Friday, January 29, 2010

Howard Zinn is Dead; Long Live Howard Zinn! (Oh Yeah, & Salinger)

The passing of J.D. Salinger and Howard Zinn in a couple days led me through a confusing set of emotions. For Zinn, I felt a keen grief at the loss, but a strong sense that his legacy and vision will live on--though we won't have someone quite like him--a popular leftist historian, ex-bomber pilot pacifist radical, always willing to let the dissenters take the center stage. Salinger meant something to me when I was 17, but his rapid and complete withdrawal from the world--his death before his actual death--leaves me feeling that he failed, somehow. Compare the size of the obits of Zinn and Salinger; I'd gladly take Zinn over Salinger, despite Zinn's obvious flaws. Zen J.D. went gentle into that good night. Pacifist Zinn fought until the end.
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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Politics of Getting Published: The Continuing Struggle of Arab-American Writers

n.b. this appears in the recent issue of Al-Jadid, the flagship magazine for Arab American literature. Check it out!


The Politics of Getting Published: The Continuing Struggle
of Arab-American Writers


More Arab-American writers are getting their work published than ever before, but even those lucky few who land lucrative book contracts with big publishers still face a host of problems ranging from censorship to being pigeonholed as only Arab-American writers.

Clearly, U.S. publishing has a growing appetite for information about the Arab and Muslim worlds, but many mainstream media remain deeply affected by an Orientalist agenda that focuses on the oppression of women and other stereotypes about Arab society. What Steven Salaita calls “stories of escape” sell in numbers, while more nuanced, complex and self-reflexive pieces don’t. For example, a series of books by Jean Sasson about “oppressed” women in Saudi Arabia and Iraq fly off the bookshelves by the millions, while more authentic novels like Mohja Kahf’s “The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf,” which depicts growing up Muslim in America, sell in far smaller numbers.

Arab-American writers still have difficulty getting big book contracts with large mainstream publishers and if they do, they find their works often heavily edited, if not outright censored. Moreover, they have little control over the way their books are marketed and sold. Diana Abu-Jaber’s second novel, “Memories of Birth,” was under contract and rewritten several times, but in the end, W.W. Norton opted not to print it, presumably because it dealt with the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from Palestine in 1948. Gregory Orfalea’s historical novel about the Palestinian Resistance in the period preceding the creation of Israel in 1936 also has not been published.

Partly these trends demonstrate that the mega-mergers in the publishing industry and the attendant focus on profits have made it harder for any writer to get published. Pressure from shareholders to increase profit margins has made it harder and harder for publishers to take risks on unpublished authors and subjects that may not sell.

Despite those pressures, the number of books published about the Middle East and Palestine in recent years has increased. For example, one of the big five publishers, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, published “Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood,” by Ibtisam Barakat in 2007. Barakat’s touching novel describes the Six Day War from a child’s perspective, but her success remains an exception, and most of the books that make it into print are non-fiction. Recent contracts between Arab-American writers and big publishing houses indicate an encouraging trend, but it is probably premature to talk of a broad new receptivity to literary works from Arab-American writers.

Often there is more to the story than meets the eye. Mohja Kahf relates the story of one Muslim author who was offered a million dollars if she would slant her debut novel against Islam. She refused and eventually got the book published by another large publisher, albeit with a much smaller advance.

Arab-American writers can also find themselves relegated to a fairly narrow niche in the publishing world. Alane Mason, Abu-Jaber’s editor at W.W. Norton, explains that publishers are often reluctant to let writers venture beyond the narrow niche in which they have succeeded in the past. Mason ultimately signed a contract with Abu-Jaber for a book that has nothing to do with Arabs or the Middle East, but she described it as a “huge gamble” and likened it to Starbucks suddenly deciding to sell pizza. The agent for Khaled Hosseini, the author of the much-acclaimed novel, “The Kite Runner,” told her that she would never have let Hosseini venture so far afield. “Once you establish that niche, people don’t want to see you go outside it,” Mason said in a February 2007 interview. In fact, Norton signed a two-book agreement with Abu-Jaber that covered the 2007 novel “Origin,” a forensic mystery with no central Arab-American theme, but also stipulated that the next book would return to the Arab-American angle.

