Sunday, December 15, 2013

Our December Author: Eyal Press

This month we are reading Eyal Press' Beautiful Souls: The Courage and Conscience of Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times, a great little book that is both inspiring and thought-provoking. Watch the video above for a brief taste of this author's insight into how everyday moral dilemmas converge with huge global concerns.  This book asks what kind of person breaks from the crow and to defy orders or become a whistleblower. This is sure to be a great discussion starter! For an overview of the book, you can check out the Talk of the Nation NPR interview that got me interested in this title, or this interview from Penn State.

To learn more about the author, stop by his web page.  You can browse links to articles Press has written there, but here are a few that I thought extended the discussion from the book particularly well:

From NYRB Whistleblower, Leaker, Traitor, Spy: How does Edward Snowden fit the whistleblower model? And similarly an NYT op-ed leading with the Bradley Manning case: Silencing the Whistle-Blowers.

From Tom Dispatch Why No One Would Listen: Corporate Whistleblowers Get the Silent Treatment From Washington: Why do we ignore those who call out corporate malfeasance and bring the hammer down on national security whistleblowers?

One of the cases recounted in the book involves a WWII era Swiss border guard, Paul Grüninger, who disobeyed orders allowing thousands of Jewish refugees to escape Nazi Germany. If your German is up to speed, a documentary about Grüninger is viewable here, but if not, you may be in luck, as a feature film version of this story, "Akte Grüninger" is set to debut next month. I have no idea whether it will make it to the U.S. market, but it looks promising and you can view the trailer - released just this week - below.

Finally, I know I'm now curious about Eyal Press' previous book about the abortion debate, Absolute Convictions: My Father, a City, and the Conflict that Divided America. If you are too, you can get a preview of the subject of that book from this NPR Fresh Air interview.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Rights Reel: Young Lakota on Independent Lens

I've just started reading Louise Erdrich's The Round House (a Cleveland Rights Readers selection). This fictional narrative draws on realities like those described in the Amnesty International report, Maze of Injustice, about sexual violence against indigenous women, and institutional barriers to redress. Now I'm really looking forward to another look at gender issues and Native Americans in the up-coming PBS Independent Lens presentation of Young Lakota
South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation is no stranger to strife and heartbreak, stark realities, and inspired idealism. In Young Lakota, we are brought directly into the emotional and often uncertain journey of Sunny Clifford, her twin sister Serena, and their politically ambitious friend Brandon Ferguson, who all share the desire to make a difference for themselves and their community. 
Their political awakening begins when Cecelia Fire Thunder — the first female president of the Oglala Lakota — defies a South Dakota law that makes abortion a crime, even in cases of rape or incest. Fire Thunder takes a stand by proposing a women's health clinic providing abortions on the reservation but open to all local women. While Serena is unwed and with a toddler, and Brandon is raising two little boys, Sunny is just back on the reservation after two years in college. All three find themselves immersed in this political battle as they struggle between opportunity and principle.
The film comes from the team that made the excellent documentary, The Education of Shelby Knox.  Young Lakota premieres on November 25th.

While I'm at it, another Frontline/Independent Lens offering on these themes is last spring's Kind Hearted Woman, the film follows Robin Charboneau, a 32-year-old divorced single mother and Oglala Sioux woman living on North Dakota’s Spirit Lake Reservation.

Robin’s battles in tribal court with her ex-husband for custody of the children, even after he is convicted of abusive sexual contact with his daughter, illuminate how serious this problem is on the reservation. Her quest to heal her family, find a man worthy of her love, build a career, and fulfill her goal of returning to her reservation to help prevent the abuse of women and children, takes her on an intimate and inspiring journey full of heartbreak, discovery, and redemption.

The film is available to watch online at the PBS site, or you can download the audio on iTunes (a good way to work through it's full five hours). Both films are great companions to Erdrich's award-winning novel.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Read for Rights on International Children's Day

Need a break from the Gettysburg Address and JFK assassination anniversaries? How about a celebrating International Children's Day by learning about some great children's books?

The panel discussion above is from last year's PEN World Voices Festival and takes its inspiration from Janusz Korczak, the Polish educator and orphanage director who chose to stay with his charges upon transfer to the Warsaw Ghetto and Treblinka, where he was killed. Author Patricia McCormick further explores the theme of genocide in her book Never Fall Down, along with the subject of the book, Cambodian genocide survivor, musician and activist Arn Chorn-Pond (also the subject of the film, The Flute Player). Debby Dahl Edwardson's novel, My Name Is Not Easy, was a National Book Award finalist and concerns the impact of boarding school on the language and culture of Inupiaq children  in the 1960s. Polish journalist Wojciech Jagielski, the author of a book (for adults) about child soldiers, The Night Wanderers: Uganda's Children and the Lord's Resistance Armyrounds out the panel.  I was inspired to read both McCormick and Edwardson's books after listening to this panel and recommend them for young readers interested in learning more about human rights through stories about their peers. Arn Chorn-Pond's story of survival and healing, in particular, is an inspiring one for people of all ages.

