Archive for the ‘News’ Category

5 August, 2016

Want a Third Party? Vote Hillary, Support Bernie

Over there on Huffington Post taking about the elections. You can read the full article here. Below, a taste.

Affecting change takes time and diligence and real effort. It takes discipline and thoughtfulness and a full on commitment to holding feet to fires and noses to grindstones. It doesn’t come from signing a single letter of protest or hootin’ and hollerin’ during a passing primary season. It doesn’t come at the hands of one Black man or a single White woman. For the first time in history, Bernie Sanders has transformed the political conversation so that we have a fighting chance to forge a movement that can effectively become a third party. This primary can be seen as the harbinger of change that can bring American democracy from the darkness into the light of widespread civic engagement and real choice, but only if we do our part. Only if we aren’t distracted by bemoaning what we have allowed to come to pass with a President Trump, floundering in regret at our own foolishness like the Brexit voters who, in the land of the Bard no less, do not even known enough to blame the stars.

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.

28 August, 2013

Rick Simonson: 10 Years Old in 1963

I have been listening to the run up to the celebrations of this day, and of course the speeches made today at the Lincoln Memorial. It is strange that the first time I heard about that memorial, it was through my mother and father speaking to me about Marian Anderson. My mother had heard her sing at the Peradeniya University where they, my parents, were students, a performance broadcast to the standing-outside multitudes via loudspeakers. Neither of them have ever spoken of any other voice with quite the same reverence. Through her recollections, I heard of this voice that had rung over the assembled in a city called Washington DC in a country called America. Much later I learned to sing ‘A Church is Burning,’ as one among our repertoire for an entry to a national festival of ballads. I’d heard of Birmingham, but I didn’t really know what any of this truly meant. It came to me in music that I could sing with heart, but not in history that I could actually see in my heart. It happened before I was born, in a country I wouldn’t really know until I was a college student, and not very well until many years after, when living here had become what I would choose to do, when colour became more complicated than saying someone was “fair” or “dark,” the only words I’d ever used before to describe complexion, when the word “colour” became, by itself, no longer a descriptor but an unwieldly, shape-shifting misnomer.

And so, to today, when I found myself watching and listening, but as a bystander rather than a participant. I know what I have come to know, and witness, and speak out on behalf of, but this is a struggle whose roots go back to a place of origin that I can only glimpse. I was delighted, therefore, to receive this note from a friend, someone who had been “here when,” whose life was transformed by the events of this day, fifty years ago, and by that speech. A speech whose candence and words would have made a deep impact on someone who would dedicate their own life to the celebration of words. It gave me a chance to relive this day as it might have seemed to me if I had been not a still unborn future hyphenated dual citizen, but rather a boy growing up in Nebraska.

Thinking this morning of how old I was, fifty years ago. I had just turned ten. Getting ready for fifth grade. Mrs Armstrong, Calvert School. A bored, end of summer day on my hands. I had two best friends then – they lived on our street – Bill and Mike. Neither must have been about, so on my own I went into our basement where we had the tv to see what was on. Then it was about three or four channels that gave you what you might get., I don’t know if I tried changing channels, if what I was ran on all three or not, but what I saw was so spellbinding that I found myself riveted – and watched for however many hours I did.

First, this incredible marching, assembling crowd. I had never seen as many people thronging about like this – walking, these signs … I hadn’t been to Washington, DC, but had seen photographs – the Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial, all of that, all usually depicted with these park-like swaths of open grounds around them, that long reflecting pool. Here were all these people. I knew what they were about, what the march was about., There had been so many stories in the news – both on tv, and in the weekly magazines that came to our house – Time, Life (lots of photos), Look (ditto). I knew (then) this was about the South – where slavery had been, where basic rights were denied now.

But that this was a coming together – a demonstration (it must have been a new word to me) in Washington. I was trying to comprehend, I suspect, what this was, what was intended, how it related to what was happening in the South. A demonstration … Commentators must have helped with some of that. The sight of all these people – Negroes, as it was couched then, and white people. So many. With signs which said things that made impressions.

