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Eleanor Arnason Reviews
By Greg L. Johnson

Sometimes good things come in smaller packages. Such is the case with the publication this summer, in two separate volumes, of stories by Eleanor Arnason. One is an old-fashioned science fiction adventure story, the other a thoroughly modern take on life in the near-future Midwest as seen through the lens of an alternate history. Both are the work of a writer who, over the years has explored issues of gender, politics, and social structure in novels like A Woman of the Iron People and Ring of Swords. In Tomb of the Fathers and Mammoths of the Great Plains, she does much the same, while also displaying a sly wit and a talent for creating likable characters who are, in their own way, quietly subversive.

In Tomb of the Fathers, that character is Lydia Duluth. Lydia is part of an archaeological expedition sent to investigate the lost homeworld of the Atch. What they discover are the remnants of a civilization and species in which human parental roles were reversed. An accident leaves Lydia and her companions, some alien, some artificial intelligences, stranded on the planet where they are forced to deal with the few surviving members of the Atch. The humor comes out of the observations of the characters and their personalities. from Lydia's interactions with her own built-in AI to Karl Marx-quoting aliens. As adventure stories go, Tombs of the Fathers is a little heavy on exposition and a little light on action, but is nonetheless an enjoyable story which manages to make fun of social conventions while at the same time remaining true to the spirit of the classic planetary romances of the golden age of science fiction.

Mammoths of the Great Plains is a different kind of story. Set in that part of the northern Midwest where the forests give way to the plains, from Minneapolis to western South Dakota, Mammoths is told as a piece of family history, a story handed down from one generation to the next. It is the story of Rosa Red Mammoth, known as Rosa Stevens in the white man's world, and her struggle to preserve the last of the great mammoth herds that roamed the plains before the coming of European culture.

This is alternate history on a personal level, much closer to the style of Howard Waldrop than to the flamboyant alternate histories of Harry Turtledove. Arnason mixes her narrative with bits of Lakota culture, and the history of those proud people from the time they first met Europeans until the late twenty-first century. In doing so, she manages to capture the spirit and temperament of these people, a combination of fatalism and a humorous outlook that has allowed them to hold on to their culture even while their lands and much of their heritage were taken away. There is also a real feel for the land, so much so that by the end of the story the reader can imagine can imagine him or her self standing on the edge of the high plains, watching the herds of bison and mammoths moving across the landscape, with the Missouri River winding its way through the background.

At a science fiction convention in St. Paul this summer, Eleanor Arnason spoke of how she now felt free to write whatever she pleased, and how that freedom was being channeled into a new found creativity. If Tombs of the Fathers and Mammoths of the Great Plains are any indication, that creativity is manifesting itself in stories that should capture the attention of readers familiar with her past work, and serve as a welcome introduction to readers who have not yet been introduced to a writer whose voice remains as sharp, observant, and individual as ever.

Copyright © 2010 by Greg L. Johnson

While growing up, reviewer Greg L Johnson spent many days on the plains where the buffalo and mammoths once played. His reviews also appear in the The New York Review of Science Fiction. And, for something different, Greg blogs about news and politics relating to outdoors issues and the environment at Thinking Outside.

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Prisoners at Supermax Ohio Penitentiary Begin Hunger Strike to Protest 17+ Year Solitary Confinement

Democracy Now!
January 4, 2010

Four prisoners in the supermax Ohio State Penitentiary have launched a hunger strike to protest what they call their harsh mistreatment under solitary confinement. The prisoners—Bomani Shakur, Siddique Abdullah Hasan, Jason Robb and Namir Abdul Mateen—were sentenced to death for their involvement in the 1993 prison uprising in Lucasville, Ohio. For over 17 years, they have been held in 23-hours-a-day solitary lockdown. On Monday, the four began refusing to eat meals until they are moved out of solitary confinement and onto death row, where they say they will get better treatment. We speak with longtime peace activist, historian and lawyer, Staughton Lynd. In 2004, he wrote the definitive history of the 1993 Ohio prison uprising at Lucasville.

AMY GOODMAN: Four prisoners in the supermax Ohio State Penitentiary have launched a hunger strike to protest what they call their harsh mistreatment under solitary confinement. The prisoners—Bomani Shakur, Siddique Abdullah Hasan, Jason Robb and Namir Abdul Mateen—were sentenced to death for their involvement in the 1993 prison uprising in Lucasville, Ohio. For 11 days, over 400 prisoners staged a riot against prison conditions. Nine prisoners and a guard were killed. It was the bloodiest prison riot since Attica. Hasan and Robb were sentenced to death, despite helping negotiate an end to the uprising, and supporters say all four were wrongly convicted.

For over 17 years, they’ve been held in 23-hour-a-day solitary lockdown. On Monday, the four began refusing to eat meals until they’re moved out of solitary confinement and on to death row, where they say they’ll get better treatment. In a statement, one of the prisoners, Bomani Shakur, said, quote, "We have undergone penalty on top of penalty; been kept from fully participating in our appeals, from touching our friends and families; denied adequate medical treatment; and so many other things that are too numerous to name. In a word, we have been tortured."

For more, we’re going to Ohio, where we’re joined by the historian, lawyer, labor activist and Quaker pacifist Staughton Lynd. In the ’60s he taught history at Spelman College in Georgia alongside Howard Zinn and helped direct the Mississippi Freedom Schools. In April 1965, he spoke at the first March on Washington against the Vietnam War and became an early leader of the antiwar movement. Since the 1970s, Staughton Lynd has focused extensively on labor and prison issues. In 2004, he wrote the definitive history of the 1993 Ohio prison uprising at Lucasville.

Staughton Lynd, welcome to Democracy Now! This is very bleak, to say the least, to have these four prisoners say that they would rather be on death row than where they are now. For an audience around the world who is not familiar with the Ohio State Penitentiary, describe why these men are in prison and why they’re in this prison.

STAUGHTON LYND: Well, they are in prison for various crimes, but they are all in this prison because of their alleged leadership of the 1993 uprising. And they are held in more restrictive confinement than the more than 100 other death sentence prisoners in the same prison. Now, why is this? It’s precisely because the system thinks of them as leaders. So, it will let them watch television. They even let Bomani Shakur use a typewriter. But what they don’t let any of the four men do is to be in the same space as another human being other than a guard at the same time. And this means that while other death sentence prisoners can wander about the pod, can have collective meals outside their cells, and especially can have semi-contact visits with their friends and families, the four are always obliged to encounter the world either through a solid cell door or, when they go out on a visit, through a solid pane of glass. So that, again, Bomani has a niece and nephew aged eight and three that he loves and would wish to touch. If he were on death row, he could do that. But he’s been told by the prison authorities he will never be on death row, because they’re going to keep him in social isolation until they kill him.

