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When I was in graduate school studying media—before the days of social media—one of my professors always reminded us that whatever technology we chose to use and master, it was important to remember that technologies are tools, nothing more or less. And some of them are powerful, as we have experienced since the advent of the internet and smart phone. And so I am puzzled when someone says, “I don’t want to get into FB, it will consume me.” Unless one develops an addiction, this is patently not true. And most people are responsible. Those that aren’t can easily be un-followed or un-friended. I don't believe in robots taking over the world; the use or the abuse of any technology is in our control

That all said, I do remember my first skeptical reactions to FB, which I wrote about here. The skepticism didn’t last long. Like everyone else I know, I have enhanced my personal and business connections, kept in touch with friends and family very far away, found people I had not been in touch with in a very long time (a college friend, a friend who had moved to Asia) and enjoy posting photographs with captions (one technology inside another). I’m a writer and I write long captions, notes and stories. Why not? I even use the edit option to change them occasionally and/or correct a mistake. Thank you, FB, for this feature.

As for privacy issues, surveillance and all the rest. I try to ignore them. We all know that surveillance is pervasive and will be for the forseeable future. But this is my thinking: we live in a free society, albeit constricted in some ways. And in this democratic free society, it is our mandate to speak with loud, bold voices without fear. Whomsoever wants to drop in on my blog posts and FB posts, please do so. If you have an issue with what I have said, answer it in words. I am listening.

I am thinking about all this today because an ex of my daughter’s, who I have always thought of as a son, is in the hospital. He’s able to use his phone and is on FB all the time. Friends and family are at his bedside, others are on FB sharing stories, joking with him and encouraging his recovery. What a wonderful healing technology, one to celebrate as we enter a new year.  Read More 
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Holiday Cards

Photo by Gerard Brown
A friend put a post up on FB this week: she will not be sending out holiday cards for the first time this year. She hopes to spend the postage money on a donation instead and to save paper. “And wishing you and yours a happy holiday.”

That is more than enough for me. We see each other on FB and in person all the time. I don’t need a card to reinforce our friendship.

But then I received a couple of emails from friends in the UK where—for more than a decade—I was the happy beneficiary of traditional Christmas celebrations. This included cards and dinners and Boxing Day leftovers. One friend in London hand-delivered Christmas cards to all her neighbors, a quaint tradition indeed. The email I received from her this year explained that a card was on its way. In fact, I received three emails from friends overseas to say that cards were on their way. Of course, we email all the time, these friends and I, see each other on Facebook, Facetime, Viber call and viber message, so I didn’t need a heads-up about delayed holiday cards.

I think we are in the midst of a cultural shift. Not only is electronic media providing constant connection, we are also celebrating our holidays in different ways. For starters, it’s not only Christmas that we are celebrating. Secular as the holiday has become in the US, there are others that are equally entertaining and important. So years ago, my cards became more generic: Happy Holidays, Peace on Earth (wishful thinking), etc. In the UK, where there is no separation of church and state, the holiday still feels more “Christian,” though even there diversity is having an impact, albeit at a snail’s pace during the holiday season.

As you can see, dear reader, I’ve been ruminating about all this and have to say that the changes suit me.That said, if you wish to wish me a happy holiday, please do so, don’t be afraid of my Scrooge-like wrath and don’t grumble about my free-thinking irreverence. I’m a writer. I think this way. More importantly, I reply to all cards that arrive in envelopes with stamps. I send an email letter or I pick up our internet phone to have a long person-to-person chat.  Read More 
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Biblio-Diversity; Literature from Madagascar

I attended an evening of literature and song from Madagascar at The Albertine last night, a Payne-Whitney mansion on Fifth Avenue just below 79th Street. The French flag was flying—the building has been owned by the French government since 1952—and the bookshop (books in French and English) on the ground floor, and the library on the second floor, are all part of the Cultural Services of the French Embassy.

Madagascar, an island off the east coast of Africa, is one of the most bio-diverse—flora, fauna and human—countries on earth. It was settled by travelers and colonizers from Malaysia, India, China, Indonesia, aboriginal Australia, and the Arab world. Then there was France and Britain. They fought over the island , too, until the French finally became its master in 1895. They held it until independence in 1960. Like other former colonies, there has been much political turmoil since.

Now try to imagine this country’s rich literature—largely unknown to the rest of the world—and a young, enthusiastic American translator –French to English—who is studying for her MA and comes across the literature. Why hasn’t she heard about it before? Not satisfied with what she could discover on the internet, Allison M. Charette travelled to Madagascar and stayed there for six weeks. Internet service there is sporadic but word-of-mouth is not. She met authors, gathered their books, and filled a suitcase with masterpieces. Here is her introduction to the current issue of Words Without Borders:

“Welcome to the Madagascar issue. The description is a little general; please do excuse us. It’s just that any adjective would be superfluous when you’re essentially introducing a country’s literature in English translation. Not a single novel from Madagascar, whether written in French or Malagasy, has ever appeared in English.”


Naivoharisoa Patrick Ramamonjisoa, Naivo for short, read an excerpt from “The Conspiracists,” the Kafkaesque short story Ms. Charette translated for the issue. He read it in French and then Ms. Charette read it in English. Eric Becker, an editor at Words Without Borders, asked questions. At first, the evening felt staid and predictable, like any author presentation anywhere, but everyone in the audience knew it was more than that. A first time. A birth. A recognition. How can so much of the world’s literature, so much of the world in fact, remain invisible to the west? It seems unconscionable.

