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Chin Wag At The Slaughterhouse: Interview with Gary Phillips

By Richard Godwin
The Slaughterhouse
October 2, 2011

Mystery and crime writer Gary Phillips has led an interesting life. He was involved in easing racial tensions through community organizing and policy after the 1992 LA riots.

He is a widely published novelist and author of numerous graphic novels, including recently the brilliant Cowboys, illustrated by Brian Hurtt, in which a nightclub shooting changes the lives of two undercover officers.

Gary met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about the graphic novel and crime writing.

Do you think kindle lends itself to the graphic novel and what are the differences between writing one for kindle and writing for traditional paperback?

Not sure if the Kindle lends itself well to the graphic novel format. I know from the guy now converting Angeltown: The Nate Hollis Investigations—out now from Moonstone, y’all—for the e-book format told me he’s had to break up some of the pages as Kindle scrunches graphics and so say a page with seven panels would have to be two pages on the machine, four on one page and three on the following. That suggests as a writer providing a script to the artist, I would handle the pacing different, where are the dramatic breaks, mini-cliffhangers from one page to the next, and so on, differently if I was writing for the electronic medium.

For instance I’ve talked to younger guys at the comic shop I frequent, Comics Ink in Culver City, and some have talked about they prefer the printed comic book page as opposed to say scrolling panel by panel on an iPhone. I’m sure there are others who dig it that way. Clearly the various electronic formats create a different set of challenges to storytelling. Fact, I believe there’s been a graphic novel written solely for the so-called Smart Phone. I wonder how well it did, how many hits it got—how much was cost a factor?

To what extent do you think writers are motivated by a fear of death?

That’s a great question. Yes, I do find some small comfort in the notion that when I’m gone there will be, like this image from the recent film version of Wells’ The Time Machine, this massive crumbling library of marble and Ionic columns where among the stacks of crumbling books, there will be a copy or two of my books. Of course as soon as you touch the outside of one, it’ll disintegrate into dust. But what about this age of the Kindle? How will my bid for minimal immortality be realized if my books are only in electronic format? For surely there will be this world wide electromagnetic pulse the aliens or our mad scientists unleash and all this information is wiped in the Ethernet. Then what? Man.

Do you see the struggle of Social Darwinism at work in your novels as they portray crime and to what extent do you think the same forces are at work in the police force?

That’s a pretty high-minded concept but certainly on some level isn’t the crime and mystery story about that? We know there are various levels of crime from the street hoodlum to the Wall Street insider. We also know the one as Woody Guthrie sang, can do more thievery with a pen than with a gun. But really the lowly detective is hard pressed to truly bring down the powerful. Maybe the detective, be they private or on the police force, can hope to alter events to protect an individual or a small group but it’s not realistic to think they could say bring down a massive, multi-tentacled entity say in the mold of Halliburton or a Blackwater or whatever it is they calling themselves these days.

That doesn’t mean your protagonist can’t expose the wrong-doing of such a global spanning organization, but of course they would have at their command a phalanx of lawyers and public relations personnel to spin, obfuscate and delay, for years, justice. The detective at best seeks a modicum of balancing the scales. Not that they wouldn’t want more, but I think gone are the days when at the end of the novel or the movie the hero has managed to get the incriminating evidence in the hands of the intrepid reporter and the bad guys goose is coked. These days it’s just as likely the evil corporation owns the news outlet and can kill the story that way or more likely, get a few underlings to take the fall.

Conversely, it’s still compelling to read stories of thieves who operate in their own underworld and when they clash, it’s a head up kind of confrontation be one of the thieves a crime lord or even a crooked politician. There are rules after all to screwing the public and these chaps step too far out of line.

In terms of the police versus the little guy, that’s a different story. There are far too many stories of the poor and people of color being ground up in the machinery of the criminal justice system. There are now numerous cases of men who were convicted by juries of their peers, where damning eyewitness testimony was introduced against them who now 10, 20, 30 years later DNA evidence clears them. How many studies have demonstrated the unreliability of eyewitnesses. Or the power of the police to coerce confession after grilling you over and over for hours in the interrogation room. Big dog eat little dog indeed.

Tell us about The Underbelly.

