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European Anarchist Has to Cancel Trip to the U.S.

Life Under the Jolly RogerBy Matthew Rothschild
The Progressive
February 19, 2010

The anarchist author Gabriel Kuhn was planning on visiting the United States in early March and staying until May. He had speaking engagements set up at several colleges, bookstores, and coffeehouses. But he’s no longer coming.

Kuhn, who was born in Austria and lives in Sweden, wrote a prize-winning book on contemporary anarchism in the United States. And he’s the author of two new books published by PM Press out of Oakland. One is called “Life Under the Jolly Roger: Reflections on Golden Age Piracy,” and the other is “Sober Living for the Revolution: Hardcore Punk, Straight Edge, and Radical Politics.”

He applied through Homeland Security’s Electronic System for Travel Authorization, which has been in place for a little more than a year. This system is for people who are traveling to the United States from countries where the U.S. used to say you didn’t need a visa to come to America.

(For a list of those countries, click here.)

Now you need to have either a visa or approval from the Electronic System for Travel Authorization.

So Kuhn, who has come to the United States several times before, logged onto the Homeland Security website and tried to get the travel authorization.

“I considered the process a mere formality,” he wrote in his own account of what happened.

“When the words ‘Travel Not Authorized’ appeared on my computer screen, I instantly thought [it was] a mistake. Certainly I must have missed a letter or digit in my application form. I checked the records. I hadn’t missed anything. Nonetheless, I applied again. It took only a few hours to receive another rejection.”

Joanne Ferreira, a press officer at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said she couldn’t comment on Kuhn’s specific case, but she said people are rejected for a variety of reasons.

“It could be criminal activity, or an immigration violation, or anything in his past,” she said. She added that people denied travel authorization could then apply for a visa.

Kuhn, who believes he’s landed on the No Fly List, understood he had that option but concluded it was unlikely he would be granted a visa, and if he did get it, he was worried he’d be turned away once he got here.

“Under these circumstances, it became impossible for me to continue planning my tour (which was to start in a month), and I had to cancel.”

Kuhn, who got a PhD in philosophy from the University of Innsbruck, tells me there is a lot of “official hype” about freedom of speech in America, but it’s not a reality here. Nor is the freedom to listen.

“This is what authorities try to undermine by keeping folks with ‘suspicious’ views from visiting the country,” he tells me. “This is nothing new. If we use anarchist history as an example, xenophobia and political oppression have always gone hand in hand. The first strong wave of anarchism in the U.S. between 1870 and 1920 was largely ascribed to immigrant groups (mainly Germans, Italians, and Russians). The ‘anarchist exclusion ban’ was passed by Congress in 1903, and the mass deportation of anarchists without citizenship in 1919 pretty much marked a final blow to the movement.”

Ramsey Kanaan, co-founder and publisher of PM Press, says the rejection of Kuhn’s travel authorization application “seems to represent a turn towards targeting radicals who have hitherto not fit the ‘war on terror’ profile.” He points out that even the Bush Administration, though not without questioning, allowed Kuhn in. “Why is it, under an Obama regime struggling to contain massive economic crisis, that this is no longer the case?”

Several people who set up U.S. venues for Kuhn are furious that he had to cancel.

Lynn Owens is an assistant professor of sociology at Middlebury.

“I was very angry to hear of Gabriel's exclusion from the U.S. and the subsequent canceling of his tour,” Owens tells me. “I had worked with him to arrange for him to give a talk at my school, excited to be able to squeeze a small amount of funds to bring in a speaker to campus who was outside the normal range of who normally comes, to expose the students (as well as, hopefully, members of the broader community) to new and less common political ideas and experiences. I am mad not only because we lost a great speaker; I am mad because we are losing the ability to move and act freely in this world, all under the guise of making us ‘safer.’ As someone who studies the role of travel, movement, and border crossings in the construction of social movements and political activism, I can tell you that programs like the unaccountable ‘No Fly List’ will have a serious effect on the possibilities for political action, both across and within borders. This is simply one more step in trying to not only delegitimate opposition, but also to make it increasingly difficult to build and maintain connections between activists.”

Immanuel Ness is a professor of political science at Brooklyn College, CUNY.

“Gabriel Kuhn is a highly recognized international scholar on anarchism who has a large following among students and faculty, perhaps the reason why the government is preventing his book tour,” Ness says. “The U.S. no-fly ban comes at a time when anarchist and socialist ideas are more compelling among college students than ever. We live in Orwellian times.”

Jesse Cohn, an associate professor of English at Purdue North Central, was setting up Kuhn’s Indiana itinerary. He’s worked with Kuhn on translating some of the writings of anarchist Gustav Landauer.

“The way I first got to know Gabriel,” says Cohn, “was through our collaboration on a translation of Landauer's eloquent denunciation, in the wake of McKinley's assassination, of ‘the notion that one can reach the ideal of non-violence by violent means’: ‘All violence is either despotism or authority.’ Raise your hand if you think this is an idea Americans need to be protected from! My response, apart from continuing to voice my opposition to such idiotic restrictions of the freedom to travel, will be to do what I can to make sure that Gabriel's books are read and shared and discussed, that the ideas travel freely where he cannot.”

Evan Scott, a member of the worker-owned Firestorm Café and Books in Asheville, North Carolina, echoes those sentiments.

“Our staff and community were disappointed and outraged to learn that Kuhn would not be able to travel in the United States, where his work is freely read and appreciated,” Scott says. “A year into the Obama presidency, this was a stark reminder that the federal government continues to exploit the fear of terrorism to restrict domestic political dissent.”

For his part, Kuhn says a lot of European dissidents don’t want to even try to visit the United States because it’s such a hassle.

“Especially since the mandatory fingerprinting and iris scan was introduced a few years back, many refuse to travel on principle,” he says. “There already exists a pretty strong ‘vulgar anti-Americanism’ among many left-leaning or radical folks, intellectuals included. I call it ‘vulgar’ because it’s based on stereotypes about the U.S. being nothing but a mixture of Hollywood, McDonalds, and Christian fundamentalism. Folks like me, who have spent a lot of time in the country and know that this is not true, have been trying long to correct these stereotypes.”

