When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir

Rising up to racial injustices (Los Angeles, 1980s to today): Can one book stun enough, reveal enough, connect-the-dots-enough to move hearts and minds? If you believe, as activist, artist, and author Patrisse Khan-Cullors does, that “all lives will matter when black lives actually matter,” perhaps the question isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds.

You can hear Cullors say those words in an interview with actor Morgan Freeman – see video below. In it, she shares some of the catalysts that led to her founding (along with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi) the Black Lives Matter movement five years ago. She speaks of: the terrorism her gentle brother Monte endured in the LA County prison system, largest in the world, where a “pervasive culture of hyper-violence” was “astonishing,” concluded an FBI investigation; the take-my-breath away acquittal of a white man, George Zimmerman, who gunned down 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida claiming self-defense; the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, a white policeman absolved of shooting another black boy. Black Lives Matter began as a local reaction to a lack of accountability, racial profiling, and police violence; today it’s a national and international social justice movement “committed to struggling together and to imagining and creating a world free of anti-Blackness, where every black person has the social, economic, and political power to thrive.”

The clip is a snapshot of the disturbing and rousing stories, revelations, and emotions voiced in When They Call You A Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter memoir. Page after page of poetic and unflinching prose depicting “a stunning betrayal of human dignity.”

Backed up by eye-opening data and calls to action by a string of past and present writers, poets, advocates, scholars, and journalists, the memoir illuminates the gravity of consequences on children, families, and communities when they are systemically oppressed by “racism, sexism, classism, and heteronormativity,” enormously complicated by circumstances that doom them.

Shutting down the GM plant Cullors’ father, Alton, worked at in their Black and Latino “cash poor” Van Nuys neighborhood in Los Angeles is that kind of mortal blow. In these impoverished communities, so many are unable to lift themselves up and out without community supports and healthy outlets. Instead, substance abuse, gangs, physical and mental illness fosters and festers, which the “prison industrial complex” feeds on, explains Cullors, grinding down in the harshest of ways the message that your lives do not matter.

We think we know about these things, how far we’ve come and have far we’ve got to go. This slender memoir packs an impressive amount into showing us how much we really don’t know and how even more daunting the work we must do really is.

One reason it moves us so is the book feels like two books in one. Black lives do not matter parts and black lives do matter parts, blended together.

“What is the impact of not being valued?” Cullors asks, answering with words of profound sorrow, grief, and loss: “Wounds that went past the sinew and bones, laid claim to the marrow.” Then, “something deeper than sadness, an aching and hopelessness that finds home at a cellular level.”

It’s one thing to read statistics that 80% of those imprisoned in LA county jails suffer from drug addiction and 20% mental illness; it’s quite another to absorb what happened to Cullors biological father, Gabriel, whom she first met when she was twelve years old. In and out of her life for he was in and out of prison, in and out of 12-step programs that she attended too, witnessing his pain, buoying him. Provocatively she questions the fairness of instilling a belief that overcoming addiction is all within the power of the individual after seeing her father defeated by outside forces that were not held accountable for rendering worthless the power he mustered.

The tragedy of Gabriel’s vanishing is magnified as the newfound, big, noisy, Louisiana-roots family Cullors feels wonderfully right at home with is held together by this generous man – and suddenly they’re not. Imprisoned for succumbing to an addiction that sentences him to a life of depression, believing his life does not matter. “You can wake up one morning and find anyone, maybe everyone, gone.” A young heart becomes a “shattered heart.”

Yet, in the black lives matter parts that heart has the strength to be there, with so much love, for her brother who is repeatedly brutalized in prison when the place he desperately needs is a psychiatric hospital. It’s not clear whether his life sentence of schizoaffective disorder came first throwing him into jail, or the violence perpetrated on him in prison triggered the psychopathy. What is absolutely clear is that once he’s diagnosed, the worst place to be is locked up without any medicine, counseling, and humaneness.

Cullors’ tenderheartedness for her mother Cherice who works from 6am to 10pm to eek out a living for her family is another black lives do matter part. It’s remarkable how much love, hope, and spirit Cullors possesses in spite of it all.

I finished reading this stunning memoir on the Friday before we honor what Martin Luther King, Jr. fought for, stood for. That morning cable news anchors and commentators kept using a vulgar word in quoting the vulgarity and racial venom spouted by America’s 45th President about the black and brown peoples from Haiti, El Salvador, and 55 African nations. The release of this memoir isn’t just perfectly timed to remembering a civil rights icon; it’s timed to the “civil rights crisis of our time.”

This is not a political blog. But, as MSNBC anchor Stephanie Rule said on that unforgettable Friday, “this isn’t about politics, it’s about decency.” And about morality, equality, the character and soul of a nation. For contrary to the title of Georgetown University professor Peter Edelman’s Not a Crime to be Poor, in Cullors’ America it is a crime to be poor, and we learn big business.

The title of the memoir, co-authored with the former editor of Essence magazine, “the first mainstream publication to tell our story,” is an audacious reversal of the truths told: black people are the ones being terrorized.

The prose moves us, in many ways. In the enormous pride expressed for a long-lost grandmother:

“with a fourth-grade education who survived Jim Crow hatred and vicious rapes and unconscionable poverty and brutal domestic violence so she could sit on the other side of it all and still know most of us who had so much more than she ever did, that at the end of the day, from love we come. To love we must return.”

She moves us in her compassion for a toiling mother who keeps her emotions in check to survive but when her son, Monte, is wheeled into a courtroom tied down to a gurney and raging, his mental illness on full public display, she cannot stop sobbing in public.

There’s also prose that makes references to pop culture, urban slang, and justice organizations I was unfamiliar with. The Urban Dictionary came in handy! All with an eye towards opening our eyes up to diversity, tolerance, kindness, affirmation, healing.

Cullors is a courageous, peaceful, spiritual fighter. A 21st Century Civil Rights Leader who eloquently calls out fifty years after we lost Martin Luther King, Jr.

I wanted to start 2018 with an especially meaningful book. Here it is!

Lorraine

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Three Daughters of Eve 1

A wealthy Turkish woman’s identity crisis – implications for us (Istanbul 2016; Oxford England 2000-2002): What’s it like to be Turkish? The only Muslim country secularized by law, separating religion from the state. What’s it like to live in contemporary Istanbul, a teaming, ancient city overlooking the Bosphorus Strait? A gateway between East and West, where religion and politics encompass and bump up against each other.

Map via Wikimedia Commons,
created by User:NormanEinstein [CC-BY-SA-3.0]

Turkey has become such a hotbed for terrorism. I wanted to understand Turkey from a novelistic perspective. I went searching for Turkey through the eyes of its number one female author, Elif Shafak. Along the way, I found warnings for America.

With a population around 15 million, Istanbul is Turkey’s largest city and the second largest in the world. This city of “seven hills, two continents, three seas” (Black Sea, Sea of Marmara, Aegean Sea) is not only geographically at the crossroads, but its country globally pivotal. A Republic and its people important to get to know, making Three Daughters of Eve, the author’s tenth and newest novel (others also set in Istanbul), deserving attention.

“It’s very tiring to be a Turk,” says Shafak. “It’s a very polarized, bitterly politicized country,” she goes on to explain. “As countries become more authoritarian, as they slide backwards the way we have been sliding backwards and tumble into nationalism, isolationism, or populism, I think the society also changes, not only the governments or the politicians but also the society.” Is Shafak talking about Turkey, or America?

America 2017 is going through an identity crisis that feels as troubled, shaken up, and soul-searching as Shafak’s exquisitely torn, questing Istanbul protagonist Peri. Beautiful, thirty-five, well-to-do, and well-educated, yet what defines Peri the most is how unhappy and anxious she is, and has been for a very long time.

