Tuesday, December 18, 2012

For April: From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant

We have selected Alex Gilvarry's comic novel, From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant: A Novel, about a fashion designer who runs afoul of the national security apparatus, for April:
Boyet Hernandez is a small man with a big American dream when he arrives in New York in 2002, fresh out of fashion school in the Philippines. But on the brink of fame and fortune, there comes instead a knock on the door in the middle of the night: the flamboyant ex-Catholic is swept to America’s most notorious prison, administered a Qur’an and locked away indefinitely to discover his link to a terrorist plot.
Now, in his six-by-eight-foot cell, Boy prepares for the tribunal of his life with this intimate confession. From borrowed mattress to converted toothpick factory loft, from custom suit commissions to high-end retail, we are immersed in a wonderland of soirees, runways, and hipster romance in twenty-first-century Gotham.  Boy is equally at home (if sometimes comically misinformed) invoking Dostoevsky and Diane von Furstenberg, the Marcos tyranny and Marc Jacobs, the vicissitudes of memory and the indignity of the walking sandwich board. But behind the scrim of his wit and chutzpah is his present nightmare of detainment in the sun-baked place he calls No Man’s Land. The more Boy’s faith in American justice is usurped by the Kafkaesque demands of his interrogator, the more ardently he clings to the chimerical hope and humanity of his adoptive country. 
Funny, wise and beguiling, From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant gives us a tale so eerily evocative that it, and its hero, are poised to become an indelible part of the reader’s imagination and the literature of our strange times.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Signatures as Powerful as Bullets

Want to do vent your frustration about our nation's gun culture constructively? You can start today by telling our leaders that you support the UN Arms Trade Treaty.  Here are ten reasons why we need a strong global regulations to prevent weapons from falling into the wrong hands:

  1. 1,500 people are killed every day by conflict and armed violence. Deaths resulting from war, armed homicides, extra-judicial executions and excessive use of force by state security forces amount to over 500,000 per year or 1,500 per day.
  2. There’s more international laws regulating the trade of bananas than weapons. Legal loopholes in the laws governing the trade of weapons enable states and corporations to sell guns, bullets and teargas to dictators and tyrants, who've then used them to kill and injure civilians. Weapons are often traded irresponsibly between countries, with little consideration of whether they’ll be used to commit human rights abuses.
  3. 12 billion bullets are produced every year. There’s an estimated 875 million guns in the world right now, and about 8 million ‘light weapons’ (such as heavy machine guns) are produced each year.
  4. Over 26 million people have been forced to flee their homes. Millions of people have been forced to flee their homes in fear of their lives due to armed conflict. This often pushes people further into poverty by restricting access to clean water and shelter, while increasing the likelihood of deadly diseases.
  5. Child soldiers are being used in armed conflict in 19 countries. Tens of thousands of children are being used right now by governments in their armed forces and by non-state armed groups. These children are often armed using weapons irresponsibly traded by governments and private corporations.
  6. Click to enlarge
      For every death, there’s up to 28 serious injuries.
      It’s difficult to estimate exactly how many people are injured in armed conflict, past statistics indicate that as many as 28 people are injured for every person killed by weapons on battlefields.
    1. Damage caused by weapons destroys infrastructure and perpetuates poverty. As well as killing and harming people, weapons such as missiles destroy vital infrastructure that people rely on in their daily lives -- such as access to food, water and shelter. This can push survivors into poverty.
    2. 74 per cent of the world’s weapons are supplied by just six countries. In 2010, almost 3/4 of the world’s weapons have been supplied by six of the world’s most powerful countries: USA (34.84%), Russia (14.86%), Germany (7.43%), United Kingdom(6.57%), China (6.29%), and France (4%). All but Germany are the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. By allowing the trading of weapons which are then used to commit or facilitate human rights abuses, these governments are permitting their use for repression, conflict, violence, and other human rights violations.
    3. Systematic rape of women and girls can occur through the use of weapons. In conflict regions such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cote d’Ivore, and Sierra Leone, the scale of rape and sexual violence is staggeringly high. Many women and girls have been forced into sexual slavery by fighters, and many are raped at gunpoint. Women and girls are often the forgotten victims of armed conflict.
    4. A strong Arms Trade Treaty could save hundreds of thousands of lives every year. During July 2012, world leaders came together at the United Nations in New York to decide on adopting legally binding international standards regulating the trade of arms between countries. While the final treaty was not agreed on, it brought us closer then even before to getting a strong Arms Trade Treaty with human rights protections at its core.
    Google "arms trade treaty" and you will find yourself buried in an avalanche of conspiratorial links opposing the treaty generated by the National Rifle Association and it's allies. Why the fuss about this treaty which has no impact on domestic gun laws? From IHT:

    Some American commentators and gun-control advocates have asserted that gun lobbyists get much of their funding from gun manufacturers who could stand to lose from an international arms control deal. 
    The U.N. treaty might not dent U.S. manufacturers’ domestic market, but it would potentially impact exports that by one estimate were worth $336.5 million last year, making the United States the world leader. 
    “Is the N.R.A. working for casual gun-owners, many of whom, according to polling, support tougher restrictions on gun ownership?” Lee Fang asked in The Nation this week. “Or is the NRA serving the gunmaker lobby, which is purely interested in policies that will promote greater gun sales and more profits? 
    Despite efforts to debunk the misinformation put out by the NRA, even on Fox, it's going to take an enormous effort to amass a human rights movement counterweight in favor of a strong treaty that regulates the trade of all conventional weapons, including small arms, machine guns, bullets and tear gas and prevents the sale and transfer of weapons that could be used to commit serious human rights abuses. Please help us build a safer world today!

    Sunday, December 16, 2012

    Get Ready for More Mohsin Hamid in 2013

    I'm a bit disappointed that the film version of Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist (releasing next spring) hasn't been getting better buzz, but it I suspect it will be must-see for our Loyal Readers regardless. But something I am really excited about is his new book, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia also coming out next year. Read this great short story, “The Third-Born”, taken from the novel in The New Yorker. Then follow up with their Q. & A.
    I can’t shake the idea that a novel is like a dance, with two people dancing, writer and reader, and it’s a bit strange to pretend I’m doing it by myself. This time around, after a couple of failed drafts, I gave in to the second person completely, and I found it pretty liberating as a form: you can move from a hyper-intimate first-person-like perspective to a cosmically removed third-person-like one very easily. It seems to invite that kind of riffing.
    As reported in the New York Daily News, Hamid spoke recently with author Jay McInerney about writing the book,
    Hamid described how he had felt he needed to exorcise a self-censorship in the writing of the upcoming “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia,” — which takes the form of a self-help book and charts a boy’s rise from rural urchin to corporate tycoon — due to a fear of angering Pakistani authorities. McInerney asked: “Do you ever have a tiny Salman Rushdie on your shoulder telling you ‘be careful’?”

    “In a way it’s the American writers who are atypical,” said Hamid, “in most of the world, there’s a whole bunch of stuff you have to be careful about, and so yeah, there are many constraints on speech in Pakistan. The flipside of that is if someone will kill you for saying something, it means what you’re saying matters...even slightly pushing the boundary feels worthwhile...I have not received any kind of threat” he added “but I’m careful.”
    In other Mohsin Hamid news, Moth Smoke (which we also enjoyed) is being set to film as well. And, add him to the list of our favorite authors who love the hobbits-- see evidence here and in this reflection on Hamid's childhood journey from culture to culture and how it fed his interest in language and imaginary lands.

    Saturday, December 15, 2012

    Think Like a Hobbit

    Alright, I know some of our Loyal Readers are off to see The Hobbit this weekend.  At least a couple of our favorite authors will be right there with you.