But given his latest experience, and that of others, he says, “It gets harder and harder to change people’s opinions.”

For more on Gabriel Kuhn

Kim Stanley Robinson chapbook:

How history works explained in fiction and essay
By Cory Doctorow
Boing Boing
February 18, 2010

San Francisco-based PM Press were kind enough to send me a couple of their lovely little "Outspoken Authors" chapbooks, including The Lucky Strike, a volume by and about the science fiction great Kim Stanley Robinson.

The "Outspoken Authors" format is a good one: a novella, followed by an explanatory essay, followed by an interview with the author. For The Lucky Strike, the titular story (a reprint from a Terry Carr Universe anthology from 1984) is an emotional alternate history story about a man who finds himself in the bombardier's chair as the first nuke is flown to Hiroshima, and the moral conundrum he faces at the thought of birthing the historical moment that separates the pre-atomic world from the one we inhabit today. This is a story that goes straight to the gut and the heart, a wrenching tale about morals and duty and hard choices.

Following The Lucky Strike is an essay, "A Sensitive Dependence on Internal Conditions," (reprinted from a 1991 Pulphouse chapbook) that is a cerebral -- but equally moving -- look at the theoretical basis for alternate history stories, drawing parallels between science (especially physics, particularly quantum physics) and "scientific" theories of history, using several alternate versions of the bombing of Hiroshima to make its point. Here, Robinson is challenging us to consider why we find alternate history so satisfying, and what it says about the way we approach literature and politics today.

Concluding the volume is a sweet and collegial interview with Terry Bisson, 30 pages' worth of material about how Robinson sees fiction and genre, his relationship to the American left and his literary predecessors (like Philip K Dick, who was the basis for Robinson's PhD) and views on art and science and the culture of scientists.

Stan is one of the nicest, smartest and best writers I know, and that shines through in this volume. At just over 100 pages (plus bibliography), this is a perfect quick introduction to his work -- or a great way to refresh yourself on why it matters so much.

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NACDL Reviews Real Cost of Prisons

Real Cost of PrisonsBy Angelyn Frazer
National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers

According to the Bureau of Justice, the United States currently incarcerates 2.3 million people. Of that number, close to 200,000 are incarcerated for drug offenses. Long time prison reform activist and author, Lois Ahrens, has advocated against “unprecedented growth” of prison facilities and the number of people incarcerated within the last 30 years, and has stressed the importance of understanding the “real costs” behind the system. In order to facilitate that understanding, Ahrens authored, The Real Cost of Prisons Comix, an educational primer that describes our overreliance on incarceration, particularly as it relates to the war on drugs, in a clear and concise manner.  

The book offers an explanation of the various mechanisms that ensnarl individuals in the prison industrial complex.  In addition, it provides the reader a glimpse into the world of those mired in negative social and economic realities and the subsequent collateral consequences that besiege those with a criminal conviction.

Initially a series of three comic books modeled after Mexico’s popular photo novella or “picture stories,” the book is illustrated by political artists, and consists of a Preface by Ahrens describing the neo-liberal policies that have helped create our prison culture and an Introduction by Professor Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Craig Gilmore that illuminates the direct social, fiscal, and human costs of mass incarceration. Ahrens’ inspiration to create a comic book was drawn from her life experiences, her desire to reach those affected by the system, and her goal of educating those with little knowledge of how the prison industrial system has developed. Her ultimate objective was to create a resource that approached complex issues in a simple and comprehensive way. She aptly accomplishes this feat by succinctly presenting accessible statistical information and anecdotal stories often prerequisites in policymaking.

Ensconced within the historical context, the book houses the three comic books appropriately titled “Prison Town: Paying the Price,” a reflection of a town whose leaders plan for prison expansion under the guise of economic development;  “Prisoner of the War on Drugs,” which explores the war on drugs and mandatory minimums, through the lens of poverty, gender, and race; and “Prisoners of a Hard Life: Women and Their Children,” providing an examination women who are affected by harsh drug penalties and how their increased incarceration further fractures already fragile communities.  

These comics allow readers of all ages to become educated voices against policies that keep us wetted to an often unjust criminal justice system, in the name of economic development.  This is all the more important as Senator Dick Durbin, and Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, recently supported the move of Guantanamo prisoners to an Illinois prison, as “…an opportunity to dramatically reduce unemployment, create thousands of good-paying jobs and breathe new economic life into this part of downstate Illinois." In The Real Cost of Prison Comix, Ahrens compels the reader to cautiously approach the discussion of prison development as necessary for “job opportunities” and “national security.”

Ahrens encourages society to realize that prisons are a great cost to our nation and it is only through working together on solutions that we will be able to combat our reliance on our overburdened prison system.  As such, The Real Cost of Prisons Comix offers recommendations and alternatives on how we can turn the tide away from the existing system of incarceration, including re-directing prison budgets to education, housing and job training. The Real Cost of Prisons Comix is a highly recommended resource for the novice and expert seeking to reform criminal justice policies.

About the Reviewers
Angelyn Frazer is NACDL’s State Legislative Affairs Director and Susana Inda was a former NACDL intern from UC Merced.

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I-5, Golden State Gulag


By Matthew Hirsch
February 21, 2010

In 1962, a literary magazine in the Soviet Union printed One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s debut novel about an ordinary man who'd been swept to the margins of society. Little to that point had been published about Soviet prison camps and the routine injustices suffered there by innocent people like Ivan Denisovich Shukhov. Halfway around the world and almost a half-century later comes a new novel that explores similar themes, aiming to expose an ongoing form of concealed oppression. The new book tells the story of a young woman who’s held captive not in a labor camp but a sex trafficking operation. The book is called I-5: A Novel of Crime, Transport, and Sex.

The title I-5 comes from the interstate highway that cuts 800 miles through California, from the U.S.-Mexico border crossing at San Ysidro to the start of the Cascade mountain range near southern Oregon. The terrain might be familiar, but the scenes in the book are virtually unrecognizable, even for those who’ve made the journey along I-5 many times. Like the highway itself, these are places we’ve all visited, like roadside apartment buildings and Denny's restaurants, but know little or nothing about.

