Archive for the ‘journalism watch’ Category

21 December, 2009

Facebook Etiquette for Authors

I’m over at the amazing Huffington Post Books blog, talking about the dos and do nots for writers while on Facebook. Why? Because a gazillion of us use Facebook and because nearly half that number use it as the sole means of promoting ourselves and our books. It felt right to get the ground rules right. Here’s an excerpt:

“‘Tis the season when people who have things to sell – be they Chop-Yer-Own-Fir Farms or Independent booksellers or, indeed, authors – have to give their wares an extra push. I know. But after the zillionth status update in the course of three months about one book or another streaming onto my screen via Facebook’s live news feed, I realized that we were all descending, en masse, into a vast swamp of self-promotion that is just not becoming of the writerly class. So, with the blessings of a few good people who happen to be authors, I have come up with ten-step pathway to grace for writers. Here goes:

Rule #4. Don’t join Facebook because you’ve heard it is a Good Way To Promote Your Book. It is a good way to promote your book, but it is primarily a – say it with me – Tool for Networking. That’s right. It’s a bar. It’s a soirée, it’s a gigantic party, it’s a flat out junket, but it is not Ebay, it is not Etsy, it is not LastMinuteDeals, it is notAmazon.com.”

You can read the full article over on the blog site. And do comment. The discussion over on Facebook is wonderful, and the personal emails and messages are even better, but it’s okay to let it all out.

30 June, 2009

Who defines America?

underbellyIt’s been a couple of weeks since I got back from Chicago, but the conversation which I wanted to write about then is still on my mind and will be for a while. There was a bottle of wine and a group of writers discussing the matter of America, what could be better or less controversial? So I was a little bemused when one of our group uttered that infamous holler of ignorance, love it or leave it. Who, the writer demanded to know, has the right to come here and expect that “we” (Americans, albeit foreign born or recent descendants of the foreign born), know all about them? Be sensitive to them? What gives them the right to tell “us” what “our” country should look like, be and do? They should be grateful, the writer continued – it was a little difficult to thunder given the volume of other Friday evening conversations at an open air venue – and not come here and just “expect things.”

Which made me muse aloud – okay, I admit, it was a sharper than musing – about the right people feel to dictate who among us gets to define America. Earlier in the day I had listened to Deepak Unnikrishnan (there’s a bio here and a review of his book, Coffee Stains in a Camel’s Teacuphere) speak persuasively deepakabout the obligation he feels to his classified-as-Indian parents, to write and speak of their work and the work of multitudes of non-nationals to build and sustain Abu Dhabi. Two years ago, NYU created NYU Abu Dhabi amidst a clamor of support and dissent, the latter for all the wrong reasons. There was nothing new about yet another part of Abu Dhabi society (in this case education) being fortified by foreigners, that was, after all, the way the society is set up. What is wrong is what has always been wrong: the way in which Abu Dhabians perceive, and therefore devalue, those foreign nationals no matter their status. Whether one lectures on Aristotle or swills the toilets, a foreigner is simply a hired hand with no say in the ephemeral yet intensely meaningful civic life of the city they call home.

Thirty five years into their tenure, Deepak’s parents are not considered natives, nor will their life’s work give them the right to stay should they lose their jobs. Appalling, isn’t it? And yet, how different is an America where its citizens express those same biases? Is it no more than an Abu Dhabi, then, on a grander scale, with greater freedom? Or isn’t it the case that every immigrant here, no matter their legal status or newness, their degrees or lack thereof, their 401(k) plans or their intimacy with the soil in which they grow the strawberries for our tables while they are sprayed with pesticides from above, whose labor and starry eyes and acquisitions and tastes create the texture of this country, has an equal right to define it?

Recently I came across this clip of the spoken-word artist, YaliniDream, who performed at my friend, Charles Rice Gonzalez’ space, the Bronx Academy for Art & Dance (BAAD). This is Marian Yalini Thambynayagam, who is a second-generation Sri Lankan American. “I am not entertained by your confusion” she says in this particular piece, responding to the people who, like my young friend mentioned at the beginning of this post, don’t know where she is from, don’t care and don’t think they should.

Momma’s Hip Hop Kitchen Vol. II: YaliniDream from Jennifer Hobdy on Vimeo.

