Friday, April 22, 2011

Resurrection after Exoneration

Killing Time: An 18-Year Odyssey from Death Row to FreedomRemember late last month when the Supreme Court overturned a jury verdict awarding 14 million in damages to John Thompson, who spent 18 years on death row in Louisiana before the discovery of prosecutor misconduct got him exonerated? Mr. Thompson tells his own story in a New York Times op-ed (see also Killing Time: An 18-Year Odyssey from Death Row to Freedom) and pleads,
I don’t care about the money. I just want to know why the prosecutors who hid evidence, sent me to prison for something I didn’t do and nearly had me killed are not in jail themselves. There were no ethics charges against them, no criminal charges, no one was fired and now, according to the Supreme Court, no one can be sued.
A appalling as this verdict is for justice in this case we are lucky that Mr. Thompson is far more generous than the Supreme Court. In the spirit of the Good Friday death penalty actions I used to organize on my church lawn, take a moment to find out about the organization for exonerees, Resurrection after Exoneration, he started by watching the video below, learn more at the Resurrection after Exoneration website...

...and your action for today is to sign the petition for Troy Davis!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Sorting out the Greg Mortenson Scandal

Listen to the WindI've waited a few days after the big scandal regarding Greg Mortenson's books (we've read both Greg Mortenson's Stones into Schools and Three Cups of Tea) and his non-profit work building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, to see what the fallout would be. Now I think I have a few useful links to share as we try to make sense out of the story.  First, of course there is the original 60 Minutes story and Jon Kraukauer's piece for Byliner.  Mortenson has responded via the Central Asia Institute's website and this interview in Outside. The news for Mortenson gets worse with the Montana Attorney General's office investigating and lawsuits in the wind.

For a more mixed view of Greg Mortenson and CAI from those who have met him and visited his schools, check out this this reaction from a reporter for MinnPost and the NYT editorial by Nick Kristof, Three Cups Spilled.  I also recommend, Peter Hessler's very insightful New Yorker piece, What Mortenson Got Wrong. Kristof worries about cynicism setting in regarding overseas charitable endeavors while Hessler wonders where the skepticism in the press has been for Mortenson and CAI over the past decade.  I've found myself wondering, where have all those now emerging to critique CAI been all these years?  I would gladly have shared that information as part of our discussion. It would have made for a lively debate!

The New Yorker's Book Bench blog comments with a sentiment felt by many readers of his books, I'm sure,
The Times talked to a military official in Afghanistan, who said, “We continue to believe in the logic of what Greg is trying to accomplish in Afghanistan and Pakistan because we know the powerful effects that education can have on eroding the root causes of extremism.” That’s an endorsement of an idea, not a person—the hope is that the idea can survive the person who gave it life, should that person be found wanting.
For the sake of the many school children who saved Pennies for Peace in the hopes of helping children in Pakistan, I too hope the message survives the man.

For August: Blood of the Wicked by Leighton Gage

Blood of the WickedFor August, our mystery month, we have selected Blood of the Wicked by Leighton Gage,
In the interior of Brazil, landless workers battle the owners of vast fazendas. When a visiting archbishop is assassinated, Mario Silva of the federal police is called upon to investigate. Then a newspaper owner, a TV journalist, a landowner’s son, and a priest are brutally killed. In a country where dead street kids are known as “hams,” justice is scarce.

Leighton Gage has spent many years in Brazil, where he maintains a home. He also resides in Florida and lives part of the year in the Netherlands.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Rights Readers Authors on Chinese Dissidents

Today, many people are protesting the detention of the artist Ai Weiwei at Chinese Embassies and consulates around the world with a 'sit-in' homage to Ai's 2007 1001 Chairs exhibition. Check out video from the Berlin protest here.  Other creative protests by artists can be found here and here.  I'm pulling up a virtual chair and following up on my previous post about dissidents Ai Weiwei and Gao Zhisheng and the recent clampdown on dissidents in China and taking a look at what some of the authors we have read previously have had to say about recent events:

To appreciate Ma Jian's (The Noodle Maker) contribution, you first need to take in Ai Weiwei's show at the Tate in London:

The Tate has now incorporated a protest of Ai's detention into the exhibit. Ma Jian's editorial on the artist's detention, 'Sunflower Revolutionary', plays around with the seeds metaphor.

