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Literary Sentinels

"Say Nothing" on the shelf at Oblong Books in Rhinebeck, NY. Photo: courtesy Elizabeth Roth

 

"Every time I make a film, the film also makes me."

 

Nanfu Wang, documentary filmmaker, "One Child Nation"

 

in a New Yorker interview by Han Zhang,  8/27/2019

 

 

I know many readers who devour books, read one after the other, swat them away like flies. Two women at the outdoor pool where I swim read one book a day, from what I can tell. They sit and read as their legs dangle in the water and chat to the lap swimmers as we walk down the steps to the lanes. I call them our "literary sentinels." Their reviews are pithy. This one is good, this one not so good. I have not dared to tell them I am a writer for fear that my books will also get swatted away in an instant. Do they have any idea of the effort it takes to write a book? I once belonged to a book club of voracious readers, none of whom were writers, and when they suggested one of my books, I foolishly agreed. They liked it more or less—that wasn't the point—it was the cavalier way they talked about it that hurt me and the speed with which they moved onto next month's choice. I can't even repeat their questions and comments here; I have suppressed them.


A kind and friendly neighbor told me she'd be reading "Say Nothing" on her journey across the ocean for her summer holidays. "Plenty of time on the long flight," she said "I'll take notes and let you know what I think about making it better. Then I'll write a review on amazon." When I said that I was grateful she'd bought the book, she was pleased. But when I continued with, "It doesn't matter to me whether you like it or not," she was not so pleased. I tired to explain without being crude or rude: "You're an avid reader, therefore you are my audience, but you are not a writer, you are a mathematician. I only pay attention to what writers and editors say to me about improving my work."


She was undaunted. Soon after her return she stopped me as I was taking out the garbage and started to ask me questions about one of the plot points. She didn't understand why the character was leaving bones as clues. I launched into my usual lecture about "reader response theory," which in a nutshell is this: The book/story does not exist until it is in your mind. It belongs to you. I am glad you have had a response to my work—good, bad, or bewildered—but I am not going to explain the choices I made to tell this story. And so on.


Then I realized I was wrong in one respect: marketing. I don't usually concern myself with marketing or audience as I am writing fiction. I suppose I should, but I don't. Of course I want to sell whatever I write—thus you may call me a "professional" writer—but if I think about selling as I am creating, I cannot create; I feel stymied, observed, discouraged and judged. And if I think of an "approving" audience as I am writing, or the accolades I may receive, I would develop a writer's block in an instant.


My conviction that it is necessary to keep one's process and work private until it is published has strengthened over the years. I encourage my students not to show their drafts to any wannabe editors—friends, families, significant others. And I suggest they develop a line or two as a rebuttal to a request to see a work in progress, or if it is easier, to blame me: "My professor says I shouldn't show you my work in progress."


Recently, a colleague published a literary memoir about her childhood that included a chapter about a sexual abuse she endured and survived. She did not want this one chapter of the book highlighted in a press release, nor did she want to talk about it during interviews despite the fact that interviewers and reviewers would undoubtedly go for the jugular in this #metoo moment. I admired her resolve; she'd written all she wanted to say on the subject. How she will fare during interviews and during Q & A's at readings is still unknown. This is her first book, her first exposure to the public. It's not always easy.

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Mending Wall

Photo © copyright Carol Bergman 2019

 

Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.

 

From "Mending Wall" by Robert Frost

 

 

I thought of this famous Robert Frost poem as I walked down Huguenot Street the other day and snapped black and white photos, my end of summer dolce far niente creative exercise. Of course we are never doing niente/nothing, but to allow the mind and spirit to rest for an hour, or two, or three a day, during these hard times, and very humid climate, that is important I am sure you would agree, dear reader. I continue to read and write through all weathers, political weathers included, but I also need to rest. I'm up to a half-mile in the lap lane and get out for hikes between storms. Lightening is fierce here, exposure more dangerous than in the protected environment of the city, and one must be careful getting in and out of a car, for example.

 

Niente. Not exactly, despite long, peaceful days of reading and writing, it's not niente, not the way the Europeans mean it. I've started work on a book, a project that should carry me through the academic year, and I'm keeping a companion journal to record my progress, research, questions and conundrums. I have been inspired, partially, by the publication and reception of my first murder mystery, "Say Nothing," and by the history of enslavement in the Mid-Hudson Valley and its lasting impact on one small town—New Paltz—where I now live. The whole town is a monument to the French Huguenot slave owners. Their descendants are still here, not so the descendants of their slaves. They fled, migrated, disappeared. It seems an appropriate subject to study and re-interpret in 2019, the 400th anniversary of the first arrival of slaves in the colonies. I recommend the New York Times' 1619 project, a formidable contribution to the discourse. Read slowly. There's a lot to digest:

 

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/1619-america-slavery.html

 

As for mending walls: there's work to be done and not just on the southern border. We'll need all the fortitude we can muster to face the challenges in the months ahead and to repair what has collapsed within our beleaguered nation and within ourselves.

