“China farms tigers? Why didn’t I know that?” This is the most common comment I hear when I talk about China’s industrial tiger farms and my book Blood of the Tiger, which was rereleased today in paperback.
“Yes,” I reply, “they farm them ‘just like cows and pigs.’ That’s how a Chinese government official described it to me during my first visit to China back in 1991.”
Tirmizi Family with Linda K. Wertheimer. From left to right: Hadia, mother; Wertheimer; Rahim, youngest son; Zain, eldest son; Ali, father. Photo source: Linda K. Wertheimer
#Notinmyname. Hadia Tirmizi, the mother of a student profiled in my bookFaith Ed., posted that Twitter hashtag on her Facebook page last week in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris. She is Muslim, lives in Wellesley, a Boston suburb, and knows the backlash that can follow when terrorists are identified as Muslims.
The same week she posted her statement against the terrorists, she also posted photos of her family celebrating her youngest son’s tenth birthday and photos of her and her husband, both physicians, on a vacation to Paris in a past year.
Retaking the Keystone XL Pathway. Photo credit: Tar Sands Blockade
Wen Stephenson was invited by the Reverend Kyle Childress, longtime pastor of Austin Heights Baptist Church in Nacogdoches, Texas and one of the key voices in What We’re Fighting For Now Is Each Other, to speak to the congregation. The church's congregation plays a crucial role in the resistance to the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline. They supported the Tar Sands Blockade and welcomed young blockaders into their homes.
Stephenson tells us: “By uncanny coincidence, I was in Houston, doing an event with the grassroots group TEJAS (Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services)—whose founders Juan and Bryan Parras, and organizer Yudith Nieto, figure prominently in the book—when the news broke that President Obama had rejected the Keystone XL pipeline, or the northern leg of it. And the very next day I went up to Nacogdoches. Too many people, especially in our national media, have forgotten that the southern leg of the pipeline was built with Obama’s blessing, and that it began pumping tar-sands crude to refineries in Port Arthur and Houston in January 2014.”
He adds: “I realize now that this book project wasn't truly finished until I went back to Nacogdoches and spoke to the people of that church community. It really closed the circle for me, in a profound way.”
Photo credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters
Rampant wildfires across the West, venomous sea snakes on California beaches—sound familiar? Rarely does a day pass without a headline focused on climate-related news. Every time I read one of these stories, my mind goes to the people living amidst it: exhausted hotshot crews in Twisp, WA, barefoot beachcombers in Oxnard, CA. Though national in distribution, every story begins in its own neighborhood.
About a year ago, the National Park Service invited me to write an essay for a web-based literary anthology focused on climate-triggered ecological changes in my own backyard: Denali National Park. Denali's sub-Arctic location means that taiga (the boreal forest) and tundra (a treeless region often with permafrost present) overlap, making it an ideal place to track changes. The Park Service supports critical scientific research in Denali all year round, noting and recording everything from sound pollution to glacier profiles. But the NPS also knows that one of the best ways to invest visitors in climate research is not through power points and charts, but through narrative. Hence, the call for essays by writers from the region. Here's how Denali introduces the anthology project on its website:
It is mysterious and beautiful, literally a creature from a different world. Its body is ebony above and golden below, a serpent with aposematic paint. The edges of the opposing colors undulate down its side until the yellow becomes drips on the black, dorsally flattened tail. The exotic animal is a yellow bellied sea snake, Pelamis platura, which is normally found in warm, tropical waters. But due to a recent climatic vagary, the snake has found its way onto an Oxnard beach, miles up the coast from Los Angeles, hundreds of miles from the edge of its normal range. It is stunning, amazing, but how is the event chronicled?
What has been your relationship with environmental issues?
My mother took me to my first protest when I was six, against the Seabrook nuclear plant in New Hampshire in 1976. She also took me for walks in the local woods and taught me about trees. So I had a good grounding both in caring about nature and citizen activism, which has stayed with me throughout my life. At this point in history, the number one issue is climate change. If we don't address that, everything else will be beside the point.