To learn more about children's rights, please visit Amnesty International's FAQ on the Convention on the Rights of the Child and while you're at the site, take action on behalf of Syrian children.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

For January: In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner

This January, join Pasadena Rights Readers in reading and discussing PEN/Hemingway Award finalist, In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner,
For seven-year-old Raami, the shattering end of childhood begins with the footsteps of her father returning home in the early dawn hours bringing details of the civil war that has overwhelmed the streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. Soon the family’s world of carefully guarded royal privilege is swept up in the chaos of revolution and forced exodus. 
Over the next four years, as she endures the deaths of family members, starvation, and brutal forced labor, Raami clings to the only remaining vestige of childhood—the mythical legends and poems told to her by her father. In a climate of systematic violence where memory is sickness and justification for execution, Raami fights for her improbable survival. Displaying the author’s extraordinary gift for language, In the Shadow of the Banyan is testament to the transcendent power of narrative and a brilliantly wrought tale of human resilience.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Eyes on Nigeria: Human Rights Supplement to Transwonderland

This month we are travelling to Nigeria via Noo Saro-Wiwa's Looking for Transwonderland. While we are on tour, one stop definitely needs to be Amnesty International's Eyes on Nigeria website, particularly the interactive map which documents the location of oil spills, forced evictions, police brutality incidents and more. Also worth checking out are Amnesty's 2011 report The True 'Tragedy': Delays and Failures in Tackling Oil Spills in the Niger Delta and a press release from this month: Shell’s false claims on Niger Delta oil spills exposed,
A new report published today uncovers specific cases in which Shell has wrongly reported the cause of oil spills, the volume of oil spilled, or the extent and adequacy of clean up measures.

"Shell is being disingenuous about the devastation caused by its Niger Delta operations. This new evidence shows that Shell's claims about the oil spills cannot be trusted," said Audrey Gaughran, Director of Global Issues at Amnesty International.

New analysis from an independent expert found that so-called official investigation reports into the cause of oil spills in the Niger Delta can be "very subjective, misleading and downright false."

The report highlights systemic weaknesses in the way the cause of a spill and the volume are determined - with some significant errors in the volumes that are recorded as spilled.

The consequences for the affected communities are devastating and can result in them receiving little or no compensation.
Another important report regarding forced evictions was released this past August: If You Love You Life, Move Out! NIGERIA: Forced Eviction in Badia East, Lagos State,
By the end of the demolition, the Oke Ilu-Eri community, which forms part of Badia East, was razed to the ground and a part of the nearby Ajeromi community was also destroyed. At least 266 structures that served as homes and businesses were completely wiped out, affecting an estimated 2,237 households. Ataminimum, close to 9,000 people were affected. No alternative housing was provided by the Lagos state government and people were left homeless after the demolitions.
Finally, here is a short documentary about the oil spill issue. It contains a brief appearance by Ken Saro-Wiwa, Jr., Noo's brother.

The Transwonderland Tour

Reading a travel book like Noo Saro-wiwa's Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria is time-consuming, not because it's a difficult read but you need to keep a computer handy because you want to look for pictures or videos of the sights she describes. Of course the first thing I wanted to search out was pictures of the decrepit amusement park Transwonderland, but I kept getting directed to the wonderful book cover illustration by Rod Hunt, so that will have to do.

I did find the video above, offering up the fantastically colorful pageantry of the Durbar Festival in Kano. We here at Rights Readers love a parade and this looks every bit as exciting as what Pasadena has on offer with bonus points for the elegantly costumed horses. (You might want to jump ahead 2-3 minutes into the video to avoid a long credit sequence.) A couple of World Heritage sites are mentioned in the book. Here's the UNESCO website for the Sukur Cultural Landscape and the Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove.

And just to balance the picture with a little modern day reality, check out Transparency International's country profile of Nigeria, where among other fun facts, you'll learn that 63% of Nigerians reported paying a bribe in 2010. I'll share more on human rights concerns in Nigeria in my next post.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Our November Author: Noo Saro-Wiwa

