Category: On Writing

Review of Annie Smith’s “Fragments of Loss” (Amazon.com)

I am not used to writing about people who are actually dying. I kill people off in my novels. But it’s fiction, written with the assumption that the book and I will continue. But this important and wonderful book, Fragments of Loss by Annie Smith, written in lovely, clean free verse, is about someone dying who really dies. Her husband Jack. It is a different kind of writing. It makes my fiction writing seem suspect, slightly disingenuous and make-believe. Her book is about the real thing. Something that will happen to me—and to you. It’s an event I have been pushing back down into my unconscious my whole life. Into the drawer labeled Denial. I suppose I do it through my writing, as well. Maybe that’s one of the functions of writing, of art and creativity in general. Perhaps along with everything else we do. To not fully consider the reality of one’s coming end. To not include it in the list when we look forward into the future.

 

And yet, two things. In my case, it’s no longer working. I am bumping up against the end of my life, like a rowboat drifted ashore, the waves not yet strong enough to drive it all the way up on the beach. And, two, I was lucky enough to come across Fragments of Loss and realize, just in time, I will need it for the next step, for what will happen to me and those I love.

 

Don’t get me wrong. This is no westernized Tibetan Book of the Dead that guides our consciousness through the interval between death and the next rebirth—an interval they call the bardo. That was what we read in the Sixties, thinking it would help us find our way. In fact, rebirth or any other form of continuing is not part of this book’s thread. Except for those who are not dying.

 

And, of course, that is where the difficulty lies. The idea of not continuing. If at this moment, your impulse is to run, I urge you to first buy this gentle, beautiful book and keep it for later. Because this is a subject that will not go away. And someday you will need someone wise and truthful who has gone on before you. In the meantime, I’ve been finding both comfort and humor in Mark Twain’s words: “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.” And we’ll be dead for billions and billions of years afterward, so why should that bother us either?

 

Annie Smith invites us to learn things as she takes us on her journey. Things like the gradual loss of intimacy—but not of love—with someone we have slept beside for years, whose heartbeat we’ve felt, who has been our friend and warm harbor. About the loved one’s gradual withdrawal, as they use more and more of their energy to face the task of leaving. This is just one of the insights Annie Smith shares with us. She knows more than I do about dying, and am willing to let her lead. I wanted to call her something like a thanátogogue, a word I made up. Thanatos (θάνατος), the Ancient Greek word for death. Plus, Agogue (ἀγωγός), the word for guide. But it’s too clumsy and not clear enough. I prefer the word doula, a female slave in ancient Greece. In the modern sense, a woman who supports the birthing mother before, during and after the birth, offering continuity and peacefulness. Ensuring that the birthing mother is protected and has a chance to have an experience that is deeply spiritual. Which is not something likely to happen in a hospital.

 

I like the idea of substituting dying for birthing. In the first case, the doula helps us emerge. And then, when the time comes, she or someone like her helps us depart. That is what Annie Smith and her book offer: the example of the doula who, at least metaphorically, protects the process, for herself and for Jack, to the best of her ability. Letting it take place at home and in the context of discovered rituals that, given free course, are both spiritual and comforting. It’s as if she leads us through scenes of a play, where we are spectators who are invited to get involved.

 

Scene 1. And the first lesson. She is not allowed to talk about what was happening to Jack, because he remains in disbelief. Hence, and she feels shut out. “Adding to the growing distance.” Bladder cancer had escaped and was on the loose. And he is dying. Losing control over his body. First in the hospital, then at home, as the body was trying to shut down. The difficulty of keeping food down, of getting air. At least three things were happening. Trying to keep Jack with her. At the same time, letting him go, and admitting to her own denial and deepening dread.

 

Scene 2. Her home is threatened. Home is the place where your loved one is. When’s he or she’s gone, will home be gone, too?

 

Scene 3. On hearing the diagnosis, Jack lists of all the foods he wants to eat before the time comes. The essence of contradiction. Because food is emblematic of continuation. Death, of non-continuation. A juxtaposition hard to contemplate for those of us who continue to continue.

 

Scene 4. Where will you choose to die? Jack chooses Mexico as a better place to die. Annie measures the time left. “Will this notebook be full?” by then, she asks. And what will she do to keep from running from it all? She chooses qigong, meditation, writing and reading. She keeps a journal, from which come, years later, these shared insights. At the same time, like a spider, she weaves threads to things that sustain her and keep her in the world. The moon at dawn, “a thin lunar cup.” While listening to Jack moaning nearby.

 

Scene 5. There’s room for resentments. At so many little things to constantly do, like refill Jack’s green oxygen bottle. In the next moment to be filled herself, with sadness. Things grow in the garden, reassurance that life continues. As Jack goes in the other direction and “rides the cramps of life’s contraction back to its rest place.”

 

Scene 6. Part of the terror, his and her, is Jack’s panic. His phlegm-clogged lungs, not being able to breathe, being breathless and scared. I am told Morphine can take the edge off this panic. Annie feeds him a marijuana cracker with cheese. It gets him through the night, keeps him from waking up in terror. This gives two nights of respite. She considers the coming change in pronouns. Foreseeing I, not We.

 

Scene 7. Thanksgiving. Twenty-seven people come to celebrate, knowing it will be Jack’s last. He chooses the idea of food over its pulverized, hence edible version. Afterward, she closes up the house alone. A truthful, surprising, subtle commentary. “There’s a certain excitement in being so close to the spot where death will close in.”

 

Scene 8. Jack withdraws to his bed, the party continues, later he tells Annie he might like to have pie for breakfast. Annie wonders whether, in his shoes, she “wouldn’t give up, ask for something to end it.” She hasn’t brought it up, though years ago they “promised to help each other if life became unbearable.”

 

Scene 9.

 

“Jack is still here after a night where he woke up

every hour

not being able to breathe

frightened

a loud noise in his ears….”

 

I insert myself here. Surely it is a time for Morphine or doses of Marijuana. In my case, that is what I would leave written instructions for. Enough for comfort, acceptance. For participating in the leaving.

 

Scene 10. Annie sleeps in a back room, where

 

“(I can enjoy) the view of the stars from my bed

I find that comforting….”

 

An important piece of guidance from the doula, for herself and us. It is all right to balance Jack’s approaching death with taking care of herself—separating, as he goes, and she remains.

 

Scene 11. Jack hangs on. On December 1, Annie gets out of his bed to shower. He wants her to stay. She goes anyway. Hospice, she writes, claims that our energy leaves our bodies from the bottom up. Jack puts a pillow over his head, perhaps so he will still be there when she gets back. It is late in the day. Night is falling as she returns from the shower.

 

Scene 12. Annie’s words move from free verse to prose. Jack wants to sit in his rocking chair. Once there, he faces one of his paintings. “He stared intently into the painting as though he recognized something or someone. His feet began to run in place and, to the extent he was able, he leaned forward. We held his hands telling him over and over that it was ok to go.” Annie switches back to free verse.

 

“(We told him) That we loved him

there were three ragged breaths

silence

big silence

one more startling breath

then nothing.”

 

Scene 13. The neighbors come. They light candles. Drink margaritas. “We told loving, humorous stories about Jack.” And then they ate dinner. In an extraordinary scene. “A chicken dish with tomatoes and curry that Jack had liked. We all ate at a large table next to his bed.”

 

Scene 14. She asks the doctor not to come until the morning to pronounce him officially dead. “Now we could have this one last night together.”

 

“I lay on the couch right next to his bed

eventually I fell asleep

happy he was finally at peace

goodnight my love”

 

Scene 15. That night, Jack lies dead in the bed next to her. Again an extraordinary scene.

 

“Candle light smooths the walls

rests on the mystery in his paintings.

I can almost see him breathing

see the covers rise and fall.”

 

Scene 16. When the van comes the next day and they take the body away, and

 

“the room spills it emptiness into me

….

my body was heavily here

with the knowledge

that I would never touch him again

never again be touched by him

 

Scene 17. She spends the day touching his clothes. As I did all night long the night of my father’s death. He, in a cooler at the hospital, I sleepless in his bedroom. I suppose looking for him, I who did not see him die, nor any trace of him afterward.

 

Scene 18. Passing in and out of the horror that your loved one’s body has been reduced to ashes. Like

 

A pale peach silk bag

resting on my lap

heavier

than a newborn baby.

 

Annie Smith’s brilliant grouping of words. And characteristic of her poetry in this book. And meaningful, because we know from earlier in the book that she had once brought a baby boy to full term, only to be born dead.

 

Scene 19. Another lesson. A “deep body grief” is inevitable, but it was not as bad as she thought it would be.

 

“I have always had a distance

that separates me from people.”

 

An important honesty for the rest of us. A protection from endless grief.

 

 

Scene 20. Also, the tide will come back in, eventually, if we sufficiently choose life.

 

“I woke up this morning

filled with happiness

for the first time in weeks.”

 

Scene 21. But where is Jack? And where was my father? I wish I had had this book then I was trying to understand.

 

“It’s time to recognize Jack inside me

that Jack is in my cells

I want a relationship

with that Jack

right now”

 

Scene 22. Over time, she experiences an emerging sense of freedom. She can go to New York, Santa Fe, Greece or Rome.

 

“He is no longer a reason

for what I can or cannot do.”

 

She chooses healthy continuation. But she still keeps a vigil, looking for Jack,

 

As the moon crosses over his studio

and slips behind

the neighbor’s

lemon tree

 

Scene 23. She writes a letter to Jack, in prose. On a Christmas eve. They had cleaved together, she writes, “and death does not have the power to undo that.” The whole family was wounded by his leaving. “Death wounds the way pruning wounds. It may be the best thing but it hurts and bleeds.”

 

At the end of the letter, with the power of the poet, she enjoins him: “My art is words. Help me with my words. I call on your love to be here with us this Christmas Eve 2003 and for all our lives.” At the same time, she sends him on his way, or shares him with the world. She leaves his clothes on a table in the patio, and people come to take what they want. “So at times I think I see you turning corners up ahead.”

 

Your clothes left your closet

in a soft warm tide

spreading across town

 

Scene 24. When my father died, and I was looking for him that night, really only his smell was left, and I recognized that it was the same smell I got when I rubbed my own scalp. She keeps Jack’s brush and glasses.

 

I could always smell

when you had used my brush

testosterone has a distinctive scent

which I inhale deeply now

 

Scene 25. Listening for the loved one’s car. We will think we hear his or her foot steps, or the key in the door. That is something that will not go away very soon. We listen for it. And that is a good thing, and should not surprise.

 

Scene 26. There is a well known phrase: “Oh, Death, where is thy sting?” Corinthians 15: 55-56. It takes on a specific meaning for me now, after reading Annie Smith’s Fragments of Loss. Her book takes the sting out of death, tames it to something which can not terrorize, now that we know so much more about it. A wonderful and important contribution to the biggest and most profound experience we will ever have. The one that walks along with us, holding our hand, our entire lives.

 

 

 

My Review of Paula Dunning’s Memoir, Shifting Currents

When my mother called me in from the woods, she told me I was going to repeat the eighth grade and this time with Latin, American history and a real English teacher. And so, off I went to a lonely boarding school outside Boston with bee’s waxed floors and gas lanterns on the wall. And then, not long after, Lincoln Steffen’s autobiography came into my hands. I remember exactly where I was sitting all those years ago, and I remember the feeling of being transported to a world that was not centered around myself.

In the sixties I was a graduate student at Berkeley in Germanic Languages and Literature and read Theodora Kroeber’s Ishi, the Last of His Tribe and her biography Ishi in Two Worlds. The books had such a powerful influence on me that I would still like to have my ashes strewn on top of a certain cliff that looks down over Deer Creek Canyon northeast of Chico, California, where I found my better spiritual ancestors. Where Ishi lived and where the rest of his people were wiped out by white people for sport or bounties.

Reading Paula Dunning’s memoir, Shifting Currents, has now provided me with a third epiphany, this one explaining what I was doing for thirty-five years on a small, non-producing farm one and a half hours north of San Francisco, on a ridge that divided the dairy country to the south from the apples, plums, and grapes to the north. Her chronicle gives shape to what remains only a vague understanding of my own “farming” years, where I raised two children by myself and taught full-time at a nearby university. It was more that we kept animals, as well as ourselves: cats, dogs, pigeons, chickens, a few milking goats, a few Black Angus beef cows, two pigs, two sheep, a donkey, a pony—now and then a horse. Most of which got loose, or broke through old fences. Or, in the case of sheep, were attacked by big dogs from miles away.

Dunning and her husband Jack emigrated from the United States to Canada in the 70s and, in a moment of divine insanity like my own, bought a large farm in Ontario and, like me—but on a much larger scale, “went back to the land.”

For me, Dunning’s prose raises a reoccurring question, and that is, what is she doing to evoke this sense in the reader of being in the presence of something larger than ourselves. The closest I can come to an answer is that she anchors even the smallest, every day images and rhythms of farming in an epic sea. Not in the wine-dark sea of Homer, plowed by Greek ships, but rather in the loamy one that the Dunnings’ tractors pass over, following the curve of the earth, plowing Canadian fields into chestnut-browns, that sprout and become Alfalfa and Timothy in emerald greens—that form waves when the wind blows across them. In late summer, those fields morph into rows of drying hay and under them, calms of yellowish gray stubble left standing after the cutting. Followed by the rhythm of baling, hefting the bales onto the hay wagons, stacking them, and then raising them into dark, sweet smelling lofts. All of it, an ocean of activity bounded by the dark hill at the end of the property that serves as one navigation pole, the bend in the river as the other.

Dunning describes what many of us who have lived with animals have sensed, and that is being near to an Otherness that we do not really fathom. An intelligence, a spirituality, that lives behind the rectangular pupil of a Nubian goat, in the sweet breath of a cow, in the exuberant playfulness of pigs. Beings that depend on us and yet whose souls, for want of a better word, remain unreachable and beyond our control.

From cave paintings we know about the spiritual connection that used to exist between humans and animals—as opposed to, say, the tight-wrapped packages in the meat department. It helps to think of Dunning’s writing as similar to ancient cave painting. Her images hint at what we still sense. It may be what Rilke meant about the poet’s task being naming the unnamable. Or what Goethe described as symbol, where, through an image, an idea remains active but also unapproachable, and, though expressed in all languages, including art, cannot be put into words.

There are no saber-tooth tigers in this book, but there are dangers. Machinery that can eat children. Six hundred pound, water-filled tractor tires that can trample us all. Chimney fires that can blow through chinks in the brick and consume the whole house and the family that lives inside it. Damp hay, baled too soon, can smolder and ignite. A river close by to drown in. And the constant possibility of being rendered dead or maimed by hoof, horn or machinery, all of which can cut, hurl or drag.

In the 60s and 70s, there were other costs in “returning to the land.” Most “normal” people didn’t heat with wood, try to grow their own food or raise children “at the North Pole,” as Dunning’s mother believed she was doing. As my own mother believed about my child rearing. “In the 70s,” Dunning writes, “we felt we should be able to do everything, from scratch.” Which diluted our development in certain areas. And so there was always an undercurrent of self-doubt, the nagging question, “Did I make the wrong choice?” And so we suffered gently numbing embarrassment when tennis-playing urbanites visited with their clean shoes and spotless sweaters. With their expectations of unexposed drainage ditches in the yard, or of available hot water for showers and of functioning toilets—both of which seemed to stop working at just the wrong moment—in a comedy of irony and mortification.

Dunning chronicles the social tensions. The farmer neighbor, conservative in her views of school sex education, let alone birth control, was completely practical on how to use three fingers to get a calf to begin sucking and therefore to survive. A young “liberated” leader led Dunning’s women’s group—subdued and cautious people—through the early feminist guidebook “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” with its explicit drawings of women’s bodies and how they function. In a delightful scene, Dunning describes how a session devolved to snorting and laughter—and friendship.

Or the pitfalls possible when Dunning’s “normal” parents visit and a symbolic patricide occurs, a shift in familial power. Dunning yells at her father when, in his innocence, he gets in the way of mischievous, escaped cows and blocks their passage through a critical gate open to where they’re supposed to be going. Then, still full of remorse, she tries to honor her father by asking him to carve the Thanksgiving Turkey—the relationship now changed forever.

Living with animals in the 70s included taking their lives, intentionally or not intentionally. Farming presupposes the role of life-taker. An assumption sometimes only challenged by a child, as when Dunning’s young daughter—a one-person Greek chorus—wails, “Why does everything have to die?”

When a cow is to be slaughtered, Dunning, pregnant, feels she should help, but dreads participating. She is relieved when her neighbor Morley appears to take her place and comments, “Has Jack been reading that damn book again?” Some how-to-slaughter-a-large-animal guidebook that we back-to-the-landers might have bought back then in a counter-culture bookstore. Morley continues, “And you shouldn’t be anywhere near. It could upset you and harm your baby. This is not something to mess with.”

But Dunning has always messed with it. With the Otherness. Always walking a line close to something larger than herself. Something she is aware of and paints with her imagery. Pointing at things that most of us—deep down— know something about.

Dunning confesses to a lingering self-doubt on the Ontario farm. Her husband also taught at a university; while she at times worried, she may have been “just a farm wife.” But when you read her writing, you see she was no such thing. She was becoming a psychagogue in the sense of someone who—in this case, with words—can lead us right up to the edge of other worlds. Someone who offers us a path to understanding the Land and the Creatures on it that we live with—human and non-human. Aside from also being one of the finest and strongest writers I have ever read.

The Perils of Writing

What are the perils of writings? For a storyteller, it’s when reality is more frightening and bizarre than anything you could ever invent. Or is it that historical violence has become no longer historical in that it is just around the corner, down one block, behind the garden gate, driving slowly by the building on whose roof you do yoga and wish all mankind peace of mind? Once, it was interesting living in a country where the rule of law was not something you could take for granted, was not a concept widely understood. You had to rely on your fellow citizen to protect you, to offer you cordiality, advice and warnings regarding where it was not safe to go at night, or even during the day.

Violence and lawlessness are less interesting now. It is just a matter of time before it touches you. Or hits you, as the case may be. It will come again after a long period of civic calm. It will be a policeman, or three, with dark glasses. A troubled young man, or three, twisted with resentment at those who have an education, a job, and, most important of all, respect. It will be Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil—no longer just limited to this beautiful old land of forgotten mines and ancient trails, of hidden springs and clumps of shade-giving trees, of great painters and gifted musicians. It will not come from a hungry man walking a distant trail, carrying a frayed knapsack, moving over a non-Sierra Club trail between two small towns whose streets are dirt and whose pickups are old. Evil will come in a brand new pickup that has never had a shovel thrown in its bed, or in a black limousine followed by black SUV chase cars.

Or it will come at the end of an instructive index finger, ordering you to step out of the line at Customs, because the computer has shown you to be man critical of two, maybe several, governments. You know what it’s like to be singled out. You have already had a passport application “lost” in the time of Reagan, or what it Bush? Your privileged education and therefore your expectation of just treatment as a citizen allowed you raise a hue and cry with your Senator and Congresspersons. Through its obedient Kafka-esq Intermediaries, the State claimed that someone with your exact name and paper trail owed the Foreign Office, the State Department or some other governmental Auslandsamt, a sum of money. Your elective representatives intervened, raised questions and parted curtains. Grudgingly, the anonymous they’s gave you a passport, not for ten years, but for eight months. But what would have happened to you if the Representatives could not part curtains, since they themselves languished on lists?

But now the they’s have gotten a lot smarter. Their machines hear more, pluck it out of the ether, record it and compile it for future reference. The people in power are renewing the old game of looking for political enemies. This was always the case in most of the countries in the world. East Germany comes to mind. There, one chose one’s friends carefully, you laughed together over food, but quietly. Important information was exchanged in lowered voices in a modest greenhouse, while you admired the host’s crop of English cucumbers, a luxury in his gray country. And yet, it did not matter. There were always ways to coerce one friend against another. Inform, they would murmur, or your daughter cannot attend the university. A harmless bargain, citizen.

And yet writers kept writing, books were banned, and the few contraband copies, hidden from the censors, traveled from hand to hand, until they grew stiff from Scotch Tape and were held together by rubber bands.

You write a letter on behalf of a writer held in solitary confinement in Azerbaijan. He was critical of his government, and so they arrested him and gave him nine years. He is not allowed to see his wife and children. He has tuberculosis. You hope your letter will help stone-faced men decide to let him go. You argue that a government wins more respect by not imprisoning writers. But governments have trouble hearing this. That is because its ministers are also afraid. You wonder whether this writer, if he survives, will one day have to write a letter for you. To a camp in Cuba or a salt flat in Utah.

And so the question is can a writer write when he is afraid, when he knows they’re listening? Can a storyteller tell stories? Stories that warm the heart, or give hope, or speak of love? How brave they must have been, the writers in the time of dictatorship, who have written at the peril of ending up in a cold, small cell without light, cut off from those they love and who love them.

I know this is dark. I am sorry, but the banality of evil seems to be on the upswing, and storytellers must write about it.

In Latin America, Mexico Ranks Among Most Dangerous Countries for Journalists

The 2017 World Press Freedom Index warns that in Latin America, journalists are persecuted and murdered for investigating issues that affect political leaders.

Mexico City: Mexican journalist Cecilio Pineda Brito covered drug trafficking issues in a region of the southern state of Guerrero where criminal groups are extremely powerful.

In September 2015 he survived an attempt on his life and because he was deemed at “very high risk” he became a beneficiary of the federal mechanism for protection for human right defenders and journalists created in December 2012.

The protection measures he was assigned consisted basically of police patrols. They offered him a place in a shelter in Mexico City, but he refused.

In October 2016, the protection measures were cancelled; five months later, Pineda Brito became the first journalist murdered in 2017 in the most dangerous country for reporters in Latin America.

Pineda Brito’s March 2 murder was followed by six weeks of terror in which three more journalists were killed and two others survived after being shot, in different parts of this country of 127 million people.

The highest-profile murder was that of Miroslava Breach, on March 26, a veteran journalist who covered political news for the La Jornada newspaper in the northern state of Chihuahua along the US border.

But Pineda Brito’s killing reflected the inefficacy of institutional mechanisms for protecting journalists in the region.

“Last year it became clear that the state’s protection model exported from Colombia to Mexico and recently to Honduras had failed,” said Ricardo González, security and protection officer of the London-based international organisation Article 19, which defends freedom of expression.

“The cases of journalists murdered in Mexico, who were under the protection of different state mechanisms, as well as the Freedom of the Press Foundation’s refusal to take part in the assessment of cases under the Colombian mechanism are things that should be of concern,” he told IPS.

For González, the lack of a functioning justice system and redress makes the model “ineffective, apart from financially unsustainable.”

The numbers in Mexico prove him right: according to Article 19’s latest report, of the 427 assaults on the media and journalists registered in 2016, 99.7% went unpunished.

Meanwhile, the Special Prosecutor’s Office for Crimes Against Freedom of Expression has only managed to secure a conviction in three cases.

Most of the attacks were against journalists who work for small media outlets outside the country’s capital and at least half of them were committed by state agents.

The federal protection mechanism currently protects 509 people – 244 journalists and 265 human right defenders.

But even though the dangers are growing rather than decreasing, the government and the legislature cancelled the funds available for protection and since January the mechanism has been operating with the remnants of a trust fund whose 9.5 million dollars in reserves will run out in September.

According to Article 19, violence against the press is still one of the main challenges faced in Latin America and something to be reflected on when World Press Freedom Day is celebrated on May 3.

“In addition to Mexico, Honduras, Brazil and Colombia, the situation in Paraguay and Venezuela, in particular, reflects the deterioration of freedom of expression in the region,” said González.

In the same vein, the 2017 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders on Wednesday, April 26, warns about the political and economic instability seen in several countries of Latin America, where journalists who investigate questions that affect the interests of political leaders or organised crime are attacked, persecuted and murdered.

“RWB regrets the pernicious and continuous deterioration of the situation of freedom of expression in Latin America,” said Emmanuel Colombié, the head of the RWB Latin America desk, presenting the index.

“In the face of a multifaceted threat, journalists often have to practice self-censorship and even go into exile, to survive. This is absolutely unacceptable in democratic countries,” he added.

The RWB report underscores the case of Nicaragua, the country that experienced the largest drop in the index because since the controversial re-election of President Daniel Ortega, the independent and opposition press has suffered numerous cases of censorship, intimidation, harassment and arbitrary arrests. The country fell 17 spots, to 92nd among the 180 countries studied.

The report also describes Mexico as another worrisome case: in 15 years it dropped from 75th to 147th on the index, putting it next to Syria and Afghanistan. Mexico is still torn apart by corruption and the violence of organised crime, says RWB.

In fact, it is the second worst ranked Latin American country, after Cuba, which is 173rd, after dropping two spots.

At a regional level, the countries best-positioned in the ranking are Uruguay (25th, after falling five), Chile (33rd, after dropping two) and Argentina (50th, after going up four).

Increasingly sophisticated means of control

Despite the threats and risks, independent journalism is making progress in the region. In 2016, the organisation Sembramedia created the first directory of native digital media in Latin America which has listed more than 500 independent platforms.

But at the same time, the means of control of the independent press are getting more sophisticated, said González.

Legal, labour and online harassment, as well as indirect censorship through the control of state advertising are tools that governments and political and economic groups use ever more frequently around the region.

In Mexico, the most emblematic case is that of journalist Carmen Aristegui, who was fired together with her investigative journalism team from the MVS radio station after publishing an investigation about corruption implicating President Enrique Peña Nieto.

But there are even more unbelievable cases, such as a judge’s order for psychological tests for political scientist Sergio Aguayo, after he published well-substantiated information about massacres in the Mexican state of Coahuila, connected to former governor Humberto Moreira.

The organisation FUNDAR Centre for Analysis and Research has documented that this country’s central government and 32 state governments spend an average of 800 million dollars a year on official advertising and announcements in the media.

Another Mexican organisation committed to the defence of digital rights, R3D, reported that various regional governments have bought programmes from Hacking Team, an Italian cybersecurity firm that sells intrusion and surveillance capabilities to governments and companies on websites, social networks and email services.

According to R3D, online intimidation and monitoring have increased in Mexico during the Peña Nieto administration.

This pattern repeats itself in other Latin American countries, where attacks are increasing and presenting new challenges.

“In the last year, we have seen how the risks of violence which in the past were limited to questions such as drug trafficking are now faced by those who cover issues related to migration and human trafficking, the environment or community defense of lands against the extractive industries,” said González.

Another flashpoint is the coverage of border issues. “Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States has had quite a negative effect in terms of freedom of the press, both domestically and internationally, in the entire region,” he said.

(IPS)

Black Dog Enters the Café

I’m sitting in my favorite café in my colonial Mexican city. I think of it as a very small Paris. I am going over the Spanish translation of my first novel Playing for Pancho Villa. I must have started this project a year or more ago. My wonderful translators, a Mexican poet and a French professor of French, have long since finished the translation—an enormous job. And then I have to come after them, checking each word for its fullest correct equivalent. I am on my last two chapters out of thirty-two. I am hoping the huge Spanish speaking world will read this novel more than English readers have. Its plot and general flavor may seem less foreign to them.

The dog, a bitch, tail wagging and delighted to see us all, a sort of Labrador mutt—I have since learned her name is Chia—comes through the always open door. She goes to everyone in the big room, mostly university students working at things and drinking tea. Several young women are hanging an exhibition of photographs and calling out adjustments across the room. A small film crew comes in and sets up in the middle of the gentle chaos. A young woman sits across from me, brushing on makeup. What? To make her more pale, remove any blemishes? Perhaps they are making a one-day movie. It is the end of the annual Guanajuato International Film Festival, and little groups of young filmmakers are competing to win in that category.

Everyone—including myself—reaches down to Chia, who I now realize is attached to a familiar young painter family and their two children, several months and two-or-so years old. Chia obits around this attractive young family. What strikes me is how each of us in the room wants the same thing: contact with this happy, tail-wagging ambassador. And then, after a half an hour or so, everyone except for the one-day filmmakers leaves, including Chia and her family. And I am left to listening to “Belle Nuit, Ô Nuit D’amour,” Les Contes D’Hoffmann by Jacques Offenbach and to continue with the translation Playing for Pancho Villa. When I finish, we will sit down together, the three of us, the translators and me, and we will decide on the final changes and adjustments in another quieter café.

Death Expressions

It seems it’s easier to talk about death if we make light of it, speak indirectly or make metaphor.
Hence: Some examples

He’s no longer on board (fishermen)
shipped his oars
feeding crabs
gone adrift
gone to Davey Jones
sleeping with fishes
assumed room temperature
cashed in his chips
counting worms
croaked
freed his horse
hopped the twig
pegged out
popped his clogs
riding the pale horse
taking a dirt nap
turned up his toes
wearing the pine overcoat
gone up the flume.
bit off the twig
gone out with the tide
paws up
won’t be down for breakfast
flown the coop
fallen off the burro (landed on his head)
smacked the liver
lost his shadow
stopped blinking
holding his breath a lot
visiting the worms
feeding the worms
Relaxing underground
Given in to the crows
Dedicated his eyes to the crows
Gone to avoid the sun
Caught the last train
Clothed in sea
Making the carrots jump
Pushing up daisys
Snuffed out
Got no wax left
Renting earth
On the last train to Memphis
Singing to the worms
In permanent meditation
Singing the Dirt Mass
Resting a lot
Kicked the bucket
On a pebble diet
Spitting out roots
On a dirt diet
In Donald Trumps case: a case of asses to ashes
Doing the long shuteye
Using the long hyphen
Has mud in both eyes
Be-earthed
Buried in thought
Clodding along
Clod-driven
A man clodified
Growing his hair long
Said the great good-bye
Enjoying the long silence
Kissing the Angels
Knocking at Heaven’s/Hell’s gate
Tanning below
Lying with the dogs he loved
Skidded to oblivion
Met his Maker
Suspended his creation
Supporting corn from below
Donating to worms
Given up the ghost
Dancing with worms
Having Thanksgiving with worms
Texting from below
Become the ring on his tub
Slipped on Death
King of Moles
Resting his bones
Played dead, couldn’t stop
Resigned his vertical position
Lingered among us too long
Got off at the wrong stop
At the very end, married below himself
Was breathless too long, got used to it
Sold his soul, then the rest
His clock has run out.
His sand ran out.
He’s no longer flapping.
He smells like pine.
Fluting through the last hole.
He’s thrown away his spoon.
Wearing a wooden skirt.
Wearing the green jacket.
Watching the radishes grow from underneath.
Crow food.
Gone to meet the Head of Light Entertainment in the sky. John Cheeves on the occasion of Graham Chapman’s (author of the Dead Parrot Skit) Memorial Service.
Withdrew as the final act
Still paused to gather his thoughts
Il mange les pissenlits par la racine. He’s eating the dandelions from below—Jean Pierre Buono

Left the glittering runway of life. Richard Grabman

Dissolute underground behaviorCame as carbon, lived as carbon, returned to carbon.
Had a molecule change.
Went from comma to period.
Disappeared in the final edit.
No longer takes messages.
Is on silent hold.
Rubbed out what he had painted.
Composting nicely.
On his last pair of shoes.
Staying in shavasana.
Joined the great majority.
Accepted into the big club.
Staying in the Horizontal Hilton.
Out of print.
Returned to sender.

 

The Writer Censors Himself

Café Dose, rue Mouffetard, Paris

May 2015

Censorship comes in different forms. You’ve indulged in free political speech for most of your life—but then grown more and more concerned about security agencies like NSA taking notes on what you say. Perhaps for later use. And so you arrive at the point where you ask yourself, “Should I come right out and say this?”

Maybe that’s the point: to make you think twice or thrice before you let your fellow citizens know what you think about, say, censorship in all its forms. After all, as throughout history, first they eavesdrop, then they make lists, then they come for your neighbor—and then for you.

Here in this country below the border, you withdraw a one-act play from the Internet, first the Spanish translation, then the original English, because it may or may not be dangerous to suggest, even indirectly through art, that the country’s government may be complicit in high crimes against its own people. In the process, you get the idea of what it was like to write in France during the German Occupation, in the Soviet Union then and now. And, presently, in Saudi Arabia, China and much of Africa.

How did you arrive at this point? You took a screen writing workshop at this year’s San Miguel Writers Conference. Up to that point, you had applied yourself to writing short stories and novels. You had never written a play before. Thinking you might be asked to write something right then and there, you chose a subject that was on everyone’s mind, the disappearance of forty-three students in the south of your country of residence, all of them from one school, all of them surely murdered—this in the context of some 92,000 other people who are also missing here.You didn’t have to write a five-minute play, but you decided to proceed with your idea. You wrote a one-act play. And then you had your translator translate it into Spanish.

Hoping to continue skirting the line of what was safe, you mentioned your play on Facebook. You wrote, “Thanks to the gifted translation by the Guanajuato writer and poet X, you can now read ‘The Colonel and the Pig’ in Spanish, a short one act play possibly in the epic style of Bertolt Brecht, where the latter sought to distance his audience from the anecdotal quality of reality. That is not my phrasing, but I can’t think of a better way of putting it—in the matter of forced disappearances in a country south of wherever you find yourself in the world.”

And then you gave your blog address, so people could read the play.

You mentioned the posting to a few young Mexican friends. One such friend told a friend of hers. The latter, a young woman with an BA theater, read the Spanish version, said she liked it very much but added it would be difficult to stage because it was so politically loaded.

At that point, you begin to come out of your self-congratulatory haze and realize that a watching censor would likely come to the same conclusion. Your best friend warns that the government, Army and Federal Police would not understand myth, metaphor, irony, epic theater or Bertolt Brecht. And that the government—on many levels—was becoming increasingly intolerant of critics. Plus, your are not a citizen, and they could deport you for breaking one of the rules on being a resident: You may not demonstrate politically against the government.

And so you decided to take the little play down, both the Spanish and the English. You give a few people electronic copies, but tell them not to distribute them further. You also write a friend who has been living in the country for more than sixty years and whose opinion and judgment you trust. You mentioned the great risks taken by articulate and brave women like Lydia Cacho, Denise Dresser, Carmen Aristegui and Raquel Padilla Ramos, who do not hesitate to take on the government. You mention you do not feel good about yourself, giving in to the fear of censorship and retaliation.

You friend replies, “Being a non-citizen of Mexico can also be a great cloak to wrap around yourself. The most comprehensive stories of graft and corruption, the best investigative inquiries into massacres and suspicious suicides like Linda Diebel’s book Betrayed: the Assassination of Digna Ochoa are written by non-citizens. Given the choice of an article in Proceso or an in-depth article about the same incident in The New Yorker, I will almost always prefer the dispassionate but fact-checked writing of the American journalist. But what you wrote, in my opinion, is not investigative journalism. You wrote a lovely lyrical almost poetical play that is more art than rant or cant. Aristegui, Dresser, Cacho are IMMINENTLY public figures with huge followings, hence the threat as well as the political clout that they bring to their battle. I think the performance of your play (in Spanish) or even just reading of it at some cafe or little theater at least in Michoacán would have been thoroughly appreciated for what it is. My getting involved in the disgusting political machinations of the mayoral campaign here in town is seriously dangerous…I still take notes and jot down the farcical (albeit with deadly serious implications) nature of this campaign.  You should not self-censor. Keep writing in your (excuse me) Brechtian fashion, and collect your writings. Posting or publishing is not that important right now. Capturing your impressions of the political climate is what is important. ”

You write this as you sit in a third country (France), which prides itself on unrestricted expression that, if exercised without some situational restraints, can have disastrous consequences. And then there is Texas, where free expression is used as provocation—again with disastrous results.

There is a danger line in the country where you live,  except that you don’t know exactly where it is. There are other questions. Were you overestimating the importance of your words, or were you underestimating their possible impact? On the one hand, a writer wants the widest possible audience—but not so wide that the government’s enforcers react. The Internet offers the illusion that you comment from neutral ground and that you are therefore safe, but we all know that that is not true.

And so you arrive at the final question—perhaps a false one—and that has to do with which group you belong to: the brave risk-takers? Or to the self-censoring, the silenced, to those who have knuckled under? We have some guidelines that help here. There are a great many dead risk-takers in this country and, no doubt, a few living expelled ones, too, like the Italian women who got involved in Chiapas during the Zapatista uprising. Clearly, you also have to control the writer’s ego, which might otherwise be over-estimating its importance and foolishly willing to risk disaster for a piece of writing, badly timed and, in the long run, quixotic. And so, in the end, you turn to the meta-story, the one presented here, which you hope will bore the censors speechless, while giving the writer some relief.

John Updike’s Advice to a Young Writer

It is instructive, I think, to read what various writers think are important steps to take in becoming a writer. Often it is affirming of what you already know but you just need to hear from someone else who’s been there before you.

http://www.openculture.com/2013/07/john-updikes-advice-to-young-writers-reserve-an-hour-a-day.html

E. L. Doctorow, The Art of Fiction No. 94, Paris Review

In the belief it’s best to refer to one’s favorite writers for advice, I give you E. L. Doctorow and The Art of Fiction. This man has written scenes and moments I have never been able to forget, or wanted to.

http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/2718/the-art-of-fiction-no-94-e-l-doctorow

Rilke’s Letter to a Young Poet

Paris
17 February 1903

My dear sir,

Your letter reached me just a few days ago. I want to thank you for the deep and loving trust it revealed. I can do no more. I cannot comment on the style of your verses; critical intent is too far removed from my nature. There is nothing that manages to influence a work of art less than critical words. They always result in more or less unfortunate misunderstandings. Things are not as easily understood nor as expressible as people usually would like us to believe. Most happenings are beyond expression; they exist where a word has never intruded. Even more inexpressible are works of art; mysterious entities they are, whose lives, compared to our fleeting ones, endure.

Having said these things at the outset, I now dare tell you only this: that your verses do not as yet have an individual style. Yet they possess a quiet and hidden inclination to reveal something personal. I felt that very thing most notably in the last poem, “My Soul.” There, something of your inner self wants to rise to expression. And in the beautiful poem “To Leopardi” something akin to greatness and bordering on uniqueness is sprouting out toward fulfillment. However, the poems cannot yet stand on their own merit, are not yet independent, not even the last one to Leopardi, not yet. In your kind letter accompanying them, you do not fail to admit to and to analyze some shortcomings, which I could sense while reading your verses, but could not directly put into words.

You ask whether your poems are good. You send them to publishers; you compare them with other poems; you are disturbed when certain publishers reject your attempts. Well now, since you have given me permission to advise you, I suggest that you give all that up. You are looking outward and, above all else, that you must not do now. No one can advise and help you, no one.

There is only one way: Go within. Search for the cause, find the impetus that bids you write. Put it to this test: Does it stretch out its roots in the deepest place of your heart? Can you avow that you would die if you were forbidden to write? Above all, in the most silent hour of your night, ask yourself this: Must I write? Dig deep into yourself for a true answer. And if it should ring its assent, if you can confidently meet this serious question with a simple, “I must,” then build your life upon it. It has become your necessity. Your life, in even the most mundane and least significant hour, must become a sign, a testimony to this urge.

Then draw near to nature. Pretend you are the very first man and then write what you see and experience, what you love and lose. Do not write love poems, at least at first; they present the greatest challenge. It requires great, fully ripened power to produce something personal, something unique, when there are so many good and sometimes even brilliant renditions in great numbers. Beware of general themes. Cling to those that your every- day life offers you. Write about your sorrows, your wishes, your passing thoughts, your belief in anything beautiful. Describe all that with fervent, quiet, and humble sincerity. In order to express yourself, use things in your surroundings, the scenes of your dreams, and the subjects of your memory.

If your everyday life appears to be unworthy subject matter, do not complain to life. Complain to yourself. Lament that you are not poet enough to call up its wealth. For the creative artist there is no poverty—nothing is insignificant or unimportant. Even if you were in a prison whose walls would shut out from your senses the sounds of the outer world, would you not then still have your childhood, this precious wealth, this treasure house of memories? Direct your attention to that. Attempt to resurrect these sunken sensations of a distant past. You will gain assuredness. Your aloneness will expand and will become your home, greeting you like the quiet dawn. Outer tumult will pass it by from afar.

If, as a result of this turning inward, of this sinking into your own world, poetry should emerge, you will not think to ask someone whether it is good poetry. And you will not try to interest publishers of magazines in these works. For you will hear in them your own voice; you will see in them a piece of your life, a natural possession of yours. A piece of art is good if it is born of necessity. This, its source, is its criterion; there is no other.

Therefore, my dear friend, I know of no other advice than this: Go within and scale the depths of your being from which your very life springs forth. At its source you will find the answer to the question, whether you must write. Accept it, however it sounds to you, without analyzing. Perhaps it will become apparent to you that you are indeed called to be a writer. Then accept that fate; bear its burden, and its grandeur, without asking for the reward, which might possibly come from without. For the creative artist must be a world of his own and must find everything within himself and in nature, to which he has betrothed himself.

It is possible that, even after your descent into your inner self and into your secret place of solitude, you might find that you must give up becoming a poet. As I have said, to feel that one could live without writing is enough indication that, in fact, one should not. Even then this process of turning inward, upon which I beg you to embark, will not have been in vain. Your life will no doubt from then on find its own paths. That they will be good ones and rich and expansive—that I wish for you more than I can say.

What else shall I tell you? It seems to me everything has been said, with just the right emphasis. I wanted only to advise you to progress quietly and seriously in your evolvement. You could greatly interfere with that process if you look outward and expect to obtain answers from the outside—answers which only your innermost feeling in your quietest hour can perhaps give you.

I was very happy to find in your writing the name of Professor Horaˇcek. I harbor the highest regard for this kindest of scholars and owe him lasting gratitude. Would you please pass my sentiments on to him. It is very kind of him to think of me still, and I appreciate it.

I am returning the verses with which you entrusted me. I thank you again for your unconditional and sincere trust. I am overwhelmed with it, and therefore have tried, to the best of my ability, to make myself a little more worthy than I, as a stranger to you, really am.

With my sincerest interest and devotion,

Yours,