Click Iogo to learn more.

Click Iogo to learn more.
Welcome to Words without Border’s tenth annual Queer issue.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Hello, America...My Name is Jimmy Baldwin

Even before I read Sonny’s Blues in my 9th grade English class with Mr. Ronald James, I had met James Baldwin many times before. Not in person, mind you, but his intellect, his passion and his uncompromising commitment to social justice were a palpable presence in my home and many others. There was a time, in the African-American community, regardless of class or level of formal education, when we knew our literary writers, our public philosophers and the platforms of our political leaders.

My father thought Baldwin’s short stories and novels conveyed too much anger. My mother, an avid collector of his essays, thought his tone, insight and activism brilliantly matched the monsters he battled. And my Aunt Sarah, an energetic theatre supporter, thought his plays were honest, dark, and, too often, underrated. Between the dissonance of everyday challenges, my home was filled with the glorious dissonance of words on a mission, of competing ideologies and of the faith placed in ideas and action. James Baldwin was, on many occasions, in the center of this.

I finally did reap the privilege of meeting James Baldwin, almost thirty years ago at Williams College. He not only met with the college community as a whole, but he met with a small group of African-American students as well. I literally sat, along with Dale and Herve, at his feet in Dodd House and I knew immediately I was in familiar company.

I cannot accurately capture the magnitude of James Baldwin’s genius. I can offer this suggestion, which is a grand one. Read his The Price of the Ticket; Collected NonFiction, 1948-1985 , which is filled with his singular, exacting analysis. You will appreciate, too, why he is, indeed, one of the world’s preeminent essayists.

Hello, America…My Name is Jimmy Baldwin is a play by Robert H. Miller that I will see tonight with my daughter and son. I am hoping Mr. Miller delivers on rendering just a glimmer of Baldwin’s magnificence to my children.

Hello, America…My Name is Jimmy Baldwin runs tonight at
The Moonstone Arts Center
110A S. 13 Street( on 13th, between Chestnut and Sansom Sts.)
Philadelphia, PA

*Drawing by France Belleville

Monday, August 9, 2010

Cote d'Ivoire Turns 50-How Do We Celebrate ?

Cote d’Ivoire was my home for nine years. I married a wonderful man from there, had my babies there and lived a life where each moment was well spent. I share with you this article by Siddhartha Mitter because I like his take and tone in how he tries to convey the situation of Cote d’Ivoire today. Happy Birthday, Cote d’Ivoire !

By Siddhartha Mitter/Auguste 9, 2010
Source-Africa is a Country

By Paul Sika

“I’ve kept some distance from the 50th anniversary,” my friend says, “because I’m being doubted.” A few days ago he went online to check his voter eligibility status. My friend was born in Côte d’Ivoire and has always been Ivorian, nothing else. He travels back to Côte d’Ivoire for Christmas or, recently, to bury his parents, on his valid Ivorian passport. One would think this made him eligible to vote, but the voter rolls are the domain of a different agency. For more than a decade people from the north of the country, or whose last name suggests they might be from the north, have had trouble getting registered to vote. My friend is from the north. Several times in the past few years he has come to the consulate in New York armed with his passport, his old identity cards, various notarized statements, to make his case to the election officers who have deployed across the country and its diaspora. Now the file status gets posted online but the process behind it is as murky as ever. This time my friend found his name on the latest provisional voter list, subject to some unspecified further confirmation. This is better than last year, when his application was turned down. Being of a stubborn nature, my friend took the time to press his case. Many others didn’t bother.

Now Côte d’Ivoire is turning 50 — it became independent on August 7, 1960 — and my friend, whom any African would recognize as obviously Ivorian by accent, physiognomy, body language, tastes and sense of humor, doesn’t feel eager to celebrate. His friend Auguste has been pressing the gang to gather but it won’t be an independence party as much as a summer gathering of the old crew. Most of them have been in the United States for a decade or more, and with families and jobs and moves they don’t see each other as often as they’d like. Many are still in the northeast but others have moved to Atlanta, to big houses with dens and decks and finished basements in diverse suburbs with good schools. Some are Americans now, so the question of voting back home no longer applies. Among the crew, arguments about origins and national status briefly simmered ten years ago but never stuck. After the 2002 civil war left the country split in two, with a dysfunctional national unity government of southern loyalists and northern rebels, those with close ties back home positioned themselves as they saw fit, supporting one or another party or claiming indifference. Since the elections were due in 2005 but have been postponed over and over ever since, any differences of political opinion have long given way to the general lassitude. In Côte d’Ivoire the government loyalists and former rebels have gained so much material advantage from the status quo that both are happy to prolong the procedural farce that results in voter rolls that are never finalized and election logistics that are never quite ready. The two big opposition parties, which emerged from the old ruling party that oversaw Côte d’Ivoire’s prosperity in the 1970s, are on the outside looking in. My friend and his crew grew up in that old order, got good educations and started careers as engineers and accountants just as things were falling apart. They left before things got worse. Those who stay involved don’t let the politics get in their way, and certainly not alter their friendships.