This month our reading adventure is a road trip with Noo Saro-Wiwa. The short video above lets you get acquainted with the author of Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria (and offers an endorsement of another Rights Readers favorite, Michela Wrong). Other brief audio interviews (of better quality than the one above) are available from PRI and the BBC. This Guardian profile might be the best introduction and goes to the heart of the book --beyond travelogue to her journey towards reconciliation with the country where her father, writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, was executed,
Spending time in Nigeria left her deeply, indelibly impressed by her father's achievements, she says. "It's such an incredibly tough country, just to live in. You see how people struggle. The skills you need merely to survive there … It's just so much more difficult than in the UK. So to truly see what my father achieved, from such a disadvantaged background economically and ethnically, and the challenges he took on over and above that – facing down a massive oil multinational, a military dictatorship. I knew he was brave, but only now do I really understand just how monumental it was, what he did."
One reason we wanted to read Noo's book was because we had so much enjoyed her brother Ken's very moving book, In the Shadow of a Saint: A Son's Journey to Understand His Father's Legacy. It's one of my all-time favorite Rights Readers selections. If you picked up Transwonderland and want to go deeper it's worth tracking down,
What was it like to grow up with such a politically active and socially conscious father? How do you come to terms with your father's imprisonment and execution? How do you cope with the endless international press speculation about your father's life and character? And how do you respond when international attention is focused on you? How do you make your own way in life against your father's expectations of you, especially when you carry the same name? How do you live with such a complex personal history? This frank and memorable depiction of Ken Saro-Wiwa's childhood and relationship with his father vividly recounts the journey he took to answer those questions.
Here's an interview with Ken about the book:

I don't want to leave out sister Zina out either. Get to know this young filmmaker at her home page Check out some of her short experimental films, try The Deliverance Of Comfort which shares some concerns found in Transwonderland or Phyllis which she describes as "alt-Nollywood."

Definitely a lot of talent in the family (Papa would be proud!) and we're looking forward to keeping an eye on their future projects!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Rights Reel: Nollywood Babylon and more


This month we are reading Noo Saro-Wiwa's account of visiting her homeland, Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria. As part of soaking in the local ambiance, the author takes in some Nigerian cinema and meets up with a local film director. If you'd like to learn more about Nollywood, the world's third largest film industry, Nollywood Babylon will take you there. This documentary is readily available through Amazon Instant and Netflix streaming. The film is worth it not just for insights into modern Nigerian storytelling and entrepreneurship, but also the glimpses it gives of Lagos' vibrant street life. The relationship between the film industry and evangelical Christianity is also explored.

While we are revisiting the Saro-Wiwa legacy, there are two other films available via Amazon and Netflix that Loyal Readers may be interested in. One is the documentary Delta Boys which investigates the stories of anti-government rebels in the oil-rich Niger Delta. The other is a BBC mini-series Blood & Oil. It's not the BBC's finest hour, but the drama features a young, naive Nigerian ex-pat woman, the daughter of a prominent judge, who returns to Nigeria after rebels have kidnapped some British oil workers, so it's an interesting companion to Transwonderland.  Plus, I'm always interested in how human rights issues get processed through popular culture. Fair warning though, if you are sensitive to on-screen violence, you should proceed with caution with both these films.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Our October Author: Luis Alberto Urrea

This month we are reading Luis Alberto Urrea's novel Into the Beautiful North and it just so happens that the book was chosen as part of the National Endowment for the Arts Big Read for this year. That means that not only are we reading this cross-border adventure with lots of other folks around the country (see some of the great events others have planned here), but also that the NEA has supplied this nice audio introduction to the book as well.  You can also catch up with how the Big Read is going at the author's website which includes Luis account of Big Read happenings.

If Mr. Urrea's going to be speaking at an event near you, take advantage!  After spending some time with Luis via YouTube, I can say that he is both entertaining and inspiring. But be forewarned, he managed to convince me to read one of his other books (where do I apply for extra credit?), his nonfiction account of death on the border, The Devil's Highway: A True Story, which may be one of the best books I've read this year. So what are some of the videos I would recommend? Lots of laughs in the hometown presentation for San Diego's One City/One Book program at the top of this post --here's Part 2-- and for inspiration, you can't beat this Zocalo audio presentation 'Humanity & Legality' (also available via iTunes).

For those who prefer print, this Powell's interview has lots of great insights into the book's humor,
Somebody said to me about a week ago, "You've invented a genre which I call slapstick immigration." I thought that was hilarious, because I hadn't thought of it that way. But I like it.
Bookslut also has some great stuff,
Here's what I think: I, of course, write about the border because I'm from the border. Others who are not from the border, write these books about the border that are more like "my day at the zoo," books filled with little brown people running amuck. They write without sensitivity; they certainly don't write with any love of the place. That sort of thing bothers me. 
I've been accused of being a Polyanna by some of those very writers. Yes, everyone knows it's hell at the border, but it's not hell all the time; that's where my grandmother lives!
There's more to share about Luis Urrea, but I'll save it for other posts. Just a brief reminder here though-- be sure to check out Amnesty International's 'Immigrant Rights are Human Rights' page and this fresh Urgent Action concerning Mexican community activists to round out our consideration of this warm-hearted novel.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

