Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Pen World Voices: Witness: A Special Program for High School Students

I thought that the Crisis Darfur event was moving, interesting, and ideal. Nonetheless, as I hovered, famished, near the food table, scarfing down puff-pastry cheese straws (from Murray’s!), I could see why the whole scene reminded Levi to ask me if I’d yet read the new Keith Gessen (I have not; he liked it; it’s All the Sad Young Literary Men): as amazing as it was, it would be possible, without a lot of effort, to turn it into satire. (The Brit showing off by pronouncing Lévy as they do in the UK [BER-nerd HEN-ry LEAVE-ee], the girls worrying about whether or not MediaBistro ads for CondéNast jobs are going to lead to anything, the gray-haired German in his red-framed specs, the 80ish former actress at the reception noting that, really, Dianne Wiest was better in “Hannah and Her Sisters”…)

The Witness Event this morning, however, was moving and funny and inspiring in a different way and it’d take a more skilled satirist and a more cynical writer than I satirize it.

Again, the house was packed at a lush downstairs auditorium, this one smaller and further East, at the Instituto Cervantes on East 49th. About 150 people were there, mostly high school students and their teachers. The students were about 70% black, I’d guess and came from the Manhattan (especially the High School of Hospitality Management), Queens, and West Orange, NJ.

The event was primarily to publicize a new venture from the nonprofit organization Witness: The Hub. It’s a video-sharing site and online community for human rights and the goal of this PEN event was to get high school students informed about the site and empowered to watch, share, and make videos documenting the injustice and human rights issues touching their own lives.

What was so genius about this event is that everything about it was designed to emphasize that Witness really is interested in young people’s participation. It wasn’t just friendly, it was actually engaging and almost all the students were engaged for the full two hours (!). The organizer started by asking two or three students to share what mattered to them in the area of human rights. (One student talked about her ongoing project to make country report cards, another mentioned a civil rights book she’d read last year in 9th grade, a third mentioned his distress at the current oppression in Tibet).

From there, she turned to the panel: five writers who write for young adults. Each had been invited to share a video from the Hub, speak about it, and then read a very brief selection from her work.
  1. Kashmira Sheth chose a really moving but, I expect, strange to NYC high school students Bollywood-style video of a woman who escapes an abusive marriage. I loved it and, as it ended I heard a few “Oh! I get it. Wow!”s from the audience. She read from her novel about a child widow in search of an education—based on her great aunt’s life in India.
  2. Patty McCormick spoke about her sister adopting a Haitian boy and showed a video on indentured servitude in Haiti before reading from Sold, a novel about child prostitutes in South Asia.
  3. Jutta Richter, who writes in German, explained that she did not choose a video because she wanted to focus on the things we need to do right in our own neighborhood and then she read an amazingly funny and brilliant passage about a girl so enraged by a rumor-mongering “friend” that she pokes her in the face with an ice cream cone. I loved it!
  4. Then, the moderator opened it up to some more comments and questions. Students asked about the prevalence of spousal abuse in India today, about the inspiration for Richter’s fiction, about the centrality of education, about how McCormick became interested in Haiti through her sister and nephew.
  5. Amanda Michalopoulou spoke movingly about the importance of knowing about the past, of thinking about past suffering, before showing a video about comfort women. She writes adult fiction and children’s books and read from I’d Like (which I bought and started reading on the train: it’s amazingly great!), a book of interconnected short stories.
  6. Finally, the only man on the panel and by far the youngest writer, Uzodinma Iweala spoke. He totally held the day for the students. He really seemed to know how to treat them with respect and connect with them.

He is the most famous of the group: certainly the only writer I’d heard of among them; his Beasts of No Nation, the other book I bought, was a big title last year. Uzo, as everyone called him, was also the only one not to read from his own works. Instead, he worked the crowd, asking students to raise their hands if they were seniors, juniors, sophomores… He then quizzed them on ages--to drink, to enlist, to vote, to be tried as an adult (typically 16 but sometimes 13).

His video was about youth in prison in the US, from, and, like Kashmira Seth’s music video, it was catchy, professional, and youth-oriented in ways that inspired. He then gave them a big homework assignment: go to this web address (he made them write it down, amidst much jocularity):, read the report from the Department of Justice on how our government treats young people, and write a report. The first person to email him their paper would get a prize.
No, guys. Something like a book.
You got to tell us the prize, man.
How long?
Can we write on really tiny paper?
Big font?
Do we have to read the whole report?

Uzo laughed but stood firm: If it’s cool with your parents and your teacher, I’ll take you out to lunch with a friend of mine who’s a human rights lawyer. 5 pages, double-spaced, 12 point type, Times New Roman. Ok?

He went on to ask if any of the students had been harassed by the police. More than half had and we heard three sad stories of misunderstandings (we were waiting for a friend from another neighborhood on the corner and the cops told us to move on; we stayed there waiting and we all got tickets) that blemished these kids’ records. “I think the police just need to RE-LAX!” concluded one young woman.

At last, it was time for some final thoughts. A couple students mentioned other books that had meant a lot to them. A couple panelists urged students to keep wishing, pushing, fighting. And then there was time for one last question. A young black man from the back raised his hand and said that he was from Queens and he felt that it was really important that we all pay attention to this project, speak out, and work in our communities because he was from Queens and he was thinking about Sean Bell and the police department and if we didn’t speak up, one of us could be the next Sean Bell.

And that was the end. We clapped, I bought some books, got Amanda to sign mine, didn’t dare interrupt the circle of adulation around Uzo, and headed back to the office.

PEN World Voices: Crisis Darfur

I got to the Florence Gould Auditorium at fi:af a bit before 8:00 to find a peculiarly French combination of confusion and bureaucracy. To those of us seeking entry, there was lots of barking: “Stay in line!” “Hang on!”; amongst those in charge, there was much confusion. I wasn’t on the list (imagine my little moment of panic), but the magic words “blogging…Bud Parr” brought a smile to her face and the doors opened for me.

Levi, who was on the list and with whom I munched on olives and pate (Oh the irony!) afterwards, has already written up his views here, but let me add mine, too.

This was a very moving and impressively organized event. I left feeling better informed about Darfur and both sadder and more hopeful for change.

Joel Whitney, a founding editor of the online literary magazine Guernica, started the evening off, forgetting to introduce himself (I’ve known him for a while now), but introducing the event and moderator Dinaw Mengestu with aplomb.

I was particularly curious and skeptical about Bernard-Henri Lévy’s presentation, remembering Garrison Keillor’s hilarious skewering of his book on America in the Times book review. Although his slides tended to feature pictures of him standing alone amidst the rubble, looking rugged and dashing and although he slightly mischaracterized Let us now praise famous men, I was impressed with him overall: sure, he has a big ego, but he also put it on the line to go to Darfur.

He was extremely clear and really showed his mettle as a popular philosopher, bringing us a range of conclusions:

  • The crisis in Darfur is a war AGAINST civilians, not a civil war.
  • We need to suspend the myth of the Janjaweed: We need to recognize that the attacks on villages are largely carried out by airstrikes from above, supported on the ground by Janjaweed.
  • Debates on whether on not this is genocide have all the relevance of the medieval debates about the sex of angels. This reference provided a welcome chance to laugh and provided Lévy with the opportunity to make one of his most important points of the night, one that Farrow’s presentation took as its theme: that these lives, these tiny, anonymous lives, have been lost and remain uncountable to us.
  • Why are we so passive? Our passivity, he thinks, is the perverse effect of the combination of three good modern ideas: 1) anti-racism, anti-colonialism, and anti-imperialism. That is, being anti-racist, it’s hard for us to fathom non-white perpetrators of genocide; being anti-colonial, we hesitate to intervene in former colonies, recognizing our culpability in their current political dilemmas; and being anti-imperial, we struggle to grasp the relevance of the plight of oppressed people who are not part of the vast story of power in the globe.

I think that this fourth point was the most philosophically impressive and interesting. I suspect that it is part of his forthcoming book, the very cleverly titled Left in Dark Times.

Still, for me, the most impressive moment was his very careful and respectful discussion of the problem of knowing how many have died in Darfur.

He spoke about the huge range of estimates—from 200,000 to over half a million killed—and he made sure we knew that, with entire villages wiped off the map, we will never know how many people have been killed. Village after village is cone with, as he eloquently said, “no memory, no inscription, no grave, no face, no name, no number,” and talked about these tiny lives, lives wiped off the earth.

He spoke about tiny lives, but I thought of our tiny lives: the 300 or so of us sitting in a packed underground auditorium, comfie seats, dressed in black, wearing rakish scarves and dutifully silencing our smartphones. I felt important to be there, to have a press pass, to know the editor of the magazine that sponsored the event. And tiny, too. And so far from Darfur or being able to help.

But he made sure that we thought about that: about the importance of bearing testimony, of asking for real sanctions against Sudan, and, most importantly, of pressuring China to cease buying the oil that provides the cash for the Sudanese government.


So, after this talk, I felt saddened and informed.

Then Mia Farrow came out: tiny and thin, as I expected. Looking small and a bit afraid and way more like Joyce Carol Oates than I ever, ever, ever would have guessed.

If Lévy offered us the philosophy and history, she offered the politics and the emotions. She presented the slideshow that you can find on her website: devastating, heartbreaking pictures not of her standing looking good but of burnt villages, women seeking firewood, scars of raped women (often raped on their ten-mile walk to find firewood), dying children, and grief, grief, grief, grief.

