Monday, April 30, 2012

The Other Document Dump

An unfolding story that's not making headlines here, but should be of interest to our Loyal Readers is the public disclosure by the British National Archives of thousands of "lost" colonial-era documents. This document dump got 'live-blog' coverage by the Guardian and produced a spate of news articles and opinion pieces on various findings and their implications.

Among the disclosed files is one noting that the State Department had told British officials in 1959 that they were concerned Kenyan students in the US, including Barrack Obama's father, had a reputation for "falling into the wrong hands". In another example from 1957 relating to the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya,
Eric Griffiths-Jones, the attorney general of the British administration in Kenya, wrote to the governor, Sir Evelyn Baring, detailing the way the regime of abuse at the colony's detention camps was being subtly altered.
From now on, Griffiths-Jones wrote, for the abuse to remain legal, Mau Mau suspects must be beaten mainly on their upper body, "vulnerable parts of the body should not be struck, particularly the spleen, liver or kidneys", and it was important that "those who administer violence … should remain collected, balanced and dispassionate".
Almost as an after-thought, the attorney general reminded the governor of the need for complete secrecy. "If we are going to sin," he wrote, "we must sin quietly."
This document dump was sparked by the pending lawsuit of a group of Kenyans who want to hold the British government responsible for brutality they experienced during the Mau Mau uprising.
They allege brutal treatment in detention camps, including castration and sexual assaults at the hands of British colonial officials and soldiers. Other detainees interned during the Mau Mau uprising, it is alleged, were murdered, forced into labour, starved and subjected to violence from guards. Among those allegedly abused was Barack Obama's grandfather.
We became familiar with this story when we read Caroline Elkin's award-winning book Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya. Elkins is serving as an expert witness for the case and in this piece for the Guardian she expresses skepticism that the Foreign Office has been completely forth-coming even with the latest revelations. This will definitely be a story to watch as more documents are made public and the trial moves forward.

If this story feels remote or lacking in relevance, I recommend this sensitive essay pointing out some similarities between the Mau Mau plaintiffs battle with the British government and the United States government, Wikileaks revelations, and the plight of Guantanamo detainees.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Act for Racial Justice

This week marked the 25th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision McClesky v. Kemp in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that there were indeed racial disparities in who gets sentenced to death but that evidence of systemic racial bias doesn't matter. Justice Lewis Powell wrote, “Apparent disparities in sentencing are an inevitable part of our criminal justice system.” After he retired, Justice Powell said that this is the decision he regretted most, but those second thoughts have not reversed the damage to our justice system. An ACLU blogger calls this appalling decision, 'The Dred Scott of Our Time.'

Marking this anniversary seems like a good excuse to post Bryan Stevenson's recent TED talk. Stevenson, a true hero of the death penalty abolition movement, explains the legacy of 25 years of McClesky far better than I can. Years ago, when being a death penalty abolitionist in California was a more lonely pursuit, I hauled around a stack of copies of a magazine article Stevenson had written and handed them out while tabling, hoping he could persuade where I fumbled. In fact one woman who picked up the article at a death penalty vigil, later went to great lengths to track me down and thank me for it, letting me know it had transformed her life. I'd like to think this very popular video is working a little magic too. If you're moved by Stevenson's passionate plea for reforming our criminal justice system you can learn more from this longer presentation, visit the Equal Justice Initiative website or if you live in California you can learn more about the SAFE California initiative, Stevenson mentions at the end of his talk.

There is some good news on the racial justice front. Amnesty has pointed out that some states have gone ahead and enacted their own Racial Justice Acts that allow consideration of evidence of systemic racism and in North Carolina that law was just used for the first time to save an inmate's life. This is an example that more states need to follow.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Rainbow after the Storm: Solidarity Sing in Norway

Thousands of Norwegians gathered in the streets of Oslo on Thursday to sing a Pete Seeger  song, "My Rainbow Race", that the mass murderer Anders Breivik had termed 'Marxist brainwashing.' The protest was an effort to reclaim the children's tune and unite in solidarity against  Breivik's ravings against multiculturalism at his on-going trial for the killing of 77 people. Pete must be so proud!