At some point the moving, the marching must have stopped, for a program with speakers was then shown. There wasn’t a lot of moving camera work. I remember a pretty fixed shot close to the speakers’ podium. I then remember various people speaking. This – all in black and white – must have been the first time I remember little white captions, words on the screen saying who people sometimes were. Roy Wilkens of the NAACP seemed to moderate, or at least was there talking a lot. I felt like he was introducing and/or making announcements. There was also Bayard Rustin – I remember the name ‘Bayard’ being unusual and that he was from the porters’ union – one of the most powerful organized groups of Negroes, a labor union of train attendants (I had to figure out what a porter was). There were famous people there, actors – Harry Belafonte. Probably Sidney Poitier and I think, Sammy Davis, Jr. That would have been about it for people I would have known. A James Baldwin would have been lost on me. People who sang there – The Freedom Singers, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan (at age 22,, I would later figure) would have been lost on me.

Whatever I knew of him before – I knew some things – by the time he was done speaking, Martin Luther King, Jr. was not lost on me. Not to go into all of what he said. I doubt I remembered much on the spot. But the long, slow, deliberate pace and weight with which he spoke (he who was only 34). The rising, peak and valley crescendo of talk came at the end, the part that short clips all play, but those really got their soaring, wave-like power from the slow buildup that preceded it. I remember all of that pouring right into me, including that at the end.

And then it must have been over. I must have climbed the stairs out of the dark basement (it was like coming out of a cave), I must have stepped back out into the late afternoon … and resumed whatever was up, seen if Bill or Mike was home yet, heard what our own house’s schedule was like (when Dad would be home, what time dinner, what dinner might be) … I don’t think I felt like I could really talk about what I’d seen, at least not to the places in me it went. Even as I was going about my 10-year-old daily business, something in me felt deeply altered.

How wonderful to think of the way that moments change our lives, particuarly the lives of children. I think about all that this boy would go on to do, the words of relevant people ushered forth, not simply what is deemed famous or fashionable, but what is good and important and life-altering.

Today is a good day to remember these things. To remember, also, that odd-sounding name, Bayard Rustin, opined upon today in the Wall Street Journal, a central figure without whom no march might have taken place, a gay man whose personal life was reviled in public by many who also participated in that march. To place that bit of information next to this other remembrence today: this day on which we mourn a young transgendered woman, Islan Nettles, murdered in Harlem because of her sexual preferences. And to remember what we choose to say and do when we are given the opportunity. A good day to remember exactly which anthem Marian Anderson chose to sing on that long ago day, and why she might have done so.

Here she is.

14 May, 2013

Pub Date II

A long time ago, it seems, I wrote a post here called ‘On Publication,’ during pub-week for A Disobedient Girl. I just re-read that this morning. Funny how clarity of thought about some particular things comes to each of us when it is necessary to have it. I realize, looking back, that this is still how I feel about publication. If there is a difference, then it is that I am even more aware that the life of a book is not so much about the book but about the people who surround it – those who bring it forth, those who receive it, those who hand it to readers, and the readers who give it their time.

Yesterday I had the pleasure of reading in my “home” town of Philadelphia, among many friends and family, most of whom had played some role in the making of this book, either by taking care of all the rest of my life while I went missing for weeks at a time to write, or by turning a blind eye to the state of sleep-deprived, deadline-driven misery that I require in order to finish anything of worth, that glassy eyed look that comes when I realize that the world is beautiful and the days are sunny and oh dear god I cannot move, I must sit, sit, sit, and read and write and read and write and doesn’t anybody care?! Oh! Why doesn’t anybody care?! Yes, those people were there, dressed up, taking pictures, asking questions and making me feel good.

There will be many things to write about, many images to share, along the way. But for now I’m going to share a few photographs from the time along the way, a visual reminder that the glossy dust jacket and the nicely bound book had its own story before it got there.

In my room where I sat for eight hours each day with breaks for lunch, chocolate tea from David’s, and a solitary walk, and wrote the first draft of the book.

The grove I stumbled upon on the day of my arrival, and where I went to spend the first anniversary of my mother’s death, which also was the day I finished that draft. The flowers I placed on that grave, which belonged to a mother who lost everything and still found a way to make such an enduring gift to artists, lasted a long time in the upstate NY Fall cold, and many of my new-found friends would tell me how they were doing long after I had gone. On that particular day, I read this poem in memory of my mother, a poem given to me by the poet who made it:

Spell to Be Said Upon Departure
by Jane Hirshfield

What had come here to do
having finished,
shelves of the water lie flat.