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Exiled From Gaza; An Artist Under Siege

My Grandparents © copyright by Malak Mattar 2019. Doves of peace are ever-present in Malak's paintings.

 

 

Exile is more than a geographical concept. You can be in exile in your homeland, in your own house, in your room.

 

        Mahmoud Darwish, a Palestinian poet, (1941-2008)

 

 

Malak Mattar, now just nineteen years old, is still what many would call a "naive artist," mostly untrained desipite the mentorship of her uncle, Mohammed Musallum, who teaches art in the only art school in Gaza. So I will begin there, in Gaza, during a 51-day Israeli bombing siege, in a household where a girl of 14 who has never drawn or painted before, is trying to stay sane during the Second Intifada against the brutal Israeli occupation. Watercolor and paper on the kitchen table, Malak starts to paint, mostly portraits of the women in her family and her community. She is gifted.

 

I had the good fortune to hear about Malak through a Palestinian friend who went to see her recent art exhibition in New York. Sponsored by the Palestine Museum US in Woodbridge, Ct., Malak was granted a two-week visa to show her work in three locations— Connecticut, DC, and New York, before her return to Istanbul to continue her studies on a full scholarship in political science and international relations at the Istanbul Aydin University. She misses her family in Gaza but cannot return during holidays as there is no guarantee she can get out in time to travel back to Turkey before classes begin. Though Gaza has been administered by Hamas since 2007, it is still under "indirect" Israeli occupation; Israel controls its electricity, telecommunications and borders.

 

I try to imagine this pressure, not as an ordinary American student worried about grades and financing, but as a student in exile from her beleaguered homeland, worried about her family and friends. How brave she has been, truly exemplary. She has had to learn both Turkish and English as her classes are in English, and struggles to maintain her bank account and grade point average. She travels wherever she is invited to show her work. "I will never stop painting," she told me with confidence. "Life is not easy in Gaza. This is what I portray in my work. I want the world to understand."

 

 

 

For more of Malak's story:

 

https://wearenotnumbers.org/home/Contributor/Malak_Mattar

 

Malak on Facebook:

 

https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100004339966663

 

For more about Palestine and Israel:

 

Human Rights Watch Report

 

https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2019/country-chapters/israel/palestine

 

Yousef Bashir, "Words of My Father" 

 

https://www.harpercollins.com/9780062917324/the-words-of-my-father/

 

Mahmoud Darwish Poems

 

https://www.google.com/search?q=darwish+poems+on+amazon&source=univ&tbm=shop&tbo=u&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjKlffslorkAhUqwlkKHax7CuUQsxgIMA&biw=1024&bih=710#spd=13109659742047301644

 

Palestine Museum, Woodbridge, Ct.

 

https://www.palestinemuseum.us/

 

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Travel Advisory

 

 

We work to protect people wherever justice, freedom, truth, and dignity are denied.    

      

              --Amnesty International's Mission Statement

 

 

Iain Levine was the Amnesty Representative to the United Nations when I met him nearly 20-years-ago now. It was his story about working as a nurse in the Sudan that got me started on "Another Day in Paradise; International Humanitarian Workers Tell Their Stories" with a foreword by the human rights activist, John Le Carré. In between his travels to war-torn countries, Iain had taken a one-day workshop at Gotham Writers Workshop and pulled together his journal notes from his months in Sudan. Iain is an avid reader and compelling talker. His finished narrative became one of the chapters in the book proposal, which we sold easily, and then the lead chapter in the book itself. It is still in print, more relevant today than ever before. It did well on four continents--North America, Australia and Europe--and recently was also published for a second time in China.

 

When I saw the Amnesty Travel Advisory about the United States this morning on Facebook, I decided to contact Iain to corroborate my intuition that this advisory, echoing the State Department's travel advisories for other countries, was unprecedented and real. Though he is in the UK for a family reunion, and has just resigned from his more recent position as the Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch to teach at Columbia, Iain wrote back to me right away. He confirmed that the advisory is unprecedented and it is real. As soon as Donald Trump was elected, Amnesty mobilized their 2.2 million activists in 150 countries to monitor the new president, and hold him accountable for his so-called policies and executive orders.

