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Sisters of the Revolution: A Review in World Literature Today

By Diane Karns
World Literature Today
January 2016

Ann Vandermeer & Jeff Vandermeer, ed. Oakland, California. PM Press. (IPG, distr.). 2015. 341 pages.
This collection brings together stories from the 1970s onward from new and established writers in science fiction and fantasy. The editors note in their introduction that the stories were arranged for flow and readability without regard to chronology, and I believe they hit the mark.

Speculative fiction provides an excellent milieu in which to explore feminist themes and the pressures and impositions put upon women in everyday life. In fact, it is almost easier to confront the absurdity of social constructions of gender in a setting that itself is absurd or surreal. All the stories challenge patriarchy and patriarchal thinking in some way and reveal to us just how dangerous it can be. Some of my favorites include:

“The Forbidden Words of Margaret A.”, by L. Timmel Duchamp, gives us a powerful heroine whose words are outlawed and body imprisoned by a government that fears her influence. “The Mothers of Shark Island,” by Kit Reed, explores the isolation, burdens, and responsibilities of maternal love. “Unlike pneumonia, motherhood is an irreversible condition.”

“Boys,” by Carol Emshwiller, takes place in a society where men and women live separate from each other. Hypermasculinity and war have become the norm among the men, and women are used solely for copulation and reproduction. Until the women revolt. “The Grammarian’s Five Daughters,” by Eleanor Arnason, is a charming story of strong women who make the world a better place through grammar, of course.

“Gestella,” by Susan Palwick, takes a chilling look at the ways in which women are held to very particular beauty standards, desired as trophies in their youth and rejected in old age—all through the eyes of a werewolf.

Typical of any collected work of stories, I enjoyed some more than others, though there truly were no weak entries in this book. The diversity of this anthology keeps the collection interesting and provides something for everyone. This book is a must-read for fans of speculative fiction, feminist or not, and would be an exciting text to build a women’s studies course around.

Buy book now | Download e-book now | Back to Ann VanderMeer's homepage | Back to Jeff VanderMeer's homepage




Crashing the Party: A Review

by Missy Lvia Drake
Under the Sign of Syria
December 16th, 2015

Friends and readers,

Last night as you watched (if you did) the Republican "debate" on CNN, and heard the war-mongering careless threats to the well-being of people in the US and by extension many people in other countries, did you wonder what happened to the liberal wing of the Republican party?  Have you ever wondered where they went? Not just Jacob Javits and the more memorable senators, but quieter people like Senator Clifford P. Case from New Jersey? A man of real integrity and now New Jersey is run by a lying thug who has destroyed much that was good in his state in gov't and is now running for president? We are encouraged to imagine the people who supported the liberal Republicans just melted away somehow; that a new spirit was abroad (note how un-concrete that kind of phrase is) and all these people "took a turn towards the right," or that seeing the election of these crazys and fearful of religious fanatics, intelligent Republicans who were not CEOs of corporations or their patsys gave up, became democrats, or they stopped voting. The last is laughably unlikely among the older generation (people over 50 say). Or they are outnumbered by religious crazies and bigots and ignorant people. Fled in distaste from primaries?  Why? such people would have the same aggressions, intensities, desires for places on boards, committed beliefs as anyone else?


Well here's a book that tells the slow process actively working, undermining all individual causes, for the last 2 decades: Crashing the Party: Legacies and Lessons from the RNC (2000) by Kris Hermes (PM Press, 2000). Hermes's literal topic is about the fierce state and city response to the GOP National Convention in Philadelphia 15 years ago. The city instigated in part by hugely-funded corporations who wanted a Bush to win, enlisted the city and its brutal military police to fence in and then do mass arrest to stop all peaceful street protests. McCain supporters were to be stopped from any demonstration. There were of course also there many dissidents from left-wing groups meaning to protest severe right-wing domestic and foreign policy. They were ejected from the building. There were "preventive" police raids on in the area (whatever happened to the bill of rights?).

Most of the time when people discuss police brutality, the support and collusion of state agencies, the instigation of these to act by corporations the people brutalized, arrested, maimed, the subject is leftists: civil rights activists in the 1960s, Black Panthers in the 1970s, in the 1990s environmentalists (now called "eco-terrorists" by some courts); recently the Occupy Movement, now Black Lives matter, anti-nuclear power activists for decades, to go back in time the Suffragettes in the early twentieth century and before that native people's in colonized countries. So attention is focused on these groups, not on the way they are crushed. You pick a scapegoat, like the woman who tried to defend herself against a police officer in the Occupy debacle in NYC. She was physically abused in prison, tried to use the system (lawyers) to obtain right and justice, but found she could not. We have not heard about her since. But these methods can be and are used to destroy middle-of-the-road groups just as strongly, and importantly.

According to Seth Sandronsky in a review of Hermes's book, a central learning experience occurred in 1999 during a World Trade Organization meeting in Philadelphia, where the city's ostensible (and open) motive was money: the city said they wanted tourists and consumers to feel safe and welcome, to bring money in "for all."  (I was told last night by someone on the board of a University committee that universities are now real estate businesses; there to make money off their real estate and make people pay big sums for time.) Sandrosky: Business matters ....  Behind the GOP rhetoric of free markets and liberty, the political power of business shapes the capitalist state and public policy."  The subject of Hermes's book is the methods of repression themselves and how they are used against all kinds of protest, depending on who wants the particular group silenced and where.

Once you repress and terrify people in the streets, then you treat them pitilessly in jails. Someone is disruptive in a literary convention? for some literary-academic quarrel over who shall run this or that? Arrest him or her or them promptly. Remove all signs of protest. Then there is the use of extreme charges, long sentences if the person does not admit to guilt and "plea bargain", high bail. The people who are part of movements are often highly individual and not organized and there for different individual reasons. It becomes easy to disperse them, and hard to organize them into effective working groups who sustain themselves. Then you make sure the media tells the story in such a way as to castigate and isolate the protesters.

In the face of such treatment the ordinary person who has a job to go to the next day, a home to protect, people to support, is relieved to be allowed out. Solidarity as a concept is given no play in the media (associated today with unions, very bad, or communist Poland). Civil litigation is a slow process. There is no or little provision for lawyers for poor or middling people. Lawyers are expensive. (I know this from personal experience.) Liberal republicans were middling people who had reputations to protect, who were not given to street-fighting, calling attention to themselves; being beaten up was deeply shameful. And many did have middling and higher positions in corporations to protect. Perhaps the most important of these (people on state and city boards).

Activists can win major victories, but often these are swept by, challenged again by corporate-run groups and misrepresented in the propaganda managed media. The book is also about pushing back: from an on-line interview of Hermes

"At the same time, these events also provided a laboratory for the radical, innovative, and confrontational forms of legal support carried out by R2K Legal, a defendant-led collective that raised unprecedented amounts of money for legal defense, used a unique form of court solidarity to overcome hundreds of serious charges, and implemented a PR campaign that turned the tide of public opinion in favor of dissidents.

While much has been written about the global-justice era of struggle, little attention has been paid to the legal struggles of the period or the renewed use of solidarity tactics in jail and the courtroom that made them possible. By analyzing the successes and failures of these tactics, “Crashing the Party” offers rare insight into the mechanics and concrete effects of such resistance. In this way, it is an invaluable resource for those seeking to confront today’s renewed counterintelligence tactics."

So the next time you find yourself watching as a set of Republicans to choose from people advocating dangerous, counter-productive cruel (to US soldiers too) policies abroad, immiserating Americans at home by taking from them access to affordable health care, pensions, places to live, selling off state-owned parks and resource rich land, and wonder why there are not decent people running for office as Republicans, remember what we watch occasionally being done to immigrants and liberal and left- and women's movements, black and poor people in the streets on TV. The quieter semi-liberal groups didn't just melt away in just the way the people in the Occupied Parks didn't just disappear. Of course the choice of states to run primaries in is deliberate too?  why New Hamshire instead of Vermont? Why Iowa?
Barnes and Noble's blurb:

"Over the past 15 years, people in the United States—and dissidents in particular—have witnessed a steady escalation of the National Security State, including invasive surveillance and infiltration, indiscriminate police violence, and unlawful arrests. These concerted efforts to spy on Americans and undermine meaningful social change are greatly enhanced by the coordination of numerous local, state, and federal agencies often operating at the behest of private corporations. Crashing the Party shows how these developments—normally associated with the realities of a post–9/11 world—were already being set in motion during the Republican National Convention protests in 2000. It also documents how, in response, dissidents confronted new forms of political repression by pushing legal boundaries and establishing new models of collective resistance. <em>Crashing the Party</em> explains how the events of 2000 acted as a testing ground in which Philadelphia Police Commissioner John Timoney was able to develop repressive methods of policing that have been used extensively across the U.S. ever since. At the same time, these events also provided a laboratory for the radical, innovative, and confrontational forms of legal support carried out by R2K Legal, a defendant-led collective that raised unprecedented amounts of money for legal defense, used a unique form of court solidarity to overcome hundreds of serious charges, and implemented a PR campaign that turned the tide of public opinion in favor of dissidents. While much has been written about the global-justice era of struggle, little attention has been paid to the legal struggles of the period or the renewed use of solidarity tactics in jail and the courtroom that made them possible. By analyzing the successes and failures of these tactics, Crashing the Party offers rare insight into the mechanics and concrete effects of such resistance. In this way, it is an invaluable resource for those seeking to confront today’s renewed counterintelligence tactics."

