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.
“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.