After the reading we were invited for a glass of wine and a performance by Razia Said and her band. She had written songs in Malagasy--the indigenous language of Madagascar--one about her grandmother, the other about the future of the children of Madagascar. She had recently returned to live on the island after years of exile and now she was back in New York singing to us at The Albertine, a small miracle.  Read More 
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The asylees and refugees arrived at Fordham University at 1 p.m. last Thursday for a CV clinic. I had volunteered because I wanted to do something immediate and useful after the horrific events in Paris and the backlash against refugees in the EU and the US. My parents were refugees. I could see them in that room, feel them there, nothing but the clothes on their back, speaking in a foreign tongue, all their valuable dog-eared, well-fingered documents neatly held in a small satchel, the sorrow of family and friends left behind visible in their gestures and facial expressions despite their courage and pride.

I was matched with a young man from Sierra Leone whose father and uncle had been killed in the civil war. His schooling had been interrupted, his family dismembered—literally and metaphorically—yet he’d recovered enough to volunteer in various UN-sponsored youth empowerment and HIV prevention programs. Then Ebola hit—more trouble—and he escaped that scourge and the persecution of secret societies, though what these are is unclear. I didn’t get the full story; that wasn’t my job. I had to find a way to create a one-page CV quickly so that he could find an internship or volunteer position while awaiting asylum. This meant using my interviewing and rewriting skills. The CV he presented was mostly in Krio, not standard dialect, and needed a lot of work. It was challenging to figure out what experience would be applicable and how to present it.

The young man has to be nameless here—political asylum is not guaranteed—but suffice to say he was sophisticated, comparatively well-dressed, a former competitive swimmer and marathon runner, easy to work with—eager like all young people are—to complete his education and remake his life. I enjoyed myself, enjoyed getting to know him, enjoyed helping him. I am a swimmer, too, so that was our first touching point. Many others followed. Now, two days later, we are communicating by text, honing the CV, and I have put him in touch with another wonderful young man I know who has agreed to mentor him and steer him towards volunteer opportunities. It takes a village and this asylee has lost his through no fault of his own. That sounds cliché but it is more than true and so I will repeat it: through no fault of his own.

No atrocity and subsequent migration happens in isolation from the flow of history. Sierra Leone was founded by the “Back to Africa” movement in the early 19th century – a combination of freed slaves, Quakers, British and American abolitionists, and reactionary slave-holding whites who feared that freed slaves would incite slave rebellion. In other words, the legacy of slavery and colonialism is still present everywhere, undermining progress and civil society. What is our responsibility and what isn’t? That is for every person to answer individually according to his or her own conscience. Some people feel the world’s woes keenly, some are insular and apathetic. But we now have a situation—global terrorism—that the president will address tonight, as I write. At the very least, it demands a fuller attention and empathy for displaced populations and a reckoning of our role—as Americans—in the world’s upheavals.

The CV clinic I attended was run by RIF, the Refugee and Immigrant Fund, founded by Maria Blacque-Belair. I first met Maria when I was compiling “Another Day in Paradise.” She wrote a story about her four years in Bosnia as a relief worker. When she returned from that war zone, she got her MSW with a specialty in trauma and recovery from NYU, married, adopted two children, and eventually began RIF. She is a model of hard work, devotion and common sense. I am happy to use my skills as a writer and educator to help her clients whenever and however I can.  Read More 
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Play With Me

I had only a few memories of my Canadian cousin, the daughter of my father’s younger brother, Paul. He had settled in Canada instead of America which was not his choice, but he had had no choice. Refugees rarely do. The family of five siblings—the parents left behind—were split up after an initial flight and a year of waiting for visas. The siblings left the European continent before their parents—our grandparents—could be saved. Now, decades later, Sherry was coming down from Toronto for Thanksgiving. We’d had a reunion in May, become Facebook friends, and were getting to know each other as adults.

And it was all because of an essay about my father’s Egon Schiele collection I had published in February that all this happened. I was doing some research and Googled Sherry. There she was on the board of a symphony in Parry Sound. Our fathers would have been proud; the musical strain in our family runs deep. So does athleticism. Sherry was an ice skater, a competitive ice skating judge, and she travels all around the world to watch competitions. Oh, I am proud of her.

Writing takes me to wonderful places and a reunion with a long-lost childhood playmate and relative is just one of them. Scholars contact me, other writers, students studying writing, or just a reader with a question, a compliment or a correction. I answer every request, every email. The purpose of writing is to connect—my voice into your ear—to share experience and history, and to add to the historical record. Why else bother to write?

I had a city day with Sherry on Sunday: the Whitney and the Highline. We meandered through the Frank Stella retrospective and commented on the shifts in his perspective from flat to three- dimensional. Born into privilege and successful early, some of my artist friends dismiss him, but I cannot. I am admiring of his persevering, playful spirit. The later wall sculptures, in particular, make me smile. I think Sherry enjoyed herself, too. After so many years, we were having a play date and this has nourished the blog I am writing here today.

One doesn’t have to suffer to create great work. No matter the source of our creativity, it is all worthwhile.  Read More 
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