Listening to her was certainly difficult for me, a natural-born Sri Lankan with a strong sense of my country of birth, and a different perspective and sensitivity to the work she is performing. While there is deep yearning articulated by her speaking of the one tear that a Sri Lankan immigrant tries to catch in his or her hand just so she or he can taste the salt-soaked oceans of their past, knowing the terrifying complexities that abound for those still on that small island and being familiar with the self-indulgent fantasies of those of us within the diaspora, place a barrier between us that I find it difficult to cross. But there is great rage and anguish in her performance and she is a very gifted. Moreover, the entire piece articulates what might actually run through the mind of your average immigrant/from-somewhere-else/multiply-affiliated/tourist in response to a poorly placed question. manishaAnd aren’t those hidden thunderbolts precisely what drive us newcomers to say this is my country too? I will write my story, sing my song, speak my language, vote my politics, articulate my rage until I am no longer foreign to you?

I pick up books for no good reason; reason follows inevitably from the reading. And so, while re-reading the book, Half & Half: Writers on Growing up Biracial+Bicultural, I came across the following observation by Bharati Mukherjee:

In cities like San Francisco, where immigrants from Central America and South America jostle elbows with refugees from Cambodia and Vietnam, I’ve eavesdropped on thickly accented, enthusiastically conducted conversation “drive-through diagnostics” and “bun management” between people wearing fast-food-company logos on their shirt pockets. I want to think that in our multicultural United States, immigrants like them will play the stabilizing role that pride and history deny the major players.

The point is not to adopt the mainstream American’s easy ironies nor the expatriate’s self-protective contempt for the “vulgarity” of immigration. The point is to stay resilient and compassionate in the face of change.

Ah, at last, a happy balance where there is neither disgust at the people who “don’t understand” nor anger at those who long to be understood. Perhaps among the new, younger, truly multinational, Americans – like the President himself – there will be a recognition that patriotism is as patriotism does, and the same goes for citizenship. The country, any country, belongs to those who live in it, work within its borders, and help keep its many wheels turning.

26 April, 2009

Obama’s DC

I should have written this while I was still sneezing among the dogwood, tulips and cherry blossoms, but DC has a way of taking up all available space, time and mind and I have a way of dancing to the music…

I was in the area for a multitude of reasons: community building, political advocacy, book promotion, policy wonkishness (I am, quite possibly one of the few individuals who actually listened to the Clinton impeachment hearings in real time), much of which coincided with the amazing South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) 2009 Summit.

During the course of the last three days I met with a variety of senior staffers from the new administration including those from the Department of Homeland Security, Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, the white House offices of Public Engagement, Intergovernmental Affairs, and Management & Budget. Having lived in DC in the past, and worked in the American national and international non-profit sector as well as the Federal government, what was most illuminating to me was the transformation of the way in which the business of governance is being conducted. To a person, the officials with whom I met, described a process where listening was giving precedence over talking, where partnership with community leaders was valued above the dictating of regulations, and where the underlying precept is that policy ought to be informed by the expertise of the people who are working in the field rather than implemented in an environment devoid of consultation. Even more staggering was the revelation that the new administration was committed to “preemptive strikes” whereby the problems that crop up in the field can be brought to lawmakers and solutions negotiated before they became poisonous enough to require lawsuits.

And all this transmitted to us by a sea of faces that in color and gender and sexual orientation reflects the awesome diversity of the nation itself. It is true, I suppose, that a country gets the leadership it deserves, and that such leadership is deserved only by a populace willing to do the work of bringing it to being.

Describing the best part of their jobs, the various White House personnel gave us a snapshot of a president as accessible as he is inspiring, but the words of Christina Tchen, Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, were particularly evocative:

“Everything you saw in him on the campaign trail is true. His is the amazing marriage of a brilliant mind and the power of the office. He is always the most intelligent and the most thoughtful person in the room. He listens, and when he disagrees, it is with the utmost respect of the person with whom he is disagreeing.”

I will have to write more about the conference itself in another post, but for now I will have to simply say that my delight – in discovering, in person, that the change I worked to make possible in my corner of the country, is coming to fruition – was tempered by the fact that the State Department lead by Hillary Clinton, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chaired by Senator Kerry and the Sub-Committee which deals with Sri Lanka, as chaired by Senator Casey, is yet to make a statement that is cognizant of the reality on the ground in Sri Lanka. It seems particularly jarring to me that a president who is known for his desire to know all the facts before he speaks is letting these bodies do the exact opposite. To have people who have never visited the conflict zone in Sri Lanka, or spent any reasonable length of time traveling within the country, put out press releases that run counter to the facts, unpleasant though they may be to take, is a deplorable repetition of the arrogance of the administration they replaced. I would have thought that in light of a new push into Afghanistan, the Obama administration would be more circumspect than that, and that the NYT or the the Washington Post would have had the guts to say what the Washington Times did, just this morning.

