacifists, hippies, mostly middle aged people, just like those few I saw in New York City, dancing in the wind against global warming issues and Bush's response to Kyoto. I feel awful because I come from a country where ethnic cleansing was done legally and in my name; I feel America is my country too by now, and I feel the worst side of my new patriotism. The guy was black, the guy was a writer, the guy seems to be a redeemed soul dedicating his book to radicals and pacifists.
Angela Davis is speaking in front of the San Quentin prison in San Francisco. Thousands of people are rallying there. Harold Pinter speaks on video at his Nobel Prize event, but where are those voices in the USA? What are my favorite American writers doing these days, Philip Roth, John Updike... If only one of them said half of the things Pinter said, American writers would be winning Nobels. Only a dying man from Old Europe, in a wheelchair, dares to name the facts with their proper names. Literature is dead, buried by corporate nuclear wars, depleted uranium and bombings. Oil is blood and writers are selling their souls, not their books.
What next? Democracy is not enough, free information is not enough, Internet is not enough. A rally is scheduled in front of Gov. Schwarzenegger's house up the hill. We drive slowly. The view is beautiful and misty, the fancy Sunset Boulevard houses decorated with toys and Christmas lights. At the top a sparkling gate opens as sesame, we drive in; the two blondes from Code Pink. On our sides are black limos and SUVs, men in dark suits smoking and talking busily on the cell phones; we pass them and reach the top of the hill; a dead end street.
The Governor's house is not lighted; nobody is to be seen. On our way back, the cars and people have vanished, only a few spooky man in black are seen here and there; we stop in front of the gate. One car approaches us. Do you need something? they ask us, no thank you we answer. They scrutinize us and leave.
The next security SUV is more insistent: my friend here is not feeling well, Jo lies. You can take her to the restroom, the guy offers with concern. I realize it may be that we have innocently entered a gated community, surrounding the Governor's house. I am thrilled, but not happy to be dragged by the security and interrogated.
We have a friend on the other side of the street, Jo says. As it happens, this is true. You don't live here? they ask, startled. They escort us hurriedly to the security gates, and make sure that we go up the other side of the hill. The friend is luckily at home. She opens the door, lets us in and gives us a drink and a phone. All the fuss with scissors and security and yet, we trespassed. Not only that, but we managed to get in with sticker on our car saying CODE PINK and STOP THE NEXT WAR NOW, but we also managed to get out without being harassed.
It is sad evening to wait for a person to be publicly and legally executed, and then go to bed thinking that we have done all we could. Life stinks. How do executioners feel? The decision makers, how do they feel? Why don't TV reporters demand to know their feelings? In any case, whatever we said and did will not be broadcast. Some of our photos with candles will be published, with captions saying stuff we didn't say and didn't mean. I don't believe in God or pure spirituality, I held a candle to make a difference in the dark. It didn't make much difference, that candle. It barely warmed my hands.
The new decorations are cute and fun, but they give me a sinking feeling. I worry that the neighborhood decided to change their International theme because they were concerned that it seemed un-American. Now, I haven't talked to anyone who lives on Chapman, so this is all pure speculation on my part. The neighbors may have just decided it was time to make a change after all these years. But I worry that there is a creeping xenophobia in our country, a burgeoning US-centrism, that pits Us against Them, the US against the world. I fear that we are closing our hearts to the rest of the globe, closing our eyes to our shared humanity. I hope that isn't the case on Chapman Drive, but I did notice that one of the angels in front of a house there is trailing American flag streamers. If angels did exist, I'm sure they wouldn't give a whit about national identity.
I love my flag of the Earth; it reminds me that I have an allegiance to something that extends well beyond our well-guarded borders.
Monday, December 12, 2005
Tookie Williams found redemption. Now Arnold is the one who needs to find it for himself. I hope he'll be able to feel Williams' blood on his hands.
I had an epiphany over the weekend about the end of my novel, which I needed to rework a bit. I felt a bit giddy when I wrote the final paragraph, the last line. I may decide I don't like it after I've cooled off a bit, but right now it feels very satisfying. It was fun timing to stumble upon this article about last lines in novels today.
I can't think of my favorite novel last line off the top of my head, but one of my favorite endings of a poem is this one, from James Tate's "Consumed".
...You are the stranger
who gets stranger by the hour.
That ending has stayed with me since I first read it almost 20 years ago. I love when a poem or story or novel has a resonance like that.
Friday, December 09, 2005
DHAKA, Dec 9 (Reuters) - A banned Islamist militant group blamed for a series of bombings in Bangladesh has threatened to kill women, including non-Muslims, if they do not wear the veil, a statement said.
The statement by the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen came hours after Thursday's suicide bomb attack in a northen town that killed at least eight people, the latest of a series of blasts blamed on militant groups in their campaign for an Islamic state.
