A Handful of Walnuts

Every now and then, I read something that I immediately want to share with everyone I know.    I had such an experience recently while reading the current issue of Granta. The issue in print and online has some fantastic writing. (Shout outs to Hunter College MFA Alum Phil Klay and Samantha Smith).  I also really appreciated Nuruddin Farah’s “Crossbones” and Tahar Ben Jelloun’s “A Tale of Two Martyrs,” as well as work featured by Alia Malek and V.V. Ganeshananthan online.  Do check it out.

It was Ahmed Errachidi’s “A Handful of Walnuts.” that triggered something deep. I shared it with lawyer friends, animal loving friends, a friend in prison, writing friends and family members. This is an excerpt from his forthcoming memoir, which I am eager to read.  Errachidi writes of his experience in Guantanamo Bay.  His lawyer Clive Stafford Smith provides an introduction to the piece describing the circumstances that led to his unjust detention.

But it is Errachidi’s descriptions of incarcerated life that brought me to tears.  It was not only the injustice of the situation that is revealed on the page, but a beautiful mind and tender heart that responds to this unfortunate set of events.  I hope you read his words for yourself– how he entertained his fellow prisoners with descriptions of imaginary feasts, his relationship with a visiting colony of ants, and how his mind worked to keep himself alive. “Thoughts were not restricted, even though hands and feet were shackled.”

Thank you Ahmed Errachidi.

And Still Peace Did Not Come- The Power of Stories

Four years ago, when I first met Agnes Fallah Kamara-Umunna in Staten Island, she told me she collected stories. She carried them with her on a flash drive that hung from a string around her neck. Later, I opened them on my computer and listened:

“Welcome to another edition of Straight from the Heart on UNMIL Radio, 91.5 Monrovia, Harper, and Zwedru; 90.5 Gbanga; 97.1 Voinjama and Greenville; and 95.1 Sanniquellie. Straight from the Heart is a live, phone-in program designed to air your true-life stories and look at how we can become reconciled to what happened to us…. and, in some cases, the shameful things did to others…with the hope that we Liberians can reunite with one another.”

Agnes was a radio host for a UN Radio Program called Straight from the Heart focused on reconciliation after 14 years of civil war in Liberia. The program opened with the Bryan Adams pop ballad after which it was named, but later Tracy Chapmans’ “Matters of the Heart” became the introductory tune.

When we first met, Agnes had just come to New York to complete a course in trauma and recovery and also collect testimony for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as she did back in Liberia. Liberia was the first country to collect statements for their TRC from members of the diaspora, and Staten Island had the largest Liberian population outside of Liberia. “I collect stories, not statements.” Agnes once qualified.

Her recent book And Still Peace Did Not Come: A Memoir of Reconciliation, shares the stories she has collected over the years as a radio producer and weaves them with her own narrative of life during and after the Liberian Civil war. Continue reading

Good Books and Good Associations

Kausalya Thirupuvanam

This summer, my brother and I interviewed Kausalya Thirupuvanum just before her 90th birthday.  She and her family set up the Thirupuvanum foundation which sponsors a local government school in Bangalore, and was set up in response to this question:

“How can children deprived of even basic necessities like food, clothing, shelter and even parental care survive in this world… much less learn their abc’s? What future do such children have and how can this situation be alleviated?”

Kausalya Patti, as we call her, has always been full of wisdom and a proponent of education. Her advice to us about the key to a good life, was “good books and good associations.” As a literary animal, I couldn’t help but agree.  She also talked about  Jiva Karuynam–Life Compassion–and the importance of trying to live what we learn.

Here is a video that came out of that interview:


“Minds Enough to Lose and Histories that Can Only Hasten the Process”

As I mentioned in my previous post, last year, I was in a craft course on memoir, which focused on narratives of trauma.  We had just read Teresa Cha’s Dictee.  After the third read, I understood it to be  a fragmented story exploring  rupture and  loss resulting from Cha’s separation from her mother, mother tongue, and her mother land, Korea. Dictee explores what it meant for an individual and a people to be torn apart by colonization, war and migration.

