Note: The following post originally appeared on the Jewish Pluralist website. I have adapted it slightly to avoid confusion.
I manage the Twitter account for my human rights organization, and lately, I find I have to take a deep breath every time I check it. Since we have a project in Palestine, our Twitter feed follows other accounts concerned with peace and human rights in Palestine/Israel and now, it’s all about the bombing in Gaza. We also have a project in Iraqi Kurdistan; the team there is dealing with land confiscation by oil corporations and Syrian refugees. (Remember them?) In Colombia, corrupt authorities have used riot police to evict a community we accompany. The Supreme Court of Canada has just ruled that Ontario could open the land of our Anishinaabe partners to industrial logging. But right now, Gaza trumps all on Twitter.
When a friend who runs The Jewish Pluralist website asked me if I had anything to contribute regarding the war in Gaza, I told her that I just could not find the words to write about the current situation. Part of that may be due to my having entered another cycle of depression this spring, but I think mostly, having worked in the region since 1995, I just see no light at the end of this tunnel, and no light back from where I started, and how can I write in the dark?
However an e-mail I read from Noa Baum—an Israeli woman who does a poignant and educational one-woman show about Jewish and Palestinian experiences of the 1948 and 1967 wars—got me thinking. She writes, “As despair sees it, anyone who still hopes, who still believes in the possibility of peace, is at best naïve, or a deluded dreamer…”
She made me realize my despair is formed from different stuff. It grows from love—love of Palestinians and Israelis I have worked with, celebrated with, grieved with. People who were dreamers at one time and who have for decades, under craven political leadership, seen their work treated like trash. My despair is based on the knowledge that I have almost no power to facilitate peace or human rights in the region. I can only witness, document, and at a micro-level, provide accompaniment for individuals, families, and small communities nonviolently resisting the occupation. Any real change is in the hands of Palestinians and Israelis working at a grassroots level, and people at the roots have been trampled until they are bloody.
I had chosen not to share graphic images of dead and mutilated children coming across the Twitter Feed. But one picture this week dug its claws into me and would not let go, so after some internal debate, I did post it on our account. It shows a little girl in profile, gray eye open in death, with a tear slipping from its corner. Jehan Alfarra (@palinoia), who tweeted the picture from Gaza wrote, “Shedding her final tear, she leaves us.”
A few weeks ago, I finally said aloud in church what I had been resisting admitting to others and myself. I have entered another cycle of depression. In April, I was feeling a lot of stress about finishing some CPT-related projects and kept focusing on some indeterminate future time when they would be over, and I would catch up. But the calendar kept filling up, and my stress level did not drop. I continued to feel as though I were constantly on the verge of tears.
I began missing writing deadlines and meetings. Still, when I went to see my doctor about having a mouth so full of canker sores that I could not speak clearly (yes, also a symptom of stress) and he asked about my depression, I told him that my mood was fine.
I don’t remember now what triggered the, “Duh, of course you’re depressed,” epiphany. I only know that when I shared it in church, I felt a lot better; it took some of the power from this nebulous stress-creating force away. Knowing that people are praying for you always helps. And then, well, it’s like living with any kind of chronic pain. My husband can call and ask how I am and I can say, casually, “Oh you know, consumed by dread and anxiety,” and he can say, “Oh, the usual,” and I can say, “Yeah.”
Unlike chronic pain, this depression will go away eventually. Knowing it’s temporary is also helpful. When I am working in the garden, for some reason, the internal pain is less and I feel closer to God. This week, when I was with friends at my spiritual formation group, they pointed out that my depression generally coincides with periods when I am not writing, so I am trying to institute a discipline of writing one page a day on my new novel—working title, “Don’t Call Me Buffy”—before I run e-mail. I’m finding the results are a little disjointed. It’s a two volume novel and I know exactly how I want both books to end and I have a strong general story arc, but I’ve been unclear on the very beginning, so stopping abruptly after I have finished 250 words isn’t doing much for flow or a generally zippy opening. I’m hoping that once things start clicking I can go back and a better beginning will suggest itself.
