Monday, May 31, 2010

Protest the Israeli massacre of humanitarian aid convoy

Today, 3 p.m., Times Square. Tuesday, 5 p.m., Times Square. Other cities. Everywhere. Stand with the brave sisters and brothers of the Freedom Flotilla, in memory of those massacred by the IDF pirates, in solidarity with the besieged people of Gaza.

And no, this isn't literary. This is about humanity.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Organize, educate, educate, organize

Organize. Organize and educate. That is what you must do. In the face of apathy and ignorance, organize and educate. For generation after generation.
The speaker is a fictional version of Eleanor Marx, youngest daughter of Karl and Jenny. She says this early on in the novel I'm currently reading, The Daughter: A Novel Based on the Life of Eleanor Marx by Judith Chernaik. I've wanted to read this for some time and recently found it in the university library. The book was published in 1979 and this single copy has only been checked out once before. I feel sad for it, I find myself sort of cradling it comfortingly after its long lonely sojourn on the shelves--and that's before I even know if I'm going to like it or not. I hope I will. The only other fictional appearance of Eleanor Marx I've come upon is in Sara Waters' wonderful first novel Tipping the Velvet. I already loved this book to pieces but then when I got to the part toward the end when the main character falls in with a group of socialist women in 1880s London, goes to a political rally and meets Eleanor Marx, oh boy did I swoon or what! Whether this book will have anywhere near that effect remains to be seen.

Earlier this week I read Red Dirt by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, a leftist historian. It's a memoir of growing up poor in 1940s and 50s Oklahoma, much concerned with class and race and social issues. The most interesting parts, for me, come early on when she talks about the history of that state, about what deep roots radical movements have there, about the IWW and the socialists, about the Green Corn Rebellion and resistance to imperialist war, and how KKK terror was employed to suppress all this working-class organizing, and before that how the Native nations that had already been driven out of their lands further east were assailed by a treaty-breaking land grab--and in all this, the role of her people, the Okies, who they were and where they came from and their historic role in this country and before they came here in England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland. Fascinating stuff from a deeply class-conscious writer.

I've been sticking to my resolve to maintain this blog's focus on literary matters, so I have refrained from posting links, rants or anything else about the current horrors wrecking the world, chief among them at the moment the !@#$#*$&$^&$!@!*&$$* BP oil spill, the company's singleminded devotion to PR and profit, and the government's utter inaction in deference to its Big Oil masters. I trust y'all are up on this latest, most urgent reminder yet that capitalism has got to go before it kills us all, and are hooking up with the local manifestations of national mobilizing efforts to demand an all-out, fully funded cleanup effort along with criminal prosecution of the greedy, murdering oil executives. Privately, in the writing corner of my life, I'd already been at work on a sci-fi-ish story set in the 2020s, and last week I found myself folding the BP disaster into it as having proven to be the pivotal turning point in the destruction of the planet and at the same time, necessarily, in the rising up of revolutionary struggle. This, the second part, may be my wishful thinking. Or it may be not that far from what will come. What must come, of that we can be sure.

I'll be putting fiction writing aside for a bit starting this weekend, because I've got another assignment that I've got to spend some time on. In a couple weeks I'm giving a labor history class at the Marxist School of Theory and Struggle here in NYC. I'll be speaking and leading a discussion on the labor upsurge of the 1930s, and on the National Labor Relations Act and related concessions by the ruling class in that period. The occasion is the upcoming 75th anniversary of the signing of the NLRA (July 5, if I remember right) and, more generally, the current unemployment crisis that is in some ways worse than the Great Depression. There's such a crying need for renewed labor struggle that it behooves us to study the last great manifestation of it in this country. It's been a long time since I've done this sort of presentation. I'm rusty. I think I need to reread the wonderful primer Labor's Untold Story by Richard O. Boyer and Herbert M. Morais, and bone up with some other reading as well, not to mention rereading the NLRA itself. Then write a lecture. And think about questions and discussion points.

So. The reduced frequency of my posts here will probably continue for the next little while.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Yeah, well, we know war is hell, but ...

... it is a hell created by U.S. imperialism, at least in the case of all the invasions carried out and wars fought by U.S. forces in the last 60 years or so. If a novel conveys the first point, the horror of war as experienced by the invading soldiers, without the second, the political context and the culprit and especially the effects on the invaded nation, does it have anything to offer to those of us who wish for a literature of meaning, of relevance, of social conscience? Is it important at all? Can it aspire to literary greatness? Will it prove worth remembering?