The explosion of wealth and development in downtown L.A. is a thing of wonder. However, regardless of how big and shiny our buildings get, we should not forget the underbelly, the ones who this wealth and development has overlooked and pushed out. The Underbelly is a novella with this as context as a semi-homeless Vietnam vet named Magrady searches for a friend in a wheelchair gone missing from Skid Row— a friend who might be working a dangerous scheme against major players. Magrady’s journey is a solo sortie where the flashback prone protagonist must deal with the impact of gentrification; take-no-prisoners community organizers; an unflinching cop with whom he has a past in Vietnam; an elderly sexpot out for his bones; a lusted after magical skull; chronic-lovin’ knuckleheads; and the perils of chili cheese fries at midnight.

Roland Barthes introduced the concept of anchorage, in which linguistic elements can serve to ‘anchor’ the preferred readings of an image, he used this primarily in relation to advertisements but also to comics. How much more freedom do you find as a writer when writing comics and do you think the juxtaposition of image and words allows you to do things that you cannot when writing pure text?

So, on comics, well, it’s this great bastard form of storytelling, isn’t it? relatively cheap and disposable, tales of super heroes and monsters and all manner of fantastic going-ons. Then there’s crime comics too and even mixtures where the incredible mixes with the criminal. Batman certainly embodies this has he is both costumed adventurer yet employs the classic methods of detection—computer analysis, hairs and fibers catalogued in his brain, and so on—and like Mike Hammer on steroids, can beat the holy crap out of a suspect.

Anyway, scripting comics is great because the writer gets to use visuals along with words to tell the tale.

It does allow you a certain short-hand you can’t do in prose. After all in prose, you have to describe the PI’s seedy office, what the nightclub looks like in the smoky gloom and what have you. In comics these atmospheric ques are the purview of the artist and colorist. How much more then does it make the stuff in your head be realized on the page. But comics scripts like teleplays and screenplays have their limitations in the form of little room for long passages of text—dialogue in particular. This is a short hand process so the leisure you have of real estate in a prose novel is severely curtailed when the idea is to have visuals and text work in concert in comics.

It’s not inherently more freedom, rather another way to excite the senses . . . I hope.

Is there a particular experience that has influenced your writing?

Huh, I’d say all of it but in particular when I wrote what would become my first published novel, Violent Spring, set in the aftermath of the 1992 civil unrest, riots, uprising, describe it as you will (this the result of the not guilty verdict for the four cops who beat motorist Rodney King) here in L.A., I drew on immediate experience. I was a co-director of a non-profit begun after the riots to better race relations through community organizing and affecting policy. So I would be at some meeting in the morning in a downtown highrise talking with the so-called insiders of the city, the movers and shakers, and at night be in a meeting in a housing project (estates you call them I believe) with gang members looking to spread their gang truce—which had been formulated prior to the uprising.

Do you think political correctness is workable and has improved racial equality or is it the patronising attempt by a white liberal mentality to ease its own conscience and has it exacerbated racial tensions?

Oh what a loaded question. Like most things, and I’m not exactly sure where political correctness sprang from, though I suspect the halls of academia, the initial impulse was a good thing. Certainly it was a reaction to having others define the realities of people of color and what we used to call the Third World and now we refer to as Emerging Nations. I’m down with that. But as these matters go, some practitioners of PC-ness took themselves too damn seriously and there was a backlash. But I don’t feel PC has contributed to racial tensions. There’s plenty of teabaggers, gun nuts, GOPers and neo-nazis out there who did that day in and day out.

Do you think sexual pathology is behind extreme crime and how does it differ between the sexes?

I can’t say on the first part of your question as I’m no headshrinker. I will say as someone who utilizes pop psychology in hardboiled stories that sexual tensions, lust and mutual attraction of course play a role in the make up of the male and female characters who populate those tales. These attractions are part of what compels these folks, people who pay the gas bill and mow the lawn and do the dishes, to take a step out of line or pursue what any reasonable person—you the reader—can see is a foolish undertaking. But they are engulfed in a hormonal fog . . . they are in its spell and what chance do they have?

What do you think of the present administration in the US and its relationship to the pharmaceutical companies?

I don’t know what the Obama Administration’s relationship is to Big Pharma other than, like any administration, Dems or GOPers, I assume they dance to their tune to a lessor or greater degree. I’ve always been fascinated by Big Pharma concerns, their inter-locking boards, other companies their have monies in, and of course, as an example, withholding a pill that can help prevent HIV infection—or really charging way too much for it—can literally adversely affect countries in Africa. That is immense power. In the past I’ve tried to plot out a storyline involving Big Pharma with little success. The lone scientist who invents the miracle cancer drug and the scramble to either kill this guy or buy this guy off by the forces of Big Pharma. But we’ve kind of seen that. Your question has me thinking more on this . . .