To understand Peri’s sadness and disharmony, one must also have a sense of her country’s pathos and fissures, a long, complicated history that cannot possibly be achieved in a single work. Three Daughters of Eve seems a fine place to start.

Many statements will give you pause like this one by Peri’s secular, “freethinking,” brooding father Mensur: “What happened to my sweet country?” Veiled yet underpinning that pained question are similar sentiments Americans are asking themselves, whether they feel their country has been sweet to them or not. What is happening to America? We’re bewildered like Peri.

One good thing about American politics 2017 is that it’s expanded and changed our reading tastes, as we try to grapple with what’s happening, or could happen. Shafak as a novelist, journalist, activist, and international speaker aims to do the same.

Peri, temperamentally and situationally, is exceptionally serious for these are exceptionally serious times. Her deeply religious mother, Selma, attributes her differentness to being “an unusually intense and introverted person.” Nature versus Nurture? No, I don’t think so. Peri’s spiritual angst seems firmly rooted in having grown up in a perennially at-odds, acrimonious household. No love is shown between her pious mother and drinking father, and a terrifically disturbing, turning point event befalls one of her brothers, when she was an impressionable seven-year-old in the late eighties. Reflective of the Republic’s extremely powerful military and history of political coups, ugly military practices in the name of protecting the state that will send chills down your spine. Peri, and her family, are privy to only so much; the reader, intentionally, knows far more.

Peri’s salvation, sustenance, and immersion in literature and scholarship fits her thirsting-for-guidance, solitary nature. She’s the spiritual, ethical voice posing the hard, far-reaching theological, philosophical, moral, and existential questions, seeking a place she belongs in her highly divisive world. In today’s Istanbul, that means she’s examining secularism over religion and other spiritual/mystical beliefs, nationalism, modernism, and capitalism amid a male-centric society, political volatilities, and senseless violence. Shafak’s Peri was made for the times.

Elif Shafak’s prose resonates with feeling. In part because she subscribes to the freeing view that a storyteller should “write what you can feel” (not just what you know). Listen in to her passionate TED talk, the same passion you’ll find in her writing.

So how do we feel about Peri? Turkey? First and foremost, that danger lurks. Danger that hits us in the opening sentence when respectable Peri realizes she’s “capable of killing someone.” Shafak quickly, informatively, skillfully unfolds a chaotic, dramatic street scene that confirms our feeling something is terribly amiss. Foreboding, it sets in motion something mysterious from Peri’s past, which drives the plot. It’s not until we’re more than halfway through do we put the pieces together.

In that jarring opening scene, Peri gets stuck in what feels like the worst traffic jam in the world. She’s driving in her expensive Land Rover with her snippy teenage daughter, Deniz, en route to a lavish dinner party at a CEO’s mansion, where she’ll be meeting up with her “self-made,” much-older husband, Adnan, and others who’ve made something of themselves, likable or not. What takes place on that eerily named Mute Poet Street is an early indication of the concessions, anger, disillusionment, and uncertainties Peri’s bottled up for years.

The national hero who established secular Turkey was Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, for whom the country was named, and whose democratic principles are part of a movement called Kemalism.

Among the Istanbulites who worship him is Mensur, Peri’s father, whom she’s closest to, while her mother is preoccupied with praying, fasting, and cleaning, growing increasingly obsessive. It’s Mensur who consistently and wholeheartedly encourages and supports his daughter’s education. So when Peri makes a gargantuan cultural and emotional leap to attend Oxford University, it’s her traditional mother who strongly opposes.

Suppression of intellectual freedoms comes through loud and clear, with damaging consequences. Shafak, not surprisingly, is an activist for women’s rights (among other causes.) She’s the Muslim feminist the inner Peri yearns to be, but feels constrained by her culture and experiences. As women in America 2017 are rising up, Shafak pushes buttons.

The reader hopes at Oxford Peri finds a comfortable footing that encourages confidence and assertiveness when she becomes friends (though by happenstance not self-determination) with two very different Muslim women. Together, they compose the three daughters of the title’s name. One is British-Iranian, dubbed the “sinner;”the other, Egyptian-American, the “believer” – thus perpetuating Peri’s outsider status, drawing her to a seminar on God taught by a charismatic, controversial Professor Azur, loved and hated for his highly unorthodox teaching methods. The “God debate” is not only a course, it’s the soul of the novel.

The author has smartly structured her thought-provoking novel to a pace similar to Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer-Prize winning All the Light You Cannot See. Numbering more than sixty chapters, each just a couple of pages longer than Doerr’s. This works for the reader since a lot is packed in each. The unpacking makes for some challenging, broadening, and fascinating reading.

Chapters swing back and forth between Istanbul and England, a bit like Shafak who currently lives in England and returns to Istanbul, her “motherland.” The Istanbul 2016 chapters alternate back and forth to Peri’s childhood years and to university days and trauma. As they do, events on the evening of 2016 progress and devolve. Unfinished Oxford years are strategically set right before and after 9/11.

The God seminar is like a group therapy course, whereby students are pressed to shed their assumptions and prejudices, leaving them vulnerable. You’ll see how wrought with complications that turns out to be for Peri.

Peri feels like she’s drifting, sinking in one of the seas surrounding her stressed city. If America 2017 has made you feel like that too – afloat, perhaps lost at sea – you will relate to Peri, profoundly.

Lorraine

PS This looks like my last post of the year. Wishing you the comfort, love, peace, and happiness Peri struggles for.

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The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living 2

Currier and Ives escapism (Vermont, present-day): The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living is a feel-good recipe to lighten a year bombarded by darkness. Louise Miller, a real-life baker – a pastry chef – has whipped up some delicious, warm nostalgia pie.

Her treat arrives for the 2017 holiday season wrapped in its new Christmas-y paperback cover. The 2016 hardback design also harks back to old-fashioned memories.

Miller’s debut confection is set in a fictional town in rural Vermont – Guthrie. Yet its character, culture, traditions, and landscape feel as authentic as the name Guthrie – Woody, that is, the folk hero. Apropos as folk music (and contra-dancing accompanying it) thrive here. Stringed instruments are prominent – fiddle, banjo, dulcimer, guitar, mandolin.

Like so much in the novel, the author/baker mixes and blends fiction with real. Miller plays the banjo; Livvy, 32, her main character, does too, handed-down from the father who raised her, now deceased (her mother left them, she’s gone too). Martin, 40 – the romantic entanglement in the maple-sugary air – is a fiddle player; his endearing, ill dad, Henry, used to play too.) Henry’s the reason Martin has returned to Guthrie from Seattle, making him an outlier as his two older brothers (and their families) remained nearby. A close-knit crew – something Livvy never had. Martin’s absence, his non-conformism, keenly felt by his siblings, though their dear mother, aptly named Dolly, shows no outwardly signs of resentment. Though, in this small, gossipy New England town, villagers tend to hide their personal feelings.

Also flourishing in these parts, novelistically and realistically, are apple pie baking, fiercely competitive baking contests, and apple growing (apple pie, the State’s official pie); annual festivals; maple-syruping (Vermont our largest producer); cozy country inns; and romantic sleigh rides.

Miller invites us to come take a good look around. Here again, real life pipes in as you’ll want to do more than armchair traveling – drive here if you’re within striking distance. Livvy is, at least when we meet her. An unsettled soul, she’s moved around a bit, all big cities. Like Miller, she lives in Boston, about a three hour drive to Guthrie.