The main character in I-5 is a Russian immigrant named Anya, whose family has been ravaged by state violence and war. A military plane crash destroyed her grandparents’ farm and ultimately claimed her grandmother’s life. An arrest by the secret police took away Anya’s brother Dimitri; then Anya resolved to flee from home. It was this impulse to escape that drove Anya into the hands of her captor, a Russian-American businessman named Kupkin, and into the dark underworld of sex trafficking.

Summer Brenner, the Berkeley, California, author who wrote I-5, says Anya came into being in her imagination almost seven years ago when the U.S. military launched its war in Iraq. The context of Anya’s captivity was influenced by personal frustrations in Brenner’s own life, such as her failure as part of a mass movement to stop the Iraq War. Another source of frustration: the familiar sense of confinement that comes with reporting to a job you don’t want to do.

In I-5, Anya’s captors might call to mind an aggressor who’s presenting a justification for war or one who’s extracting labor from an unwilling workforce. “They like to say persuasive things. They like to make themselves sound philosophical. They also fancy the phrase, in principle. … They say, ‘You should get on your fucking knees and crawl across the room.’ And when they add in principle to their propositions, it lends them an air of dignity: as if in principle all mankind has been waiting to do their bidding.”

Brenner did not set out to update Ivan Denisovich, but the similarities are unmistakable. In both novels, the main characters are snatched from their families and delivered to remote places that function by a harsh new set of rules. Solzhenitsyn’s character Shukhov must learn to survive the Siberian winter. Anya’s existence depends on lap-dance performances and her high threshold for pain during sex with clients. In Ivan Denisovich and I-5, both characters also exhibit a sense of agency that helps them retain their humanity in brutish surroundings.

Most of all, it is Anya’s sobering perspective on suffering that makes her a literary heir to Shukhov, who issued the memorable line: “How can you expect a man who’s warm to understand a man who’s cold?” Anya’s captor Kupkin believes his fate is to rescue young, beautiful women. Though he traps them with deception, Kupkin concludes that these women are better off at his mercy in the U.S. than back home in an impoverished war zone. Anya agrees. As she tries to initiate another of Kupkin’s prisoners to her way of thinking, Anya offers this rationale: “Would she rather be fucking a dog in Atlanta? Or living like a dog in Romania? For Anya, this was not a theoretical question but a real choice. The relative improvement … could not be more clear.”

This is the voice of a survivor. Understanding this perspective is necessary. Accepting it, however, would mean admitting something awful about oneself. And herein lies Anya’s true power. She forces us to confront a taboo in the U.S. marketplace, that section where people trade on human flesh. It happens all around us, whether or not we can see into the shadows. Now that I-5 has made sex trafficking a little more visible, the question is: what are we going to do about it?

(For somewhat recent information about human trafficking, which includes trafficking for commercial sex, see “The Countertraffickers,” an article by William Finnegan published in the New Yorker in May 2008. The U.S. government has estimated that 14,500 to 17,500 people are trafficked into the country each year, according to Finnegan’s report. Worldwide estimates are much less precise, with half a million people at the low end of the range. Citing the International Labor Organization, Finnegan said almost half of all trafficked labor is sex trafficking.)

Amidst all the difficult questions, the lively depiction of villains and antiheros in I-5 make Brenner’s novel a thrill to read. A brief detour to a California state prison introduces us to Gervasio, perhaps the most compelling character after Anya. The prison scene also suggests a whole other story about captivity in the land of the free. In fact, Brenner says she hopes to extend I-5 into a trilogy about women in confinement. The second installment would focus on domestic servitude. The third would take aim at (you guessed it!) prisons.

I-5 marks an auspicious start for the new noir fiction imprint at PM Press, called Switchblade. PM Press bills the lineup as “a different slice of hardboiled fiction, where the dreamers and the schemers, the dispossessed and the damned, and the hobos and the rebels tango at the edge of society.” Catch PM on March 13 and 14 at the Anarchist Book Fair in San Francisco or online at

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When Miners March:

West Va. Coalfield Tales Still Resonate
By Kari Lydersen
In These Times

As politicians and protesters hash out perhaps the very future of our planet at the Copenhagen climate summit, I can't help but focus on a major culprit of the climate crisis: coal.

Coal-fired power is responsible for a large chunk of the greenhouse gas emissions that threaten to throw us into climatic, social and economic turmoil. It is also the fodder of some of the most brutal labor wars in U.S. history. And coal miners in China, Eastern Europe and to a lesser degree the U.S. still work in horrendously dangerous and grueling conditions.

So let's look at When Miners March, a 2004 book penned by William C. Blizzard, son of a legendary miner. A new edition is in the works, for release in fall 2010 on PM Press. The tome tells of vicious mine wars and fearless union organizing in West Virginia from the late 1800s through a 1921 march into nonunion Logan County.

Current events—notably the struggle for unions to remain relevant and empowered, and coal's role in the climate change crisis—make these writings both relevant and remarkable. The book underscores, among other things, both how far we have come in terms of labor protections and rights, and how far we have fallen in terms of workers’ ability and willingness to take great risks and militant action.

Coal could in many ways be seen as symbolic of heavy industry past and present, fuel for steel mills and railroads that built the heartland and still the country’s primary energy source. The book starts with a striking quote from Mother Jones, as fitting today as ever:

The story of coal is always the same. It is a dark story. For a second’s more sunlight, men must fight like tigers. For the privilege of seeing the color of their children’s eyes by the light of the sun, fathers must fight as beasts in the jungle. That life may have something of decency, something of beauty – a picture, a new dress, a bit of cheap lace fluttering in the window – for this, men who work in the mines must struggle and lose, struggle and win.

“When Miners March,” published by West Virginia miner and teacher Wess Harris, is essentially the collected writings of Blizzard, son of Bill Blizzard, leader of the “Red Neck Army” of thousands of miners who marched through the mountains of West Virginia to Logan County. (“Red necks” refers to the red bandanas union miners wore around their necks to identify each other.) The march had them crossing the union divide, from union coalfield territory into anti-union ground ripe for organizing.

The articles were written anonymously for serial publication in the paper Labor’s Daily. In his foreword, Harris describes it as both a historical document and a call to action for miners and others in West Virginia and beyond.