For December:Beautiful Souls by Eyal Press

On the Swiss border with Austria in 1938, a police captain refuses to enforce a law barring Jewish refugees from entering his country. In the Balkans half a century later, a Serb from the war-blasted city of Vukovar defies his superiors in order to save the lives of Croats. At the height of the Second Intifada, a member of Israel’s most elite military unit informs his commander he doesn’t want to serve in the occupied territories. 
Fifty years after Hannah Arendt examined the dynamics of conformity in her seminal account of the Eichmann trial, Beautiful Souls explores the flipside of the banality of evil, mapping out what impels ordinary people to defy the sway of authority and convention. Through the dramatic stories of unlikely resisters who feel the flicker of conscience when thrust into morally compromising situations, Eyal Press shows that the boldest acts of dissent are often carried out not by radicals seeking to overthrow the system but by true believers who cling with unusual fierceness to their convictions. Drawing on groundbreaking research by moral psychologists and neuroscientists, Beautiful Souls culminates with the story of a financial industry whistleblower who loses her job after refusing to sell a toxic product she rightly suspects is being misleadingly advertised. At a time of economic calamity and political unrest, this deeply reported work of narrative journalism examines the choices and dilemmas we all face when our principles collide with the loyalties we harbor and the duties we are expected to fulfill.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Rights Rhythm: Spain in My Heart

Last week I kicked off our discussion of Rebecca Pawel's Watcher in the Pine with Pete Seeger's take on the Spanish Civil War song 'Viva La Quinte Brigada.' How about we close out with a little more music? This is from an album of contemporary musicians putting their spin on anthems of the era, Spain in My Heart: Songs of the Spanish Civil War. The album includes Pete and Arlo Guthrie singing Woody Guthrie's song 'Jarama Valley', another version of 'Viva La Quinte Brigada' by East LA natives Queztal and the always inspiring Lila Downs (see video above) with 'El Quinto Regimiento.'

The idealistic appeal of "fighting the good fight" against the fascist troops of General Francisco Franco as he warred against Spain’s democratically elected government drew more than 45,000 volunteer soldiers from over 50 countries during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). This influx created a canon of war-related songs sung by the freedom fighters and revived during the American folk boom of the Fifties. Rather than emulating the strident chaos of battle, the CD conveys more subtle aspects of the conflict – yearning for simpler times ("Asturias," "En La Plaza De Mi Pueblo"); longing for distant loved ones ("The Bantry Girls’ Lament"); the equal significance of life, love and death ("Llegó Con Tres Heridas"). The war and the bravery of the anti-fascist forces are addressed in such songs as "Jarama Valley," "El Quinto Regimiento," "Taste of Ashes," and "The Abraham Lincoln Brigade." No matter in what language the songs are performed, the bravery, pain and loss felt by soldiers and civilians alike are rendered with a conviction and feeling that transcends words and forges an aching link with the listener.
Sample more tracks from the album below.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Rights Reel: The Mexican Suitcase

Who doesn't love a lost treasure story? As a film supplement to our reading of Rebecca Pawel's Watcher in the Pine, a mystery set in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, I'd like to recommend the documentary The Mexican Suitcase. The film tells the story of three lost boxes found in a closet in Mexico City in 2007. The boxes, misplaced in the chaos at the start of WWII, contained many of the Spanish Civil War negatives by the legendary photographer Robert Capa and fellow photographers Gerda Taro and David "Chim" Seymour.  The film traces the path of the negatives from Spain to France to Mexico and highlights the role Mexico played in the civil war and its significance for refugees from Spain. The film also examines the attitude of today’s Spaniards towards the fate of their ancestors who lost their lives in the war. You can stream it on Netflix or Amazon Instant.

You can also learn more and browse through a gallery of photos at the International Center for Photography website and the story and photos are also available in book form.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Franco's Ghost

Here's a few additional resources on the Spanish Civil War in case you wanted to put our August book, Watcher in the Pine, in context. Google Cultural Institute has an easily digestible multimedia spread that gives you the basics. For a little additional period color, you can watch The Spanish Earth, a 1937 pro-Republican propaganda film narrated by Ernest Hemingway. If you'd like a little more depth, try this podcast from the BBC In Our Time Series.

As with many divisive periods in a nation's life (I'm thinking of our recent reading of Anna Funder's Stasiland about East and West Germany) the process of reconciliation is ongoing. Just this year, Amnesty International released a report, "Time Passes, Impunity Remains", criticizing the Spanish government for blocking investigations into Franco-era crimes,
“The fact that Spain is neither investigating nor cooperating with proceedings relating to crimes committed during the Civil War by both parties to the conflict or under Franco is a slap in the face of all the relatives of those who were abused and disappeared at the time,” said Esteban Beltrán, Director of Amnesty International Spain. 
“We have seen a tendency for these cases to be closed without further investigation but the situation has worsened recently after the Supreme Court ruled that it was not for Spanish judges to prosecute these crimes. The only avenue of judicial investigation available in Spain it seems to be shut down.”
Amnesty is urging authorities in Spain to investigate and prosecute crimes or offences under international law and to assist fully with any request for cooperation it receives from foreign courts that decide to investigate these crimes.  For more on how Spaniards are confronting the legacy of the Franco era, watch "Franco's Ghost" above.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Our August Author: Rebecca Pawel

