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John le Carré @ 85

My mother adored his books and gave them as gifts to everyone. The only one I had ever read was “The Constant Gardener,” because it was about a relief worker and le Carré had written a foreword to my book, “Another Day in Paradise; International Humanitarian Workers Tell Their Stories.” That book, thanks to him, is still in print in the English-speaking world. His offer to write the foreword , well, dear reader, that was an offer I could not refuse.

I had been invited to the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva for “war games,” and was picked up at the airport by the PR who had arranged my visit, a Brit.

“How is your French?,” he asked.
“Pas mal,” I answered, perhaps too boldly.

He would be introducing me to the assembled in French, which is still the diplomatic lingua franca. I let that daunting thought slip as he continued his questioning about the book, which was nearly complete. Had we commissioned a foreword? Not yet. “How about le Carré?,” he asked. “He’s deeply involved in humanitarian initiatives. He’s high profile. He’ll sell your book.”

“But can you arrange it?”
“I know his agent.”

I was on un nuage, a cloud. This wonderful news dampened, somewhat, the disturbing effects of the war games. I studied the Geneva Conventions—in French and English—and rode in a jeep into a bombed out city, casualties and corpses everywhere. It was difficult to sleep. I’d brought melatonin, useful beyond the jet lag. I returned to New York and called my publisher: “I’m going to write to le Carré’s agent.”

“Good luck,” he said.
I wondered if he believed me. I wondered if I believed me.

Dear reader, it took about five minutes for le Carré to agree to write the foreword to my book. The manuscript arrived before deadline, pristine, not a comma out of place. I had hoped to meet him to thank him personally, but he sent his agent to the launch in London, which was enough. His presence might have upstaged the relief workers who were present, I thought to myself. And I knew he would never have wanted to do that.

Years have passed and there are more refugees than ever before wandering the world in search of shelter. And more relief workers in grave danger. The Red Cross sign and the UN and NGO logos are no guarantee of safe passage any more.

And where is le Carré ? When he is not researching a new book, he lives quietly on the Cornish coast with his wife. His children are grown. He has written his memoir, “The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories From My Life,” and finally agreed to an interview on 60 minutes. Shy, retiring, modest, a disciplined writer dedicated to illuminating in his fictions the unending hypocrisies and tragedies of governments. He cannot and will not stop, he has said.

And so I have started reading more of le Carré and, finally, appreciate him as a storyteller as well as a humanitarian. This week—because I found it on a giveaway shelf in my neighborhood—“The Russia House.” An epigraph from Dwight D. Eisenhower begins the book:

“Indeed, I think that people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of their way and let them have it.”

Two pages in and I was riveted.  Read More 
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Soldier

...and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

--From the Book of Isaiah

I had wanted to tell his story or to help him tell his story. He had approached me after a seminar and said he was in transition from the military into humanitarian work and had recently returned from a stint in a refugee camp.

He’d been in Afghanistan, he’d been in Iraq, he still had all his limbs, he spoke English and Arabic and Dari, which is related to Farsi, the language of Iran. He had a very American name—Bryan—and had grown up in a very American middle-class military family in a suddenly—one year to the next, it seemed—impoverished textile down in Northern New England. Many of the young men and women had enlisted or gone to seek their fortunes in the cities across America and the world leaving their bereft extended families behind. He had lost many comrades.

This is Donald Trump’s America. We would do well to pay attention.

For several months I tried to fashion a book proposal about veterans like Bryan, young men and women who had enlisted for economic or patriotic reasons, or both, men and women who were deployed and then re-deployed, brutalized by war and witness to war. Men and women who had decided to become healers and helpers. But they had trouble talking about their experiences in war zones, they had moved on, and the stories never took shape, so I moved on, too, into my next project.

Since then, several impressive anthologies have been published but none, so far as I can tell, celebrate the soldiers who have become humanitarian workers:

https://acolytesofwar.com/2016/11/20/veterans-war-writing-anthologies-r-us/

Maybe I am thinking about these particular vets again today because there is still so much terrible conflict in the world with no end in sight; or because the promise of peaceful resolutions and solid diplomacy seems even more remote as Donald Trump enters the White House.

There are no golf courses or business opportunities in refugee camps.

We are asked by some to “give our new president a chance,” and to forgive his egregious transgressions and hate speech thus far. Many professionals are trying to rein him in, to educate him. I wonder if this would be easier, or even necessary, if his own sons had been drafted, or enlisted, or lost comrades overseas. I know that Bryan and his decimated unit, deployed and re-deployed, would have a lot to teach our new president about altruism, civility, and world peace.  Read More 
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Advertisements for Myself

I don’t think any writer starting out on her career believes that she’ll be expected to promote herself—endlessly—as I am doing right here, right now, on Facebook which RSS feeds into Goodreads, my Amazon Authors Page and Twitter. I have missed-out on Instagram I learned the other day at the “I Wish To Say” PEN event in Bryant Park. I was one of the readers, a professional photographer working the event was snapping pictures, and she asked if she could tag me on my Instagram account. I have opened an account but I don’t use it, I told her. Not yet anyway. And if I continue on this path of social media advertising for and of myself, which is already so time-consuming, will there be any time or inclination left to write?

Innocently, at first, we assume that others will do the work of pimping and primping for us. Pimping is the selling part of the busines, primping the copy-editing and proofing of text. I don’t want to be doing any of that. All I want to do is teach and write. That’s hard work enough. And satisfying. And although the work comes to fruition with pimping and primping, I don’t like it, nor do most writers and artists I know. Not to mention that most of us are solitary creatures, solitude required for the writing endeavor. How else can ideas, sentences and words surface in us if we aren’t quiet?

Quietude, what a quaint idea.

Once, riding shotgun in a car in Geneva with the publicist for the International Committee for the Red Cross, he told me that if I wanted to get the book I was working on about humanitarian relief work “platformed,” he could introduce me to John le Carré’s agent. Perhaps he could write a preface for the book? Le Carré was immersed in humanitarian advocacy and said yes in two minutes. The preface was written—with not a word out of place I might add. We also landed a beautiful photo for the cover by James Nachtwey, a renowned war photojournalist. Platform “favors.” And though we had to pay for them, the price stayed low. Neither Nachtwey nor le Carré wanted a lot of money.

Was I pleased? Of course I was. This was a worthy project that took two years to complete. Did I promote the book like crazy in the US and the EU? You bet I did. But it wasn’t advertisement for myself (in the solipsistic sense), it was advertisement of the work itself, which is different. I’m not sure that what I am doing here in this blog is the same. True, I concentrate on writing and the writing life, and hope that what I write has some value for writers and students, but self-promotion per se makes me queasy.  Read More 
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