Lately, many in the crew have been spending more time in Côte d’Ivoire, some to pursue opportunities in the fluid economic situation there, others because their US immigration status is resolved and they can travel back and forth without anxiety. While Abidjan celebrates independence, a bunch will get together in Bassam, the old colonial capital and beach town that is just an hour’s drive down a long seaside road through the coconut palms, lined with small resorts and outdoor bars with thatched cabanas. Bassam has become a gathering place for the crew ever since one of them, the one from New Jersey who cast his lot early on with the president’s party, landed a sinecure as head of a future free-trade zone in Bassam that no one seems actually interested in implementing. With an office and car and nice house and so little to do that he’s uncomfortable — he’s a finagler, but he’s not lazy — he has welcomed his friends for open-ended visits, a kind of decompression chamber between their American lives and the needs of their extended families in Abidjan and the village, the sick relatives and funerals and nephews and nieces who need school fees and uniforms and sponsorship for foreign universities, since the local one barely functions anymore. In Bassam they are taking care of each other as well. The one who lives in the South Bronx, in a grimy apartment in a building with fights outside and chicken bones strewn in the stairwell, has been camped out in Bassam for months. He’s Muslim and doesn’t drink, and he’s enlisted the others in long, daily power-walks on the beach, a group of men in their late forties getting fit American-style, startling the vendors and the prostitutes.

They’re in Bassam now, those ones and the one from Atlanta who hosted the big New Years’ bash, and the one who came all the way from Abidjan to that party and then nearly got killed in the Haiti earthquake when he went to visit friends in the Ivorian UN contingent there, and others too. They send my friend text messages. He’ll be with the northeastern crowd at Auguste and Christine’s — they’ve moved out of Mattapan and into one of the suburbs behind Quincy. They won’t ignore the 50th anniversary of independence, but they won’t really observe it, either. “The Dioula have this expression,” my friend says. “Ton dougou, c’est là où c’est bon pour toi. Wherever things are going well for you, that’s your village.”

Friday, July 30, 2010

What's Your Take On To Kill A Mockingbird ?

Last August, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the publication of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, Malcolm Gladwell wrote an essay, for the New Yorker, about this iconic book. I’m amazed at how people’s take on the book/movie has changed over the years. I’m pleased to hear interpretations that are more complex and honest. I remember clearly reading this book almost 35 years ago, and knowing, both intuitively and experientially as an African-American female teen with a Southern mother who told many stories, that the premise of the book was dishonest and myopic.

Here is a link to Gladwell’s essay.

And here is a response from my little brother, now a middle-aged man, to the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird and his memories of his gut reaction to it, as a young black boy seeing it in the confines of his elite Main Line School.

I first saw this movie when I was at Waldron Academy. I was the only black person in the room. I've never liked this movie. Ever! I saw in it ,even then, everything that was wrong not just with movies, but with America in general. I told you long ago what was wrong with this film. The article touches on a lot of what I said. The novel itself could not follow it's own implications. Making the Boo Radley character the "Mockingbird" was a patent sellout. The obvious "Mockingbird" was Tom Robinson. The sheriff (and presumably everyone else in the country) does not mind having a dead black man on their conscience. But their sensibilities can't bear to have the sequestered life of the town recluse disturbed. "That would be like killing a mockingbird," says the son at the end of the film. They can't bend the racist protocols of their society to let an obviously innocent black man go free. But obstruction of justice is morally appropriate in the case of Boo Radleys all over America. America has been grounded in bullshit from the beginning; in politics; in business; in sports; in journalism; in everything. It is unrealistic to think that what passes for cinema in this country should be any different.


*Drawing of  Mockingbird by Andrew Saeger

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Why Schools Don't Educate- John Taylor Gatto

The following in a long and weighty essay, so I’ll spare you my introductory musings. Wow! That is, very much present tense, my reaction to this speech, which was delivered by John Taylor Gatto in 1990, after he was selected New York City’s Teacher of the Year. As I am preparing for the new school year as a parent, teacher and writer, I am encouraged and delighted and emboldened by Mr. Gatto’s insights.
Source: The Sun Magazine

Painting by Paula O’Brien 

Why Schools Don't Educate
By John Taylor Gatto

I ACCEPT THIS award on behalf of all the fine teachers I’ve known over the years who’ve struggled to make their transactions with children honorable ones: men and women who are never complacent, always questioning, always wrestling to define and redefine endlessly what the word education should mean. A “Teacher of the Year” is not the best teacher around — those people are too quiet to be easily uncovered — but a standard-bearer, symbolic of these private people who spend their lives gladly in the service of children. This is their award as well as mine.

We live in a time of great social crisis. Our children rank at the bottom of nineteen industrial nations in reading, writing, and arithmetic. The world’s narcotic economy is based upon our own consumption of this commodity. If we didn’t buy so many powdered dreams, the business would collapse — and schools are an important sales outlet. Our teenage-suicide rate is the highest in the world — and suicidal kids are rich kids for the most part, not poor. In Manhattan, 70 percent of all new marriages last less than five years.

Our school crisis is a reflection of this greater social crisis. We seem to have lost our identity. Children and old people are penned up and locked away from the business of the world to an unprecedented degree; nobody talks to them anymore. Without children and old people mixing in daily life, a community has no future and no past, only a continuous present. In fact, the term “community” hardly applies to the way we interact with each other. We live in networks, not communities, and everyone I know is lonely because of that. In some strange way, school is a major actor in this tragedy, just as it is a major actor in the widening gulfs among social classes. Using school as a sorting mechanism, we appear to be on the way to creating a caste system, complete with untouchables who wander through subway trains begging and sleep on the streets.

I’ve noticed a fascinating phenomenon in my twenty-nine years of teaching — that schools and schooling are increasingly irrelevant to the great enterprises of the planet. No one believes anymore that scientists are trained in science classes, or politicians in civics classes, or poets in English classes. The truth is that schools don’t really teach anything except how to obey orders. This is a great mystery to me, because thousands of humane, caring people work in schools as teachers and aides and administrators, but the abstract logic of the institution overwhelms their individual contributions. Although teachers do care and do work very, very hard, the institution is psychopathic; it has no conscience. It rings a bell, and the young man in the middle of writing a poem must close his notebook and move to a different cell, where he learns that humans and monkeys derive from a common ancestor.