It's time to get to know Rebecca Pawel, author of our enaging "Mystery Month" selection Watcher in the Pine.  First stop is her website,, which has the usual biography and info about her other books. In the Links section, she has helpful pointers to the sources she consulted to create the Spanish Civil War setting for her books, something I was curious about, but unfortunately many of the links are now defunct. This one which will give you a little tour of Liébana and Potes, still works.  The New York Sun also has a brief profile of the Pawel here.  Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of interviews with this author available online. Fellow crime fiction writer Cara Black gets her on record with her favorite writers and films and other assorted trivia here, but the most interesting stuff can be found at Morpheme Tales where she discusses creating the central character, Tejada, how she worked to get the historical details right and the reception of her first book Death of a Nationalist, in Spain. Probably the best news is that although she has completed the Tejada series, her next book will be in Renaissance Flanders during the Eighty Years War. I'm not sure that's going to bring her back to Rights Readers, but it'll be on my personal "to read" list for sure.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Back to Picasso's War

I was excited we chose Rebecca Pawel's Watcher in the Pine as our "Mystery Month" selection thinking it was great that we were going to discuss a new topic, the Spanish Civil War. Somehow, I had completely forgotten how much we had enjoyed reading Russell Martin's Picasso's War: The Destruction of Guernica and the Masterpiece That Changed the World. If you want to jog your memory about the painting, the book and the history behind it in preparation for reading this month's mystery, the Picasso's War website is a fun place to start.

For more visuals of the era, check out UCSD's collection of posters from the Spanish Civil War or Columbia University's collection of children's drawings from the period.  I would love to find more books like Picasso's War that offer great works of art as an entry point into a discussion of history and human rights. Let me know if you know of any or nominate some works of art for this treatment in comments!

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Rights Rhythm: Defeat Facism with Pete Seeger!

Let's warm up for the discussion of our August mystery, Rebecca Pawel's Watcher in the Pine, set in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War with a recent performance of Pete Seeger and grandson performing in front of a massive audience in Barcelona in the video above. Pete recalls the solidarity album he and other American anti-fascists helped put together in 1943, Songs of the Spanish Civil War 1: Lincoln Brigadeand urges the crowd on just as vigorously as back in the day. Pete would want you to sing along: find the lyrics here. Sample the original album below. Rumba la rumba la rumba la!

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Back to Burma with Emma Larkin

Some years ago we read and enjoyed Emma Larkin's Finding George Orwell in Burma, in which the author explores both the life of the British writer, whose experience as an officer in the British Imperial Police in Burma was formative of his political consciousness, and life for ordinary people under the 'Orwellian' control of the ruling junta's repressive  government.

She followed up that book with Everything Is Broken: A Tale of Catastrophe in Burma an account of the impact of Cyclone Nargis on Burma. Tens of thousands of people were killed as a result of the cylone and the Burmese regime not only failed to organize domestic relief efforts but also barred international aid, causing untold needless suffering. It was always my intention to put this book into our selection pool, but it appeared not to be available in paper, one of our criteria for selection. In the meantime, as so often happens after a major catastrophe, the exposure of the regime's underlying weakness in failing to provide for it's people has led to reforms, including the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and other political dissidents from house arrest or prison, and parliamentary elections held over a year ago. Eventually I learned that the book was available in paper, but the title of the book had been changed (No Bad News for the King: The True Story of Cyclone Nargis and Its Aftermath in Burma). But the disaster topic now seemed a little dated. (Note to publishers: Don't change titles in midstream!) Nevertheless, I went ahead and read the book and quite enjoyed it, even if it leaves off before the going gets good, and just wanted to put this out there for those who enjoyed the Orwell journey and would like a follow-up. What I am really hoping now is that Ms. Larkin is out there gathering up stories-- from what we hope is a Burma transitioning to democracy-- and a new book will let us know how that project is going soon. In the meantime, you can read a New Republic article by Larkin, "The Awakening" which reports on the post-Nargis human rights thaw, and check out her book recommendations at Five Books

You can read more about Amnesty International's concerns for the current human rights concerns in Burma (Myanmar) and take action on behalf of a detained Burmese activist here.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Rights Reel: The Attack

A few years ago, we read Yasmina Khadra's book, The Attackabout a suicide bombing and a Palestinian doctor's quest for answers in it's wake. I'll be honest and say it wasn't one of our favorites and we thought we might have done better with one of the Algerian writer's other novels, such as the The Swallows of Kabul. But Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri thought otherwise and has made the book into a film. At Word and Film he explains, 
It’s a love story. It’s about taking your character and stonewalling him and making his quest harder. It’s about the ambivalence of living in two societies. Like I do. I’m still juggling between the Arabic society and my life in the West. And let’s not kid ourselves: It’s a great book. We changed the book; we changed its ending and added music and visuals. But the material is great. It’s not an intellectual book. It’s about a man who cannot comprehend what happened to him. This is emotional; it’s not analytical. 
Doueiri's film has received quite positive reviews and this may be one of those cases where the film improves on the book. Robert Worth, writing in a fascinating essay for the New York Times, "Can we imagine the life of a terrorist?" thinks so, especially praising Doueri's reluctance to assign motivation to the terrorist, and hinting that Khadra's military background may cause him to offer up unrealistic rationality in his fictional terrorist characters. I'm looking forward to seeing the film.

