Saying Good-bye to the Coulston Foundation Forever!

I was so pleased to hear the news that the last of the chimps formerly housed at the Coulston Foundation are on their way to the wonderful Save the Chimps Sanctuary in Florida.

I remember the outrage in 1998, when the U.S. Air Force placed 111 of their former research subjects in Coulston’s care instead of retiring them to sanctuaries.  The Coulston foundation was notorious for animal welfare violations, and eventually the NIH, FDA, and USDA pulled their funding.    On the verge of bankrupcty, Coulston sold his facility to Dr. Carole Noon, director of the Save the Chimps.

Carole Noon, was my very first interview subject for Satya Magazine.  The work that she and Save the Chimps were doing was amazing.  At the time, they were running two sanctuaries.   One was a dream chimp paradise in Florida-this was the ultimate destination for all the chimps.  As they were building and expanding, they were slowly transferring chimps from Coulston’s former facility in New Mexico.  In the mean time, for the Almogordo chimps, their digs received a complete makeover, and Carole and her team worked on renovations, socialization, enrichment for these chimps who were caged in solitary.

Monday night, the last of the chimps housed in New Mexico, started on their journey— “The Great Chimp Migration“— to Florida.

I wish Carole Noon, who passed away in May 2009, was here to witness it.   As she told me, the role of the human being is often just “opening the door.”   She’s definitely opened plenty of doors for hundreds of chimpanzees.

Globalize the Struggle! On the Korea U.S. Free Trade Agreement

I wrote a post on Brighter Green‘s blog about the teach-in I attended  in Zuccotti Park on the Korea U.S. Free Trade Agreement. Check it out here.  Also, there will be an International Day of Solidarity with the Occupy Seoul on November 22, 2011.  In New York City, folks will be gathering at noon  in front of the South Korean Consulate on E 45th Street between First and Second Avenues.

Remembering Wangari Maathai at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine 11/14

I remember that December morning in 2004.  I was on my way to work and was listening to Wangari Maathai’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech on the radio.

“Recognizing that sustainable development, democracy and peace are indivisible is an idea whose time has come.”  On the verge of tears, I cheered at that moment.

Over the next few years, I grew to learn more about her work.  My collegues at Satya Magazine had interviewed  and written about Prof. Maathai, and we featured her prominently in our pages.  Later, I had the opportunity to provide research assistance on her book The Challenge for Africa (Pantheon 2009).  I was saddened to hear of her death this past September.  A summary of her ” life of firsts” can be found here.

In New York, this week, there will be a memorial service, honoring and celebrating this remarkable woman.

The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine will hold a memorial ceremony for Prof. Wangari Maathai on the 14th of November from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.
1047 Amsterdam Avenue (at 112th Street)
New York, NY
November 14th, 2011

The ceremony will begin promptly and all are invited to attend.Donations will be collected for the Green Belt Movement. Please do not bring any flowers or presents.

Monkey Mind: On Nick Flynn, Bewilderment, Torture and the Circus

In Nick Flynn’s memoir, The Ticking is the Bomb, he introduces  the Buddhist concept of “monkey mind,” the restless, bewildered, unsettled mind.  It is also the structure he adapts for the book.  Like a monkey swings from one branch to the next, Flynn’s memoir  swings from one story fragment to another.  It is a book about torture and impending parenthood; about reading and relationships. These seemingly disparate pieces echo and resonate with one another when juxtaposed (with great care and craft). The pages reveal a mind responding to all that he is reading, witnessing and feeling. ( Flynn quotes Fanny Howe:  “Bewilderement is a way of entering the day ”)

What I am drawn to in narratives is the intersection of the personal and the political.  How does violence  on a global level, or an intimate level, affect our lives, and how do we reconcile and respond to these injustices?

Flynn received an award from PEN for his first memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, the same night Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith won a sister award from PEN.   Flynn did not know then that Harris’ book advocates  torture, and what bewilders him even more was that Harris was given an award by a human rights organization for it.