OUR FORM of compulsory schooling is an invention of the state of Massachusetts, from around 1850. It was resisted — sometimes with guns — by an estimated 80 percent of the Massachusetts population, with the last outpost, in Barnstable on Cape Cod, not surrendering its children until the 1880s, when the area was seized by the militia and the children marched to school under guard.

Now, here is a curious idea to ponder: Senator Ted Kennedy’s office released a paper not too long ago claiming that prior to compulsory education the state literacy rate was 98 percent, and after it the figure never again climbed above 91 percent, where it stands in 1990. I hope that interests you.

Here is another curiosity to think about: The home-schooling movement has quietly grown to a size where 1.5 million young people are being educated entirely by their own parents. Last month the education press reported the amazing news that children schooled at home seem to be five, or even ten years ahead of their formally trained peers in their ability to think.

I don’t think we’ll get rid of schools any time soon, certainly not in my lifetime, but if we’re going to change what’s rapidly becoming a disaster of ignorance, we need to realize that the institution “schools” very well, but it does not “educate”; that’s inherent in the design of the thing. It’s not the fault of bad teachers or too little money spent. It’s just impossible for education and schooling to be the same thing.

Schools were designed by Horace Mann and Barnas Sears and W.R. Harper of the University of Chicago and Edward Thorndike of Columbia Teachers College and other to be instruments for the scientific management of a mass population. Schools are intended to produce, through the application of formulas, formulaic human beings whose behavior can be predicted and controlled.

To a very great extent, schools succeed in doing this. But our society is disintegrating, and in such a society, the only successful people are self-reliant, confident, and individualistic — because the community life that protects the dependent and weak is dead. The products of schooling are, as I’ve said, irrelevant. Well-schooled people are irrelevant. They can sell film and razor blades, push paper and talk on telephones, or sit mindlessly before a flickering computer terminal, but as human beings they are useless — useless to others and useless to themselves.

The daily misery around us is, I think, in large measure caused by the fact that — as social critic Paul Goodman put it thirty years ago — we force children to grow up absurd. Any reform in schooling has to deal with school’s absurdities.

It is absurd and anti-life to be part of a system that compels you to sit in confinement with only people of exactly the same age and social class. The system effectively cuts you off from the immense diversity of life and the synergy of variety. It cuts you off from your own past and future, sealing you in a continuous present, much the same way television does.

It is absurd and anti-life to be part of a system that compels you to listen to a stranger reading poetry when you want to learn to construct buildings, or to sit with a stranger discussing the construction of buildings when you want to read poetry.

It is absurd and anti-life to move from cell to cell at the sound of a gong for every day of your youth, in an institution that allows you no privacy and even follows you into the sanctuary of your home, demanding that you do its “homework.”

“How will they learn to read?” you say, and my answer is: “Remember the lessons of Massachusetts.” When children are given whole lives instead of age-graded ones in cellblocks, they learn to read, write, and do arithmetic with ease, if those things make sense in the life that unfolds around them.

But keep in mind that in the United States almost nobody who reads, writes, or does arithmetic gets much respect. We are a land of talkers; we pay talkers the most and admire talkers the most, and so our children talk constantly, following the public models of television and schoolteachers. It is very difficult to teach “the basics” anymore, because they really aren’t basic to the society we’ve made strong.

TWO INSTITUTIONS at present control our children’s lives: television and schooling, in that order. Both reduce the real world of wisdom, fortitude, temperance, and justice to a never-ending, nonstop abstraction. In centuries past, the time of a child or adolescent would be occupied in real work, real charity, real adventure, and the real search for mentors who might teach what he or she really wanted to learn. A great deal of time was spent in community pursuits, practicing affection, meeting and studying every level of the community, learning how to make a home, and dozens of other tasks necessary to becoming a whole man or woman.

But here is the calculus of time the children I teach must deal with:

Out of the one hundred sixty-eight hours in each week, my children sleep fifty-six. That leaves them one hundred twelve hours a week out of which to fashion a self.

My children watch fifty-five hours of television a week, according to recent reports. That leaves them fifty-seven hours a week in which to grow up.

My children attend school thirty hours a week, use about eight hours getting ready, going, and coming home, and spend an average of seven hours a week on homework — a total of forty-five hours. During that time they are under constant surveillance, have no private time or private space, and are disciplined if they try to assert individuality in the use of time or space. That leaves twelve hours a week out of which to create a unique consciousness. Of course my kids eat, too, and that takes some time — not much, though, because we’ve lost the tradition of family dining. If we allot three hours a week to evening meals, we arrive at a net amount of private time for each child of nine hours.

It’s not enough. It’s not enough, is it? The richer the kid, of course, the less television he or she watches, but the rich kid’s time is just as narrowly circumscribed by a broader catalog of commercial entertainments and his or her inevitable assignment to a series of private lessons in areas seldom of the child’s own choice.

And these things are, oddly enough, just a more cosmetic way to create dependent human beings, unable to fill their own hours, unable to give substance and pleasure to their existence. It’s a national disease, this dependency and aimlessness, and I think schooling and television and lessons have a lot to do with it.