"Women will be killed if they are found to move around without wearing burqa (veil) from the first day of Jilhaj," the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen said in the statement sent to a Dhaka newspaper office.
Jilhaj refers to the Arabic month beginning early January.
"Women, including non-Muslims, are hereby advised not to go out of home without burqa. Seclusion has been made compulsory for you," said the statement in Bangla language, a copy of which was obtained by Reuters on Friday.
It makes my blood boil to think of all the ways that certain groups attempt to gain power over women's bodies, women's freedoms. I think I've mentioned that one of my characters in my novel Self Storage wears a burqa. It is (mostly, not completely) her choice to wear it in the US. To suggest such restriction for even non-Muslim women in Bangladesh is utterly outrageous.
Thursday, December 08, 2005
It isn't hard to do.
Nothing to kill or die for.
No religion too.
Imagine all the people, living life in peace.
We'll keep imagining, John. Thank you for your example. The world is a better place because you were here.
To shift gears completely, I look at the letters down the left margin of those Imagine lyrics--IINNI. I don't think John Lennon meant anything by that line of capital Is and Ns, but seeing them makes me think of an article I just read about a poem, "The Leader," that was recently removed from a textbook in Pakistan. It turned out that it was an anonymous acrostic poem--the letters on the left margin spell out PRESIDENT GEORGE W BUSH, and the poem extols his supposed virtues. I can't bear to share the entire thing here, but here is a taste:
Growing in strength he won't be unnerved,
Ever assuring he'll stand by his word.
Shudder. You can read the entire thing, and the story behind it, here.
Wednesday, December 07, 2005
Go, Pinter! I love how even weakened by illness, he has the guts to give it to the powers that be.
He returned to the theme of language as an obscurer of reality, saying that American leaders use it to anesthetize the public. "It's a scintillating stratagem," Mr. Pinter said. "Language is actually employed to keep thought at bay. The words 'the American people' provide a truly voluptuous cushion of reassurance. You don't need to think. Just lie back on the cushion. The cushion may be suffocating your intelligence and your critical faculties but it's very comfortable."UPDATE: You can read the entire text of Pinter's speech here
Accusing the United States of torturing terrorist suspects in Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, Mr. Pinter called the invasion of Iraq - for which he said Britain was also responsible - "a bandit act, an act of blatant state terrorism, demonstrating absolute contempt for the concept of international law." He called for Prime Minister Tony Blair to be tried before an international criminal court.
Mr. Pinter said it was the duty of the writer to hold an image up to scrutiny, and the duty of citizens "to define the real truth of our lives and our societies."
"If such a determination is not embodied in our political vision, we have no hope of restoring what is so nearly lost to us - the dignity of man," he said.
"People think of activism in terms of going to the White House or becoming political every four years, but I think activism is also very actively and consciously supporting a culture of thought and imagination," says Nafisi, who is speaking in Toronto tonight.
"I keep thinking that our slogan is going to be 'Readers of the World Unite!' "
For Nafisi, the struggle for freedom, in both the East and the West, always circles back to the illumination of literature. I'm really hopeful about reading and books," she says. "Literature is the most potent weapon against political stagnation.
"Great literature by nature is subversive because it always exposes or reveals what is behind the reality we are looking at; it always creates potential for how reality could, or should be."
I was graduating from an MFA program with a lot of my Antioch friends. The group of graduates was brought into a grand library/bedroom in a mansion, or maybe even a castle, for a private audience with John Updike. All twenty or so of us squeezed onto a huge bed together, while Updike regaled us with stories of his writing life (I wish I remember what he said!). After he was done, he walked to the door, turned off the lights, and then he knelt beside the bed, and hugged me for a long time (I was right on the edge of the bed.) It didn't feel like a creepy, trying-to-hit-on-me hug; it felt like a "let me impart something to you" hug. When he turned the light on again, he was dressed like a clown, in a silky blue and white clown suit. And he did a whole comedy number about not being able to get out the door. He ended up shrinking down to about one foot tall and squeezing through the barely-open crack. Then the door swung open, and he was his full height again. A whole orchestra dressed in circus clothes was behind him, playing marching music for the graduates.
As we filed down the hallway, Updike came up to me and pointed out two paper grocery bags that were pushed to the edge of the wall. They were full of things he had weeded out from his home and was going to sell at a yard sale. "I'm giving you first dibs", he said, and I could see in the bags some tiny red and black cowboy boots and a collection of miniature books. I don't know what I did to gain Updike's favor like this--I'm usually not so lucky in my dreams--but it was pretty cool.
I haven't read any Updike for awhile--maybe this is a sign to pick up one of his books...
Tamara Siler Jones embarks on her whirlwind GCC tour today; she has blown into Fruitful-land to answer a few questions about her new book, Threads of Malice, a unique blend of fantasy, forensics, and suspense:
--What inspired Threads of Malice?