I rarely put book reviews on this blog any more, but given the present state of the presidential campaign and unending wars, thought I should notice this one. How do you define oppression? It's the undermining and disabling from effective work or fulillment of a particular group of people. The word disabling reminds me of how disabled people unless supported by non-disabled people dare not, cannot go the streets to demonstrate.


Buy Crashing the Party now | Buy e-Book now | Return to Kris Herme's page




Everyone Has Their Reasons in Words and Peace

Words and Peace
December 2015

Even though you may not know too much about WW2, I assume you have heard about Kristallnacht, a series of coordinated deadly attacks against Jews throughout Nazi Germany and Austria on 9–10 November 1938. But you may ignore that it is said to have been organized as a response to the shooting of Ernst vom Rath, a Nazi diplomat in France, by a Jewish teenager, Herschel Grynszpan. In Everyone Has Their Reasons, Herschel himself writes letters about his life and about what led to his act. This is a unique historical novel, in form and content.

The book opens on Oct 15, 1940. Herschel writes letters to his lawyer, the fictional Herr Rosenhaus (though one of Herschel’s real lawyers does appear in name later on in the narrative). The latter has encouraged him to talk about his life and the events that led to his act, in order to prepare for his trial. The epistolary genre allows the book to work at two levels in times:

1. you first have Herschel writing these letters between October 1940 and January 1945 (when in its turn Berlin was bombarded by the allies), in between visits by his lawyer.
The letters function also as a unique way for the prisoner to at least talk to someone. And he usually writes as he would talk, using a simple conversation style where he himself addresses questions to his reader and answers him, and you follow his flow of thoughts.

Write as you talk. Just let yourself talk, but on paper.
p.8

The style is mostly made of short compact sentences (see excerpt below) that right away gave me the feeling the book had been translated from the French, as this style is most common in contemporary French authors (though yes, there are exceptions, the most noticeable being Zone, by Mathias Énard, the whole book being one single sentence…).
I double checked, it was NOT a book in translation! It was written in English, but the author is fluent in French and it was his purpose to give a French flair to his book. He brilliantly succeeded in that!
There are even jokes and plays on words that only a fluent French speaker would be able to introduce, for instance between crétin/chrétien (page 13), terroir français/French terror (p.90).
At this level of narration, we follow Herschel’s daily life in prison and concentration camps (in special units, separated from other prisoners).
One day, Herschel suffers a bout of typhus and his feverish condition reflects in his writing, a masterful passage (pages 255-6)

2. Then the other level is what Herschel tells Rosenhaus about his life before prison. It is a very smart way of telling readers about that period of time.
The writing is striking and quite powerful.


Herschel’s Jewish family was Polish but emigrated to Hannover, Germany, where Herschel was born.
There are lots of elements on Jewish traditions – he even fasts in jail to atone for his crime, and some Yiddish is used.
When he was 15, Herschel was sent to his uncle’s and aunt’s in Paris.  So through his words, the readers witness the new laws and decrees as the young man experienced them in France and also Germany (where his family was still living) against non-Aryans, and the increase of his worry for his relatives, as conditions deteriorate for them, besides his own  loneliness and difficulties at finding money enough to stay away from starvation, to find work, and first of all to fight with the authorities and insane administration rules for paperwork to be able to stay legally in France.
Through his hardships and those of his friends (people from all kinds of walks, including those fleeing fascist Spain), you see the amazing resourcefulness one had to come up with to survive in Paris, and how to keep a low profile.
There are also lighter passages, for example on hats in Paris (p.118) and bals musette.

And fascinating details on 1937 Paris Exposition Universelle as well as its Foire.

Do you know those, Maître, the Paris baguettes? So narrow, with a hard crust. And when you open them up, pure white. And full of air. Sort of like Parisians.
p. 142

There is a ton of information on social upheavals, with le Front Populaire, the consequence of large stores on small tailors, the development of syndicats (trade unions), their strikes, and the emergence of Communism.
And in Summer 1938 the first Nazi bombs started to fall on Paris… Herschel is our eye witness, also for the crazy Exode (page 426 and after) of people fleeing south where they hoped to find shelter away from danger.

The alternation between the two levels of narration is very well done and kept me turning the pages.

The book treated also so well the build up of despair and anger in Herschel, at the world and the circumstances around him.

There are also many passages offering a reflection on life in general.

You see, there is nothing here but the walls. The hours are enormous. So I have come to depend entirely on remembering, and have developed the habit of letting myself recall as much as will come. Wherever it takes me, Which allows what has been to take the place of what is.
Just the opposite of life outside. With its endless forgetting. Have you ever realized? Of feelings, especially –embarrassment, unhappiness, fear. The daily renewness of waking up and having forgotten how something truly felt. Which allows everyone to keep going. Unless a time arrives when you are unable to forget. A madness, I would say.
p.336

Whether a life should be judged by its highest moments of its lowest? The best a person has done? Or the worst? But here is the other part — How to decide which is which?
p. 521

The end of the book shows how he was even deprived of the truth, with the authorities drawing all kinds of conclusions from his letters.

There’s a big twist coming at the very end of the book. This element of Herschel’s story is controversial, not all historians agree with the version the author of this book decided to adopt.

It could actually make perfect sense and partly explain the constant delaying of the trial.

This is not a short book, and the content could be heavy, but the way it is treated here makes it totally bearable. Even suspenseful, as you wait with Herschel for his elusive trial…

Helped by materials collected by “two Herschel devotees” who had been investigating his case for years, Matthews has done an amazing job at finding Herschel’s voice, at filling in the many gaps in his story, and at recreating what his experiences would have been through his daily life in Hannover, in Paris, in French and Nazi jails, as well as in the French countryside.

The only thing that didn’t really work for me was the title. Maybe the author/publisher tried to get close to the French saying “à chacun ses raisons”? Well, it does not seem to work in English for me, it feels awkward. Something simple as The Reasons Why would have been far better, plus in keeping with the short sentences used in the book itself.

EN DEUX MOTS :

Incroyable roman historique sur Herschel Grynszpan, sur sa famille, son adolescence, sur les conditions qui ont pu l’amener au meurtre d’un diplomate Nazi, ainsi que sur son temps en prison ensuite. L’occasion de décrire de façon extrêmement vivante les conditions de vie en Europe dans les années 1937-1945. Écriture dense et tendue, parfaite pour ce regard unique sur la vie d’un ado de son temps.

VERDICT: Powerful  and unique rendition on life in Europe in the years 1935-1945 through vivid letters from Herschel Grynszpan to his lawyer, as he awaits his trial for killing a Nazi diplomat in Paris. A long book that will reward readers interested in this page of European history as well as inventive writing.


Buy book now | Download e-Book now | Back to Jospeh Matthew's Author Page


More Fictional Days of Rage

By Jonah Raskin
Huffington Post
December 9th, 2015

Author and activist Diana Block calls her narrative, "Clandestine Occupations," "an imaginary history," though she might have simply described it as a novel, or perhaps as a roman a clef, to borrow the French phrase for a tale in which fictional characters are based on real people.

In many ways, there's little if anything that's imaginary about "Clandestine Occupations," a 240-page book that's recently been published by PM Press in Oakland, California and that looks at the history of underground movements in the U.S. from a feminist, anti-imperialist perspective.

Historical figures like Assata Shakur, the African American political exile, appear in these pages, along with real places like San Francisco and Chicago, and actual events like the Occupy Movement and the War in Iraq.

Block is understandably reluctant to divulge certain facts and basic information that might make her work less murky than it is. After all, according to her profile at the back of the book, she "spent thirteen years living underground with a political collective committed to supporting the Puerto Rican independence and Black Liberation movements." In her world, there's very little that's worse than being a "snitch."