Unfortunately, a symptom of depression is that it makes focus and concentration difficult, which affects my writing and editing, my work for Christian Peacemaker Teams and my general life skills here at home. (Yesterday my husband asked me to follow up with my doctor about a wellness screening form I was supposed to have mailed in more than a week ago, and I hadn’t mailed it in yet. Guess I’ll do that today.)
Most days, I triumph over inertia. Most days, I triumph over blind panic. If you met me for the first time, you would not know I am struggling. But just maintaining a safe distance from the magnetic pull of the abyss takes all my energy.
Yesterday was a bad day. We learned our friend Jalil Muntaqim had been denied parole for the eighth time, and we knew that for the first time he had had one sympathetic person on the parole board, so she evidently had failed to convince one other person to vote with her. All day, I couldn’t stop imagining what it must have felt like for him to have his hopes raised after more than four decades in prison and then…
This post first appeared on The Jewish Pluralist website.
My husband and I met because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A progressive Israeli-American, he came to hear me give a presentation called “Eye-witness to the Intifada” in November 2001 and asked good questions. A few months later, we met at another Middle East peace event, talked for hours afterwards and have been together ever since.
While some may view us as an odd couple—a secular Israeli Jew and a religious Mennonite who works with a human rights organization in Palestine—we agree on the most fundamental issues at work in the Israeli Palestinian conflict. We believe that Palestinians and Israelis are entitled to the same human rights; no exceptions. We agree that the Israeli military occupation must end. We agree that Israeli leaders, supported by the U.S. Congress, have been most responsible for scuttling effective peace negotiations, but that most official Palestinian leaders have not done well by their people either.
Our arguments over points of disagreement never reach satisfactory conclusions, I think, because we are arguing from two different platforms. Israel was Michael’s home for fifteen years and he would still live there if family circumstances had not compelled him to return to the U.S. I, on the other hand, in addition to working in Palestine have worked with my human rights organization, Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), in Haiti, Chiapas, Mexico, Colombia, and with Indigenous communities in North America. So I view the situation in Palestine through the lens of a human rights observer, rather than as from the perspective of someone with ties to a homeland.
This reality colors our disagreement over the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement. Although even in that area, we probably agree more than we disagree. Michael always boycotted items produced in settlements, and as someone who does socially responsible financial planning for a living, he would boycott the corporations that reinforce and profit from the military aspects of the Israeli occupation—e.g., Motorola, Raytheon, and Caterpillar—anyway. But when it comes to boycotting products made inside Israel proper, or boycotting Israeli cultural and academic enterprises, Michael is passionately opposed.
I do not match his passion in my disagreement. Those of us who work on the CPT’s Palestine team could not ourselves agree on an ardent support of the full spectrum of the BDS movement when we tried to write our own statement on the topic. But when Palestinian Christian partner organizations launched the Kairos document in 2009, asking the international community to support them by adopting BDS principles, we felt we had to stand with them. For decades, the international community has lectured Palestinians on using nonviolent resistance against the occupation. BDS is nonviolent resistance, and, as the document says, Palestinian Christians are not viewing it as an act of revenge, “but rather a serious action in order to reach a just and definitive peace.” Those are principles very much in keeping with the philosophy of CPT.
I have heard all the arguments against BDS. Why is Israel being singled out when human rights abuses are so much worse in [insert country]? Answer: Idi Amin’s regime killed exponentially more people in Uganda during the 1970s than the South African government killed in four decades of apartheid. Does that mean the international community should not have been in solidarity with South African anti-Apartheid activists?
BDS will only make Israelis more recalcitrant. Answer: How could Israel be more recalcitrant than it is now? The same argument was used for South Africa, and for a time the South African government did push back, but ultimately, practical people like DeKlerk recognized that Apartheid could not go on forever.
The academic cultural boycott alienates the very Israelis who are most supportive of ending the occupation. Answer: A. there is a distinction between boycotts of artists and academics who are officially representing the state of Israel, and academics and artists who happen to be Israeli. B. Presenting an attractive, cultured face helps mitigate the barbarity of the occupation. It was, in fact the boycott by sports teams and entertainers, that swung white public opinion against apartheid in South Africa more than the economic boycott.