Head to the Maple Sugar Inn. To the homey kitchen, where you’ll find Livvy laboring away much of the time. Trained at the renowned Culinary Institute of America, baking is far more than a career for Livvy. A “labor of love,” it’s her creative outlet, what she excels at, and how she retreats and soothes herself. Miller paints a realistic, less glamorous picture of the incredibly long hours demanded of a professional chef. When the novel opens, this James Beard award-nominated chef flees to Guthrie to be rescued by her best friend Hannah who lives there (married to the town’s doctor), after a calamitous incident at a private club’s five-hundred-dollar-a-plate charity fundraiser Livvy was sous cheffing for. Hannah did save the day, introducing her to an innkeeper looking for a new dessert chef.

Meet Margaret, the inn’s proprietor, one tough-cookie. Her gradual softening to Livvy is a highlight – an unlikely bond until the story evolves. Margaret is prim and proper compared to Livvy who literally stands out.“Cute at best,” though we’re not so sure as she’s forever dyeing her hair – wild colors in the Manic Panic Electric lineup, many inspired by foods like banana, candied apples, cotton candy pink. The visual rendering exaggerates her bohemian nature, which fits with unconventional images we may have of Vermonters. A hardy, diverse bunch – old-timers and new – attracted to the State’s free-spiritedness, tranquil beauty, farm-to-table sustainable lifestyle.

Bring a wad of napkins for Livvy is serving mouth-watering desserts, from simple to fancy: apple pies (of course!), sugary-glazed cinnamon buns, white chocolate mousse, huckleberry clafouti, pumpkin crème brulee, buttermilk custard, sour cherry napolean, bavarian torte … Grab a couple of tissues too as there’s sadness and pathos in this novel of “longing and joy.”

Louise Miller writes with the same warmth as she bakes. (Take a look at her sweets on her foodie blog: https://louisethebaker.tumblr.com/.) Warmth that’s seen in Livvy who wears her emotions on her sleeve – a “pudding-soft heart” – and in the unexpected friendships she makes with inn staff and Martin’s loving family. They’ve been spared the kind of loneliness that “becomes a part of who you are,” Livvy tells us.

It’s the warmth of the prose about the meaning of Home that gives the novel so much heart. In an enlightening interview, the author offers insight into how she evokes those feelings and yearnings, which explains, I think, how she landed a two-book contract deal with a prestigious imprint. (Her second novel, The Late Bloomer’s Club, comes out Summer 2018. I can’t wait to read it after this charmer): Miller studied art so she thinks visually, envisions scenes before she writes them. Indeed, The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living is ripe for the movie screen.

Livvy has followed her mother’s prescription to “always do what you can to make life sweeter.” A culinary artist drawn to the “predictability” of baking versus the instability her life has been. Along with her vintage tastes in clothing and unusual living conditions (for much of the novel Livvy lives in the inn’s sugarhouse), there’s humor and quirkiness to her lively character in contrast to the quiet seriousness of Martin’s.

The novel is like comfort food, mixing and blending fine ingredients. This recipe starts with an appetizing opening line: “The night I lit the Emerson Club on fire had been perfect for making meringue.” Restless Livvy who can’t imagine country living finds peacefulness in the beautiful Green Mountain State. Miller describes the physical setting with clever prose using food metaphors, such as:

“The dark limbs of the apple trees were already trimmed in a thick coating of snow. Together they looked like layers of cake and frosting.”

Ingredients are added in order, month by month in an unnamed year, taking us from September’s colorful harvest season through the winter into June. In July, an epilogue is whipped up, running for another year, answering questions that keep us turning pages. Chiefly, what happens to Livvy and Martin? Both came to Guthrie temporarily. Music is the special ingredient that binds. When the flavor gets intense between Livvy and Martin cool it down with the inn’s avuncular chef, Al, twice Livvy’s age, who touches us in the way he genuinely cares about her. Whisk in a key ingredient that smooths it all throughout: Livvy’s sidekick, a big, lovable Irish Wolfhound named Salty.

“Vermont in June is like Oz,” Livvy says. Which makes The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living  feel fairy-tale like. It’s been a while since I read one with this much wistfulness. With America 2017 tasting oh-so-bitter, savor this sweet holiday gift.

Lorraine

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Bleaker House: Chasing My Novel to the End of the World

An extreme choice to pursue a writer’s dream (Falkland Islands, a few years ago): What if you had A Room of Your Own? If you could go anywhere in the world for up to three months to write the novel of your dreams? Where would you go?

An enviable position for aspiring writers. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity Nell Stevens answered when she was twenty-seven, a Global Fellow from Oxford, England completing her MFA at Boston University’s creative writing program. How can you not be intrigued about Stevens when her choice was the “bottom of the world” – the Falkland Islands, in the wintertime?

The Falklands are an archipelago in the southern hemisphere, en route to the Antarctic Peninsula, where seasons are reversed from ours. So the author spent her summer reawakening in a land “stranger, wilder, colder, and bleaker” than she could imagine. In your wildest sunshiny dreams, the Falkland Islands, in the dead of winter when the sun rarely shines, would be a strange, wild idea.

Falkland Islands
Via Wikimedia Commons, by User:Sting [CC-BY-SA-3.0]

Besides, it’s not a place you’d typically dream of. Maybe if you’re British you’d be curious since it’s a British territory. And if you’re a wildlife enthusiast, a nature adventurer, the Falklands could be on your bucket list for a summer destination, particularly to witness the greatest colonization of Gentoo penguins on earth. But our intrepid author ventured there even when nature lovers don’t, when “there is more nothing than there is something.” A place “so desolate, so isolated” and so gray Stevens resorts to describing the landscape’s colors in amusing shades of gray like seal-flank gray.

Before you get the wrong impression that Bleaker House is a bleak, dreary read, better set the record straight. Key to characterizing it, alluded to above, is that’s its darn funny. Smiling, chuckling, laugh-out loud funny.

Jacketed with an adorable penguin on the grayish-front cover and accolades on the back saying it’s “fun to read” and “charming,” Stevens’ debut is clever and full of wit. Though there’s nothing humorous about her anxieties, self-effacement, and feelings of worthlessness if she doesn’t produce a novel with characters that feel real by the time she hits thirty. Until now, her writing has been judged dry and pointless, rejected.

Stringent airline restrictions led to paring down essentials to the barest minimum, a problem that plagues. Yet the determined author made sure her hefty copy of Bleak House, from which she quotes, accompanied her (along with her Kindle), prioritizing intellectual substance over food and ensuring a nagging reminder of the multitude of vivid characters Dickens created versus her vexing work-in-progress. Which makes this a serious, intimate look at the struggles of self-actualization and becoming an artist packaged in an inventive, whimsical way.

Stevens goes far, geographically and artistically. Bleaker House is billed as “a work of memoir and fiction.” A memoir broken up with fictional writing pieces in the form of spreadsheets, short-stories, and the obsessed over novel-in-development. An unusual, experimental journey, reflected in an unusual, experimental narrative.

Creative formats serve multiple purposes. First, to offer insight into the motivation behind the words stated in her internship application pitching the Falklands. For instance, in a spreadsheet column she wrote: “There has never been a literary novel set there.” Alongside it, another column in which she candidly reveals: “If I can teach myself the art of loneliness, then perhaps the art of writing will come more easily to me.”

Elsewhere we learn she chose an empty place assuming “zero distractions” to achieve “effortless concentration.” Contrary to what you might think, Stevens left behind an active social life (albeit a dissatisfying love life) and a happy family life (absent the drama that can inspire compelling novels). So her thinking went along these lines: if she forfeits all distractions, her novel will burst forth from agonizing blank pages, animated by a dramatic landscape.

