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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!

Buy book now | Back to Cynthia Chin-Lee's homepage

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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