I don't think so.

I was reminded of this because a friend pointed me to this recent Huffington Post piece by Rick Ayers, a commentary on the novel Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes. There are flaws to this piece, but I think it's still a good contribution because of its basic points, which I'd sum up as something like this:
  1. The U.S. war against Vietnam was a world-historic crime.
  2. This novel does not acknowledge that or portray anything even close to its whole reality.
  3. All the reams of gushing reviews, all the wild praise Matterhorn has received, as a result of which it holds the #9 spot on today's New York Times bestseller list, is based on a reactionary sensibility oriented toward shrugging off the historic truths about the Vietnam war in service of a renewed patriotism in defense of imperialism's current wars.
I may have veered toward my own orientation there in the third point, so I'll finish making it now. What can be the current relevance of a novel focused on the horrors of the Vietnam war as experienced by U.S. GIs if that novel, among its many other omissions, does not provide any equivalent examination of the experience of that war by the Vietnamese participants and civilians? The only effect of such a fictional approach must be to engender sympathy for the GIs. And while the GIs, in that war as in the current U.S. wars, are among the victims, if the only portrayal is of their suffering, what political agenda does it serve? That of the warmongers, which might seem contradictory but really is not. It's a novelization of the slogan cooked up by the promoters of the Iraq war at its outset and since: "Support our troops." This slogan disguises itself as neutral on the war, as merely caring about the welfare of the soldiers who carry out the mission. Of course it is not neutral. Of course it means support the war. Embedded in it with that "our" is the reprehensible notion that those sent, as now, as cannon fodder for imperialism's unending drive to maintain control over Mideast oil represent "us," the mass of people, the workers and oppressed, when in fact they are not our troops at all. They are the capitalist class's. As they were in Vietnam, and if fiction about the Vietnam war places blinders around its readers' eyes so they don't see that, it is reactionary art, it is in fact a piece of revisionist propaganda reeking of bourgeois ideology.

When Matterhorn came out a month or two ago and I read the rapturous reviews, I knew immediately that it would be of this ilk and so I had no desire to read it. I'm glad Ayers did, though, so that he could publish this critique.

The point is made sharply in the recent anthology Liberation Lit by Tony Christini, in his excellent essay "Fiction Gutted: the Establishment and the Novel." Christini writes about "award-winning story writer Benjamin Percy, one of the first writers (sanctioned by the literary establishment, that is) to write in any way about the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, in 'Refresh, Refresh' (which appeared in Best American Short Stories 2007 and was called the story of the year by novelist Ann Lamott)." Percy's story concerns a boy waiting for emails from his father who's a soldier in Iraq, and how those emails stop coming and the boy keeps hitting "refresh" hoping for another email, hoping to stave off the horrible news he knows is coming. Christini quotes Percy as saying: "I certainly have strong political feelings. But I try not to let them command my fiction. ... I don't want people to come away from my story as if they've come away from an editorial, with a ready-made message shoved down their throat. ... Part of the goal of 'Refresh, Refresh' was to write a war story that didn't say, war is good, war is bad. I instead wanted to say, this is war. And in doing so, I tried to show both sides."

Christini comments:
What escapes Percy's regard here (and T.C. Boyle's and George Saunders' in similar comments, as well as that of central establishment writers like E.L. Doctorow and Philip Roth and so on, who are often perceived as rather political) is the power and vitality, the value and art, of partisan fiction. Percy makes no note (and seems to imply the opposite) that "strong political feelings" can be expressed as liberatory overt partisan fiction in very accomplished and highly aesthetic ways far from "a ready-made message shoved down [a reader's] throat," as if ostensibly nonpartisan fiction is any less "ready-made," including Percy's own "Refresh, Refresh" given his decision to "show both sides": apparently meaning "war is good, war is bad." Partisan fiction, according to Percy, is "fraudulent and manipulative," but depictions of "war is good, war is bad" are even-handed, which must no doubt prove equally instructive and comforting to both the invaders and the invaded, occupied peoples of the smashed land of Iraq. And so it is that status quo fiction is far less upfront and often in denial--far less willing and capable of declaring what it actually is, ideologically. There are plenty of ways a literary subjective fiction can reveal objective criminal reality. Status quo art, however, avoids doing so, except marginally, in a great number of ways, even though it practically has to go out of its way to cheat reality, to vitiate it of urgent conditions, revelation or phenomena, let alone explore progressive or revolutionary realms and possibilities.
Later, Christini asks "how many recent antiwar novels can be named," or novels that portray any of a number of other bitter truths. "Name the muckraking novels," he challenges, "or vivid polemic novels ... " of recent publication. Why can't we? "Writing powerful quality liberatory fiction is in many ways unthinkable and disallowed in the circles of literature, exceptions aside."