Israel is nothing like South Africa. Answer: Every South African Israeli I know, every South African I have met who has come through Hebron has told me the checkpoints and treatment of Palestinians by soldiers and settlers eerily evoke to them the worst of Apartheid’s heyday.(1)
I can keep generating responses like these. I have used them in many conversations with Israeli and Jewish friends, and I see that I cause them pain when I do so, which I hate. But I have seen Palestinian friends brutalized by soldiers and settlers. I have seen them lose their land and their homes. I have seen Palestinians shot, spit on, and in general, treated worse than animals by the hideous tentacles of the Israeli military occupation. And since I began working in Hebron in 1995, the situation has only gotten worse; no amount of dialogue, solidarity outreach, or top level diplomacy has stopped the erosion of civil rights and human dignity for the people in the Hebron district and the rest of Palestine.
So ultimately, the decision for my colleagues and me to support the BDS movement is this: Palestinians have asked us to participate with them in this nonviolent struggle of last resort. Their lives and livelihoods are not worth more than Israeli or Jewish lives. But they ARE worth more than Israeli and Jewish feelings, even the feelings of those Israelis and Jews I love the most.
(1). Michael and I watched a PBS special on the 25th Anniversary of Paul Simon’s Graceland album. During its production, Simon went to South Africa at the time of the Cultural Boycott and used prominent black South African musicians in the recording of his album, which caused a huge debate. Some, including founder of Artists Against Apartheid, Dali Tambo, argued he should be boycotted, while others argued he was providing employment for and celebrating black musicians. The special included a segment with Simon and Tambo cordially discussing the boycott. Dali Tambo still believed Simon should have been boycotted, but they hugged at the end of the conversation. My takeaway? We won’t know ultimately about the effectiveness of BDS in Israel and Palestine until we have some hindsight. Michael’s takeaway? Boycotting Simon was a ridiculous idea then, and it’s still a ridiculous idea.
UPDATE: We learned on the morning of June 25, 2014 that Jalil was turned down for parole yet again. He wrote to me and my husband that there had been one sympathetic person on the parole board, but she must have failed to convince one of the other two people. I feel so sad, because I know from letters he wrote to me and my husband that he had allowed himself to hope.
Attica prisoner from COINTELPRO era to face eighth parole hearing in June
The release of Betty Medsger’s book The Burglary this winter once again drew attention to the conspiracies of COINTELPRO, a program devised by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI that sought to discredit and destabilize minority empowerment and self-defense groups like the NAACP, Black Panthers and American Indian Movement— sometimes to the point of assassinating members of their leadership.
The false evidence and prosecutorial misconduct used to convict high profile COINTELPRO prisoners such as Leonard Peltier is a matter of public record. But J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI also framed dozens of lesser known individuals such as Attica inmate Jalil Muntaqim (formerly Anthony Bottom) who, like Peltier, are still in jail decades after the Church Committee held hearings in 1975 exposing this misconduct.
I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Muntaqim on April 9, 2014 at Attica State Prison. The problem with the Church Committee hearings, he told me, was that they never proposed a remedy for the activists imprisoned by the unethical conduct of the law enforcement officers during the COINTELPRO years.
Among the irregularities in his own prosecution for the murder of two police officers in 1971 included a colleague tortured with a cattle prod and needles in his testicles to get him to testify against Muntaqim and Herman Bell both of whom were convicted of the killings. When he told the judge he was testifying only because of torture, the judge informed the prosecutor that the witness had revealed this information to him, but did not share the information with the defense. Muntaqim also knows that tapes exist of Hoover, Nixon, H.R. Haldemann, John Ehrlichman, and Mark Felt (of Watergate’s Deep Throat fame) deciding to solve the shootings of the police officers (under the code name NewKill) by setting up Muntaqim and his codefendants, but his lawyer has not been granted access to those tapes. During his trial, ballistics expert George Simmons matched a gun that Muntaqim had carried in California to the bullet that killed the police officers and testified that he was the only person who had examined this ballistics evidence. Years later, Muntaqim’s defense team found out that an FBI ballistics expert had examined the gun and the bullet and determined they were not a match. This information was also withheld from the defense. In the 1980s, three months after Muntaqim’s lawyer filed a petition for a new trial based on this new evidence, someone removed the gun and the ballistics report from the locker in New York where they had been stored.