Stevens pokes fun of herself to prove her writing is flawed. She doesn’t just tell us she shows us, exaggerating the point eccentrically. Her short-stories, “The Personal Assistant” and “Misadventure,” are wacky, fall flat, and verge crudely, an attempt to be bold and critical of herself in an outlandish, condescending way. To her dismay, this enterprise continues: her novel is slow, slow going and corny. Since it’s set in the Falklands, she remixes the absurdity of what’s she’s finding, but there’s a gem of poignancy in her solitary character, Ollie, who parallels her feelings of “ridiculousness and doubt, loneliness, hardship.”

Stevens is a student well-versed in planning and organizing, someone who counts days, words, calories, and the only luxury she’s brought: chocolates. She’s also someone drawn to challenging herself, such as the time she went to Lebanon to teach English in a refugee camp and war broke out. She seeks to put herself in life-changing positions to make her life more interesting for writing and to grow as a person.

The Falklands is a test. This syllabus is aptly dubbed: “isolation taster course.” Grade this student A+ for identifying what must be one of the most isolating places in the world in the winter, marked by a “guestless guest house” on an island archipelago totaling around only 2,000 to 3,000 residents. This student doesn’t cut corners for she could have at least selected Stanley, the capital of the Falklands (though she stayed a week to get acclimated and conduct research in the government’s archives.) Instead, she chose Bleaker Island, population two, plus a housekeeper who thinks the printer is the Internet – a “disconnected life.”

The Falklands are located in the South Atlantic Ocean east of Argentina. In 1982, Argentina invaded the islands. Britain won the war but the aftermath is still very much felt, which the author uncomfortably discovered when she arrived in Stanley, palpably suspicious of strangers (and writers, presumably journalists came in droves to report on the war).

Just like her fiction, her journey “unfolds in increasing degrees of strangeness” as she finds herself in a “strange landscape” that’s “not so much a different country as a different planet.” Stevens wasn’t prepared for all the discomfort.

Remember how snail-like the Internet was when it first emerged? She needs to buy scratch cards with magical codes to access it, if you’re lucky enough to find a magical card in the first place. Food is also scarce, expensive, and “fresh” produce and fruit precious. The news is doled out on DVDs, a week at a time. Sure there’s radio, but mostly there’s indomitable weather, more like forces of nature, and relentless solitude, except for a few lovely days with the lovely owners of the guest house she’s staying in, the one without the guests.

At one point, the author wonders: “How to fathom the bleakness of Bleaker?” She decides it’s bleaker than anything she’s seen before.

This memoir-embedded-with fiction is sprinkled with tidbits from the long-time director of her program, novelist Leslie Epstein. The author tries her hardest to follow his “tips on writing and life,” but when did writing and life go as planned?

“Passionately hungry,” Nell Stevens couldn’t have predicted the fruits of her labors. What she finds is more precious than the single potato she cherished.

Lorraine

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Dogs at the Perimeter

Broken memories, broken souls, and a broken country (Montreal 2005; flashbacks to the Cambodian genocide 1975-1979): Madeleine Thien is a literary star in Canada. She ought to be one in America too.

If only Dogs at the Perimeter was dystopian fiction. Yet historically, Thien’s searing novel really did happen. Which makes her sensitive approach to telling horrific history more laudable.

Thien focuses on the psychic trauma to survivors of unimaginable horrors when “nothing seemed real.” What happens to their brains, to the area that regulates memories? What’s lost? What’s left?

Canadian-born Thien creatively sets the contemporary portion of her historical novel at a brain research center in Montreal to drive home the memory theme. (She lives in Montreal, where there’s a leading neurology center.) There, two characters propel the telling: Janie, a researcher in a lab that studies brain activity, and her senior neuroscientist boss and friend, Dr. Hiroji Matsui.

Thien has us thinking about memory in terms of fragments, opening with a mini-Epilogue (and later other mini-introductions) she calls “Fragments.” Fragmentation of memories, minds, souls, and an entire society is the devastation she examines. Fragmented also in the sense that the author tells us precisely what she wants us to know and leaves much out. I probably spent as much time googling as reading this 253-page paperback release. (The novel was originally published in 2012.) That it so provoked is a testament to its eye-opening engagement.

In a lengthy, fascinating interview, Thien says Cambodia’s genocide was essentially “invisible”:

“It’s one of those genocides that seems to be known at the basic level – when you say “Khmer Rouge” people know – but after that, there’s not a lot of knowledge.”

Astonishing, for these killing fields took place well-within recent memories of the Holocaust, also under the guise of making life better for the masses. History repeating itself, grimly. Where were the lessons learned?

Thien’s haunting account uses what may well be a conservative figure – two million (out of a population of 7 million at the time) – to cite the number of Cambodians tortured, murdered and perished due to starvation and other bodily breakdowns at the brutal hands of the Communist Khmer Rouge regime, after a five-year civil war and before another. (The UN finally brokered a peace accord to end an “infinite war” in 1989.)

No one knows for sure how many Cambodians were wiped out. Chillingly echoing Nazi fanaticism of keeping track of their crimes against humanity, Pol Pot’s holocaust also kept meticulous records, so perhaps a more accurate accounting will come to light when an extraordinary museum is erected in the capital city, Phnom Penh. Cambodia’s ground zero for it was from here that all the “city people” were forced to evacuate into the jungles, rice fields, and schools-turned-prisons, tearing apart families, leaving behind and losing everything, including identities and names.

A $40 million Sleuk Rith Institute dedicated to memory, justice, and healing was the architectural vision of Zaha Hadid, whose sudden death appears to have delayed the ambitious project. Thien’s memory theme eerily resounds within the envisioned Museum of Memory. Until then, the Documentation Center of Cambodia, referred to in the novel, is piecing these fragments together, supported by Yale University’s Genocide Studies Program. Thien’s determined novel aims to do the same for us.

The novel is all the more important right now as America is going through a dark period in our history, when we’re seriously worried about the fragility of our democracy and on high-alert to the threats of totalitarian governments. An interesting convergence of pertinent events is happening, or just ended. One is Angelina Jolie’s film First They Killed My Father, now streaming on Netflix, inspired by two Cambodian survivors: a friendship and the memoir by Haing S. Ngor. An exhibit recently closed at the U. S. Holocaust Museum, and there’s been a surge in dystopian fiction titles like 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale, and It Can’t Happen Here back onto bestseller lists. All trying to make sense of the senseless, carrying warnings about freedom, morality, vigilance.

Note: Ngor’s heartsickening words preface the novel: “Tell the gods what is happening to me.” Which Dogs at the Perimeter does in Thien’s unique way. Ngor won an Academy Award for his supporting role in the 1984 film, The Killing Fields. Troubling that it seems we need to be hit over the head again filmically to jog our memories, or etch a memory, about the worst that can happen to vulnerable and complacent people under evil despots.

The artful author has created an artistic website for the novel that includes delicate, entangled, lace-like drawings related to the brain, a depiction labeled “minimalist,” alluding to and quite descriptive of Thien’s writing style.

Her first introductory fragment informs us that Janie has not heard from Hiroji in three months, having disappeared without a trace. Others are drawn from Hiroji’s files Janie finds in his apartment where she’s holed up in. Immediately, the reader is seized with curiosity as to why she’s taken up such a bare, sorrowful existence, apparently separated from her husband, Navin, and their 7-year-old son, Kiri, whom she adores.

Other fragments send messages about the brain from Hiroji’s notes on neurological cases of patients losing their memories and minds. Then, Janie stumbles on his personal letters, which arouse fragments of memories when she was a girl in Cambodia terrorized under the Khmer Rouge. Some memories are tenderly evoked, like the sound of her father’s voice echoing like “rainfall.” As these fragments accumulate and sharpen, we painfully sense and feel Janie’s deep-seated, emotional turmoil and the Cambodian thread connecting her to Hiroji, which might explain his vanishing. The details we’re given are still relatively scanty, allowing the author to deftly prepare us for what’s to come.