AMY GOODMAN: Meaning he is on death row, but just not physically. He is sentenced to die, but he is not actually on the row.

STAUGHTON LYND: Precisely. And so, these men feel that they’ve been given the ultimate punishment of death and then something more.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, to understand where they are, how this prison was even built, what a supermax means, let’s go back to, well, the subject of your book, Lucasville: The Untold Story of a Prison Uprising. What happened in 1993?

STAUGHTON LYND: Well, in 1990, at Lucasville, which was Ohio’s maximum-security prison—not supermax, maximum—there was a dreadful incident and, I would add, an ambiguous incident, perhaps not completely understood, where a black male prisoner followed a white teacher into the women’s restroom, and as white officers sought to break down the door, with all sorts of rape fantasies in their minds, the prisoner cut the woman’s throat. And that triggered a so-called Operation Shakedown. A new warden was brought in. There were lines painted on the floor on which people had to march to meals. There was a special post office box set up by the warden so that prisoners could inform—that is to say, snitch—on one another. And what has always seemed to me perhaps the most communicative detail, prisoners were allowed one brief telephone call at Christmas time per year.

So, in 1993, as you said, Amy, more than 400 prisoners took over a major cell block in the prison. And I believe their objective was to catch the attention of Columbus and get the state prison administration to intervene so that Muslim prisoners would not be inoculated with a TB shot that they claimed contained phenol, which they said had alcohol in it and, in their opinion and the opinion of their religious advisers, was not permitted for them as Muslims. But what happened, I think, was when this intended nonviolent occupation was initiated, all the pent-up feelings of prisoners expressed themselves. Both guards and prisoners were badly hurt. Eight guards remained as hostages. One of those hostages was murdered. And so, there was a negotiated surrender, in which two of the men now sentenced to death took part, but their reward for what they did to try to save lives in that way was themselves to be sentenced to death.

That’s the background.

And there’s no question, a federal judge has explicitly held that the supermax in Youngstown, where my wife and I live, was built as a response to that uprising. In fact, I once had the opportunity to ask the director of the Ohio prison system why there was no outdoor recreation at the Youngstown supermax, because many states have this supermax kind of prison, but most of them have some form of dog run, a concrete well, out of doors, where prisoners can feel rain on their face and see the sun. Youngstown, no. So I said, "Director Wilkinson, how come no recreation at Youngstown?" And he said, "Well, the Lucasville riot began on the recreation yard." So, there’s no question that the very building of this prison was a reaction—an overreaction—to what happened in 1993.

And these men are being held in total social isolation, where they can never be in the same space as any other human being except a prison guard, because it’s feared they would once again exercise their charismatic talents and lead some sort of uprising. But as Bomani again emphasizes whenever we speak with him, how is his ability to touch the hand of his eight-year-old niece a security threat? We feel the isolation is a violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, the more so because you can see the usual punishment by looking at the man in the next visiting booth.

But there’s a second issue, which is that every year there is a so-called security review for these men. Now, this should be important to every American citizen, because it is precisely what, according to the New York Times, the Obama administration is going to propose for the several dozen prisoners at Guantánamo that it feels it cannot bring to trial. Why can it not bring them to trial? Because they are alleged to have committed crimes to which they’ve confessed under forms of torture that a federal court would not permit to be put on the record. So what do you do with them? Well, the President is saying, we’ll keep them at Guantánamo indefinitely, but every year we’ll give them a security review. Now, what does that mean? The prisoner will say, "I’ve had no misconduct in the past year." And the prison administration will respond, "Well, of course you haven’t. We’ve had you locked down. That doesn’t give us any indication of how you would behave if you were at a lower security level or, in the case of Guantánamo, if you were freed." So I think this is smoke and mirrors. I think it’s hypocrisy. And I think it should be condemned in the strongest terms by the American people and the American legal community.

AMY GOODMAN: Staughton Lynd, how have they organized this hunger strike, if they can’t communicate with each other?

STAUGHTON LYND: Well, they don’t cell phones like the prisoners in Georgia. Sometimes it’s possible to holler to a person. If you’re on your way to your solitary rack, but you’re not too far from the cell of another man, you can sometimes yell to him. Of course, you’re going to be discrete in what you say. There is also the possibility of writing from prisoner to prisoner. Prison has the right to review that mail, doesn’t always do so. But as you know, I’m sure, from other interviews you’ve conducted, prisoners are extraordinarily ingenious when it comes to, for example, fishing, which is the practice of writing something, tying it to perhaps a string that you’ve torn from a sheet, and shooting it to a prisoner across the way. To prevent that from happening, the Ohio State Penitentiary put special strips of metal up around the sides and at the bottom of cells. But in whatever ways—and I haven’t inquired too closely—the men have managed to be in touch about, well, we’re going to start on such-and-such a day, Monday, January 3rd, and are proceeding.

AMY GOODMAN: This is the statement of Bomani Hondo Shakur, one of the four who are participating in this hunger strike. He says, "Before I speak my piece, let me make one thing perfectly clear: I don’t want to die. I want to live and breathe and strive to do something righteous with my life. Truly. For the past 16 years, however, I’ve been in solitary confinement, confined to a cell 23 hours a day for something I didn’t do and, speaking honestly, I have gone as far as I’m willing to go. [...]

"I realize that for some of you the thought that an innocent man could be sent to prison and ultimately executed is inconceivable. But it happens. [...]

"A few months ago, a federal judge recommended [that] my case be dismissed, which effectively moved me one step closer to being executed. It’s hard to explain how this made me feel, but upon hearing the news I immediately thought that a mistake had been made and that my attorney had somehow misunderstood the judge’s ruling. As it turns out, I was the one who misunderstood. Indeed, I have been 'misunderstanding' things all along."

Those are the words of Bomani Hondo Shakur. Staughton Lynd, if you could respond?

STAUGHTON LYND: Well, the judge was a magistrate who actually didn’t want to dismiss it, except in the sense of denying his petition for habeas corpus. But since you’ve asked, Amy, let me explain that Bomani’s leading issue on appeal has to do with what is called discovery. That is, the right of a defense lawyer to obtain certain information from the prosecution before trial. And under a Supreme Court case called Brady v. Maryland, the prosecution is supposed to give the defense any information that might be exculpatory. Here’s what the prosecution did in Bomani’s case. It gave his lawyer a list of names, many names, more than 50. It gave his lawyer a list of interview summaries, like three or four sentences. But it said, "We can’t tell you which prisoner gave which summarized interview, because that would be a security threat." Now, I couldn’t imagine a federal court feeling that that was a legitimate way to provide discovery, but the judge, the magistrate, managed to do it. I mean, I had in my hands a statement by another prisoner in which he said, "I was there. I watched the events for which LaMar," as he called him, "was convicted. LaMar had nothing to do with it."