What do you look for in books dealing with these issues?
Obviously, I hope the books I look for on environmental issues will move people to action. The way to bring people in is through stories. Having something new to add to the conversation is important as well, but I look for writing that can teach about the issues by engaging readers with good writing and compelling storytelling. Whether the book is about solar power, orcas, or farming, the information is grounded in stories of people, places, struggles, hope.
And sometimes, as in literary nature writing as opposed to issue-driven books, the writing is enough—creating something beautiful in the service of nature speaks to our human connection with the “natural” world and with each other.
Lamentations and cries that the Republicans were at it again trying to suppress the black vote arose when the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency announced on September 30th that because of budget cuts it would close thirty-one part-time-county-owned satellite drivers’ license offices. Eight of these were in counties where seventy-five percent of the registered voters are black. Many are in rural communities with high poverty rates and little or no public transportation. In addition to protesting, active and determined organizing to obtain the required voter identification for the unregistered might be a useful strategy in countering Alabama Republicans’ move.
It’s almost that time of year again—and we don’t just mean Halloween. The eagerly anticipated fifth season of the American Horror Story anthology on the FX television channel is ready to air.
AHS is something of a guilty pleasure for the two of us, not least for its superb casts, vivid (if grotesque) blending of history with American popular culture, and wild, even haunting, flights of imagination that often touch on themes of dehumanization, prejudice, fairness, and justice.
The two of us aren’t alone. Many people love to be terrified out of their wits by fictional ghosts, psychopaths, and disturbed strangers who lurk in shadows at the dark end of the street—just so long as nobody really gets hurt and the story finally ends.
Photo credit: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Department of Homeland Security)
Dilley, a small Texas city eighty-three miles north of the Mexican border, greets visitors with a cheerful sign.
“Welcome to Dilley, Texas,” it reads. “A Slice of the Good Life.”
That good life extends only so far. Just west of town, nearly two thousand women and children are locked up inside the massive South Texas Family Residential Center. With a capacity of 2400, the brand-new Dilley is now the largest immigration prison in the United States. There are so many children at the camp that they sometimes outnumber the adults, the New York Times reports; their average age is nine years old.
Today marks the tenth anniversary of the Danziger Bridge shootings. Ronnie Greene’s Shots on the Bridge was released on the same day the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reaffirmed an order granting the officers a new trial based on misconduct by prosecutors that judges said tainted the officers’ trial back in 2011. Ten years after the shots on the bridge, the four surviving victims are still waiting for legal resolution. This excerpt from Greene’s book takes us back to that fateful day in 2005 when the officers appeared on the bridge for an unrelated distress call. In Greene’s vivid prose, the scene reads like something out of a movie.
As we approach the new school year, parents and teachers of young children have an opportunity, if not a responsibility, to prevent those little ones who are out of step in their ability to pay attention; listen; follow directions; stay seated, still, and productive; and, keep from talking out of turn, from receiving a false ADHD diagnosis. The latest numbers out of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that eleven percent of American children have ADHD, the average age of children with the diagnosis being seven years old. As recent as 2003, 7.8 percent of American children were thought to have ADHD. The alarming rise of this condition among young children requires that we step back and look for more common-sense social and developmental explanations for the sort of problematic behavior that gets kids assigned an ADHD diagnosis. As a child psychologist and writer on children’s mental health issues, I’ve studied these concerns for over thirty years and have zeroed in on three core questions parents and educators can ask themselves when a child’s behavior rises to a level where an ADHD diagnosis is entertained:
Georgia Johnson's new home. Photo credit: Tom Wooten
Georgia Johnson, the great-grandmother, expert wordsmith, and longtime Lower Ninth Ward resident about whom I wrote in We Shall Not Be Moved, has not followed an easy path to recovery. When I interviewed her for the book in October 2008, she sat happily in the living room of the small Creole cottage she good-humoredly called the “raggedy mansion,” newly returned from years of exile in Mississippi. We both thought then that she was nearing the end of her journey. In fact, it was just beginning.
