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 think my first true literary passion was Johanna Spyri’s Heidi. Like other U.S. first graders of my generation, I learned to read on the Dick and Jane series, and I enjoyed learning to read, but I remembered thinking that Jane was kind of useless. She would drop a sack of flour on the floor and go to pieces and then have to wait for big brother Dick to make it all right by bringing her a broom and helping her sweep it up.
I picked up Heidi because I liked the picture of the little girl with the dark curls on the cover and with my limited vocabulary began picking my way through the novel.
A whole new world opened up to me. I mean, here was a girl with real problems. She was an orphan with a craven aunt and a scary grandfather and yet she arose to meet these challenges with a positive, life-embracing attitude. And when she was separated from her beloved Alps and sent to Frankfurt, to be abused by the cruel Fraulein Rottenmeyer, I wept. I read Heidi thirty-seven times between first and second grade; I think it would be fair to say I learned to read by reading Heidi.
Other books that have inspired that sort of rereading passion over the years have included C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Jane Austen’s novels. And it is that literary passion that I associate most closely to how I feel about Joss Whedon’s pre-Avenger’s work. I did not watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel until after they were in syndication and after I had been doing Christian Peacemaker Team’s work for a while, but when I did, they struck a deep chord. In 2004, I wrote the following letter to Whedon:
Dear Mr. Whedon
I have worked in the field of human rights since 1993, serving on assignments in Haiti, the West Bank, Chiapas, Colombia and South Dakota. I worked in the West Bank City of Hebron from 1995 until Israel denied me entry into the country in October 2002.
I had watched Buffy sporadically (because I don’t have cable and have been out of the country a lot) for the last several years and had admired the way you combine humor and pathos. An opportunity to get a copy of season 6 on VHS came my way in September. I am watching the episodes for the second time in a month and have watched the musical episode three times. After I got over being irritated with myself for being so moved by a TV show, (given the actual human misery I’ve witnessed) I began to examine the feelings of yearning and grief that the Buffy episodes seemed to be roiling up inside of me.
There are actually a lot of similarities between the work of the human rights teams and the work of the Scoobies. A special camaraderie develops between human rights workers, and for some reason, most people attracted to human rights work have really good senses of humor (the ones that don’t, don’t last.) A good solid team is way greater than the sum of its parts. People’s weaknesses and strengths are balanced, and sometimes perceived weakness can actually get the job done better than perceived strength. On the negative side, the intimacy on a team and within the human rights community can (and often does) lead to ill-advised romances. Worse, you can never unwitness what you have witnessed or unknow what you have known. You come and go knowing that oppression will continue to grind down people you love, that these people—Haitians, Indigenous, Colombians, Israelis, Palestinians—cannot leave, as you can, that often, oppression and violence win.
After I was deported by Israel in October 2002, all my loved ones at home and abroad were very solicitous of my feelings and anxious to commiserate with me about not being able to return to Israel/Palestine, since that has been a big part of my life. They thought I was being brave when I told them I was happy to be able to catch up on some writing projects, but here’s what I didn’t tell them: I was glad the Israeli government wouldn’t let me return. I was tired of being around suffering people. I didn’t think I could care for one more person, whatever his or her need. I was tired of being assaulted and spit on and called a Nazi. I was tired of providing encouragement to Israeli and Palestinian friends who have worked so hard for peace and reconciliation only to see their work destroyed. I was tired of being a representation of a Christian, an American, a peace activist, etc, instead of a real human being.
So I guess you can see how Buffy coming back from heaven into this earthly hell struck a chord. But, as I’ve thought about Season 6, I realize that it also confirms some deep truths that I have known and repressed: Some forms of sadness are more worth having than some forms of happiness. The fellowship of true minds and true hearts is the engine that will keep you going; you’re never really alone. God can use you along with all your selfishness and fear and despair to accomplish good—even if you’re not a superhero. Love is stronger than the forces of death. And, maybe most importantly, Season 6 made me realize it’s time for me to finish up my writing projects and go back into the field—Iraq or Colombia, if not Israel and Palestine (I’m engaged to an Israeli guy and we’re hoping that may get me back to Hebron, but we’re not sure it will.) Frankly, I would have preferred to get this revelation via prayer or Bible study, but I also know from experience that God often chooses to speak to people in unorthodox ways. So anyway, thanks for what Buffy has given me, even if you didn’t intend this particular outcome.