Bloch's profile also states that since 1994 she "has committed herself to anti-prison work, becoming a founding member of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners and the Jericho Movement." Then, too, Clandestine Occupations is dedicated to Marilyn Buck who helped Assata Shakur escape from prison, who served a long prison term herself and who died shortly after she was released from prison in 2010. This book is also dedicated to "ancestors, comrades, friends, lovers, daughters, sons, prisoners and freedom fighters who inspired this imaginary history."

Prisoners and fighters for human liberation seem to love Clandestine Occupations. There are blurbs from nearly a dozen of them, including Laura Whitehorn, Margaret Randall and David Gilbert, a member of the Weather Underground who joined with members of the Black Liberation Army to rob a Brinks armored vehicle in 1981 and who is still in prison after his arrest and conviction for murder.

Sylvia Federici, an Italian-born professor who taught at Hofstra University, provides a burb in which she says that "Diana Block's new book is the first major novel taking us to the world of women who in the 1960s and '70s opted for clandestine struggle."

Whether that is accurate or not, isn't clear. Members of the Weather Underground as well as historians and journalists have published accounts of clandestine organizations and groups in the era of the Vietnam War.

One of the most recent books on the subject is Bryan Burrough's Days of Rage: America's Radical Underground, the FBI and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence. While it isn't popular with many radicals who once engaged in acts of revolutionary violence it doesn't demonize them and what's more refrains from calling them "terrorists."

In 1978, I published a novel about fugitives entitled Underground in which the main characters are based on real people. I know from my own experience many of the challenges that face a writer who wants to tell the truth and at the same time doesn't want to jeopardize the lives and liberties of real people.

There have been at least a dozen other novels about the underground, plus films like The Company You Keep, starring Robert Redford as an aging fugitive from the age of revolutionary violence who's running out of time. The film features an unrepentant radical/ come drug dealer named Mimi Lure who's played by Julie Christie.

Still, Block's novel has a larger cast of women characters than any other work of fiction that has so far been published about the world of clandestine politics, passion and crime. (The line between criminal and revolutionary activity can be blurry if non-existent.)

There are probably too many women characters in "Clandestine Occupations," too many events and scenes and far too large an historical backdrop. At the front of the book, Block provides a useful timeline that begins in 1970 and ends in 2019. There's also a short list of characters that includes ten of the novel's major players including Cassandra, Sage, Rahim, Luba and Gordon, along with the years in which they were born. Cassandra, a baby boomer, seems to be the oldest, Gordon, a millennial is perhaps the youngest.

That information helps, though not entirely because some of the characters, including Rahim, Sage and Luba have more than one name. Underground activity demands that they adopt aliases and noms de guerre, to borrow another French term.

If the reader doesn't pay close attention, the plot and the characters can be confusing and if not overwhelming. Moreover, while the book is divided into six different sections, each told by a different narrator, the six voices tend to blur into one another. The author herself seems to be in part behind many of the characters who appear to be a blend of the real and the fictional.

What drives the narrative isn't really a plot orstory line - there isn't any real plot or storyline - but rather a volatile mix of ideology and emotions.

"Clandestine Occupations" is first and foremost a political novel; the characters are motivated by political ideas and political passions. They talk pointedly about political actions and movements: "the radical history of the Bay Area, the intersections of feminism and antiracism, the connections between armed resistance movements in the seventies to direct action movements today" -- as one character aptly puts it.

Block's radical feminists are also very often in a rage that not only fuels them but drives the novel itself. Rage seems to well up inside the author, too, and spills out across the pages of her book. Rage shapes the book and defines it, though it also seems to blow it up, and push it out of shape.

"Clandestine Occupations" burns with intensity and with few lulls in the action. The characters ponder critical issues and offer valuable political insights. One character observes that "prison visits cook emotions until they threaten to boil over in a sizzling, uncontrollable mess."

Another character wonders about "the complicated questions of language - Occupy, We Are the 99%" and explains that words seem to "gloss over the contradictions between occupiers and occupied." Block's language can be vivid as when she writes about "melancholy harmonies turned into discordant dirges about government plots and planetary destruction" and about "grains of terrible truth sprinkled amid paranoid delusions."

Any single character would have been enough for a hefty novel. Any one historical moment from the 1970s to the 2010s would have provided enough fodder for an explosive narrative.

Block has jammed too much into her story. The reader can feel like one of the characters who says, "I was losing my foothold." She goes on to say, "A former-fugitive lesbian mother, working as a secretary with a preadolescent son who had a voracious interest in the earth's geography and an uncanny knowledge of radical history."

There's enough information in that single sentence for an epic narrative.

On the back cover of the book there's a blurb from Laura Whitehorn who says, "Diana Block's novel shows why well-written fiction may be the most honest and profound way to recount history."

Maybe and maybe not! By fictionalizing history, Block has also reduced the past, created clichés and stereotypes. Sometimes non-fiction is the most compelling way to explore the past. 
No doubt, Block has protected the identities of radicals and their clandestine political activities, but in the process it feels like she's omitted, mythologized and blurred a largely invisible record of risks and rewards that only she knows from the inside out and from downside up.


Buy Clandestine Occupations | Buy Clandestine Occupations e-Book | Back to Diana Block's Author Page


Growing Up Fast Under the Nazis

by Wana Wyporska
Historical Novel Review
November 2015


November sees the 77th anniversary of Kristallnacht, when the Nazis orchestrated and encouraged a pogrom against the Jewish population in Germany, their properties and businesses. In recent years, more historical fiction about young people during the Nazi era has emerged, bringing new perspectives on the horrors of the time, but also enabling a deeper understanding of a broader range of experiences.

As Jim Shepard, author of The Book of Aron (Quercus UK, Knopf US, 2015), says, “we’ve gone from believing that the Holocaust couldn’t be dealt with at all in the arts — Adorno’s famous dictum that there could be no poetry after Auschwitz — to feeling as though it’s almost an over-trammeled genre.”

He goes on to explain that he sees the writer’s task as defamiliarizing “the expected — to make us see in a new way what we previously thought we understood — as well as, in the case of something like the Holocaust, to make the utter strangeness, the unprecedented strangeness of the event, available to us, as well.”

As writers of historical fiction, we often tread a delicate line between historical fact and historical fiction, but does any event remain off limits? How do we reflect the reality of those who died and those who survived, maintaining an appropriate level of respect? Joseph Matthews, author of Everyone Has Their Reasons (PM Press, 2015), puts it succinctly when he says, “The same cautionary responsibility applies to a fiction writer who presents events from any time or place distant from the reader: to not consciously or carelessly offer significant falsehoods.”

Both Matthews and Shepard agree that
historical fiction can be educative, but as Matthews emphasizes, “Perhaps more than ‘keeping memories alive’ or ‘educating’ about the war, or about any distant time or place or events, good fiction can help a reader engage with the past so as to transpose it into the present (e.g., the immigrant/refugee issues of this novel and immigrant/refugee issues of the present moment around the world).”
In the same vein, Shepard concurs that he’s certainly not ready to speak for all authors of fiction, but in his own case he feels an enormous responsibility to try to present the historical record as factually as he can. This is borne out by his extremely useful list of further reading in the acknowledgments section of his book.

In their very different works, neither Matthews nor Shepard holds back from portraying the realities of life in Europe for Jewish young people during the 1930s and 40s. Indeed, using the voice of young people as protagonists allows a greater range of situations and emotions to be portrayed, in contrast to the problems faced by the adults in their lives.

Despite their youth, they wrestled with huge moral dilemmas and faced persecution, poverty and hunger. They had to weigh the actions they were taking against the very real possibility of death or causing the betrayal of other members of their family or community. Risk-taking and hunger were the backdrop to young lives existing beyond the complex laws and bureaucracy, which all too often resulted in deportation, betrayal or death.

However, the two protagonists in these novels are very different. Shepard’s Aron, a nine-year- old Polish Jewish boy, is caught in the Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw, where he ducks and dives and does what he can to survive. In the Ghetto he meets Dr Janusz Korczak (the pen name of Henryk Goldszmit), world-famous paediatrician and child rights activist, who is trying to save 150 orphans from dying of hunger and illness.

Aron helps the eminent doctor by doing what the adult will not, and Aron’s very ordinary courage is set side-by-side with that of the hero doctor, illustrating the complexity of heroism.

Shepard’s prose is lively and engaging, and his recreation of the Warsaw streets is evocative.

Aron is a typical nine-year-old boy living in an extremely atypical world, and we see him, and indeed Korczak, as whole characters – warts and all.
Shepard points out that “certain figures’ greatness is even more compelling when I have a clearer sense of their overall humanity.” He is fascinated by what he calls“the distance we all feel between the dismalness of the way we mostly are and the amazing heights to which we aspire, and sometimes even achieve.” This sentiment lies at the heart of the two stories, and both heroes are shown complete with their flaws. Arguably, this makes Aron and Herschel, the protagonist of Matthews’ novel, very believable as characters; they evoke our empathy, but also often our irritation. These ordinary young people manage to act heroically, even in a time as heinous as the Nazi era.