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Checking in

I'm just swinging by to say hi, I haven't forgotten you, my millions of blog fans ...

Several matters have converged that account for the recent paucity of posts. One is simply that I'm trying to stick to my guns about, as announced here a couple weeks ago, only posting when I feel I have something actual to add to the conversation on any given issue, and, more particularly, when I have something to add that relates to literary matters since that's the ostensible focus of this blog. The main reason I haven't had a chance to craft any substantive posts is that I'm sticking to a writing schedule with way more discipline than is usual for me. The result is little to no time and even less brain power left for blogging. There's this or that other reason too. I do have several potential posts brewing, though, so do keep checking in.

Here's a throwaway for now. A few days ago I read Philip Pullman's new novel The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. My rating: bleh. I don't know what I was expecting but it was more than what I got. I hugely loved the His Dark Materials trilogy--golly, what a rip-roaring story that was, what godawmighty fun to read--so I was eager for Pullman's next book. I knew it was to be his take, again, but in a different way, on religion, but jeez I guess I assumed it would be a great gripping twisty tale like Lyra's. Not at all. It is instead, as best I can make out, his all too earnest effort at knocking some sense into the head of any Christians whose heads might be susceptible. And maybe also his offering to those ex-Christians like himself who've sought a sadder but wiser take on the Jesus legend. In other words you'd have to be, I think, rather invested in the whole project of Christianity in one way or another, love it, hate it, be all twisted up over it, you'd have to be churchy or formerly churchy in order for this book to speak to you. Or so I'm guessing. All I really know is that it left me cold. A disappointment.

As ever, onward.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Shame on Atwood & Ghosh

If Ghassan Kanavani's fiction is an example of what literature can do to open minds and expand consciousness, the work of two other authors, Canadian Margaret Atwood and Bengali Amitav Ghosh, has at least always leaned toward the side of the exploited and oppressed. No more. This past Monday, the two accepted the $1 million Dan David Prize at Tel Aviv University.

Not only did they travel to Israel and accept the prize, along with the big big bucks. They gave a joint speech explicitly rejecting the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement and the direct appeals to them from Palestinian students to honor the boycott and refuse the prize. Atwood amplified on the speech by telling reporters, "We [artists] don't do boycotts." How self-righteously fake, from a writer who publicly opposed apartheid in South Africa. And what a strange principle this must seem to those who are currently building the boycott of Arizona. No, the reality is that what Atwood and Ghosh don't do is this boycott.

Let's be clear. These two authors may wish to appear above the fray. They have in fact taken a side. The side of the oppressor nation. To their eternal shame.

Rather than go on sputtering in outrage, I direct you to this excellent analysis at Pulse, headlined "Ghoshwood's Mendacity," where Robin Yassin-Kassab does a much better job than I could at exposing the hypocrisy, double standard, cowardice on display.
Atwood is supposedly a feminist writer. ... I wonder what Atwood would say to the struggling women of Palestine--the poets, journalists, protesters, stone throwers, organizers, the widows and bereaved mothers--were she to meet them. But she won't meet them. They aren't sipping wine at the Tel Aviv reception; they are locked up in their ghettoes and mourning their dead. They are wondering how to educate their children when their children don't have enough to eat, when they can't find pencils in the market, when the local school is a smouldering pile of debris.
I urge you to read the rest of this very thoughtful commentary. Yassin-Kassab also links to the Atwood-Ghosh speech so you can see for yourself.

I'll just add two quick points of my own.

One is directed to anyone, artists and academics especially, who might be inclined toward sympathy for the oppressed Palestinian nation but have reservations about the boycott. Perhaps you think it's not the best tactic. Perhaps you feel you can do more to support Palestine by going to Israel and doing what you can there, or working with Israeli universities or the like. I've seen such comments here and there. Listen: the Palestinian people are asking you to boycott. Who are you to put yourself above them and reject their appeal? How can you believe you know better than the organized movement that speaks for Palestine? During the time of the anti-apartheid movement, did you reject the appeal of the African National Congress, did you decide the ANC didn't know what it was doing and come up with your own tactic, did you defy the boycott and go to South Africa? Of course you didn't. You respected the request made by those fighting for liberation. You can do no less for Palestine--if you're still on the side of those fighting for liberation.