Copper the leaves of the doorsill,
yellow and falling.
Scarlet the bird that is singing.

Vanished the labor, here walls are.
Completed the asking.
Loosing the birds there is water.

Having eaten the pears.
Having eaten
the black figs, the white figs. Eaten the apples.

Table be strewn.
Table be strewn with stems,
table with peelings of grapefruit and pleasure.

Table be strewn with pleasure,
what was here to be done having finished.

Editing in a different space. I would write notes to myself in the night after all the work was done and I was in reading mode, and then paste them on the desk so I could cross things off as I went. I’d work all day with a break for lunch and a quiet, solitary walk (except for a post-dinner walk which often included the lovely Cathy Chung, in which case we’d be fleeing cows and shrieking with laughter.

There is always time to kiss the horses on a walk.

More editing. Work all day, with a break for lunch and solitary mostly walk but sometimes run sojourn. Quaker quiet before meals. And watching the night-blooming primrose flower, in real time, sitting on the bench silently with others at the Quaker retreat where I was staying.

Final edits. Such desperation. Such angst. Such panic. Really? You want me to put this into the hands of a mail carrier? You don’t want me to scan and mail? I’m impressed the mail-carrier did not care that I looked like an un-washed, un-rested, bug-eyed lunatic in my shabby lounge-about clothes and boots with no socks. Oh, and that the precious words made it from here to Minneapolis.

Which is to say, I went through a great many changes that paralled the changes being made to this thing of beauty, and some aspects of those things made their way into the language and direction of this book. I would have loved to have been able to sign one of these in gift to my mother, but also know that losing her was folded into this creation, the way that everything we experience transforms everything we experience after.

People often asked me – after the first novel – how my book was doing. Whenever I heard that question, I would think of my friends, the ones who were brilliant and talented, but had no publisher yet, the ones who were not as gifted but who did have their work out, published, and everybody in between. In such a world, how does one judge how well a book is doing? In such a world, I celebrate the absolute miracle of seeing the stories that came to me without my going in search of them, that got written through so much else in my life, that found welcome in the heart of an agent and an editor I respect deeply, and was then made, with the assistance of many hands more accomplished than mine, into what they are now, these books.

How well is my book doing? My book is doing great!

23 February, 2012

My 99 Problems v. Syria’s 1

syriaJust yesterday I posted on FB that I had “99 problems” and was trying to whittle them down to 98. I was feeling overwhelmed. I have two out of state meetings/conferences to go to, one of which involves a flight, sub-zero temperatures and 10,000 other people. I have mountains of readings to finish, all of which have to be done with the kind of obsessive attention that goes with my personality. I have papers to grade. I have a book to edit. A father to coerce, one who is digging in his heels and refusing to get on a plane and come here. I have several small battles to fight in the larger war against girls and women. I have the detritus of everyday living to sweep up – those dishes, dirty clothes, showers, exercises, medical check ups, and groceries that fill up the day. I have a ton of minding to do, too.

But then Marie Colvin was killed and my attention was drawn to the last news report she filed for CNN. I read through and clicked on the video that was attached. It is an account of a Syrian baby during his last moments of life. He is wearing the kind of shirt that babies in Sri Lanka have been dressed in for as long as I can remember; a simple piece of cloth that even women who can’t sew – women like me – are able to cut and sew. The baby shirt has two arm holes, and a tie around the neck. The back is open in deference to the heat. Women in Sri Lanka sit and sew small hills of these shirts, usually embroidered on the front with flowers and paisley motifs. The baby in the video looks like any baby, and in the video he gasps for breath, his eyes already shut. Marie Colvin says, in the voiceover, that what was terrible about this scene was the silence in which the baby passes away. It is true. He does not cry, he does not flail, his chest heaves and heaves and heaves and then he is gone.