It's not often I find a human rights-related topic to blog about in a Nordic country, unless it's as a model of civility to emulate, but we did get in on the Scandinavian thriller craze, sampling some of Stieg Larsson's Millenium series and Jo Nesbø's The Redbreast.  Many have remarked on the irony of the countries with some of the lowest crime rates in the world producing such a high fictional body count. But some have noted that many of these authors have also raised flags about the rise of neo-Nazism and these were themes we encountered in the books we chose. Still, the Breivik massacre has to be a game changer for these writers in terms of how they view their country and the forces of evil that lurk in their stories. Last fall, The Guardian probed several authors, including Nesbø, for how this event might affect them. Nesbø said he doesn't expect to address the issue directly, but he is sure it will affect his writing in some way.  Some clues for where he might go may be found in an eloquent essay he wrote last year, again for The Guardian, about Norway's lost innocence,
After the bomb went off – an explosion that was felt where I live in Oslo – and reports of the shootings on the island of Utøya began to come in, I asked my daughter whether she was scared. She replied by quoting something I had once said to her: "Yes, but if you're not scared, you can't be brave."

So if there is no road back to how things used to be, to the total, unconscious and naive fearlessness of what was untouched, there is a road forward. To be brave. To keep on as before. To turn the other cheek as we ask: "Was that all you've got?" To refuse to allow fear to set limits to the way we continue to build our society.
Keep on as before. Keep on singing

Friday, April 27, 2012

Still Healing in Liberia

I'm sure many of our Loyal Readers thought of Helene Cooper, New York Times reporter and author of a memoir, The House at Sugar Beach, about growing up in Liberia when they heard the news about conviction of Charles Taylor, ex-President of Liberia for war crimes. In today's paper she relates the stories of how Taylor's trail of brutality tore apart the lives of her sisters Eunice and Janice and the reactions of her relatives upon hearing of Taylor's fate. The conviction was for Taylor's actions in Sierra Leone and Cooper remarks,

It was in Liberia that Mr. Taylor campaigned for president using the slogan “He killed my ma, he killed my pa, but I will vote for him anyway,” in a telling acknowledgment of the psychological damage a pointless war can inflict on a country. It is in Liberia that, almost a decade after Mr. Taylor was driven from the country, men and women today are trying to turn former child soldiers into functional people.
There are dizzyingly complex reasons Mr. Taylor was tried for what he did in Sierra Leone, instead of Liberia, many of them involving the effort to keep the hard-won peace that now exists between factions in Liberia. I know this. I just hope that when history books recount this first head of state to be convicted by an international court since Nuremberg, they remember Liberia.
Amnesty International has issued a press release calling for additional prosecutions, reparations and more attention to war crimes in Liberia.

By the way, Janice Cooper, a physician was featured by PBS Newshour in a report last year. She returned to Liberia as project lead for a mental health initiative supported by the Atlanta-based Carter Center and Liberia Ministry’s of Health and Social Welfare,

Cooper recently paid one of her weekly visits to Monrovia Central Prison, where the mental health program has launched a groundbreaking initiative to support prisoners. The prison was so overcrowded and dirty it was singled out by Amnesty International [see report] for human rights violations. Cooper and her staff have converted a cinder block building there into a small, modest mental health facility where prisoners can now attend psychotherapy sessions and meet with family members.
Read the article to learn more about why mental health is such an urgent need in this struggling nation. Let's hope bringing Charles Taylor to justice will help heal a few more scars.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Next Chapter for Greg Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute

I've written before about my desire to salvage some good from the Greg Mortenson story and the charity, Central Asia Institute (CAI), he founded for the sake of the Pakistani and Afghan children the charity serves and the American children who have invested in it. We read two books by Mortenson, Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools, and our Loyal Readers certainly believe that promoting education of girls in the remote regions of these countries is very important. So what's happened since 60 Minutes and Jon Krakauer questioned some of CAI's origin story and exposed the non-profit's dubious accounting? There have been some developments in the possible rehabilitation of Mortenson and CAI, so I've assembled a few links to bring us up to date.