Otherwise you're on the other side. As Atwood and Ghosh have now declared themselves to be.

It's a tiny thing, but I'm removing Atwood and Ghosh books from my recommended list at the right-hand column of this blog. I'll sell those I own and donate what little cash they bring to organizations that support the cause of the Palestinian people.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Al Nakba

Today is the anniversary of Al Nakba, which means the catastrophe. On May 15, 1948, the Zionist settler state of Israel was officially established based on the expulsion of nearly a million Palestinians from their native land. Today, at the absolute least, let everyone who cares for human justice renew their commitment to the struggle to free Palestine and win the right to return for the refugees and their descendants.

It's coincidental that my most recent attempts to wrestle with questions about fiction's role in the class struggle were prompted by reading Ghassan Kanafani's book Palestine's Children, especially the long story "Returning to Haifa." I have two other books related to this issue near the top of my to-read piles and I'm interested to see how they'll affect my ongoing effort to address these questions.

One is hot off the press, and it's nonfiction so strictly speaking doesn't fit the ticket, but it might still be worth folding into this discussion if it turns out to be all it might be. That's a big if. The book is Shifting Sands: Jewish Women Confront the Israeli Occupation. The big question is which Israeli occupation the title refers to. Is it only the post-1967 occupation, the one that even many liberal Zionists oppose often for the purely pragmatic reason that the 1967 expansion and all it has wrought have turned out to undermine the security of the Israeli state? Or is it the actual entire occupation, the 1948 imposition of the supposed Jewish state on the expropriated land of the Palestinian nation? If the former, the collection will fall short even if it includes well-meaning humane commentary. If the latter, well then we'll have a worthwhile document in our hands.

The other book I hope to get to is the novel Gate of the Sun by Elias Khoury. First published in Lebanon in 1998 and finally published in English translation in this country in 2006, Gate of the Sun has been hailed as a masterpiece, the great fictional treatment to date of the tragedy of the Nakba.

On this matter of the uses of literature, I must keep sounding the reminder that reading can never substitute for life. As I wrote in an earlier post in this series, nothing can compare, for example, to the experience of being on strike for raising class consciousness. The issue of Palestine, however, poses a challenge, since most people in this country other than Palestinian-Americans and other Arab-Americans don't have any direct engagement with it. Well, they are linked to it closely in many ways--U.S. tax dollars propping up Israel, U.S. military funding to kill Palestinians, all of it to maintain an imperialist-allied outpost on behalf of Big Oil--but in their day to day lives most people in the U.S. have no direct knowledge or experience of it. All most people here know is what they read or see on TV and almost everything they read or see on TV is pro-Zionist. So it seems that there may be a uniquely important job for fiction on this topic.

To be, as always, continued.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

25 years ago: Philadelphia fire

Earlier this year I read and blogged about John Edgar Wideman's remarkable book Fanon. I have several other of his books and I intend to work my way back through the work of this brilliant writer. One of them is Philadelphia Fire. I'm thinking about it today because this is the 25th anniversary of one of the terrible racist horrors in the bloody annals of the many racist horrors committed by the police forces in this country: the Philadelphia police department's firebombing of the MOVE house on Osage Avenue, which killed 11 people including five children. Philadelphia Fire is a novel based on that event. Of course, I remember the actual day, and the days after, the outrage and grief, and I know the fight to win justice for the victims, and freedom for the MOVE 9 imprisoned after another police attack some years previous, continues. These cases are closely tied to the ongoing and increasingly urgent struggle to free death-row political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal. This is not about commemorating an obscure quarter-century-old historical event, but about reminding ourselves of a current living raging battle, and so I'm not suggesting reading a novel as a substitute for engagement in that battle. But, as I keep trying to figure out a good way to prove, fiction has its place, and anyway, I'm very interested in John Edgar Wideman's take on what happened on Osage Avenue, so I do hope to get to this book soon.

For today, here's this on the case of the MOVE 9.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

And just like that, they're gone

Aah. They're gone. How lovely the unpopulated streets, how quiet the park. No lines at the little deli below my office when I picked up a bagel and coffee this morning. No noise, no cloud of cigarette smoke fouling every walkway.