Farrow has made eight trips to Darfur and she spoke with passion about the plight of the internally displaced Darfurians whom she’s come to know. She showed a picture of a 27-year-old mother (looking 40) who’d walked for 20 days to find safety, burying 2 of her 4 children on the way, because, “Someone said there was a country called Chad.”

This was but one of dozens of such tales, each typical, each heartbreaking.

I was impressed, deeply impressed, with her commitment and with the way in which she’s put her power as an actress to manipulate our emotions to such good service: over and over again, she brought us nearly to tears of despair and then pulled back so that, as with the first talk, she could remind us that the point is not catharsis but action.

Again, China was singled out as the best leverage against the Sudanese government.

This has gone on much too long, for sure, but I must say that I thought this was a smashing, moving, and informative event: a real model of how to get people to learn and to care about a distant crisis.

Monday, April 28, 2008

PEN world voices

Bud Parr has gathered a bunch of bloggers to cover the PEN WorldVoices festival. I'm one of them.

I'll be posting my reports here and cross-posting over at MetaxuCafe. If you haven't been going there lately, you might re-set your blog feeds and update your bookmarks: it looks like it's going to be a great festival and some of my favorite bloggers will be writing all about it...

Monday, April 21, 2008

Where to Begin, 2

One consequence of this generally junky winter has been a near utter lack of nights out. Finally, the other weekend, we hired a sitter, determined to do something--anything.

Now, a sitter is a luxury, but the knowledge that we’re in New York and any given night has a multitude of fun things on offer is a luxury, too. After a courtship in Boston, we spent six years in rural Indiana where we were pretty dependent on the occasional traveling act. If some troupe came through town, you went or you waited till what came by next month.

So, anyway, we got a sitter. Now, what to do? I passed the buck to my spouse and he found a write up of Pistolera, a New York-based band combining mariachi with rock and left wing politics. The write-up was great:
The local group Pistolera, which is led by the guitarist and singer Sandra Lilia Velásquez, includes a propulsive accordionist named Maria Elena, a drummer named Ani Cordero (who is Velásquez’s cousin, and was once in the colorful rock band Man or Astro-man?), and one guy, the bassist Inca B. Satz. The foot-stomping band favors the fashions of the Mexican Revolution and has a winning sound that’s equal parts ranchera and indie pop.

They were playing at the Knitting Factory, where we’d never been. At $15 a pop, the price was right, too. We were in.

We went to Walker’s for a burger beforehand. It’s an ancient Tribeca Tavern, a lot like the White Horse (the Dylan Thomas bar in the West Village), and the evening was off to a promising start. The burgers were delicious and the beer hit the spot.

We found the Knitting Factory, got past the velvet ropes without any guff, picked up our tickets, and went in. The club is in a big iron building with multiple stages on different floors (nothing, even a big thing, is all that wide in New York), wide hallways, and not merely as messy as most clubs. Very Tribeca. So far, we felt pretty o.k.--we’d even arrived a full 45 minutes after the night’s start time. But then--cue the sound of a needle scratching across a record--we learned from the bartender that Pistoler was not slated to go on stage till 11:30.


The requests for Dora screenings start up around here at 6:30 on Sunday morning. An 11:30 start time just doesn’t cut it.

Fortunately, the opening act, Rana Santacruz, was great--incredible. I’ve downloaded all his songs from his website and they are in heavy rotation. (Perhaps equally fortunate, the second act, Uli and the Gringos was abysmal. So we went home by 11, got home around midnight, and were prepared to pop Dora in the DVD player the next morning). I got the Pistolera album on iTunes, too. It’s good, but I must say, the Rana Santacruz combo of punk rock (he’s a Pogues fan) and ranchero music is catchy and amazing and his voice is so very sweet. We love “El Ranchero Punk” but “No Puedo Mas” is in very heavy rotation.

A lucky catch and my tip to you: Rana Santacruz. Amazing.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Where to Begin?

Finally, it’s spring. Phew.

It’s been a horrible winter. A long slog. Lots and lots of stresses, large and small, mine and those of my loved ones, crowding in on a life already crowded with incident.

You know that feeling when you go on a hike up a mountain, a hike that’s a little longer than you want and you’re not enjoying it anymore? You know that part where the trail doesn’t seem to be rising anymore and yet, somehow, you also don’t seem to be at the end of the hike either? That’s where I am.

So, I’m no longer breathlessly climbing, wondering when the pain will stop and wondering if I’ll make it at all.

Clearly, I’ll make it, but sheesh, I want to get to that big flat rock at the top of the mountain, the one with the view, and unpack my picnic.