Chapters alternate between Janie and Hiroji’s names, sharing fragments of past histories. As Thien’s minimalist style reveals more, their chapter names are altered, jarring us, reflecting their former lives and selves (and those of significant others). Even Cambodian children took up arms and spied on millions the Communists deemed enemies and useless. An entire citizenry trusted no one if they had any chance of staying alive. Radicalism that sought to erase every element of a progressive society, destroy a beautiful country, and rock Buddhist beliefs.

The author threads her chapters finely, laying bare fragments of the atrocities. More than enough to rip our hearts, disturb existentially.

People went to “great lengths in the hope that they never will be found.” Dogs at the Perimeter takes an unusual approach to explain why.

Lorraine

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Sing, Unburied, Sing 1

The ghosts of racism (Mississippi’s Gulf Coast and Delta regions, past and present colliding): Jesmyn Ward’s brilliant Sing, Unburied, Sing woke me up nights. Of all the books I’ve blogged about, this is the one most affecting.

Creative writing professor at Tulane University Jesmyn Ward – who just won a Macarthur Genius Award and is a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award having already received it in 2011 for Salvage the Bones – has created a work of art that’s an activist’s plea for racial justice, equality, dignity. She speaks for all the oppressed, marginalized people who’ve been victims of bigotry, violence, racial profiling, economic injustices and other forms of discrimination and prejudice not only in America’s Deep South – where all the author’s books are set, specifically in Mississippi her home – but for swaths of our country where people are also suffering and stereotyped.

“The rotten underpinnings of the South anchor the whole damn country, like the swampy bottom of the Mississippi River delta. And now we are all sinking in it,” she wrote in a 2016 piece, This Was the Year America Finally Saw the South.

Clearly, this is not a light-hearted novel. The songs that it sings are painful ones, sorrowful like the Sorrow Songs sung by slaves on plantations and at Parchman Farm – Mississippi’s notorious State prison with its legendary brutality said to be worse than slavery – wrenchingly portrayed in the novel. An immoral past that lurks and crashes into a troubled, troubling present, embodying the racist soul of the novel. Lest we forget, Mississippi Blues music originated from the Delta.

The author writes like a poet. Not just rhythmically but in words that pack a lot of meaning into a few. At 285 pages, the novel feels longer as we stop to contemplate the implications of veiled words or a phrase, subtexts and emotions. Illustrative is the lyrical title and the word unburied, which took me almost to the end (page 233, to be precise) to fully grasp its full import, making the novel an ideal choice for book clubs. Moreover, it could trigger honest, deep-set feelings for this fiction is as real and as forceful as it gets. Hot like Mississippi’s heat.

My night wakefulness brings to mind what Pat Conroy revealed how he felt about slavery when he read Toni Morrison’s Beloved: he got “nightmares”. In fact, some are calling Jesmyn Ward the Nobel Prize winner’s contemporary.

Opening with a chapter on the graphical slaughtering of goats, the author forewarns that her story of a poor black family living in bayou country is going to be harsh, that her story will be Black or White, not gray. Yet what bubbles underneath the surface is nuanced, boiling with anger, grief, despair, disillusionment, confusion, waiting to erupt like Yellowstone’s geyser. The surfacing happens most of the time in cringing and subtler ways as everyone in this family is hurting, building to several out-of-control explosions. The most central, setting off the most reactions, is brought about by a car trip from Mississippi’s south to the north, to that torturous prison in the Delta.

Parchman Prison labor
Photo by The New York Times [Public domain]
via Wikimedia Commons

Some describe the novel as a “road trip.” It is in the sense that its intent is to carry home the white father of the two children in the family, incarcerated for three years. But this is not a trip that frees. And it’s not the kind of high-spirited trips you might immediately think of like Thelma and Louise or Jack Kerouac’s rollicking classic, On The Road. No, this is a bedeviled trip from start to finish, where the spirits are dark and ghostly.

Speaking of ghosts … Two of the characters who inhabit the novel powerfully and importantly are ghosts: Given and Ritchie. Ritchie’s spirit is the more prevalent and invasive, his yearning voice even taking over a chapter. An unsettling presence when the family begins its trek home from Parchman, but the truth is he’s been weighing down the patriarch in the family, Pop, for a very long time. Back then they called him Riv, when he was an innocent imprisoned at the wretched slave-farm, where Pop met Richie on the cotton chain gang. Ritchie was just a boy, thirteen, the same age as our male narrator, Jojo (Pop’s grandson). The second apparition – Given – appears whenever Pop’s daughter, Leonie (Jojo’s mother) – our female narrator – is high on drugs. Ritchie and Given were both murdered young, murdered because of the color of their skin.

You may not favor the magical realism style of writing, but Ward works it like magic. She invents supernatural beings to vividly express how the history of racism keeps repeating and haunting. She imbues two characters – the alternating narrators, a boy and the mother he can only bear calling Leonie – with super-powers. They can see the ghosts of the racial past so we can.

To borrow from Laura McBride’s short-cut to introducing the main characters in her novel, ‘Round Midnight, here’s a snapshot of this sorry family:

  • Jojo is the one who breaks our hearts.
  • Leonie is the one who can’t mother.
  • Kayla is the “golden one,” the one most “starved for love.”
  • Pop is the tough one whose soul can’t rest.
  • Mam is the sweet one dying of cancer.
  • Michael is the white one, the outsider.

To fill in the blanks some more: Jojo is the profound heartbreaker because he’s just a kid expected to be both a man and a mother. His acceptance, sensitivity, caregiving, and abundant love for his three-year-old sister Kayla also uplifts us the most. He sleeps on a pallet on the floor with Kayla to soothe her. Their drug-addicted, physically and emotionally abusive mother is never around, physically or emotionally, unhealthily grieving the violent loss of her protective younger brother, Given. Pregnant at 17 by Michael, she’s the character most complicated, begging us to try to understand her rather than like her. Even that’s not easy as she’s so out-of-it she doesn’t notice her children and when she does, she “can’t.” Can’t isn’t poetic but there’s so much baggage and distress loading down all her can’ts. Most evident is her Mama (Jojo’s Mam) is dying. A herbal healer, she can’t heal herself.

Jojo and Pop are the carers in this novel (Mam used to be but now she’s bedridden). Grandparents gave Jojo a place to call Home. Home is more than a physical place, it’s the place where we’re cared for. Ward wants us to know this even before we begin the novel, through a lovely dedication to her mother: “who loved me before I took my first breath. Every second of my life, she shows me so.” The concept of Home looms large. Baby Kayla’s clinging, hugging, nuzzling, longing to be “smushed” fills the pages, meant to not only consume her and Jojo but us. Unconditional love and belonging are strong tools that might help weaken some of Leonie’s can’ts.

Jojo and Pop’s nurturing are the lightness, as is the beauty of the saltwatery, marshy landscape and Mam’s growing garden. We’re searching for Hope yet keep bumping up against the stark contrast between the richness of the fertile soil to nourish versus the deprivation of the “black-soiled heart of the State” personified by Parchman.

Mississippi is our hungriest State, the second poorest. Sing, Unburied, Sing sings those Mississippi Blues. Music we should all be listening to right now.

Lorraine

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A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life 3

Celebrating a Southern literary giant: We miss you, Pat Conroy. That’s a great big WE like your great big heart and your “big-beaming” smile, and the big shock and loss we all felt when you passed away in 2015 at 70. We’ve been honoring your greatness ever since. Through the establishment of the Pat Conroy Literary Center. Through an annual literary festival in your beloved coastal town, Beaufort, South Carolina. With this little gem of your writings, packed with your bigness.

