I didn’t add this anonymous letter that appeared on Mondoweiss in October, because I was going to be heading to Hebron in the winter or Spring, but I think enough time has passed now that I can probably post it.
The following was written by a member of Christian Peacemaker Teams in Hebron. The author writes, “*I am not using my name because Israel has complete control over the borders of the West Bank and Gaza and routinely denies entry to human rights observers. Israel denied two of my colleagues entry in the last few months and banned another from Hebron because she took an Instagram photo showing the Israeli military violating the human rights of Palestinian children. Furthermore, Israel may soon deny entry to anyone who advocates any sort of boycott, even of those products produced in settlements, which are illegal under international law.”
Dear J.K. Rowling,
I have worked as a human rights advocate in Palestine for twenty years and most of the people in my circles support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement to one degree or another. I am married to an Israeli who supports the boycott of settlement products and corporations that enable the Israel’s occupation of Palestine, but, like you, does not support the academic and cultural boycott of Israel. I believe it is possible for people of good conscience to disagree on this issue.
But I want to tell you that in the city of Hebron where I have worked for the last twenty years, I have, with my own eyes, seen Palestinian children attacked, beaten, arrested—without any of the due process the civilized world grants minor children—and in general treated with utter contempt by Israeli soldiers and settlers. A major part of our work is monitoring the treatment of children as they walk through checkpoints on their way to school everyday in the Old City of Hebron. The Israeli military’s of teargas has become almost routine when elementary children passing through—something Israeli families would never tolerate for their own children (and indeed the police do not use it against Jewish Israelis inside Israel.)
Several days ago, 17-year-old Dania Arshid was walking to her English class through a checkpoint. Accused by Israeli Border Police of having a knife, she threw her hands in the air, backed away, and was summarily executed by multiple gunshots.
I can tell you, based on my experience, that no one will go to jail for her murder, or for the murder of Hadeel Hashlamoun, a few weeks earlier or for Fadel al Qawasmi. In the impossibly slim chance an investigation into her extrajudicial execution occurs, the courts will exonerate the soldiers and racist Israeli social media will hail them as heroes.
As of the end of August, 133 Israeli children and 2065 Palestinian children had died since 2000 in the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. I view the death of any child of any nationality with horror, but in this conflict, it is the Palestinian children whom the agents of Occupation kill and abuse with impunity.
So Ms. Rowling, you do not have to support the Academic and Cultural Boycott, but for the sake of all Palestinian children who love Harry, you do need to say their lives matter. You need to say they are entitled to exactly the same rights, dignities and freedoms that Israeli children are. And you need to say that Israel’s military occupation of Palestinians, this Unforgivable Curse from which all the violence tormenting the inhabitants of this land emanates, must end.
– See more at: http://mondoweiss.net/2015/10/rowling-palestinian-children/#sthash.ewShkzCY.dpuf
This is the second installment from the novel writing course through Curtis Brown Creative in London, under the mentorship of author Nikita Lalwani and with fourteen other novel writing peers. As I said in my previous posting, the bulk of the work is evaluating 3,000 work segments of each other novels, but we also get little voluntary 500 word homework assignments we can submit for peer review as well. This week, in which we focused on endings, the assignment was to rewrite the ending of a favorite novel.
I am predicating an alternate To Kill a Mockingbird, told from the viewpoint of a black girl who was sent from Chicago with her brother to Maycomb, Alabama, to live with her Aunt Helen and Uncle Tom because the pollution in Chicago is bad for her asthma. While they are there, her Uncle Tom is charged with rape, put on trial, killed…(I didn’t feel I had a handle on Southern Black dialect from the 1930s.):
Miz Richardson wouldn’t let Mama take off work right away to come get Jem and me after what those men did to Uncle Tom, because Miss Susan was getting married. So while we waited, the ladies from the church came over with food for Aunt Helen and our cousins. They cleaned the house, swept the yard, even boiled the water for our baths on Saturday. They combed out our hair into pigtails so tight that I had to work my eyebrows loose. But I didn’t complain, like I would have for Mama or Aunt Helen.