“You are holding a rare example of history come alive, a work that will enable our youth to proudly claim their Red Neck heritage of the last century – and organize for the next.”

By today’s standards, the writing is quaint, colorful and proudly non-objective. Exclamation points are used liberally, and sections have endearing subtitles like “Writer is Irked…Editor is Jailed…Justice is Denied;” “Bishop is Frank;” “Miners Dislike Militia.”

The brutality and deviousness of company owners, railroad barons, elected officials, hired thugs and others in trying to crush the burgeoning United Mine Workers of America is shocking, even when one knows the outlines of this history. In concise yet detailed, crisp prose, Blizzard describes how old laws, new technology, political strategies and brute force were used to subdue miners, often only making them stronger in the process.

He describes the Bull Moose – the armored railroad locomotive and baggage car mounted with machine guns and rifles for driving into crowds of strikers. And the use of the longstanding anti-sedition Red Man Act during war time against unions. In another tactic, miners were arrested on pretenses and given “conditional parole” that would be revoked, sending them back to jail if they associated with the union.

Blizzard cites one conditional parolee, “Dan Chain, alias Few Clothes”: “Let it be respectfully noted in passing that Dan Chain, alias Few Clothes, was a tall rangy Negro, one of the fighten’st union men on Cabin and Pain creeks.”

Blizzard’s description of massacres by company militias are breath-taking. At Ludlow in 1914:

Women and children in the strikers’ camp were awakened by the murderous cough of machine guns and the ripping canvas and wood as slugs plowed through their temporary homes…the women and children crawled out of their holes under cover of darkness and inched along on their bellies to the safety of a freight train. And then the militia swarmed into Ludlow, set fire to the riddled tents and conducted a kind of war dance while they watched the flames eat into the April night.

Hired militias brought into Matewan also carried out violence with near-impunity. Police chief Sid Hatfield, sympathetic to the union, was murdered in broad daylight. His companion, Ed Chambers was allegedly shot at close range right in front of his young wife, who hit the murderer, infamous informant C.E. Lively, with her umbrella.

The acts of solidarity between unions are also inspiring and impressive. For example, union printers refused to print injunctions against the union. In recent decades of media homogenization and conglomeration followed by near collapse, the existence of a thriving labor press, subject to intense censorship and intimidation, is remarkable. The Kanawha Valley had two labor papers. Editors were regularly jailed and during a period of martial law the National Guard invaded Charleston’s Labor Argus.

The use of violence and firearms on both sides is quite striking by today’s standards, when the workers of Republic Windows and Doors made national news – rightfully – for occupying a factory peacefully and with the cooperation of police and support of politicians. In the wake of Ludlow, the Denver Typographical Union No. 49 raised $500 as a first installment toward the purchase of guns and ammunition. Blizzard notes that:

Both sides in the struggle, certainly, used guns. But for one side there were penalties. For the other, none.” In fact, he writes, pulling a trigger was more likely to get a railway detective, police officer or state militiaman “a good salary, a promotion and praise from the Governor.

Blizzard notes how coal mining in West Virginia, more so than any other state, created an almost colonial, highly exploitative structure which has kept the state impoverished and environmentally abused to this day. In just one example, he notes that coal baron Charles Pratt used his coalfield earnings to fund the Pratt Institute for school children in New York, while West Virginians had little access to decent education.

Interestingly, Mother Jones, by then 91, tried to discourage miners from making the legendary trek across Blair Mountain into nonunion territory in 1921, instead seeking support from the federal government, including President Harding. The miners didn’t listen to her this time, and the march continued. Blizzard describes the dramatic miners' marches as their "most potent weapon."

“Union men would congregate at one point in a ragged army, and go on a march through unorganized fields, speaking and organizing as they went. As men joined the union the army grew larger, morale grew higher, and non-union mines shut down,” he writes.

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A Review of When Miners March

Struggle and Lose, Struggle and Win!
By Ron Jacobs

"Some readers, some scholars may protest this writer's method of departing from academic "objectivity," and rooting enthusiastically for the coal miners. That is too bad."

Imagine yourself in a tavern or diner somewhere near Blair Mountain in West Virginia. It's a Saturday afternoon and the television at the bar is quiet for a change. Football season is over. You're sitting at the table with a couple older fellows, one of whom is telling a story. The guy talking introduced himself when you sat down at his table as William C. Blizzard, Jr. The story he's telling is his daddy's and it's all about the miners and their battle for a union in these parts. It's a great story and he's not telling it with any pretense at objectivity. William C. Blizzard is a union man through and through, just like his father was. Furthermore, Mr. Blizzard isn't joking when he calls the story he's telling a battle, because that's what it was. With guns and everything. Just to add a little more atmosphere you take advantage of an interruption in William C. Blizzard's story to walk over and take a look at the jukebox. Maybe there's something good on there. By the time you get back to the table--after choosing fifty cents worth of songs--Blizzard is relating how the term redneck came about.

According to the story, miners who were in the union (the union of course being the United Mine Workers of America-UMWA) or sympathetic to it wore red bandannas tied around their necks so that other miners and their families could differentiate friend from foe. Hence the name redneck. Wearing that red kerchief opened one to all kinds of abuse by the forces of law and order, private and public. It's not like there was really much difference between the two, however, seeing as how the coal operators and owners ran the entire state of West Virginia. Some things don't change very much, do they?

The story being told in the scenario mentioned above is now available to the reading public. Some fifty years after it was published as a serial in the national union newspaper of the 1950s, Labor's Daily, Mr. Blizzard has finally released his history of the great 1921 battle for Blair Mountain and the struggles leading up to that showdown. Although at least two other books exist on the subject, Blizzard's When Miners March is the only one told by a participant. Indeed, it was the author's father, Bill Blizzard, that is known as the unofficial general of the union forces that had finally had enough of the capitalist forces arrayed against the West Virginian coal miners and picked up arms against the coal operators' army. For this role, he ended up facing several charges, with the charge of treason being one of them. Never ones to hide their sympathies, Mr. Blizzard and his father together relate a gripping story of individual hardship and group solidarity in the face of what can only be termed inhuman brutality and malignant neglect.

