Jewish Voice for Peace protest in Washington, D.C., 18 October 2023
In the midst of all the terrible news, a brief post.
This is a good moment to recommend the work of my friend Adania Shibli, who has been in the crosshairs of the current wave of repression and the attempts to silence Palestinian voices. The scheduled awards ceremony at the Frankfurt Book Fair for her gem of a novel Minor Detail was canceled, setting off a firestorm of criticism, prompting withdrawals from the fair, and generating statements of solidarity. The furor has resulted in a mass run on her book, which is currently back ordered, but you can read the transcript of an excellent interview David Naimon did with her on his Between the Covers podcast and sample her spare and devastating style in this piece posted on LitHub.
What gives me comfort in this bleak, bleak moment? I find hope in the people who are standing against genocide despite it all. Yesterday my friends at Jewish Voice for Peace organized an inspiring mass protest in Washington, D.C. calling for an immediate ceasefire. They are saying that Jewish grief must not be used as a weapon of war. (About the suffering in Israel, and the weaponization of grief, please read Gabriel Winant’s excellent piece in Dissent.) And a handful of brave members of Congress, led by Representative Cori Bush (to date all of them black and brown except for Massachusetts’ Jim McGovern) have introduced legislation calling for an immediate ceasefire and the delivery of humanitarian aid to Gaza.
And here I will trot out my old motto from Grace Paley: The only recognizable feature of hope is action. Here are actions you can take today.
Contact your representatives to call for a ceasefire.
Donate to UNWRA, MECA, or to my friends at Sunbula for their partners in Gaza. A longer list of trusted charitable organizations can be found here.
I woke up this morning with these words reverberating in my head.
When we humans are gone, having pulverized each other and made the planet uninhabitable for our kind, this lichen will still be growing on its rock in the forest, thinking, Finally we can live in peace.
When I shared these words with my friend the mycologist, she said, “Knowing the fungi will inherit the earth brings me peace.”
This is a note I sent to my Armenian friends yesterday morning.
We are devastated and heartbroken about the events of the past three days in Artsakh, and rightfully terrified of what comes next. We feel helpless. We are on social media reading desperate accounts from Artsakh, and furiously posting and reposting the dire news in the hope that someone will hear and possibly take action, but very few people seem to care, and governments issue toothless condemnations while a genocide unfolds. We are sending emails to and calling our elected officials. We are wringing our hands. We are gnashing our teeth. We know that they won’t be satisfied with Artsakh alone. They want their “Zanzegur Corridor,” and Aliyev calls the Republic of Armenia “Western Azerbaijan.” We are skeptical that Armenian political leaders are up to the task at hand, and we are skeptical that the opposition has a better plan. We are sitting in our comfortable homes while our people are being starved, shelled, and are possibly about to be slaughtered like sheep. Again. We can’t turn our faces away from the suffering, but we must turn our faces away from the suffering at least for short periods because it is intolerable and there’s very little we can do.
Ժողովուրդիս համար սիրտս կ’այրի։
I’m thinking of each of you right now. May the violence soon be over so we can grieve and mend. Sending you love,
“Too much of a past, too little ahead, but wait a minute, we always lived day to day, so where’s the difference?”
~ Etel Adnan, Shifting the Silence (2020)
Last week my friend Barbara Harris passed away after a long illness, and Gerry, her beloved husband of 67 years, asked me to speak about her activism at the funeral this Monday. Barbara and I met in 2003 through CODEPINK NYC and worked closely together for over 13 years. In 2008, The New York Times ran a profile of Barbara and the campaign she organized working to keep predatory military recruiters from targeting vulnerable high school students. Mel, a former CODEPINK NYC staff member commented, “Barbara was a gift to the anti-war movement and the activist community. Whenever she showed up to a demo, I felt like things were going to be okay. She had so much knowledge and such a calming presence. Cristina and I joked about making Barbara dolls to carry around for reassurance when things got rough.”
And speaking of things getting rough, yesterday Azerbaijan launched a full scale military assault against the people of Artsakh, announcing the planned “evacuation” of the Armenian population. Of course, anyone who was following the news could have seen this coming, but that doesn’t make it any less devastating. The use of the word “evacuation” clearly indicates a campaign of ethnic cleansing. Governments, NGO’s, and human rights groups have issued condemnations, but the shelling and terror continued undeterred. The Azerbaijani Army is known for its torture and beheading of captured Armenian soliders, and even civilians are fair game for their violence and cruelty. The fourth century Amaras Monastery, established by St. Gregory the Illuminator, is now under Azerbaijani control. And if the Azerbaijani government stays true to form, they will say that it’s an “Albanian Christian” monument and sandblast the Armenian inscriptions. It’s heartbreaking and infuriating to watch all this happening in real time on social media while the world does nothing. And Turkey’s ever helpful Erdogan announced at the U.N. General Assembly yesterday that Armenia must open the so-called “Zanzegur Corridor” allowing Azerbaijani passage through the territory of the sovereign Armenian Republic. This morning a “ceasefire” was announced and the Azerbaijani army took full control of the area. I’m dreading what comes next. You can follow what is going on via live updates from EVN Report and you can contact your elected officials using this tool from the Armenian Assembly of America.