Some colored men from out of town in suits came to talk to Aunt Helen with that white lawyer who defended Uncle Tom. He smiled at Jem and me all sad like and said he had children our age. He even had a boy named Jem. They want Aunt Helen to go to Washington, DC and tell her story to some important people so that white folks in the north will understand what’s happening in the south. But Aunt Helen can’t hardly even talk to her own family, so how’s she going to talk to white folks up north?
Half the people in the neighborhood came into the house when that Atticus lawyer and the men in suits came to see Aunt Helen, and someone must have spread the word, because then the pastor came and half the church. They told us we should shake the hand of that lawyer and that he was a great man.
“If that were true,” he said, “Tom would still be alive.”
Aunt Helen, she just look at him like, so some white man finally said something that make sense.
All of the people, the smiles at the white man, the sad looks at my aunt, they began squeezing the air out of my lungs. I grabbed Jem’s arm.
“I can’t breathe,” I said.
He got me out of the room, and out under the tulip tree; I began wheezing. He ran around the side of the house, brought some mint and crushed it against my nose.
“Hold that breath, and count to five” he said. “Now let it out,” and soon the world was more than just my breath again; I heard locusts and the hum of the sawmill up the road.
A truck drove by the house with two white men in the flatbed. One had a gun. We started to get to our feet to run for the house, but they just laugh and the one without the gun hold his arm up high in the air like his head in a noose and shout, “Next time we’re coming for you, niggers!”
Mama sent us down here from Chicago so we’d get some fresh air, but sometimes the air in a place, even if you can’t see it or smell it, holds more poison than all the smoke and soot put out by the South Works or the Illinois Central line.
I find myself doing double takes with NBC’s new show Constantine, as in, “Did they really just say that on network TV in the 21st century?” In the November 2 episode, which featured a Romani woman, who basically cast spells because her marriage hopes were disappointed, the protagonist, Constantine actually says, “There’s nothing blacker than gypsy magic.” Pick the racism you want to deconstruct there.
And then on November 21, we had the Haitian Vodou priest.
Now, I have never seen a U.S. popular culture depiction of Vodou that was not racist—and completely divorced from the reality of what Vodou is. I worked with Christian Peacemaker Teams in Haiti 1993-94 and I knew rightwing practitioners working for the coup regime and practitioners that were all about social justice—basically the same spectrum that practitioners of Christianity fall into. Vodou/Vodoun and its historic connection to African religions is way too rich and complex for me to get into here, but I can tell you what it does NOT involve. It does NOT involve Haitian Vodou priests killing their sisters so they can communicate easily with the spirits of the underworld. Look it up on Wikipedia.
Yet, this is what the Papa Midnite character, with whom Constantine works in the November 21 episode, has done. Actually, in the episode Constantine accused Papa Midnite of having done something nefarious to his sister, and a little bit later, Papa Midnite was addressing a skull with braids as his sister, and it took me a minute to put the two together.
With Police Officer Darren Wilson’s testimony that unarmed black teenager Michael Brown looked like a “demon” when he shot him in Ferguson last July, this sort of supernatural stereotyping has real dangers for our society. Thank goodness last Friday’s episode featured possessed axe murderers that were all white children.
After my easy entry and exit in October, I was expecting another easy entry, although I was expecting some scrutiny for having entered six weeks after I left the country. Then the Israeli authorities denied entry to my colleague Patrick during the first week of December and the anxieties began building again.
Bob is showing Christopher how to handle the finances. Maurice is standing behind them because I told him to.
When I exited the airplane, I noticed that shortly after I entered the terminal, a long time before I got to Passport Control, a crowd of people was standing. I was jetlagged, had a migraine and was preparing myself for a grilling, so I had only a vague impression that many of them were Latinos. One Israeli security person pulled aside a young man in his twenties who was just behind me, asked to see his passport and added him to the crowd. When I got to Passport Control, there were very few people in line. The young woman in the booth literally didn’t speak to me. She waved me forward, looked at my passport, printed out my visa and waved me on. I didn’t connect the two incidents until I got to my friends Ya’alah and Netanel’s apartment in Jerusalem—that the security people were pulling people aside before they got to Passport Control rather than Passport Control people sending “questionable” people to be interviewed by security.