First, the Montana Attorney General has issued a report. According to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the AG found that funds had been mismanaged and that Mortenson should pay $1 million in restitution to CAI, but that there was no basis for criminal prosecution. Admonitions were also made regarding the structure of the charity's governing board and Mortenson's future relationship to the organization. Mortenson has already repaid about half the money he owes to CAI and the board has a timetable for restructuring. For more about CAI's response, here's a brief audio interview from WBUR's Here & Now with Anne Beyersdorfer, CAI's acting director. If the governance reforms are implemented, this may go some way towards answering the critics (see, for example, Non-Profit Quarterly from last year). CAI's website has improved somewhat, with more information about the status of their projects, and a blog with regular updates from the field. Also of interest, last year Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty sent a reporter to assess the status of some CAI-built schools and found some thriving, while others appear to be struggling, suggesting a lack of oversight. Mortenson still faces a civil lawsuit from a group of disgruntled readers who claim that parts of his story were fabricated and that they were therefore mislead into buying his books and are asking for compensation and punitive damages. The lawsuit has just had it's first hearing but there is some skepticism that the case will move forward as that kind of accountability for a memoir would be unprecedented. The outlook for CAI over all does seem to be improving, and I hope that with new leadership and even greater transparency in the coming year, the good that the organization has already accomplished will be reinforced and future mentions of the charity on this blog can focus on the Afghan and Pakistani children whose needs captivated us from the start.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Best in Web Activism

Amnesty International USA's website has been nominated for a Webby award in the Charitable Organizations/Non-Profit category.  You can help them win the 'People's Voice' award by voting here. I think the recent redesign of the AI site well deserves an award, but we are competing against the Girl Scouts and no one can overwhelm an online poll like pre-teen girls, so get busy!

By the way, a clever ad campaign (see video below) for AI-Sweden has been nominated in the Interactive Media: Rich Meda Non-Profit/Educational category which has the wallpaper on your cell phone unlock a cell door when you "slide to unlock" the gadget. You can vote for them too. (AI Germany had a similar ipad ad which prevented the user from "swiping away torture" --see that demo here.)

I love exploring the best in innovative online activism via the Webby Award recommendations. I need help casting a vote in the Activism category. Who doesn't love a plucky small town campaign to save a library (Book Burning Party)?Or take the challenge of SPENT, a game that forces you into experiencing the hard daily decisions of a homeless person. The Breathe Project is helping Pittsburgh improve it's air quality and CounterSpill is a useful adjunct to some of the books we've read about environmental disasters like Voices from Chernobyl and Earth Odyssey.  And I thoroughly enjoyed the entire 20-minute grizzly-bear-eye view of the Canadian Rockies offered up at  Bear 71.  Which do you think should win? Get any creative bursts from these inspirational sites for your own activism?

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

For August: The Case of the Missing Servant by Tarquin Hall

For our August mystery month we have decided to have a bit of fun with The Case of the Missing Servant by Tarquin Hall:
Meet Vish Puri, India’s most private investigator. Portly, persistent, and unmistakably Punjabi, he cuts a determined swath through modern India’s swindlers, cheats, and murderers. 

In hot and dusty Delhi, where call centers and malls are changing the ancient fabric of Indian life, Puri’s main work comes from screening prospective marriage partners, a job once the preserve of aunties and family priests. But when an honest public litigator is accused of murdering his maidservant, it takes all of Puri’s resources to investigate. With his team of undercover operatives—Tubelight, Flush, and Facecream—Puri combines modern techniques with principles of detection established in India more than two thousand years ago, and reveals modern India in all its seething complexity.

Tarquin Hall is a British writer and journalist who has reported extensively on S.E. Asia and the Middle East for the British press. He is also the author of the highly acclaimed non-fiction books Salaam Brick Lane and To the Elephant Graveyard. The Vish Puri series is his first venture into fiction. He lives in London, England.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Pasadena Earth Day 2012

Our Amnesty International Chapter once again had a successful Earth Day table bringing a little human rights insight to the environmental movement and the City of Pasadena.

Kids and a few grown-ups decorated 57 cards for Tan Zuoren!  

Tan Zuoren is a Chinese environmental activist who was arrested after he tried to publicize the number of children that died during the Sichuan earthquake and the corruption behind substandard construction that contributed to their deaths. Tan has been repeatedly questioned by the police about his human rights work. He was also harassed by unidentified men who twice stole his computer and also stabbed and injured his dog. He was arrested in March 2009 after he declared his intention to release an independent report on the collapse of school buildings during the quake. Although the initial indictment focused on his work on the earthquake, Tan was ultimately convicted for his commemoration of the crackdown on 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protesters in Beijing, on charges of “inciting subversion of state power”. Acclaimed artist Ai Weiwei was prevented from giving evidence at Tan’s trial when he was detained and severely beaten by security officials just before he was due to testify. Amnesty International described the trial as “grossly unfair” and “politically motivated”. In June, Tan’s appeal against his five-year sentence was rejected after a court session lasting just 10 minutes.