The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories: China From the Bottom UpPhilip Gourevitch laments that the dragnet has prevented writer Liao Yiwu (The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories: China From the Bottom Up) from attending the PEN World Voices Festival in New York later this month. If we weren't reading Gao Zhisheng's A China More Just in July, I would be recommending that we read The Corpse Walker. I hope to get to it on my own. It's the least I can do.

Finally, Orville Schell (Mandate of Heaven) weighs in with some advice:

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Rights Readers Round-up

Is Journalism Worth Dying For?: Final DispatchesJust a few loose ends to round-up regarding some of our favorite Rights Readers authors:

Elena Kudimova, discusses a new collection of essays by her late sister, Anna Politkovskaya, Is Journalism Worth Dying For?: Final Dispatches on WNYC.

Get a taste of Reza Aslan's (No God But God) new program on KCET-- Globalwatch.  Tell me what you think!The Redbreast: A Novel

Daniel Alarcon (Lost City Radio) reads and discusses a Roberto Bolaño (Amulet) short story for the New Yorker

BBC World Book Club has a great interview and discussion with Jo Nesbø about his novel Redbreast.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Ai Weiwei and Gao Zhisheng

Ai Weiwei's Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants, 2006-2009 (Writing Art)As many of our Loyal Readers know, our group maintains a vigilant interest in the human rights climate in China due to our on-going advocacy for the Chinese human rights lawyer, Gao Zhisheng who was 'disappeared' by the Chinese government a little over a year ago. So it is with increasing dismay that we have been observing the rash of detentions in the past few weeks. The recent arrests are tracked here by Chinese Human Rights Defenders and via this Guardian interactive feature. Amnesty International offers actions for some of the detained individuals here.  The most prominent of those detained is the artist Ai Weiwei. Amnesty notes in their press release about Ai, “If the authorities are so bold as to grab this world-renowned artist in broad daylight at Beijing airport, it’s frightening to think how they might treat other, lesser known dissidents.” Rather than moving in a direction that we hoped would shed more light on Gao's present location and health condition, the Chinese government seems determined to push a growing number of it's human rights defenders into the shadows.

Just before his arrest, I watched the PBS Frontline documentary about Ai Weiwei and I recommend it A China More Justas a starting point to learn more about this important artist and inspiring activist.  If you missed it, you can watch it a short segment below and the rest on the PBS website which has additional interviews, samples of his Twitter activism, and a slideshow of his art. (The Washington Post and Slate also have good slideshows)  A longer version of this documentary, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, by director Alison Klayman is planned for fall release. I expect our Loyal Readers will be eager to see it in full. Klayman was interviewed by ArtInfo after Ai's detention,
The name of your documentary "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry," and it is true, one thing that is striking is how stubborn the guy is. I wonder if you can make a general comment on the mindset that has led him to stick it out through this kind of persecution.
I really think you can describe his activist efforts, and also his artistic efforts, as tireless. I mean, he will be thorough — once he gets into something, he really gets into something. When he gets into Twitter, he is sending sometimes 300 to 500 Tweets a day. When he undergoes injustice personally in Chengdu, when the police beat him, he continues to gather information and return to Chengdu to seek redress from authorities. When the Sichuan earthquake happened and he was so moved by the tragedy, he didn't just write some blog posts about it and say that was that. He found a way to engage people, to put new information out there. He found all those children's names, and continued to post their birthdays for more than a year afterward on Twitter. When you know him a little and you see that dedication, you really understand how genuine his efforts are. Because you always have to remember, he doesn't have to do any of this. I really think that is one of the messages of the film, and its something you can see if you watch the Frontline piece I did that draws on the same material.
Another interview by Studio 360 available here.

Watch the full episode. See more FRONTLINE.

A few more good links for learning about Ai Weiwei:

Evan Osnos of the New Yorker wrote a fascinating profile of the artist, "It's Not Beautiful: An Artist Takes on the System" last year. You can hear him discuss the detention on NPR's On Point. Or if you need to get straight to the point, read this short piece:  "Letter from China: Why Ai Weiwei Matters."