I have enclosed a Reuters photo and a Christian Science Monitor article to show I’m not making all this up. (See other side of this page.)
Whedon wrote back, telling me that he also had friends who worked for human rights organizations and he had wanted to do a TV series about it, but in the end he couldn’t sell it, so he had just added vampires.
I am embarrassed to admit it took me years before I realized he had been joking.
Anyway, this week, I stumbled across a contest on Twitter that was looking for a mashup of Shakespeare and Whedon’s work as a promo for Whedon’s new film rendition of Much Ado About Nothing, starring Amy Acker, Alex Denisof, Nathan Fillion and some other familiar faces from the previous collected Whedon oeuvre. And it became one of those things where I couldn’t stop thinking of jingles and puns—while I was gardening, in the bathroom, over lunch, and, frankly, when I should have been working.
Here’s what I came up with:
For a vamp is a knobbly thing, and this is my conclusion.” (From Much Ado’s “For a man is a giddy thing, and this is my conclusion.”#buffybard
Refers to the bumpy foreheads of Whedon vampires. Not my best effort.)
Sigh no more Joss sigh no more,
Networks were clueless ever –
Titillation’s blowsy whores-
To erudition constant never #buffybard
(A reference to Whedon’s history of canceled TV shows and a take off from the song in Much Ado: Sigh no more, ladies,
sigh nor more;
Men were deceivers ever;
One foot in sea and one on shore,
To one thing constant never
I thought it was a little bit suck-uppy, but one of the winning participants, who is an actual Shakespearean scholar favorited it.)
Behind Whedon’s new
of Much Ado
are Two by Two
(GASP) Hands of Blue #buffybard
(I think this one was probably my favorites. The Hands of Blue are from Whedon’s series Firefly. According to Firefly.wikia.com they “were a pair of mysterious men, who wore suits and blue gloves. They were contractors to the Anglo-Sino Alliance and were in pursuit of River and Simon Tam. Anyone who had any form of contact with River, even Alliance personnel, was killed without mercy with the use of a sonic device that induces massive bleeding from every orifice.”)
“Buffy/Spike, Darla/Angel, Dr. Horrible/Penny, Echo/Paul” are too wise to woo peaceably” said no one EVER #buffybard
(From what Benedick says to Beatrice in Much Ado: “Thou and I are too wise to woo peaceably.”
Bad Horse! Bad Horse! My kingdom for Bad Horse! #Buffybard
(Bad Horse is the head of a crime organization in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along blog. He is an actual horse.)
Fairest Cordelia, that art most rich, being poor; Most choice, forsaken; and most loved, despised! #BuffyBard
(This is actually just a quote from King Lear but seemed to describe well the character of Cordelia Chase, who appears in both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel.)
There is no evil angel but Love–or Angelus #BuffyBard
(Angelus is the evil demon that the vampire Angel turns into when he loses his soul.)
For ’tis the sport to have the slayer hoist with her own Mr. Pointy #BuffyBard
(This was my first, and probably weakest effort. It comes from Hamlet’s “hoist with his own petard” quote, and for some reason, I had imagined that weapon to be something pointy, but it was actually a bomb. In the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series Mr. Pointy was a special stake given to Buffy by another slayer.)
The winner? “Scooby or not Scooby.” Of course.
URGENT INVITATIONS from Colombia and Elsipogtog First Nation in New Brunswick
Now back to my real job: In the last seven to ten days Christian Peacemaker Teams has received urgent request for accompaniment from Colombia and Elsipogtog that we don’t have the people to fill.
On May 30 a member of Las Pavas community in Colombia had been attacked with machetes by workers for Aportes San Isidro, the palm oil company that has been trying to push the community of Las Pavas off their land for many years:
Tito, the man who was attacked, is wearing a red shirt and holding a camera. The man on horseback is a security guard who has ordered attacks on the people of Las Pavas
My colleague Tim Nafziger visited Las Pavas community and wrote here about the destruction of their crops and cattle that he witnessed last year. This attack is an escalation on the pressure on this community that is deeply committed to nonviolence. It comes three days after a breakthrough in the high level peace talks between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the government of Colombia.
In response, the community has asked CPT to provide more frequent presence on the ground as part of our accompaniment of them. Our team on the ground is already stretched thin and they’ve made an appeal to CPT reservists to support them.