When my publisher expressed interest in my first book, Ghosts in the Snow, my agent suggested throwing out a couple more mystery ideas for my sleuth, Dubric Byerly. One idea I suggested was that he’d meet a John Wayne Gacy type of killer. I was rapidly offered a three book deal and that concept evolved into Threads of Malice.
There are a lot of different types of serial killers, but the sexual predators seem to take the lion’s share of our attention. With that in mind, what’s more disturbing than a model citizen, someone active in the community on so many levels, a business man… who rapes tortures and kills teenage boys and buries them in his basement? And no one knows, no one even suspects… Heck, no one even knows for sure that they’re dead. He murdered at least thirty-three boys before anyone realized what he was up to. That’s chilling stuff, and it was a great leaping off point for the story concept.
--What inspires you, in general?
My mortgage. ;)
In all seriousness, it varies. Some days it’s the burning need to get the story told, some days it’s the thrill of discovery… Some days it’s just looking up to the wide open sky and feeling like part of something bigger than myself.
--Do you have any words of advice for aspiring writers?
Read a lot, write a lot, and never give up. That’s the simple answer. The tougher one is to learn your craft – first drafts often are pretty crappy, especially when you’re trying to find your voice – and learn everything you can about grammar, tense, voice, structure, pacing, characters and conflict (along with everything else). Approach writing as a business, as a job, and understand that publishers are out to make money, not make you feel good. If you can not take rejection and bad critiques personally, it can go a long way to help you maneuver through the hoops and hurdles on the quest to publication.
--Since I always have to ask a fruit-related question...What do you think is the creepiest fruit, and why?
Pomegranates. They’re full of these little blood-colored balls, and they give the most marvelous sensation when you crush them between your teeth. Resistance (a sphere is very structurally tough, after all) then spurt! Creepy yet cool.
--Thanks so much, Tamara--we'll have to celebrate National Pomegranate Month together next year! I just discovered that Trader Joe's sells little containers of pomegranate seeds; I've been eating them like popcorn all week. So good. Best of luck with your book and the tour!
Tuesday, December 06, 2005
Poor Hannah is still a little on edge. She said that she knew what was happening as soon as she heard "Mrs. Glass is on campus, I repeat, Mrs. Glass is on campus" come over the intercom. There had been a bomb threat three years before (it turned out to be a teenage prank), and the same code had been used.
Hannah was feeling very unsafe as we were driving home, especially after we came upon the downtown barricades. She asked if we could drive through the park down the street from our house, just to make sure nothing was going on there, too. Happily, the park looked very peaceful and quiet; the sunlight was hitting the small lake in that glorious sparkly way, and even the shaggy palm trees had a luminous, numinous quality to them. A bunch of white birds were diving for fish in unison, their tails in the air in a clump, like a water ballet. When their heads surfaced again, I was delighted to see it was the white pelicans, back for the winter! A nice flash of joy in this strange, strange day.
Monday, December 05, 2005
Estate sales are usually of older couples, right? I mean, I’ve not been to many, but I get the concept: everything goes. And so you usually find yourself poking through a smelly, dusty, wildly outdated house looking at old dishes and wondering if they’re worth anything.
This house was not like that. It was well-kept up. Extensively redone, inside and out. True, it reeked faintly of that off-the-rack-style luxury favored by the suburban Sopranos, but this was no older couple. So why were they moving? (For sale sign out front.) And why were they selling all their stuff?
All their stuff. In the kitchen: egg timers, dishwashing liquid. In the living room, a huge menorah. Patio furniture outside. Upstairs, beds, televisions, computers. In the master bedroom’s walk-in closet, dozens of pairs of shoes, men’s and women’s.
He ends saying
You tell me.
Anyone up for the challenge?
In writing Why New Orleans Matters in the weeks just after the hurricane, I felt almost that I was trying to will the city to stay alive, on the page at least, by summoning the sense of place and the music and food and human warmth that took me there initially.
He later goes on to say
I wish more fiction writers would tithe a certain amount of their energies to writing about politics and current events. If they are good they have tremendous evocative power at their disposal. I admire Denis Johnson and ZZ Packer for doing it. Sometimes, of course, it can go wrong. But fiction writers, because of the primacy they give to voice and point of view, tend to have more power available than your average reporter — more leverage on the objective events about which they report.
Interesting to think about political writing as a sort of tithing. It's a tithing I am happy to put my energies into. I have to admit that I don't always put as much care into my political writing as I do into my fiction--when I write about current events, I tend to do it quickly, without close attention to language (although that tends to be true during early drafts of fiction, as well--I just let it pour out in a rush). One of these days, it would be amazing to really take the time to develop more of a poetics around politics.