AMY GOODMAN: And LaMar is?

STAUGHTON LYND: Is Bomani Shakur.

So, I think what these prisoners are feeling—in fact, Bomani says this elsewhere in his statement—"All these long years, 15 years, we’ve been told, well, when you get to federal court, you really get justice." And now Bomani is saying, "But I misunderstood. That ain’t the way it is. And I have to find some way to take my life in my own hands and protest." And that’s what this hunger strike is. And we’ve all thought, of course, about the Holocaust and people being led to the gas chambers, and "Why didn’t they do something?" I’m not sure what they were supposed to have done, but "Why didn’t they do something?" And these men are trying to answer that question by saying, "OK, we know no way to protest other than to harm ourselves by going without food. But if that’s the one way that’s open to us, that’s what we’re going to do."

AMY GOODMAN: Staughton Lynd, when did you last visit them?

STAUGHTON LYND: Let’s see. This is Tuesday. Last Wednesday, we visited Bomani Shakur. And a week ago Monday, we visited the fifth man, who they took out of the supermax because he had become severely depressed, and, my wife and I believe, the authorities were afraid that he would commit suicide. He’s at another Ohio prison. But we visited both him and Bomani, and we’ve been on the phone with two of the others.

AMY GOODMAN: And he is George Skatzes?

STAUGHTON LYND: He is George Skatzes.

AMY GOODMAN: Uh-huh. And they are afraid he will commit suicide before they execute him?

STAUGHTON LYND: That’s right. We had a guy who did try to commit suicide, and they took him to the local hospital, they nursed him back to life, and then they executed him a week later.

I should tell your viewers that Ohio is something else. Ohio is the only state of the 50 that executed more people in 2010 than in 2009. Ohio is now second only to Texas in the number of people that it executes. Ohio is doing its best to execute one man every month, but there were some clemency decisions, so they only killed eight in 2010. But, you know, Saint Paul says something in one of his letters about "Come over to Macedonia and help us." And this is Ohio saying, "Hey, we need some help." This state is off the rails.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about prisoner activism, from Georgia, the recent—you were referring to the cell phone protest—


AMY GOODMAN:—how they coordinated the protests in many of the prisons, to Ohio?

STAUGHTON LYND: Well, I remember going to a conference years ago where supermax prisons were being discussed, and I said something about how it was important for a lawyer, you know, to take leadership from the prisoners themselves. And another lawyer there said, "What are you talking about? You can’t do anything in a supermax prison." And, of course, there’s a commonsense basis for that observation, but human beings are human beings.

And if I could take a moment, I would like to describe one of the most extraordinary experiences Alice and I have had with this group of people, because we took a class action to the Supreme Court of the United States on behalf of all the prisoners at the Ohio supermax, and at one point the judge was leaning on us to negotiate a certain—to accept a certain settlement proposal that the state had made. And we said, "Well, we’re sorry, your honor. We have to go to our clients and talk with them." Well, how can you talk with your clients in a supermax prison, where they’re not allowed to be together? So, the prison gave us access to an empty cell area. Each of the—oh, I don’t know, maybe 15 at that point—plaintiffs, representing different kinds of problems, was put in a separate cell. Every one had his food slot open, so that they could put their arms through to vote. And the question came up, "Well, should we accept the state settlement proposal?" And all these arms came out for no. And then I said, "Well, in fairness, let’s see if anyone is for it." And one arm came out.

And it happened that this arm was from a man who had been sent to the supermax in the following way. He was standing in the chow line at Lucasville. Someone came up behind him and hit him with a very heavy—if I say "spatula," you’ll think of a little tin thing, but I’m talking industrial cooking, large iron spatula. And Kevin Roe—that was his name—was taken to the infirmary. When he was well enough to leave the infirmary, they sent him, not the guy who had hit him, to the supermax, which made quite an impression on our judge.

But at this particular meeting, after Kevin’s arm came through to vote yes, I said, in my most Quaker manner, "Kevin, didn’t you just finish voting no?" And a voice came from the upper range, "Well, I guess that’s what happens when you’re hit over the head with a spatula." And the whole place collapsed in laughter. And what was so interesting and so moving was that many of these men had never met each other. And yet, they were able to form a common position in response to a rather complex issue on which a lot depended.

So, I think—you know, Viktor Frankl wrote a book called Man’s Search for Meaning about his experience in a concentration camp. He said, "Human beings always have a choice." There’s always one—more than one thing you can do. And I think that’s true of supermax prisoners, as well. We’ve—because of our lawsuit, we’ve corresponded with people all over the country—Pelican Bay and California, the South, the Midwest—and there are a lot of very bright people being held under very burdensome conditions. And when you’ve got nothing to do all day but think about ways in which you can try, with whatever difficulty, to respond, to fight back, it’s amazing how ingenious people can be.

AMY GOODMAN: How long will this group of men, the four men at Youngstown—how long will they be on this hunger strike, Staughton Lynd?

STAUGHTON LYND: Well, that’s a frightening question. One of the persons with whom we’re working is a professor at State University of New York, Binghamton, the director of graduate studies in sociology, and he has written a book about the Irish hunger strikes in the early 1980s, that many may recall, when Bobby Sands and about a dozen others starved themselves to death.

Now, I have been scratching the surface of reality. Alice and I are each—Alice is 80, I’m 81. We’re not part of a law office. It’s really difficult for us to initiate litigation. But there is a lawsuit waiting to be brought for these guys, and there’s a very good precedent from the Angola supermax in Louisiana. And my hope would be this: that after they had been on hunger strike for however long, it would be possible to hold a press conference and to say, "Human beings cannot do this forever. But as a supplementary means of struggle, we’re initiating the following lawsuit," or it could be a petition to the director. As a matter of fact, if people are interested in a petition, there is a website,—that’s lower case i, no dot, petitions dot com—where folks could go to sign a petition to the authorities. I hope that, whether it’s a lawsuit, a petition, committees of inquiry, whatever, there will be some supplementary forms of activity developed so that these guys can come off the hunger strike before they destroy themselves.

AMY GOODMAN: And in a sentence, Staughton Lynd, what their demands are?

STAUGHTON LYND: Their demands are to have the same privileges that other death-sentenced prisoners have, the opportunity to be around other prisoners for a certain number of hours in the week, and to have at least semi-contact visits with their loved ones.