It was around the same time, I had been reading about post traumatic stress disorder in chimpanzees and elephants and was interested in similar questions in the animal context.   What does it mean for an animal as an individual or a species to be subject to similar ruptures?  In The Wauchula Woods Accord, Toward a New Understanding of Animals, Charles Siebert, explores this further when he examines psyche of captive chimpanzees.

Siebert visits Patti Ragan’s Center for Great Apes in Florida, which he calls “a place to house bad dreams.”  These rescued chimpanzees had previously been stripped of their mothers and denied their own chimpanzee culture. They like others born and bred for entertainment or biomedical research may have been “chimps with a name but no recollection of a tree.”  Though these animals are well protected and cared for now, traumatic memories can still intrude their present. He notes that chimpanzees “have, like us, minds enough to lose and histories that can only hasten the process.”

Siebert who has written several thoughtful and beautiful long narrative pieces about animals in the New York Times Magazine, incorporates some of that research in The Wauchula Woods Accord.   The book is framed around one evening he spends with Roger, a chimpanzee in the sanctuary,   but he provides background into a vast body of knowledge of our complicated history with primates.  The story of Lucy is one such example and you can listen to Siebert talk about her on Radio Lab.

What is also particularly fascinating in the book is  Siebert’s description of the history of trials against animals as described in The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals: The Lost History of Europe’s Animal Trials, where all animals were granted a lawyer—and “accorded the same legal rights as human beings, right down to being provided with the best available defense attorneys, and all at the taxpayer’s expense”   He goes on to suggest that if captive animals today who have been put down as a result of a violent outbreak, were accorded “the same legal privileges as their medieval counterparts, the most amateur lawyer would be able to get them all off on insanity pleas.” Continue reading

Trauma Song

This past summer, I was fortunate to participate in a historical writing workshop with the impressive Charles Strozier at the Norman Mailer Writers Colony in Provincetown, MA. There,  I heard a little bit about his latest book on 9/11 survivors, his interviewing protocol and writing process. Earlier this month, he read from the recently published Until the Fires Stopped Burning at a bookstore in Brooklyn.

I was particularly interested in the chapter where he discussed traumasong:

“a deeply psychological state that evoked poetic forms of language, a kind of ‘melodious tear’ as Milton says in ‘Lycidas.'”

During my MFA program at Hunter College, I took a craft course with Meena Alexander,and we read a number of narratives of migration, dislocation and trauma. I became  interested in the impact of trauma on stories and story telling.

There is a loss and forgetting associated with the trauma. Fragmentation occurs. Judith Herman, author of Trauma and Recovery writes:

“The ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness. Certain violations of the social compact are too terrible to utter aloud: this is the meaning of the word unspeakable.”

Pattrice Jones, author of Aftershock, Confronting Trauma in a Violent World, further notes that Broca’s area, the region of the brain devoted to language production and comprehension, is partially and even sometimes totally disabled during traumatic experience. Jones writes,

“Traumatic memories tend to stand alone, disconnected from their contexts and from other memories. Traumatic memories also tend to be experienced differently than other memories. They are more strongly sensory and much more difficult to express accurately in words.”

Jones cites Susan Brison who writes “ Saying something about a memory does something to it.” Jones adds:

“when we find words for traumatic memories that are stored as somatic sensations, we move the memories from one place to another in our brains. The traumatic sensory fragments may still persist, but they will be increasingly linked to the more coherent story of the event that emerges as the tale is told over and over again. In this way, fragmented memories literally become linked to their surrounding life stories.”

During the process of listening to his recorded interviews, Charles Strozier noticed something with some of the survivors—a certain cadence in their stories, a certain poetry.  He further  analyzes that language and notes:

“There is no question that trauma can destroy language, as well as the cohesive self, but death encounters seem equally capable of bringing out a language of witness that is highly rhythmic and sometimes metrical, often stanzaic and quite beautiful.”

Uprisings in Egypt and Burma

Tonight I attended this discussion that examined the similarities and differences between what is happening now in Egypt with the 1988 student uprising and the 2007 Saffron Revolution in Burma.

The discussion covered the socioeconomic conditions of the two countries, the role of the military and the role of social media.