It made me think. A long-ago friend once told me she took to pediatrics because children, even those with terminal illnesses, never complained as much as adults did. They took their illness in stride, living until they no longer could. Here in my Philadelphia suburb we have the story of Alex, the little girl who in life launched Alex’s Lemonade Stand, the single most effective fundraiser for research into childhood cancer worldwide. I don’t know that this Syrian baby, whose passing was witnessed by his grandmother because she was already at the hospital helping other people, knew anything more than a month or so of peace, then nothing but mayhem around him and terror in the faces of his family, before arriving in this hospital at this time, with that particular spokeswoman to relate his story. But, perhaps, no matter what we all think of the politics between large and small nations, between Syrian, America, Russian and Chinese ambassadors, or of despots, tyrants, diplomats and apologist, nobody will turn away from the sight of this particular death. And, perhaps, this brief life lived in innocence, and the journalist who gave her all, will combine to be the face and the voice that brings peace to Syria.


5 November, 2011

Whose Wars are These?

0000-166The wars that permeated my childhood were those that were internal to my country, Sri Lanka. Therefore everybody was involved. There was no refuge from it, no matter your social status, particularly if you were male. You could be killed going to market, you could be abducted from your dorm-room, you could be left to burn with a tyre around your head, you could be shot, you could die with dozens of others in a suicide attack. Everybody knew where everybody else stood, where their sympathies lay, what hue colored their politics. More than that, everbody knew someone who had died and most of us knew more than a few. We did not have a particular love for living in a state of war, far from it. But they were the circumstances of our history for nearly three decades, and we lived or died along with the fortunes of our country.

I would like to believe that the fact that America’s wars have been waged overseas is the reason why this kind of intimacy with mayhem and loss does not pervade every home here. I would like to imagine that it is universally mystifying to Americans that America could be fighting two major wars and the vast majority of people could go on with their lives knowing not one soul who has been dispatched to kill and die, nor any who returned injured or in a casket. I know only three. The husband of my college room-mate, the son of a Veterinarian in the town I used to live in, and a fellow-writer and photographer whose concerns mirror mine; none of them untouched by their years of service, one of them lost entirely. How strange it must have been for these three young men to return home to people fretting about organic apple cider and home-made iced-tea, about peanut-free classrooms and special activities for those who do not celebrate any one of the national holidays. “Americans and their damn bottles of water,” one of them quipped to me. “What a joke. Like they really imagine they might suddenly die of thirst.”

How strange that when I posted a link to an essay by one of those veterans, Elliott Woods, on Facebook, nobody clicked it. This is what I said in my note:

Just read this piece of reporting by Elliott Woods. Between poppy palaces and narchitecture and 100 minefields still waiting to explode in greater Kabul, between 15,000 troops and upto 1.5 million Afghans killed during the reign of the Soviets and the advent and departure of the Americans is a story that too few of us know. Even those of us who in one way or another contribute to the “donor money” that accounts for four-fifths of the $14 billion GDP in Afghanistan.

I decided to see if it were the case that nobody was paying attention or if nobody cared. I followed up with a joke about Facebook cut and pasted from some online source for a thousand and one jokes. There were the comments I had been missing. Yes, nobody cared. We care about the here, the now, and the herenow does not involve Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, vast swaths of Africa or most of the rest of the planet and certainly not those who were forced to go there to commit the acts no mother raises her child to perpetrate, and who must then return to our midst, shattered and frayed, this generations particular brand of invisible men.

How strange that Marine Lance Cpl. Scott Olsen went down in a hail of enemy fire aimed at him by American policemen during the img_4139course of a peaceful protest in the streets of Oakland, California. After two tours of duty in Iraq with the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment in Iraq’s Anbar province, site of some the war’s fiercest battles, this young man who had been just 14 years old when we experienced the events of 9/11, lay on the streets on Tuesday, the 25th. Why? Because he had divined that much of the economic inequity in America was fuelled by the military industrial complex. That, and the fact that nobody gave a damn where he had been and what he had done or seen, just pass the cocktail shrimp and Muscat.

According to a report released by the Center for a New American Security, from 2005 to 2010, service members took their own lives at a rate of approximately one every 36 hours. Scroll down on the report and we find the statement that the “VA estimates that 18 veterans take their lives every day,” and then goes on to state that they have no way of knowing the accurate number because of their inability to track the veterans.