    Maybe you recall the LotR references in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao? Here's Junot Diaz in a new book about authors' favorite reads, My Ideal Bookshelf,
    I think it was the way Tolkien created this extraordinary, secondary world, and how, through that, he enchanted the primary world. That resonated with me. His books had the power to transform what we otherwise take for granted. Reading The Lord of the Rings made me see how a novel was another – and see that I could immigrate there, too, whenever I wanted.
    And he expands on this a bit more at NYT:
    Tolkien I grew up on, fed my insatiable Ungoliant-like hunger for other worlds; I was a young fan and yet, even as an adult, I continue to wrestle with Tolkien for reasons that have much to do with growing up in the shadow of my own Dark Lord — that’s what some dictators really become in the imagination of the nations they afflict.
    (Read the whole article for more reading recommendations from Diaz).

    Salman Rushdie was also an early Tolkien fan,
    There was a sweet, elderly gentleman called Mr. J. B. Hope-Simpson, who apart from being a good history teacher was also the person who introduced me to The Lord of the Rings when I was fifteen. I completely fell in love with it, somewhat to the harm of my studies. I still remember it in uncanny detail. I really responded to the language project, all the imaginary languages. I got quite good at Elvish at one point.
    While you're waiting for The Hobbit Part 2, you might find this 2003 Guardian article, in which Rushdie shares his opinion on the second film in the Lord of the Ring series, interesting. Written on the eve of the Iraq war he examines the appeal of Tolkien's tales of good men at war in a struggle against a Great Evil.

    Finally, I think this article from the BBC, The Somme and Tolkien, does an excellent job explaining how Tolkien's tales grew out of his experiences in World War I, and more than Dark Lord dictators  and ferocious battles, why we love hobbits,
    In spite of the horror of total war, Tolkien chooses in his writing to focus his attention on the redemptive power of individual human action offered unconditionally as part of a common cause. Frodo Baggins is each of us aspiring to do good within modest limits.
    "I should like to save the Shire, if I could," says Frodo early in his quest. "Though there have been times when I thought the inhabitants too stupid and dull for words."
    Tolkien's epic works are large-scale memorials to the modest struggles of ordinary people doing their best for good against the forces of inhumanity. They are a brilliantly achieved exemplar of the way the human imagination can configure a better future even in the aftermath of senseless, bloody destruction.
    That's right, in the face of the latest disaster, think like a hobbit: light a candle, write a letter, build a better world.

    Friday, December 14, 2012

    Our December Author: Amos Oz

    This month we are discussing Scenes from Village Life by the Israeli writer and peace advocate, Amos Oz. For basic biographical reference see his Wikipedia entry. If you've got some more time you might want to check out this 2004 New Yorker profile, The Spirit Level, by David Remnick. This 1996 Paris Review interview has some fun bits too,

    INTERVIEWER:Does it ever snow in the desert? 
    OZ: Oh yes, every two or three years. And then you should see the expression on the faces of the camels crossing the desert! That is when I understand the real meaning of the word bewilderment! But even without snow, it is bitterly cold in winter, a savage place at dawn, when stormy winds seem determined to sweep away the whole town into the desert. But walking alone knocks things into proportion. If later on I read in the morning papers that some politician has said this or that will never happen, I know that this or that is going to last forever, that the stones out there are laughing, that in this desert, which is unchanged for thousands of years, a politician’s never is like . . . a month? Six months? Thirty years? Completely insignificant.
    Oz is so quotable, it's hard to know what to excerpt, so dive into these links for more worthy nuggets.