One place it won't be seen is the Middle East. The Arab League has banned the film, ostensibly because of a work rule that bars Lebanese, like director Ziad Doueiri, from working in Israel, where the movie was filmed. Doueiri believes that the film's sympathetic portrait of Israelis was the real motivation behind the Arab League boycott. Khadra is also incensed by the censorship, 
“While Syria is going up in flames, Iraq is suffering from countless suicide bombings, and Libya is sinking into disarray, the Arab League is taking it out on an artist,” Khadra said to The Times of Israel this week after the movie’s French premiere. “Isn’t that the height of obscenity?”
For more on how director Ziad Doueiri changed the novel and how his study of film, including Alan Resnais' Night and Fog transformed his view of Israelis listen to this interview from WBEZ's Worldview.

Have you seen the film? What did you think?

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Vaddey Ratner's In the Shadow of the Banyan Coming Up for Cleveland

Spread the word! Cleveland Rights Readers will be reading In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner for September. The book was a PEN/Hemingway Award Finalist this year (along with our previous selection Jennifer DuBois A Partial History of Lost Causes.)  The discussion will be held at 6:30 PM on September 8 at Mac's Backs. Here's more on this novel inspired by the author's experiences as a Cambodian refugee,
For seven-year-old Raami, the shattering end of childhood begins with the footsteps of her father returning home in the early dawn hours bringing details of the civil war that has overwhelmed the streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. Soon the family’s world of carefully guarded royal privilege is swept up in the chaos of revolution and forced exodus. 
Over the next four years, as she endures the deaths of family members, starvation, and brutal forced labor, Raami clings to the only remaining vestige of childhood—the mythical legends and poems told to her by her father. In a climate of systematic violence where memory is sickness and justification for execution, Raami fights for her improbable survival. Displaying the author’s extraordinary gift for language, In the Shadow of the Banyan is testament to the transcendent power of narrative and a brilliantly wrought tale of human resilience.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Imperial Reckoning: A Human Rights Victory

This is old news since the settlement was in June, but I thought it was important to bring our reading of Caroline Elkin's Pulitzer-winning book Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya some closure by acknowledging the victory in court of the elderly Mau Mau survivors who finally gained compensation from the British government for injuries sustained during detention in the 1950s. According to the LA Times
Five elderly Kenyans filed claims against the British government in 2009, but the law firm Leigh Day eventually represented the 5,228 Kenyan claimants. Among the original claimants, Paulo Muoka Nzili testified that he was castrated by British soldiers. Wambuga Wa Nyingi was in the Hola prison camp in 1959 when British guards carried out horrific beatings, killing 11 people. He was beaten with clubs and passed out. Jane Muthoni Mara suffered sexual abuse in a prison camp.
Caroline Elkins details her experience with the case both in submitting the evidence she used for Imperial Reckoning, and her work as an expert witness sifting through 300 newly discovered boxes of material, and finally sharing in the emotional outcome with Kenyan survivors, in The Guardian.
Ultimately, the Mau Mau case is as symbolic as it is instructive. Regardless of future claims, Britons can no longer hide behind the rhetoric of unequivocal imperial success. Instead, British liberalism in the empire – with its alleged spread of civilisation, progress, liberty and rule of law justifying any coercive actions – has been irreversibly exposed. 
Instead of being one-offs, Britain's colonial violence was as systematised as its efforts at cover-up. The British validation of the Mau Mau claims – and its first form of an apology for modern empire – offers its citizens an opportunity to understand more fully the unholy relationship between liberalism and imperialism, and the impacts not only on the elderly Kikuyu, but on themselves.
Imperial Reckoning was probably the most academic book we've read and one of the most challenging due to the unrelenting horror of the subject matter, but it's also likely the only book where we can draw a direct line between the testimony unearthed by the book's author and an important victory for the cause of human rights. That in itself is an inspiring story for authors, readers and activists.