Saturday, December 03, 2005
Friday, December 02, 2005
I love the quote, and knowing the history behind it makes it even more rich. I think Terence's words are a reminder to be tolerant and compassionate and open, to remember that we are all human, even if we have wildly different cultural practices and ways of being in the world. I think his words can also speak to fiction writers. When we write fiction, we need to be able to slip into the minds and bodies of all sorts of people (including horrible, unethical, bizarre, people) without judgement. We need to be able to empathize with all our characters, even the ones who do shocking acts. We need to keep our eyes open to all human experience, from the ridiculous to the gritty to the sublime. And in doing so, we realize, like Terence, that nothing human is alien because we all have dark and light inside us.
Thursday, December 01, 2005
SHE risked torture, imprisonment, perhaps even death to study literature and write poetry in secret under the Taliban. Last week, when she should have been celebrating the success of her first book, Nadia Anjuman, was beaten to death in Herat, apparently murdered by her husband.
The 25-year-old Afghan had garnered wide praise in literary circles for the book Gule Dudi — Dark Flower — and was at work on a second volume.
Friends say her family was furious, believing that the publication of poetry by a woman about love and beauty had brought shame on it.
“She was a great poet and intellectual but, like so many Afghan women, she had to follow orders from her husband,” said Nahid Baqi, her best friend at Herat University.
Self Storage, the novel I'm currently revising, features a woman from Afghanistan. As I continue to work on the novel, I will be thinking of Nadia Anjuman. I hope my story can raise further awareness of the plight of Afghani women.
Afghan human rights groups condemned Anjuman’s death as evidence that the government of President Hamid Karzai has failed to address the issue of domestic violence. It is especially tragic because she was one of a group of courageous women, known as the Sewing Circles of Herat, who risked their lives to keep the city’s literary scene active under the Taliban regime.You can find out how to sponsor Afghani women who are teaching other Afghani women to read and write here. You can also learn more about the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan here.
Women were banned from working or studying by the Taliban, whose repressive edicts forbade women to laugh out loud or wear shoes that clicked. Female writers belonging to Herat’s Literary Circle realised that one of the few things that women were still allowed to do was to sew. So three times a week groups of women in burqas would arrive at a doorway marked Golden Needle Sewing School.
Had the authorities investigated, they would have discovered that the sewing students never made any clothes. Once inside the school, a brave professor of literature from Herat University would talk to them about Shakespeare, Dostoevsky and other banned writers.
Under a regime where even teaching a daughter to read was a crime, they might have been hanged if they had been caught.
I found some intersection between the two in this article, which states how different countries are marking World AIDS Day. I was touched to read about the women with HIV who marched in India:
Dozens of HIV-infected women stepped out of the shadows during a rally in Golaghat, a town in India's eastern Assam state, to acknowledge they were living with the disease and should not be shunned.I think about the Civil Rights marches of the 1960s. The power of numbers, the power of people gathering to say "Wake up. We exist. Take us seriously." My novel-in-progress (not the one I'm revising) is set during the Civil Rights era, and as I read about Dr. King and his message of peace and tolerance, I am inspired anew. Racism, like AIDS, is still a scourge in our culture. We still have so much work to do. But things have improved on both fronts in the last few decades, and it's because people affected have allowed themselves to be visible, to be heard. The lines of communication have been opened. The same article mentions
''I marched through the town with more than 70 HIV-positive women like me ... I'm happy many women have paid heed to our call and have openly admitted to their HIV-positive status,'' said Jahnabi Goswami, 28. ''Men with the disease need to follow suit.''
In New Delhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said Indians must overcome traditional taboos attached to sex and discuss AIDS more openly within families and in public.This is how we'll evolve as a culture. By talking about the things that scare us. By taking our biases out of the shadows and shedding light upon them so we can understand our fears, and hopefully move past them. By acting when we see injustice being perpetuated.
Michael Moore released a letter today, marking the 50th anniversary of Rosa Park's courageous act. He writes:
Rosa Parks may have been alone on that bus at the moment of her arrest but she wasn't alone for long. The old order was shaken, the world was upended and, as a people, we were given a chance for a bit of redemption.On World AIDS Day, on Blog Against Racism Day, on this historic anniversary, let's all think about what we can do to move our culture toward a more peaceful and tolerant future.
Perhaps the best way to celebrate this most important day in American history is to ask yourself what it is that you can do today to make a difference. What risk can you take to move the ball forward? What is that one thing you've been wanting to say to your co-workers or classmates that you've been afraid to say -- but in your heart of hearts you know needs to be said? Why wait another day to say it or do it?
There is probably no better way to honor Rosa Parks -- and yourself -- than for you to put a stop to an injustice you see, not allowing it to continue for one more second. Do something. Then send me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and tell all of us what you did (I'll post as many as I can).
Fifty years later, the bus we're on could use a few more people simply saying, "No. I'm sorry. I've had enough. I'm not going to take it anymore."