The parole board, largely made up of ex-law enforcement personnel, has denied Jalil Muntaqim parole seven times. The first six times, they did so because he did not express remorse (this stipulation is a glitch in the system for all who take plea bargains to avoid the hazards or costs of a trial or prisoners who are wrongly convicted: they must express remorse for crimes they did not commit.) For the seventh time, because his eighty-year-old mother wants so much for the whole family to sit down for a meal together before she dies, he decided to say, “Okay, I did it,” and express remorse. The parole board then denied him parole because he had lied about committing the crime the previous six times.
Jalil Muntaqim has another parole hearing coming up in June. He has 750 letters testifying to his good character and his rehabilitation. Included among those is a letter from the family of one of the slain police officers who wrote of Muntaqim and Herman Bell, “If they did it, we forgive them. But we have serious concerns about whether they are the ones.” Muntaqim will argue the precedent set by Silman v. Travis that if remorse and rehabilitation are the only relevant factors for a parole board to make decision regarding his release, the members of the board cannot make up reasons to keep him in jail.
Aside from wanting to grant his mother’s wish, he also thinks he could do more on the outside to keep young people out of jail. “I’m wasted here,” he told me. “I feel like I’m that Dutch boy with all ten fingers and toes in the dike.”
From a justice perspective, however, Mr. Muntaqim’s plans for the future are beside the point. The FBI’s COINTELPRO program was a stain on our constitution and disreputable era in our law enforcement history. The people it sent to prison should be set free. Kathleen Kern, from Rochester, NY has worked for the human rights organization Christian Peacemaker Teams since 1993, serving on assignments—and advocating for political prisoners—in Haiti, Israel, Palestine, Mexico, Colombia, Iraqi Kurdistan, the U.S. and Canada.
[Warning: This release contains profanity and triggers about violence.]
The way these phrases and photos invade my life is a bit like grace, in that I do not anticipate their effect and I know they are spiritually important—but they do not feel like grace. They are always something dreadful and sad that spring out of the information gathering I do that is part of my work. Usually, they are not accounts of slaughters or grand tragedies, or pictures of carnage. When an Israeli military bulldozer driver ran over Rachel Corrie in March 2003 (can it really be eleven years now?) The photo of her corpse did not pierce me. It was the photo of her colleagues—calmly comforting her in previous photos—weeping and embracing each other in the final photo, after her death, that got its hooks into me, that still has its hooks in me for that matter.
Most recently, the item of hideous grace was this: “Fuck, they just found her body. Rest in peace, love.”
It was a comment by a young women going by the name “Willow Deplorable” on the Tumblr blog of our Aboriginal Justice Team. They had posted a notice about 26-year-old Loretta Saunders’ body turning up on the Trans-Canada highway in New Brunswick. An activist trying to publicize Canadian authorities’ lack of interest in more than 800 murdered and missing Indigenous women, Saunders had been writing her thesis on the topic when she disappeared on February 13. I clicked on a link that brought me to the article about her disappearance, and for some reason, among the 64 notes posted at the bottom of the article, Willow Deplorable’s jumped out at me:
“Fuck, they just found her body. Rest in peace, love.”
And then I read a piece by Saunders’ thesis advisor, Darryl Leroux, who wrote that the image of her final resting place by the highway “hurts beyond anything I could say in words…I simply cannot get this image out of my mind.” I read Tara Williamson’s piece, “Don’t be tricked,” in which she said she shared Leroux’s initial gut reaction, “she’ll show up in a ditch like so many indigenous women before her” but allowed herself “this glimmer of hope, this notion that, for some reason, maybe this time it would be different…because she was an urbanized grad student or because she could pass as white … Despite all my talk, all my activism, all my ‘decolonizing’ work, I swallowed the pill… I got tricked.”
Williamson goes on to say,
• If you are an Indigenous woman, don’t be tricked into thinking you are any more safe than any of our other sisters out there. You’re not. The system and most Canadians don’t give a shit about you…
• Don’t be tricked into thinking that wearing a ribbon for a day, or signing a petition, or composing a tweet, or writing an article is going to change anything on its own…
• Finally, don’t be tricked into thinking someone else will do this work. You are that “someone else.” Loretta knew this. That’s why she was working so hard on uncovering the truth about murdered and missing women.
