Category: poetry

Letters to Palestine: Writers Respond to War and Occupation

If you say, I think the occupation of Palestine is fucked up on forty different levels, people are like, you’re the devil, we’re going to get your tenure taken away, we’re going to destroy you. You can say almost anything else. You could be like, “I eat humans,” and they’ll be like bien, bien.

– Junot Díaz

Book cover: Letters to Palestine edited by Vijay PrashadIn the summer of 2014, Israel bombed Gaza for seven weeks during a campaign called Operation Protective Edge. Gaza, which had long been in a vulnerable state, suffered devastating losses; over two thousand people died and over half a million people were displaced. Historically, Israel’s assaults on Palestinians (and the US’s complicity in these assaults) have been largely ignored; there’s an occasional tsk tsk, but most turn a blind eye or think of the violence as part of some ancient Jewish-Palestinian feud that’s just too complicated to be worked out. It isn’t. And as Israel’s violence towards Gaza escalated in 2014, those images made their way around the world on news networks and social media. More started to take notice, and for once, those voices of dissent weren’t being automatically dismissed anti-Semitic.

Letters to Palestine is a collection of essays and poetry edited by Vijay Prashad. Its twenty-eight contributors, many of whom are Palestinian, include novelists, poets, scholars, and activists. The book is separated into three themes: Conditions, War Reports, and Politics. There’s quite a diverse selection of topics within each section, and the voices span a range of emotions — anger, pride, and solidarity, to name a few. Letters to Palestine is, as Prashad writes in his introduction, a book of documents:

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Quickies: The Orphan Master’s Son & When Women Were Birds

Book cover: The Orphan Master's Son by Adam JohnsonThe Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

Publisher/Year: Random House Audio, 2012
Format: Audiobook
Narrator: Tim Kang with Josiah D. Lee & James Kyson Lee
Length: 19 hrs, 22 minutes
Source: Library

What it is: Growing up in a North Korean work camp for orphans, Jun Do manages to rise from the humblest ranks in life to one of the highest, eventually even encountering the terrifying the Dear Leader himself, Kim Jong Il. How he gets there is almost farcical, but the one thing keeping him grounded is his undying love for a beautiful actress named Sun Moon, whose career the Dear Leader is bent on destroying.

Why I listened to it: Since it won the 2013 Pulitzer, it was part of my Pulitzer Project for this year.

What I thought: This book is the literary equivalent of “Go big or go home.” And damn. Johnson went for it. The book generated a lot of buzz when it was released, but for some reason, I just never had the desire to read it. I picked up the audiobook shortly after it won the Pulitzer, not really knowing what to expect. I got lost a couple of times because it’s a lot to wrap one’s head around via audiobook, but more than anything, I was transfixed by Jun Do’s nightmarish conundrums. The Orphan Master’s Son is a clever and ambitious project that basically just blows everything else out of the water; I’ve never read anything else quite like it. So much of the book centers on identity, right down to the protagonist’s name — Jun Do…John Doe? — and though the book is almost dystopian in nature, it clings to some of the most basic tenets of human nature, particularly love.

Book cover: When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest WilliamsWhen Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice by Terry Tempest Williams

Publisher/Year: Sarah Crichton Books, 2012
Format: Paperback
Pages: 224
Source: Library

What it is: Before Terry Tempest Williams’s died, she told her daughter, “I am leaving you all my journals, but you must promise me you won’t look at them until after I’m gone.” That request was honored, and after her mother died, a grief-stricken Tempest Williams went to her mother’s journals to find some solace. What she found instead were three shelves full of blank journals. As time passed, she felt at turns angry, devastated, betrayed, and completely mystified as to what kind of message her mother had wanted to send her. The book is comprised of fifty-four variations — meditations of sorts — in which Tempest Williams imagines the message(s) her mother was trying to convey.

Why I read it: It sounded intriguing.

What I thought: Some parts were hit-or-miss for me. It took me a while to get into the book; there’s no denying the poetic beauty of the author’s writing — and at times, the chapters consist of straight-up poetry…but I’ll be the first to admit I’m not a terribly poetry-minded person. That said, there were parts of the book that I wanted to copy down at length to savor later (and, in a couple of instances, I did just that).

A New Story

My school brought Simon Ortiz down to South Texas earlier this week for one its Native American Heritage Month events. He read several of his poems and even sang for us, but this poem is the one that stuck out the most for me considering how there have been a couple of recent highly publicized cases of obnoxious cultural appropriation lately (most recently, this No Doubt video). I have to share:

Several years ago,
I was a patient at the VA hospital
in Ft, Lyons, Colorado.
I got a message to call this woman,
so I called her up.
She said to me,
“I’m looking for an Indian.
Are you an Indian?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Oh good,” she said,
“I’ll explain why I’m looking
for an Indian.”
And she explained.
“Every year, we put on a parade
In town, a Frontier Day Parade*.
It’s exciting and important,
and we have a lot of participation.”
“Yes,” I said.
“Well,” she said, “Our theme
is Frontier,
and we try to do it well.
In the past, we used to make up
paper mache Indians,
but that was years ago.”
“Yes,” I said.
“And then more recently,
we had some people
who dressed up as Indians
to make it more authentic,
you understand, real people.”
“Yes,” I said.
“Well,” she said,
“that didn’t seem right,
but we had a problem.
There was a lack of Indians.”
“Yes,” I said.
“This year, we wanted to do it right.
We have looked hard and high
for Indians but there didn’t seem
to be any in this part of Colorado.”
“Yes,” I said.
“We want to make it real, you understand,
put a real Indian on a float,
not just a paper mache dummy
or an Anglo dressed as an Indian
but a real Indian with feathers and paint.
Maybe even a medicine man.”
“Yes,” I said.
“And then we learned the VA hospital
had an Indian here.
We were so happy,”
she said, happily.
“Yes,” I said.
“there are several of us here.”
“Oh good,” she said.

Well, last Spring
I got another message
at the college where I worked.
I called the woman.
She was so happy
that I returned her call.
Then she explained
that Sir Francis Drake,
the English pirate
(she didn’t say that, I did)
was going to land on the coast
of California in June, again.
And then she said
she was looking for Indians . . .
“No,” I said. No.

“A New Story” was published in Ortiz’s 1992 poetry collection, Woven Stone. (Source)

Nikky Finney’s 2011 NBA Speech

Today’s Author Friday video: Nikky Finney’s acceptance speech from last year’s National Book Awards ceremony. I know it made the rounds all over the place last November, but it’s so amazing that I just felt like hearing it again. The speech starts at about 4:45.

You can get a transcript of the speech here via her website.