Yesterday I also received word from my literary agent that she was closing on the last few open points in the contract for my new novel with Red Hen Press, a small, independent, non-profit publisher based in Pasadena. Red Hen will publish The Burning Heart of the World, a novel about an Armenian family in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War, in 2025. This submission process was long and grueling, and I cannot tell you what a relief it is that the book has found a home, and with a press whose values align with so many of mine.
I’m leaving on Friday for a two-week trip called “The Mushrooms and Culture of Greece.” My friend Betsy and I will be traveling to Zagori in northwestern Greece with a group tour led by several radical mycologists. If you follow me on social media, expect to see lots of photos of mushrooms, food-laden tables, mountain villages, and the rocky shore.
Day to day, I try to open my heart to the sweetness of this tough world.
As a child I went to a Pioneer Girls Christian camp starting in the summer after fifth grade through the summer after my senior year in high school. The now defunct New England Camp Cherith was on Lake Bunganut in Alfred, Maine. It was on the camp’s 130 wooded acres that I had my first experiences with hiking and camping and was taught how to build a campfire and to cook a tin foil dinner. When I was a counselor in training, we were required to learn the names of five trees, five wildflowers, five birds, five rocks, and five constellations. In the Nature Cabin, I pored over field guides, and at night the other C.I.T.s and I would lie on our backs on the mown hill staring up at the stars. I had always loved our large yard and garden in Watertown, turning up the marble steppingstones to look at the insects underneath or resting my cheek on the soft moss between the peach tree and the hedge of lilacs. Now I came to love the broader canvas of the camp’s forest, lakeshore, and rolling hills.
When I was a student in Columbia’s Graduate Writing Division in the 1980’s, Arizona poet Richard Shelton, who passed at the end of last year, came to deliver a Master Class. He had a warm and relaxed charm, and he read us a few of his poems that were full of details about the Sonoran Desert. He told us, “If you don’t know the name of a thing, you can’t fully see it.” He described the way that people unfamiliar with the desert would experience it as an empty space, but if you studied it the way he had, learning the names of the plants, the animals, the insects, and even the stones, you would understand its fullness. These words have reverberated in my head for decades now, and when I walk through the forest behind our Columbia County house, I recite the names of what I recognize—the wildflowers, the trees, the birds, and mushrooms. But I feel overwhelmed wondering about the names I don’t yet know for the ferns, the mosses, lichens, and grasses on the forest floor. As the poet Maxine Kumin put it, “Our ground time here will be brief,” and I wish I had begun this concerted study much earlier.
For the conclusion of my Beirut novel (no news yet—I promise as soon as there is anything to tell, I’ll send out a flare), I wrote a folk tale called “The Girl Who Talked with Birds.” I started birdwatching ten years ago as part of the research for this novel, which has avian imagery woven throughout the narrative, but also as an extension of my engagement with the natural world. The protagonist of the folk tale, a girl named Sosi, thinks to herself:
Sosi understood that each living thing had a name, and she wanted to learn what to call each flower, grass, and insect. Her mother knew many of the names, and her grandmother knew even more, but neither of them knew them all. In response to Sosi’s incessant questions, her grandmother said, ‘The Creator made them, and only the Creator knows the name of each and every one.’
Writing a novel is a way of creating a world, and, because of my interest in history and need for historical accuracy, of recreating a world, filling it with people, places, events, sounds, textures, and smells that are at once invented and rooted in lived reality. I want the reader to open the book and to be transported into the world that the characters inhabit. And the more I know about this beautiful, resilient, and fragile planet on which we live and the people and other creatures who roam its precincts, the truer this fictional world can be.
P.S. Our adult child Noah Schamus has a film premiering at the Provincetown Film Festival this weekend. Watch the trailer here. This nuanced, funny, and moving film is mom approved (I’m the mom, of course, but I’m relatively objective, having told Noah in elementary school that they gave the second-best performance in the school production of Romeo and Juliet). I’ll send out news about where you can see Summer Solstice when it’s made more widely available.