AMY GOODMAN: Staughton Lynd, as we wrap up, you have been involved with activism, with your wife Alice, with the larger antiwar community, civil rights activism, your prison work over the decades. Today, in 2011, as we move into this new year, what gives you hope?

STAUGHTON LYND: Well, first of all, let me tell you what does not give me hope. I am not one of those standing in line to blame President Obama, because I feel we have failed to create sufficient grassroots pressure on the President from below. And I think back to the early ’60s when the civil rights movement was at least as disgusted with President John Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy as anyone could possibly be with President Obama at the moment, but we had a movement. We represented potential voters. And those politicians changed course.

And I think it’s—I don’t know if you can say this gives me hope, Amy, but at least it’s my strategy for 2011. Let’s concentrate on creating a movement down below. I mean, for example, if Obama suggests what I believe is an essentially Mickey Mouse procedure for evaluating the security status of enemy combatants at Guantánamo, I think we should light into him and say, "This ain’t going to do it." And unless we do that, where do we leave him? He’s subjected to pressure from only one direction. And every negotiator likes to look across the table and say, "Well, you know, if it was just up to me, I might be able to agree with you. But they’d tear me to pieces out there." We’ve got to create the movement down below. And I’m not talking about doing whatever tells us to do on the internet. I’m talking about a genuine rank-and-file movement or a group of interlocking rank-and-file movements that puts out our demand for another kind of world.

AMY GOODMAN: Staughton Lynd, I want to thank you very much for joining us.

STAUGHTON LYND: My pleasure, Amy.

Staughton Lynd, longtime historian, peace activist and lawyer. A new edition of his 2004 book, "Lucasville: The Untold Story of a Prison Uprising" is being published in March.


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The xerox machine: printing press of the people

Burn CollectorBy Jackie Wang
HTML Giant
December 15, 2010

Karen Lillis is currently serializing a memoir about working at St. Mark’s Bookshop called Bagging The Beats At Midnight: Confessions of an Indie Bookstore Clerk over at Undie Press. Her recent installment, titled “People Who Led Me to Self-Publishing,” discusses the inspiring and energetic figures she encountered, people who took artistic matters into their own hands by making sloppy, lo-fi xeroxed booklets that were sold on a special consignment rack at St. Mark’s. Karen reminds us that writers such as Anais Nin, William Blake, Walt Whitman, Kathy Acker, Gertrude Stein, and others all self-published at one point. There’s a certain magic about it—the immediacy of it, the openness, the way any wing nut or fanatic or obsessive outsider can be given an equal hearing on the consignment rack. No filtration or editorial process—just print, copy, distribute.

In a recent email I sent to Al Burian, I wrote that I was interested in bridging the gap between the small press/indie publishing world and the self-publishing/zine world. Al is kind of a cult figure in the self-publishing world, but is probably virtually unknown to small press and indie lit readers (although he did get some kind of honorable mention in The Best American Nonrequired Reading series one year). I’ve been reading his zines since I was 13 and I’m still totally obsessed with them. Since Al Burian was my favorite zine writer, over the years I let everyone I knew borrow his writings—teachers, friends, family. Some instantly became obsessive fans of his work as well. Since last month Al’s out-of-print collection of early zines, titled Burn Collector, is finally back in print after being republished by PM Press. (You should check it out—I’ve probably read it more times than any other book in my life.) Al’s zine Burn Collector and others like his inspired me to start self-publishing when I was 15.

In high school I would use the crappy copy machine at the grocery store I worked at to make little booklets of my writings and art. I would mostly give the shoddy cut-and-paste booklets to friends and trade with other people through the mail. I still do this kind of stuff—although now I use InDesign for my layouts and buy nice paper. Even in college I was running something like a covert small-scale printing operation out of the library of an art museum that I interned at. I helped friends—including HTMLGIANT’s Alec Niedenthal—make their chapbooks, band flyers, and noise music tape inserts using printers and a fancy color copy machine that I had the code for. Alec would also sometimes catch me leaving my ridiculous anonymous pamphlets around. The whole thing was joyful and exciting, even if it was kind of naïve and sloppy.

Dennis Cooper is another writer who started out self-publishing. In the 70s, he started a zine called Little Caesar, which was “a literary journal with an anarchist, punk rock spirit.” Now we worship Dennis Cooper (I do, at least). But we can easily forget Dennis’s DIY origins, like we forget about the way countless other cutting edge writers get their start: by putting it out there themselves. Regarding the zines he made in the 70s, Dennis said: “…the literary magazines, whether they were gay or not, were sort of hostile to Little Caesar when it was around. I gave it out free to most people. Stores wouldn’t carry it because it was too weird so I would stuff it under my shirt and put it in the bookstores.”

In regards to Anais Nin, Karen wrote:
Meanwhile her “Story of My Printing Press” neatly laid out the how’s and the why’s of self-publishing. You self-publish because the commercial world could take decades to catch up to your brand of brilliance, because it’s best to get your work out there while it’s fresh, and because as long as you’re able-bodied and don’t mind wearing different hats (writer, book designer, printer, binder, publisher, promoter, etc.), why the hell not?

When I was a naïve little adolescent self-publisher, I was interested in both the established literary avant-garde and the weird world of underground self-publishing. In high school I didn’t know many people who were interested in the kind of stuff I was into, but I had one friend who was the type of literary teenage boy who likes Bukowski and Henry Miller. We traded books and reading material but he never wanted to read anything I gave him that was self-published. He said he was repulsed by it before reading it because there was no “quality control.” He said, “When I get an issue of McSweeney’s, I know it’s all going to be good. But with zines—anyone can make them. It’s probably mostly garbage.” Fair enough. I knew that some of it was garbage, but I wasn’t asking him to sift through every zine ever made—I was giving him the ones I already thought were good. But since he had a stubborn mentality about zines being illegitimate, he wouldn’t even look at them.

I’ve come across this mentality constantly—the people that fear the tyranny of the “bad” cultural producers coming to dismantle their value-system. This paranoia is accompanied by an apocalyptic vision of a world where standards and systems used to police aesthetic value have collapsed completely, allowing for the terrible opportunity of a free-for-all of artistic creation. But I say that it’s also the absence of a regulatory filter aimed at controlling quality and commercial value that allows for a lot of weird and beautifully bizarre things to emerge—incoherent manifestos, angry diatribes, rambling poetry, copy machine art, feminist revenge fantasies, crazy crayon drawings, Harmony Korine’s whack misspelled stories, stick figure comics about DIY anti-depression techniques, etc.