 

We may never know whether or not the president and his cohorts care about this censure from a highly respected international organization, but, at the very least, the story has now been told and broadcast : The United States of America is no longer a safe haven for refugees, asylees, immigrants, tourists, or ordinary citizens trapped in a new American nightmare.

 

 

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Two More Shootings

Photo © Andrew Caballero-Reynolds, AFP/Getty Images

 

I needed a break from Facebook, or so I thought. I don't have any "friends" on Facebook I'd be ashamed of, or wouldn't want to meet for a coffee. There are one or two people I have not met and my impression of their lives is only what they choose to present—in photos and text—on the social media platform. For all of those I have not met, I hope one day to meet them. This is an open invitation. Still, I felt oddly disgusted the other day—not with political conversation—it wasn't that. All my FB friends are civil, or they would not be my friends. It was something else: the unending coldness of a medium—à la Marshall McLuhan—that fools us into thinking it is "warm," concerned and intimate. Because we enter the portal at a whim, according to our own timetable, we may or may not connect or converse. What we see and read is static, unlike a dynamic real-time conversation. The comments usually are quick, short and shallow. And I am a writer; I like to talk, to spin out ideas. So, from the start of FB, whenever that was, I have written long posts and I also post my blog. There is plenty of space to comment; there are no word restrictions. Indeed, I suggest to my students to take their time, to use Facebook as an opportunity to practice their writing. Readers can click off or scroll away; it's up to them.


So I was off Facebook for a day or so, maybe not even that long—and not entirely—as I kept lurking. A friend in Florida had a terrible car accident and how would I have known about this if I hadn't been checking-in? I wrote to her on Messenger and also sent her an email. She's not someone I've seen a lot over the years, but I care about her, of course I do. Our kids were toddlers in London together. We saw each other again in California years later, our kids grown, and we've kept in touch via FB. Pretty nice, I'd say. I wish we could talk on the phone, see each other, write more long, discursive emails like correspondents of yester-years because I don't want FB to become a substitute for deep, human connection. That is not sustainable for me. A writer, solitary so much of the time, requires more than sound-byte micro-connections. Well, we all do, I suppose. In fact, I am sure of it. More so in these hard times than ever. That's why I decided to go off FB for a while, to think about a rehabilitation of strong, close human connection and the uses and abuses of social media.


Here is my FB post of August 2:


Dear Friends,
I have decided to go off FB for a while. If you would like to have a real time, voice conversation, please call, or come to visit. You know where I am and I know where you are. You will be hearing from me, but not on FB. In other words, let us stay in touch with actual F2F or voice communication. Please text only to arrange or confirm, or if you need to get my attention quickly, but not to converse. Converse, as in conversation.
FB is a deceptively "warm" medium I plan to write about. I think it is because of the photos, but I am going to think more about this. (Back to my grad school subject.) We also know how it's being used politically—positively and negatively—so of great interest.
I will continue to post blog (notes )on my professional page, but I won't share them here.
Have a good rest of the summer— in reality, not virtually. Local friends, let's meet for a coffee—and talk.
All best,
Carol


A few dear friends responded, said they understood, said they'd miss my posts. I didn't thank them on FB, so I thank them now. Thank you.


Best laid plans. I am back. It was because of the shootings on Saturday, August 3rd, one day after I had decided to take a break. I had a terrible night's sleep, as did my husband. First thing in the morning, I read a 2012 Jill Lepore article about guns in America on the New Yorker Today feed, and decided to post it on FB:


https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/04/23/battleground-america?fbclid=IwAR0Zs5L19_2aU9e6EaazB7vXokIFP3P4adzHPiD8sgYgnJyI2RdeQfqhzYM


The commentary from friends started to come in, and it was long, narrative commentary. I was grateful and felt a sense of community, a sense of purpose, even a sense of safety, illusory as that might be. Any one of us can find ourselves in the line of fire. In fact, there was a shooting in the mall in New Paltz a few weeks ago: a son shot his father in front of the diner. No one else was hurt, thank goodness. I arrived a few minutes later during the stop action, everyone frozen in their cars and shoes. I parked far away from the huddle of law enforcement –it's a huge lot—and chatted to my real-time friends in the health store, a human-size store where it is easy to have a conversation. We all hypothesized about what had happened. And it was odd, we all agreed, that life—or shopping—was already back to "normal."


Racists with guns are on the loose in America abetted by racist politicians in Washington. As one of my FB friends said so succinctly this morning: It's a national emergency. Let us shout this loud and clear on every media platform at our disposal: It's a national emergency.



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