Why did you become a writer?

I became a writer somewhat by default. When I was a kid growing up in then South Central L.A., I read comic books—still do in fact and occasional do some story writing in that medium. Anyway, me and my cousin Wayne used to trace over these dynamically drawn panels in say Captain America by Jack Kirby and put in our own dialogue. This hooked me to want to write and draw my own comics and tried to do that over the years, creating my own characters and taking art lessons and so on. Turned out I’m not much of an artist but the idea of being a storyteller—it also helped that while I played sports in school I was a big recreational reader—had me hooked. I’ve at least been able to “paint” with words.

Thank you for an insightful and wide ranging interview Gary that I hope will introduce your work to many readers.

Gary’s graphic novel Cowboys can be had at Amazon in the US and UK and many other online bookshops —see Goodreads for a complete list of online stores. Read a review on Barnes & Noble here.

Send My Love and a Molotov Cocktail! is an anthology Gary co-edited with Andrea Gibbons. Read more and see the full list of contributors at PM Press. Get a copy there or at Amazon US and UK, Barnes & Noble, or Powell’s.

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Suspended Somewhere Between on Writers' Hub

by SJ Ahmed
Writers Hub
September 30, 2011

Before I commence, I have a confession to make. When I was asked to review this poetry collection I had never heard of Akbar Ahmed. This is in spite of: the coincidence of our common surname; his many award-wining non-fiction books investigating the varied nature of Islamic faith, one of my long-standing areas of interest; and the fact that for many years he served as Pakistan's High Commissioner to the UK, both countries I have called home at some point in my life.

This information should also provide the reader with some context to Akbar Ahmed's collection of poems Suspended Somewhere Between. This wide ranging collection charts his extraordinary life across decades and continents in verse form but, in doing so, also manages to provide the poet's personal understanding of the history of Pakistan.

The collection's strength lies in the poems in the section simply named "Pakistan", which contains some of the most unexpectedly vivid poetry I have read in a long time. The book opens with the dramatic Train to Pakistan, chronicling a child's first memory, a trip in a crowded train with his parents. And yet, this is no ordinary train ride. Because the journey recalled is on a train from India to Pakistan at the time of the furious bloodbath that was the two countries' birth and when train travel became synonymous with mass murder of the passengers from both sides, forced to flee their homelands for a new life. The poem masterfully mixes the child's innate need to trust in love with the young adult's knowledge that all, bar the train driver, on the previous train had been slaughtered.

There are so many other noteworthy poems in this collection that it is hard to do them all justice in the limited space available in this review. walking the streets with the Dahta is a tour de force of a poem that takes the reader on a stroll through the living, breathing, and at times, downright scandalous heart of the city of Lahore on its way to the shrine of the Sufi saint Dahta Ganj Baksh. Whilst, Pakhtun landscape: a mood paints a different part of Pakistan, this time its North-Western province that borders Afghanistan, a land that may appear to the reader of the poem to be further away from the cultural Lahore than it is in actual map miles. Although there is no indication of when it was written, the lawlessness and blood feuds described in this poem could be contemporary.

The poem they are taking them away records yet another horror that precede the fall of East Pakistan and which was kept entirely hidden from those in West Pakistan (the present day Pakistan) by the rulers of the country. Verses like "incest in the air/ foul vapours in every mouth/ will nobody care/ to break this awful spell" should leave no one in present day Pakistan able to deny the true extent of the terrible events during the civil war in 1971.

There are many other striking poems that I found myself returning to again and again. The Path deals with the compassion for all "tribes and nations" which is required of every Muslim by the Quran. The Passing of an Empire draws parallels between the two Empires witnessed by Ahmed, the dying British Empire he experienced as a child and the American Empire he observes as an old man, and is brutal in its honesty towards both. you my father acts as an ode to the poet's father and touchingly conveys a son's attempts at measuring himself against his father's accomplishments and coming up short. nauroz, meaning new year in Persian, has a surprising twist at the end which will make the reader want to read it again. What is it that I seek? is the last poem in the collection and a fitting epitaph to a remarkable and at times surprising collection of poems.