The funny thing to me is, the actual production process of today’s small presses are not that unlike those of the self-publishing world. They’re even undistinguishable in certain cases. Many chapbooks are made at kinkos, friends start presses together and support their friends’ work, etc. Even offset printed books are often independently funded and distributed and still sometimes have typos, disproportionate margins, and so-so photoshop/design jobs. There is still a certain level of do-it-yourself zeal that keeps the process of making things lively in both camps. Perhaps the main difference comes down to the aesthetics: the clean, design-oriented look of indie lit vs. the high-contrast punk stylings of zines. But certainly, these caricatures do not adequately capture the wide range of small press and self-published works out there, though the subcultures remain largely separate.

Honestly, I’ve always welcomed the vision of cultural apocalypse espoused by the guardians of standards. I think any teenager, mental patient, mother, fanatic, amateur poet, or whatever should write if they want to. It doesn’t mean I’ll necessarily read it, but I’ll be happy they’re doing it because it creates more space for unfettered creative activity and contributes to the overall artistic energy of an environment.

I wrote a thesis on race, gender and the practice of writing and something I wrote about was how power operates through the internalization of standards (perhaps a form of “micro-surveillance,” in Foucauldian terms), and a kind of self-imposed dehumanization that makes us feel like we are unworthy of having a “voice.” When I was working on my thesis I was also journaling about my thoughts on writing. I was telling my professor about my anti-hierarchical perspective on writing. Since she was a high modernist, she got real pissed and said, “I don’t get it. You’re one of the GOOD ones! Some people are just stupid and shouldn’t write!” When journaling about the self-objectifying

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You should be reading Summer Brenner

I-5The Economist
December 13th, 2010

The title story of Summer Brenner’s My Life in Clothes is a fierce and funny slip of a thing. "Early on, my cousin, Peggy, discovered that her greatest talent was the ability to turn a boy's simplest request into the world's biggest marvel," the narrator says. "By the end of high school, after she'd been squeezed, groped, rubbed, pounded, and humped, she eloped (out of sheer exhaustion) with the next young man who asked." Peggy is a recurring character in Ms Brenner’s energetic book of short stories. She reappears in one of the collection’s best pieces, “Psychic Shopper”, about a woman who is able to divine and fulfil the sartorial needs of her customers. It’s another pared story, just five pages long. But rich enough to be plumped into a novel.

Clothing is the organising principle of these stories. In any given one—there are 26 in the collection—a garment might function as a linchpin, a metaphor, a riddle or the perfect atmospheric touch. The items vary from cotton pedal-pushers to a coat of "heavy, coarse Scottish wool, faintly purple like boiled rhubarb.” The narrators range from adults to children, and most of them deliver their stories in the first person.

Ms Brenner’s prose is rhythmic, and she unerringly locates the universal in the very specific. She does wonders with odd surrounds, like a Jewish social club in Atlanta, or a flute-playing swami’s tent, or a cinema house full of teenagers. And she pushes small moments to satisfying places. “Peter and I used to sit for hours with rod and bait, our legs dangling over the pier, sipping beer, waiting for something to happen,” she begins one story. “Most of the time, nothing did. But that didn’t matter. We were looking for an excuse to do nothing and preferred if it had a name. Fishing is the best apology ever invented.” These stories tend to go exactly where a reader wishes without being predictable. Ms Brenner expertly handles our expectations, curiosities and desires.

Given the many virtues of this book, it is puzzling to see it released by a small (albeit reputable) publisher. It is something that fans of Nora Ephron would be elated to discover, if they were to discover it, and which all bookstores and libraries should stock. It shouldn't be long before Ms Brenner finally gets the attention she deserves. (Her previous novel, a slim noir volume about the sex trade in California called I-5, was also brilliant.) But until then, readers are advised to scoop up her work wherever they can find it.

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A Moment of Doubt on Spinetingler

A Moment of Doubt by Jim Nisbet - quick take
By Russel D McLean
Spinetingler Magazine
January 5, 2011

[Ed note: Yesterday I noticed that Russel had posted a series of tweets about A Moment of Doubt by Jim Nisbet that formed a mini-review. With his permission I've collected them here in the form of a quick take. He also has reserved the right to dig deeper into some of these thoughts. I for one hope he does.]

A Moment of Doubt
by Jim Nisbet is one of the most insane things I’ve read in a long time. But very interesting in its “attack” on detective clichés, even if I think that inherent argument is maybe a little limited in scope. I’m not sure that the genre limitations are as frustrating as Nisbet makes out unless one deliberately makes them that way. Although of course there are times I do understand the points he makes. But besides the contentious stuff about the genre, A Moment of Doubt is still a messed up literary fever-dream of a book & worth a look.


A Moment of Doubt is at turns hilarious, thrilling and obscene. Jim Nisbet’s novella is ripped from the zeitgeist of the 80s, and set in a sex-drenched San Francisco, where the computer becomes the protagonist’s co-conspirator and both writer and machine seem to threaten the written word itself.

The City as whore provides a backdrop oozing with drugs, poets and danger. Nisbet has written a mad-cap meditation on the angst of a writer caught in a world where the rent is due, new technology offers up illicit ways to produce the latest bestseller, and the detective and other characters of the imagination might just sidle up to the bar and buy you a drink in real life. The world of A Moment of Doubt is the world of phone sex, bars and bordellos, AIDS and the lure of hacking. Coming up against the rules of the game–the detective genre itself, has never been such a nasty and gender defying challenge.

Russel D. McLean is a part of the Do Some Damage blogging crew and is the author of The Good Son and The Lost Sister.

The San Francisco poet and novelist Jim Nisbet's new book is an old book, reportedly conceived in the mid-1980s as he was making a name for himself with crime novels while also feeling disgusted by the marauding prosaicism of detective fiction. From necessity, he came up with a different kind of noir-pulp novella: literarily neurotic, self-deconstructing, hardboiled private-dick lit. Perhaps to cover his tracks, Nisbet also took the trouble of rendering the thing obscenely hilarious.

Aptly, he called it A Moment of Doubt — a short moment at just over 100 pages, yet long enough to have stayed timely until its publication this month in a joint effort by the East Bay's PM Press and San Francisco's Green Arcade. It qualifies as a local-publishing event, if this town nowadays can accept as much from a writer who's inclined to make his protagonist another writer who's inclined to liken his penis to Coit Tower at Christmastime. (Yes, as A Moment of Doubt hotfoots its course, from anticipated junk-needle jab to a breakthrough of consensual sodomy, pricks will abound.)