    Turning to Scenes, check out the video from 92Y above and PRI's The World interviewed Oz about the Israel presented in the book,
    The real Israel is a temperamental, hot-headed, passionate, noisy, argumentative society; very militant and it belongs in a Felini movie and not in an Ingmar Bergman film.
    NPR also discussed the novel-in-stories with the author. In this recent interview from The Jewish Chronicle Oz talks about drawing inspiration from village life,
    “I tend to think that every great literature is provincial. Chekhov, Garcia-Marquez, Faulkner and others all tend to write about small places. 
    "I lived for 30 years of my life in a very small village of 500 people, but I learned so much about those 500 people. It was an education in human nature. I knew all the secrets and the gossip, I knew who was doing what with whom. If I had travelled 10 times around the world I still wouldn’t have learned nearly as much about people as I did in those 30 years.”
    Finally, you may have heard about Oz' most recent book Jews and Words, which he wrote with his daughter, Fania Oz-Salzberger. NPR has an entertaining Scott Simon interview with the authors here and here's a bit of take-home wisdom courtesy of Aslan Media,
    AM: What can we all learn from Jewish self-criticism?
    Fania: That Jewish self-criticism is not only Jewish. It is universal. Many of the things described in our book, the mental curiosity, the irreverent reverence, the ability to laugh at oneself and one’s ancestors, while sometimes rather loving them – all this is universal. So many people, probably from every culture, share these things or aspire to them. The love of reading, the rise and rise of the printed word, which now commands almost all of our waking hours – all this is universal. We can critique what is dearest to us, or tease it, but still have a strong sense of belonging. This is a lesson the Jews might offer the world.
    Amnesty International's concerns regarding Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories can be found here.

    Thursday, December 13, 2012

    Amos Oz: How to Cure a Fanatic

    This month we are reading Scenes from Village Life by Israeli writer and peace activist Amos Oz. To jump start our discussion of the author I suggest beginning with this speech-- How to Cure a Fanatic. (You can search iTunes for audio podcast versions if you prefer).

    With a good deal of humor, Oz examines the worldwide plague of fanaticism from Bin Laden to Anders Breivik and the psychology that underpins it. Fanatics lack imagination, he says. The inability to empathize, to put oneself  in another's shoes is at the root of the problem. His stories certainly reverse that equation.

    Tell me if you found yourself thinking more about the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the negotiations over the 'fiscal cliff' when he waxes eloquent on the subject of enemies learning to compromise!

    Thursday, December 06, 2012

    Podcast Pick: Ugandan LGBT Rights and Amnesty's Suzanne Nossel on Kojo Nnamdi Show

    Kojo Nnamdi hosted an interesting discussion a couple days ago-- the first segment with Ugandan LGBT activist Julius Kaggwa talking about a bill in front of the Ugandan Parliament that would entrench discrimination and hatred against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. You can take action to oppose the bill here. Learn more about Amnesty International's campaign to decriminalize homosexuality here.

    The second segment was an interview with Amnesty International USA Executive Director Suzanne Nossel which covered a range of topics, from the excitement of being able to host an event with youth activists during Burmese Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's recent visit to the treatment of accused Wikileaks conspirator Bradley Manning. Plus Pussy Riot, Guantanmo, Syria and more. (For the next few days you should be able to find the podcast for download from iTunes otherwise you will need to visit the website for audio or transcripts.)

    Wednesday, December 05, 2012

    Write for Rights Global Marathon 2012

    Once again the Pasadena chapter of Amnesty International is gearing up for the global human rights letter-writing marathon-- Write for Rights. Every year activists around the world gather at this time to send notes of encouragement to human rights defenders and letters to governments requesting action on their behalf. Of course, our Loyal Readers write letters every month, but this is a special opportunity to work in solidarity with the organization's membership around the world in conjunction with International Human Rights Day (Dec. 10). Please join us!

    Group 22 Write-A-Thon
    Saturday, December 8, 2012 9AM - 3PM
    Zephyr Coffee House and Art Gallery
    2419 East Colorado Blvd
    Pasadena CA 91107 (map)

    Even if you can't make it, you can still pledge to write letters and participate online. We are especially pleased that our adopted prisoner of conscience, Chinese human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng is among the featured cases this year. In the video above, Gao's wife expresses her frustration at not being able to communicate with her husband. Even if you can't understand Chinese or the German subtitles, you can feel her emotion. (If I can find a version of the video above with English subtitles I will revise this post). The other cases are also very compelling, including a Bahraini activist jailed for a tweet, Missouri death row inmate Reggie Clemons, people of the Niger Delta affected by oil spills, and the jailed Russian musicians known as Pussy Riot. Read about them here.

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