Don't get me wrong. I may not be Miss Congeniality but my department's students seem to feel I do right by them. Hey, believe it or not, I was even honored, with speeches, flowers, gifts, the whole shebang, at the holiday party a couple years back.

But for university workers, there's no better moment than the morning you realize the campus has emptied out for the summer. Especially if you work at a joint that charges outrageously obscenely high tuition so that the student population is heavily weighted toward the privileged classes. So let me bask in it a bit. Let me say it again, let me gloat. They're gone!

Which has nothing to do with my work load. On that front this is the worst time of the year. There's tons of end-of-semester stuff to do, and graduation details, and for the upcoming year there are course assignments and teacher appointments and payroll paperwork and course cancellations and there's the whole admissions megillah that has to wrap up swiftly now and then the new student orientation and shepherding the newbies through their first registration and on and on. But it's easier, somehow, to tackle the work load when the place has quieted down and emptied out.

It reminds me a little of when I was a city bus driver, many years ago in Michigan. That was a very stressful job because you had to keep to a schedule regardless of traffic, weather, loading and unloading passengers and dealing with all their issues. Time points were everything, so we were all always tense and tight, hunched over those big round steering wheels, trying to get to each stop at the appointed time. There was a little joke we had among us. I imagine it's still a favorite of bus drivers everywhere. If only there were no passengers, we'd say. If only we didn't have to stop constantly and sit there while they got on and off. If not for the passengers we'd have no trouble meeting our time points.

Ba da boom. Pretty much how I feel about students here at the U. If only there were no students with their constant problems, questions, issues, I could get my job done just fine.

Well, now they're gone. Now I can work.

Which also means I may be able to get my mind back to some of the points I've been on the verge of making here on the blog for a while, regarding literature and political struggle. I don't blog on the job--I do it on my lunch hour, or in the evenings--but I hope it's not a fireable offense that my thoughts do wander toward more important things while, say, I'm filling in the little circles on the grade sheets or photocopying the registration reports. So let's see if those ponderings don't lead me back here with a thought or two soon.

Monday, May 10, 2010

LGBT writers, let's boycott Arizona!

It's now been a little over two weeks since Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed the odious anti-immigrant state SB 1070. The law criminalizes undocumented immigrants, along with anyone who associates with or aids them in any way, from giving an undocumented child a ride to school to offering prenatal medical services to an undocumented woman. Most alarmingly, SB 1070 requires police and all government employees to detain people based on "reasonable suspicion" that they are undocumented immigrants.

This latter clause has become widely known as "breathing while Brown."

If you are or appear to be Latino/Latina, you are subject to arrest. Your very existence is a crime. Unless you carry on your person legal documents proving citizenship, actually even if you do, you can expect to be rounded up at any time, held for hours in jail before being released at best and at worst subjected to the horrors of this country's system of immigration detention, a network of nightmarish prisons currently holding tens of thousands of adults and children whose only crime is being alive on the wrong side of a border that was created when the United States stole more than one-half of the nation of Mexico some 150 years ago.

A righteous outcry has arisen in response to the Arizona law. It is being compared to the Jim Crow South and before that the Fugitive Slave Act, to apartheid South Africa's pass laws, to Nazi Germany's Nuremberg Laws. It ought to also remind us of what we have faced as LGBT people--violence at the hands of bigots and police, harassment, discrimination, our very selves banned by law in most states until the Supreme Court's Lawrence vs. Texas decision just seven years ago, our relationships not legally recognized to this day, all of it compounded by racism against LGBT people of color.

The day the governor signed SB 1070 a national boycott began. No travel to, no business with, no support of any kind for any Arizona enterprise until the law is overturned. The boycott has broad backing. Along with the National Council of La Raza and virtually every other Latino/a organization, key supporters include the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights--a coalition whose members include the AFL-CIO, NAACP, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, National Organization for Women, American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Asian American Justice Center, and scores of religious groups. Alpha Phi Alpha, the biggest African American college fraternity, has moved its upcoming national convention from Phoenix to Las Vegas. Many professional athletes support the boycott.

On the literary front, two writers have taken the lead. Award-winning novelist Tayari Jones published an open letter canceling her scheduled appearance at an Arizona writers' conference this summer. And poet/novelist/memoirist Rigoberto Gonzalez, one of the leading lights of LGBT literature, issued an impassioned call for everyone who cares about equality to join the boycott.

