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Shakespeare's Empathy

Lest we ever forget the empathetic, imaginative genius of The Bard, we have another reminder in an up-and-coming digitalized archive at The British Museum Library. It’s a play, circa 1600 that was never produced. (The original playwright is unknown,) . The authorities were afraid it would incite riots. Why? Because the main character—Sir Thomas More—makes an impassioned plea for the humane treatment of French Hugenot refugees seeking asylum in London. Sound familiar?

Shakespeare was brought in as a script doctor, as were others, but scholars agree that his contribution is the most moving and well-written. Indeed, he fixed the script; many speeches have a distinctive Shakespearean signature.

For those who have not read “Wolf Hall,” or seen the adaptation on PBS, Sir Thomas More was Henry VIII’s councilor and lord chancellor. And by many accounts, including Hilary Mantel’s, he was not a particularly sympathetic figure. Shakespeare re-interprets Sir Thomas More, deepening his character in the rewrite of the script.

“At its heart it is really about empathy,” says the library’s curator, Zoe Wilcox, in an article in The Guardian on March 15, 2016. More is calling on the crowds to empathise with the immigrants or strangers as they are called in the text. He is asking them to imagine what it would be like if they went to Europe, if they went to Spain or Portugal, they would then be strangers. He is pleading with them against what he calls their ‘mountainous inhumanity’ ” :

“You’ll put down strangers,/ Kill them, cut their throats, possess their houses,/ And lead the majesty of law in lyam/ To slip him like a hound. Alas, alas! Say now the King/ As he is clement if th’offender mourn,/ Should so much come too short of your great trespass/ As but to banish you: whither would you go?/What country, by the nature of your error,/ Should give you harbour? Go you to France or Flanders,/ To any German province, Spain or Portugal,/ Nay, anywhere that not adheres to England:/ Why, you must needs be strangers.”

We would do well to remember that these are not Sir Thomas More’s words, they are Shakespeare’s.  Read More 
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Sketch of William Gibson in Jakarta by Indonesian graphic artist, Sheila Rooswitha.

Letters. Once upon a time my mailbox was chock-a-block with letters, not junk but letters. Envelopes with stamps, handwritten missives on all kinds of stationary, typed missives, laser printed missives, photographs. Now, every morning when I open my email I’m excited if personal messages await me. We live transnational lives, friends and relatives and colleagues everywhere. But only a few use the convenience of email to send long narrative “letters,” if we can still call them that. Certainly, writers send long narrative emails more than most. Not only does it keep our professional and personal relationships alive, it keeps our writing muscles supple.

After a decade of working in London, I’d made many friends and I was sad to leave. My friend, Norma, suggested that we correspond regularly. About once-a-month we exchanged huge envelopes filled with: news clippings, a written letter or tape, programs of plays, press releases (we are both journalists), gallery brochures and photographs. Now we do the same on email which is much cheaper, faster and environmentally correct though, somehow, not nearly as much fun. The arrival of these packages made me smile. I’d have days of browsing and reading ahead of me, the joy of hearing Norma’s voice telling stories on tape (she’s an actor as well as a journalist) and the sensation, illusory though it was, that I was still in London, if only for an hour or so a month. Skype, phone, Facetime, all wonderful and immediate, but not the same. And this is true of every technological advance: we gain and we lose.

So here’s a gain story:

My friend William moved to Singapore when he finished his PhD and couldn’t get a job in the U.S. He married and now has a baby. Settled, more or less, into a very interesting life abroad. He teaches, he writes hard-boiled novels, reviews books, travels. We had both taught ESL at a Japanese school in New York and although we are a generation apart became fast friends. Then he left. What to do? Stay in touch, of course. Recently, after he moved from Singapore to Jakarta, our email correspondence accelerated and deepened. A few days ago he attached some photos of his wife, his new baby girl, and a link to a blog post sketch of him made by a well known Indonesian graphic artist, Sheila Rooswitha. They were in a noodle cafe discussing a graphic novel adaptation of one of William’s Malaya trilogy, “Singapore Black” (Monsoon Books), when William’s phone went off. There’d just been a terror attack south of where they were sitting and he was trying to get some information. Sheila started to sketch him. The sketch was so vivid that I was right there with them.

Then there is my cousin, Cameron, a musician (French horn), who led a peripatetic life in the orchestra of “Phantom of the Opera” for many years—stayed in touch with everyone—and is now living in the woods of northern California with his husband, James. Cameron collects old typewriters and is an avid correspondent. To my shame, I discouraged him from writing me very long letters and I am sorry, truly, Cameron. Somehow the electronic revolution addled my brain. It made me impatient and dismissive of thick beautiful envelopes arriving in my snail mail box. So I’m contrite and repentant and by way of apology will post the link to your blog here so that others might enjoy it:


All best,
Carol Bergman  Read More 
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There But

I went to my favorite fancy café to have a cup of cappuccino and a pastry. The bill was nearly $10. This may not seem like a lot of money to most people and it didn’t seem like a lot of money to me in that moment. I had just paid and was gathering my belongings when a young man sat down at the end of the communal table. There was something about his face that stopped me and I did not want to leave. I was feeling a familiar pain deep inside my body I call “my refugee pain.” Somehow I knew, I knew instinctively as I always do, that this man was a refugee or an asylee. My parents were refugees and I grew up witnessing this pain and feeling it. Writing eases the sensation and is therefore of some use to me and others, I feel. I am writing about it now.