This increasingly anguished narrator, toiling away in the '80s himself, is one Jas Jameson, "detective writer, a name that bears the onus of years of fictional violence, of sexual outrage, and lately of fraudulent endeavors." Habits include contorted, toilet-rattling sex with his landlady, skulking around vestigial Cow Hollow sleaze pockets in a bleary-eyed fog of depressive paranoia, and confusing familiar barflies with his own fictional creations. As regards the fraudulence, that refers both to the whole of Jameson's literary oeuvre — which contains some conspicuously familiar titles from Nisbet's own backlist, plus a few other invented doozies such as So Long, Pockface — and to the dubious means of his recent bestselling eminence. Jas has just discovered "the marvelous labor-saving capacities of modern word processing," through which the hack becomes a hacker, tinkering with his publisher's mainframe and turning its business operations to his own advantage.

"I'll even give you a hint, dear reader," he warns early on, "right now, right this very moment, as you're buying, holding, reading, thinking about this text, you're deep, deep within a SUBMIT routine, conceived, written, and implemented a long, long time ago, by me. Your dear chickenshit author. And as of now, because you found out about all this too late, you're lucky I'm benevolent. Consider."

Only gradually does the irony dawn that A Moment of Doubt isn't just about genre fatigue in general; it actually anticipates the Kindle-tested, microblogger-approved technological horror that's palpably underway in the book business now — with deep reading ditched for mobile-upload synopsis skimming, author confidence shot and the whole organism of literature apparently sickened nearly to death. Or as Jas Jameson put it more succinctly some 20-odd years ago: "A pre-ulcerous condition loomed. Automation became imminent."

Under the circumstances, Nisbet seems remarkably magnanimous. One might almost weep with gratitude for the vigor he puts into even the most quotidian descriptions, the way of mocking writerly indulgence while also delighting with it. He's like a more hetero Burroughs, or a more companionable Mailer, or both at once. His avidity is touching, and rewarding.

This has been a productive year for Nisbet, with the publication of his novel Windward Passage and reissues of The Damned Don't Die (known originally as The Gourmet) and Lethal Injection. Maybe it'll even be productive enough to release him from the qualification that although many Americans still don't know his work, he's huge in Europe. If anything, A Moment of Doubt reminds us that he's been doing right by the reader from moment one.

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Signal: 01 - Review

signal:01By Pete Willis
Last Hours
December 10, 2010

Much has been written about the need for alternative and underground cultures to take an active role in preserving their history, the amount that can be learned from it, the inherent solidarity in knowing you were never alone and instead operate as part of a long and rich history of struggle and that if we don’t no-one else will. Anarchists have been generally pretty good at this, regularly dipping back into the archives to re-print obscure texts and celebrate forgotten battles.

One aspect of anarchist history that has been over-looked in the past is the artwork it’s produced and that which has helped it function. The tides are changing, thanks in no small part to the work of Josh Macphee and others at the Just Seeds artist co-operative. There is a vital, fascinating and relevant history of politically  antagonistic graphics, illustration and printmaking aside from the usual reference points of may 68 and dada,  from Clifford Harper in the UK to the Mexican printmakers of Zapata’s day.

This journal is the first of a series edited by Macphee and illustrator Alec Icky Dunn put out by PM Press and works as a more contemporary and alive continuation of the recent AK Press volume Realizing the Impossible. With the recent waves of student occupations now finally spreading to the capitals art colleges the first issue of Signal couldn’t have arrived at a better time to reassure those of us using visual culture to enter a political discourse. It starts as it means to go on, covering both current artists and groups like graffiti writer Impeach and printmaking collective Taller Tupac Amaru with some lessons from a while back like the Mexico 68 movement and Rufus Segar the designer behind almost every cover of Colin Wards ‘Anarchy’ magazine. Each interview is long and highly illustrated as you would expect, and naturally is designed and printed to the highest quality. The few remaining empty pages are taken up with a piece about the dutch Red Rat comic and some thoughts on the origins and benefits of adventure playgrounds. This is a great indictment of what we can expect from future issues, relevant current thought, inspiration from former struggles and probing into how far anarchist creativity can and has affected wider social projects. Projects like this one are vital for a movement that can occasionally get bogged down in endless academic theory and serves as a great reminder that anarchism is above all creative, not destructive, and that that’s maybe our best weapon against those who’s curtailment of freedom starts at restricting expression.

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The Liberty Tree: Review: A Celebration of the Life and Writings of Thomas Paine

By Adam Sheets
No Depression
December 19, 2010

The most ridiculous and inappropriate trend in modern American politics has been the Tea Party's embrace of Thomas Paine, culminating with the publication of Glenn Beck's book Common Sense, which purports to be a tribute to Mr. Paine's seminal 1776 work. While Beck would probably be in agreement with Paine's assertion that "government, even in it's best state, is but a necessary evil," the similarities end there. I have a strong interest in American history and unlike Mr. Beck,  I have actually read the works of Thomas Paine beyond Common Sense and I'm willing to bet that the Tea Party would be shocked to learn that their hero was not only an early feminist and abolitionist (meaning that unlike many of the "Founding Fathers," he practiced what he preached), but also an outspoken opponent of imperialism (Rights of Man), a strong fighter against organized religion (The Age of Reason), and, perhaps worst of all, an avowed socialist (Agrarian Justice) who proposed taxing the rich in order to pay for social programs. Now, I mean no offense to conservatives. (Although I'm a sort of left-leaning libertarian myself, but many of my best friends are conservatives.) All I'm saying is to find a new icon. Maybe Alexander Hamilton.

Thankfully Leon Rosselson and Robb Johnson, two folk singers from Paine's home country of Great Britain are here to set the record straight with The Liberty Tree, an affecting mixture of music and the spoken word spread out over two discs, that serves as both a history lesson on Paine's life and work and a biting commentary on our present shortcomings. Much of the album consists of readings from Paine's best works tied together with a brisk repeated melody detailing his life from England to America to France where he took part in the French Revolution and, finally, back to America. In addition there are also 13 songs, adorned simply with acoustic guitars, dealing with our modern society. Whether these are supposed to be seen as the 21st century voice of Thomas Paine or simply a contrast to Paine's ideals is never clear, but, regardless, these are some of the best topical songs I've heard in years.

The brilliance of Robb Johnson lies in connecting the humdrum nature of everyday life to the sins of government, perhaps most effectively on the stark "Picking Up the Pieces" and the more upbeat but no less vicious "Oliver Twist." As a whole, his songs are almost morbidly bleak. Yet his crowning achievement here is "We All Said Stop the War," a beautiful fantasy in the vein of Ed McCurdy's "Last Night I Has the Strangest Dream" and Phil Ochs' "The War is Over," that envisions "the international sex workers of the world united with the girl and boy next door."