Underlying the individual misdeeds and local conspiracies of the private detective forces and their mine owning bosses is the greater conspiracy of monopoly capitalism. Ranging from mass evictions of striking miners and their families to racist attacks and murder, many of these deeds are vividly described. Although the conspiracy of capital alluded to above is harder to pinpoint, its evil acts are of greater substance and longevity. William C. Blizzard details some of how this conspiracy worked in the early twentieth century when he describes the machinations of US Steel in the coal mines of southern West Virginia and its boardrooms in Pittsburgh, PA. The dollars saved and profits recorded in Pittsburgh became lost jobs, mine accidents and anti-union activity in the Boone County, West Virginia. The only difference between that time and now is the names of the corporations, their size, and their public relations. In case one needs an example, let me remind you of the recent explosion and death of twelve miners at the Sago mine in Talmansville, West Virginia. That mine was owned by Anker Coal Group until it was bought out by an even larger conglomerate known as International Coal Group. Both corporations ignored several dozen safety warnings and citations, preferring to pay the relatively small fines instead of bringing the mine up to code. If nothing else, this proves that perhaps the major difference between the days of the Bill Blizzard and today is that government is even cozier nowadays with the coal mine owners than they were back then. (As I was proofing this review news came over the wire about another fire in another West Virginia mine, with two miners unaccounted for).

Essentially an oral history on paper, When Miners March is the story of the birth of the UMWA in West Virginia. It is also a study of the reality of capitalism and its toll on those who work in its sphere. It's about men who believe in the the possibilities of human solidarity and other men who succumb to greed and power. It is a testimony to the power of the idea that everyone deserves a safe workplace, a decent wage, and the life such a wage buys. Most importantly, this book is an inspiration to those who still believe that those things are worth fighting for.

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An Interview With Owen Hill

By Kevin O'Neill
Mary Magazine
January 2010

Owen Hill’s novel The Incredible Double features Clay Blackburn, a book-scout by day, moonlighting as an unlicensed private eye. When a big chain store tries to set up shop in the community, Blackburn is pulled into a murder mystery and thrust into contact with a diverse cast of quirky contacts, all with their own stake in the political landscape of Blackburn’s hometown, Berkeley, California. The Incredible Double is full of humor, but also manages to highlight stark and uncomfortable realities. Hill is concerned with giving his reader a spectrum of experience—from distraction and sheer pleasure, to absurd but cutting satire—all in the service of a compelling mystery, because at its heart, that is what The Incredible Double is: a well told mystery. As for the novel’s humor, Hill says his taste for satire comes from a desire to “hold up the mirror” to the world he sees each day as a Berkeley-based poet and novelist. Appropriately, Owen and I met at a coffee house fifty feet from Berkeley’s border. Sitting outside, amidst foot traffic and exhaust from passing cars, we talked about his approach to fiction and poetry, his most recent novel, and his belief in the left’s need for a Clint Eastwood type.


KO: Clay Blackburn, the protagonist from The Chandler Apartments and your most recent novel The Incredible Double, is a bisexual poet/book scout/private eye, hired by a drugstore kingpin to scout the underbelly of Berkeley, California. When did you first start thinking of writing about Clay, and how were you inspired to take on this project?

OH: Well, I live in an apartment building called the Chandler apartments, so it became kind of a dare. People said, you know, you should write a mystery. So, it sort of came out of that, and the neighborhood, which is sometimes daunting, but interesting. And, I sort of backed into this ridiculously cheap, rent-controlled apartment and had to make the best of it. So, I started to romanticize it. There are a lot of crime novels that are possible in that neighborhood.

KO: Really?

OH: Yeah, too many maybe. So, it was definitely inspired by the neighborhood.

KO: As you mentioned, The Incredible Double takes the form of the mystery novel. But in some ways this book subverts the expectations of that genre. The tone is light at parts, the novel’s often very funny. There is even a small jab at Paul Auster in there…

OH: Yeah, I hope he knows I am doing it with respect, having read most of his books. I come out of the poetry community. I’ve been a poet, I’ve run a reading series for years, I did a magazine. So, using those characters, and making fun of that in these books sort of came naturally. I knew the territory.

KO: And, potentially one reason why the mystery genre is so suited for this project is that the novel is a very fun read, and compels you toward the answer, even if the journey is an unexpected deviation from a popular contemporary mystery. But, it’s such a good story, that you just want to know what will happen next. I think sometimes “spinning a good yarn,” or putting down an interesting story, is as important as any other aim you have for a work of fiction.

OH: Well, I think, especially for this type of novel. It’s the engine. It keeps you going, it keeps you reading. And, if I can construct a plot that isn’t too ridiculous, or is only somewhat ridiculous, having the reader hooked by the story allows me to spin off and do all this other stuff. So, it’s a little like form in poetry. You find a form, and you use it, but you’re really saying something way outside of that form, possibly.

KO: It gives you a skeleton to flesh out. It’s funny how structure can be freeing sometimes. People often think of structure as confining.

OH: Yeah.

KO: Well, something I kept thinking about with your work is the concept of “place.” People always talk about place in literature, how important it is or isn’t in a given work. Some novels, for example, could take place anywhere. You take the same characters and situation and put them in France or Japan, and it’s the same thing. It’s not that way with The Incredible Double. I feel like it’s just as much about the place of Berkeley, as it as about anything else.

OH: Sure. Genre writing, especially the mystery genre, the sense of place is such an important part. I was with somebody trying to come up with something where place didn’t matter. And I think Simenon, even though it’s mostly in France, doesn’t matter that much. But most mystery authors, you know Chandler with LA, and Hammett with San Francisco, place and setting are really important, and I tried to stay true to that.

KO: And it seemed to me, reading the novel, that there are specifics about Berkeley that you are writing about. You’re writing about this particular character, Clay Blackburn and this particular mystery, but I think you were also writing about things like class, and Berkeley as sort of a stronghold for free thought in the Bay Area. Marvin, Clay Blackburn’s assistant, refers to “America” as “everything east of Oakland and west of New York City.”

OH: Yeah, Berkeley, I don’t know. Berkeley is kind of the perfect curse. Because there is all of this free thought, and such a high level of intellect. And there’s the chance to put some lefty theories into motion. Half of the time they work, and half the time they fail. So, you hate the place and you love the place. It makes it a fascinating place to write about. I don’t think there are that many towns like that in the world. Little communist strongholds in Europe, maybe. I don’t know, Madison.