I've been an activist for many years, and one thing I know is that wherever there is a mobilization for social justice, LGBT people are always there in the thick of it. Now it's time once again to take a stand. Let's heed the call sounded by Tayari Jones and Rigoberto Gonzalez.

Sisters--brothers--others: LGBT writers, poets, journalists, let's boycott Arizona!

What does this mean in practice? Don't go to Arizona. Don't do readings there, or book signings. Don't attend writers' conferences or other literary events. If you're scheduled to participate in or speak at one, cancel. Try to get your publisher to pull your books from the shelves of Arizona bookstores.

It's not all don'ts. There are do's too. Join marches and rallies against SB 1070. For those of the butch persuasion, by which I mean those who follow sports, and really everyone else, walk the picket line at your city's baseball stadium if the Arizona team comes to play.

On top of this, we as writers can contribute something special. We can write! Stories. Poems. Essays. Opinion columns. Organize readings supporting the boycott at bookstores, community centers, campuses. Let's do what we do best, use words, to express solidarity against racism and build the boycott.

From the Montgomery bus boycott initiated by Rosa Parks to the first boycott of Arizona when that state refused to observe the national Martin Luther King Day holiday, there is a long, honorable history to this tactic as a means to apply pressure against oppressive institutions. Now it is in play once again, this time in service to the effort to overturn the abhorrent, unconstitutional, racist Arizona SB 1070. The LGBT community must be partners in this fight. Especially we writers.

Spread the word: no human being is illegal! Let's offer up our voices to this urgent cause.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Even fantasy must be grounded in reality

Of course, my fanciful imaginings of whole cities reading Ghassan Kanafani's fiction and finding their eyes newly opened on the question of Palestine and that making all the difference rely on some assumptions. One is that literature can affect consciousness, or more particularly, that left or revolutionary literature can counter the bourgeois consciousness that pervades almost everyone's brains hereabouts. (It's one thing for the uber-capitalist Ayn Rand to work her proto-fascist magic on impressionable suburban youths with The Fountainhead; this is a case of a novel merely nudging already formed bourgeois consciousness further along on the same class continuum. It's a different level of magnitude altogether, it seems to me, a hugely harder task, for a novel to effect a consciousness shift in toto.) Another is that all this upended consciousness would matter, that the fiction reader, newly enlightened, becomes at least a potential actor on the stage of the class struggle. There may be several more assumptions embedded in my daydream of yesterday as well. One of the things I want to try to do as I keep stumbling along this path is tease them out and test them and try to figure out which of them might be true. The ultimate issue being literature's place in the struggle for revolutionary change.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A flight of fancy

I've got a few minutes to continue my last thought.

What if Palestine's Children were chosen as the book to be promoted to a whole city's population, to all read one month, with all the concurrent events and activities at libraries and so on that usually go with this? The mind boggles. Millions of people, or even a fraction of that, tens of thousands, let's say, but lots of them young, let's say, for these reading campaigns are generally aimed at high schoolers above all, anyway lots and lots of folks, many of them young, reading a wrenching story that portrays through fiction the reality of what the creation of the settler state of Israel meant for that place's indigenous inhabitants, the Palestinians. It would be like the biggest front-page newspaper exposé ever. I haven't explicitly addressed the power of fiction, and I will, although not today, but I don't think there can be any doubt of what a massive, sudden, shocking dose of new information this would amount to.

From there we can extrapolate what the potential might be. Once people knew. Once the official version had been overthrown via the heartrending story of Said and Saffiyah. What the potential might be to get people to take the next step. To act. In solidarity with Palestine.

It will not happen. There's not a city in the country that would tiptoe anywhere close to Kanafani's fiction. Not a chief librarian or English Department chair or arts center coordinator who would dare, I don't think. But what if there were a librarian, or a teacher, or a community center staffer, or a writer, or just a reader or group of readers, who would take the bold step of proposing such a thing? What if someone wrote a letter to a big city's arts commissioner, or wrote an Op Ed, or found a way onto a radio show, and said, hey, I just read a great book and I think we should make it the choice for next month's One City, One Book?

What if, in other words, there were a way to build a struggle around this simple demand? That the people of this city should have the right to know about and read this book? Would it be a mere provocation? Would it get a hearing at all, anywhere? Would it at least get the word out about this great book that everyone who cares about justice and liberation should read?

These are flights of fancy. I know. I'm not proposing fiction as itself a vehicle of struggle. At least I don't think I am. I do think more and more, though, that literature is, can be, should be, one weapon in the arsenal.