Everyone Has Their Reasons also features a young Jewish boy, but here the similarity between the two books ends. On 7 November 1938, Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year-old Jewish Polish-German, walked into the German Embassy in Paris and shot dead a minor diplomat called Ernst vom Rath. It became such a cause célèbre that the US journalist Dorothy Thompson established a campaign to raise funds for Grynszpan’s Paris trial.

This assassination was the pretext for the launch of the Kristallnacht pogrom, although the Nazis had clearly planned such an event for some time. Grynszpan claimed that he was protesting the rounding up of 12,000 Jews (including his family) living in Germany with Polish passports, who had been dumped at the Polish border. Herschel’s story is narrated through his letters to a mysterious lawyer, allowing a fragmented narrative that reflects the 17-year-old’s mind. Matthews paints a picture of a teenager troubled by what was going on in the world around him, but also of a boy beset by feelings of deep fragility one minute and immense grandeur the next. Once arrested in 1938 in Paris, Herschel is caught between the proverbial Scylla and Charybdis, in other words, the French and the Germans. His fate is entirely dependent upon the line of the invading German forces as he is moved south through France.

Even when he finds himself at liberty, he realizes that turning himself in at a French prison is preferable to being hungry and on the run, with the prospect of being captured and recognized by the Germans.

Matthews expertly portrays Parisian society in the 1930s, with its socio-economic, religious and ethnic hierarchies exacerbated by the stress of increased migration and war. “I’m not a fan of literary works that merely use highly charged historical or political settings as little more than backdrops, lending a cheaply-purchased aura of significance to the works, without taking on hard questions raised by those settings,” he says. He describes the book as “an attempt to take on some of the issues that I saw as being raised by Herschel’s story – among them the treatment of refugees, politics based on ‘identity’, the workings of social class during crises – [this] was one of the main reasons I wanted to write the book in the first place.” Interestingly, Matthews was a criminal defense lawyer for many years, which is cited as helping him to sort through the evidence in the case and understand the many legal machinations upon which Grynszpan’s life ultimately hinged.

Grynszpan ‘disappeared’ and was declared dead in 1960, at the request of his parents, one of the many mysteries in his story. His motive for shooting vom Rath has been disputed: was he driven to it on account of his parents’ deportation, or was it in fact a crime of passion? Did he know vom Rath, or was this merely a legal ploy dreamt up by his lawyer to prevent the Nazis from holding a show trial? Not much is known about Grynszpan’s life in France and nothing is known about his death, which makes an interesting canvas for a fictitious account. Matthews has filled in the gaps so convincingly that the reader will have difficulty distinguishing between fact and fiction. In contrast, Shepard’s Aron is clearly a fictitious character interacting with a very real Korczak, and this means that there cannot be a happy ending.

Debate still rages about whether events of the Holocaust should be fictionalized and by whom.

This has been fuelled by an increase in the number of works of historical fiction treating the subject. There is clearly a substantial difference between the early works written by survivors, such as Tadeusz Borowski or Elie Wiesel, and the two works reviewed here. Literature on this subject is constantly enriched by a variety of genres, whether memoir, academic works or fiction. In addition, there is a highly developed body of commentary on Holocaust literature, in which many of the debates are rehearsed in great detail.

Shepard’s and Matthews’ works are the latest in a growing line of fiction focusing on the experiences of young people, following the phenomenal success of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (David Fickling Books, 2006) by John Boyne. Most importantly, both of the works illuminate the wide range of situations Jewish young people experienced and their resilience and courage in the face of systemic evil. They also illustrate the impact of ethnic, religious and/or economic persecution and oppression, which is just as relevant to current debates in Europe on migration and refugees.

Buy book now | Download e-Book now | Back to Jospeh Matthew's Author Page


Sasha Lilley interviewed in The People's Press

by Andy Pragacz
The People’s Press
October/November 2015

Sasha Lilley is co-author of Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth, author of Capital and its Discon- tents: Conversations with Radical Thinkers in a Time of Tumult, both from PM Press’ political economy imprint Spectre. She is also a former Ithaca resident and the co-host and co-producer, with C.S. Soong, of Against the Grain, the thrice weekly hour- long conversation of radical ideas. Find her work at pmpress.org and free radio programs at againstthegrain.org.

People’s Press: In your most recent book you and your co-authors coin the term “catastrophism.” What’s catastrophism?

Sasha Lilley: Catastrophism is a politics based on the notion that a socie- tal collapse is coming, and that the main – or even only -- hope for radi- cal social change is out of such a collapse. A related notion posits that people are most likely to move to the left, toward a more progressive political outlook, if they face an erosion in their living standards or simi- lar hardships. We argue that both ideas are misguided. The book devel- oped out of a number of conversations about this commonsense notion that things have to get really bad for people to take progressive action. Americans, so the theory says, have had it too good, and if anyone is going to see the world for what it is, they’ll need some deep shock, like an economic shock, to force the scales to fall from their eyes. It’s inter- esting that people have not entirely let go of this idea even after the 2008 economic crisis. The Great Recession was a massive shock to peo- ple’s livelihoods. At the same time, as the crisis began there was eupho- ria in some circles that capitalism was unraveling and the chance for those of us who wanted to see capitalist replaced with a more just, egal- itarian economic system was at hand. Instead of falling apart, however, the system restructured itself. Capitalism profited enormously from the crisis. Of course, a number of capitalist lost their shirts, but by and large the result was a brutal class war waged from above that increased cor- porate profits by forcing regular people to work more hours for less money. The working class ended up with less power to fight back be- cause the prospect of being unemployed loomed so large.

PP: So instead of turning people away from capitalism and into the arms of progressive movements, people became more reliant on wage work, under worse conditions?


SL: Exactly.

So, in the book we ask: what does it take to move people to radical action? We aren’t prescriptive (I wish we were!). Take strike waves, for example. Over the course of U.S. history radical collective action on the job has tended to happen during times of economic ex- pansion.

During economic contraction, however, workers turn on each other and are prone to scapegoating the marginalized, like women and people of color. Lynchings, for example, went down in the booming 1920s and up during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Of course my point here is not that people shouldn’t organize during a crisis. Our point is the opposite: people should be organizing all the time. We are trying to warn progressives about a logic that says: “we don’t have to organize because the crisis will do it for us.”

PP: And that somehow, through the crisis, the capitalist system will re- veal itself for the exploitative, oppressive system that it is.


S.L. Right. What you see is when people organize themselves effectively in a crisis, often it’s because they were already organizing themselves and had some sort of social solidarity before the crisis. The obvious case is Egypt during the Arab Spring and the U.S. civil rights movement. Rosa Parks was not just a woman who was tired and didn’t want to go to the back of the bus. She was an organizer who had been in the trenches for years. We, too, need to organize, even when it is totally unrewarding, so when a moment of crisis hits, we are much better prepared to take ac- tion.

PP: How has catastrophism negatively affected politics?


SL: It generates paralysis.

Catastrophism tends to emerge when people are in despair about their ability to collectively change the world, typi- cally when social movements are in retreat. Catastrophism presumes that fear will move people to positive political action. Fear, however, is straight out of the toolbox of the right-wing, not the left. The right is all about fear: scapegoating migrants and other minority groups, the glori- fication of authoritarian leadership to take charge in times of crisis, and so on. These are all things that should be repugnant to the left. People who are on the left or progressive, however, often get involved in rightwing projects without realizing it.

This was readily apparent in the Millennium Bug and in Peak Oil theories.

Take Y2K: the leading spokesperson, an Australian physician, got people into a frenzy by talking about possible nuclear power plant melt- downswhentheyearturnedto2000.

Theendresultwashighlyunpro- ductive (unless you were in the Bunsen burner business). People spent a lot of money on things that weren’t necessary, like survivalist gear. Scaring people like that does not move people toward an awareness of how the system works. If anything, it makes people want to pull back when the prophecy is wrong.


PP: If fear is the politics of the right, what’s the politics of the left?


SL: Traditionally the left has offered a broad utopian vision of the fu- ture. A belief that the world could be a better place, not just because the wolf is no longer at the door. It’s a politics not simply about not starving to death, but about actually living in a way that brings people together across divisions, reshapes our relationship with nature, and with ourselves as part of nature, and produces qualitatively different, fuller and more rewarding lives, at work and leisure.