KO: There also seems to be a real, I won’t say sentimentality, but a real care toward this world, in The Incredible Double. The character of Marvin is so endearing, and you talk in the book about Santa Barbara as a town that used to have its own artistic community that was sort of driven out by high rent, and is missed.

OH: Actually, I am spending today finishing up a follow-up that is very much about rent, and the “rent that killed Bohemia” thing.

KO: And in this book we have a large drug store coming in, taking business and power away from those local businesses that are more heavily invested in the community.

OH: It’s a fascinating but heavy theme in communities. Individualities being ruined. I tried to do it in a light-hearted way, but hoped there was some satirical edge to that. The drugstore kingpin is a real cartoon. But watching interviews with CEOs on TV, they’re cartoons too. I’m kind of amazed. They’re hard to satirize because they can be so stupid and yet so powerful. We’re all sort of under the spell of this “Oprah Winfrey,” overly positive mentality. And I kind of tried to make fun of that.

KO: You play with elements of the absurd in the book. Nobody takes notice to a man being dangled out of the window, or a dead homeless man on a doorstep. There is a line, “Clay Blackburn responds to absurdity with absurdity.” Is that part of this project, just responding in a way to what you see on the street?

OH: Yeah. I guess that’s the job of everyone who writes satire. You try to put the mirror up and say, “You look like a monkey, you asshole.” And hopefully people get that, and laugh. I think possibly my favorite American author is Terry Southern, who is kind of this lost genius. Three or four novels, some killer short stories, really great stories, a little bit of journalism. Sort of pre Hunter Thompson sort of thing. He wrote Dr. Strangelove, he’s known more as a screenwriter, but his novels are over the top absurd, and they’re fantastic satire, like at the level of Mark Twain. So, I aspire to do something like that. To make people think of all the craziness.

KO: What about the cast of characters? We have Bailey, a transsexual ex-FBI agent. Another character is a paranoid Berkeley conspiracy theorist that thinks Gore Vidal plotted the Kennedy assassination. And then there is Marvin, who is this sort of refined older leftist activist.

OH: I could do another novel with just Marvin as the protagonist. He’s sort of the happy-go-lucky terrorist. I think in this next novel, he’s pretty bad. But, always amusing. The left needs a Clint Eastwood type, you know? Almost a Superman, who can blow people away. So, in my novel Marvin will get to shoot some people. His theme is revolution for the hell of it. What ever happened to that idea? I liked that. Dancing at the revolution, and all that. And I guess that’s sort of a backhanded slap at Berkeley, and theory heads, and leftist jargon. Marvin says, “Let’s just shoot somebody.”

KO: But it feels like the protagonist Clay Blackburn positions himself a bit outside of the easy political definitions, whether it’s “liberal” or “left” or “democrat.” At one point in the book he refers to his fellow patrons in a coffeehouse condescendingly as “blue-staters.”

OH: Yeah. He’s definitely not liberal, either.

KO: Well, even after this novel leaves Berkeley, place is still very important to the work. You texture the different settings with local landmarks, like Tomales Bay’s Johnson’s Oyster House. Or, you point out things like the gradation or polarization of wealth in places like Santa Barbara, Anaheim, and Los Angeles.

OH: It’s definitely something I like to work with, without being too presumptuous or pretentious. And, PM Press is an anarchist press. I know what side I’m on. And class struggle is the real thing. You’ll see it everywhere. It’s what it all comes from and boomerangs around to.

KO: I think that two characters can’t be put together without class being important.

OH: Yeah, you know? We’re supposed to be this classless country and we’re as rigid as India when you think about it.

KO: This novel is also very sensual, as far as the decadence in the descriptions of food, and other things. Clay Blackburn is a connoisseur, and there is a lot of attention paid to the small pleasures, even amidst all the insanity and turmoil that unfolds around him throughout the novel. Through the brand names of the whiskey or tequila he drinks, or the names of the dishes he likes, we see him as a man who works with very little a lot of the time but knows how to live well when he can.

OH: That sort of goes along with the Bay Area sense of place. I guess it’s disappearing, because you can’t do as much with a little as you used to be able to. But, what’s wrong with a lefty liking a nice brand of Scotch, you know? And it is possible to live well in the Bay Area, and he does.

KO: And there is an ideology in just that. As things sort of unravel, and the novel progresses, it feels like these things are small moments of refuge, as if the small pleasures take on more meaning once the struggle begins. Whether it’s sex with Grace, a nice meal, or a good drink.

OH: He is definitely a sensualist. And it’s fun to write about those things anyway. I mean, food? Who doesn’t like to write about food? And sex? Come on, you have to have sex in a novel. It’s fun writing, and it would be very easy to just sort of stop the music and write ten pages on, I don’t know, how to grill a steak.

KO: While we’re talking about description, I want to ask you a question about your poetry. As I read the novel, I found myself continuously thinking about the quality of the language in moments of description, how it managed to be at the same time lush and extremely spare. Take: “We hit the street giggling, our sides touching, finishing off the last of our wine. Top of the world, the pure laser of lust pushing at our extremities, even the street lamps pumped out a flattering light.”

OH: That sounds pretty good. [Laughs].

KO: Yeah, not bad. I’ll keep the example in there. I guess what I want to ask is, having a background in poetry, how is writing fiction different for you?

OH: I almost work in a similar way to writing poetry, because that’s just what I did for so long. It aligns a lot. It’s just one line building on another. [Fiction] is more of a long haul, of course. It’s more of a marathon. But for me, it isn’t that much different, once I come up with the form. Just like when you’re writing a poem: the lines are going to be short skinny lines or long lines, or a prose poem. Once I come up with a kind of form, for the mystery a kind of ebb and flow, it’s just one line on top of another.

KO: Do you feel more comfortable writing in one genre or the other?

OH: It goes back and forth. I’ve been working on fiction a lot now, so poetry feels a little funky. It doesn’t quite feel right. I feel like I’m not working at the top of my game, which is weird because I hang out with really good poets. People say, “Are you writing any poetry?” Well, one came out, but I don’t want to show it to anybody. Hopefully, I get back in the groove at some point. It’s cliché but it’s practice, practice, practice. I steal lines from poetry, so sometimes I am back and forth reading poetry. And every now and then I get emails from somebody noticing.