I spent yesterday in Jerusalem because of a migraine, and upon arriving on team in Hebron this afternoon found that my new teammates Christopher and Maurice had had identical experiences. Israeli security pulled aside the “questionable” people i.e., anyone who was not white, or under thirty to forty years old, soon after they exited the plane. Christopher said he usually gets questioned, but he was deep in conversation with a German businessman as he was walking out of the plane, so the security people left him alone.
I’m going to leave it to Markie to discuss the level of snow and cold here from Winter Storm Alexa (yes they named it.) I’m a little sad that Bob Holmes, one of my favorite colleagues, is leaving tomorrow before I really get a chance to work with him. And Christopher and Maurice will leave in a couple weeks. And of course I was looking forward to working with Patrick; I had even bought Shinichirō Watanabe’s anime series Kids on a Slope to watch with him. At least Mona will be here (she’s at home in Ramallah today.) Girl power. Rah.
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.
In May, U.S. District Court Judge G. Murray Snow handed down a 142-page ruling that concluded Maricopa County, Ariz., Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s policy of detaining people who looked Latino violated the Fourth and Fourteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
In his ruling, Judge Snow noted Arpaio routinely violated federal law and the constitutional rights of Latinos in his county — of which Phoenix is the county seat — and blatantly violated terms of a prior court order that the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office stop engaging in immigration-related enforcement operations. It said the sheriff’s office had institutionalized the consideration of race in law enforcement decision-making, tried to hide the discriminatory nature of officers’ actions and showed an overall lack of professionalism in determining whether they could legally do what they wanted in spite of court orders.
Arpaio (in car) and Lombardi
Those who accuse Arpaio of racial profiling are using a sanitized term for a man who, in 2009, allowed his picture to be taken with neo-Nazi Vito Lombardi and gave the organizers of a neo-Nazi counterdemonstration intelligence on a pro-civil rights march that would be passing them soon.
Racial profiling is not the only controversy surrounding Arpaio and his office. He has been investigated for unconstitutional jail conditions, improper clearance of cases and failure to investigate sex crimes — especially the molestation of undocumented immigrants’ children, election law violations, targeting political enemies with criminal investigations, misuse of funds, a staged assassination plot and lack of cooperation with the Department of Justice.
Arpaio said he is going to appeal Snow’s ruling to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which means Maricopa County taxpayers will be spending more money in defense of this man and his policies. Yet, last November, the people of Maricopa County re-elected Arpaio for the fifth time.
I wrote this column before a group of Mennonite Church USA youth from Ohio visited Arpaio with the intention of engaging him in dialogue and instead became used by him as a propaganda tool when he posted their picture with him on the Internet. I understand that the youth went to the meeting without the knowledge or approval of MC USA or the convention planners.
Mennonite Youth from Phoenix Convention with Joe Arpaio (center)
But Arpaio and the laws in Arizona that make Latino Mennonites unsafe there are why Iglesia Menonita Hispana (Hispanic Mennonite Church, or IMH) asked that the church observe a boycott of Arizona. I truly believe convention organizers made the decision to hold the convention there prayerfully. I believe the decision wasn’t easy. I know we can point at Arpaio and say, “We’re not like him” and dismiss him as a bully and a clown.
But the fact is, the convention was in an Arizona county that re-elected him five times, and most attendees will never have to worry about the consequences of being visible there.
They chose to leave their Mennonite brothers and sisters who would be targeted by Arpaio and his deputies behind. And they ended up with a photo of their (mostly white) youth smiling with one of the most outspokenly racist sheriffs in the U.S. (For a more detailed analysis of this event, see this reflection by Marty Troyer) I hope that some day true reconciliation between IMH and MCUSA for that decision will occur — the sort of reconciliation that will prevent other decisions like it in the future. But I and other Mennonite brothers and sisters like me will always remember why we did not go to Phoenix.
Kathleen Kern, of Rochester, N.Y., serves with Christian Peacemaker Teams.