Leon Rosselson, who has been prominent in British folk circles since the 1960s, creates songs that are markedly different from those of Johnson. His songs are much lighter in tone, while still dealing with very serious subject matter. While "Stand Up for Judas" is a bit radical for my tastes, his other tunes, such as the humorous "Don't Get Married Girls" reveal hard truths in an accessible fashion. "On Her Silver Jubilee," for example, may be the most brutal attack on the royal family since the Sex Pistols, while "Palaces of Gold" seems to be the new national anthem for the U.S. government with the recent government bailouts and Obama's latest sellout on tax cuts for the uber-rich.

The styles of these two songwriters couldn't be more different, but both get the point across in their own way and, when working together, fashion a tale which not only does justice to the politics of Tom Paine, but also explores the man's complexities amidst our modern society. This album is in the tradition of Johnny Cash's historical albums of the '60s and '70s: great music that is likely to give listeners an interest in their heritage and their history. Listening to this album is a bittersweet experience that makes one proud to call Thomas Paine on of our "Founding Fathers," while at the same time lamenting how far we still have to go to live up to his ideals. While The Liberty Tree's audience will mostly see it as preaching to the choir, it is also an album that, if sent to Glenn Beck, would be unlikely to change his mind, but would probably make him pissed off at not only Mr. Johnson and Mr. Rosselson, but also his supposed hero Thomas Paine.

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WikiLeaks: Who Helped Shape Julian Assange?

George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Among Writers Whose Work Influenced the Founder of WikiLeaks

By Christopher Torchia
CBS News
December 14, 2010

(AP)  At a California forum this year, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange spoke calmly about justice and transparency. Then he described how his group once dealt with a legal challenge.

"We crushed them like a bug," Assange said, finger wagging. The belligerence, at odds with his smooth veneer, drew a murmur from the startled listeners.

Assange is an enigma, a mirror of what people want to see: A cyber-villain, or a force for open society. Quirky and complex, he cultivates mystery.

But a look at the thinkers who influenced him, ranging from a German anarchist to American President Theodore Roosevelt, reveals a man incensed by the perceived injustices of big power and fearful of persecution.

The gallery of figures who have influenced Assange, combined with his own writings, provide the intellectual playbook for a 39-year-old Australian with no fixed address who has jolted the world's most powerful country by unveiling the secrets of U.S. war logs and diplomatic cables.

He was arrested last week in a Swedish sex crimes case, and the United States asserts that he has undermined security and may have endangered people cited in the documents. Assange has said the accusations are unfounded, and that he is the victim of a politically-motivated campaign to discredit him and his organization.

His self-styled image as a lone, besieged challenger to the traditional order, one that is gaining currency in some circles, may owe much to his literary roots. Computers are his life, but so are books. George Orwell, who described the corruption of power and the lies that fuel a totalitarian vision, had a big impact. So did Kurt Vonnegut, an American author known for satire and non-conformism, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel laureate who wrote about the horror of Soviet labor camps.

"If there is a book whose feeling captures me it is First Circle by Solzhenitsyn," Assange wrote in 2006. "How close the parallels to my own adventures! ... Such prosecution in youth is a defining peak experience. To know the state for what it really is! To see through that veneer the educated swear to disbelieve in but still slavishly follow with their hearts!"

As a teenager in Australia, Assange hacked into computers. He was arrested in 1991, but got off with a fine in a case that was resolved several years later. His story is believed to be documented in Underground, a 1997 book about hackers that Assange helped to write.

Numerous media reports have identified Mendax, a hacker in the book, as Assange. In a preview of Assange's frequent travel and concern about surveillance in the months leading to his arrest last week, Underground describes how Mendax became increasingly fearful:

"He dreamed of footsteps crunching on the driveway gravel, of shadows in the pre-dawn darkness, of a gun-toting police squad bursting through his backdoor at 5 a.m. He dreamed of waking from a deep sleep to find several police officers standing over his bed. The dreams were very disturbing. They accentuated his growing paranoia that the police were watching him, following him."

Assange provided author Suelette Dreyfus with analysis and technical expertise to write Underground, though she declined to discuss the identities of people in the book. She recalled that Assange was "a big fan" of Orwell's Animal Farm, as well as Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon, which is about a man imprisoned and tried for treason during the Soviet purges in the 1930s.

"It is a classic work and perhaps hit a particular chord with him as it set the scene in a fictional manner for how societies without transparency and open government can go sour," Dreyfus wrote in an email to The Associated Press.

She said that, influenced by his mother, Assange came to love the Greek classics, including Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles, and that he read them to his own son, Daniel, who now works in software development.

Assange "found the writing very powerful. He knew that the literature of the ancient world provided a moral lens through which to view society, and a way to explore these issues with children while also entertaining them," Dreyfus said.

Underground details the psychology of the hackers, describing their rivalry and nocturnal hours, the egos and compulsiveness, the personal problems of some, and the intoxicating sense of power once they had gained mastery of a network and roamed its inner structure at will. One Australian hacker group that appears in the book calls itself The International Subversives - Assange is believed to have been a member.

"For Julian, the emergence of the Internet in the early 90s in Australia appeared to be the opening up of the lolly shop! He was a teenager and part of a collection of kids who were fascinated by the network and fascinated by the complete lack of security on computers at the time," Geoff Huston, a computer network expert in Australia who gave evidence at Assange's prosecution in Australia in the 1990s, said in an email.

Beyond technology, Assange was developing a keen political awareness at a time of anti-nuclear activism, as well as a sense of underdog individualism reflected in his writing.

"I grew up in a Queensland country town where people spoke their minds bluntly. They distrusted big government as something that could be corrupted if not watched carefully," he wrote in a column published last week in a newspaper, The Australian.

Assange is jailed in Britain on suspicion of rape, sexual molestation and unlawful coercion in Sweden, and the case could lead to his extradition. He was arrested after Interpol put him on its most-wanted list. His supporters allege he is a victim of a dirty tricks campaign; Swedish authorities reject the idea that the case is politically motivated.

Years ago, Assange prefaced entries on a now-defunct blog with a quotation from German Gustav Landauer, an anarchist thinker who was killed by troops in Munich in 1919. Assange alleged some giant corporations amount to virtual nation states, free of accountability.

Yet he counts an American president among his influences, citing a comment by Roosevelt about destroying "invisible government," the corrupt forces in business and politics. He also gave early, unvarnished insight into his thinking on information leaks.

"The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie," Assange wrote. "Since unjust systems, by their nature induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance."

Some former colleagues have commented on an autocratic, secretive streak in Assange, who extolled activism and self-sacrifice in a lofty blog post in 2007, possibly inspired by his literary icons.

"Try as I may I cannot escape the sound of suffering," Assange wrote. "Perhaps as an old man I will take great comfort in pottering around in a lab and gently talking to students in the summer evening and will accept suffering with insouciance. But not now; men in their prime, if they have convictions are tasked to act on them."