Mason says she understood that Abu-Jaber also wanted to write something different, test her limits and move into new territories. “She didn’t want to be the poster girl of Arab-American literature,” she says. For her part, Abu-Jaber yearns for her work to be judged on its own merits, not as representative of something. “I want it to be about the literature,” she said.

Mohja Kahf also wonders if her first novel, “The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf,” has sold so well because she wrote about Arab-American and Muslim-American communities. Ideally, she would prefer to see the book categorized with other coming-of-age stories, not just Arab or Muslim-American literature. Kahf published a collection of poems in 2001 that dealt with her ethnic/immigrant identity, but so far, she has been unable to interest a publisher in her love poems or a cycle of poems about interfaith spirituality.

Kahf also went through significant trials to get her novel published. Her first editor called her a “pain in the ass.” The second insisted Kahf remove many examples of white racism and harassment of Muslims in Indiana, where much of the story takes place. Those experiences, the editor argued, were just too overwhelming for the reader. Including them all would be unaesthetic.

By contrast, harassment of women by their Arab and Muslim husbands, fathers and society as a whole is not only considered aesthetic when it’s repetitive, but it also sells books. Take for instance, the “Princess” trilogy of books written by Jean Sasson, which were marketed as “a powerful indictment of women’s lives behind the veil with the royal family of Saudi Arabia.” Altogether, the three books have reportedly sold 7 million copies.

These books fit into a formula that Kahf described in Islamica magazine last year: “No matter how much a Muslim woman may have something different to say, by the time it goes through the ‘machine’ of the publishing industry, it is likely to come out the other end packaged as either a ‘Victim Story’ or ‘Escapee Story.’ Then the Muslims yell at her for contributing to stereotypes.”

Moroccan-American writer Laila Lalami, whose book, “Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits,” has been translated into six languages, has criticized the publishing industry for trying to shape discourse to fit its stereotypes about the Arab world. Speaking on a panel on Arab-American literature at the Arab-American Anti Discrimination Committee annual convention in 2006, Lalami said, “As an Arab woman, I’m expected to talk about how oppressed I am by evil Arab men.”

Rabih Alameddine, the Lebanese-born author of “I, the Divine: A Novel in First Chapters,” agrees that editors try to shape his work in way that make him uncomfortable. But he says many Indian and African-American writers face the same pressures. Alameddine for his part prefers not to be identified as Arab-American. “I am an Arab. I am an American. I don’t do hyphens very well.” “I, the Divine,” also edited by Alane Mason at Norton, was published on Sept. 12, 2001 – one day after the hijacking attacks on New York and Washington. However, the book was eclipsed by non-fiction books as Americans rushed to get more information about the Arab and Muslim world. Mason believes Alameddine might have done better if he had agreed to be interviewed as an “Arab-American” immediately after the attacks, but he did not want to speak out publicly as a representative. From his perspective, Alameddine says he would feel uncomfortable being “the voice of anything,” much less the Arab-American community, since he identifies more closely as an Arab.

Going to a smaller, independent press can help authors preserve more of their editorial freedom, but they still have many issues to contend with. For one, they risk being virtually shut out of the big chain bookstores, which tend to buy mainly from the mainstream presses. (Independent bookstores account for just 17 percent of sales each year.) And only the biggest publishing houses can afford to send writers on national book tours. These tours help to generate reviews, newspaper articles, television and radio interviews – all of which ultimately help sell books.

And even at smaller independent presses, Arab-American authors are not immune from editorial pressure. Kahf relates how she nearly withdrew her novel after her publisher, Carroll & Graf, an imprint of Avalon Publishing, posted on its website a cover that she had never seen nor approved. It showed her Muslim-American character in a midriff and cut off her eyes – exactly the sort of exoticized Orientalist cover that Kahf had sought to avoid by writing a clause about cover control into her contract. The publishing house hemmed and hawed, but eventually commissioned another cover, albeit one that still focuses on a single woman with a hijab - one that omits the sense of community Kahf had wanted.