Honour Loretta. Don’t be tricked.
The thing is, I knew about murdered and missing indigenous women in Canada before Loretta Saunders’ death—women whose disappearances and deaths the authorities mostly could not be bothered to solve. I edit releases for the Aboriginal Justice team for CPTnet. If I were working with the team in Canada, I would have gladly joined demonstrations and put my skills to work on behalf of this issue. In fact, I have edited hundreds of releases describing many horrible things over the years, but for some reason, Willow Deplorable’s comment, “Fuck, they just found her body. Rest in peace, love” was like a raft that carried me past the word “issue,” and forced me to face the agony of the people who loved these women.
And then that raft left Canada. It was 1999; I was with Lakota friends in South Dakota who were telling me about their ancestors’ bodies displayed like animal specimens in museums and the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers flooding their sacred burial grounds along the Missouri river. I was in college in the 1980s learning of other bodies tortured and dumped by the roadside in El Salvador and Guatemala, disposed of by men trained in the U.S. to terrorize civilian populations. It was 1998; I was viewing the photos of Mayans from Union Progreso in Chiapas who had been stripped naked and cut open by the Mexican military and returned to their families that way. I was reading the reports of how paramilitaries slaughtered and mutilated Las Abejas, our partners in Chiapas from 1998-2001. It was 2001-2003 and I was editing reports of my CPT colleagues and friends pulling bodies and parts of bodies out rivers in Colombia, bodies who had been teachers, and farmers, and labor organizers and some of whom would remain unidentified—all to teach the people in the Magadalena Medio Region that rightwing paramilitaries were in control.
“Fuck, they just found her body. Rest in peace, love”does not completely capture what I felt as I wept for these poor abused bodies, and the people who lived in them and their loved ones, but it echoes the sentiment. Willow Deplorable’s Tumblr comment begins with outrage, lays bare the awful truth, and then ends with compassion.
And as I said earlier, the tenacity of its grip around my heart seems like something spiritual.
Years ago in our Hebron apartment, we had a foam cushion insert on which someone had drawn a smiling face. We dubbed it “Happy Foam Square,” and would throw it at a wall when our work got frustrating. Doing so was surprisingly cathartic.
So in a small way, I understand why throwing stones feels good. I also understand, when I see the posters of small boys throwing stones at tanks, that their actions are brave. I understand why the narrative of an occupied people resisting one of the most technologically advanced militaries in the world with rocks and Molotov cocktails is a source of pride in some circles.
But monitoring clashes in Hebron has always been one of my least favorite things to do, because we have almost no impact on the situation, and so little strategy is involved on the part of the Palestinian boys throwing things. They do it because it feels good, because it helps take the edge of the humiliation of the Israeli military occupation, and they just don’t think about the consequences to themselves, their families, or the people living and working in the staging area for these clashes.
In some situations, a thrown stone can literally grant a soldier a license to kill or can result in months, even years in jail for Palestinian youth. We have seen boys as young as eight taken away on suspicion of stone throwing. (Israeli settler youth are never arrested for throwing stones at Palestinians.) In one case, I witnessed soldiers detain children because they were wearing balaclavas in the cold weather; they told me the masks proved the boys were intending to throw stones (For more information on what happens to children accused of throwing stones, seeOccupied Childhoods. Newly released report on violation of children’s rights in Hebron.)
On school days, we monitor two checkpoints through which students and teachers must walk to get to school. At one checkpoint, almost every day, schoolboys throw stones at Border Police and Border Police respond with tear gas and sound bombs. One young mother told me, exasperated, “If they weren’t here, the boys would not throw stones.” And it’s true. If the soldiers, for the fifteen minutes before the school bell rang just went around the corner, had a cup of coffee, and let the principals shoo the children into the schoolyards, this dreary daily theatrical production would not take place.
Stone throwing at the Qitoun checkpoint happens less often, but last week, it had a tragic consequence for a family in the line of fire. After a volley of stones lasting less than a minute, a Border Police officer shot tear gas from a nearby rooftop at the boys. He missed, and it went into a family’s home and caught something on fire. They lost everything.