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Operation Marriage on Book Dragon

By Terry Hong
Book Dragon
September 29, 2011

In case you needed another reminder, Banned Books Week continues for a couple more days . . . hope we’ve got lots of rebel readers out there! Since #1 on the “Top ten most frequently challenged books of 2010” is again And Tango Makes Three, I thought this newest title from author Cynthia Chin-Lee would make a lovely companion title to adorable Tango.

Alex goes to school one day to have her friend Zach tell her they “can’t be best friends anymore.” The reason he gives—directly from his father—is because of Alex’s parents. According to Zach’s father, Alex’s parents aren’t married: “‘My dad says two women can’t be married.’”
When Alex tells Mama Kathy what happened, she assures her young daughter that, of course, they’re married. When Mama Kathy and Mama Lee were denied a marriage license years and years ago, they instead held a commitment ceremony, complete with legal contracts that permanently bound their lives together. Temporarily reassured, that night Alex, her younger brother Nicky and both parents share warm laughter watching the video of Mama Kathy and Mama Lee’s commitment ceremony. And in the morning, Alex has a plan . . .

Now that the laws have changed and their two mothers can legally marry, Alex and Nicky devise Operation Marriage. But they need to move quickly before the laws change again; already, even some of their neighbors—including Zach’s father—are posting signs in their yard, ready to deny same-sex couples the right to marry.

Just in time, Alex and Nicky get their mothers to the altar: “Most kids don’t get to see their parents marry. But we’re not most kids.” And Zach? Well . . . cookies speak louder than words!
For those who believe, true love does conquer all.

Tidbit: When I first opened Operation Marriage—all I knew about it was that I admired the author’s previous titles—Cynthia Chin-Lee’s dedication jumped out at me: “To the real Alex and Nikki, who inspired this, and to the First Presbyterian Church of Palo Alto.” I don’t see that spelling of “Nikki” often … and a little light started going full tilt in my head. Then I saw the names Kathy and Lee as I turned the pages, and had a near heart attack . . . of joy. Immediately, I sent a message of delighted shock and gleeful surprise . . . !!

So it turns out, I’m in the book (by association)—in that commitment ceremony video the family enjoys together. I was there in that lovely old stone church in Harvard Square those many, many years ago (we really were oh so young then!) celebrating the marriage of my favorite college running buddy Lee (how many endless times did we run Balch Hill and Occom Pond??) to the love of her life Kathy. I didn’t make it to ceremony #2 (alas, alas), but I am seeing Lee next month. Hopefully the rest of the crew soon, too!

Like I said, for those who believe, true love conquers all. Makes little miracles happen, too. For penguins and people, ahem!

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Re:Imagining Change in Social Movement Studies Journal