Later, Flynn has the opportunity to go to Istanbul and meet with an Abu Ghraib ex-detainee, “Amir.”  “Now if asked, I’ll sometimes say, I went to Istanbul to bear witness, though at the time I was somewhat bewildered as to my role,” Flynn writes.

One of the parts of the book I found most interesting  is Flynn’s anyalysis of Standard Operating Procedures, the film and book project by Errol Morris and Philip Gourevitch. There is further corresponence between Flynn and Gourevitch on his website here. Flynn’s main criticisms are that Morris and Gourevitch take the story of the torturers at their word, and refer to the victims by the often times derogotary nicknames the military police gave them and not by their real names or dignified aliases.  And in one particular controversial passage, it seems Gourevitch suggests that the pictures look worse than things really were.  Flynn writes to Gourevitch: Continue reading

Junot Diaz and Min Jin Lee Tell it Like it is #origins #doubt #why people want to become writers

Last Saturday, the Asian American Writers’ Workshop hosted their third annual Pageturner Literary Festival (“the Siberian Literary Festival,” Granta Magazine Editor John Freeman joked when introducing his panel in the afternoon). Those of us who braved the snow/wind/rain to attend the amazing programs at Powerhouse Arena and Melville House, were very glad they made the trek. I couldn’t think of a better way to spend the day then camped out in DUMBO, listening to heartwarming stories celebrating 20 years of AAWWs, a panel on Occupy Wall Street (“There’s a reason why revolutions always happen in the spring”), and another on China and India with Siddartha Deb and Jianying Zha and their “menageries of profiles of people.” Amitava Kumar and Hishan Matar discussed the war on terror and straddling the line between activism and art, and one could just listen to Amitav Ghosh forever discuss history and opium.

One of the highlights of my day was watching Junot Diaz and Min Jin Lee “hang out.” The program description was exactly that. I wasn’t sure what this would entail,  but I was so happy I stuck around to find out. Though neither one of them really uses twitter, the conversation was split up into hash tags. #origins, #doubt, #why people want to become writers. I am going to break this post into # origins, #doubt, #the reader and #we don’t sell anyway Continue reading

Hibakusha in NY: Ichi go, Ichi e

There are so many stories about hibakusha—too many to absorb.  But there is always one story that will stay with you.  Always.  You just have to find it.”  These are the words a young woman “Ami” told Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, author of the memoir, Hiroshima in the Morning.

As I mentioned in my previous post, Rizzuto  weaves transcripts of her interviews of the atomic bomb survivors, the hibakusha, and her own narrative of piecing together this story, infusing the personal and political elements that shape memory and history.

It is UN Disarmament Week, and two hibakusha have come to New York to serve as ” Special Communicators for a World without Nuclear Weapons.”

Wan and I had a chance to hear them speak  at Teachers College in an event organized by the Peace Education program.

“Call me Grandma,” Kazue Sueishi told the intimate classroom that had filled to hear her story.  Born in America, Sueishi returned to Hiroshima as a child with her parents.   She recalled her parents talking fondly of America.  In her nursery school, she remembered being asked to draw something.  She drew something beautiful with lots of crayon colors, and when asked what it was,  she said, “America”

When the war started, she said.  She didn’t feel angry.  She saw a silver  American B-29 plane everyday.  She would refer to it as an angel.  “Good Morning Angel,” she would say.

On August 6, 1945, her family had finished breakfast (an American style breakfast she added).  She was 18 years old at the time and worked in a military factory.  She had a slight fever and stayed home sick that day.  She was out on the street with her friend when it happened.  Blue sky.  Powerful flash.  She covered her eyes with 4 fingers and ears with her thumbs, then slid to a safe spot  like a baseball player sliding into home base.  B-29 had left Hiroshima.  She talked about the burns on her father, how the school building collapsed on her brother.   She saw school children 5-6 years old escaping with their teacher, crying out for their mommies.   She had given them a drink of water and umeboshi pickles which soothed them temporarily.  Later she went to check on them, and all of them were dead.   That is the reality of the bomb.