Interesting critic's view of his art.
Ai Weiwei's just-released TED talk:

And for the all-important book reference-- a volume compiling Ai's blogging and twittering has just been released from MIT, Ai Weiwei's Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants, 2006-2009. The Economist takes a look 

In a separate post, I'll take a look at what some of our favorite authors are saying about the current crackdown on dissent in China.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

'Voices From Chornobyl' at Caltech

I've already blogged about the upcoming 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster, but I wanted to point out a commemorative event happening at our Loyal Readers stomping grounds at Caltech. On Wednesday, April 27th at 8:00 PM in Baxter Hall there will be a staged reading of "Voices from Chornobyl" a play inspired by Svetlana Alexievich's oral histories collected in Voices from Chernobyl, which we read a few years ago. Additional performances are scheduled at other dates and locations if you can't make it to this one. Find out more at this blog or this Facebook page.
Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster
Steve Julian interviews playwright Cindy Marie Jenkins,
What role does theatre play in the 25th anniversary of Chornobyl? 
It just felt like a natural progression to me. A journalist publishes interviews of people who historically have no voice and theatre artists expand the audience with their creative reactions, spreading these people’s stories. I didn’t really have a long-term plan when I started adapting it, but once we added an audience, I saw how powerful these people’s words were. Audience members left the theater and immediately wanted a copy of the book.
Here's are excerpts from a 2009 performance at Deaf West Theatre:

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Our April Author: Santiago Roncagliolo

Red April (Vintage International)This month we are reading Santiago Roncagliolo's Red April.  The book was recently shortlisted (with Orhan Pamuk) for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the author is the youngest to have received the Spanish Alfaguara Prize.

I'm sure there are many interviews and other great resources available in Spanish, but here is what I could find in English.  This Boston Globe interview is a good place to start. We learn about the similarities between the author and the central character of the book,
Q. Chacaltana is a wonderfully odd character.
A. Well, he's more or less like me, really. I worked in human rights in Peru in the '90s. Like Chacaltana, I was this ridiculous little figure who saw himself as enforcing the law and upholding order. His process is the same process I lived, which was gradually realizing that the state and the terrorists could be really similar. I didn't have a serial killer to track, but I saw a lot of serial killing. I was probably not as ridiculous as he is, but for sure I was a bit ridiculous.
The Best of Young Spanish Language Novelists (Los Mejores Narradores Jovenes en Espanol ) : Granta The Magazine of New Writing 113More insight from an interview from Latineos about how human rights influences the author's writing and how we might relate this Peruvian story to other contexts:
LP:  When I worked with PEN, I remember campaigning on behalf of Peruvian writers and journalists persecuted under Fujimori’s regime in the 1990s. You worked in human rights in Peru at a similar time, when it would have been particularly dangerous for you. Do you believe in “the power of the pen” and do you think writers and journalists have a moral duty to campaign against injustice?

SR: I would force no writer into political subjects. Power is always to be mistrusted, no matter where it comes from. The only way to control it is civil action. What would Norwegians write about? Red April is about violence and death. It is not just about Peru’s war, but also Baghdad’s or even World War II. I just picked the violence and death I knew well, which was Peruvian. But each reader recognises his own terrible past in it.  I think it is important that citizens take part in public life, not just writers, although writers or photographers can also show the injustices to other people. 
Three Percent, the website dedicated to literature in translation, offers a taste of what's in his yet untranslated work.

One of Roncagliolo's books, Pudor, has been made into a film.  I can't see that the film has had a North American release, but you can watch the trailer (in Spanish) here.

AmuletRoncagliolo was featured in Granta's recent "The Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists" issue. In a web feature related to the issue, the author talks about fellow Peruvian and 2010 Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llhosa and another recent Rights Readers author, Roberto Bolano,
Death in the Andes: A NovelAnd just what is a Latin American writer? I’ve no idea. Vargas Llosa’s next novel is the story of an Irishman. He also wrote the story of a French painter – Gauguin. And The Bad Girl takes place in Europe and Japan. Bolaño’s detectives travel through Africa and many of his characters live in Barcelona or Paris. In my opinion, what these two authors have in common is their boldness. Vargas Llosa has always taken risks, always tried out new ways of writing, without ever getting bogged down in his own creative past. And Bolaño was always implacably himself, and did things his own way.
The author reads from the Red April in Spanish:

Finally, please visit the Amnesty International site for more information about current human rights concerns in Peru.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

We Are One

This April 4, Amnesty International joins the We Are One day of solidarity in support of labor rights. Under international law, all workers have the right to organize and bargain collectively. These rights are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, as well as conventions adopted by the International Labour Organization (ILO).  As a signatory to these treaties, the United States has an obligation to respect and promote these rights.