Even before Hurricane Katrina, Georgia’s house was not in good shape. The ceiling leaked, the floor was uneven, the uninsulated bargeboard walls left Georgia cold in the winter, and the bathroom was too small to accommodate her wheelchair. Ironically, although the flood deposited a thick layer of oily mud in Georgia’s living room, destroyed her possessions, and ruined her electrical system, it also should have been her chance to fix the house. She applied for rebuilding money from the federally funded Road Home Program, and after pushing her way through the red tape that frustrated most of the program’s applicants and waiting patiently for more than a year, she received enough to properly renovate the house. But like thousands of other Gulf Coast residents, she fell victim to contractor fraud. Unable to live in a FEMA trailer because of her wheelchair and debilitating asthma, she tried to oversee the renovation from Mississippi. Twice, builders took her money and ran. With her limited remaining funds, and with help from several of the resident-led neighborhood organizations I featured in the book, she managed a bare-bones renovation.
Imagine if the next debate among the Republican presidential candidates started with the moderator asking all the participants who are parents to raise their hands if their children received the polio vaccine as infants. Then the candidates should be instructed to lower their hands if they would have refused this vaccination if they knew that it was developed from research using fetal tissue. Assuming the candidates responded honestly, I speculate that none would report a willingness to have forgone protecting their children against polio.
If the debate were to start this way—and sadly it probably won’t—it would expose the candidates’ hypocrisy on fetal tissue research (as well as how tortuous the larger issue of vaccines is for Republicans, leading to mixed statements on the part of many of the contenders). Americans as a whole believe in vaccines, though a vocal minority, most of which is associated with the Republican base, do not; similarly, Planned Parenthood, which has been relentlessly demonized because of the false charges of “selling” fetal tissue to researchers, is far more admired by the public than any of the Republican candidates. Yet to satisfy its base—who are the most likely to vote in primaries—the Republican candidates have been compelled to outdo each other in bashing Planned Parenthood, and by extension, fetal tissue research.
On September 4, 2005, eight years before the #BlackLivesMatter movement was born, officers of the New Orleans Police Department opened fire on two families crossing the Danziger Bridge. Hurricane Katrina had ravaged the city six days before. The officers were on site for an unrelated distress call. All the innocent victims were black and unarmed. A harrowing story of blue on black violence, author and investigative journalist Ronnie Greene’s Shots on the Bridge vividly recounts the crime and the ensuing case. With the anniversaries of Katrina and the crime coming up, we caught up with Ronnie Greene to ask him a few questions about his book.
I was first drawn to this story in August 2011, when I happened to read an AP account of the federal court conviction of officers with the New Orleans Police Department, who had fired upon two groups of people on a small bridge and then covered up their crimes.
In reading that first story, I instantly felt these events were worthy of a book. I was struck in learning about the victims, including Ronald Madison, a forty-year-old with the mental development of a six-year-old. With Katrina coming, Ronald stayed back to be with the family dogs. His older brother Lance, a onetime professional football player, stayed to watch over him. Now I was reading that Ronald was killed—shot in the back—and his brother, his protector, had been falsely arrested for allegedly firing at officers. I read about the other family on the bridge, the Bartholomews, along with their nephew Jose Holmes Jr. and his friend James Brissette Jr. JJ, was killed, and several in the Bartholomew family were critically wounded. The mother, Susan Bartholomew, had to have her arm amputated. As the bullets were coming that morning, her daughter, Lesha, lay atop her mother to try to protect her.
In truth, each of the victims was unarmed, yet police hatched a cover-up to conceal their actions.