Something to keep an eye on going forward: the law firm that drove the case is now looking for compensation for Caribbean slavery from France, Britain and the Netherlands.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Trouble on the Mekong

A few summers ago, we journeyed down the Mekong river from it's headwaters in Tibet to the delta in Vietnam courtesy of Edward Gargan's The River's Tale: A Year on the Mekong.  The video above gives us an update on the massive dam projects now underway in Thailand, Laos, and China that
are disrupting the livelihoods of the people who live in the region and producing ecological damage that extends all the way to the Mekong delta. Learn more at

Monday, August 05, 2013

For November: Looking for Transwonderland by Noo Saro-Wiwa

Several years ago, we read Ken Wiwa's memoir, In the Shadow of a Saint, a memoir about his relationship with his father, the writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa who was executed by the Nigeria government in November 1995. The book was one of our favorites. Now our Pasadena group has chosen a book for this coming November by his daughter Noo: Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria. I'm really looking forward to Noo as our guide to life in contemporary Nigeria.
Noo Saro-Wiwa was brought up in England, but every summer she was dragged back to visit her father in Nigeria — a country she viewed as an annoying parallel universe where she had to relinquish all her creature comforts and sense of individuality. After her father, activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, was killed there, she didn’t return for several years. Recently, she decided to come to terms with the country her father given his life for. 
Saro-Wiwa travels from the exuberant chaos of Lagos to the calm beauty of the eastern mountains; from the eccentricity of a Nigerian dog show to the decrepit kitsch of the Transwonderland Amusement Park. She explores Nigerian Christianity, delves into the country’s history of slavery, examines the corrupting effect of oil, and ponders the huge success of Nollywood. 
She finds the country as exasperating as ever, and frequently despairs at the corruption and inefficiency she encounters. But she also discovers that it si far more beautiful and varied than she had ever imagined, with its captivating thick tropical rainforest and ancient palaces and monuments. Most engagingly of all, she introduces us to the many people she meets, and gives us hilarious insights into the African character, its passion, wit and ingenuity. 

Monday, July 22, 2013

For October: Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea

Pasadena's Rights Readers have chosen Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea for October, 
Nineteen-year-old Nayeli works at a taco shop in her Mexican village and dreams about her father, who journeyed to the US to find work. Recently, it has dawned on her that he isn't the only man who has left town. In fact, there are almost no men in the village--they've all gone north. While watching The Magnificent Seven,Nayeli decides to go north herself and recruit seven men--her own "Siete Magníficos"--to repopulate her hometown and protect it from the bandidos who plan on taking it over.  
Filled with unforgettable characters and prose as radiant as the Sinaloan sun, INTO THE BEAUTIFUL NORTH is the story of an irresistible young woman's quest to find herself on both sides of the fence.

Luis Alberto Urrea, 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist for nonfiction and member of the Latino Literature Hall of Fame, is a prolific and acclaimed writer who uses his dual-culture life experiences to explore greater themes of love, loss and triumph.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Rights Rhythm: Listen to Roma Rights!

Yesterday I posted about Amnesty International's concerns regarding discrimination against the Roma in the European Union as part of our larger discussion of Oksana Marafioti's memoir American Gypsy. It was just coincidence that we chose this book just as AI activists throughout Europe were coming up with creative ways to get the word out, but we always appreciate artful campaigns here at Rights Readers. So check out this video of Austrians hosting some gypsy street dancing and this one of a Belgian flash mob forced eviction drama in front of the European Parliament.

CD Listen to Roma rights
Best of all, Amnesty's Dutch activists have assembled a CD of Roma musicians from throughout Europe, Listen to Roma Rights, to support the campaign. The YouTube playlist above gives you some idea of the variety of music and also allows the musicians to talk about their own concerns for the Roma community. The mp3s are available on iTunes for download, however, if you think a physical CD sounds like a great gift for a musician-activist in your life, you may have to wait. The CD was released in May of this year, so perhaps some copies will arrive on a slow boat to the Amnesty USA Store later this year.

But how about something Russian to close out our discussion of our book about Russian immigrants? Did you know Yul Brynner also claimed Russian and Roma heritage? Enjoy!

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Human Rights Here, Roma Rights Now

Here at Rights Readers we aim to use personal memoirs like Oksana Marafioti's American Gypsy to illuminate larger issues relating to human rights. While the kinds of discrimination young Oksana experienced were relatively mild, depressingly, there are far too many Amnesty International videos and reports on the subject of serious human rights violations against the Roma to choose from. The video above was made to accompany the release of a report last April, Human Rights Here, Roma Rights Now: A Wake-up Call to the European Union. The problem:
  • Between 10 and 12 million Roma live in Europe – half of them in EU member states.
  • Eight out of 10 Roma households in the EU are at risk of poverty. 
  • In 2012 11,803 evictions of Roma were carried out in France alone.
  • Over the past six years, there has been an average of one eviction of Roma every other day in Italy.
  • In Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Bulgaria, between January 2008 and July 2012, there have been more than 120 serious violent attacks against Romani people and their property, including shootings, stabbings and Molotov cocktails.
An even more recent report Pushed to the Margins: Five Stories of Roma Forced Evictions in Romania details how Roma are being denied their right to adequate housing and subjected to continuing poverty, insecurity and social exclusion as a result.  (Don't be afraid to click on these reports! They aren't that dry-- there are pictures!) You can help out by signing this Amnesty petition to the Prime Minister of Romania, Victor Ponta, asking him to use his power to end forced evictions.