[ALL LABOR HAS DIGNITY [WITH CD (AUDIO)]]All Labor Has Dignity [With CD (Audio)] BY King, Martin Luther, Jr.(Author){Hardcover}Beacon Press(publisher)
April 4 marks the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination in Memphis where he had gone to support sanitation workers seeking collective bargaining rights. Everyone knows the end of the speech he gave the night before, you know-- "I have been to the mountaintop" "I've seen the promised land" "I might not get there with you" etc-- but do you remember what comes before that?-- “Let me say to you tonight, that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity, and it has worth. . . . All labor has dignity.”

As a refresher, here's a short AFSCME video about the sanitation workers' strike:

As it happens a collection (All Labor Has Dignity) of Dr. King's speeches on labor was just released this year.  The Atlantic interviews editor Michael Honey:
In a 1968 speech, King asks: "What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn't earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?" Had he started to feel that race reform was doomed without economic reform, and vice versa?

Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King's Last CampaignHe did say that the civil rights that we'd attained from Brown vs. Board of Education to the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were a remarkable change, but after that he really did emphasize economic issues. The urban areas were exploding all across the country. There were riots, police brutality, and National Guard occupation of black communities. The fact was, in the urban areas, civil rights didn't do anything to change the economic situation for the mass of working class people. Those were people that should have had jobs and union wages, who should have been advancing themselves. Instead, factories were shutting down. Jobs were being shipped overseas. The urban areas were being stripped of all economic activities. It was like stranding the millions of people who'd migrated to the cities for jobs. So, without an economic program—yes, that's what he was saying—the civil rights we've gained won't be meaningful for most people.
Here's Prof. Honey giving a talk on the significance of the King speeches (I advise skipping ahead to the 30 minute mark for the most substantive discussion).

Honey, notes for a Memphis newspaper the similarities between the historic strike and our present labor struggle,
"The two things Gov. (Scott) Walker took away from public employees in Wisconsin were collective bargaining rights and union dues collection," Honey said. "Those were the exact two points around which the Memphis strike revolved. Mayor (Henry) Loeb absolutely refused to engage in collective bargaining. He said, 'You can have a union ... we just won't bargain with it,' which means your union is useless. And secondly, 'We'll never deduct dues from your wages.' He knew that was crucial for this group of workers because they were so poor that, if it wasn't deducted from their wages, it was really hard to get the dues money from them. Translating that to today," said Honey, "if your union can't bargain for you, why would you pay dues? It's totally an anti-union strategy on his (Walker's) part, and it was the same thing King was fighting in Memphis."
Another interesting look at the Memphis sanitation workers comes from the "I am a Man" project in Memphis where you can find a DVD and curriculum guide, or you can view oral histories from workers and others who were a part of this historic movement.

Moving from this historic coupling of union organizing with the language of rights to the present day, consider this tribute video for the workers of Wisconsin.

Be sure to visit the We Are One website to find We Are One events near you (and if you live in Wisconsin, exercise your right to vote on Tuesday!)

Saturday, April 02, 2011

The Desert of Forbidden Art

PBS Independent Lens is back this week with another interesting documentary this week, The Desert of Forbidden Art,
How does art survive in a time of oppression? During the Soviet rule artists who stay true to their vision are executed, sent to mental hospitals or Gulags.

Their plight inspires young Igor Savitsky. He pretends to buy state-approved art but instead daringly rescues 40,000 forbidden fellow artist's works and creates a museum in the desert of Uzbekistan, far from the watchful eyes of the KGB. Though a penniless artist himself, he cajoles the cash to pay for the art from the same authorities who are banning it. Savitsky amasses an eclectic mix of Russian Avant-Garde art. But his greatest discovery is an unknown school of artists who settle in Uzbekistan after the Russian revolution of 1917, encountering a unique Islamic culture, as exotic to them as Tahiti was for Gauguin. They develop a startlingly original style, fusing European modernism with centuries-old Eastern traditions.  
Stephen Kinzer (Crescent and Star), who discovered the obscure Uzbek museum while reporting for the New York Times, acts as a guide for the film. The LAist is enthusiastic about the documentary with this about Kinzer,
Kinzer is especially energetic, laying out a history of Soviet settlements, archaeological digs, over-irrigation, and how all came together to foster a Russian avant-garde movement
Check out the Independent Lens website for more info and showtimes.

Friday, April 01, 2011


The Want Bone (American Poetry Series)How about starting off April's National Poetry Month with Robert Pinsky's homage to the seamstresses of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory (and garment workers everywhere), "Shirt."

Read the poem here.  More info and analysis here.  Another collection of Triangle Fire by poet Mary Fell here.

Audio of Pinksy reading the poem from the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition's Open Archive.

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