by Jules Boykoff
Social Movement Studies Journal
September 2011

In late 2010, NGOs and grassroots activists flocked to the United Nations climate change conference in Cancún, Mexico where they engaged in a variety of creative actions to raise awareness, challenge proposed policies, offer innovative alternatives, and vie for media attention. Sierra Club members stuffed their heads into the Cancún sand as a symbolic critique of specific countries’ unwillingness to take action to mitigate climate disruption. Greenpeace and tcktcktck coordinated an underwater performance to highlight rising sea levels. La Via Campesina, a network of peasant organizations, choreographed a cross-country caravan that culminated in Cancún. Meanwhile, groups like orchestrated human sculpture installations around the world that were designed to be visible from space. Dissident citizens knew they needed to play to the media’s penchant for novelty while not coming across as too bizarre for the mainstream-media-consuming public. In Re:Imagining Change, authors Patrick Reinsborough and Doyle Canning offer a constructive framework for riding that fine line, proffering a creative approach for political activists to rethink their tactics and strategies, imbuing them with story-based narratives in the hopes of ramping up effectiveness. This is an engaging, accessible book with use value for social-movement scholars and activists alike.
The book chimes with ideas from Thomas Kuhn’s classic treatment of paradigm shifts in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, focusing on the discursive dimensions of paradigm shifts and tacitly anteing up an agentic, “story-based strategy campaign model” for understanding such macro-change. Social movement scholars have long leveled their analytical attention on the concept of framing, usually settling into one of two tracks in dialectical tension: (1) the examination of mass-media frames that appear in the news, or (2) the exploration of how activists can frame their grievances in ways that are most convincing to policymakers, the media, and the general public. Re:Imagining Change falls squarely in the second track, offering a variety of paths for activists to gain greater prominence for their preferred frames.
The book hinges on the idea that stories, if told with both vigor and rigor, can be powerful agents of socio-political change. The authors strive for “holistic social change practices” by which they mean concertedly “shifting from issues to values, supplementing organization building with movement building, and exploring creative new strategies for confronting systemic problems” (11). Creativity is key, and is consistently foregrounded as the authors present their toolbox for effective activism.
Reinsborough and Canning introduce numerous concepts to help activists re-tool and re-tune their messages. A cornerstone concept is the “meme” (pronounced like team), which they define as “a unit of self-replicating cultural information (e.g., idea, slogan, melody, ritual, symbol) that spreads virally from imagination to imagination and generation to generation” (122). They liken memes to information packets that help convey stories that can challenge “control memes,” which are often concocted by public-relations specialists and politicians to reinforce the status quo (35-38). The memes Reinsborough and Canning promote aim to destabilize rather than reproduce the machinations of hegemony, forging a fresh vision of possibility rooted in equity and equality. The authors encourage activists to make use of “psychic breaks”—by which they mean “moments when status quo stories no longer hold true, and a critical mass of people can’t deny that what is happening in the world is out of alignment with their values”—as vital pivots on the hard-trammeled road toward social justice (105).
Being keenly aware of one’s audience is crucial, and a central element in Re:Imagining Change is distinguishing between the “the story of the battle” and “the battle of the story.” The former entails mobilizing those with whom you share core values, while the latter involves reaching out to bystander publics as persuasively as possible. “The story of the battle” includes solidarity-building activities like sharing facts and deepening analysis in order to motivate like-minded people to take action. “The battle of the story” builds from there, with social movements taking their story-driven messages to the general public in hopes of gaining new recruits and more widespread support. For Reinsborough and Canning, “the battle of the story is the larger struggle to determine whose stories are told, how they are framed, how widely these stories are heard, and how deeply they impact the dominant discourse” (46). Given that activists can make claims and adopt frames in the “the story of the battle” that they would not use in “the battle of the story” for fear of alienating potential supporters, it would be interesting to get the authors’ assessment of how social media and self-surveillance culture (the YouTube-ificiation of dissent, if you will) might be erasing the seemingly sharp border between these two realms. Social media, which modern-day activists use with abandon, may well undercut this theoretically useful, dichotomous heuristic, and, more importantly, undermine activists’ efforts to message specific groups in particular ways. It would also be interesting if the authors explicitly worked the concept of political opportunity structure into their analysis. Given the authors’ impressive ability to convey complexity in forthright fashion, I imagine they would be able to bring political opportunity structure alive for contemporary activists, thereby bridging the gap between academia and activist circles in ways that could help foster movement success.
In the twenty-first century we find ourselves at a crossroads in terms of the practice of dissent. How can activists slice through the din of the 24/7 news media-o-rama? How can social movements not only impact policymakers but political culture more generally? Re:Imagining Change antes up concrete answers to these questions. As such, this book holds promise for undergraduate courses on protest and social change as well media politics and civic engagement. The authors offer a wide range of real-world examples of dissident citizenship to illuminate the concepts in their book, from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to Iraq Veterans Against the War to ecological justice movements. Bringing this work into conversation with scholarly research on framing and collective action could enliven classroom discussions. And the book is certainly an excellent resource for practicing activists.

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Left Foot Forward: A Review of Soccer Vs. The State

When Saturday Comes Magazine
by Tom Davies
October 2011

The idea that football and politics cannot or should not mix has always been convenient nonsense. Both continually rub up against and influence each other, without either quite managing to bend the other to its will. The question of how football has been approached politically is addressed here- from an unashamedly leftist perspective- by Austrian activist and one time semi-pro playa Gabriel Kuhn in this collection of essays, interviews and excerpts from journals and pamphlets, interwoven with commentary from Kuhn himself.

There has always been a tension on the left between those who have dismissed football as a counter-revolutionary distraction from The Struggle and those keen to stress its social potential. Kuhn, mercifully, is on the latter side, without being blind to the game's limitations and dangers. Kuhn is impressive in his global and historical scope, and in acknowledging gender and sexuality questions as well as those of class and race, as he looks at issues ranging from the exploitation of African players to the way the World Cup has been abused politically (varying from the Argentinian junta's outrages in 1978 to FIFA's commerical juggernaut parking on South Africa in 2010).