Earth Day visitors were also asked to sign letters and petitions to Royal Dutch Shell to take responsibility and clean up the Niger Delta. You can join us in this action here.

Many thanks to all who made this event a success, especially Candy, Lucas, Paula, Carol, Jim, Kai, Stevi and Joyce for making this happen!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Trayvon Booknotes: Mosley and Hochschild

It's a relief to see justice moving forward in the Trayvon Martin case. Amnesty International has issued a press release welcoming the Florida State's Attorney's decision to press charges against George Zimmerman,
"Trayvon's death has struck a nerve across the country, raising disturbing questions about the justice system, race relations, gun violence and the "Stand Your Ground" law itself," said Everette Harvey Thompson, Southern Regional Director for Amnesty International. "Many troubling issues have come into focus in this case, including the searing history of violence against minorities in the United States. Only the courts can establish justice. A young man has lost his life and we must have answers and accountability. It is up to the criminal justice system to find out what happened and hold someone accountable if a crime is committed. That determination is now in the hands of the courts."
See also AIUSA's earlier post Race Matters for a human rights framing of the issues raised.

A couple of book-related footnotes: Several years back we read Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlin's mystery set in the wake of the Watts Riots, Little Scarlet. Mosley has written a piece for the the Daily Beast on the Trayvon Martin case where he shares his own story of 'walking while black' and riffs from there, poetry slam style,
The crime is an unarmed man-child shot down in the streets of America when the admitted shooter is allowed to walk free. The crime is a nation of possible Florida vacationers who have to march in protest in order to get the tourism-based state to turn its eye toward justice. The crime is a corporate-owned media that picks and chooses among the cases for which it will open the floodgates of national opinion. The crime is the everyday citizen of America in the 21st century using archaic and inaccurate terms such as white and black rather than fellow American. The crime is a broader media that has convinced our citizens that they are in such imminent danger that they feel it necessary to vote for legislation such as Stand Your Ground.
And he hasn't even got to the critique of our prison system or our involvement in Afghanistan yet!

The other piece of note to our Loyal Readers also comes from the Daily Beast, about the namesake for the town of Sanford where the shooting took place.  We read Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost so long ago that you may have forgotten that Henry Sanford was a lobbyist for the interests of King Leopold II of Belgium. Michael Daly reminds us,
As recounted in Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost, Sanford mounted what he called a “gastronomic campaign,” supplementing discreet payoffs with lavish feasts as he convinced Congress to officially recognize Leopold II’s claim of the Congo as a colony. Sanford assured the legislators that the king’s primary aim was to “humanize” the people there. 
In fact, the exploitation of the Congo by the King's rubber barons resulted in millions of lost lives. Sanford also believed that African-Americans should be sent to Africa and proposed subsidies to encourage emigration.

Now that the immediate need for justice has been met and we begin to think about whether this case will have any lasting impact, learning about the town's namesake is another reminder of how difficult it is to confront the ghosts of historical injustice and bring about the kind of systemic change Mosley urges on us.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Mengestu on Kony 2012

I didn't think I would have anything book-related to share about Invisible Children's Kony 2012 campaign to apprehend Joseph Kony, the Ugandan rebel leader indicted by the International Criminal Court.  Amnesty International USA has provided several helpful commentary, context and action suggestion posts on their blog.  But then I discovered that one author we've read, Dinaw Mengestu (The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears), has written a provocative critique (Not a Click Away: Joseph Kony in the Real World) for Warscapes
What makes Kony 2012 especially frustrating, however, is that the film traffics in a sentimental and infantilizing version of Africa that is so prevalent we don’t even notice it. The idea behind a name such as “Invisible Children” is on par with the sentiments of the first colonists who claimed to have discovered the New World and Africa: We didn’t know about it, therefore it didn’t exist. ...
That same self-centered logic is the driving force behind the film’s solution: Make Kony famous in America, and that will solve the problem.
I highly recommend the whole piece.  I was also very interested to discover Warscapes, a promising new online magazine. Both Mengestu and another author we've read, Nuruddin Farah (Secrets) serve on it's advisory board along with a few more authors we have considered and I expect will read some day soon. Start by browsing the Art section and then let your self wander over to the literature and reportage.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Our April Author: Tea Obreht

This month we are reading The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht. Be sure to check out our previous posts on the book. I think this is one of those books where you benefit from understanding the author's journey in writing the book. This bookstore reading plus Q&A helps you see how the book evolved and Obreht is a very charming presenter.