Think of the things that are killing us as a nation: drugs, brainless competition, recreational sex, gambling, alcohol, the pornography of violence, and the worst pornography of all: lives devoted to buying things, accumulation as a philosophy. All are addictions of dependent personalities, and that is what our brand of schooling must inevitably produce.

I WANT TO tell you what the effect is on children of taking all their time — time they need to grow up — and forcing them to spend it on abstractions. No reform that doesn’t attack these specific pathologies will be anything more than a facade.
 1. The children I teach are indifferent to the adult world. This defies the experience of thousands of years. A close study of what big people were up to was always the most exciting occupation of youth, but nobody wants to grow up these days, and who can blame them? Toys are us.

2. The children I teach have almost no curiosity, and what little they do have is transitory; they cannot concentrate for very long, even on things they choose to do. Can you see a connection between the bells ringing again and again to change classes and this phenomenon of evanescent attention?

3. The children I teach have a poor sense of the future, of how tomorrow is inextricably linked to today. They live in a continuous present; the exact moment they are in is the boundary of their consciousness.

4. The children I teach are ahistorical; they have no sense of how the past has predestined their own present, limiting their choices, shaping their values and lives.

5. The children I teach are cruel to each other; they lack compassion for misfortune, they laugh at weakness, and they have contempt for people whose need for help shows too plainly.

6. The children I teach are uneasy with intimacy or candor. They cannot deal with genuine intimacy because of a lifelong habit of preserving a secret self inside an outer personality made up of artificial bits and pieces of behavior borrowed from television or acquired to manipulate teachers. Because they are not who they represent themselves to be, the disguise wears thin in the presence of intimacy, so intimate relationships have to be avoided.

7. The children I teach are materialistic, following the lead of schoolteachers who materialistically “grade” everything — and television mentors who offer everything in the world for sale.

8. The children I teach are dependent, passive, and timid in the presence of new challenges. This timidity is frequently masked by surface bravado, or by anger or aggressiveness, but underneath is a vacuum without fortitude.

I could name a few other conditions that school reform will have to tackle if our national decline is to be arrested, but by now you will have grasped my thesis, whether you agree with it or not. Either schools, television, or both have caused these pathologies. It’s a simple matter of arithmetic: between schooling and television, all the time children have is eaten up. That’s what has destroyed the American family; it is no longer a factor in the education of its own children.

WHAT CAN be done?

First, we need a ferocious national debate that doesn’t quit, day after day, year after year, the kind of continuous emphasis that journalism finds boring. We need to scream and argue about this school thing until it is fixed or broken beyond repair — one or the other. If we can fix it, fine; if we cannot, then the success of home schooling shows a different road that has great promise. Pouring the money back into family education might kill two birds with one stone, repairing families as it repairs children.

Genuine reform is possible, but it shouldn’t cost anything. We need to rethink the fundamental premises of schooling and decide what it is we want all children to learn, and why. For 140 years this nation has tried to impose objectives from a lofty command center made up of “experts,” a central elite of social engineers. It hasn’t worked. It won’t work. It is a gross betrayal of the democratic promise that once made this nation a noble experiment. The Russian attempt to control Eastern Europe has exploded before our eyes. Our own attempt to impose the same sort of central orthodoxy, using the schools as an instrument, is also coming apart at the seams, albeit more slowly and painfully. It doesn’t work because its fundamental premises are mechanical, antihuman, and hostile to family life. Lives can be controlled by machine education, but they will always fight back with weapons of social pathology — drugs, violence, self-destruction, indifference, and the symptoms I see in the children I teach.

It’s high time we looked backward to regain an educational philosophy that works. One I like particularly well has been a favorite of the ruling classes of Europe for thousands of years. I think it works just as well for poor children as for rich ones. I use as much of it as I can manage in my own teaching — as much, that is, as I can get away with, given the present institution of compulsory schooling.

At the core of this elite system of education is the belief that self-knowledge is the only basis of true knowledge. Everywhere in this system, at every age, you will find arrangements that place the child alone in an unguided setting with a problem to solve. Sometimes the problem is fraught with great risks, such as the problem of getting a horse to gallop or making it jump. But that, of course, is a problem successfully solved by thousands of elite children before the age of ten. Can you imagine anyone who has mastered such a challenge ever lacking confidence in his or her ability to do anything? Sometimes the problem is that of mastering solitude, as Thoreau did at Walden Pond, or Einstein did in the Swiss customshouse.

One of my former students, Roland Legiardi-Laura, though both his parents were dead and he had no inheritance, rode a bicycle across the U.S. alone when he was hardly out of boyhood. Is it any wonder that in manhood he made a film about Nicaragua, although he had no money and no prior experience with filmmaking, and that it was an international award winner — even though his regular work was as a carpenter?

Right now we are taking from our children the time they need to develop self-knowledge. That has to stop. We have to invent school experiences that give a lot of that time back. We need to trust children from a very early age with independent study, perhaps arranged in school, but which takes place away from the institutional setting. We need to invent a curriculum where each kid has a chance to develop uniqueness and self-reliance.

A short time ago, I paid seventy dollars and sent a twelve-year-old girl with her non-English-speaking mother on a bus down the New Jersey coast. She took the police chief of Sea Bright to lunch and apologized for polluting his beach with a discarded Gatorade bottle. In exchange for this public apology, I had arranged for the girl to have a one-day apprenticeship in small-town police procedures. A few days later, two more of my twelve-year-old kids traveled alone from Harlem to West Thirty first Street, where they began apprenticeships with a newspaper editor. Next week, three of my kids will find themselves in the middle of the Jersey swamps at six in the morning studying the mind of a trucking-company president as he dispatches eighteen-wheelers to Dallas, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

Are these “special” children in a “special” program? No, they’re just nice kids from central Harlem, bright and alert, but so badly schooled when they came to me that most of them couldn’t add or subtract with any fluency. And not a single one knew the population of New York City, or how far it is from New York to California.