Meant to be a “keepsake” with an attached red ribbon bookmark, A Lowcountry Heart celebrates Pat Conroy’s literary prowess, convictions, and generous heart. It’s a loving and thoughtfully selected compilation of “letters” – blog posts the long-handed, “language-obsessed” author called them, not liking the word blog at all nor wanting to give up the feel of his craft despite “writer’s cramp,” relented in 2009 when his health was declining limiting his travel. It also includes his speeches and other writings, a collaboration between his long-time (thirty years) editor/publisher Nan A. Talese and Conroy’s writer wife, Cassandra King, both of whom contributed personal reflections adding to his.

It’s a perfect selection to read as the second Pat Conroy Literary Festival kicks off soon, running from October 19 – 22, 2017. Inspiration for this “letter.”

We miss Pat Conroy even if we never met him at one of his legendary book signings, for we’ve likely read one of more of his books. A prolific writer of Southern fiction and memoir, he “often intermingled the two.” You probably figured that out already if you’ve read The Great Santini influenced by his “tyrant” of a father, a Marine Corps fighter pilot who moved the Conroy clan (Pat Conroy was one of seven children) all around the South, the settings for his works. Or, read The Lords of Discipline based on the “four-grueling years” he spent at The Citadel, the military college in Charleston. You may not know, though, that a girl who caught his eye in kindergarten is a character in The Prince of Tides; that the gay piano player in South of Broad was inspired by an “irreplaceable friend” whom Conroy cared so much about he moved to San Francisco for a while since his friend’s southern family disowned him; that The Water is Wide is based on his gloriously happy year teaching poor black kids on tiny Daufuskie Island, South Carolina, a book some call a novel, others a memoir; that a girl he swooned over in 8th grade appears in Beach Music; or that The Losing Season is about the year his basketball team lost the Southern Conference. The way he went about contacting and uniting his old teammates is one for the books. I myself just found a gorgeous copy of his last published memoir, The Death of Santini, said to put closure on his relationship with his tyrannical father.

There’s a powerful theme here that has everything to do with never forgetting the people who “changed my whole life and the way I saw the whole world,” for good and for bad. Bless his mother who taught her son Pat about “evil” because in this splendid insight into this writer’s world we feel his deep moral compassion and outrage against wrongs. He called it out the way he saw it. “How the world presented itself.” What words of wisdom and eloquence would Pat Conroy be saying about how the world is presenting itself today? Eerily, a world not many years since his searing voice left us, but it sure feels that way.

Which is why we can’t help but be struck by how self-effacing Pat Conroy was, always striving to be “good enough,” to be ”bold enough.” Writing that “generosity is the rarest of qualities in American writers,” it seems just from these memorable samplings and anecdotes, Pat Conroy may have been the most generous of them all.

“Reading became the most essential thing about me,” says the avid collector of 8,000 books. So you’ll find heartfelt tributes to so many writers living and gone. He dubs Anne Rivers Siddons “Queen of Southern fiction.” Says Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto “knocked my socks off.” Speaks of Barbara Kingsolver’s work as “eye-popping.” He’s so very proud, as in “shouting it out to the hills” of his wife’s writings; Moonrise a “fabulous novel.” He calls Phillip Roth a “gift to American letters.” Of Ron Rash’s Serena, Conroy glowingly says: “it made me think of the North Carolina mountains like Thomas Wolfe never did.” Then there are the stages he went through when he was “Faulknered” and “Steinbecked” and “Virginia Woolfed” and “Hemingwayed” and “Fitzgeralded.” The list and accolades go on and on.

Pat Conroy was an equal opportunity praiser. Encouraged by a good friend (he maintained so many friendships, some going back forty years) at 68 to give science fiction a try, a genre he’d stayed clear of all his life, prior to meeting George R. R. Martin on a book tour that stopped in Santa Fe. What joy he expresses discovering this imaginative “genius” of a fantasy writer, reading everything Martin wrote beginning with A Game of Thrones. He admires Gay Talese, Nan A. Talese’s husband, a writer of “impeccable prose.” Pat Conroy movingly thanks friends and their spouses alike, writerly and otherwise.

That may be the key to the greatness of his literary style. So much raw emotion soars in his prose. A terrific example of his wordsmithing and enormous gratitude for literature and those who teach it is seen in a passage from a 2007 letter he sent to the Charleston Gazette:

“The world of literature has everything in it, and refuses to leave anything out. I have read like a man on fire my whole life because the genius of English teachers touched me with the dazzling beauty of language. Because of them I rode with Don Quixote and danced with Anna Karenina at a ball in Saint Petersburg and lassoed a steer in Lonesome Dove and had nightmares about slavery in Beloved and walked the streets of Dublin in Ulysses and made up a hundred stories in The Arabian Nights and saw my mother killed by a baseball in A Prayer for Owen Meany.”

Pat Conroy’s appreciation for his readership is just as strong. This great writer found “one of the greatest things about being a writer” was engaging with his legion of readers. So much so he encouraged them to bring as many of his books to his signings, which notoriously ran on for hours, contrary to the way these events typically go. For he was a contrarian who mischievously admits he’s “obnoxiously friendly,” so he never ran out of steam for his devoted fans. That makes us feel good, particularly when we’ve read other acclaimed authors complaining about the drudgery of big city tours. Since we can no longer tell Pat Conroy what his books mean to us, A Lowcountry Heart tells us what we meant to him.

Pat Conroy speaks of the beauty of Beaufort, South Carolina as a “cult.” That may be true as Southern Living named Beaufort the best small southern town in 2017But the voters who make up these nominations tend to change their opinions annually, whereas Pat Conroy’s cult will endure year after year.

Lorraine

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The Outrun: A Memoir

Fantastical Nature as Fantastic Therapy (Orkney Islands, Scotland and London, recently): Judge this life-affirming book by its eye-catching cover. Where in the world is the smoothed-over-centuries rocky coast? Hint: somewhere “between the North Sea and the Atlantic.” Who is the tall, slender, modelesque young woman meditating? Hint: she’s an “edge-lander,” someone who grew up near the edge of the world.

Amy Liptrot not only lived on that edge geographically – the Orkney Islands, north of Scotland – but also behaviorally, “always seeking sensation and raging against those who warned me away from the edge.” That edge shaped and defined the author and her award-winning memoir, remarkably soothing for a “wild girl” recovering from alcohol addiction on wild islands. Yet not so surprising for a girl who spent her childhood “living among the elements.” A childhood of “dramatic scenes,” earthy and personal.

Map of Orkney by Mikenorton [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Born during one of her father’s bipolar disorder breakdowns, he endured a mind-boggling fifty-six electroshock treatments. Through it all (her parents divorced), Liptrot felt “always loved.”

The heart of the memoir takes place on the Orkneys two years after the author made it through an intensive rehab program in London, where she hit rock bottom. (Her brother, who attended the same university as she did, tried to help until she needed aggressive intervention.) Today, at thirty-five, she’s five years sober.

Some 20,000 people are estimated to be living on the seventy islands that comprise the Orkney archipelago. Many are sparsely populated or completely uninhabited. Most of the memoir’s Orkney sections are set on the so-called Mainland where the author’s family farm is located, and on one of the northernmost islands, Papay, population seventy. Liptrot chose to spend five winter months on this remote island feeling less alone than she did in London. If you read to experience new worlds, The Outrun will definitely take you to one.

Much of the exotic language – references to the far northern reaches of an ancient landscape, culture, history, and folklore – is otherworldly. A world in which you don’t just see shooting stars in the night skies, you see galaxies, planets (four, unbelievably, on one night), moonbows (rainbows caused by the moon’s light), and the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) or what this poetess of Nature calls Merry Dancers.