On June 8, our Aboriginal Justice team sent a group of reservists to New Brunswick, Canada in response to an invitation 48 hours earlier from Elsipogtog First Nation. Mi’kmaq and Maliseet peoples have been using creative Nonviolent Direct Action to stop shale gas exploration on their traditional lands, including peacefully blockading a truck hired by the exploration company, SWN Resources Canada. “They broke the law a long time ago when they started this fracking in our traditional hunting grounds, medicine grounds, contaminating our waters,” Elsipogtog chief and protest leader John Levi told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
Tim notes, “As we’ve seen in Syria most recently, violent actors and arms dealers are right around the corner, ready to step in. If we truly believe that the cross is an alternative to the sword, now is the time to step up: cpt.org/participate.”
I spent this week reading through my novel manuscript carefully, since I had added a big chunk of manuscript—a diary of a teenage character I wrote about in a previous posting— and wanted to make sure that the rest of the novel was in sync with it. Often, when I am at this state this stage of the editing process I enter a state of what I call “Tweaking madness.” I see clunky sentences or awkward paragraphs and I think “How could I have written this? This is so awful! How could I have ever thought this novel was any good?” And usually that’s the time to put it aside until I can look at it with fresh eyes. Because the clunky parts are usually very isolated, and most readers simply breeze past them.
This time, I did catch some awkward phrasing and did some revision, but overall didn’t escalate into “Tweaking Madness.” What I did find as I read through Ralph’s diary, interspersed with the letters and other writings of Shea, my Hosea figure, was a growing sense of unease regarding how Christian the novel was.
I’ve been spending a lot of time learning how to use social media effectively to promote my writing–definitely not there yet–but part of it involves following on Twitter, Facebook, etc. the work of writers and artists whose work you admire. And most of these are secular, for me. Chaim Potok is dead and Marilynne Robinson doesn’t have a Twitter account. I was wondering if Joss Whedon or Margaret Atwood (or more likely fellow Whedon and Atwood enthusiasts) ever stumbled onto Ralph and Shea’s letters, whether they would just zone out immediately, because of their overtly Christian perspective on the world–even if Ralph and Shea were using that perspective to bring down a fascist regime ruling the the United States.
And then there’s the converse problem, Shea is not really “Christian fiction” in the way that the contemporary publishing world defines Christian fiction.It is written from the viewpoint of a philandering husband, and while the sex is not graphically described, it is plentiful and the F-word appears throughout the novel (It’s really odd, my characters can say the F-word, but writing as myself, I say “F-word instead “F—“)
Here is the climactic scene, in which Islam Goldberg-Jones is on trial for providing weapons to the guerrillas trying to bring down the Christian Republic (but the real object of the trial is to defame his wife, Shea.) It’s kind of appropriate actually, for Easter weekend:
“Tell me Mr. Islam Goldberg-Jones. Are you Muslim or Jewish?” the prosecutor began.
“My mother was brought up in a conservative Jewish family, but both of my parents considered themselves atheists. They taught me that God did not exist.”
I heard gasps from the courtroom. They had vetted the audience.
“And did Hoshea Weber know you were an atheist when she married you?”
“And did she try to convert you?”
I paused and then said, “Not in the way that you mean.”
The military judge said, “Answer his question, Mr. Jones.”
“Goldberg-Jones,” I corrected him.
The bailiff punched the left side of my head, and I heard a consistent high hum in that ear for the rest of the proceedings.
The lawyer rephrased his question. “Did she try to convince you that God exists and that Jesus was the Son of God? Do you believe that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and buried, rose again and will come to judge the living and the dead?
Shea ascribed what happened next to the Holy Spirit. I will say only this—a quick succession of holos appeared before me, superimposing themselves over the audience in courtroom: Ralph saying—earnest brown eyes wide at having met his first atheist—“But it’s like love, Uncle Iz, you can’t see or hear or touch love, but love still exists”; Ralph clinging to me and sobbing at the border of Akwesasne before he turned back with Hank because Gladys and Edna needed him; Shea smiling at me as we walked and talked in Rock Creek Park and when we lay naked under the ancient Weber family quilt; Leah leaning against the fence at the farm on Thanksgiving day thirteen years ago. Al calling me “son.” My own parents reading Dr. Seuss to me. L’Merci running across the yard at Al and Deborah’s house with Gladys and Edna. All the Webers and I laughing ourselves sick over an only moderately amusing story, because we loved each other. Bernie calling my name, “Ih-ihz.”