Long ago when I used to watch The News Hour on PBS for my one hour of not doing, the segment used to end with a silent screen on which appeared the names of the newly dead Americans. I don’t know that they still do it, I don’t watch anymore, but I do know there is a searchable database on the PBS website which lists the dead, from 1 on the page 1-25 of 4885. That list stopped on August 2010. I no longer know how many people have died. I remember writing about the 2000th soldier, Staff Sgt. George T. Alexander Jr., back in 2005 for the local paper in Waterville, Maine.

Michael Meade, in an interview done by John Malkin which appears in The Sun (November, 2011), speaks, among other things, about the distinction between warriors and soldiers:

“I work with veterans coming back from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I am perosonally against war, but I also understand the sense of exile and the alienation felt by people returning from all the battlefields of life. I’ve been working with veterans for years and watching the struggles of souls trying to find a way home. in a sense they are some of the most exiled people in modern culture. There is a burden of tragedy that they’re carrying for all of us.

Mass culture distorts our instincits and inclinations. Some people are natural fighters so they become soldiers. But soldiers are the opposite of warriors: soldiers do what they’re told; warriors do what they feel is best for everybody…A warrior isn’t looking for war. A warrior looks to be of service to something beyond him or herself. What’s happened is that the culture uses that willingess to serve its own narrow ends…When you take the willingness to sacrifice and aim it in the wrong direction for the wrong reasons, you get damage, and not just to the individual. That damage is inherited by future generations. For healing to occur, the truth has to come out, and by ‘truth’ I don’t mean which side was right. That’s the small argument. The truth is that souls were hurt, and healing is required for the individuals as well as the collective.”

That burden of tragedy – of wars waged, of warriors forced into the servitude of soldiering – that burden belongs, surely, to all of us in whose name these things were perpetrated, not just the servicemen coming home to places that are unreconcilable with the places they’ve been in, places filled with people who don’t recognize them and in some ways never saw them to begin with. What is a human being to do, ever, about war? What is an artist to do? What can a writer say? If my words cannot move anybody to see more clearly, listen more closely, of what use are they?

It is the 5th of November. I know why I felt compelled to write about war and veterans today. I write about them because I’m thinking about a beautiful, talented writer who is my friend. I have never met anybody in her family. I know nothing about her brother. She never spoke of him until I emailed her to tell her that I had lost my mother and did not know how I would go on. She told me about him then, about his time in Iraq and the fact that he had, upon his return, unable to reconcile himself to all that he had witnessed and participated in, killed himself. Today marks the seventh anniversary of his passing. I have nothing to offer her or to any other family that has gone through this particular kind of loss, except my attention to the whole of their experience, the whole of their grief.


22 September, 2011

A Voice for Palestine

I am over at the Huffington Post and Common Dreams today, writing about tomorrow’s request from the Palestinian Authority that the State of Palestine be recognized as a member of the United Nations. Here’s an excerpt:

It has been 36 years since the UN adopted General Assembly Resolution 3379 condemning Zionism as a form of racism. It has been 30 since UN Resolution 36/226 was passed declaring opposition to the Israeli policy of settlement in Palestine. It has been 18 years since three leaders, Presidents Clinton, Yitzhak Rabin and Chairman Arafat began discussions that could have led to the cessation of hostilities and a modicum of redress for the people of Palestine. It has been 16 years since President Rabin was assassinated by one of his own people. For the record, the PLO agreed to the conditions negotiated by President Clinton pending clarifications. With Sharon’s visit to Al-Aqsa mosque and his election, that agreement was called off by both sides. It was Sharon, after all, who was responsible for the massacre of more than 800 Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps outside Beirut in 1982. An act which prompted his resignation as minister of Defense after an Israeli commission held him responsible. And it was Sharon who re-ignited the flames of hatred in Israel during a fragile moment when the prospect for peace had come into an albeit distant view.

Israel has a right to exist. Not because there is agreement that the foundation of that nation was right, but because time moves forward, not backwards. Unless we are thinking about returning all the national treasures plundered by the British Commonwealth from all the countries it colonized, unless we are talking about taking the influence of France out of the continent of Africa, unless we are discussing the return to pride of place for the Native Americans in the United States, unless we are at the table to discuss all these and more…….we cannot talk about an absence of the nation of Israel. What has been done, has been done. The task at hand is figuring out how close we can come to rectifying the injustices that have been perpetrated against the people of Palestine. How compensate them for the loss of land, homes, livelihood and children? For the very absence of what people in other countries call “childhood”? And how to accomplish all this while allowing Israelis the safe-conduct of their own lives.