Susan Muaddi Darraj also had trouble with her cover when Praeger Publishers, an imprint of Greenwood, published her anthology of Arab and Arab-American women. Entitled “Scheherazade’s Legacy: Arab and Arab-American Women on Writing,” the book’s cover features the image of a pair of blue eyes framed by a black veil, although most of the writers included in the anthology are Christian. As in Kahf’s case, her publisher did not consult Darraj and then showed “no interest” in her displeasure with the chosen cover.

The news is not all bad, to be sure, and being Arab is not always a drawback given heightened interest in the post-9/11 context. Alameddine, for instance, reportedly got a substantially larger advance – 200 times what Norton paid him for “I, The Divine” – for his new novel. Knopf published “The Hakawati,” which has been described as a fantastic re-imagining of the “Arabian Nights,” in April 2008. Abu-Jaber was able to get a two-book contract from Norton, and FSG published Bakarat’s account of living through the Six-Day War.

But one is left wondering how many more books are not making it into print because of lingering barriers?

This essay appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 15, no. 61 (2009)
Copyright (c) 2009 by Al Jadid

Monday, January 25, 2010

Israel blocking NGO efforts with tourist visas

I've been thinking for a long time about the recent calls for "BDS"--Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions--of Israel, while the military occupation continues. This recent change in regulations is suggestive of the ways in which Israel's ongoing policies often already enact boycott, divestment, and sanctions of peace and justice groups.


Israel blocking NGO efforts with tourist visas
By Amira Hass, Haaretz Correspondent

The Interior Ministry has stopped granting work permits to foreign nationals working in most international nongovernmental organizations operating in the Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem, Haaretz has learned.

In an apparent overhaul of regulations that have been in place since 1967, the ministry is now granting the NGO employees tourist visas only, which bar them from working.

Organizations affected by the apparent policy change include Oxfam, Save the Children, Doctors Without Borders, Terre des Hommes, Handicap International and the Religious Society of Friends (a Quaker organization).

Until recently, the workers would register with the international relations department at the Social Affairs Ministry, which would recommend the Interior Ministry to issue them B1 work permits. Although the foreign nationals are still required to approach the Social Affairs Ministry to receive recommendations to obtain a tourist visa, the Interior Ministry is aiming to make the Ministry of Defense responsible for those international NGOs and also requiring them to register with the coordinator of government activities in the territories (COGAT), which is subordinate to the Ministry of Defense.

Foreign nationals working for NGOs had understood they would receive a stamp or handwritten note alongside their tourist visa, permitting them to work "in the Palestinian Authority." Israel is refusing work visas to most foreign nationals who state that they wish to work within the Palestinian territories, such as foreign lecturers for Palestinian universities and businessmen.

Israel does not recognize Palestinian Authority rule in East Jerusalem or in Area C, which comprises some 60 percent of the West Bank. The NGO workers say they've come to believe that the new policy is intended to force them to close their Jerusalem offices and relocate to West Bank cities. This move would prevent them from working among the Palestinian population of East Jerusalem, defined by the international community as occupied territory.

The organizations fear the new policy will impede their ability to work in Area C, whether because Israel doesn't see it as part of the Palestinian Authority or because they will eventually be subjected to the restrictions of movement imposed on the Palestinians. Such restrictions include the prohibition to enter East Jerusalem and Gaza via Israel, except with specific and rarely obtained permits; and prohibition to enter areas west of the separation fence, except for village residents who hold special residency permits and Israeli citizens.

One NGO worker told Haaretz that the policy was reminiscent of the travel constraints imposed by Burmese authorities on humanitarian organizations, albeit presented in a subtler manner.

NGO workers told Haaretz that they had been informed by the COGAT official that a policy change was forthcoming, as early as July 2009. When a number of them approached the Interior Ministry in August to renew their visas, they found that their applications had been submitted to a "special committee." They were not told who constituted this committee, and had to make do with a "receipt" confirming that they had submitted the request. The workers said the tourist visas they received differed from each other in duration and travel limitations, and surmised from this that the policy has not been entirely fleshed out.