My mood has been a little down lately—family health struggles, no news yet on the book front, rising fascism in this country and around the world, and other calamities I don’t have the heart to enumerate—so I haven’t much felt like composing one of these notes. But there have been some bright spots—things to watch and read and see—that I’ve been collecting to share. And here they are.
Watch JURY DUTY on Amazon FreeVee. This is the best TV I’ve watched in a very long time, and I have recommended it to a dozen friends all of whom have loved it. It’s funny and deeply kind.
Check out this piece about Armenia’s vibrant new fine wine and dining scene in Food & Wine.
Read about Harout Bastajian, a Lebanese-Armenian artist renowned for painting domes in mosques around the world. He volunteered to paint a mosque in Dearborn, Michigan, and years later when he fell on hard times in Beirut, the local community helped him relocate to Michigan.
It’s not quite spring, but the crocuses have bloomed, and the daffodils are starting to show their sunny faces. It always feels like a small miracle to me when winter recedes and the trees start to bud, and this year’s flowers that bloom in a predictable series have lifted my mood.
We are packing up our apartment so the walls can be painted and the floors refinished—this hasn’t been done since we moved in eighteen years ago. I’m in a chaos of boxes with walls sadly denuded of all paintings, photos, and posters, and we will be decamping to Los Angeles for two weeks while the work is done. James is on the Writers Guild negotiating committee—their contract expires on May 1—and while we are in L.A., he will be in a hotel conference room from 9 to 5 every day trying to hammer out a deal. I plan to be working on an essay entitled “His Driving Life” about my father’s relationship to motor vehicles, starting with the Lincoln Market delivery truck that he drove at the age of nine when he could barely see over the steering wheel.
Our daughter Djuna, who as a second-year law student at NYU is working with the Racial Justice Clinic, learned two weeks ago that her first client has been granted parole. Upon hearing this wonderful news, I sent Djuna this quotation from prison abolitionist, organizer, writer, and librarian Mariame Kaba:
“I’ve said this to younger organizers and will repeat it here. To be involved in helping to free someone from the clutches of death making institutions is a profound and life altering experience. It’s a miracle. Make sure you take that in and then continue to fight for others. People say ‘well look at all of the effort it took to get one person out.’ And my response is ‘YES and it’s worth all of the effort. Keep going.’”
Djuna and her friend Will visited David twice a month at Fishkill Prison to help him prepare for his parole hearing, and they are now raising funds for him in advance of his imminent release.
Another bright note is that the anthology WE ARE ALL ARMENIAN has just gone back for another print run because the sales of the first edition have been so strong. This week the anthology was included in a New York Times roundup of newly published books. Columbia’s Armenian Center is hosting a panel discussion on April 3—the anthology’s editor Aram Mrjoian will be in conversation with contributors Chris Bohjalian, Scout Tufankjian, Hrag Vartanian, and yours truly. If you’re in the New York area, it would be lovely to see you there.
My essay “Language Lessons” is included in a forthcoming anthology edited by Aram Mrjoian entitled WE ARE ALL ARMENIAN. Among the eighteen contributors are my friends Nancy Agabian, Liana Aghajanian, Chris Bohjalian, Scout Tufankjian, and Hrag Vartanian. My friends Dahlia Elsayed and Andrew Demirjian designed the beautiful cover. The jacket text describes the project thus:
We Are All Armenianbrings together established and emerging Armenian authors to reflect on the complications of Armenian ethnic identity today. These personal essays elevate diasporic voices that have been historically silenced inside and outside of their communities, including queer, multiracial, and multiethnic writers. The eighteen contributors to this contemporary anthology explore issues of displacement, assimilation, inheritance, and broader definitions of home.
The publication date is March 14, 2023 and pre-orders are being accepted now. Pre-orders are crucial because if they are strong the publisher is motivated to do more publicity and marketing for the title. You can go to the University of Texas Press site and use the discount code UTXM25 to receive 25% off and free shipping. If you have a good connection with your university or public library, please request that they purchase a copy.
If you are in the New York City area save the evening of Monday April 3rd for a launch event at Columbia University. More details to follow.
Winter is upon us, and there are far fewer mushrooms to in the woods now than there were in the late spring, summer, and autumn, but there are still fungi to find. The other day I came across a fallen oak branch that was covered in Amber Jelly Roll (Exidia Crenata), which is apparently edible, although the taste is described as bland. Today when I walked on the trails in the woods I saw lots of polypores and a few other types of mushrooms. I love the common names—Turkey Tail, False Turkey Tail, Violet-Toothed Polypore, Birch Polypore, Tinder Polypore, Artist’s Conk, Crowded Parchment, and Witch’s Butter, to name a few that I noted on my foray. I’ve started trying to learn the Latin names as well, but that is a long-term project.