Contrary to popular belief here in America, “the world” made no agreements with the Arab nations. Astonishing as it might seem, a collection of short-sighted officials from the United States, Britain and France, do not constitute the world. This moment is about Palestine and Israel. There are no “rebels” here. There are people who have been crushed by superior force and who must now figure out how to live beside and despite that force. This moment is about the inalienable right of the people of Palestine to self-determination, to freedom, and the re-establishment of normalcy to the lives of their children, within the context of reconstruction and reconciliation with a powerful, powerfully supported and certainly well-armed neighbor. This moment is also about laying the groundwork for allaying the fears of Israelis

22 August, 2011

Huffington Post/Clinton & Jayalalitha

I’m over at the Huffington Post today, writing about Clinton’s recent visit to India and her meeting with the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu (and ardent supporter of the LTTE and separatism), J. Jayalalitha. You can read the full article here. Here’s an excerpt:

It is usually the case that America’s foreign policy spokespeople are misinformed to say the least. Here’s a little context as to why neither Clinton nor Blake (who is shown in Lies Agreed Upon meeting with a man who has lectured terrorist cadres on how to raise funds abroad for the procurement of weapons for the LTTE, an organization banned by the US government!), has a clear picture. It is called missing “the ground situation.’

At the Colombo International Airport in Sri Lanka, a Tamil woman about my late mother’s age asks me to watch her bag outside the ladies’ restroom. “We met before at the check-in counter,” she assures me, though I have already nodded. We look at each other for a few silent moments, acknowledging what was not possible for thirty years and what now is: to ask a stranger, particularly a stranger from the “opposite” ethnicity, to watch a bag, parcel or any other “unaccompanied’ item without fearing that it might contain a bomb.

In the streets of Trincomalee and Batticaloa, areas where the majority of the populace speaks, almost exclusively, only Tamil, I, who do not understand Tamil, am still able to recognize and communicate a sense of empathy with my fellow citizens. I ask for directions, food, medicine, they help me, both of us falling back on gestures rather than words, on smiles and, to signify further good-will, the stroking of a child’s face, their sons or my daughters.

On the beaches of Nilaveli, a place I had been prohibited from visiting since I was a little girl, I meet a Tamil man on an early morning walk. He tells me in faltering Sinhalese: “Now that the war is over we can speak. Before this you would have been afraid of me, I would have been afraid of you. We could not travel, there were checkpoints everywhere. Now I am free.”

31 May, 2011

Making a Country Belong to You

This is a piece from a speech I gave not too long ago. A person who was there wrote me a lovely note and asked me to post the text of this particular section and so, here goes:

Perhaps the constant for any immigrant is our disassociation with a specific place even as we strive to maintain the relevance and worth of two particular places within the unfolding of our lives. Both of these countries have become vital to me, both places are home. What I have become is A Defender. I am a defender of Sri Lanka to Americans. I do it every time I speak of my country, in my writing through articles and opinion pieces and petitions to PBS against irresponsible journalists, and by trekking to Washington DC and building relationships with congressional staffers and joining other South Asian groups , appearing at South Asian festivals and using those platforms to speak of Sri Lanka. I do it even when I rant about one thing or another nearly every morning listening to NPR, shouting about something “stupid” that Americans are up to as if somehow none of it could be traced back to me; the media spin surrounding Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the Texas shooter, for example, and all the aspersions that were cast about his religious affiliations. It upsets me that Americans, make these judgments based on their own ethno-centric view of the world without any understanding of the depth and complexities of kinship as it is played out in other cultures. And when I say that, I know that I am standing firmly within the depth and complexity of my Sri Lankan culture, which is what enables me to have that perspective in America.