One of my husband’s former coworkers shares a birthday with him, so we go out to dinner with his family every year in July. They are usually stimulating, fun occasions. Jake and Cindi* have two bright kids interested in a wide range of topics. On Friday, somehow we got onto the subject of what we wanted done with our bodies after we die—possibly suggested by the Day of the Dead décor at the Mexican restaurant. Ann*, their daughter, said she wanted to be shot into space; I asked her whether she wanted to donate her organs first, and Jake said, “We don’t do that.” People of color, Jake said, were vulnerable to having their organs harvested before they were fully dead. That led to a discussion on the ethics of the Bodies exhibit that had been at the Rochester Museum and Science Center a few years ago, in which the remains of Chinese prisoners had been put on display in various poses to show the internal workings of the human body. And that topic led to the more recent “Race: Are We So Different?” exhibit at the museum we had all seen and that led to…
Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman
You guessed it, the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin trial (because Trayvon Martin, the victim, was on trial, it seemed, as much as Zimmerman was).
We were all upset by the way the defense lawyers had demonized Martin. I noted that the police had made no attempt to find Martin’s parents after Zimmerman killed him, and it bothered me that this lack of concern on their part had dropped out of the public discourse so quickly. Jake and Cindi hadn’t been aware of that, and Jake said, with disgust, “They were treating him like a punk.”
The rest of the evening, we sat around a bonfire at their house and talked about science-fiction shows we loved, leaving my poor, documentary-oriented husband out of the conversation. Meanwhile in Florida, the nearly all white jury (which for some reason, the media consistently referred to as an all-woman jury instead) deliberated the fate of George Zimmerman.
We usually see Jake, Cindi and the kids once or twice a year. But this weekend saw them a second time at the demonstration in downtown Rochester attending a protest of Zimmerman’s “not-guilty” verdict. The kids, whom I have always seen alert, sharp and jokey, stared at the ground. I could offer only a lame, “I thought when the jury asked the judge to clarify the manslaughter charge, it would be at least manslaughter.” Cindi was on the brink of tears and seemed to have aged a year in those two days. And part of me wished I had not seen her face, because now I know what a mother’s face looks like when she imagines her children being murdered with impunity in the United States of America.
Only 5/13ths of the way through of a Bible curriculum assignment due first week of May. So the below post may seem like a blog cop-out. But I also think it reflects my gearing up to re-engage with my Christian Peacemaker Teams work when my sabbatical ends first week of June. I do a lot of writing about people in other cultures, and Wainaina’s essay is a good cautionary note. (One of my colleagues who works on the Colombia team, after she read it on our intra-organizational newslist said how much it annoys her that people always seem to put “poor” before “campesino.”)
This article was originally published in Granta 92.
How to Write About Africa
by by Binyavanga Wainaina
Always use the word ‘Africa’ or ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title. Subtitles may include the words ‘Zanzibar’, ‘Masai’, ‘Zulu’, ‘Zambezi’, ‘Congo’, ‘Nile’, ‘Big’, ‘Sky’, ‘Shadow’, ‘Drum’, ‘Sun’ or ‘Bygone’. Also useful are words such as ‘Guerrillas’, ‘Timeless’, ‘Primordial’ and ‘Tribal’. Note that ‘People’ means Africans who are not black, while ‘The People’ means black Africans.
Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress.
In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular.
Make sure you show how Africans have music and rhythm deep in their souls, and eat things no other humans eat. Do not mention rice and beef and wheat; monkey-brain is an African’s cuisine of choice, along with goat, snake, worms and grubs and all manner of game meat. Make sure you show that you are able to eat such food without flinching, and describe how you learn to enjoy it—because you care.
Taboo subjects: ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans (unless a death is involved), references to African writers or intellectuals, mention of school-going children who are not suffering from yaws or Ebola fever or female genital mutilation.
Throughout the book, adopt a sotto voice, in conspiracy with the reader, and a sad I-expected-so-much tone. Establish early on that your liberalism is impeccable, and mention near the beginning how much you love Africa, how you fell in love with the place and can’t live without her. Africa is the only continent you can love—take advantage of this. If you are a man, thrust yourself into her warm virgin forests. If you are a woman, treat Africa as a man who wears a bush jacket and disappears off into the sunset. Africa is to be pitied, worshipped or dominated. Whichever angle you take, be sure to leave the strong impression that without your intervention and your important book, Africa is doomed.