I’ve recently joined a new social media platform called Project Mushroom that was started by people who are committed to fighting for social justice and to addressing climate catastrophe. I am hoping for a viable alternative to Twitter, which is now owned by a petty and volatile right-wing billionaire. Project Mushroom is an “instance” on the Mastodon federated network, and instead of tweets the posts are called “toots,” although I hear this term is fading out because it’s a little silly and we’re just going to call them posts. What we refer to as retweets on Twitter are called boosts on Mastodon. It’s still a little lonely over there—no other Armenians, few of my organizer friends, and almost nobody I knew before I arrived. If you want an invitation to join, let me know and I’ll send you one.
It’s interesting how ubiquitous mushrooms are these days: mushrooms are to be studied, to be foraged and eaten, to be made into medicinals, to be used as metaphors for human relationships and grassroots organizing. Last year I read and loved Merlin Sheldrake’s highly entertaining Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures. After reading the book I was even more enamored of mushrooms and all their amazing properties and possibilities. I perceived the forest differently, aware of the underground mycelial networks connecting the trees, as well as the dependencies between the trees and the fungi. I thought about the way that fungi decayed organic matter to make room for new life.
I love a passage from Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Darkusing mushrooms to think about how political change occurs. She says, “After a rain, mushrooms appear on the surface of the earth as if from nowhere. Many do so from a vast underground fungus that remains invisible and unknown. What we call mushrooms, mycologists call the fruiting body of the larger, less visible fungus. Uprisings and revolutions are often considered to be spontaneous, but less visible long-term organizing and groundwork—or underground work—often laid the foundation.”
Instead of perceiving ourselves as separate individuals, what if we understood ourselves to be created in and through our human networks? I notice in my psychotherapy sessions I often start with a report about how everyone in my life is doing—my kids, my spouse, my mother, my sister, her kids, my friends—because my well-being is entwined with theirs. I’m also reminded of one of the most inspiring slogans from Bernie Sanders’s 2020 campaign: “Are you willing to fight for that person you don’t know as much as you’re willing to fight for yourself?” What if that kind of solidarity is not about selflessness, but is grounded in an understanding that we are all connected and if others are suffering we ourselves can’t be truly whole?
Wishing you and yours a festive and sweet holiday season.
Our Thanksgiving in the country was quiet because our progeny and their partners recently decided that it’s a settler colonial holiday that should be ignored if not actively opposed. In the morning I read about Indigenous responses to Thanksgiving, including a message from Cultural Survival about how to decolonize the day, and our friend Karl Jacoby’s 2008 op-ed on its fascinating and little-known history. The United American Indians of New England have been commemorating Thanksgiving as a national day of mourning in Plymouth, MA since 1970. I was moved to read this post from Menominee author and organizer Kelly Hayes, who wrote:
This is such a strange day for Native people. Some do the turkey dinner thing. Some grieve. I do not ‘celebrate’ Thanksgiving, but I used to host a meal each year. It was a habit I developed to comfort friends who would have gone home for the holidays, had they been welcome or had the money to travel. It wouldn’t be anything traditional. Movies, alcohol, fry bread, and one year we played laser tag. Then the pandemic happened. This year, it will just be me, my partner, and my young friend Bresha.
In the past, we have invited friends whose families are far away and students from Palestine, Turkey, Australia, and elsewhere to join our Thanksgiving table. Maybe in the future we’ll figure out a way to both decolonize and reclaim the day. I’m open to suggestions!
On Thanksgiving afternoon, James and I went for a walk in the Greenport Conservation Area, which is on the ancestral lands of the Mohican people and has spectacular views of the Hudson River and the Catskills. The next day we cooked a big (turkey-less) meal for our daughter Djuna and her friends.
With Thanksgiving behind us, we shunned Black Friday, forgot about Small Business Saturday, but finally succumbed and bought all our long-distance consumable (think pears from Harry & David and nuts from Fastachi) holiday gifts on Cyber Monday. We flushed out our inboxes at the end of Giving Tuesday, but looming ahead are Hannukah, Christmas, and New Year’s.
I’m hoping that you are sufficiently recovered from Giving Tuesday’s onslaught to read this without shuddering. I’m helping to raise funds for a dear friend and her family who were displaced by the Syrian Civil War and will soon be moving to the United States. She, her husband, and her two sons are starting from scratch, arriving with only two suitcases each, and could use some help setting up their new home. For a $200 donation to their GoFundMe, I’m offering a book club package that includes up to 10 copies of my novel ALL THE LIGHT THERE WAS (or one of my other books) shipped to your home and my presence at your book club, in person if it’s in the NYC area and virtually wherever you are. Contact me at nkbookgroup[at]gmail.com for more details.