The poverty and unemployment rates in Egypt were presented and compared with Burma where 90% of the people live below poverty.  Burma has high infant mortality and child malnutrition as well.  In Egypt most households have electricity and water, which is not the case for Burma.  Out of the 80+ million people in Egypt, about 21 million are internet users, and 55 million people have access to cel phones.  In Burma, in 2004 it was estimated that less than one percent of the 55 million population  had access to the internet, though that number is increasing due to more internet cafes.

One member of the audience noted that Gmail and Facebook can be used, but yahoo is locked. Only secure web addresses are allowed.

Another gentlemen noted that in Egypt there is a common language of Arabic and there is a more digital media equipped to handle Arabic.  In Burma, there are many languages, and harder to both communicate within the country and outside.   English used to be spoken more (especially in the 1988 uprising). He also noted the difference between literacy (read, write and think) and functional literacy (read and write, but not think), which is what the military Junta advocates.

In the comparison of the two military forces, the big difference is that the Egypt’s military sided with the people instead of the government.   Soldiers in Egypt, receive a basic education, that includes political perspectives, and an understanding of the world.  Egypt requires compulsory military service, so perhaps that is why people respect the military, because all of their family members too had to serve.

In Burma, the military is large ( ~500,000) but that number is in decline.  Burma holds the largest number of child soldiers in the world (~70,000, from 2007 HRW).  Military used to maintain power.  They go through psychological training.  The military recruits orphans and children of rebels.  (Mention of ‘Tiger Schools’).

Nay Tin Myint, of the National League for Democracy ( Aung San Suu Kyi’s Party) was there to talk about the 1988 Uprisings.  He was a student at Rangoon University at the time.10,000 people had died, and there was no newspaper/tv coverage of the incident. There was no contact with the outside world.

They were able to end the Ne Win Regime.  But even after the 1990 Elections, which Aung San Suu Kyi won, the military put her under house arrest, arrested other political prisoners and held power.

Someone had asked, why did the activism seem to stop then.  Nay Tin Myint said, that those who continued were beaten and jailed.  He spent from 1989 to 2005 in  jail., seven of those years in solitary confinement.  There was lack of medical attention, lack of food. He was shackled and tortured daily.

The Military Junta employed a Four Cut Campaign ( cutting communication, food, resources, …)

But people still managed to communicate.  Another man discussed, the codes, he would use to meet up with someone.  His friend might scratch a lamp-post to indicate he wasn’t home, and he would leave a mark indicating he stopped by.Another way of organizing was by creating literature study groups and sharing books.

It was noted that 1988 uprising was inspired by 1986 events in Philippines.  And 1988 in Burma inspired 1989 in Tiananmen Square which later influenced Timor/Indonesia. (Just like Tunisia Inspired Egypt which is spreading elsewhere now too).

Nay Tin Myint noted that when he was release in 2005, other political prisoners too had been released and they were able to communicate with outside press, BBC, VOA, and Democratic Voice of Burma.  All of these are foreign radio stations.  Internal radio stations are censored.

Two monks were in attendance and one discussed the 2007 Saffron Revolution. He said that the number of monks in Burma roughly equals the number of soldiers.  The monks often come from rural areas and from the low to middle classes.

He noted three things that need to change in Burma.

1.) The low ranks of the military live in poor condition and receive poor education. It is important to educate them and change their ideology.  Perhaps then, they will stand with the people of Burma.

2.) Need technology and more access to Phone/Email/Fb.

3.) Take the opportunity to turn momentum into the Next Revolution  He noted that in 1988 they missed the opportunity to form an interim government. It would be important not to miss this the next time.

Open discussion talked about getting more books translated into Burmese language. Technology may be changing the way we transfer books too.

Discussion of music.  In Burma, “Dust in the Wind”, was a revolutionary song.  There is a strong Hip Hop movement in Burma today.

Folks from Digital Democracy were present and they noted that while social media has lots of potential, you have to be careful with it too.  It might be an easy way for a government to find out all the leaders of a movement and target them.

Hopefully the discussion will continue soon, and wonder what Malcolm Gladwell would think if he was here.