My Chinese Students

May 29, 2015

Ever since NYU Shanghai opened in 2012, I have had at least one or two Chinese students in my writing workshop. They are usually shy, or quiet, or scared, or in culture shock. They are expected to speak and to write with abandon, transparency and heart. Their English is still challenged, but this is not the biggest challenge. My classroom is an open classroom in an open society. For all our troubles here, we will not be put in jail for speaking or writing anything. Our inhibitions have a different origin: the constraints of the marketplace (difficult enough at times) or our own personal, psychological obstacles, all surmountable.

There are 44 writers in jail in China and many more under house arrest. China is the only country in the world that has incarcerated a Nobel Laureate: Liu Xiaobo. Liu was represented by an empty chair at the ceremony in Oslo in 2010. He is still in jail and his wife is under house arrest. Theirs is one of many stories of artists, writers and dissidents in China, a despotic communist state where one-man rule is as potent, brutal and feudal as it was under the emperors. With the economic boom and China’s influence and money on every continent, it is easy to forget this.

What happens to my students when they return to China? At an American PEN gathering this week, three Chinese dissidents (Murong Xuecun, Bao Pu and Xiaolu Guo) in town for demonstrations at the Book Expo, talked about the pervasive, endemic, government-driven censorship in China. And to a person, they were skeptical of the value of American authors getting published in China—a vast, tempting new marketplace—or of privileged Chinese students studying here who return to China with the cachet of an American diploma. Many are “seduced” by jobs in government or industry.

I feel protective of my Chinese students. I get to know them quickly despite their shyness. And I think it is cynical to believe that when they return they will necessarily be seduced. After all, writing is a strengthening, clarifying process. A personal transformation takes place that is both sustaining and lifelong. And so I am hopeful that exposure to a free-thinking environment will somehow take hold, and that the Chinese students who pass through our classes may, one day, be in the vanguard of democratic change in China. Or, if not them, then their children. And though all reference to the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989 has been expunged in mainland China, it will be found again, and published for all to read, and celebrate.

Recent history in other countries, including our own, provide the best example. American history textbooks never mentioned the genocide of the Native Americans until the 1960’s, or the brutalities of slavery, for that matter, two fault lines in our own past which have still not been reconciled or healed. And in Israel, it is only in the last decade that the Israelis have learned about the eracination of the Palestinian people during their fight for independence during the British mandate.

As for the publishing opportunities for foreign authors in China, it’s a hard call. “Another Day in Paradise; International Humanitarian Workers Tell Their Stories,” has been published twice in China, more recently using the “simple” alphabet. I signed a contract both times too casually. To get published in China, that is a good thing, I thought.Yes and no. PEN now recommends a series of actions before publication in China. I might have insisted on a translator to check on the deletions, excisions, and changes that were made, for example. The more writers that do this, the better. My agent might have done the same.

Is it better to have 90% of a book published in China—available in its entirety in Hong Kong and Taiwan or on the black market—or not to have it published there at all? Do we perpetuate censorship and the despotic regime by agreeing to publication? Or are we supporting the struggling publishers and editors who want to keep going and are always on the side of the writer and literature?

The answers to these questions test our moral conscience as they did before the fall of apartheid in South Africa. And that is a good for a writer.

A PDF of the American PEN “Censorship and Conscience Report” is available online:

http://www.pen.org/sites/default/files/PEN_Censorship-and-Conscience_5-20-15.pdf

Adam Nossiter: A Brave Reporter

May 19, 2015

Tags: New York Times reporters, Boko Haram, Nigeria, The Good Samaritan Law, Princess Di

Adam Nossiter (center). Photo by the NY Times
When Princess Di was killed in a car crash in Paris and the paparazzi were gloating and falling over each other to get the most gruesome shot, what kind of journalism was this? Salacious, scandalous, tabloid journalism. And all of those reporters and photo-journalists—to their shame—were liable to a fine and imprisonment under French law which is grounded in the Napoleonic Code. Some refer to it as the “good samaritan law,” whereby anyone witnessing injury or distress is obliged to help. It is different in the United States; our law is based on English Common Law and there is no liability if we do not help, or moral obligation, or “duty to rescue.” Nonetheless, the discussion about rescue, engagement, and bearing testimony, is a constant among journalists. If we see a child starving in the desert and take a photograph for the newspaper we work for, are we obliged to help that child?

I will always remember those journalists on the day Princess Di was killed, I cannot forget them and what they did. She may or may not have survived her injuries; we will never know. But her death became a touchstone for many journalists who were repulsed by the paparazzi that day. I study my own motivations every time I interview and sit down to write. I try not to exploit for my own gain or fame, though temptations abound. I am not perfect. Every reporter gets an adrenalin rush on a big story.

I am thinking about all this today because of a front page story in the NY Times by Adam Nossiter, The West Africa Bureau Chief of the NY Times. He has been covering the Boko Haram atrocities in Nigeria for a while now, and has received death threats. He gets in close, takes risks. (Before Nigeria, he covered the Ebola outbreak.) And, yes, this is all very good for his career, and, yes, he will win prizes, but he is a reporter who cares. Perhaps, just perhaps, his courage will help the young girls who have been raped, impregnated and infected with HIV heal from their ordeal. I am sure he will not sleep well at night until he has done all he can to bring attention to this story.