So do I think Palestinian children should stop throwing stones? Of course. Apart from my own pacifist beliefs, I see it having no positive outcomes for the children and teenagers. But there is a reason that societies hold adults more responsible than children for their negative actions, and the soldiers firing the teargas and rubber bullets at stone throwers are at least nominal adults. And the strategists running this stupid, immoral occupation passed the threshold of adulthood a long, long time ago.
Most people, if asked to describe me, would not choose “selfish” as one of their first adjectives. Working for a human rights organization gives one an altruistic sheen, not always deserved, or not completely anyway. Most human rights workers, honest ones, will readily come up with a list of less altruistic reasons they do the work they do. They thought it sounded it like an interesting thing to do for a few years before their “real” careers began; they had friends doing the work; they like to travel; human rights workers are hilarious and often fun to be around (it’s true!)
And then there are the human rights people who are working out “issues” that I won’t go into here.
Hajji Hussein (with child on lap) was a political prisoner for whom CPT’s Iraqi Kurdistan team advocated. He was freed right after an Urgent Action e-mail Campaign we sent out on CPTnet. And right after #Pitchwars. Yes. Hajji Hussein’s freedom was really more important. Really.
I’m writing this entry because I’ve been really conscious over the last couple weeks of how my attention has NOT been focused on the needs of the people my organization serves, nor on the people near and dear to me. Pretty much, all I have been able to think about is getting my novel noticed by an agent.
It all started with the #Pitchwars contest. The premise of the contest is that “mentors”—agented authors, agents’ assistants or other people who have connections in the literary world, read the query letters and the first five pages of the novel that the authors are submitting to the contest and choose one author and two alternates to mentor. Then they read the entire manuscript and help the author sharpen both the manuscript and query for submission to an agent.
I got a mentor interested in my submission based on our shared interest in Joss Whedon, although she was upfront about it being outside her genre, and I began obsessively following the #Pitchwars Twitterfeed to watch her and the other three agents to whom I submitted discussing the entries. Now, I was getting ready to leave the country for another two-month assignment with Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT); I needed to get my three substitute editors situated to take over CPTnet while I was gone; CPT was doing its end of the year fundraising push. I was very conscious that my mind needed to focus on other things.
I think it was at the meeting of my church’s Pastoral Ministry committee when we were discussing the needs of people in my church that I felt the most selfish. The other three people on the committee were discussing these needs–some of them pretty dire–and I realized I hadn’t really been giving them any thought, because I so very, very passionately want my novel–The Price We Paid, formerly Shea–to be published. And this #Pitchwars contest had given me hope that a little mentoring might get me there.
With a little distance now, I know it was a good experience. I am still surprised by how approachable the mentors were to unpublished authors with questions and how much time they put into their responses to the people they chose not to mentor. I think I realized later that the contest was not for literary fiction, and hence, not the best venue for my novel. I don’t mean that in a snobbish sense, but in the sense that the mentors who were critiquing adult fiction had a background in commercial and genre fiction. The mentors who commented said I should look for agents who represented literary fiction.
I also got good ideas for sharpening my query. For example, I think I’m going to have to cut out the Hosea and Gomer reference from all future queries, which hurts a little, since Hosea’s love life was the epiphany that led to the novel. But in my last conversation with Jim Loney, who is taking over CPTnet part of the time when I’m gone, he told me he had forgotten the connection the novel had with the biblical story, and he’s one of the novel’s strongest advocates.
Right before I left, I did a 35 word pitch for the novel in #Pitchmas, knowing I’d be in Hebron when the “Winners” were announced (75 pitches get posted on a blog. Agents pick from among the pitches.) Usually, when I’m on assignment, the work has a way of engaging most of my attention, so I’m hoping the Twitter feed won’t take up as much of my time (our Hebron apartment has spotty internet, anyway.)
Years ago, when I got a fellowship to workshop my first novel manuscript with Lee K. Abbott, based on the first chapter I submitted, he asked if I had completed the novel. Upon learning I had, he said the good news was that most aspiring writers never do that. The bad news was that I would probably have to write five before I got published. And I do have the beginnings of a fourth beginning to inkle about in my brain.
But I am not finished with The Price We Paid. Apart from all the ignoble reasons I want it published, I believe in it; I believe it has a life and that I am supposed to advocate for that life. I just wish I were a better promoter.