If your copy of the book didn't come with the Reader's Guide you can find it here.  It includes an interview with novelist Jennifer Egan. A few additional interviews of note:

The Guardian:
A few weeks later, she travelled to Serbia to visit his grave. "It's in the family crypt, which he and I used to wash together when I was a child, because his mother is buried there." Obreht isn't religious – her grandfather was a Roman Catholic from Slovenia, her grandmother is a Muslim from Bosnia, and while they observed cultural traditions, her engagement has never gone further than that. She found herself thinking, "how can people suppose there's something after death, when really it's just your body going into the ground? The reality was very difficult to reconcile with the idea of this as a holy process. I couldn't work it out. Which led to the thought: you're going to die some day too. Which led to several years of being very careful crossing the street."
The Rumpus:
Rumpus: You write very convincingly about the lives of adolescents in a war torn country — it’s eat, drink, be merry because there’s a war on. Were you old enough to be cognizant of what was going on in Yugoslavia? Where does that come from?
Obreht: I think that a lot of the places that I moved to were places that had political problems and tensions that aren’t necessarily present in more Western locales right now. I think that, even though I was decidedly too young to appreciate what was going on in Yugoslavia at the time, but from having returned there many times since moving to the States, I got the general feeling, from conversations with people my own age and with people who’ve lived there and people we left behind, that there’s this, “life goes on” attitude. People deal with strife by just doing every day things.
Jill: The contrast of the modern and scientific with the ritual, superstitious, and mythic makes the book feel epic as well as specific in its exploration of grief and loss, both personal and national.
Obreht: I think that it was very clear early on with the story of the tiger and the girl that the question of myth and reality was going to be a big one, and a very important factor in the whole book. The fact that Natalia and Zóra are doctors, and the grandfather, too, also happened very organically. I have a friend who's a doctor in Serbia, and I know through her anecdotes, that in places where superstition and homeopathy, in some ways, are the standard approach of the people, there's a great conflict with science. This is something my friend had to navigate pretty much every day and negotiate with people and their beliefs. Some of the superstitions are very, very prevalent. Yet, in some places there, you really feel like it's a culture on the brink of leaving those ancient beliefs behind. And, so, it came very naturally. Somebody once said, the universal is in the specifics, so, hopefully, it is the specifics that made it that way.
And don't miss this Harpers article, "Twilight of the Vampires", by Obreht which informed the story of the 'deathless man.' Because I am an ethnomusicology geek, I need to investigate the gusla. Wikipedia is helpful and here are some additional sound files from the Library of Congress.

Finally, we didn't really plan for this, but we somehow managed to be reading this book at the time of the twentieth anniversary of the siege of Sarajevo. See NPR's story here. Read Amnesty International's plea for justice for justice for war-time survivors of sexual violence here.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

What Is It About A Zoo?

One of the key events in Tea Obreht's The Tiger's Wife is the 1941 Easter Sunday bombing of the Belgrade Zoo. As it happens, this event was also depicted in the 1995 award-winning film Underground directed by Emir Kusturica. Watch the opening sequence here. You can see from just this excerpt that it shares a certain sensibility with the novel, combining tragedy and humor, absurdity with pathos.  Here's an account of how Obreht visited the Syracuse Zoo when she found herself in need of inspiration. She explains in this interview with fellow novelist Jennifer Egan,

There is something jarring about seeing an animal out of place: there’s a universal feeling of awe when you see an animal, particularly an impressive animal, out of place.
The novel reminded me of some other war torn zoo-themed books: Diane Ackerman's true story of the Warsaw Zoo and the Polish resistance, The Zookeeper's Wife, and the graphic novel Pride of Baghdad, inspired by the destruction of the Baghdad Zoo during the Iraq War in 2003. Poet Brian Turner also meditated on the strange animals roaming about the city in "The Baghdad Zoo" (from his collection Here, Bullet). Apparently, there's even an award-winning play that makes use of the incident, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. Last but not least, AIUSA's Human Rights Now blog notes that the website that accompanies Sacha Baron Cohen's latest satire The Dictator, highlights tourism attractions for the fictional Republic of Wadiya's zoo, including endangered species such as "pandas, white tigers, and Amnesty International officials." Hah!  Have I missed any good displaced animal stories? What is it about a zoo?

