Friday, December 31, 2010

Resolutions Kept and Ignored

As I mentioned almost exactly a year ago in a similar post, 88% of New Year’s resolutions go unfulfilled. This means that almost all of us didn’t meet our goals for 2010, assuming we made any. We can all explain, justify, render irrelevant the gap, but the reality is that no matter how good our intentions, chances are this year’s resolutions will go similarly unresolved. One thing we can do to improve our chances, or at least according to Good Morning America, is to share our resolutions with the world. In fact, you are 10% more likely to follow through. Granted this stat comes from an unverified source and, if your goal is to slim down from a size 12 to a size 6, sharing that unrealistic target with the general public probably won’t increase the odds. But it does make sense to me. Other people’s opinions matter. Moreover, and perhaps as importantly, perhaps making one’s goals publicly traded forces one to set the bar at an achievable level.

So what about 2010? It was a really good year for me—I moved into a condo in New York, my book was published, I spent a month at the fabulous Vermont Studio Center, I am making good progress on a next manuscript. But none of these were explicit goals for the year. What DID I resolve last year? I vowed to read a couple of books I hated. First, at least one or two by German writers, a category of fiction that I tend to avoid (a long story but influenced by two years living in Munich). I also wanted to read Robert Fagles’ translation of The Aenied. So, I give myself a B. I read Herta Muller’s The Land of Green Plums and half of Gunter Grass’s Tin Drum. I skimmed The Aeneid, yes, searching for the juicy parts. It wasn’t lack of interest but I just had too many other books I really really wanted to read.

Yet, here’s something that surprised me—I wrote last year that I similarly disliked reading nonfiction memoir, historical accounts, biography, autobiography, the story of other people’s lives, true stories. I prefer fiction. Why? Generally I find that fictional stories tend to be better written and more engaging stories than their true to life counterparts. For some reason, when something extraordinary is recounted in a work of nonfiction (meaning it supposedly really happened), I find myself saying, “Really?” or “Well, that’s not so interesting.” What that says about my level of skepticism, I don’t know. Or perhaps what that says about my own perception of my level of skepticism, I don’t know.

Because…. in 2010, in addition to books of poetry, fiction, and nonfictional essays, I read at least 8 books of nonfictional history and biography. Included in the list: The Young Romantics, The Lemon Tree, American Priestess, The American Colony, Our Jerusalem: An American Family in the Holy City, The Courtier and the Heretic, Crossing Mandelbaum Gate, My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness.

Surprising myself, I really enjoyed all of them. Granted, three of these were important to research I’m doing on Israel, but I enjoyed all of them, necessary or not. This is not to say that I’m going to start voraciously consuming the latest celebrity or political autobiography/biography on the Barnes and Noble shelves. But it won’t be because I might not find Sarah Palin’s ghost written narrative entertaining but that given the world of books to read, I’d prefer to spend my few dollars of consciousness reading something more edifying or at least books about better people. I suppose that admission marks me a bit of snob. Oh well.

So what about 2011? I am going to finish Fagles’ The Aeneid. Beyond that, I’m not going to commit. Not yet anyway.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Granta's New Issue--Nihilism in Spanish

This from The Daily Beast about Granta's newest literary magazine release which highlights Spanish-speaking authors from around the globe, though Argentina and Spain log in with 14 of 22 spots.

It sounds amazing:

The new volume of Granta highlights bright new literary stars from across the Spanish-speaking world, says critic Oscar Villalon—and they wrestle with dark themes in a way few American writers dare to.

...It would seem, according to a new generation of Spanish-language novelists, we are living in an age where Big Ideas are dead, and this is far from a good thing, considering the Big Empty that's filled the vacuum.

...In one way or the other, these authors seem to be wrestling with an understanding of the post-Big Idea world that is perhaps best distilled in Urguayan author Andres Ressia Colino's piece, "Scenes From a Comfortable Life." Jimmy Tanaka, a working-class young man who happens to be Japanese, gets an education from his girlfriend's rich, Germanic father, who supplies him with this piece of sour wisdom:

"This system is a fucking circle of doom. Produce more and more cheaply, and make the consumer swallow faster and faster. […] None of the food or the clothes or the music or the books or the drugs that you kids consume are real. It seems like food, like clothes, like music, but it's all just something like those things, made to be devoured immediately. It's a perfect system. A magnificent, gigantic, super-efficient piece of machinery that produces nothing, totally and absolutely nothing."