“I don’t know whether God is real,” I said. “But I can tell you right now that he’s a hell of a lot more real than you guys and your god are to me. It’s the god you speak of that presides over your tortures and murders and atrocities that doesn’t exist. As for Jesus rising from the dead, today, and today only, I choose to believe in the resurrection because that was Jesus saying ‘Fuck you’ to the Empire who crucified him. And yeah today I believe he will come again to judge us and you all should be really, really afraid.”
I saw the bailiff descending on me with his baton and then everything went black.
So you see my dilemma.
Anyway, I went to the Maundy Thursday service at my church last night and in thinking about Jesus’ sacrifice, it kind of hit me that it’s really not much of a sacrifice for me to be true to who my characters are. They are entitled to be devout Christians, and if a secular public has a problem with that, well, may I not be ashamed of the Gospel of Christ. And if a religious public has a problem with Iz, well, he probably agrees with their assessment of his character. And if their problem with him is that he uses the F-word, that really is their problem, not Iz’s.
When I got home, I found a letter from the Posen Foundation saying I was not among the five finalists in their fiction prize, but that they thought my writing sample had been impressive and they encouraged me to submit again next year. Not sure if that was something they said to everyone, but it sounded like more than boilerplate. The timing after the Maundy Thursday service seemed apropos, since the Foundation is designed to promote secular Jewish culture. I actually knew that Shea would be a longshot for the fellowship, but reasoned that since Iz is a very secular Jewish character, and Hosea was a Jewish prophet, and secular Judaism does have some connection to the Jewish prophetic tradition, it was worth the application. But I also knew that since I applied for the Posen Fellowship, the novel had gotten progressively more Christian. I had kind of thought I might be able to up the Jewish content, if I got the Fellowship, but that just wasn’t happening, so there was a small measure of relief, too. Kind of like dating someone you know you’re ill-suited for, and then being glad that s/he later finds a good match.
I’ve been running a low-grade fever the last couple days and have had accompanying canker sores that took over half my mouth and restricted to me to a liquid or very soft food diet. I was kind of stressing out over my To-Do list, but then I thought that my To-Do list, unlike my pre-sabbatical lists, was a real writer’s To-do list:
Sketch out an outline of questions for the friend whose memoir I will be working on with her in Los Angeles from February 25-March 13, to get her thinking
Get my column for Mennonite World Review done before then (Writing on the Idle No More movement currently sweeping across Canada, and implications for White settler Mennonites.)
Get the first 50 pages and an outline of my novel ready for the James Jones novel contest before then
Get the query letter for the agency I really want to represent my third novel polished and ready to go
Get a more generic query letter for agencies ready to go
Check out some Samurai Champloo and Joss Whedon sites for Because the Angels promotion.
When I go back to work for Christian Peacemaker Teams in June, it will be nice to look back on this list, and remember there was a time when I really spent most of my creative energy on writing.
In the past year I have been participating in She Writes.com, and the thing that has been impressed upon me most is that every author, especially ones who are trying to sell self-published novels, must have her own website. The great thing about She Writes is that there are people who could point me in the direction of how I could go about getting my own site (KathleenKern.com was already taken–it redirects to Mutual Managed Health Solutions Inc.). But I have been putting it together with a lot of trial and error and a lot of calls to the good people at Startlogic.com. Props also to Rebecca Forster who showed me what I could aim for at www.rebeccaforster.com, the surnameless Karma, and Petrea Burchard for help they have given me on She Writes in recent months.
As you can tell by my front page, I am promoting my novel Because the Angels, now available on Kindle. If you liked Samurai Champloo, Blood+ or anything by pre-Avengers Joss Whedon, you’ll probably like Because the Angels. If you liked the Avengers, you might like it too, but his previous work had a little more of the delicate blend of pathos and humor that I strive for in my writing.
I have also just gotten out my third novel “Shea” to my most loyal first line readers, and you will be reading more about it here in the coming months. For those of you who are biblically literate, it is a retelling of the Hosea-Gomer narrative, with the gender roles reversed, taking place against a background of Christian-Fascist religious syncretism instead of Israelite-Canaanite religious syncretism.
If your eyes just glazed over, here’s the synopsis:
About 100 years from now, serial philanderer Islam Goldberg-Jones is writing his memoir from prison, recounting how he, his wife Hoshea Weber, and hundreds of other people in various resistance movements helped bring down the Christian Republic that ruled the United States between 2049-86.
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