On July 30, the whole world watched as thirteen Greenpeace activists dangled from ropes tied to the St. John's bridge in Portland, Ore., red and yellow streamers catching the wind. They were blocking the exit of the Fennica, Shell's ice breaker headed to the Arctic to facilitate drilling. These young activists hung there for forty hours in makeshift platforms and slings during some of the hottest days on record, before the police and Coast Guard brought them down. One hundred feet below them, filling the river with their colorful small boats, were Portland's "kayactivists" from the local Climate Action Coalition—some were experienced paddlers, others kayaking for the very first time. On shore stood over five hundred people, cheering and chanting "Stop that boat!" Some were moved to tears by this unprecedented spectacle and by the courage of the protesters.
But everyone was not so thrilled. The Oregonian printed several letters from readers castigating the activists for disrupting traffic on land and sea and for wasting tax money. One wrote: "Make them pay serious fines or spend time in Portland jail." Another complained: "Congratulations, Portland! You've confirmed that this is a city where it's important to be weird." There arises a legitimate question: what is the difference in civil disobedience and simply breaking the law? Was this an instance in which such a protest was justified? Perhaps it would be useful to look at the history and purpose of this radical form of protest.
As reproductive politics are once again consumed by an attack on Planned Parenthood, it is worth stepping back and asking why this organization is so particularly reviled by the anti-choice movement. This is a demonization that goes well beyond the shady outfit, the Center for Medical Progress (CMP), that organized the latest undercover filming, or its affiliated group, Live Action, infamous for releasing other debunked videos over the last decade. True, Planned Parenthood was reportedly not CMP’s only target, but the videos taken of its physicians have been the only ones to be released. Some Congressional Republicans, we now know, had prior knowledge of these videos, and predictably have issued calls for an investigation of the organization, joined by various Republican presidential aspirants. The videos have also given new ammunition to Republicans’ annual efforts to withhold all funds from Planned Parenthood for Title X services (primarily contraception and cancer screenings), which are subject to a yearly review. In short, the puzzle is why a national health-care organization—in which, as its spokespersons repeatedly point out, abortion only comprises 3 percent of all services delivered—is such a prime target of abortion opponents.
One answer, of course, is size: Even if only three percent of its services are abortion, Planned Parenthood still performs a healthy share of all the procedures occurring in the United States. But the answer goes well beyond that. It speaks to an interesting historical split among Republicans over matters of reproduction and sexuality—and the eventual triumph of the most socially conservative wing among the party base.
July 8 marks the anniversary of the Israeli-Gazan conflict, one of the subjects that concerns Amy Caldwell, executive editor at Beacon Press. She has acquired The Drone Eats with Me: Diaries from a City Under Fire by Atef Abu Saif, a writer and teacher from Jabalia Refugee Camp in the Gaza Strip. Due out next year in time for the second anniversary of the conflict, Saif’s book offers a rare glimpse into the ongoing war for Western readers. Here, Amy talks about acquiring the book and what attracted her to Saif’s story. A preview from the book follows.
I was curious and interested immediately because I’d done a certain amount of publishing about issues I find troubling as someone of Jewish descent among Jews in America. Things that I find troubling are what seem to be growing racist attitudes and a right-wing hardening of politics in Israel and America. We’d recently published Alan Wolfe’s At Home in Exile, which argues that Jews are now at home in exile, that living in multicultural environments has been good for Jewish people. Of course, the ongoing tensions and war between Israel and Palestinians are on my list of topics that I’m concerned about and want to publish. But it’s hard to think about how to do it well and what needs to be done. So when editor Ra Page at Comma Press in the UK sent me an email about The Drone Eats with Me, I told him I’d love to take a look at it.
This piece was originally delivered as a sermon and appeared previously in Sojourners.
During my meditation on the messages being sent out from South Carolina this week, three scriptures came to me:
Jeremiah 31:15: This is what the LORD says: "A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more."
John 8:32: Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.
Isaiah 58:1-3: Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet. Declare to my people their rebellion and to the descendants of Jacob their sins. For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them. “Why have we fasted,” they say, “and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?”
Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.”
When the Confederate flag was removed from the South Carolina statehouse Friday morning, Gov. Nikki Haley spoke solemnly of the nine Black churchgoers who were shot to death less than a month ago at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. “We have all been struck by what was a tragedy we didn't think we would ever encounter,” Haley said of the horrifying massacre. Before signing the bill with nine pens that will go to the families of the victims, she called those who were murdered during Bible Study at the historic church, “Nine amazing people that forever changed South Carolina's history.”
The Governor referenced the “grace” shown by the nine families, when they forgave the white gunman. She said their grace helped usher the state toward this long overdue decision.
It’s been so long since we’ve caught up with Atticus Finch—a little more than half a century if you count the time between books. It is now the 1950s, twenty years later, and his daughter Jean Louise—Scout—twenty-six years old and living in New York City, returns home to Maycomb, Alabama for a visit.
And despite the passage of time he really hasn’t changed at all. Despite what some sensation-seeking book reviewers, shocked readers, and disoriented English teachers will tell you, he’s pretty much the same man he always was. We finally have his backstory in print.
He’s older, has rheumatoid arthritis, and is grooming a successor to his legal practice. Atticus Finch hasn’t morphed from a champion of racial justice to a racist. That he’d long made a comfortable peace with white supremacy was there from the moment Lee’s now classic To Kill a Mockingbird was first published. Despite defending Tom Robinson, a Black man, against a false accusation of rape made by a white woman, he was at home with structural Jim Crow. This was never stated but permeated the story without being critically noted by the author—or countless readers—in any obvious way.
This blog post is one of two about the publication of Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman. Stay tuned next week for Kay Whitlock's follow-up on the conversation.
American readers love stories of political uplift and inspiration rather than forthright, bluntly honest accounts of unpalatable truths and realities. They especially love them when they are spoken by innocent young girls.
After just over half a century, Harper Lee, author of the beloved To Kill a Mockingbird, has released Go Set a Watchman, her eagerly awaited second novel. But, with a novelist’s twist, Watchman is, in reality, her first novel, an earlier version of Mockingbird’s characters, but set later in their lives.
Lee submitted Watchman in 1957 to Tay Hohuff, an editor at J.B. Lippincott and Co., who felt the manuscript—in which Jean Louise Finch confronts the racism her of father Atticus, her potential lover Henry, and her beloved town—needed considerable work. Hohuff worked with the thirty-one-year-old first-time novelist to rewrite the story from the perspective of a younger version of the narrator, two decades earlier. That version, in which Atticus’s overt racism is erased or obscured, became To Kill a Mockingbird.
First announced in February 2014, the publication of Watchman has been a publicist’s dream. After its release in 1960, Mockingbird became an instant classic and a staple of high school reading lists. (The 1962 film starred Gregory Peck as Atticus.) But after Mockingbird, Lee became reclusive, never publishing another novel. Two years ago, Lee’s lawyer, Tonja Carte, claims to have discovered the manuscript of Watchman in a safe deposit box and it was quickly—allegedly with the eighty-nine-year-old Lee’s permission (some friends question her current state of mental competency)—snapped up by HarperCollins. Excitement for the new work was palpable and Watchman became the most pre-ordered book in history with over two million copies printed. (Mockingbird has sold forty million.)
Questions have swirled around Lee’s career and life for decades, and Watchman has only added to them. Why had she never published another novel? Why did she remain out of the limelight for half a century? If Watchman was an early version of Mockingbird, why was it only recently discovered? Did Lee actually consent to the publication of this early work? Some of these questions may have answers, some may not, and frankly, some of them are no one’s business. Certainly, since Watchman’s publication on July 14, the most urgent question for the media and a multitude of readers is: how has one of the most beloved characters in modern American fiction become, overnight—and in an earlier version of the story—not only a racist, but a member of the Ku Klux Klan and active in the leadership of the local version of the notorious White Citizens Council?