Lord knows that I did my best to get the offices of both Casey and Nancy Pelosi to agree to facilitate a multi-ethnic discussion within the Sri Lankan diaspora here. So far, campaign finance contributions appear to have ruled harder than civic engagement, commitment to America’s progress and place in the world and ideological support. Then again, the night is still young. There is such a thing as a learning curve. Perhaps this, too, will pass. I’ll keep y’all posted.

6 April, 2009

All the News Fit to Print

So everybody has heard, by now, that the Boston Globe was threatened with closure by its owner, the NYT Co. The demand is for the unions to agree to $20 million worth of concessions:

Executives from the Times Co. and Globe made the demands Thursday morning in an approximately 90- minute meeting with leaders of the newspaper’s 13 unions, union officials said. The possible concessions include pay cuts, the end of pension contributions by the company and the elimination of lifetime job guarantees now enjoyed by some veteran employees, said Daniel Totten, president of the Boston Newspaper Guild, the Globe’s biggest union, which represents more than 700 editorial, advertising and business office employees.

I have to say that I have become completely disenchanted with the Boston Globe over the past several months. The high-handed, slanderous and untruthful coverage of the internal political issues of my country of birth, Sri Lanka, by the Globe’s editorial staff, its refusal to agree until today to carry any article critical of the pro-terrorist groups that have held the Sri Lankan Tamil expatriate community of Boston, the city and state’s elected officials and its newspaper in a death vice, and its refusal to acknowledge or in any way take seriously the very public death threats made against Sinhalese and moderate Tamil Sri Lankan Americans on its websites all combined to make me come to the conclusion that there are some newspapers we can all do without.

But there are some newspapers we all need and will continue to need: the local ones. These are, for the most part, staffed by a combination of younger and more seasoned reporters who, as they aim to achieve national recognition through the “pick up” for larger circulation of their hometown coverage, tend to work that much harder on the veracity of their stories. They also cover the here and now with greater frequency, placing our national and global woes in our neighborhood contexts. As I said in today’s article about American media , while we wait for the trickle-down effect of intelligence, there will be a slow but steady trickle-up, too, from local newspaper people, like Mercier, until we reach that happy mid-point where we are all well-informed and satiated by thoughtful, well-researched points of view about the world in which we co-exist.

28 March, 2009

Global Civilians

This is the news of the latest attack by proponents of terrorism, this time in Pakistan:

“A suicide bomber blew himself up during Friday prayers at a packed Pakistan mosque, leaving around 50 dead and scores wounded in one of the bloodiest recent attacks in the nation.”

The bomber set himself off at the precise climax of the service, leading the words spoken by the Imam, God Is Great to be the last heard by the living, the wounded and the dead.

On this side of the once closed ocean, something else was going on. In an address to a nation weary of sending its soldiers overseas, President Obama said, “I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan.” You can read that story here.

And while we all debate the precise details of a war on terror as it is carried out among the terrified against the terrorists (of one nation) by terrorists (of other nations), I am reminded of something my brother, Malinda, a senior Sri Lankan journalist wrote to me recently:

“Everyone loves a rebel as long as he is a foreigner, and terrorists are freedom fighters as long as they kill people in other countries.”

I put these thoughts out there in the context of the news mentioned above, as a point of departure for our private intellectual negotiations with these terms. The fact of the matter remains that everything is simple and clear until it happens to us, and I am just as guilty of this dance as anybody else.

Recently another friend asked the following on a discussion list pertaining to South Asia:

“I guess I am trying to understand what a Muslim invention is and how it differs from a Hindu or a Christian invention. I would hazard a guess the organizers have collected inventions made by Muslim inventors or that originated in Muslim countries. What links these inventions together ? Did the inventors’ religious belief or cultural practice in some way influence the invention ?

Islam is widely dispersed geographically. An advance in solid state electronics in Indonesia, the concept of micro-credit as developed in Bangladesh and some agricultural practices in Morocco could all be said to be Muslim inventions. But what synthesis is achieved by assembling these under one roof ?”