Not everything is merry, of course. Liptrot didn’t become sober until thirty (she started drinking at fifteen), when she returned home trading “disco lights for celestial lights.” A steady, uphill process that replaced her dependence on alcohol to feel “more alive” to getting high on her unique “natural surroundings,” birdlife, and sea life. She found she could get “high on fresh air and freedom on the hill” and “that being sober could be kind of a trip and I was just riding it out like a soldier.” A magical, mystery ride.

Our first indication that The Outrun is going to be out-of-the-ordinary is that it opens with a helpful glossary of Orcadian words. Some are farming terms like byre for barn and kye for cattle since Liptrot grew up on a croft farm. More than an unfamiliar word, crofting is a landowning culture that dates back to the late nineteenth century when a farmer rented a small piece of land along with a croft house. (Liptrot’s childhood farmhouse is that old.) These houses seem to have personalities, with names. In fact, croft houses tended to outlive their temporary landowners, so people are more likely to be identified by the names of their croft homes rather than their own.

“I grew up in the sky, with an immense sense of space,” Liptrot tells us, but she felt “limited by the confines of the island and the farm.” That edge-of-the-world farm included uncultivated land called the outrun, described as land “where domestic and wild animals co-exist and humans don’t often visit.” Liptrot spent the first eighteen years of her life walking on the windswept coastal cliffs of this outrun, neighboring one of the most intact New Stone Age archaeological settlements (Skara Brae) anywhere, a World Heritage Site.

For all its wonder, the Orkney’s are “desolate-seeming.” Liptrot herself was lonely and sad for a very long time, trying to fill a “void” she couldn’t seem to fill, “bottomless pain.” So how could we not rejoice in her eloquent revelations of “filling the void with new knowledge and beauty” upon finding herself as she rediscovers her homeland?

Still a thrill seeker, she swims in the frigid, pounding North Seas with a polar bear club, an unimaginable “cold-water high.” Thanks to technology and the author’s intensely curious mind and “perpetual hope,” she carved out fascinating activities and interests. Became a passionate bird watcher, stargazer, rare cloud studier, astronomy buff, weather-watcher, and tracker of marine traffic, flight radar, tidal charts, sunrise calendars. “In the islands in the age of digital media, we often find that, although it seems contradictory, technology brings us closer to the wild.”

If you’re a birder, conservationist, environmentalist, tuned into the endangerment of species, this memoir is for you. There’s hundreds of bird species on these islands, along with an active, long-standing RSPB – the Royal Society for the Preservation of Birds. Like Artic terns, fulmars, puffins, shags, black-backed gulls, gannets, whaups (also called curlews), tysties (or black guillemots), kittiwakes, razorbills, turnstones, golden plovers, snipe. There’s even an Orkney phrase for hunting seabirds: swappin’ for auks. For a while, the author raced to count endangered corncrake birds for the group on Papay. Liptrot compares herself to the corncrakes “clinging to existence,” saying she’s “clinging to a normal life.”

Nature and wildlife are gifts wherever we live on earth. On the Orkneys these gifts are extraordinary and abundant. But it’s Liptrot’s courage, perseverance, amazement, and phenomenal zest for immersing herself in these gifts that enabled her fulfillment and healing, one day at a time. Inspiration we can all cling to.

Lorraine

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If All the Seas Were Ink

(I’ve fallen in love with memoirs. Tweaked the byline to reflect.)

An intimate, enlightening memoir on the meaning of life stirred by seven-and-a-half years studying and embracing the Talmud (Jerusalem, present-day): Ilana Kurshan has written a remarkable, soul-searching memoir.

Scholarly yet wonderfully accessible, spiritual yet infused with the “simple pleasures” of everyday life. For someone who is an extremely private person, it’s remarkably self-exposing. A bold, beautiful leap, though Kurshan says it’s “less an act of courage than a leap of faith.” Her faith, Judaism, is profound. As is her eloquent memoir.

If All the Seas Were Ink is rooted in the wisdom of an ancient, sacred text set down and revisited by rabbis at least fifteen centuries ago. Considered one of the most questioning bodies of literature in the world, the Talmud, also referred to as the Torah, is “a text for those who are living the questions rather than for those who found the answers.” Kurshan purposefully and cogently probes these questions seeking deeper understanding of the beauty and hardships of life. Fervent, “obsessed,” about the power of literature and poetry as a driving life force, she rises above her self-doubts to practice what she wholeheartedly believes: that it’s her divine obligation to impart what she’s learned, in striving to be the best person she can be.

If you’re wondering how the teachings of very-old rabbis, studiers of the Torah – the basis for all Jewish life – have any relevance to your life today, whether you’re Jewish or not, I encourage you to read If All the Seas Were Ink. I can’t imagine there isn’t something going on in your life that’s not questioned, touched upon, here. “The Talmud surprised me at nearly every turn,” the author says, who surprises us by making writings you might otherwise find “dry” so relatable and relevant, thus compelling. “The text will illuminate your soul, and your soul in turn will illuminate the text.”

Studying the Talmud – the Babylonian Talmud, not the Jerusalem Talmud, for it’s the most examined and determinative – takes an incredible commitment of time, discipline, and reflection. You don’t have to be as learned as Kurshan, a literary agent, translator and editor of Hebrew and English works who literally walks around with a book in her hand to the point of breaking bones; or raised in a rabbinical home situated on the property of a synagogue; or as dedicated to your faith (“an anchor, if not a life raft”). But you do have to be strongly motivated and inquiring for the long-haul as Torah study is a seven-and-a-half year journey called daf yomi, which means daily page in Hebrew. Those pages total 2,711 double-sided, organized in thirty-seven volumes called tractates, covering five hundred years of Jewish legal, religious, philosophical, ethical judgments, beliefs, and traditions.

Daily study suited the author’s intellectual and industrious disposition exceedingly well. “I cannot help but engage the text because the text engages me.” Still, it took her a year to commit even when her life was aching for direction and comfort. That she found “the most meaningful way to study Torah is by searching for the interconnections and resonances between Torah and the rest of one’s reading, learning, and living” fits all she reveals to us about herself and where she was during a painful period in her life.

“Learning Torah, like falling in love, is supposed to set us on fire.” It sure did for Kurshan. We are the beneficiaries of that elation, fueled by her needs, zeal, and view that “only religion can inspire us to connect with other people in meaningful ways so the universe does not seem so vast and lonely.”

The year before Kurshan undertook Torah study she was 27, depressed and lost, alone and abandoned in a foreign land after moving to Israel from New York for a marriage that lasted only a year. She speaks candidly and movingly about her feelings of loneliness, sadness, failure, and shame, harkening back to an earlier time when she suffered from anorexia. The characteristics of young women afflicted with this disease match up with her frank admissions of “compulsiveness” and “self-denial,” making her story even more uplifting because when she completed the first cycle of her studies she was joyfully remarried and the mother of a toddler and twin baby girls. Today, the author is the mother of four, counting her blessings.

Ilana Kurshan is a resourceful, multi-tasker who aims to make every minute count. (She laminates poems to pull out and memorize when she swims in the pool her literary office overlooks!)  But she didn’t come up with this creative approach to studying the Torah, though it would be plausible if she did.

Invented in 1923 by Rabbi Meir Shapiro “as a way of unifying the Jewish world,” the process means that on any given day in the multi-year program of study Jews (and non-Jews) from around the world are open to the exact same page. Imagine having an interest in common to unite us with strangers? A concept the author expresses as a “worldwide web of conversational threads.” One tiny slice of how she brings the spiritual world right into our contemporary one.