UPDATE: My Twitter Pitch ( “A” stands for “Adult”) was not chosen for the 75 “Pitchmas” pitches: “A/ Literary Dystopian Iz cheats on his wife but also helps her bring down corrupt religious regime that rules U.S. during 2065-2089 #Pitchmas” Again, I’m not sure literary novels lend themselves to Twitter-length pitches.
I have to write about 100 tweets today for my organization Christian Peacemaker Team’s #GivingTuesday campaign and I’m leaving town tomorrow to speak at a conference, so I’m kinda going to cheat by just pasting in a short bio from the first page of my blog:
Author Kathleen Kern has worked as a human rights advocate with Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) since 1993, serving on assignments in Haiti, Washington, DC, Palestine, Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo, and with indigenous nations in the U.S. and Mexico. She has authored two histories of CPT– In Harm’s Way: A History of Christian Peacemaker Teams (Cascade 2009); As Resident Aliens: Christian Peacemaker Teams in the West Bank, 1995-2005 (Cascade 2010)–and her work has appeared in Tikkun, The Christian Century, and The Baltimore Sun. Her first novel, Where Such Unmaking Reigns, was selected as a finalist for Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize.
If you go to the first page of my blog,you’ll see that people said some nice things about my Indie novel Because the Angels. In addition to my @KathleenKern Twitter account, which reflects the mishmash of my writing and political life, I have an @FakeNovelPitch Twitter account, which, well, is like this:
I do take submissions for Fake Novel Pitches, by the way. Rules are, you have to leave 21 characters for retweeting (that way, you get the credit); they can’t be racist, homophobic, sexist, etc.; absurd is good, and publication is entirely according to my whim.
On October 17, shortly before CPT’s Hebron team sat down to dinner, I checked my Twitter feed. I saw that something was happening in Elsipogtog—a community in Maritime Canada that CPT’s Aboriginal Justice team is accompanying as it resists fracking by SWN Resources on its traditional lands. When I checked the #Elsipogtog hashtag, hundreds of comments began streaming out about arrests, snipers, rubber bullets, teargas, and vehicles on fire. I realized that thousands of miles away in Occupied Palestine I was watching live, via Twitter, an attack by the Canadian police on the Elsipogtog blockade in New Brunswick. And so as we sat down to eat, in the relative quiet of Hebron that evening, we prayed for Elsipogtog—and our tweets about the ongoing attack on the encampment were later retweeted by some of the Palestinian activists who follow the Hebron team’s account.
The blurry red hat is on the head of one of my CPT colleagues. The policeman with the attack dog is very unhappy about her videotaping him.
Because of the chaos caused by the attack, even now, some of its details are unclear, but what basically happened is this: Canadian police, some heavily armed and in military-style camouflage, arrested Chief Arren Sock and dozens of other protesters, while they ransacked the camp and dispersed protestors using teargas and rubber-coated metal bullets. Some of the protestors responded by setting the police cars on fire and throwing things at the police. What had been a nonviolent witness until that moment fell apart.
In the aftermath of the incident, the KAIROS coalition (of which MCC Canada is a member), Amnesty International Canada and the Canadian Friends Service Committee published an open letter to David Alward, the Premier of New Brunswick. In the opening paragraph, the organizations noted, “it is our view that this clash could have been avoided had the province acted in a manner consistent with its obligations to respect the human rights of Indigenous peoples under Canadian and international law.”
The letter then highlights four areas in which the province of New Brunswick could do more to rebuild just relations with Indigenous peoples:
Acknowledge that Indigenous peoples have rights to their lands, territories, and resources that predate the creation of the Canadian state. International human rights bodies, including the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have repeatedly condemned Canada’s failure to protect these rights.
Stop ignoring the land rights of Aboriginal peoples in day-to-day operations of the government. Canadian courts have decreed that governments must consult with Indigenous Peoples before making decisions that affect their rights. “Accordingly,” the letter says, “our organizations urge your government to retract statements indicating that the province is already committed to shale gas development, regardless of opposition.”
