Archive for May, 2015

13 May, 2015

The Charlie who “Threw Me Back”

Ten years ago, when I didn’t know narrative from Narrative Magazine​, I sat at a dining table with Dimitri Kasaan, and another writer whose repute and influence was beyond my small understanding at the time. It was early and in my memory we were the only ones there. He was talking about writing, good and bad, Bread Loaf, Charlieand the experiences had, over a long career of teaching, with how best to help students along. Listening to this, I was seized by a sense of horror. What if I was guilty of producing bad (creative) writing? I knew my non-fiction/journalism had a purpose, and that the writing was good, but that did not necessarily translate into an ability to write good fiction after all. Hair stylists aren’t all versed in hair coloring, and a conductor may not always be brilliant at playing an instrument. But here before me was a man who sounded like he could tell the difference. A thoughtful man, who hadn’t made it his business to condemn the aspiring, willy-nilly, but was in full possession of the skills of discernment.

I don’t even know if we’d been properly introduced, and perhaps it is a testament to the absolute innocence with which I had set foot in that exalted place, but the words burst forth from me: Please, would you read a few pages of my work and tell me if I should just give up? I remember that he looked a little startled, but I pressed on. I would take your words to heart. I don’t mind if you said it was terrible, it would save me a great deal of time. I’d like to know. Perhaps it was the absolute earnestness of the request, perhaps he could tell I really did mean all that, but he agreed.

I ran away to the computer center and printed out the beginning to the first novel I ever wrote, and got the pages to him. We bumped into each other later that day at lunch, and he told me it was powerful work. Those words – they could have meant powerfully bad work, I suppose, but I took it to mean the opposite. Or if not the opposite, then at least work that was worth doing, or that there was something there that was important enough to be written down. It wasn’t a waste of paper or a waste of me.

I think so often about that moment. I can see it in detail. I can hear the noise of the writers around me, gathering after workshop for lunch, the constant clatter of food service, the voices pitched toward and away from each other, and the hum of excitement and energy that pervades the campus hovering above it all. Most of all I see him, this gracious human being who had no obligation at all to have read the work of someone he had only just met, someone so clearly out of her league in the conversations about creative writing. I see that moment in movement and sound, but also as a still photograph that is both the before and the after. If I had not felt that grace, would I have continued to write? Even after that “powerful” work went on to languish in the house, unpublished save for the shortest excerpt imaginable from a 487 page tome? Or would I have petered out, a memorable summer fading in time?

I can’t say. There were other people at Bread Loaf who nurtured me and held me up. Others who believed in me, and encouraged me, including Lynn Freed, my teacher – now mentor, and dear friend – who introduced me to Jill Bialosky (who later sent the entire 487 page tome back with the kindest of notes).

I only know that I can trace the thin red line at the feet of that particular writer, beyond which waited all the writing that I have done since. Charlie3Someone who knew nothing about me, and had no reason to pay me the slightest heed, did. And it made all the difference. I kept on writing, and reading, and eventually publishing, and teaching, and doing a few good things in the world, all of which were invariably touched by that one conversation, those few pages, that one large-hearted human being. Over the years we’ve seen each other under other circumstances, in other cities, among other people: repeatedly at Bread Loaf, dancing in his white shirt in the old barn and in a tuxedo at the Cipriani Wall Street (#108 in that first batch of images) in quiet, over dinners and drinks and good conversations. I have had the deep privilege of having him in the audience when I read from my second novel both where it all began, at bread Loaf, and in his hometown of Minneapolis. Somewhere at the center of every meeting however is that snapshot from the past which made all those other gatherings possible, and which I can never forget.

Thank you and Happy Birthday to you, Charlie – from your very own starfish.

Share This

6 May, 2015

What Is Courage?

I read a tweet yesterday that kind of broke my heart a little. Someone I know and like said they did not believe in boycotts because they had “fought too hard to be included.” The person in question was referring to the PEN controversy. My own feelings about the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, and therefore my reasons for taking a side on this issue, are covered elsewhere.

But I’ve been thinking about that statement since. What does it mean to “be included?” By whom? To what purpose, and to what end?

It made me think about the fight itself – for whom and what do we fight? When we fight for inclusion, is it just for ourselves? I, Ru Freeman, would like to “be included?” Where? At the PEN gala? I have been. I’ve been one of those table hosts, and I enjoyed it. Then, as on many other occasions, PEN2013I’ve thought about where I came from, who I am, how much I enjoy the glamor and jazz of being in such places, but also about the immense loneliness I feel at such moments. The public person, the representative of my kind – South Asian, of colour, the international, the woman, the Sri Lankan – puts on both the ball gown and the star performance. But that same person understands that at all times I am but the face of all those other identities, and all the other people who look like me or talk like me or think like me or share my various parts and orientations. What I do does not impact me alone. And I am far too old and far too wise to believe that the fame of a NY minute is a rule meant only for other people. I’m far too old not to know that when the lights dim, I walk home as myself, a woman of many identities, and many complexities, not Ru Freeman the Table Host at the PEN Gala, circa. 2013.