What literature can do: the case of Palestine

I worked late last night and am using comp time to start work late today so I have a few minutes to blog, finally. Finally to return to my intermittent effort at tackling some of the Big Questions that are the whole basis for this blog. Questions about literature and the class struggle, how the two intersect or don't or should or could or can't. Don't get too excited -- I do only have a few minutes so as usual I can take only a dip in the shallows of these very deep waters but that, also as usual, will have to do.

The question that rises most often in my own mind is what use literature is for the class struggle. I've been fiddling with a number of vague notions about possible answers. One reason I haven't fulfilled my repeated promises to address this issue here is that I haven't managed to sharpen those notions into something less vague. But this morning I think I can take a stab at it, and the reason is Palestine.

I just finished reading Palestine's Children by Ghassan Kanafani, the writer, journalist and leading figure in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine who was assassinated by the Mossad in 1972. The book consists of a number of short stories and the longer story or novella "Returning to Haifa." While all the stories are deep, true and affecting, this last piece is devastatingly powerful and with its power points the way, I think, to at least part of the answer to these questions I've been asking.

The story tells of a middle-aged couple, Said and Saffiya, who go to Haifa in the days after the 1967 war when, for the first time since April 1948, the Israeli state permits its former inhabitants to enter the city. Said and Saffiya were among those who were driven out -- from their home and from their city, literally driven into the sea -- and while they have survived as refugees they have never stopped yearning for their home and the impossible loss they suffered when they were ousted from it and never till now allowed to go back. For their loss went beyond walls and possessions or even sentiment, tradition, memory. Their 6-month-old baby was left alone in their home that day in 1948, and they never knew what became of him.

Now they find out. A Jewish couple, survivors of the Nazi holocaust, were given Said and Saffiya's house in Haifa -- and with it, their infant son Khaldun. While the woman at first had qualms about the whole sordid business and tried to talk her husband into leaving "Israel" and going to Italy, ultimately they stayed. They raised the child as their own, renaming him Dov. By the time his real parents come back he is a young man, and a member of the Israeli army. Presented with the reality of his heritage but filled with the ideology of Zionism with which he has been inculcated, he rejects, even insults, his Palestinian parents. They leave, brokenhearted but with a renewed understanding of what was done to them and their people and a renewed, clear-eyed commitment to the armed struggle to reclaim their homeland.

With "Returning to Haifa" I think Kanafani shows how literature can serve the struggle. For one thing, it is a document that testifies to the perfidious crime of Zionism, the violent, murderous expulsion of the Palestinian people from their land, their homes. It tells a truth that was long suppressed. For Palestinians, it must have been when first published and must still be precious for telling this truth. For others, from whom the truth about the creation of the Israeli settler state has been withheld, all those good-hearted people who have been suckered into supporting Israel because it's supposedly somehow a guarantee against another anti-Jewish holocaust, this story is an opportunity to start hearing some reality. For Jews in Israel, those few who can bear to open their eyes to honesty, open their minds, open themselves to the fact that they have been lied to utterly, that they have been and continue to be used as cannon fodder in a racist project on behalf of Big Oil, reading "Returning to Haifa" must be a revelation. Or would be, for it's hard to imagine that any do.

And what of U.S. Jews? I thought about this as I read this book on the train and in the park over the last few days, wondered what any Jewish New Yorker might think when they saw the cover with its title Palestine's Children. For those who hew to the gospel of Zionism, the very word Palestine is inflammatory, implying as it does that, yes, there is a nation that, yes, holds claim to that land. But the happy fact is that the lock-step allegiance to Israel and its foundation the racist ideology of Zionism is no longer absolute among U.S. Jews. The suffering of the Palestinian people and the widespread worldwide support for their cause have, over these last 20 years or so, broken the chokehold Zionism once had. Still, it remains dominant here.

For people of any nationality or ethnicity, especially workers and the oppressed, whose bent is to feel sympathy and solidarity with those fighting for national liberation, against racism, for social justice, the natural instinct has to be to stand with the Palestinians. If only they have a chance to hear the Palestinians' story. In this country that's no small thing, for the Zionist version of the so-called Middle East conflict is standard. It's very hard for another narrative to break through. A narrative like Kanafani's in "Returning to Haifa," fictional to be sure, but deeply honest and true. What if one of those "one city one book" campaigns took up this book by this author? What if tens of thousands of people read this deeply affecting story about the expulsion of the Palestinians?