And I defend America by being attentive to its good. I love the fact that if you go to a swim meet or a track meet or any meet at all, the loudest cheer is for the person who struggles to cross the finish line last, sometimes after all the other athletes have left the deck. Despite two incredible dispiriting presidential elections – elections to which my brother had come as part of a team of international election monitors for the first time in US history – after those elections, I could still believe that in that country I could put my faith in a candidate so far from even being considered viable and never doubt that it would be possible to bring him to the White House. I could not only teach my daughter the Pledge of Allegiance but ask that she consider it her duty to honor her country by caring for it through word and deed, by fixing what was wrong. I think it is ludicrous to sing the national anthem at every small sporting event, and yet I also see that the beauty of the tradition is that the anthem has no “right” way – it belongs to every voice, however badly or well they may sing it. I could watch a program on the building of the Hoover Dam and listen to those workers talk about how they hold their hands over their hearts when they stand before that dam and understand exactly why they feel the country belongs to them.

A country belongs to you not because you are born there or die there, it belongs to you because you care for it. In some way, great or small, and in keeping with your system of beliefs, you care for it when you are in it, you speak for it when it cannot speak for itself. If it is broken, you fix it. If it is good, you celebrate it.

22 February, 2011

Crouching Tigers, Raising Dragons

jovidushi-003There’s always enough blame to go around. There’s always a nice fat chunk of it that can be placed upon the sturdy shoulders of parents the world over. That’s in fact one of the undeniable contributions of parents to society – because you can’t blame the government for everything. Children are born perfect and destined for perfection except that between that first suck of air and that first utility bill, the darn parents get involved and everything goes haywire.

Or so they say. So lets go back to those previous posts on under-performing schools and over-performing students, both equally misguided and doomed. Assuming we all agree with Seliman’s paraphrasing of the Greeks, how do we teach children to lead a productive and purposeful life? The memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua (Penguin, January 2011), whose list of credits include a professorship at Yale Law, authorship of Day of Empire (Anchor, 2009), and World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability (Doubleday, 2002) and mothership of two high-achieving daughters, has a few thoughts on that. You can read the excerpt over at the Wall Street Journal. Here are two snippets:

What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up. But if done properly, the Chinese strategy produces a virtuous circle. Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America.

Western parents try to respect their children’s individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they’re capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.

Chua’s book generated, among other things, a collection of rap songs spoofing her method of parenting. There has been criticism of her, testimonies of clawed-kids and bemoaning of the lives of her deprived children. There has even been defense of the American Way and at least one writer, Ayelet Waldman, graciously acknowledging that we all muster the best we have on behalf of our children. But while we are busy doing all this, we are still failing to examine what ails our own over-achieving (albeit sub-par compared to tiger cubs), children. Ours certainly excel at various games and classes. Some of them go to Olympic trials in their chosen sport, others graduate with academic distinction, and most of them do these things without ever once experiencing failure. Few if any of them achieve the same degree of success that a Hua kid might. Conversely, a Chua offspring is probably less able to separate herself and her own ambition from those of her parents than one of our daughters or sons are able to do. Yet somewhere between these two lies an ideal of contented childhood that could signify successful adulthood.

I decided to look closely at the choices I have made as a parent. My oldest daughter tried everything from ballet to tap to gymnastics to basketball to tennis to track to swimming…and she excelled at everything. Somewhere during those early years, I had the presence of mind (and the absence of confusion brought on by other children, not to mention the relatively normal environment in which I lived, in Maine), to recognize her bliss when she found it in running and swimming. Holding a prize for distinction in mathematics or earning good money for creative writing did not mean that she had to spend her summers delving deep into the mysteries of the universe as opposed to getting bored at home. I was able to say no thanks to the NJ State Ballet and the traveling gymnastics league in Madison, to the Bossov Ballet School and the basketball league in Maine as well as the glossy invitations to the plush programs run by Johns Hopkins for gifted children. Being good at various things did not necessitate filling up every waking moment with trying to become better at all of those things. In the same way that one best friend is a treasure beyond compare, one great sport could, truly, bring both comfort and joy to her.

Fast forward a few years and I find myself in an environment that makes it just short of impossible to divorce performance from worth. Having discovered that, no, just because I dance does not mean I can ice-skate, and, in fact, I look completely ludicrous and graceless as I lurch about the rink, I decided to enroll my younger daughters in a season of lessons. Everything went swimmingly well until I was handed, at the end of the session, a little booklet with blank pages listing all the many levels and skills-sets that awaited them during, presumably, years and years of skating. It wasn’t enough for my children to simply learn how to ice skate so they could do it with their friends, they had to be reeled into a program where some greater skill was waiting, always out of reach. And trying to achieve all of these skills in all the many sports/activities that our children may try does deprive them of the focus they may need to reach a level of perfection that is, for most people, only possible in one or two of them.