I took off my coat and sat down again. The young man did not take off his grey wool coat or his green knitted cap. I was relieved to note that these clothes were clean. He was wearing large glasses that were slipping down his nose, shiny with sweat.

He sat for a while and looked around, bewildered. He was black. He was African. All the other visible employees in the café were white. One of the waiters put a menu in front of him. He picked it up in a desultory way and then looked around the capacious room. Conversation was buzzing. It was lunchtime. Finally, I said to him, “The service is not great here. You’ll have to call someone over.”

I don’t know why I said this. Maybe just to open a conversation. Because I knew that this young man was not there to drink cappuccino.

“I’m here to see the chef,” he said. Behind the hutch where the waiters collect the food were two men in toques. Both were black.

Then the manager came over. She was from Finland, tall and lean and blonde, studying to be a fashion designer. I bring my students here, sit for hours and read their manuscripts, and I know all the hired help. I was sure the well-dressed beautiful manager from Finland was on a student visa. She bent over the young man instead of sitting down next to him and asked a few questions. And though he didn’t have a CV, he’d been recommended by one of the chefs so she gave him an application and left him to fill it out. She’d been kind or kind enough, I thought.

The young man was from Congo, he told me when I asked. I could not imagine what he’d had to leave behind or who had been killed—friends, an extended family, maybe even a wife and children. He had escaped. He was safe. Was this enough?

I watched as he began to fill out the form. He stopped to think. Congo is a Francophone country; maybe he was having trouble with the English questions. Should I do more? Help him fill it out? His pen ran out of ink and he flicked it with his wrist. He put it down and I offered him mine. It was the least I could do. He needed a job. I doubted this would be his lucky day.  Read More 
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When Writers Have Birthdays

It’s my birthday week so I thought I’d write a post by way of celebration. It’s not a big birthday. No parties, please. I’m not a party person; I like small gatherings. So I didn’t enjoy my birthday party two years ago overmuch. (Is that a word?) Okay, guess the number because I won’t tell. My daughter and husband planned it, I drew up the guest list, but even so, I objected. They refused to hear objections and in the end I surrendered to their loving efforts. There were many highlights: friends and family and a scrumptious M&M cake. I allowed myself to indulge.

It took place in a favorite restaurant. There were balloons, good food, cheerful buzzy conversation, a cash bar. We had the whole back room. Nice. But as soon as I walked in the door—I was already writing about it in my head. “It was as if everything I saw had already been written,” wrote Gabriel Garcia Marquez who was both a journalist and a novelist. Always observing. Always narrating a story.

In other words, even when we are not physically writing, writers are writing. Life’s happenings spin differently and take on odd configurations.

My mother died—healthy and full of ideas—at the age of 99. To the end, she knew what was happening and talked about it. She was a physician so could organize her medical care—how much morphine to drip into her veins, for example, so that her last breath would postpone until one of her grandchildren arrived from Wisconsin. Maybe I get my slightly detached appreciation of life from her. Did she enjoy her birthdays? Yes and no. Certainly the accumulating years were experienced as a gift. Most of her family--our family-- had been killed in a genocide; she was a survivor. And so every day was precious, not just her birthday. But she didn’t like the focus to be on her; she was shy. Maybe this explains my resistance to celebrating my birthday this week. Or maybe I’m watching it unfold into a story.  Read More 
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Underbites, Overbites and Deep Red Lipstick

Ruth Wilson and Dominic West in "The Affair." Courtesy: Showtime
The women characters on “The Affair” all have pouty lips. What a soap opera! That being the case, why am I watching this program other than to relax and laugh?

A writer friend recommended it. I wonder about his motivation. Is it really so well written or is he hooked on the sex scenes? All that time lapse structure from different points of view is impressive, my friend says. Remember “Rashomon,” the 1950 Kurosawa film? There’s a murder involving four people. They all have different stories. Orson Welles used a similar device in “Citizen Kane.” Both films are classics; we watch them over and over again with equal pleasure. And we always notice something new. I can’t say the same of “The Affair,” and though I managed to keep watching until the end of Season 2, I don’t plan on ever watching it again.

Mostly I was fascinated by the predictable/ constant sex scenes, the underbites, overbites and deep red lipstick, and the two main actors, Dominic West and Ruth Wilson, who are both British. It was fascinating to observe their impersonations of hot, shallow, irresponsible, foolish Americans as they feigned regionless American accents. Actors always do their best so I cannot fault them. And Dominic is a hunk.

In journalism we also have something called the “Rashomon effect,” which is much more serious than the POV gimmick in “The Affair.” When we go out to interview people, we must be mindful of subjective interpretations and corroborate every assertion and every accounting and recounting of an event. We gather varying points of view and present, interpret and assess as fairly and accurately as we can. Unless, of course, we are creating factoids for the tabloid press. In that case, we’d still be writing soap operas.  Read More 
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