This gets tricky when we think about global climate change. The solution on offer from environmentalists is one of austerity-- that every- one needs to tighten their belts--which is already the politics coming from above, from the business class. Environmentalists say “we need to live simply, live with less.” The working class is already told to figure out how to feed their families with diminished wages and less governmental support, from schools to healthcare to food. Any environmental politics grounded in “doing more with less” is not going to be very convincing to the majority of people and can dovetail dangerously with the politics of the capitalist class. I think what’s important is to reframe the problem. Rather than seeing Americans as ungrateful gluttons, we need to look at how the capitalist system itself produces waste and excess. We need to think, instead, about a politics based on replacing private luxury with public abundance.


PP: So you’re saying that when we think of waste it’s usually consumer waste, like when the lettuce goes bad in my fridge, I’ve produced waste. Are you arguing, rather, that waste (or excess) is the product of a sys- tem that encourages personal consumption over production and con- sumption in common?


SL: Yes. The great feminist thinker Ursula Huws points to the fact that we don’t need a lot of things as individuals. Obviously this won’t solve the global climate change problem, but wouldn’t it be a much better idea to own a lawn mower collectively as a neighborhood, rather than every single person owning one individually? How frequently do you use it? Capitalism is full of what seems like irrationality (although it isn’t if you’re in the business of turning a profit).


PP: So, if waste or excess-- be it lawnmowers or lettuce--is not a product of individual patterns but the social organization of consumption and production, then what does that mean for proponents of growing our own food?


SL: There is nothing wrong with growing things, but we need to think outside of subsistence strategies, which is another form of austerity, the belt tightening I spoke about earlier. There is no way that we, as individ- uals, can grow enough food to be self-sufficient, unless we actually live on a farm. There are a lot of misconceptions about the potential for ur- ban homesteading that obscures the larger food system, as well as the type of food system that would be required to feed the U.S., or even New York State. We often forget that there is a larger food and wage system that unevenly delivers food based on one’s class, race, and gen- der.

It’s striking to visit Ithaca, a place that I love, and see how nar- rowly food politics are conceived here. The celebration of small farmers and local food production tends to obscure a lot about agriculture, on any scale, under capitalism. On the one hand, it makes invisible the mi- grant farm workers (and other hired labor) who keep local production going; and on the other hand, it loses sight of poor people who cannot afford such food. Should food be shipped around the country or across the world, when it could be produced regionally? Of course not.

But the idea that local food production is the answer to food insecurity is really misguided.

Where I live, in Oakland, California, a farmer’s market was set up in a low-income community with the intention of giving peo- ple access to fresh food. It failed. Why? Because people were too poor to purchase the nice fresh, organic food. The problem is not access, but people not having decent incomes.

Book Review: Catastrophism – The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth, Sasha Lilley, David McNally, Eddie Yuen and James Davis (PM Press 2012)

cataCatastrophism is a collection of essays addressing the use of dooms day predictions in the environmental movement, the left, the right as well as in popular culture. The four chapters are authored by Sasha Lilley, David McNally, Eddie Yuen and James Davis following conversations within the Berkeley-based Retort collective guided by Iain Boal (who led an excellent biking oral history tour in Dublin as part of the Prosperity Project in May).  This book is meant as ‘a political intervention, designed to spur debate among radicals.’ (4) I have taken this as an invitation for discussion.

Firstly, what is catastrophism? Sasha Lilley offers the following definition in the introduction:

‘Catastrophism presumes that society is headed for a collapse, whether economic, ecological, social, or spiritual. This collapse is frequently, but not always, regarded as a great cleansing, out of which a new society will be born. Catastrophists tend to believe that an ever-intensified rhetoric of disaster will awaken the masses from their long slumber—if the mechanical failure of the system does not make such struggles superfluous.’

Seeking a clearer understanding of what the writers meant by catastrophism, I listened to a podcast where Lilley explains that they are discussing an ideology around collapse and rebirth which assumes a new society will be born out of the ashes of the old. This kind of thinking, they argue, results in people waiting for the collapse rather than organising. They further claim that catastrophism is based on fear which works very differently for the right where it is mobilising, than it does for the left where it is paralysing.

Eddy Yuen begins by voicing a critique of the environmental movement. The central argument he puts forward is that the environmental movement is failing to mobilise because of its catastrophic discourse and an ‘apocalyptic narrative’ that presumes this will lead to political action. He is concerned that ‘dooms day scenarios’ don’t have a politicization effect and suggests environmentalists should find better ‘narrative strategies’.

Catastrophism, here, refers to the warning of environmental crisis. Dissemination of information, according to Yuen, does not lead to action. He claims the environmental movement has caused fear induced-apathy in the population. Yuen pins this to a deeply held conviction about politicization apparently held by environmentalists – if people have the facts they will act. While this may be the case for some, Yuen does not address the importance of understanding the dynamics of climate change and their consequences as a vital precursor to action. In the same way that knowledge of starving children in your city does not lead most people to take action, so knowledge about climate change does not necessarily lead to action. This phenomenon is not unique to the environmental movement.

Yuen makes the assumption that the environmental movement cannot mobilise because it uses catastrophic language. This line of argument ignores the complexity of psychological and sociological factors contributing to inaction. Kari Marie Norgaard has done some excellent work on social movement non-participation and speaks about strategies people develop to avoid having to deal with difficult emotions. This indicates that, like with other bad news we get, there is a need to support people while dealing with these difficult emotions. 

Yuen rightly criticises false solutions like green consumption proposed by Al Gore. It seems like Yuen sees Al Gore as a spokesperson for environmentalists. This is not the case and should have been clarified. Al Gore is probably the most visible advocate of ecological modernisation in the US. Ecological modernisation theory (EMT) argues that the institutions of modernity, including multinational corporations and governments, will increasingly give more importance to ecological concerns. It is the neo-liberal belief that the crisis can be solved through far-reaching reforms, without the need for radical social change. Leftists concerned with climate change however, argue that social change and an alternative to capitalism are needed.

He further argues that the catastrophism of ‘many left-leaning greens’ is ‘Malthusian at its core’, points out a ‘shocking deficiency in the movements understanding of history, capitalism and global inequality’ and a simplistic analysis which places the blame on ‘the human race’. Surprisingly, he does not mentioned groups and networks on the left dedicated to building a climate justice movement which addresses the above concerns. This movement, like Yuen, rejects false solutions. It argues that climate change is not a problem of overpopulation but overconsumption/overproduction by and for the global north and elites in the global south. Climate justice activists speak about capitalism and point out the ‘contradictions between infinite accumulation of capital, and life on a finite planet’. It would have been more stimulating if he had discussed shortcomings of the environmental left, rather than criticising neo-liberal environmentalism.

Communicating climate change is difficult. Most people (including many on the left) do not want to hear about the topic because it makes them feel uncomfortable and there are no easy solutions. Climate denial, sponsored largely by the fossil fuel industry, is distorting reality. They want us to believe that climate change is not man made or that it is nothing to worry about. My concern with this chapter is that it could be used by some to further silence environmental activists.

In the second chapter, author and Against the Grain (which is well worth checking out) radio host Sasha Lilley distinguishes between two types of catastrophism on the left: determinist and voluntarist catastrophism. The former is a belief that capitalism will collapse under its own weight while the latter refers to the idea that worsening conditions will lead to a revolution. Catastrophism leads to the paralysis of the many and the vanguardism of the few and results from a politics of despair.

Lilley writes that the belief that capitalism “will come crashing down without protracted mass struggle is wishful thinking.’ (44) Are there really people on the left who think the sudden and uncontrolled collapse of capitalism would be a positive event? Surely the suffering would be enormous in such an event. She then looks at thinkers including Rosa Luxemburg and Immanuel Wallerstein whose analyses predicted that capitalism will collapse. Lilley disagrees. In her view capitalism will not come to an end due to internal contradictions. (136) The consequences of assuming collapse, it is further argued, leads to “adventurism (the ill-conceived actions of the few) or political quietism (the inaction that flows from awaiting the inexorable laws of history to put an end to capitalism)”. (52) Lilley asserts that we cannot rely on external forces to do the work of ending capitalism for us and that political organising is crucial. Unfortunately she has not presented convincing evidence that deterministic catastrophism is a phenomenon that requires discussion.  The sources she quotes do not take the position that we can sit back and wait. To the contrary they argue for the importance of organising a new society before capitalism collapses.

The second type of catastrophism on the left, voluntarism, is more common, according to Lilley. What ties determinism and voluntarism together is “a deep-seated pessimism about mass collective action and radical social transformation.” (45) Immiseration and state repression then are tools for politicisation leading to an assumption that “radicals should do what they can to make things worse.” (54) It is the idea that state repression can lead to the growth of movements. That the KPD (German Communist Party), one of her examples, made very serious mistakes has been discussed since 1945. Attempting to demonstrate that the KPD believed state repression would bring them to power in three paragraphs, while taking quotes out of their historical context, does not do the situation any justice.