I use ice-skating as my example, but take a look at any one of the activities that American parents in a school district like this could choose – soccer, basketball, swimming, running, fencing, dancing (in a multitude of styles), performing (theater and dance), playing tennis, rowing, playing the piano/fiddle/violin/cello/guitar, skating… Any time that a child signs up for one of these activities, that child is expected to continue that activity, the implication being that dropping out of something after having tried it for a season or a summer, implies a failure on the part of both child and parent. And, sadly, too many of us seem to agree.

While parents like Chua pick an activity or two for their children and then bully their children into excelling at those activities, most of us offer our children a range of activities and (a) do not encourage them to find the ones they truly love and (b) allow the underlying popular judgment (made by parents, coaches and team mates alike), that stopping equals “giving up” or “quitting” to go uncontested. Our children grow up with the sense that the only reason to participate in a sport/activity is if ribbons/medals/trophies are guaranteed by their dedication and performance. They are unable to identify the things that truly bring them joy because far too many of these activities force the acquisition of competencies unrelated to the enjoyment of the activity by the child. It’s a lose-lose. Often they are either winning at something they don’t truly care about, abandoning those they may actually enjoy but do not excel at, or they are turning their backs on joyless activities and feeling like losers for doing so.

No wonder so many of them end up in high school stressed out, unhappy, out of touch with their own souls while meticulously churning out those A’s and making it into those Honors classes. No wonder so many of them are terrified that the worst thing that could happen to them is a ‘B’ that they feel is waiting around the next corner to bite them in the arse. No wonder they make it through high school and enter college completely unprepared for the delight of exercising an unfettered mind while simultaneously expecting to attend Stanford, Brown or Yale.

The single truly self-reflecting article I saw on this topic was by Karen Heller of the Philadelphia Inquirer who, it happens, was at Penn Charter watching ‘Race to Nowhere’ at the same time I was and drawing similar conclusions:

Not all children are exceptional in every way. Nor should they be. They can’t all be in the top 10 percent.

And not every child will go to Harvard, though it’s not for lack of trying.

With a range of colleges and universities, how did so many students see themselves at Harvard? A record 35,000 students applied for the Class of 2015, a jump of 15 percent, despite a decline in high school graduates. This means one in 50 seniors wants to attend Harvard, even though the odds of getting in are lousy. The admittance rate last year was 6.9 percent.

So, yes, we’d better prepare our children for failure.

I don’t know whom, exactly, to blame for this. Surely, some of the blame belongs to parents – children cannot enroll in activities on their own, and their approach to school has as much to do with a parent/guardian’s views as it does with their own ideas. Some of it belongs to secondary schools that measure success by average GPAs and college admissions over the fostering of the thing that is the truest indicator of life-long success: a love of learning. And some of it belongs to colleges that fall back repeatedly on the letter grade, standardized test scores and GPA over the personal history and intellectual potential of a student. When a student is reduced to listing awards and grades, and that becomes the measure of her worth, something quintessential about education is lost.

I realize that I am speaking of a privileged group of kids, those who live within a middle or upper middle class income bracket, and I know full well that, like the two movies, they are separated by a considerable gulf from the problems that beset their poorer counter parts. The overall thrust of a culture, however, affects us all equally. The kid who is told that college will save him and the kid who is told that college is non-negotiable, both will, one day, find themselves in a similar if not identical college environment. And that environment will probably be wrong in how both of them are judged. There are some changes afoot here in my house. The youngest is not in the Challenge Program for advanced kids, the middle one has been asked to aim for a D or less so she can realize that the world still stands, and the oldest has been advised to drop her second language and take pottery or photography instead. There are mixed results. The notion that “not in Challenge” means that she is not “smart enough” still hovers in the presence of her older siblings, the ‘D’ remains elusive, and a concentrated effort is being made – on the part of the youngling – to replace that second language with Theology rather than clay. But it’s a start.


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.