Latest in a series of steps

A number of NGO workers who spoke with Haaretz voiced deep apprehensions about having to submit to the authority of the Defense Ministry. The groups are committed to the Red Cross code of ethics, and therefore see being subjugated to the ministry directly in charge of the occupation as problematic and contradictory to the very essence of their work.

Between 140 and 150 NGOs operate among the Palestinian population. Haaretz could not obtain the exact number of foreign nationals they employ.

The new limitations do not apply to the 12 organizations that have been active in the West Bank prior to 1967. Those groups, which include the Red Cross and several Christian organizations, were registered with the Jordanian authorities.

The new move by the Interior Ministry is the latest in a series of steps taken in the last few years to constrain the movement of foreign nationals in the West Bank and Gaza, including Palestinians with family and property in the occupied territories. Most of those who have been effected are nationals of countries with which Israel has diplomatic relations, especially Western states. Israel does not apply any similar constraints on citizens of the same countries traveling within Israel and West Bank settlements.

The Interior Ministry said in a statement that the only relevant authority empowered to approve the stay of foreign citizens in the Palestinian Authority is the coordinator of government activities in the territories. "The Interior Ministry is entrusted with granting visas and work permits within the State of Israel. Those staying within both the boundaries of Israel and the Palestinian Authority are required to secure their permits accordingly," the ministry said.

"Recently, a question was raised on the issue of visas granted to those staying in the Palestinian Authority and in Israel, as it transpired that they spend most of their time in the PA despite having been provided with Israeli work permits," the statement continued. "The matter is under intense discussions, with the active participation of the relevant military authorities, with a view to finding the right and appropriate solution as soon as possible."

Sunday, January 24, 2010

95 Cent Skool: A Seminar on Poetry Writing and Social Practice

The 95 Cent Skool is a 6 day long experimental seminar that will be
offered in Oakland, California, July 26-31, 2010. It is convened by
Joshua Clover and Juliana Spahr. It will explore the possibilities of
poetry writing as part of a larger social practice, at a distance from
the economic and professional expectations of institutions. We believe
a dozen people sitting around a table can’t ruin poetry, but that
costs, professional context, mythologies of individual genius, and
client/service-based models can — and in our own experiences teaching
in pay-to-play writing programs, often do.

Our concerns in these six days begin with the assumption that poetry
has a role to play in the larger political and intellectual sphere of
contemporary culture, and that any poetry which subtracts itself from
such engagements is no longer of interest. “Social poetics” is not a
settled category, and does not necessarily refer to poetry espousing a
social vision. It simply assumes that the basis of poetry is not
personal expression or the truth of any given individual, but shared
social struggle.

The 6 days will feature:
• Morning discussion groups lead by Juliana and Joshua
• Two guest speakers: one on the political economy and one on ecology
• Afternoon group and/or collaborative writing sessions
• Dinners and drinks at a nearby bar

The 6 days will not feature:
• Workshops led by a “master poet”
• Agents or editors who will advise your work into publication
• A Richard Wilbur Celebration Night
• Instruction in reciting poetry to bring out the emotional content of the poem

The final program will be available later in the Spring.

Each participant will be asked to contribute up to 1% of annual gross
income as their 95 cents exclusively towards operating expenses. The
workshop leaders and as many other organizers as possible will donate
their time. No one will be turned away for lack of funds. Email us if
you’ve got questions about how much you can pay. We will also help in
finding free housing for any participants in need.

The program is open to any interested participant with any level of
prior engagement with poetry. This program is not affiliated with any
institution of higher education and no transferrable institutional
credit will be offered. There is no application fee, but space is
limited. Please send a note indicating interest and experience to

Please feel encouraged to re/post this listing to your blog or
otherwise redistribute. If you would like to receive further
information about the 95 Cent Skool, please email the address above,
or join the 95 Cent Skool facebook group:
The 95 Cent Skool will happen with the support of Small Press Traffic
and 'A 'A Arts.

Thank you very much,

the 95¢ Skoolers —

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Fady Joudah reading

Some days, I need encouragement, to remember what the point of breathing is.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Philip Metres and Sean Thomas Dougherty at Shaker Heights Bertram Woods Library

Enjoy poetry performed by poets Philip Metres and Sean Thomas Dougherty at the Shaker Heights/Bertram Woods Branch, right off Warrensville Rd, this Thursday, January 19th at 7pm.