Speaking about state repression and revolution, the next section examines war, which ‘has long been seen on the left as the midwife of revolt, often patterned in the trinity of crisis-war-revolution’. That revolts can follow war is a historical fact. To argue, however, that the left sees war as ‘midwife’ is a serious misrepresentation, at least of the European left which associates nothing positive with war.

The sub-chapter ‘Heightening Contradictions’ discusses militant groups like the Weathermen and the Red Army Faction arguing that insurrectionism is a misguided tactic, while the last part discusses anti-civilization.

James Davis, Irish writer and film maker, looks at catastrophism on the right and introduces the disease-cure binary of catastrophe. The catastrophe for the right is the threat to privilege and political power. The left is the catastrophe for the right, the left is the disease. Civil rights, feminism and social democracy are trends the right wishes to reverse. One approach to this is cure catastrophism, a subset to disease catastrophism. Acts which could contribute to a reversal in power won by social movements might be sparked by right wing terror and could then take the form of a ‘race war, insurrection, Armageddon, civil war, or in its purest form biblical apocalypse, and rapture.’ (78)  Actors explored in this chapter include the media used as a tool for propaganda, individual acts of terror on the right, small groups on the radical right, conspiracy theorists and the religious right. Catastrophism, Davis argues, “has a long history on the right and both the state and the organised far right understand it and wield it skilfully to achieve political and propaganda goals.” (106) It was unclear how this chapter relates to the previous two.

The final chapter takes a look at catastrophism in pop culture. David McNally, Professor of Political Science at York University, firstly discusses the relationship between capitalism and body panics by linking the rise of early capitalism to body snatching. The commodification of the body and the emergence of a corpse economy created fear among poor and working people, during the 18th century, that their bodies would be lost to medical experiments after their death. This also led to an increase in murders and grave robbing. McNally then discusses the historical origins of monsters, such as Frankenstein, who was constructed from dead body parts of humans and animals, and zombies, the cannibalistic consumer on one hand and the living-dead labourer on the other. McNally argues that the truths about social dynamics embedded in these tales about monsters need to be redeemed and translated into “languages and practices of social and political action.” (126)

The book’s key dilemma is that there is no clear definition of catastrophism as a concept. In a way this problem is reflected by a paragraph in the introduction where Lilley explains that “an overarching logic might be harder to place, since these movements and ideas are driven by different impulses, from above and from below (and in the case of the greens, both). In that sense, it is hard to talk about a catch-all catastrophism, without specifying whether it is of the left, right, green – or liberal – variety.” The definition offered by Lilley in the introduction as well as the scene set by the title – The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth is misleading. It suggest the authors are speaking about an ideology that assumes a collapse, be it economic, ecological or social, and is followed by a new and better society, which will be born out of the ashes of the old. Apart from the the religious right, which is mentioned in the third chapter, there is no evidence of collapse being viewed as a positive event.

- See more at: http://www.irishleftreview.org/2014/01/28/catastrophism-apocalyptic-politics-collapse-rebirth/#sthash.AOOGp2NJ.dpuf

Book Review: Catastrophism – The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth, Sasha Lilley, David McNally, Eddie Yuen and James Davis (PM Press 2012)

cataCatastrophism is a collection of essays addressing the use of dooms day predictions in the environmental movement, the left, the right as well as in popular culture. The four chapters are authored by Sasha Lilley, David McNally, Eddie Yuen and James Davis following conversations within the Berkeley-based Retort collective guided by Iain Boal (who led an excellent biking oral history tour in Dublin as part of the Prosperity Project in May).  This book is meant as ‘a political intervention, designed to spur debate among radicals.’ (4) I have taken this as an invitation for discussion.

Firstly, what is catastrophism? Sasha Lilley offers the following definition in the introduction:

‘Catastrophism presumes that society is headed for a collapse, whether economic, ecological, social, or spiritual. This collapse is frequently, but not always, regarded as a great cleansing, out of which a new society will be born. Catastrophists tend to believe that an ever-intensified rhetoric of disaster will awaken the masses from their long slumber—if the mechanical failure of the system does not make such struggles superfluous.’

Seeking a clearer understanding of what the writers meant by catastrophism, I listened to a podcast where Lilley explains that they are discussing an ideology around collapse and rebirth which assumes a new society will be born out of the ashes of the old. This kind of thinking, they argue, results in people waiting for the collapse rather than organising. They further claim that catastrophism is based on fear which works very differently for the right where it is mobilising, than it does for the left where it is paralysing.

Eddy Yuen begins by voicing a critique of the environmental movement. The central argument he puts forward is that the environmental movement is failing to mobilise because of its catastrophic discourse and an ‘apocalyptic narrative’ that presumes this will lead to political action. He is concerned that ‘dooms day scenarios’ don’t have a politicization effect and suggests environmentalists should find better ‘narrative strategies’.

Catastrophism, here, refers to the warning of environmental crisis. Dissemination of information, according to Yuen, does not lead to action. He claims the environmental movement has caused fear induced-apathy in the population. Yuen pins this to a deeply held conviction about politicization apparently held by environmentalists – if people have the facts they will act. While this may be the case for some, Yuen does not address the importance of understanding the dynamics of climate change and their consequences as a vital precursor to action. In the same way that knowledge of starving children in your city does not lead most people to take action, so knowledge about climate change does not necessarily lead to action. This phenomenon is not unique to the environmental movement.

Yuen makes the assumption that the environmental movement cannot mobilise because it uses catastrophic language. This line of argument ignores the complexity of psychological and sociological factors contributing to inaction. Kari Marie Norgaard has done some excellent work on social movement non-participation and speaks about strategies people develop to avoid having to deal with difficult emotions. This indicates that, like with other bad news we get, there is a need to support people while dealing with these difficult emotions. 

Yuen rightly criticises false solutions like green consumption proposed by Al Gore. It seems like Yuen sees Al Gore as a spokesperson for environmentalists. This is not the case and should have been clarified. Al Gore is probably the most visible advocate of ecological modernisation in the US. Ecological modernisation theory (EMT) argues that the institutions of modernity, including multinational corporations and governments, will increasingly give more importance to ecological concerns. It is the neo-liberal belief that the crisis can be solved through far-reaching reforms, without the need for radical social change. Leftists concerned with climate change however, argue that social change and an alternative to capitalism are needed.

He further argues that the catastrophism of ‘many left-leaning greens’ is ‘Malthusian at its core’, points out a ‘shocking deficiency in the movements understanding of history, capitalism and global inequality’ and a simplistic analysis which places the blame on ‘the human race’. Surprisingly, he does not mentioned groups and networks on the left dedicated to building a climate justice movement which addresses the above concerns. This movement, like Yuen, rejects false solutions. It argues that climate change is not a problem of overpopulation but overconsumption/overproduction by and for the global north and elites in the global south. Climate justice activists speak about capitalism and point out the ‘contradictions between infinite accumulation of capital, and life on a finite planet’. It would have been more stimulating if he had discussed shortcomings of the environmental left, rather than criticising neo-liberal environmentalism.

Communicating climate change is difficult. Most people (including many on the left) do not want to hear about the topic because it makes them feel uncomfortable and there are no easy solutions. Climate denial, sponsored largely by the fossil fuel industry, is distorting reality. They want us to believe that climate change is not man made or that it is nothing to worry about. My concern with this chapter is that it could be used by some to further silence environmental activists.

In the second chapter, author and Against the Grain (which is well worth checking out) radio host Sasha Lilley distinguishes between two types of catastrophism on the left: determinist and voluntarist catastrophism. The former is a belief that capitalism will collapse under its own weight while the latter refers to the idea that worsening conditions will lead to a revolution. Catastrophism leads to the paralysis of the many and the vanguardism of the few and results from a politics of despair.

Lilley writes that the belief that capitalism “will come crashing down without protracted mass struggle is wishful thinking.’ (44) Are there really people on the left who think the sudden and uncontrolled collapse of capitalism would be a positive event? Surely the suffering would be enormous in such an event. She then looks at thinkers including Rosa Luxemburg and Immanuel Wallerstein whose analyses predicted that capitalism will collapse. Lilley disagrees. In her view capitalism will not come to an end due to internal contradictions. (136) The consequences of assuming collapse, it is further argued, leads to “adventurism (the ill-conceived actions of the few) or political quietism (the inaction that flows from awaiting the inexorable laws of history to put an end to capitalism)”. (52) Lilley asserts that we cannot rely on external forces to do the work of ending capitalism for us and that political organising is crucial. Unfortunately she has not presented convincing evidence that deterministic catastrophism is a phenomenon that requires discussion.  The sources she quotes do not take the position that we can sit back and wait. To the contrary they argue for the importance of organising a new society before capitalism collapses.