Acknowledge that the province must obtain “free, prior and informed consent” (FPIC) of Indigenous peoples when a proposed project has the potential to affect their cultures, livelihoods, health, and well-being. “Our organizations call on New Brunswick to acknowledge that shale gas exploration and development on or near the traditional lands of Indigenous peoples is clearly an example where the safeguard of free, prior and informed consent is appropriate and necessary.”
Deploy police with the understanding that they have a clear responsibility to respect and protect human rights, including the lives and safety of those involved in protests. “Use of force must always be a last resort and the scale and nature of the force deployed must be in proportion to the need to protect public safety.”
“Unless the province adopts an approach consistent with these obligations, further clashes may occur,” the letter notes.
Chief Arren Sock released a written statement on October 18, saying “Chief and Council of the Elsipogtog First Nation wish to state clearly that guns and bombs, if any, have no place in our peaceful efforts.” On October 21, Justice George Rideout denied the request by SWN Resources to extend its court injunction to prevent the Elsipogtog protesters from blocking its storage facility. But on November 18, the activists suffered a setback when Judge Judy Clendenning dismissed an application from the Elsipogtog First Nation for an injunction to stop seismic testing for shale gas.The story is still unfolding, streaming, and tweeting.
Back when I first started sending out manuscripts a few decades ago, I relied on books like Writer’s Market and Jeff Herman’s Writer’s Guide to Book Editor’s, Publishers and Literary Agents. The internet has, of course, increasing supplanted these books, and today researching agents means following their Twitter accounts and blogs and this Brave New World has led to a new problem: squishy boundaries between agents and writers.
When I inserted “squishy boundary” into Google image search, this picture came up. If it were a literary agent that loved my novel, The Price We Paid, and wanted to represent it, I’d probably be okay with that.
Back when connections with agents were primarily made through the postal service, the lives of agents were more opaque to writers. Now, writers get a much more intimate glimpse into agents’ lives and thought processes, especially when they follow agents’ Twitter accounts. And, I have found, that I start liking certain agents and relating to them as people, quite apart from my wanting them to represent my novel (I especially enjoy reading Sarah LaPolla and Jessica Negron’s opinions).
Strike that, I really WANT them to represent my novel because I like them. I hadn’t realized how many bookish twenty-somethings in New York City loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Star Trek and Doctor Who, and care about feminism and racism and oh, so many other things I care about.
And that’s another thing: the age of these agents. In Christian Peacemaker Teams, the human rights organization I have worked for since 1993, I am a veteran activist, accustomed to initiating people their age into the work or putting some of the problems with which they are struggling into historical perspective. I am the chief writer in CPT, the one who has written two histories, the one who can put out a breaking news release fast, or add a little literary flair to bland reporting. I edit all the releases coming in from our field projects in the West Bank, Iraqi Kurdistan, Colombia and Aboriginal communities and post them on our website. I help new writers write better, and enjoy the challenge of preserving the voice of CPTers for whom English is a second or third language as I change what they have written into Standard English. I am, in a word, competent.
But with the agents, I am a supplicant, someone who has never had a novel conventionally published, and who has never gone through the standard MFA/writing conference literary mills. I am old enough to be their mother, but they pretty much have all the power when I send them my queries, asking them to consider representing my novel(s).
So it’s kind of a weird relationship, especially with the agents whom I have come to like based on their tweets and blogs. I have these feelings of kinship with or even maternal fondness for them based on the background research I’ve done and my age on the one hand AND I am an unagented fiction writer who desperately wants them to love my novels on the other.
I suppose it keeps me humble.
NEW TWITTER ACCOUNT
And speaking of Twitter and not having an agent, in September, I wrote about entering Brenda Drake’s Pitch Madness Contest and finding that I was better at inventing fake pitches than real pitches. Like this website, my @KathleenKern Twitter account is a mixture of my author stuff and my human rights stuff. Fake Novel Pitches (@FakeNovelPitch) is devoted exclusively to fake novel pitches, such as the following:
#Dystopian genre: Trombones are reserved for the aristocracy. Secret society of peasant trombone players arises.
I will retweet submissions (at least the ones I like, anyway). Send them to @FakeNovelPitch. Make sure you begin your pitch with a genre and to leave at least 21 characters, so that it can be retweeted–and thus attributed to you.