Continue reading

Hiroshima in the Morning; Brooklyn in the Afternoon

It is a beautiful Sunday.  Mookie knows this before we do.  She lays her head on the side of bed, urging us to wake up.  I look at the clock.  We overslept and her vocal communications may have nothing to do with the weather out, and more to do with the fact that she really has to go.  Patiently, she waits as I throw on a hoodie and  pants over my PJs.  Poop bags and treats fill my pockets and we race across the street to the park.  It is gorgeous out, but our morning walk is quick, just enough to get her business done.  There seems to be some sort of a march.  Occupy Brooklyn, I wonder/hope?  No, there are legions in pink, a walk for—against—breast cancer.  They are beautiful, strong and expansive.  But it is too much stimulation for Mookie, and we retreat back home.

Wan and I prep veggies to go into tonight’s vegan chili.  He then drinks chia seed water and programs his playlist for his Sunday long run.  My husband is training for the upcoming New York City Marathon.  Today he plans to run 23 miles.  While Mookie sun bathes in the light pouring in our living room window, I ponder what I should do this afternoon.

Perhaps go for a run myself, or a bike ride?   I really should write.  Keep working on the manuscript; make edits to pieces to send out for submissions; tweak the ending of this; write the beginning of that.  I often feel that in my limited spare time I have to choose between exercise and writing; reading and sleeping.  There isn’t enough time for all, and I’m never satisfied in my progress in any.

I choose to read this afternoon.  Not one of the four books I’m currently immersed in for pleasure or research, but something new.

Rahna Reiko Rizzuto‘s, Hiroshima in the Morning, was just nominated for the Asian American Writers Workshop literary award in nonfiction.   I received a copy, a generous gift, at my first Associates Board meeting at the AAWW this Friday.

I was intrigued by the blurb on the back cover :

“….The parallel narratives of Hiroshima in the survivors’ own words, and of Rizzuto’s personal awakening show memory not as history, but as a story we tell ourselves to explain who we are.”

As I write my own stories that blend memory and history, I cherish examining other narratives and the choices made in their creation.   The very first page, the very first words, draw me in: Continue reading

Poetry and Performance; Process and Product

We could all use more poetry in our lives.  I realized that last Friday night while at a book party for Ed Bok Lee and Patrick Rosal at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop.  Both Lee and Rosal read a few long narrative poems-“a subversive act” in our 140 character lives, Rosal said about the form.

“Couldn’t you just listen to these guys all night?,” the executive director of AAWW asked the crowd after the reading.

Yes. I thought.  It was these long poems that spoke to me.  As I listened to Lee read his poems, I watched his body perform them.

“Every Poem is a Performance,” I once heard a poet announce at a reading.   I remember my writing professor, Louise DeSalvo saying, “There’s practice, and there’s performance.”   She reminded us that musicians, dancers, athletes practice every day but they don’t perform every day.  We build up to that.  As writers, we need to adopt a similar understanding.  We work toward that final performance.

Lee’s body knew the words before he spoke them. It was from revision, revisiting, practice  that this poem, this performance was possible.

What I love about going to see poetry performed, is listening to the narrative introductions some poets give about their work.  What inspired this particular poem.  What triggered it.  I sometimes crave that sort of introduction in poetry books.  While the poems themselves do stand alone, I love learning about their incarnation.  Just as their is practice and performance, there is also process and product.

Both Lee and Rosal talked about the earth’s dying languages.  Rosal noted that areas in linguistic decline are also the areas of signficiant ecological loss.  Languages and lives vulnerable to perhaps the same destructive forces.

Lee’s poem “Whorled,” addresses this and opens with:

“Dear speaker in a future age/when only a handful of tongues remain/I write this to you as a song/even as I know it won’t do.”

I enjoyed listening to Lee’s poem “Regenesis” and the backstory of  the “tiny aluminum spoon that could feed crumbs to an ant.”

It was history behind the poem “If in America,” that stirred my interest.  How the story of a Hmong man charged with murder and its portrayal in the New York Times resulted in anger by this writer and later in poetry.  Process is sometimes is equally as fascinating as product.

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