KO: And as far as inspiration goes, you explained for The Chandler Apartments and The Incredible Double that you were inspired by the neighborhood and the events around it, but what other kinds of things inspire you to write?

OH: It just comes from listening, I think. I work on the Avenue, working at Moe’s. It’s that Burroughs line: “I get my best lines from stupid people.” Well, sometimes I get my best lines from smart people, because I work in a bookstore. But, inspiration comes from eavesdropping a lot. And sometimes it comes as you work, you know? You’re gutting it out, and just spending all day trying to write something, and then the light goes on. It’s very mysterious. Once in a while I feel like I’m really onto something. But often not, and things just come slowly.

KO: So, do you have any projects in the works right now?

OH: Yeah, there’s always something. There’s an, I guess three-quarters finished novel. This short novel that I’m knocking down. PM Press does a series where you’re interviewed and then there’s a fifty-page story. So I’m doing something for that. And those are all Clay Blackburn things. I started out with this idea that I wanted to do six of them. Six Clay Blackburn stories, or novels. And I think about doing his poetry. The Selected Poems of Clay Blackburn. But, he hasn’t written any poetry yet. I think I quote one line, that’s it.

KO: You mentioned writing a book about Marvin, would that be one of the six?

OH: Maybe outside. Or maybe Clay would still narrate, but it would be completely Marvin’s story.

KO: Well, I look forward to the next installment, and seeing Marvin in action.

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Lonely Hearts Killer Book Review

American Leftist
February 3rd, 2010

Amazingly, Oakland, California has not one, but two anarchist book publishing firms. AK Press has been a fixture for quite some time, but the new one, PM Press, was founded in 2007. To its credit, PM Press has embarked upon an effort to publish works of fiction as well as ones related to theory, economics and social history.

Last year, PM Press published a translation of Tomoyuki Hoshino's Lonely Hearts Killer, and, apparently, more translated works of international fiction are forthcoming. In Lonely Hearts, Hoshino seizes upon the Japanese identification with the Emperor as a point of entry to confront troubling questions about the nature of hierachy and the purposes that it serves within society. The brilliance of the novel lies in Hoshino's decision to put two distinctively Japanese cults in conflict with one another, the cult of the emperor and the suicide cult of seppuku and jigai.

As the novel begins, the people of Japan are mourning the loss of their young, vibrant, charismatic young emperor. The ascension of such a young person (about 40) to the throne broke excited the populace, who hoped that he could ignite the reinvigoration of an increasingly routinized society. But, instead, the Young Majesty died after contracting an unknown illness, plunging much of the country into an isolative despair, with the exception of two young film students, Inoue and Iroha. But Iroha's lover, Mikoto, entered a comatose state for days on end.

Upon his reawakening, Iroha introduces him to Inoue, resulting in the death of Mikoto at the hand of Inoue and Inoue's suicide in a sleeping cafe, the Dormir. Inoue leaves behind an Internet statement to the effect that, inspired by His Young Majesty, he was going to kill himself to escape this illusory, demoralizing world, going so far as to encourage mass suicide:

I will lead the vanguard and sacrifice myself. If enough of you identify with my dream, and, we can really bring back this world to what it is truly meant to be. We can extinquish this phony world, and return to the real, natural, authentic world of the dead.

In his penetrating study of anarchism in China, Anarchism in the Chinese Revolution, Arif Dirlik observes that . . . anarchist ideology, in its peculiar formulation of questions of conflict and interest in society, lent itself to counterrevolution almost as easily as to revolution. In Lonely Hearts, Hoshino confronts us with the troubling insight that such an observation warrants a global instead of a site specific application by describing a reactionary public response to the deaths of Inoue and Mikoto.

Instead of recognizing that Inoue sought to induce a rejection of hierarchy and the deference to authority that it necessarily entails, the public became more and more hostile to his memory as suicides proliferated. Predictably, the government seizes upon the crisis as an opportunity to seize greater police powers for itself, posthumously condemning Inoue as a terrorist, and thereby suppressing all of his cyberspace statements and videos. A small minority answered his call, but a majority either rejected him or remained indifferent as the state assumed more control over their lives. During the period, a woman ascends the throne for the first time as His Young Majesty's successor. Caught between the constraints of her personality, her role as empress and the requirements for reaching people through the media, she proves herself incapable of alleviating public feelings of unease and aimlessness.

To the extent that there was an individualistic response to the deaths of Inoue and Mikoto, it was in a social Darwinist direction, as people could only fall back upon past cultural experience. Suicides became love suicides and love suicides became assassination suicides, analogous to propaganda by the deed, and assassination suicides became indiscriminate love suicides, ones in which a person randomly selected someone to die with them. As you might have guessed, some responded by adopting the rationale of the war on terror, kill them before they kill us. In one celebrated incident, a young man kills his best friend because he thought his friend was running towards him to kill him. A court finds him not guilty, and he subsequently becomes a politically powerful figure.

Through this narrative, which he presents reflectively through his three primary characters, Inoue, Iroha and Mokuren, Hoshino mines a rich vein of social conformity and autocracy that the Japanese left has been unable to transcend, as explored in the films of Nagisa Oshima. But some reject the false choice between suicide and submission. After the deaths of Inoue and Mikoto, Iroha goes to live in a retreat center nestled in a cedar forest, a retreat operated by her high school friend, Mokuren. As she lives there for several years, she deals with her grief over the deaths of Inoue and Mikoto, and imperfectly strives to assert an independent identity. She does so in a way that Mokuren condemns as perpetuating the circle of cynicism, self-centered rebellion and sacrifice initiated by Inoue.

By contrast, Mokuren challenges the emerging social Darwinism in an editorial entitled, I Won't Kill, and rightists direct their rage towards her and the residents of her retreat center. Her challenge, and the violent rightist response to it, becomes the center of a media circus, reducing her attempt to emotionally reach people into yet another form of entertainment. If there is a moral to Hoshino's postmodern fable of alienation and impotence, it is that before there can be a political revolution, there must first be a social one within our hearts and minds. Or, even more, a social one renders the need for a political one superfluous.