Writing Practice

May 11, 2015

My daughter teases me about my texting. The texts are too long and I have turned off the auto-correct. “Write, correct, write, delete,” she says lovingly, and we both laugh. She does read them—I am her mom—but she is very busy and doesn’t have a lot of time and feels bad when she doesn’t have time to read them, which is really perfectly okay

Text has a purpose: fast, immediate communication, right? But I write tomes.

My Facebook status posts are long also and I use the “note” function which is terrific. I post the blog on my website into a Facebook note—excuse me FB, for short—and then share it to my personal timeline. My daughter, who is brilliant at all of this, organized my FB page to feed into my Twitter.

But this is the thing: I’m a writer. I don’t abbreviate, or I find it difficult to abbreviate. “Where r u,” for example. I want everyone to read what I have written and I want to read what everyone has written. But I understand that time is limited and that not everyone will admire and respond to my beautiful long narrative sentences.

When I was in graduate school, I learned that whatever medium we choose to use is up to us; how we use it is up to us, and every one of them is a tool, nothing more. Whatever medium I choose, so far as I am concerned, is the perfect opportunity to write a decent sentence and to practice writing decent sentences.

Kindly join me in this endeavor, “like” my Carol Bergman Writer Facebook page, and feel free to write long comments if you have the time. I promise to read them and to reply when I have the time.

Witness to History: Mr. Kido Tells His Story

May 5, 2015

Tags: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, nuclear power, non-proliferation

I went to the United Nations yesterday to meet Sueichi Kido from Nagasaki. He is one of twenty survivors of the atomic blasts on Hiroshima and Nagasaki who traveled to New York for the opening of an exhibit in the UN lobby, discussions at the UN about the world’s nuclear arsenal, and a commemorative concert at Ethical Culture School.

The survivors of the bombings are called hibakusha, a Japanese word that literally translates to "explosion-affected people." Hibakusha and their children have been stigmatized in Japan and it is only recently that the government has recognized their medical complaints as a consequence of the blasts.

The Americans—President Truman and his advisers—who unleashed this weapon of mass destruction, censored the press after the blasts and suppressed the stories of the military witnesses and survivors. Even General MacArthur doubted the wisdom of dropping the bombs, and feared it. He argued that the saturation bombing of Tokyo-- 200,000 killed--just prior to the nuclear blasts, would end the war just as quickly.

A small man with a cherubic face once badly burned, Mr. Kido is devoting his retirement years to telling his story. “There aren’t many of us left. We are getting old, we are sick,” he says. Five-years-old at the time of the blast and living within the 2km epicenter, his mother carried him away from the wind and flames in search of shelter. Flesh was melting off their bodies, they were thirsty. There was no water, no shelter, no medical facility. The city had been incinerated.

Needless to say, there was no question of a normal childhood for Mr. Kido after this holocaust. He didn’t stop trembling until he was ten-years-old, or laugh, or play. PTSD doesn’t describe the implosion in his body and his soul.

"A uranium gun-type atomic bomb (Little Boy) was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, followed by a plutonium implosion-type bomb (Fat Man) on the city of Nagasaki on August 9. Little Boy exploded 2,000 feet above Hiroshima in a blast equal to 12-15,000 tons of TNT, destroying five square miles of the city. Within the first two to four months of the bombings, the acute effects of the atomic bombings killed 90,000–166,000 people in Hiroshima and 39,000–80,000 in Nagasaki; roughly half of the deaths in each city occurred on the first day. During the following months, large numbers died from the effect of burns, radiation sickness, and other injuries, compounded by illness and malnutrition. In both cities, most of the dead were civilians, although Hiroshima had a sizable military garrison."
– Source, Wikipedia.

The curator of the exhibit, Erico Narita, had invited me to the exhibit. She showed me around and translated. She is in her 30’s and grew up in northern Japan near Hakkaido, a blissful, peaceful, innocent, post-war childhood. Contemporary Japanese history is not taught in the schools so she knew very little about Hiroshima and Nagasaki until she began her research. Therefore, the stories of the survivors in this 70th anniversary year serve a double purpose, at home and abroad.

Knowing that people don’t read a lot these days, Ms. Narita created a balanced narrative with photographs and graphics. And though the pictures are muted black and white, be warned that they are hard to look at.

When there is no knowledge, there is no discussion, Mr. Kido explains. He is a retired Japanese history professor and no friend of Emperor worship or the current Prime Minister. And so his story is also well-balanced; he is not a victim. There are fault lines in every nation, we said to one another as Erico translated. Then we bowed gently, shook hands, and said good-bye.

“Nucelar-Free World; Cries from Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” a multi-media exhibition, will be in the Main Gallery of the United Nations until May 31st. There are lines to get in and airport-strength security. Bring ID. Mr. Kido, the Assistant Secretary General of Hidankyo, the Japan Conference of the A and H-Bomb Sufferers Organization, and the last of the visitors, will be in the gallery until May 10.

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