Indeed. And perhaps literature is where, in the end, we find our best answers. This week, Sana Krasikov, won the Sami Rohr Prize for emerging writers of Jewish literature for her collection, One More Year (Spiegel & Grau), which tells the stories of Russian and Georgian immigrants to America in the aftermath of the Cold War. It is an important contribution not simply to Jewish literature, but to the literature of movement of human beings between countries. The other winner announced this week, was Dalia Sofer, author of The Septembers of Shiraz (Ecco) for her novel about a Jewish family in Iran in the period after the Islamic Revolution. There is a great review of her book by Claire Messud, in the New York Times. And, once again, I am struck not so much by the particulars, but by the general appeal of this novel.

In Jewish Sofer’s Iran, there is a “Shirin.” In Tamil Preeta Samarasan‘s Malaysia there is a “Shamsudeen.” In my Sri Lanka, predominantly Buddhist but also Muslim, Hindu and Catholic, there were Shereens and Samsudeens. In all our three countries, there were dates, Kandos chocolates and burfi. There were Septembers and infidelity. In the literature that belongs to us all, in the stories we tell, are the same strangers who visit, and known angels who depart, the same untranslatable desires. Where, then, are the things that divide us, among countries and, within those countries, among people? Where are the words that persuade some among us – who, no matter how misguided are still products of the societies to which we contribute – to blow themselves up inside a place of worship?

I cast this thought out without confirmation, except that which I can attest to at the anecdotal and conjectural levels: the fault lies not in our religions but in a failure to instill a love of reading. For literature, no matter who her patrons might be, afford us a look into other lives, and a way to discovering that there are fewer particulars to our definitions of ourselves as belonging to a certain tribe or culture or country, but that the accurate classification for ourselves is that of global civilians.

24 March, 2009

Foreign Media

After a late night talking to John Zuarino for a sweet interview he did with me about the book, a night pushed through with the ingestion of Emergen-C and Samahan to stave off whatever illness is in the air, and a morning spent volunteering at a book fair, I was feeling pretty wiped. What, oh what, could I blog about? As usual, Facebook gave me an easy answer. Scrolling through the links my friends had posted, I came across yet another account by a foreign journalist, in this case an Australian, ranting about restrictions on travel into the areas in which the Sri Lankan government is fighting the terrorist group, the LTTE. That there are restrictions on travel into the Vanni is true. That usually is the case when there is a war going on. The government did not, and will not, allow this journalist into the zones where the LTTE is holding Tamil civilians hostage. They did and will allow Sir John Holmes, the United Nations Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator to travel through those same areas freely. Those restrictions are in place for the safety of the reporters themselves. As a case in point, my own brother, a senior and well respected journalist and someone who works for Sri Lanka’s media unit is, himself, required to undergo the same process to request permission in order to travel to the North as well as the security to do so safely.

It is all too easy for these fly-in journalists to put their neat articles together based on whim and fancy, and our desire to “access the latest breaking news” from anywhere, be it through bloggers or twitterers, makes us complicit in the creation of untruths. A journalist who wishes to cover a current conflict can only do so with any credibility if they have taken the time and gone to the trouble of learning about the country about which they want to talk. In a hard-hitting and prescient article in the American Journalism Review, Sherry Ricchiardi wrote about the age of “parachute journalism,” i.e. those who drop by and write about conflicts they do not understand. She quoted Ted Koppel thus:

Nevertheless, it still amounts to parachute journalism. “Look, I don’t care how good you are, how experienced you are, if you’ve never been in a country before, and you are just parachuted in to cover a crisis, all you can do is skim the surface of what is going on…You don’t have sources, you don’t have the background, you don’t have the context.”

Among the journalists who are commended in her article is Roy Gutman, who reported from 1989 to 1994 as Europe bureau chief for Newsday, work for which he was honored with a Pulitzer in 1993 and the George Polk Award for foreign reporting. Gutman’s claims the work he put into building a solid base of knowledge and “becoming intimately acquainted with the territory” he covered as his strengths. “You have to have experienced people who can figure out the big pictures as well as the little picture. The worst thing that can happen in a crisis…is taking the word of one side or the other and running with it and not understanding the context,” he is quoted as saying at the time.

It is bad enough when journalists take the easy route of interviewing a few expatriates – without investigating their political and economic investment in giving a particular slant to a story – or quote “sources” they access via a long-distance phone call. But it is particularly egregious to do so when it involves a small country on the other side of the world that most people have never heard of and whose fate, too, is not of import to a given international readership. But they are no less human, no less complex, no less deserving of respect than the people who glance at these stories over their morning cups of cappuccino down a street in New York City, or in a bookstore outside Melbourne.

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.


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