The second type of catastrophism on the left, voluntarism, is more common, according to Lilley. What ties determinism and voluntarism together is “a deep-seated pessimism about mass collective action and radical social transformation.” (45) Immiseration and state repression then are tools for politicisation leading to an assumption that “radicals should do what they can to make things worse.” (54) It is the idea that state repression can lead to the growth of movements. That the KPD (German Communist Party), one of her examples, made very serious mistakes has been discussed since 1945. Attempting to demonstrate that the KPD believed state repression would bring them to power in three paragraphs, while taking quotes out of their historical context, does not do the situation any justice.

Speaking about state repression and revolution, the next section examines war, which ‘has long been seen on the left as the midwife of revolt, often patterned in the trinity of crisis-war-revolution’. That revolts can follow war is a historical fact. To argue, however, that the left sees war as ‘midwife’ is a serious misrepresentation, at least of the European left which associates nothing positive with war.

The sub-chapter ‘Heightening Contradictions’ discusses militant groups like the Weathermen and the Red Army Faction arguing that insurrectionism is a misguided tactic, while the last part discusses anti-civilization.

James Davis, Irish writer and film maker, looks at catastrophism on the right and introduces the disease-cure binary of catastrophe. The catastrophe for the right is the threat to privilege and political power. The left is the catastrophe for the right, the left is the disease. Civil rights, feminism and social democracy are trends the right wishes to reverse. One approach to this is cure catastrophism, a subset to disease catastrophism. Acts which could contribute to a reversal in power won by social movements might be sparked by right wing terror and could then take the form of a ‘race war, insurrection, Armageddon, civil war, or in its purest form biblical apocalypse, and rapture.’ (78)  Actors explored in this chapter include the media used as a tool for propaganda, individual acts of terror on the right, small groups on the radical right, conspiracy theorists and the religious right. Catastrophism, Davis argues, “has a long history on the right and both the state and the organised far right understand it and wield it skilfully to achieve political and propaganda goals.” (106) It was unclear how this chapter relates to the previous two.

The final chapter takes a look at catastrophism in pop culture. David McNally, Professor of Political Science at York University, firstly discusses the relationship between capitalism and body panics by linking the rise of early capitalism to body snatching. The commodification of the body and the emergence of a corpse economy created fear among poor and working people, during the 18th century, that their bodies would be lost to medical experiments after their death. This also led to an increase in murders and grave robbing. McNally then discusses the historical origins of monsters, such as Frankenstein, who was constructed from dead body parts of humans and animals, and zombies, the cannibalistic consumer on one hand and the living-dead labourer on the other. McNally argues that the truths about social dynamics embedded in these tales about monsters need to be redeemed and translated into “languages and practices of social and political action.” (126)

The book’s key dilemma is that there is no clear definition of catastrophism as a concept. In a way this problem is reflected by a paragraph in the introduction where Lilley explains that “an overarching logic might be harder to place, since these movements and ideas are driven by different impulses, from above and from below (and in the case of the greens, both). In that sense, it is hard to talk about a catch-all catastrophism, without specifying whether it is of the left, right, green – or liberal – variety.” The definition offered by Lilley in the introduction as well as the scene set by the title – The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth is misleading. It suggest the authors are speaking about an ideology that assumes a collapse, be it economic, ecological or social, and is followed by a new and better society, which will be born out of the ashes of the old. Apart from the the religious right, which is mentioned in the third chapter, there is no evidence of collapse being viewed as a positive event.

- See more at: http://www.irishleftreview.org/2014/01/28/catastrophism-apocalyptic-politics-collapse-rebirth/#sthash.AOOGp2NJ.dpuf

Buy Catastrophism now | Download Catastrophism e-Book now
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My Life, My Body: A Review in Peace News

By Gabriel Carlyle
Peace News
December 2015- January 2016

A self-described ‘socialist-anarchist-feminist’, the US activist and writer Marge Piercy is the author of 17 novels, spanning a wide range of different genres including science fiction, as well as one of North America’s best-selling poets.

Nonetheless, this latest addition to PM’s excellent ‘Outspoken Authors’ series eschews fiction to focus on ‘essays, rants and railleries’. The latter cover a wide variety of topics, including abortion, homelessness, censorship, the tragedy of Marilyn Monroe, the role of politics in fiction, and a moving essay on Piercy’s own discovery of feminism.

Not one to mince her words, she believes that people in the US ‘are being trained from infancy into a people... with the attention span of a puppy and the intellectual curiosity of a stale doughnut’, and that ‘one reason too many American novelists... have atrophied, producing their best work out of the concerns of late adolescence and early adulthood, is that since they do not care to grapple with or even to identify powerful forces in our society, they can’t understand more than a few stories’.

Why should this matter? Because literature, she argues, has power and can ‘help us survive and win’ – if we bother to read and support it.

Though it often squanders the opportunity, speculative fiction can ‘enable the reader to enter worlds in which important variables have changed or in which current trends are extrapolated and we can see the full danger and damage’. And ‘it is by imagining what we truly desire that we begin to go there’.

It is no accident, Piercy argues, that ‘classlessness is pervasive in feminist visionary fiction’ and that many of the utopian novels written by women ‘are deeply concerned with sharing the prestigious, the interesting, the rewarding opportunities’ alongside ‘the daily invisible labour that underlies society’. Likewise, that these same novels often ‘envision women’s sexual energy loosed and free to redefine sexuality individually and collectively.’

Throughout, Piercy’s feminism, working-class perspective and rich life-experience come together to generate sharp and memorable conclusions. One favourite: ‘The real heroes of many people on the Left and in the women’s community are failures who remain pure according to a scriptural line and speak only to one another.’

Midway through reading this short book, I stumbled across two of Piercy’s novels (one very thick) in a second-hand bookshop. I immediately purchased them both.

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Sisters of the Revolution: A Review in Peace News

By Erica Smith
Peace News
December 2015- January 2016

‘It’s good to read outside your comfort zone’, I told myself when I was asked to review this collection of short stories. I had no real idea what ‘speculative fiction’ was and, of the 29 authors, the only names which were at all familiar to me were Angela Carter, Ursula K Le Guin and the visual artist Leonora Carrington.

According to the cover, the editors are a literary power couple with awards for both editing and writing fantasy. Their two-page introduction, in which they explain that the stories have been arranged to ‘speak to one another, rather than in chronological order’, reassured me that there were going to be treats in store.

There are stories from the 1960s through to 2012.

I would have expected Margaret Atwood to be represented, and while she is not, the first story, ‘The Forbidden Words of Margaret A’ by L Timmel Duchamp, is a thought-provoking tale concerning a journalist who has designed her adult life around arranging a visit to a political prisoner. The latter is forbidden to discuss anything of consequence because of the power and revolutionary potential of her previous speech and writings. It was impossible not to think of prisoners as diverse as Aung San Suu Kyi and Julian Assange.

The following two stories are also about prisoners, although their types of imprisonment have little in common. The story by Leonora Carrington was a particular favourite, a fantastic piece of verbal surrealism, but all of the stories engaged me.

Although the contributors are predominantly North American there are stories from all around the world, including writers with Finnish, Indian, Japanese, Jamaican and Belgian heritage. And folk tales and magical realism are as well represented as stories with a scientific setting.

I loved them all, but it was a surprise to me that the stories that have stayed with me were two disturbing works about illness. James Tiptree Jr’s ‘The Screwfly Solution’ is about a terrifying plague that turns the nicest men into murderous misogynists, while Octavia E Butler’s amazing ‘The Evening and the Morning and the Night’ is a beautifully-narrated story told by a young woman with a self-destructive genetically-inherited disorder.

The writers selected for this anthology share a dystopian view of the world, but this is more apparent in the writings from the ’70s and ’80s, where slavery, imprisonment and victimhood are more common themes. As the writings move into the ’90s, the protagonists are more likely to be scientists or actors engaging with the world, rather than simply doomed to a miserable end under an oppressive patriarchy.

The authors are all feminists and sisters of a speculative fiction revolution rather than a group of political activists. As such, their role is really to explore possible worlds and ways of being, leaving it to the readers to draw their own lessons from the scenarios painted. In their introduction, the editors state that this anthology is ‘the beginning volume of something even more diverse and rich’. I look forward to the next volume in the conversation. In the meantime, I wholeheartedly recommend this collection as a comfortable exploration of an unknown genre. I would even recommend it as the ideal Christmas present for – anyone!