Monday, April 09, 2012

Remembering Fang Lizhi

I was saddened to hear of the death of Chinese dissident Fang Lizhi. I followed Fang's career as an advocate for reform with great interest in the 1980s and when, in the early 1990s, our Amnesty International chapter at Caltech participated in a campaign to bring attention to the post-Tiananmen human rights climate in China, we decided to educate ourselves by reading Fang's collection of essays, Bringing Down the Great Wall: Writings on Science, Culture, and Democracy in China. Fang, a physicist, was an inspiring model for a discussion of the role of the citizen-scientist in the human rights movement. Although we didn't form the on-going discussion group we know as Rights Readers until 1999, this was our first effort to deepen our appreciation for the many human rights heroes we encounter in the course of taking action by diving into their writing. His book was the seed for our future reading and campaigns to free dissidents Ngawang Pekar and Gao Zhisheng. I'm sure future generations of reform-minded Chinese will surely point to Fang as a pivotal figure.  If you are not familiar with Fang, The Atlantic has posted Orville Schell's 1988 profile of Fang comparing him to another famous physicist turned human rights advocate, China's Andrei Sakharov. We also recommend Schell's fuller account of the the 1989 Tiananmen protests, including Fang's leading role, Mandate Of Heaven.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Rivers for Reflection

Yesterday I attended a very moving St. Paul Chamber Orchestra performance of Neharot, Neharot by Israeli composer Betty Olivero for viola, accordion, percussion and two string ensembles. The viola soloist was Kim Kashkashian, who has recorded the composition. This haunting piece uses the elegies of women who had lost loved ones in the Israeli conflict with militias of the Lebanese Hezbollah in 2006 as it's touchstone.  The program notes explain,
The title of the composition Neharo't Neharo't, means “Rivers, Rivers” in Hebrew and refers to the rivers and floods of tears which are too often shed by mourning women in disastrous situations. On the other hand, the title contains also an element of hope: the root of the Hebrew word “nahar” (river) resembles the word “nehara,” meaning “ray of light.”
I found the music very appropriate to marking this Holy Week and the season of reflection we experience each April with Remembrance Days for both the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust. How fitting too, that we are reading Tea Obreht's The Tiger's Wife this month at the same time the people of Sarajevo are commemorating the 20th anniversary of the siege their city. Take a few minutes to soak this in. Listen to Part 1 above. Here is Part 2.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Rights Readers Goes to the Opera

I discovered recently that the Lyric Opera of Chicago plans a 2015 world premier opera based on Ann Patchett's novel (about an opera singer), Bel Canto. Peruvian-born composer Jimmy Lopez has been assigned the score and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Nilo Cruz will pen the libretto, with soprano Renee Fleming as creative consultant. Although the book seems an obvious choice for stage treatment, the Chicago Reader notes a formidable barrier,
The story, about a group of trapped hostages and their captors, all speaking different languages and communicating through an interpreter, is a dramatist's nightmare. Cruz says he "immediately connected" with the material of the novel, but is wrestling with the fact that "we have to be cautious or the translator will be the main character."
We'll keep an eye on this.

Meanwhile, this got me to wondering just how many books we have read that have subsequently been turned into operas. When you stop and think about it, there is a lot of drama in the struggle for human rights, with plenty of  bloody action, soulful martyrs, and just general outrageousness that opera requires.

Probably the most famous book-to-opera we've encountered would be Dead Man Walking, based on Helen Prejean's death row memoir, which has been successfully produced by a number of opera companies. Sister Helen wrote on her blog recently,
I was just in Tulsa, Oklahoma, giving talks and media interviews for the opera of Dead Man Walking, which opens on February 25, performed by the Tulsa Opera. I got to meet the entire cast, including the 12 or so children, whose piping young voices inject hope.
Immediately after I left, Kirstin Chavez, the mezzo who will portray me (her aria is “My journey…”) got on Facebook with Susan Graham and Joyce DiDonato who have been me in past operas. I heard the Sr Helen Trio had a lively chat, with the two vets offering robust encouragement to Kirstin.
I appreciate opera singers now that I realize how long they prepare, how hard they work, and the stress they feel.
Joyce DiDonato and the Houston Grand Opera will release a recording of a recording Dead Man Walking on April 24. Click here for an xcerpt from the production that includes the children Sister Helen mentions.