Date: Thursday, January 21, 2010
Time: 7:00pm - 8:15pm
Location: Shaker Heights Public Library Bertram Woods Branch
Street: 20600 Fayette Road, Shaker Heights, OH

Known for his electrifying performances, Dougherty has toured extensively across North America and Europe. Dougherty is the author of nine books, including *Broken Hallelujahs* (BOA Editions), *Nightshift Belonging to Lorca*, a finalist for the Paterson Poetry Prize, and *Except by Falling*, winner of the 2000 Pinyon Press Poetry Prize from Mesa State College.He now teaches at Case Western Reserve University.

Philip Metres is the author of many books, including *To See the Earth*, *Come Together: Imagine Peace*,* Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront since 1941*, and *Catalogue of Comedic Novelties: Selected Poems of Lev Rubinstein*. His poetry has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Best American Poetry. Metres teaches literature and creative writing at John Carroll University.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Ticking is the Bomb is the Bomb

Nick Flynn's newest memoir, The Ticking is the Bomb, deftly weaves personal and national stories as he grapples with his impending fatherhood, right in the middle of the terror wars. The blurbs call it "searing" and "dazzling," but to me, the book feels poignant and earnest--in a good way. We feel the writer searching around in himself to explain his bewilderment in a bewildering world where parenthood and torture chambers slip in and out of our consciousness.

I loved his angry critique of Errol Morris' film Standard Operating Procedure and Philip Gourevitch's The Ballad of Abu Ghraib, each of which fails to move outside of the frame of the soldiers' narratives of what happened at that benighted prison. Flynn dramatizes his feelings of complicity so effectively when, in a scene in a Turkish hotel, one of the abused Iraqis is asked to describe what his torturers looked like:

"What did the person who tortured you look like, was the next question, and the detainee would look at me, then look at the artist, the only two white men in the room, and either point to him, or point to me--He looked like him, was the answer."

Although I occasionally wanted Flynn to settle into the story, instead of skittering off into another realm, the fragmented structure of the book dramatizes his own fear of settling down--that sense of wildness that cannot be becalmed.

Still, I wept when I read about the trip he took with his step-father, a veteran of the Vietname War, back to Vietnam. At the My Lai museum site, the step-father Travis met a woman who as a child had survived the massacre:

"I watched Travis walk up, say something for the translator to translate. I watched him kneel down before this woman, still seated on the grass, take her hand, kiss it, ask her to forgive him, to forgive America."

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

"Let's Not Keep Fighting the Trojan War"

Let's Not Keep Fighting the Trojan War (by Edward Sanders)

Simone Weil took a train to the front
when the Civil War began in the summer of '36

She joined the ranks of an Anarchist Unit
and picked up a rifle though never fired

She suffered an injury, not from a bullet
and her parents came to her rescue

She'd been taken aback by the violence
her own side had committed

and soon published an essay
"Ne recommen├žons pas la guerre de Troie"

which I have slightly changed to
"Let's Not Keep Fighting the Trojan War"

especially now that the Air Force is insisting
on designing all-terrain cluster bombs
able to crawl and hop for miles
in search of a victim

Edward Sanders

New Letters
Volume 76, No. 1

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Theater of War project (How Art Confronts War)

How can we bring each of our warriors "all the way home," as Brigadier General Sutton asks in this video? I've blogged a number of times about the effects of war on its soldiers (as well, of course, as the civilians who always bear the worst brunt).

The Theater of War project is engaging the wounds of war through art, staging classical Greek plays (Ajax, etc.) which deal with the intense experience of war and all of its reverberations. There have been a number of recent films dealing with such reverberations, "In the Valley of Elah," "Brothers" and "The Messenger." It's clear we need this work, but we're pushing back against enormous forces institutionalized (the military-industrial-security complex), enculturated, and in us.

How can we talk with each other about what the war is doing to us? How can we bring the war back home without tearing us apart?