Does that worry me? Of course. But I am confident that as they gain self-knowledge, they’ll also become self-teachers — and only self-teaching has any lasting value.

We’ve got to give kids independent time right away, because that is the key to self-knowledge, and we must reinvolve them with the real world as fast as possible so that the independent time can be spent on something other than mere abstractions. This is an emergency. It requires drastic action to correct. Our children are dying like flies in our schools. Good schooling or bad schooling, it’s all the same: irrelevant.

WHAT ELSE DOES a restructured school system need? It needs to stop being a parasite on the working community. I think we need to make community service a required part of schooling. It is the quickest way to give young children real responsibility.

For five years I ran a guerrilla school program where I had every kid, rich and poor, smart and dipsy, give 320 hours a year of hard community service. Dozens of those kids came back to me years later and told me that this one experience had changed their lives, had taught them to see in new ways, to rethink goals and values. It happened when they were thirteen, in my Lab School program — made possible only because my rich school district was in chaos. When “stability” returned, the lab closed. It was too successful, at too small a cost, to be allowed to continue; we made the expensive, elite programs look bad.

There is no shortage of real problems in this city. Kids can be asked to help solve them in exchange for the respect and attention of the adult world. Good for kids, good for the rest of us.

Independent study, community service, adventures in experience, large doses of privacy and solitude, a thousand different apprenticeships — these are all powerful, cheap, and effective ways to start a real reform of schooling. But no large-scale reform is ever going to repair our damaged children and our damaged society until we force the idea of “school” open — to include family as the main engine of education. The Swedes realized this in 1976, when they effectively abandoned state adoption of unwanted children and instead spent national time and treasure on reinforcing the family so that children born to Swedes were wanted. They reduced the number of unwanted Swedish children from six thousand in 1976 to fifteen in 1986. So it can be done. The Swedes just got tired of paying for the social wreckage caused by children not being raised by their natural parents, so they did something about it. We can, too.

Family is the main engine of education. If we use schooling to break children away from parents — and make no mistake, that has been the central function of schools since John Cotton announced it as the purpose of the Bay Colony schools in 1650 and Horace Mann announced it as the purpose of Massachusetts schools in 1850 — we’re going to continue to have the horror show we have right now.

The curriculum of family is at the heart of any good life. We’ve gotten away from that curriculum — it’s time to return to it. The way to sanity in education is for our schools to take the lead in releasing the stranglehold of institutions on family life, to promote during school time confluences of parent and child that will strengthen family bonds. That was my real purpose in sending the girl and her mother down the Jersey coast to meet the police chief.

I have many ideas on how to make a family curriculum, and my guess is that a lot of you will have many ideas, too, once you begin to think about it. Our greatest problem in getting the kind of grass-roots thinking going that could reform schooling is that we have large, vested interests profiting from schooling just exactly as it is, despite rhetoric to the contrary.

We have to demand that new voices and new ideas get a hearing, my ideas and yours. We’ve all had a bellyful of authorized voices on television and in the press. A decade-long, free-for-all debate is called for now, not more “expert” opinions. Experts in education have never been right; their “solutions” are expensive, self-serving, and always involve further centralization. Enough.

Time for a return to democracy, individuality, and family.

I’ve said my piece. Thank you.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Garrison Keillor's When Everyone's A Writer, No One Is

I admire the energy and insistence and irreverence of young people. I have a teenage daughter who has literary aspirations and who remains continually baffled by me and my circle of writer friends who wait-outrageously long waits-for some entity, usually a white, male gatekeeper, to validate our writing by publishing it in traditional formats likes books, print magazines, etc.

I love young people because if you listen to them, to their take on the world you inevitably question yourself and your motives and ways of operating. My daughter often raises the point, to me, who, without pretense and ego, am I honestly trying to touch, to commune with, through my writing ? Follow your answer to its source, she says, and cut out that old fuddy-duddy middleman. She does.

My daughter very much identifies with her West African roots. She was born in Cote d’Ivoire and her writing reflects the energy of Africa. There is no woe is me in her work. Her work is celebratory and confrontational. She doesn’t wait to see who likes or gets her work. She creates her own beautifully handmade books and distributes them, free of charge, to African hair-braiding shops, the Liberian-operated water-ice stands, and to my students from Mali, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, Togo, Benin, Liberia, Ghana who, now in their new homes, have yet to hear celebratory words about Africa.

A few weeks ago, before she left for a summer program, we went to get water-ice from one of the places she had distributed her poetry books. One of the women, a Liberian, who works there, came out from behind the counter and gave my daughter the biggest and longest bear-hug and said she so enjoyed her poetry. She even shared it with her children. After we returned to our car, my daughter said, without vanity and with confidence, that she had a connection with her audience that was real and growing and she achieved this significant feat without the approval of someone who probably would never get where’s she’s coming from.

I share all of this as an introduction to this piece by Garrison Keillor, which appeared in the Baltimore Sun. What do you think?