Knowing these things, I have often advised people who have asked, that in the end what you are left with – what anybody is left with – is their integrity. The table at which I sat included some of New York’s finest philanthropists; I knew their work thanks to my own work in development and fundraising with major donors. The reward for their gift to PEN was being consumed as we talked, and I, good soldier that I am, changed seats through the various courses to make sure that I had a chance to make a pesonal connection with each one, to express – through some combination of charm and intelligence – that I valued their support on behalf of PEN. But I am not only the good soldier. And the glitz of the corporate presentation that year grated on my nerves. (There is a reason why I love the American Friends Service Committee – nobody there looks like they’re rolling out a multi-million dollar initiative for Nike, when they are raising money to help the poor in the most remote parts of Afghanistan). But that was not the place to express my small sentiment of dismay. It would have served no purpose. It could not have helped the people who were struggling under the weight of censorship across America or the world. It would have been a pointless and graceless gesture. And man, was I not enjoying my ballgown and my wine at my first black-tie gala?

But what would I have done if I had been asked to represent PEN during a ceremony that awarded a badge of courage to a group that denigrates most of the population of the world? Whose raison d’etre for being present at the gala was that they had persisted in ridiculing and taunting a marginalized and mostly misunderstood minority? Would this not have been the time to think about those other identities which I embody? If I had ever belonged to any group, of any size, which had been denied the respect and regard and rights accorded to everyone else, which had been brutalized and collectively dismissed at every turn, particularly in America, would not my conscience trouble me enough to stand with those who more closely embody the hardships I may have undergone? The answer would have been clear to me, forget the ballgown and the wine and the little table tents that tell the assembled all about myself and my literary achievements.

So what is belonging and inclusion? And in whose hands do we place the right to include us, and to stand in judgement about our merits?

I’ve been reading a lot of posts and interviews with the writers who chose to sign the letter of dissent – a letter of dissent is like the words penned by judges of the courts; it allows the majority ruling to go forward, but it articulates the reasons why the particular judge/s disagree. It has no teeth with regard to the particular ruling, but it informs the legal arguments yet to be made in other cases. In other words, as an organization like PEN ought to understand better than any other, a letter of dissent permits the freedom of speech and conscience. This particular letter of dissent expressed exactly that, and no more. The vilification of the six table hosts – and therefore the other signatories of whom I am one – permitted by PEN, and articulated in fact by some of PEN’s most recognized names, is the real blow to freedom of speech.

To claim that the award had nothing to do with the denigration of Muslims, while quoting Ayaan Hirsi Ali is like saying you aren’t racist but quoting Zimmerman.

Screen shot 2015-05-06 at 10.59.44 AM

What Ali said could have been said by anybody. That PEN chose to use her as a quotable human being at a gala where they have sworn they were making an award that has nothing to do with Islamaphobia, is nothing short of not just a bucket, but an entire dry oil well full of bovine excrement.

To return to this idea that crawling through the needle to be “included” requires the setting aside of ones conscience, or must silence the voice one possesses and can use to speak for the voiceless and the “unincluded” – a condition with which the freshly “included” must surely be familiar – I quote the writer Conner Habib: “I am not one of the widely celebrated writers on the list. I, like many of the 204 signatories, am not a household name. I am not wealthy or luxuriously free to sign petitions.” In other words, some writers choose to do what it is not easy to do because they value the tenor of our community more than they value the fleeting moment of “inclusion.”

Habib goes on to make several excellent points in his post about his decision to sign the letter of dissent or, as he puts it, more accurately, disassociation. As does Amitava Kumar, another writer who knows of what he speaks, in this conversation during The Takeaway with John Hockenberry.

Amitava takes on both the matter of PEN mobilizing its surrogates to attack the writers who wish to disassociate themselves from this award, and the matter of choosing to celebrate Charlie Hebdo while ignoring the murder, say, of Pakistani activist, Sabeen Mahmud, among other things. And he asks this question: “Does it take courage to stand up at a glittery gala in NYC and toast Charlie Hebdo? I don’t think it does. So what does it take more courage to stand up for today?”

At the end of the day, I look at the list of (thus far) 204 PEN members who had the courage to add their names to the letter of dissent and I realize how much regard I have for each of them. It is nice to look around and see that some people still choose the walk-on-part in the war over the lead role in a cage.

The Books:

The Books:

On Sal Mal Lane

In the tradition of In the Time of the Butterflies and The Kite Runner, a tender, evocative novel about the years leading up to the Sri Lankan civil war.

A Disobedient Girl

A Disobedient Girl is a compelling map of womanhood, its desires and loyalties, set against the backdrop of beautiful, politically turbulent, Sri Lanka.


Twitter