Kurshan wraps herself up in the teachings of the Torah to guide the choices she makes and how she lives. Dedicated to running too, she chants prayers amidst the old, hilly streets of Jerusalem. Her literary passion is ingrained in her spirit and soul, more than anyone I know. So besides lighting up rabbinic literature, If All the Seas Were Ink is suffused with an eclectic assortment of references to classical and modern writers and romantic poets – Byron, Coleridge, Tennyson, Emily Dickenson, Edna Dt. Vincent Millay, Wallace Stevens, Shakespeare, Nancy Milford, Margaret Drabble, D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, and more.  It’s a treat to see how she blends sacred and secular words and thoughts.

Ilana Kurshan’s staunch feminism is another treat. She grew up in a conservative synagogue – men and women sat and prayed together – versus her ultra-orthodox husband’s tradition of separating the genders. She explains that it’s only been in recent decades that women are tackling the Talmud, also male-dominated in attitudes and customs, owing in part to daily podcasts and online free resources translated in English. (This translator translates all Hebrew for us; she wants us to understand.)

“Learning daf yomi is like zooming through a safari on a motorbike; there is so much to take in, but you are moving at an impossibly rapid clip” so the author kept a journal and wrote poems that would jog her memory. “These journal entries unfolded as a record not just of my learning but also of my life.”

That life, now 37, is full yet still questing. The memoirist asks “how much can we reasonably be expected to change ourselves?” in response to the Talmud’s questioning what we can and cannot change. Kurshan provides us with an answer to this one: quite a bit. As long as we’re willing to take risks, push ourselves with grit and determination, and take stock of, be grateful for, what we have. I, for one, feel grateful for her insightful memoir and think you will too.

Lorraine

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A Good Country

The radicalization of an American-Iranian teenager living along the Southern California coast (2011 to 2014): A Good Country is like no other novel I’ve blogged about. Maybe like no other novel you’ve read.

It couldn’t be more timely and forceful in its quest for answers to compelling questions. How does a fun-seeking, peace-loving, advantaged American-Iranian teenager, Rez Courdee, living in a place some would call God’s country, become radicalized?

If you’re looking for a single, definitive moment to pinpoint when and why that happens you won’t find it here. It’s unrealistic, complex issues not easy to define. What you will find are themes, circumstances, and a series of events – everyday and catastrophic – that culminate in the fate Rez chooses. The novel’s strength resides in its authenticity, its frank depiction of a privileged teenager’s life in long, flowing prose that manages to be brutally honest and poetically tender at the same time.

Rez’s transformation is at odds with our perceptions of a kid who has a lot going for him, thus his changes-of-heart are even more confounding and provocative. An academic star, a chess player. That spells nerdy and isolating in a teen’s world, worsened by Rez feeling alienated at home. So, if you’ve been hanging out with three rich, pushing-the-limits friends since eighth grade and you’re an only child longing for a brother, yearning “to be inside the circle,” acceptance by your peers is all the more seductive.

When the novel opens we begin to see Rez’s persona vacillating. He’s a rising junior at a tony prep school in Laguna Beach, an exclusive enclave of spectacular homes hugging the southern California coast with its breathtaking views and legendary surfing culture. This is not the SoCal surfing culture made famous by the Beach Boys in the sixties. This music is “anger and confusion.”

Laguna Beach, by Patrick Pelster [CC BY-SA 3.0 de], via Wikimedia Commons

Just as the lyrics resonate with these kids, the prose grabs us. It sings along naturally, uninterrupted by removing all quotation marks. An interesting technique as dialogue is plentiful and not watered down, so we’re constantly hit with angst and “aimless rage.” Rez, of course, caves in to his friends’ taunts, soon also getting high on drugs and sex and yes, surfing. Which we wish will be the buffer, the savior for the path Rez seems headed for. Sadly, it’s not.

Rez’s journey starts off when he’s still a good and dutiful son to his horribly strict father, Sal, a physically violent and emotionally abusive “tyrant without a cause.” His mother has no power in this family, painfully docile, quietly cooking the “oldest food in the world.” She’s not even allowed to have her friends over to their house, so her presence for Rez and us is minimal. Its Rez’s father, whom he’s rightfully scared of, he needs to escape from. Plus, he’s terribly lonesome and bored at home, more reasons to escape. Which he does, with “diversions.”

The novel is divided into three parts. In Part I, Rez seeks the companionship of the small band of “brothers” mentioned above, nicknamed the Apostles because their names come from the Bible – Peter, James, John. When he realizes they aren’t brotherly, we find him in Part II befriending a different group. Arash and Fatima, childhood friends, have families in Syria. They become dedicated to the teachings of Islam. At first, Rez dismisses their piety, their praying at mosques. But as their faithfulness deepens, he wants to understand the peace and brotherhood they worship. A developmental process, once again influenced by his peers, maturing in Part III.

Rez is continually searching for his identity, asking how many “selves” does a person have?  How to be whole? “How to become a man?”

Laleh Khadevi was a human rights documentarian before she became an award-winning novelist. Iranian-American, she teaches creative writing at the University of San Francisco. So while A Good Country is fictional, her daring filmography turns into daring prose. Her lens now shines a glaring light on, and coincides with, the rise in terrorism and anti-Muslim sentiments after 9/11. In fact, the novel tracks seasons, opening in the fall of 2011.

A recent article on social class in America by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Elizabeth Strout offers some food for thought on the theme of powerlessness. She quotes a friend who teaches about the working-class, who told her: “it may be more helpful to think about class not in terms of education level or income level, but in terms of the sense of power that people feel over their lives.”

Feeling appreciated/in-control of your life versus vilified/marginalized may help account for why Rez (Arash and Fatima) are feeling increasingly culturally estranged as resentment towards Muslims heats up. As it does, this intense novel intensifies. Rez falls madly in love with beautiful Fatima, along with an “end-of-the-world tone” propelling him.

One visible way it manifests is surfing. There’s a shift in Rez’s elation with the “fantastic wind” and the “cool water on his skin” to something more profound and troubling. Palpably, his desperation is sharpening. “In the water everything was good again” but when Rez comes up for air he’s still faced with the fallout after the Boston Marathon, San Bernardino, and the Costa Mesa shopping mall attacks.

The most cringe-worthy anti-Muslim sentiments occur at an airport scene when Rez is returning home from Indonesia. An extravagant graduation gift from his father who is now meeker, shamed by his acts of betrayal towards his son and shamed by a demotion at Merck Labs where he’d been Head Scientist.

Pulled aside by security – racial profiling right before our literary eyes – a guard admits to Rez: “we saw your name, your travel destination, your smart-ass attitude, and thought we’d tell you what is at stake.” He goes on to say:

“… your people, who think they are worth a great deal, know that even after making all that money, they are worthless. Their children are worthless, and if this violence continues, their children’s children will be worthless too. The American dream will never play all the way out for you. Do you understand?”

Rather than get outraged, Rez believes “the man was not wrong.” To stay calm, he thinks about the mosque he just visited, welcomed by the iman and brothers. Brotherhood – there it is – the attraction though not necessarily the turning point moment.

Khadivi is never judgmental. She lets the facts speak for themselves. Let’s us form our own opinions, like a gifted documentarian does.

A gifted writer too. For I didn’t even know A Good Country was the last installment in her Kurdish trilogy, spanning three generations of Rez’s family: his Iranian grandfather debuted in The Age of Orphans; his Iranian-American father in The Walking. Obviously, the novel stands well alone, although you can’t help but want to backtrack to gain further insight into Rez’s father’s upbringing to contemplate the impact of those cultural threads.

Isn’t it ironic, heartbreaking and heart-lifting, that the largest population of Muslims in this country – in Texas, a quarter of a million in Houston alone – risked their lives and opened up their mosques to save Americans during Hurricane Harvey?

When will our good country save itself? Become good and whole again?

Lorraine

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