When Everyone Is A Writer, No One Is
By Garrison Keillor

In New York the other night, I ran into my daughter’s favorite author, Mary Pope Osborne, whose “Magic Tree House” books I’ve read to the child at night, and a moment later, Scott Turow, who writes legal thrillers that keep people awake all night, and David Remnick, the biographer of President Barack Obama. Bang bang bang, one heavyweight after another. Erica Jong, Jeffrey Toobin, Judy Blume. It was a rooftop party in Tribeca that I got invited to via a well-connected pal, wall-to-wall authors and agents and editors and elegant young women in little black dresses, standing, white wine in hand, looking out across the Hudson at the lights of Hoboken and Jersey City, eating shrimp and scallops and spanikopita on toothpicks, all talking at once the way New Yorkers do.

I grew up on the windswept plains with my nose in a book, so I am awestruck in the presence of book people, even though I have written a couple books myself. These are anti-elitist times, when mobs are calling for the downfall of pointy-head intellectuals who dare tell decent people what to think, but I admire the elite. I’m not one of them — I’m a deadline writer, my car has 150,000 miles on it — but I’m sorry about their downfall. And this book party in Tribeca feels like a Historic Moment, like a 1982 convention of typewriter salesmen or the hunting party of Kaiser Wilhelm II with his coterie of plumed barons in the fall of 1913 before the Great War sent their world spinning off the precipice.

Call me a pessimist, call me Ishmael, but I think that book publishing is about to slide into the sea. We live in a literate time, and our children are writing up a storm, often combining letters and numerals (U R 2 1derful), blogging like crazy, reading for hours off their little screens, surfing around from Henry James to Jesse James to the epistle of James to pajamas to Obama to Alabama to Alanon to non-sequiturs, sequins, penguins, penal institutions, and it’s all free, and you read freely, you’re not committed to anything the way you are when you shell out $30 for a book, you’re like a hummingbird in an endless meadow of flowers.

And if you want to write, you just write and publish yourself. No need to ask permission, just open a website. And if you want to write a book, you just write it, send it to or BookSurge at Amazon or PubIt or ExLibris and you’ve got yourself an e-book. No problem. And that is the future of publishing: 18 million authors in America, each with an average of 14 readers, eight of whom are blood relatives. Average annual earnings: $1.75.

Back in the day, we became writers through the laying on of hands. Some teacher who we worshipped touched our shoulder, and this benediction saw us through a hundred defeats. And then an editor smiled on us and wrote us a check, and our babies got shoes. But in the New Era, writers will be self-anointed. No passing of the torch. Just sit down and write the book. And The New York Times, the great brand name of publishing, whose imprimatur you covet for your book (“brilliantly lyrical, edgy, suffused with light” — NY Times) will vanish (Poof!). And editors will vanish.

The upside of self-publishing is that you can write whatever you wish, utter freedom, and that also is the downside. You can write whatever you wish, and everyone in the world can exercise their right to read the first three sentences and delete the rest.

Self-publishing will destroy the aura of martyrdom that writers have enjoyed for centuries. Tortured geniuses, rejected by publishers, etc., etc. If you publish yourself, this doesn’t work anymore, alas.

Children, I am an author who used to type a book manuscript on a manual typewriter. Yes, I did. And mailed it to a New York publisher in a big manila envelope with actual postage stamps on it. And kept a carbon copy for myself. I waited for a month or so and then got an acceptance letter in the mail. It was typed on paper. They offered to pay me a large sum of money. I read it over and over and ran up and down the rows of corn whooping. It was beautiful, the Old Era. I’m sorry you missed it.

Garrison Keillor’s column appears regularly in The Baltimore Sun.

When everyone’s a writer, no one is
In a world where everything’s free on the web, what will happen to publishing
Garrison Keillor
Baltimore Sun May 25, 2010

Monday, July 5, 2010

INTERVIEW: Ben Okri: My Family Values

*Source-The Guardian

Ben Okri, Photograph by John Alex Maguire

My father brought back from England an extraordinary collection of books. He came to London [from Nigeria] to train as a lawyer and my mother brought me (aged one-and-a-half) a year later and we stayed for about six years. His plan was that back in Nigeria he would have time to read all these books: the classics – Homer, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky – and the great books on economics and philosophy. But he got carried away with being a successful young lawyer and didn't get round to reading them. They gathered dust, and every now and then he'd say to me, "Ben, dust the books – but don't read them!" That made the books fantastically attractive. I don't know if he did it on purpose. I wouldn't put it past him. I would sit on the floor cross-legged dusting a Dickens or Shakespeare, then I'd read for hours until I'd hear his voice, "Ben, what are you doing?" and I'd start dusting again. Books still have this tension for me – the do and don't, the possibility of danger, of secret knowledge. It makes them very potent.

My mum, Grace, was quite different. She was gentle and very tough at the same time, and she never told me things directly. She never said "don't … " – she knew that would make me do whatever it was. Instead, she would tell me a story. There were no clear morals, but her stories had an air around them. They were telling you something, and you had to work out what. Some took me 20 years to get.

Her mother died when she was just three or four, and she was shifted around between aunts. She knew what it was like to grow up unprotected – that raw King Lear condition with nothing between you and the cold winds of the world. It made her very sensitive to other people's sufferings. She would say to me, "I can live next door to a hungry lion." She meant she could get along with all types and bear their awkwardness and nastiness. I can't live up to that.

When we got back to Nigeria (when I was about seven) we moved around a lot. That came to a stop with the civil war. My mother was half Igbo [from the south-east of Nigeria] while my father was Urhobo, from the Delta region, so the war was a family thing. We spent a lot of time hiding Mum – and I nearly got killed. I'm still stunned by what people are able to do to their neighbours.