I have to read the issue if only to find out if there's any sign of redemption, somewhere, anywhere in these stories.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Nick Flynn's Seven Testimonies and all the backup stuff

I returned to Israel two days ago to rain and 120 kph winds. It was the first real rain of what is supposed to be Israel’s rainy season. After the wildfires that consumed much of the country’s Carmel Mountains a week ago, the rain is welcome. As the power flickered on and off with the flares of lightning, I opened the November/December issue of American Poetry Review to find a series of poems by a poet and author I much admire, Nick Flynn. The series titled “seven testimonies (redacted)” is, to quote the footnote at the bottom of the page, composed of redacted versions of the testimonies of seven Abu Ghraib detainees as transcribed by the artist Danile Heyman, in Amman and in Istanbul, from 2006 to 2008. Nick Flynn was present for those testimonies gathered in 2007 in Istanbul.

Each of Flynn’s seven poetic testimonies is short ranging from eight to thirteen lines. Each line is also short, two to eight words. The poems are in first person, but a first person that feels drugged, drained, yes, tortured. Flynn creates a nightmarish quality with the use of fragmentation, repetition, illogical combinations. Erratic use of punctuation and capitalization between the individual poems suggests that the seven testimonies are one, that one runs into another, that each punishment was done to one, to all, without relation to the individual suspect, to what he or perhaps she did or might have done, or didn’t do at all. Here is the last of the seven poems of the series in its entirety:

My eyesight in years
I see up yes did this

Yes you this I saw
A sister you see

In the showers you this
In this with yes I

I was naked you this
Yes to me & wanted

Moreover, the “I” in these poems shifts so that at points the tortured and torturer become one and same. The series is the crime of Abu Ghraib rendered lyric.

The entire series fits on less than one APR page, page 8. The rest of page 8 and all of page 9 are taken up by the actual seven testimonies or at least significant samplings from them. The testimonies make for hard reading. But then so do the poems.

Which raises a question—why do we need the actual testimonies? In my mind, it as though Flynn feels his poems aren’t enough to convey the urgency, the terror, the pain of what these men underwent. As though his poems aren’t authentic enough without the backup of the prose.

Flynn goes far to convince the reader of authenticity. The title contains the word “testimony,” implying the source. If he had added “Abu Ghraib," there would have been no doubt. He also adds “redacted,” in parentheses to the title. Redaction is a form of editing in which multiple source texts are combined. Often the author/editor may make minor alteration to the texts (i.e., transform them into a single poetic work) so that they cohere. With all of this, Flynn leaves the reader little doubt that his poems emanate from actual testimony of Abu Ghraib detainees. This is of course reiterated in the footnote I quoted earlier.

All of this to make the point that I don’t think Flynn’s poems require the support of the actual testimonies. In fact, I think the prose testimonies undercut the emotional impact of the poems by their wordiness, their specificity, their almost clinical description. I wish Flynn had left them out.

As an American living in Israel and writing about my experiences in Israel, authenticity is an idea I spend time thinking about. Moreover, as an American poet reading other the work of other American poets, who often, in my mind, have difficulty writing about conflict, about war, even about the state of the world, I find the issue of authenticity a part of the puzzle. I’m going to write more about this, but not today. Right now, there is an authentic storm raging outside my house, a river pours from every gutter drowning the grass, the twelve pine trees that line the perimeter bending back and forth forty five degrees. I’m curious what will be left standing.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Budrus: A Small Israeli Film with an Enormous Message

Last night I went to a Manhattan screening of an Israeli/Palestinian film called Budrus. I dragged my husband along with me even though he usually finds such ‘smoleneem’ films one-sided. But he is open-minded and, in the interest of placating his more left-wing wife, came with me. Budrus, produced and released by JustVision in 2010, has been celebrated internationally (Panorama Audience Award, Second Prize, at the Berlin International Film Festival, 2010, Special Jury Mention, Tribeca Film Festival, 2010, and others), but is only now reaching a few US screens. Go see it.