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My Baby Rides the Short Bus

By Ri J. Turner
Feminist Review
February 11, 2010

My Baby Rides the Short Bus is an anthology of articles written by parents about their firsthand experiences of raising children with disabilities. In addition to their common identity as parents of disabled children, the contributors also share another trait: all of them find themselves outside of the mainstream by virtue of identity or political perspective. Together the articles make up a lively collection of authentic voices that speak to the joys and challenges of being marginalized and/or subcultural parents raising special-needs children.

Many of the authors write about how their non-mainstream identities have affected their experience of raising special-needs children. Thida Cornes writes about how she learned to work within the constraints of her own disability, dystonia (a physical disability that causes muscular spasms), to take care of her son, who has been diagnosed with cerebral palsy. A lesbian minister, Maria June writes about becoming, at age twenty-three, the foster mom of a fifteen-year-old with special needs. Amber E. Taylor, a self-described “black biracial dyke with head-to-toe visible tattoos and a bald head” and an adoptive parent of a son with Down syndrome, writes about the backlash she receives from biological parents of disabled children who think she shouldn’t attend support group meetings because she “chose” to parent a special child.

The authors also write about the process of navigating the many institutions ostensibly set up to help special-needs children, but which often end up sidelining them. Several authors write about the experience of diagnosis: the behavioral testing milieu in which young children, separated from parents and subjected to unfamiliar conditions, unsurprisingly fail to show their full range of abilities, and then are slapped with labels that sometimes sound more like death sentences. Authors who spend 24/7 with their children write about the experience of not being believed by “specialists” about their children's abilities and needs, or being subtly blamed for their children’s disabilities. Expressing the frustration felt by many of the authors, Kerry Cohen writes, “Unless I hate the things that make [my son] different from other children, I will always be a wayward mother.”

But not all the stories are about frustration and tragedy—many of the authors write about the creative and energetic ways they have found to help their children thrive, often in direct opposition to the institutions that are set up to “help.” Karen Wang and Heather Newman write about “unschooling”—creating stimulating and safe learning spaces at home, tailored specifically to their children’s particular needs—while Shannon Des Roches Rosa tells how she co-founded a special education PTA that helps parents of children with disabilities advocate for their children in the local public school system.

As so many of us know from personal experience, it can be very difficult to be part of multiple marginalized communities. As one of the authors, Andrea Winninghoff, laments, “In a community of parents with deaf kids, I will always be the single, young, gay mom. Among gay parents, I will always be the one with the deaf kid that they can’t speak to.” While there are many books available on parenting special-needs children, very few of those books offer an explicitly political analysis of the rights of special-needs families and of the systems that do or don’t serve them, and very few of those books acknowledge the experiences of parents who are out of the mainstream, whether due to race, class, gender identity or sexual orientation, disability, political beliefs, or lifestyle. Frank, engaging, and broad-ranging, My Baby Rides the Short Bus is a rare and precious treasury of these too-often invisible stories.

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Metropolis Reviews Lonely Hearts Killer

By James Hadfield
February 11, 2010

One of the more frustrating aspects of reviewing translated Japanese literature is the waiting. While Haruki Murakami is hampered only by the length of time it takes Jay Rubin to bang out a decent translation, most modern writers will wait a decade or two before seeing their work appear in English, by which point it’s been robbed of much of its resonance.

Of course, there’s more to it than that. In the introduction to Lonely Hearts Killer, Adrienne Carey Hurley bemoans the unwillingness of most publishers to release “contemporary Japanese fiction that challenges stereotypes or demands serious self-reflection.” After much shopping around, she eventually found a home for her translation of Tomoyuki Hoshino’s 2004 novel at PM Press, an independent publisher that specializes in radical and anarchist literature. It’s baffling that nobody else would be willing to release a work that speaks so directly to Japan’s present fears—the declining birthrate, environmental problems, rising nationalism, and public and national security—and does so in a layered, complex narrative.

“I have no real sense of participating in society,” declares the story’s first narrator, a young—and largely unemployed—filmmaker and blogger called Shoji Inoue. When Japan’s emperor dies at the age of 46, only three years after acceding to the throne, it leaves the nation in a daze that’s compounded by the fact that the only heir is a woman. Many young people, hitherto unconcerned by the complexities of the imperial line, are “spirited away” into outright catatonia—something that Shoji surveys with bemused detachment, wondering why he isn’t affected.

He finds a certain amount of solace in Iroha, a fellow filmmaker who shares his impassivity: as she describes it, both of them are “nothing without something to reflect, just an empty screen.” Her boyfriend Mikoto was among those felled by narcolepsy, and when he and Shoji finally meet, the latter suddenly finds new meaning in the emperor’s demise, leading him to start a wave of so-called “love suicides.”

Iroha picks up the narrative from here, recalling her escape to a mountaintop retreat run by an old friend, Mokuren, where she obsesses over secondhand reports on the gradual unraveling of society down below. The wave of suicides becomes indiscriminate, leading in turn to acts of “justifiable self-defense” that are reported/distorted by a hysterical mass media. In a touch of mordant humor, a student who preemptively kills his friend goes on to publish a bestseller entitled The Value of Survival; when Mokuren publically affirms her refusal to kill anyone, she and the retreat’s residents are hounded for shirking responsibility.

Though society ultimately draws back from the brink, Iroha finds herself frustrated with what she sees as the illusionary calm that replaces the madness. “The holes in this screen we call society get filled with cheap pride whenever they become visible, and the projector starts back up,” she writes. Yet when she attempts to make a grand gesture of her own, it falls flat—to the cynical delight of the book’s third narrator.

“She was actually doing okay and hanging in there, but then she got carried away by those big ideas,” Mokuren writes of her friend. But even this cool pragmatist starts to waver in the final pages of the story.

This is a demanding, messy piece of work, ripe with narrative ambiguities. Subsequent events such as the 2008 Akihabara massacre and the demented media blather over Noriko Sakai have lent it added prescience, resulting in a novel that—let’s not beat around the bush—is more compelling than anything I’ve reviewed in the past year.

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