One of the greatest gifts my father gave me – unintentionally – was witnessing the courage with which he bore adversity. We had a bit of a rollercoaster life with some really challenging financial periods. He was always unshaken, completely tranquil, the same ebullient, laughing, jovial man. I learned that life will go through changes – up and down and up again.It's what life does.

My parents lived to see their unruly child come through and win the Booker prize, but one day in my 30s, I got this impossible call from Nigeria to say that my mother had gone. We never think that our mothers will die. It was like suddenly an abyss opened at my feet – I was standing on nothing. It was the strangest thing. Her passing away ripped the solidity out of the world. For a few weeks, I'd be walking along and suddenly I'd be unable to stand straight and I'd hold on to a lamppost and find the lamppost wasn't solid either. That was a turning point for me. It began a great journey. I don't feel I need to lean on lampposts any more. You need internal lampposts – and a few good friends.

Ben Okri's latest book, Tales of Freedom, is published by Rider Books.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Unearthing the Real Passion Behind 2010 World Cup Games

As all eyes turn toward South Africa and the 2010 World Cup, Chimurenga and the Chinua Achebe Center have sent fourteen prominent writers, among them Chris Abani and Alain Mabanckou, on a guided pilgrimage to thirteen cities in Africa (and Salvador do Bahia). Their experiences will be published as travelogues.

Here is a post by Nigerian writer Chris Abani:

For Chris Akunda
Posted by Chris Abani on 3 July 2010

The light is brittle from the floodlights, the night colder than any African night should be, the Vuvuzelas are blaring at full volume, and Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg is a riot of color as the fans arrive giving the stands the look of a bedazzled sweater. The game is the US versus Slovenia and the South African fans are torn between supporting the USA, who they love and Slovenia who are the underdogs in the game.
Seated in the stands among the screaming fans is Eric Akunda a Kenya-born US citizen. Like so many fans from around the world, Eric has come to watch the world cup, but unlike many of the other fans, he is on a special mission. He is here to make his son’s dreams come true in a most unusual but heartbreakingly beautiful way.

Chris Akunda, Eric’s son, was not only a devoted fan of the game who had been saving up for a long time to come to the world cup with his father. Chris played soccer too, and spent hours on YouTube watching clips of soccer games from all over the world, looking for what he described as, “sick moves to put on his opponents during games.” Chris played soccer diligently, and when not on the actual field, or on YouTube soaking up moves, he played Playstation FIFA World Cup games.
He was a 7th grader at Hamilton Southeastern Junior High in Indiana and he excelled at school, math and a love of writing standing shoulder to shoulder with his love for soccer. But he also played basketball and the piano. A member of the Fishers Soccer Club, a non-profit that funded a league for under 13 players across the United States, Chris was also part of the Indiana Soccer Olympic Development Program since he was nine, having started playing soccer at four.

Chris had been playing in the Coca Cola Classic Soccer Tournament in Greenwood Indiana on the 6th of June, when he collapsed on the field, and was taken to the ER. He died some hours later from a congenital heart condition that had gone undiagnosed. He was 12.
Soccer was a religion for Chris. He was, as his father Eric told me, a crazy soccer fan who understood the game so scientifically and intimately that he had followed soccer players long before they became stars, often predicting to his father who they would become, and every prediction he made about the players who would have career defining moments from Spain, Argentina and even the US are all coming true. His expertise even included a deep knowledge of the referees and who would be a bad draw for a particular team. Every prediction he made for the World Cup as far as best player, highest goal averages, is coming true. It also turns out, Eric tells me, that Chris taught him everything he knew about the current state of the game.

Chris’s parents, Eric and Jacqueline Akunda, who were ardent fans and supporters of their son, took time off work to take him to games and tournaments. And although they didn’t tell me this, I suspect that their decision to give up the safety of paid jobs to begin their own solar energy company might have been partly motivated by the need and desire to give Chris more of their time and attention.
To honor their son’s desire, Eric brought Chris’ cremated remains to South Africa, and he takes Chris’s remains to the games he attends. When I spoke to Eric, he and Chris had been to three games, and intended to go to as many more as he could manage.

With a voice full of grief balanced with a grace I cannot even begin to summon, Eric told me: it was a privilege to have Chris through our lives.

This moving story, in the midst of the world cup controversies and excitements reminded this writer not only of the deeply human aspects to gatherings like this, but of the deep generosity of Africa and her children.

Send your sympathies to Chris Akunda’s family at

A Brave and Startling Truth by Maya Angelou

On this Fourth of July, consider this brave and startling truth. Consider it for our nation and the world.
*Picture by Zrayman