More videos, reports and press releases at and AI-UK. It's also worth just scanning the New York Times article tagged "Romani People" to see how common incidents of discrimination are.

In tomorrow's post we'll rock to the Romani beat!

Friday, July 19, 2013

Rights Reel: Korkoro

In my last post, Roma 101, I offered some resources for learning about the history and culture of the Roma people to enhance our discussion of Oksana Marafioti's American Gypsy: A Memoir. To shift the focus to human rights-relevant themes in that history, it's important to point out the Roma WWII experience. Under the Nazi regime, German authorities subjected Roma to arbitrary internment, forced labor, and mass murder.  Please visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum site or the Wikipedia page for Porajmos (The Romani term for the Holocaust) to learn more.

Now I know browsing those pages is not how anyone wants to spend their weekend, so what if there was a way to learn about this historical event and in a more personal, relatable way? Sort of a Schindler's List with gypsies? In fact, the French movie by Romani director Tony Gatlif is just the ticket. Inspired by the true life of a Romani who escaped the Nazis with help from French villagers, the film has the same stunning cinematography and rich musical score as Gatlif's Latcho Drom (one of my all time favorite films). You can stream Korkoro here via Amazon or on Netflix. Then check out the film's Wikipedia page to learn the real life basis for the fictional story.

Another film I have not seen but which looks worth seeking out to learn more about the Roma is A People Uncounted. Check out the trailer below:

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Roma 101


This month's book, American Gypsy: A Memoir by Oksana Marafioti, was an enjoyable introduction to Roma culture seen through the eyes of a young Russian immigrant. I wouldn't have minded a bit more substance on the history of the Roma people and their present day concerns, but discovering supplemental materials along those lines is just what this blog is for!

So if the history of the Roma didn't fly by fast enough for you in the book, try the fun Roma 101 video above and visit the Open Society Foundations site to learn more. For another American Roma story don't miss this story about late 19th century Hungarian immigrants.

It's hard to read a book like American Gypsy about growing up in a family of musicians and not want a soundtrack to go with it. From WGBH's Sound and Spirit, here is a program combining some historical and cultural insight into the Roma while showcasing the wide range of gypsy music:

I know some of our Loyal Readers will want to know more about the Romani language. Here are your handy links to Wikipedia and to satisfy your curiosity!

I'll have some film suggestions and Amnesty perspective in the next couple of days.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Our July Author: Oksana Marafioti and American Gypsy

This month we are reading Oksana Marafioti's American Gypsy about growing up Roma in Russia and Los Angeles. You can learn more about this young memoirist at her website, which includes a list of interviews and articles she has written. She looks like a fun Facebook follow, if you want to learn more about Romani culture, as well.  Here are some links I found useful:

The author stopped by our favorite bookstore, Vroman's, a little while ago and if you missed it you can experience her booktalk in the video above (also Part 2 and Part 3) even if the audio is a bit dodgy. She stopped by NPR's Talk of the Nation last summer to discuss the book and chat with Romani callers. And finally, I hadn't heard of the reality show My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding before, but the author offers her opinion of the show in this Slate article.

More links on Roma culture and Amnesty International's concerns about the human rights of Romani people in the European Union later this week!

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Coming Soon! Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers.

We are pleased to announce two opportunities to discuss Katherine Boo's award-winning book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, death, and hope in a Mumbai undercity. Ye Olde Pasadena group has selected this book for it's usual September 15, 6:30pm meeting at Vroman's Bookstore. Loyal Reader Cheri Dellelo is launching a brand new Rights Readers in Cleveland on August 4 at 6:30pm at Mac's Backs. Let your friends in the area know!

For enticement to read the book, watch the video above.  Katherine Boo is a staff writer at The New Yorker and a former reporter and editor for The Washington Post. Her reporting has been awarded a Pulitzer Prize, a MacArthur “Genius” grant, and a National Magazine Award for Feature Writing. For the last decade, she has divided her time between the United States and India. This is her first book.  Here are a couple of enthusiastic endorsements from other authors we have read:

“There is a lot to like about this book: the prodigious research that it is built on, distilled so expertly that we hardly notice how much we are being taught; the graceful and vivid prose that never calls attention to itself; and above all, the true and moving renderings of the people of the Mumbai slum called Annawadi. Garbage pickers and petty thieves, victims of gruesome injustice—Ms. Boo draws us into their lives, and they do not let us go. This is a superb book.”

—Tracy Kidder, author of Mountains Beyond Mountains and Strength in What Remains

“I couldn’t put Behind the Beautiful Forevers down even when I wanted to—when the misery, abuse and filth that Boo so elegantly and understatedly describes became almost overwhelming. Her book, situated in a slum on the edge of Mumbai’s international airport, is one of the most powerful indictments of economic inequality I’ve ever read. If Bollywood ever decides to do its own version of The Wire, this would be it.”

—Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dime
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