Your African characters may include naked warriors, loyal servants, diviners and seers, ancient wise men living in hermitic splendour. Or corrupt politicians, inept polygamous travel-guides, and prostitutes you have slept with. The Loyal Servant always behaves like a seven-year-old and needs a firm hand; he is scared of snakes, good with children, and always involving you in his complex domestic dramas. The Ancient Wise Man always comes from a noble tribe (not the money-grubbing tribes like the Gikuyu, the Igbo or the Shona). He has rheumy eyes and is close to the Earth. The Modern African is a fat man who steals and works in the visa office, refusing to give work permits to qualified Westerners who really care about Africa. He is an enemy of development, always using his government job to make it difficult for pragmatic and good-hearted expats to set up NGOs or Legal Conservation Areas. Or he is an Oxford-educated intellectual turned serial-killing politician in a Savile Row suit. He is a cannibal who likes Cristal champagne, and his mother is a rich witch-doctor who really runs the country.
Among your characters you must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West. Her children have flies on their eyelids and pot bellies, and her breasts are flat and empty. She must look utterly helpless. She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment. Moans are good. She must never say anything about herself in the dialogue except to speak of her (unspeakable) suffering. Also be sure to include a warm and motherly woman who has a rolling laugh and who is concerned for your well-being. Just call her Mama. Her children are all delinquent. These characters should buzz around your main hero, making him look good. Your hero can teach them, bathe them, feed them; he carries lots of babies and has seen Death. Your hero is you (if reportage), or a beautiful, tragic international celebrity/aristocrat who now cares for animals (if fiction).
Bad Western characters may include children of Tory cabinet ministers, Afrikaners, employees of the World Bank. When talking about exploitation by foreigners mention the Chinese and Indian traders. Blame the West for Africa’s situation. But do not be too specific.
Broad brushstrokes throughout are good. Avoid having the African characters laugh, or struggle to educate their kids, or just make do in mundane circumstances. Have them illuminate something about Europe or America in Africa. African characters should be colourful, exotic, larger than life—but empty inside, with no dialogue, no conflicts or resolutions in their stories, no depth or quirks to confuse the cause.
Describe, in detail, naked breasts (young, old, conservative, recently raped, big, small) or mutilated genitals, or enhanced genitals. Or any kind of genitals. And dead bodies. Or, better, naked dead bodies. And especially rotting naked dead bodies. Remember, any work you submit in which people look filthy and miserable will be referred to as the ‘real Africa’, and you want that on your dust jacket. Do not feel queasy about this: you are trying to help them to get aid from the West. The biggest taboo in writing about Africa is to describe or show dead or suffering white people.
Animals, on the other hand, must be treated as well rounded, complex characters. They speak (or grunt while tossing their manes proudly) and have names, ambitions and desires. They also have family values: see how lions teach their children? Elephants are caring, and are good feminists or dignified patriarchs. So are gorillas. Never, ever say anything negative about an elephant or a gorilla. Elephants may attack people’s property, destroy their crops, and even kill them. Always take the side of the elephant. Big cats have public-school accents. Hyenas are fair game and have vaguely Middle Eastern accents. Any short Africans who live in the jungle or desert may be portrayed with good humour (unless they are in conflict with an elephant or chimpanzee or gorilla, in which case they are pure evil).
After celebrity activists and aid workers, conservationists are Africa’s most important people. Do not offend them. You need them to invite you to their 30,000-acre game ranch or ‘conservation area’, and this is the only way you will get to interview the celebrity activist. Often a book cover with a heroic-looking conservationist on it works magic for sales. Anybody white, tanned and wearing khaki who once had a pet antelope or a farm is a conservationist, one who is preserving Africa’s rich heritage. When interviewing him or her, do not ask how much funding they have; do not ask how much money they make off their game. Never ask how much they pay their employees.
Readers will be put off if you don’t mention the light in Africa. And sunsets, the African sunset is a must. It is always big and red. There is always a big sky. Wide empty spaces and game are critical—Africa is the Land of Wide Empty Spaces. When writing about the plight of flora and fauna, make sure you mention that Africa is overpopulated. When your main character is in a desert or jungle living with indigenous peoples (anybody short) it is okay to mention that Africa has been severely depopulated by Aids and War (use caps).
You’ll also need a nightclub called Tropicana, where mercenaries, evil nouveau riche Africans and prostitutes and guerrillas and expats hang out.
Always end your book with Nelson Mandela saying something about rainbows or renaissances. Because you care.
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