Much of the power of Mockingbird comes from the narrative voice of six-year-old Scout Finch detailing her small Alabama town and her father’s defense of Tom Robinson, an African-American man falsely accused of rape. Intimate and heart-warming, the book became emblematic of the white liberal race politics of Kennedy’s Camelot, with rational, just, and courageous Atticus—his name means “citizen of Athens”—as the mythical great white savior. Mockingbird appeared after the Montgomery bus boycott and Brown v. Board of Education and before the Freedom Rides of 1961 and the 1963 March on Washington. Atticus, in book and film, became a touchstone for many white readers and viewers who identified with his integrity and vision of justice in a world wracked with racial turmoil and strife.
Tay Hohuff, by all accounts a brilliant editor, understood that a mid-late 1950s readership (the final draft of Mockingbird had to have been submitted at least a year before publication) would have responded strongly to a heartwarming bildungsroman of a young girl with an idealistic father. In many ways, Mockingbird is the sentimental version of Carson McCullers’ emotionally harsher girlhood coming-of-age stories such as The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940) and Member of the Wedding (1946). Watchman may have been too blatantly political coming from a young, white, Southern woman writer at the time.
Each book gives us a political vision of race relations in America written closely together, but published half a century apart, that is a reflection of the presumed reader’s emotional and political response. Mockingbird represents the perhaps naïve, white liberal hopes and desires for justice in 1959 America, and Watchman, with its harsher explorations of racism, painfully resonates and intersects perfectly with our own political culture in which #BlackLivesMatter and controversies over the Confederate Flag are paramount in the news.
But there is a larger question here: when is a society ready to understand the harsh political truths an author might bring them? Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl was first published in Dutch in 1947. In three years, it went through six editions, and in 1950s was translated into English and other languages. During the editing process, Otto Frank, Anne’s father, removed various diary entries that reflected on Anne’s emerging sexuality, her highly conflicted relationship to her mother, and thorny family matters; these deletions remained in all editions until 1989 when they were restored.
In the 1950s, American novelist Meyer Levin, forty-four, after having read the French Le Journal de Anne Frank, wrote a theatrical version he felt profoundly portrayed the horror of the Holocaust as well as the very specific Jewish qualities and character of the Frank family. After a series of protracted, painful negotiations with Otto Frank, who had been persuaded to give the rights over to a non-Jewish writing team in an attempt to make the play “more universal” and, for Levin, less Jewish, Levin was forced to give up the project. Even worse, the new writers took out many of Anne’s political observations and her anger. Levin, who was deeply committed to his truth of the story, eventually, in 1973, wrote The Obsession, his version of how the play betrayed the material. Frank’s Diary and the plays and film made from it are all modern classics, even as the last two—Levin was right—avoid the harsher truth of history to sentimentally engage without challenging the audience.
Even the published Diary has been subject to expurgation in the public imagination. The most quoted line from Frank’s book is “in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.” Yet in the context of the Diary, it is: “It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually turning into a wilderness, I hear the ever-approaching thunder, which will destroy us too.”
Novelist Cynthia Ozick, in her essay “Who Owns Anne Frank,” speculates a “salvational outcome: Anne Frank’s diary burned, vanished, lost—saved from a world that made it of all things, some of them true, while floating lightly over the heavier truth of named and inhabited evil.” There is a very real chance that if the Diary had been published unexpurgated or the play and film really reflected Frank’s original they would never have had the impact that they did.
Literature does not exist in a vacuum. To reach an audience it needs to be published, sold, bought and read. Mockingbird was the perfect book for the early 1960s. Watchman, despite its literary imperfections and adult Scout’s ultimate decision to accommodate herself to mainstream racism in her hometown, may well be a book more suited to our time, not the imagined, more sentimental world of Mockingbird. Time will tell if Watchman speaks to readers today, and if the adult Jean Louise has the power to be heard as much as her younger self Scout.