Buy book now | Download e-book now | Back to Ann VanderMeer's homepage | Back to Jeff VanderMeer's homepage




Politics of Protest

By Seth Sandronsky
Progressive Populist
December 15th, 2015

In "Crashing the Party: Legacies and Lessons from the RNC 2000" (PM Press, 2015), Kris Hermes details the fierce state response to protest at the GOP National Convention in Philadelphia 15 years ago. A long-time activist, his purpose is clear.

“I wrote this book largely to preserve our shared legacy of political and legal resistance so that we can learn from these experiences and challenge ourselves to be more effective in achieving broad-based social change.” Hermes aims to sustain that activist trend of collective action against corporate-state power in the post-Sept. 11 era, from increasing the minimum wage to ending police brutality and the eco-crisis.

To this end, Hermes documents state infiltration and oppression of GOP convention protesters. Attempts to enclose them in fenced protest areas suggested a continuity of enclosures to separate peasants from common land to force them into wage-labor.

How and why the Phil. authorities proceeded against activists and their legal team is a cautionary tale to the Black Lives Matter and other current justice movements. The past lives in the present.

In summer 2000 in Phil., dissidents plan to protest GOP domestic and foreign policies and priorities. Preventive police raids unfold, Hermes writes.

Is there a corollary to the post-9/11 war against terror of preventive detention at home and abroad? I think there is.

Philadelpha authorities had studied the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle. That singular event spurred a policing model of mass arrests of political protesters.

Philadelphia police detain, violently, protesters at a warehouse where they build puppets.

Hermes follows the tax dollars flowing to private pockets behind the multi-agency government assaults on peaceful protesters.

He writes: “The likeliest reason for mass arrest on August 1 was the city’s desire to eliminate threats to the convention’s ability to attract tourists and “consumers.””

Business counts. Behind the GOP’s rhetoric of free markets and liberty, the political power of business shapes the capitalist state and public policy.

Hermes lays bare this tendency. Further, he shows and tells how legal activists and political protesters in Philadelphia responded to state repression in the streets, jails and courts.

The relevancy for today is clear. This is why a new generation of activists should read his book.

Solidarity can be an effective counter to the status quo in what Noam Chomsky terms “a corporate-run and propaganda-managed society.” Such collective actions challenge state-corporate power to control people, a vital underpinning of the capitalist economy.

Republican protesters practice solidarity in and out of jail. However, activists and attorneys are not always on the same page, and Hermes details the tensions, which might surprise some readers.

Activists win major victories. Their noncompliance with government procedures helps them gain ground in the court of public opinion.

Hermes explores the question of the media and political protest in depth. Who tells the story matters.

Under arrest, in jail and courtrooms, GOP protesters discover what many poor and nonwhite Americans know. That is, the criminal justice apparatus (extreme charges, violent arrests, high bail, etc.) is pitiless.

Hermes shows how in the face of such maltreatment, collective action can reap humane change. R2K Legal occupies no small part of section two in which Hermes documents the ebbs and flows of confronting the authorities hell-bent on neutering political protests.

Exposing abuses, shaping public opinion and reaching out to religious groups strengthens the uses of court solidarity. Hermes defines this term, and its applications, from misdemeanor to felony cases, a rough road, given defendants’ different aims and home bases.

In the third and last section of the book, Hermes analyzes the wins and losses of civil litigation. In part as a result of what occurs in Phil., protesters’ practice of jail solidarity changes at later GOP conventions.

“While the RNC 2000 case study mainly applies to mass mobilizations in which hundreds of arrests occur, it is still invaluable for understanding the motivations of contemporary political policing and for developing the means to challenge today’s National Security State,” he writes. Precisely.

Seth Sandronsky is a journalist and member of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. Email sethsandronsky@gmail.com

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Damnificados: A review in LA Progressive

Damnificados



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Diane Lefer
LA Progressive
December 4th, 2015

I‘ve never met JJ Amaworo Wilson (though I hope to remedy that soon) but when he contacted me, hoping I would read and comment on his work, I said yes. His publisher is known for radical and stimulating fiction, the author’s website intrigued me and so did the premise of his novel, Damnificados.

So here’s the advance word on some extraordinary fiction. Welcome to a world of two-headed wolves where people go to war over trash and thousands of the desperate move into an unfinished skyscraper tower built on a base of compacted garbage. The squatters learn “how to build a community from this upright tomb” in defiance of the most violent, ruthless, politically connected family imaginable. The Torres family, with control of the Army, the police, and the government, continues to lay claim to the Tower.

Welcome to a world of two-headed wolves where people go to war over trash and thousands of the desperate move into an unfinished skyscraper tower built on a base of compacted garbage.

Wilson, born in Germany to an English father and Nigerian mother, has worked and traveled throughout the world, extensively in Latin America, and his novel’s setting has a Latin American feel. Which is appropriate: though it takes place in an imaginary and globalized space, Wilson was inspired by the real-life occupation of the Tower of David in the financial district of Caracas, Venezuela. In 2007, more than two thousand of the city’s damnificados, or homeless, moved into the shell of a luxury building after financing fell through and construction stopped. The squatters were led by a controversial figure–a reformed criminal who may or may not have been truly reformed. The site inspired scenes in the TV show Homeland where it was, of course, portrayed as a frighteningly violent place. Wilson sees it differently.

Though the term damnificado has its particular meaning in Caracas, I am struck by the word’s resonance. Obviously, English-speakers see damned while the Spanish word can be translated as victim or survivor or the meaning I like best: damaged–in the sense of being an injured party, someone entitled to seek recompense or redress. Today’s global poor are indeed the survivors of the violence of global economic crime. Where, how can they seek redress?

Wilson’s damnificados emerge from “cardboard cities” and hillside shanty towns where “ramshackle houses crowd together, climb upon one another as if for comfort.” Some of the damnificados have “wrapped their faces in cloths, like lepers, only eyes visible, and their steps are padded as a panther’s because many have no heels to walk in, just rags binding their feet or shoes with worn rubber soles. And others move barefoot, hunched and furtive, two by two, shifting in the shadows for safety.”

They are led—though he would prefer the community remain leadership—by Nacho Morales, who heaves his wasted body through the days on bandaged crutches. Born only to be abandoned on a river bank, swaddled in rags, he has the good fortune to be found by a storytelling schoolteacher. Unable to run or fight, he’s also lucky to have a big brother Emil with a knack for showing up in the nick of time. Nacho becomes a voracious reader and a linguist as “languages stick to him like mud to a boy’s knee.” And there are many languages in the world of the novel. Characters speak Spanish, Portuguese, German, Arabic, Italian, Creole, Latvian, Tagalog, French, Gujarati and more. The Tower is a veritable Tower of Babel. The squatters may not always use politically correct speech: the giant hero is referred to always as simply The Chinaman. But unlike what happens in the Scriptural Tower of Babel, the squatters aren’t confused and confounded by difference. They cooperate.

Damnificados

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tower of David

Brazilian novelist Jorge Amado surely put many nationalities in the streets of Bahia, but he was celebrating the mixing of races and cultures while Wilson’s take on diversity seems to me to reflect the globalization of poverty and oppression. And like Amado, when Wilson’s narrative enters mythic territory, this isn’t so much magic realism–reporting supernatural occurrences as if factually true–as the recognition that gossip, exaggeration, and legend are part of history, too.

Turning contemporary realities to legend takes a talent as rare and special as JJ Amaworo Wilson’s. Through his narrative rich in danger, adventure, humor, romance, and risk, he can raise essential questions without succumbing to earnestness or didacticism. How can the damnificados of the earth assert their dignity and take control of their own destinies? Where do you turn when all the forces of so-called law and order are the oppressors and assassins. How can anyone live nonviolently in a violent world which is always ready to dispossess human beings of their homes, those they love, and their lives? Damnificados takes us to the limits of the possible.

When Nacho starts teaching the adults and then the children in the Tower, the priest who’s taken up residence warns him literacy leads to revolution. When people read about their rights, they learn they’ve been exploited throughout history. Then: “If the government comes for us, we’ll all be dead.”

Nacho replies “someone always survives. There’s always some poor wretch who gets out alive and spreads the word.”

Which reminds me of a story I heard decades ago from the great Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe. I expect the author of Damnificados knows it too and I hope he’ll forgive me if my memory causes me to retell it wrong. A lion has a rabbit in its jaws, and the rabbit begs for just a minute more of life to say its prayers. The lion releases it and the rabbit, instead of praying, lies on its back in the dirt and thrashes about raising dust. “What good did that do you?” the lion asks. And the rabbit says, “Anyone passing by this road will know a great struggle happened here.”

diane leferThank you, JJ Amaworo Wilson for your eloquent fiction that entertains even as it advances the very necessary struggle of our much-afflicted world.


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