Genuinely interesting, too, are the sections on politically engaged players, such as Livorno's local hero Cristiano Lucarelli. There's also the links between Internazionale and the Zapatistas driven forward by Javier Zanetti. The letter from the Mexican rebels' leader Subcomandante Marcos to Inter is published in full here, packed as it is with entertainingly extravagant demands. (A match in Cuba? Another one in the Basque country? Another involving Mexican transexuals?)

The book posits itself throughout as against the consumerism and iniquities of the "New Football Economy", inextricably linked as they are to the past two decades' political neoliberalism, while wisely counsling against responding with backward-looking traditionalism. "It is problematic to claim that the rapid commercialisation of the game during the last decades has 'stolen' the game from the workers —the game was never fully theirs," writes Kuhn.

Kuhn tackles some, though not all, of the myths that have grown up around clubs with political associations. St Pauli's radical following and traditions are not matched in the way their club is run. Barcelona may be a member-owned club with historical links to the fight against Franco but they are also gorging themselves on the imbalances of the New Football Economy. And the invoking of the Celtic's radical credentials may be met with eye-rolling by some in Scotland. In contrast, we're also introduced to those who have applied their politics to football outside its traditional structures. Bristol's Easton Cowboys offer a fascinating study in how running a democratic community football club can reach the parts staid political organisations cannot.

Perhaps because the book jumps around somewhat, and covers so many different questions, it lacks any detailed analysis on how radical fandom can coherently confront modern football's power structures. FC United of Manchester, AFC Wimbledon and others are given their dues, but themes of supporter democracy are not fully developed.

This is ultimately because Soccer Vs. The State comes across as a book for politicos looking to understand football, rather than vice versa. But for those of us who could happily chew the fat about both for hours at a time, it is still informative grist to our mill, and upbeat about the game's potential. As the author writes in conclusion: "If Emma Goldman wants to dance in her revolution, others should have the right to kick a ball around."

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Generation V on Voice of Youth Advocates

By Madelene Rathbun Barnard
October 2011

Hold the mayo and enjoy this delicious vegan title. In fact, no eggs, dairy, meats or any other animal products were harmed in the making of this book. This book covers being vegan as a teenager. This is a street-wise read for any teen considering veganism. This self-help guide not only covers the rudimentary guidelines, but it also provides the nutrition tools and consumer-health products caveats necessary to sustain a vegan life. Moreover, it takes a serious look at animal rights as well as the social obstacles amongst the carnivores in your life. The author covers topics ranging from “how to let the parents know about your choice without them freaking out” to “how to get out of biology class when they are dissecting.” Her heartfelt experiences are sprinkled amongst the tips, resources, and readers’ advisories. She is experienced in these matters. She has been a vegan since 2005. In addition, her articles have been featured in Vegnews magazine and Vegetarian Journal.

As a Food Network junkie, this reviewer especially enjoyed the recipes and the vegan kitchen wisdom.  The “New Food” chapter is also yummy. Aside from the long run-on sentence paragraphs and the sometimes raw adversarial approach, Generation V is a recommended purchase for the young adult collection.

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Moments of Excess in Peace News

By Patrick Nicholson
Peace News
October 2011

I suspect many activists struggle with the bigger political context outside their immediate areas of concern and engagement—I know I do. An insidious feature of current mainstream political culture is that sense of “this is how it is; this is the only way things can be”; that capitalism, of a neoliberal variety, is the only game in town. Hence for activists the choice can feel like either doing single-issue politics, or none at all. This book can change all that.

Moments of Excess is a relatively short book that packs in a tremendous amount: an analysis of anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist politics and action over the last ten years, from Reclaim the Streets and Seattle, snowballing into the “movement of movements,” and taking in recent UK phenomena like the Camp for Climate Action, anti-cuts and student demos; a lucid description of the current state and vulnerability of global capitalism, specifically the financial crisis originating in 2008; and an accessible historical political analysis that weaves together the likes of Marx, William Morris, and punk rock. The authors, The Free Association, are a collective of folk mostly from Leeds with a shared political history and friendship dating back to the 1980s.