A Brave and Startling Truth
By Maya Angelou

We, this people, on a small and lonely planet
Traveling through casual space
Past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns
To a destination where all signs tell us
It is possible and imperative that we learn
A brave and startling truth
And when we come to it
To the day of peacemaking
When we release our fingers
From fists of hostility
And allow the pure air to cool our palms
When we come to it
When the curtain falls on the minstrel show of hate
And faces sooted with scorn and scrubbed clean
When battlefields and coliseum
No longer rake our unique and particular sons and daughters
Up with the bruised and bloody grass
To lie in identical plots in foreign soil
When the rapacious storming of the churches
The screaming racket in the temples have ceased
When the pennants are waving gaily
When the banners of the world tremble
Stoutly in the good, clean breeze
When we come to it
When we let the rifles fall from our shoulders
And children dress their dolls in flags of truce
When land mines of death have been removed
And the aged can walk into evenings of peace
When religious ritual is not perfumed
By the incense of burning flesh
And childhood dreams are not kicked awake
By nightmares of abuse
When we come to it
Then we will confess that not the Pyramids
With their stones set in mysterious perfection
Nor the Gardens of Babylon
Hanging as eternal beauty
In our collective memory
Not the Grand Canyon
Kindled into delicious color
By Western sunsets
Nor the Danube, flowing its blue soul into Europe
Not the sacred peak of Mount Fuji
Stretching to the Rising Sun
Neither Father Amazon nor Mother Mississippi who, without favor,
Nurture all creatures in the depths and on the shores
These are not the only wonders of the world
When we come to it
We, this people, on this minuscule and kithless globe
Who reach daily for the bomb, the blade and the dagger
Yet who petition in the dark for tokens of peace
We, this people on this mote of matter
In whose mouths abide cantankerous words
Which challenge our existence
Yet out of those same mouths
Come songs of such exquisite sweetness
That the heart falters in its labor
And the body is quieted into awe
We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness
That the haughty neck is happy to bow
And the proud back is glad to bend
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines
When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
And without crippling fear
When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Brave New Voices Festival and Conference-Discover the Power of Spoken Word

Join James Kass, Michelle Lee, Hodari Davis and other Youth Speaks staff for a pedagogical and curricula exploration of the power of spoken word, using the Youth Speaks Methodology in conjunction with the 7-part HBO series Brave New Voices DVD, an electronic teachers guide, and lunch. The Conference will take place in Los Angeles, California on July 24 from 9:00AM to 3:00PM.

About Brave New Voices:

Convening the top young poets and spoken word artists, aged 13-19, from across the United States, Brave New Voices is a one-of-a-kind festival that truly engages everyone involved; from the participants, to the adult mentors and the audience members. Each year, Brave New Voices is held in a different city, highlighting the changing demographics of the country and a new poetic and politic for the 21st Century. The 2010 festival will fun from July 19 through the 24 in Los Angeles, CA.

About Brave New Voices on HBO

All over the United States, a new generation of poets is emerging. This new HBO series captures teenagers picking up the pen and taking hold of the microphone with passion, intelligence, creativity, honesty and power. These voices of 21st Century America transcend race, class, gender, orientation, and red state/blue state politics as they show us all what the next generation of leaders looks and sounds like.


Youth Speaks

Founded in 1996, Youth Speaks Inc. is a multi-faceted organization that understands and believes that the power, insight, creativity, and passion of young people can change the world. Brave New Voices was created by Youth Speaks, Inc in 1998 after the inaugural Youth Speaks Teen Poetry Slam in San Francisco—the first poetry slam dedicated to youth in the nation’s history. To learn more, get involved, and attend other events, visit and

Mona R. Washington Wins Kerouac Residency

Playwright/Screenwriter Mona R. Washington recently won the coveted Jack Kerouac Writers Project Residency, which consists of a three-month stay in Kerouac’s cottage in Orlando, Florida. Only four residencies are awarded each year to writers of any genre. To learn more about the iconic Jack Kerouac and this prestigious residency, visit

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Mahmoud Darwish; The Illuminator

My daughter is now a huge fan of graphic novels. She especially appreciates how this genre can convey weighty topics and current events in a way that is engaging, even for a teenager. She’s completely enraptured by the persona, writing style, graphics and honesty of Marjane Satrapi and her Persepolis series. Iran is now on her radar and she can fluently pronounce its president’s name. Reading Art Spiegelman’s Maus made my daughter face many things, including the motivation for the State of Israel, which is now on her radar.

Before leaving for a summer program, she had started another graphic novel called Footnotes in Gaza by Joe Sacco. She wants to understand the Palestinians. Reading Footnotes in Gaza ,at first, proved a little daunting and at her grandfather’s suggestion she took another path to this understanding; she read the poetry of one of Palestine’s sons- Mahmoud Darwish. I discovered him as well. My daughter feels she is ready to return to Footnotes in Gaza armed with a lot of poetic insight.

Even though August will mark the second anniversary of his death, his poetry continues to illuminate the path to understanding. *Photo by Michael Nye of a Palestinian girl holding her own poem.

Here is Mahmoud Darwish’s poem-The Prison Cell.

The Prison Cell

It is possible...
It is possible at least sometimes...
It is possible especially now
To ride a horse
Inside a prison cell
And run away...

It is possible for prison walls
To disappear,
For the cell to become a distant land
Without frontiers:

What did you do with the walls?
I gave them back to the rocks.
And what did you do with the ceiling?
I turned it into a saddle.
And your chain?
I turned it into a pencil.

The prison guard got angry.
He put an end to the dialogue.
He said he didn't care for poetry,
And bolted the door of my cell.

He came back to see me
In the morning.
He shouted at me:

Where did all this water come from?
I brought it from the Nile.
And the trees?
From the orchards of Damascus.
And the music?
From my heartbeat.

The prison guard got mad.
He put an end to my dialogue.
He said he didn't like my poetry,
And bolted the door of my cell.

But he returned in the evening:

Where did this moon come from?
From the nights of Baghdad.
And the wine?
From the vineyards of Algiers.
And this freedom?
From the chain you tied me with last night.

The prison guard grew so sad...
He begged me to give him back
His freedom.

— Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008)

Translated by Ben Bennani

Cliterature- War Issue 2010

My poem, “Deliver Me From the Hands of Strange Children,” appears in Cliterature’s War-themed issue. Cliterature is an online journal dedicated to women’s sexuality in writing. It publishes both creative and critical works quarterly. This issue, Volume 16, was edited by Lynn Brewer. Here’s the link: