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. Continue reading “Review of Annie Smith’s “Fragments of Loss” (Amazon.com)”
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. Continue reading “My Review of Paula Dunning’s Memoir, Shifting Currents”
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.
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.
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.
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
gone to Davey Jones
sleeping with fishes
assumed room temperature
cashed in his chips
freed his horse
hopped the twig
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
won’t be down for breakfast
flown the coop
fallen off the burro (landed on his head)
smacked the liver
lost his shadow
holding his breath a lot
visiting the worms
feeding the worms
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
Got no wax left
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
Buried in thought
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
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.
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.
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
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 a 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.
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.