Recurrent themes that emerge include the idea of social movements as processes, literal “movements” in social relations; the paradox of capitalism’s abject failings and near-collapse, yet its ability to grind on zombie-like and apparently unstoppable; antagonism and conflicts as drivers of social change; and the co-option and smothering of movements by mainstream assimilation.

In short, this book makes sense of the world, and our role in it as agents of change, in a way that nothing else I have read in recent years does. The crucial point for me was the book’s accessibility and readability, partly due to the fact that it is a collection of essays, arranged chronologically but each standing on its own.

The book strikes the right balance between academic and popular approaches; only very rarely does arcane language obscure the ideas (overuse of the term “problematics,” for example), and the footnotes were excellent, throwing up lots of additional insights and inspiration. It also mixes personal narrative with political analysis in a very engaging way, and deftly synthesises UK, European and global perspectives.

I recommend this as the ideal book for any activist seeking to get back in touch with “the big picture” and tool up intellectually for the showdown with neoliberalism. A great holiday read. Seriously!

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The Wild Girls in Harper's Magazine

By Zadie Smith, author of White Teeth
Harper’s Magazine
October 2011

The two best books I read this month—The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed—are far from new, published in 1969 and 1974, respectively. Their author is now eighty-one years old. Trying to describe their majesty, I feel like one of Ursula K. Le Guin’s intergalactic interlopers taking her first step on alien soil—I haven’t been so taken with an ulterior reality since I closed the wardrobe door on Narnia. It’s not often that we finish a novel with the thought “What is gender, anyway?” or “What does it really mean to own something?” But these feats of anthropological Verfremdungseffekt are what Le Guin (herself the daughter of an anthropologist) achieves, with her unclassifiable inhabitants of the planet Winter (who grow genitals only during acts of passion, known as “kemmering”). Or her anarchist-cooperative Odonians, natives of Anarres, who possess no concept of either ownership or hierarchy. Le Guin’s The Wild Girls (PM Press, $12) is a slim publication containing one story, an interview, a few short poems, a brief meditation on the virtues of modesty, and an angry essay about corporate publishing, “Staying Awake While We Read,” previously published in these pages. The poems are underwhelming (“The Next War”: “It will take place/ it will take time/ it will take life/ and waste them”), while the essays and especially the interview are zingy and pugnacious (“The only means I have to stop ignorant snobs from behaving towards genre fiction with snobbish ignorance is to not reinforce their ignorance and snobbery by lying and saying that when I write SF it isn’t SF, but to tell them more or less patiently for forty or fifty years that they are wrong to exclude SF and fantasy from literature, and proving my argument by writing well”). The strongest reason to pick up The Wild Girls, however, is its Nebula Award–winning title story, a tale of master-slave culture on a strange planet. Here we find the City, where Crown people live; meanwhile, down in the country, the Dirt people subsist. The Dirt people are an oppressed nomad tribe. Sometimes Crown men go on forays into Dirt country to kidnap wild girl-children and bring them back to the City to be used as slaves or else cultivated as concubines. The City world has inscribed codes of conduct—ways of eating, sleeping, dancing, speaking—the intricacy of which would suffice for a cycle as long as Le Guin’s own Earthsea series, yet somehow she sums up this complex community in a handful of pages.

“Show, don’t tell,” goes the worn-out workshop mantra: Le Guin shows us how. She never recites long lists of terminology or boring (to me) Tolkienesque genealogies. Her worlds are simultaneously factitious and naturalistic—we wander in and find them fully formed, populated by characters deeply embedded in imaginary habitats:

In the evening they came to the crest of the hills and saw on the plains below them, among watermeadows and winding streams, three circles of the nomads’ skin huts, strung out quite far apart. . . . The children were spreading out long yellow-brown roots on the grass, the old people cutting up the largest roots and putting them on racks over low fires to hasten the drying.

When these worlds come under attack, we feel the violence personally, not least because Le Guin writes as well as any non-“genre” writer alive:

One little girl fought so fiercely, biting and scratching, that the soldier dropped her, and she scrabbled away screaming shrilly for help. Bela ten Belen ran after her, took her by the hair, and cut her throat to silence her screaming. His sword was sharp and her neck was soft and thin; her body dropped away from her head, held on only by the bones at the back of the neck. He dropped the head and came running back to his men.

Read the rest of the review at Harper's Magazine HERE

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