The film itself was remarkable for reasons I’ll talk about below, but the screening itself was also well done. Before and after, there were small receptions of wine and cheese, and two of the three producers, Ronit Avni and Julia Bacha, discussed the making of the film and took questions from the 100 or so spectators. In between, a three-person ensemble including a vocalist (Palestinian), keyboard player (Israeli), and trumpet player (American) serenaded the audience.

Budrus, to be brief, is a documentary film about a Palestinian community organizer, Ayed Morrar, who unites local Fatah and Hamas members along with Israeli supporters in an unarmed movement to save his village of Budrus from destruction by Israel’s Separation Barrier. Budrus, for those of you not familiar with Israeli geography, lies in the northern West Bank just east of the green line. Budrus’s 1500 villagers support themselves through agriculture, largely the cultivation of olive trees.

Israel’s separation fence has long been a point of controversy. I’ll go on record as saying I find its existence largely positive. Since its erection, suicide bombs in Israel have largely stopped (though there are dozens of attempts caught at the border every year). As a stepmother of four with lots of friends and family in Israel, I relish the protection. With that said, Israel has no business putting the fence one millimeter beyond the 1967 green line. Unfortunately, the fence often veers into what is by all international and moral reckoning Palestinian territory.

In the case of Budrus, the planned separation fence was going to uproot acres of Palestinian olive groves, divide the village cemetery, and would have passed meters from their only school. You understand the villagers’ anger and anxiety.

To protest the fence, Budrus’ residents, led by Morrar, unite in nonviolent protest. Over months of protest, residents together with international witnesses and participants put themselves between bulldozers, Israeli border police, and what they consider their blood, their olive trees. While the two sides exchanged tear gas, rubber bullets, a rain of rocks, remarkably no one was killed though apparently tens were seriously injured. In the end, and I am skipping past all that is interesting about the film, Israel relocated the fence closer to the green line and away from Budrus.

What was significant was the Budrus protests marked an embrace of nonviolence as a means to change facts on the ground. Of course, Palesinians consider the First Intifada nonviolent (highlighting the difficulty defining nonviolence), but why digress? Since Budrus, similar strategies are being employed in other West Bank villages.

Also significant was the importance of women to the Budrus campaign. The film spends a lot of time with Morrar’s daughter, who is now studying medicine in Bosnia, and she talks of how village women forced the men to allow them at the front of the protest marches. Not only did this hinder Israel’s ability to respond, but also, I hope, underscored the importance of female voices in the Arab world (a world that largely oppresses women). In addition, the Budrus protests required cooperation between Fatah and Hamas, the two ideologically opposed factions of Palestinian Arabs. Morrar, who is a member of Fatah and who spent intermittent years in Israeli jails (though the reason for his incarceration is never explained), stated that he disagreed philosophically with Hamas but pragmatism required cooperation. For this, the two sides came together. Moreover, both camps welcomed and embraced the Israeli activists who also joined their fight.

Which brings me to a third remarkable aspect of the film--the importance of the Israeli activist movement. Tens of Israeli activists spent months supporting and protesting alongside the Budrus residents, even when arrested and in the face of real violence by the Israeli border police. Many of the Budrus residents went on record stating their surprise and gratification that there were Israelis who not only rhetorically opposed the occupation but who were wiling to demonstrate their commitment with their presence. I can’t imagine a better means of building trust and belief between the two sides.

While the film downplayed the injuries some of the residents received and didn’t explore the background and mindset of the Palestinian leaders, it was an evenhanded, even uplifting film. Budrus demonstrated that nonviolence as a consistent means of protest can have effect.

I applaud JustVision for producing the film.

But there is more work to be done and the film raises another question. My husband, who is a native Israeli and who found the film overall positive put it best. His question at the end, “Yes, it’s hopeful to demonstrate that cooperation is possible and that not all Israelis are bad. But for peace, we also need Arab Israelis and Palestinians protesting and standing alongside Jews when Hamas, Fatah, when people representing them shoot rockets, suicide bomb Israeli civilians. When that happens, there might be a chance for real peace.”