Another book we have read that has been transformed for the stage is Reinaldo Arenas' Before Night Falls. Orchestra Miami will present the opera this fall.  The world premier performance of the Jorge Martin score, by the Fort Worth Opera featuring baritone Wes Mason as the dissident Cuban writer, has also been recorded. Here's a sample:

Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran has been given a chamber opera staging.  If Nixon in China is worthy of an opera, Iran does seems a likely setting for a contemporary story. That's why I'm really curious about this Tony Kushner-Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis)-Kronos Quartet collaboration promised for the upcoming PEN World Voices Festival.

What else might be diva worthy? Both Sonia Nazario's Enrique's Journey and Junot Diaz' The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao have received theatrical treatments. But I was thinking our most recent book, The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht would be a good candidate-- they can stage the Lion King right? So a tiger, a bear or a stray elephant can't be that hard. It's got a song-writing, gusla-playing character, multiple generations of tragedy, zany fantasy elements and oh, the 'tiger's wife' is a deaf-mute. Hmm. That could be tough, but I'm sure there are some creative minds out there up to the challenge.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

A bookish look at the World Bank President nominees

Who would have thought that there would be so many Rights Readers angles to the appointment of a World Bank President? At first I thought the hook was a movement to draft Nobel Prize Winner and guru of microfinance, Muhammad Yunus, (Banker To The Poor). But, he politely demurred. But then I read that the Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is seeking the position. Her son, Uzodinma Iweala, is the author of a novel we read, Beasts of No Nation. The Economist has strongly endorsed her candidacy,
Ms Okonjo-Iweala is an orthodox economist, which many will hold against her. But if there is one thing the world has discovered about poverty reduction in the past 15 years, it is that development is not something rich countries do to poor ones. It is something poor countries manage for themselves, mainly by the sort of policies that Ms Okonjo-Iweala has pursued with some success in Nigeria.
And then there is President Barack Obama's nominee, Jim Yong Kim. Mr. Kim, currently the President of Dartmouth College, is a co-founder of Partners in Health along with Paul Farmer. We learned about their innovations in global public health when we read Tracy Kidder's Mountains Beyond Mountains. If you have the time, this lecture on global health from a couple years ago is a nice introduction to Jim Kim, or check out this Bill Moyers interview to find out, among other things, what insights his unusual background in medicine and anthropology might bring to the culture of the World Bank,
BILL MOYERS: You are trained as an anthropologist too, as well as in medicine. What do you think the eye of an anthropologist sees, that a physician on his or her own might not see?

DR. JIM YONG KIM: Well, I think that in medicine, what we're trained to do is to look for patterns, to build order out of great complexity, out of very subtle signs and symptoms, and then have a plan where you can act. Anthropologists are a little bit different, we don't often act on what we do. So I'm sort of in the middle now. I do the ethnography, to try to get a sense of what the culture is. 

You know, if you want to know what anthropologists do, one of my great professors, Sally Falk Moore once said, it's very simple. You walk into a room and you say, "Who are these people and what do they want?" So if you're constantly asking that question, over time, you build up a sense of how a particular social system works. That's always what we've done. Paul Farmer's also an anthropologist, we've done this together for many, many years.

What is it that we need to do to actually change policy around HIV treatment or drug resistant TB treatment? And that anthropological piece of it, linked to a physician's approach to solving a problem and putting a solution on the table, taking people through difficult times-- That's been a very good combination for me.
Both Mr. Kim and Ms. Okonjo-Iweala would be ground-breaking appointments. It should be exciting to see where the World Bank goes from here.

Monday, April 02, 2012

Catching up with Clea Koff

This month we are reading The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht, a novel that takes us to the Balkans, and in the company of a young woman and her grandfather, both physicians, and a lot of inventive folktale-like storytelling, into the physical and psychological wounds of several generations of conflict.  There's even some digging for bones, and that reminded me of an earlier nonfiction Rights Readers selection from some years back, The Bone Woman, a memoir by Clea Koff. Koff is a forensic anthropologist who was part of the team investigating war crimes in both Rwanda and the Balkans. Here's an interview from last summer where she explains the kind of evidence a forensic team working for the International Criminal Tribune for the Former Yugoslavia might bring to bear on the ongoing trials of war criminals such as Ratko Mladic. For readers of The Tiger's Wife who'd like to know the reality behind the book, The Bone Woman would be a good place to start.

Of course, I was interested in finding out what Koff has been up to recently and was surprised to learn that she is the author of two mysteries, Freezing and the forthcoming Passing about a pair of L.A-based forensic investigators solving missing persons identification cases. Sounds promising! Mystery fans! Let me know if you think one of these would be a good option for our August mystery month selection some time...
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