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From hell to Long Beach and beyond

Seattle Examiner
By Ray Murphy
December 30, 2010

Pacific Northwest readers, drenched and shivering in a literary winter of gray sameness, would do well to slip south of the 17th Parallel, or at least the 710 freeway, and smuggle back Michael Harris’ The Chieu Hoi Saloon (PM Press, 2010). 

Chieu hoi translates roughly as “open arms,” but like a canny survivor of the civil war in which it originated, the term seems to have taken two identities. Our protagonist, Harry Hudson, ex-soldier, ex-husband and father, now hack copy editor in SoCal's grittiest beach city, uses it as a verb: when he chieu hois, as so he often does, he punts. Indeed, early on, the novel reads like the story of a man who has come from a small town in Oregon to Long Beach to follow in that city's weaving civic footsteps, that is, to surrender -- in unspectacular if unpredictable fashion -- to internal divisions. But the term also can function as a noun: among the thousands of North Vietnamese who fled south as defectors from the Viet Minh were the infiltrators known as Chieu Hois, who would comprise the fifth column of the Viet Cong. As much as Hudson’s past threatens to undo him, it also serves as his clandestine strength.

As with most of us, the singular event that shapes Harry Hudson doesn't exist. “It was like triple exposure,” he reflects. Instead of the usual, carefully cropped, no-exposure digital image of "seminal event" clipped to the contemporary protagonist's pocket, the“it” here is a unique nexus of experience, and memories and dreams of experience,  that is not so much recollected as continually remade. What causes Harry to be Harry is none other than Harry, evolving. His mother’s death from cancer when he’s seven; his perilous memory of his two-year-old daughter at the edge of a swimming pool; the rueful affair he conducts in his imagination with a Japanese girl in high school; all this blends, and is blended into Harry’s moment of panic in Vietnam, as he ruins an ambush by killing an unarmed Vietnamese civilian on a  bicycle. “He opened his mouth, in Long Beach, in Vietnam, in all those other places, and nothing came out.”    

Oh, but it does. The Chieu Hoi Saloon is less a story (thank god) than a portrait, and less a portrait than a series of quietly magnificent, strobe-lit fragments showing us glimpses of a life splashing apart and coming together. In one flash we see Hudson’s wayward desire as he studies a swingers' newspaper in his rented room at the Reef, and in the next, guilt about his abandoned marriage and lost daughter. In another flash, Hudson leverages guilt as if practicing a technique (CBT -- Catholic Behavioral Therapy?) to control his lust, and in yet another flash, this technique cheapens the genuine pain he feels so that his guilt becomes too attenuated to combat desire, whereupon he's off to the swingers' club in La Mirada… No wonder Harry Hudson reads compulsively about the Civil War. He’s in one. He is one. He’s in one and is one, both double agent and conflict.  The novel’s fractured, incremental, stuttering form creates an organic momentum as eloquent as it is uncertain, like a peasant's bicycle built from spare parts gliding into gunfire.

For not only is this guy a veteran who hasn’t made it all the way home, and an Oregonian who’s never quite left.  He’s literally a stutterer. And as such, Hudson occupies a precarious Demilitarized Zone between silence and speech. The voice he inherits, that of his logger father, makes him susceptible to biases that don’t hold up in the crucible of experience.  The voice to which he aspires, that of a small-town newspaper columnist named Vance Foster, which he hears as “nothing less than the voice of the greater world,” threatens to reduce him to canned language -- you pull for Harry to go right on stuttering. In college, Hudson gets speech therapy from one Doctor Richardson, only to realize that the doctor’s method “had a built-in trap:”

The better he spoke, the more he was tempted to speak automatically, the way normal people did, and that was fatal.  The creature woke up, reached out an exploratory claw and touched his throat.

As ever, normalcy stirs the insurgent within, the stutter, the tongue’s Viet Cong, undermines Hudson, and at the same time, saves him from conventional speech.  If Harry’s world is sordid, it’s rich with newsroom repartee , with slang from Nam to Topeka to Long Beach Boulevard,

What’s so engrossing about this character is not that he’s bent on resolving his conflict, but that he’s bent on living with it.   Free of narrative predestination, Henry Hudson is a survivor, not only of conflict but of literary form, all the way to the end. With all his crazy troubles, he’s not quite like you and me.  But we, with our lesser crazy troubles, have in Harry a fictional peer for whom we feel genuine respect.
And in Michael Harris, we have a writer that readers unabashedly can champion.

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Lucasville Five Hunger Strike Begins --An interview with author Staughton Lynd

By Angola 3 News
January 3, 2011

Lucasville Five Hunger Strike Begins
--An interview with author Staughton Lynd

In 1993, the maximum security Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, Ohio was the site of an historic prisoner rebellion, where more than 400 prisoners seized and controlled a major area of the prison for eleven days. Nine prisoners alleged to have been informants and one hostage correctional officer named Robert Vallandingham, were murdered. Following a negotiated surrender, five key figures in the rebellion were tried and sentenced to death. Known since as the Lucasville Five, they are Namir Abdul Mateen (James Were), Siddique Abdullah Hasan (Carlos Sanders), Bomani Hando Shakur (Keith Lamar), George Skatzes and Jason Robb.

The Lucasville Five are now back in the news with an announcement last week that four of the five will be participating in a simultaneous “rolling hunger strike,” beginning today, January 3. They are using the hunger strike to protest their convictions (having always maintained their innocence) as well as their living situation, which is more restrictive than for most prisoners on Ohio’s death row. The statement issued by the Lucasville Uprising Freedom Network explains that “the hunger strike will proceed in an organized manner, with one prisoner, probably Bomani Shakur starting on Jan.3. The hunger strike becomes official after he has refused 9 meals. Therefore the plan is that 3 days later, Siddiquie Abdullah Hasan will start his hunger strike and 3 days later, Jason Robb will follow. Namir Mateen has a great willingness to participate and plans to take part to the extent that his diabetes will allow.”

Staughton Lynd is the author of the 2004 book, Lucasville: The Untold Story of a Prison Uprising, which asserts that the Lucasville Five are innocent men, who were framed by the State of Ohio. In a review of Lucasville, the news website, Solidarity, concludes that “Lynd presents sufficient evidence and argumentation to cast more than reasonable doubt on the convictions of the Lucasville Five.” The book’s “immediate agenda is to mobilize public opinion to achieve amnesty for the Lucasville Five. In the 1970s, the governor of New York was compelled to grant amnesty to the Attica rebels based upon revelations of state malfeasance. Lynd contends the Lucasville Five’s death sentences should be wiped clean on the same grounds.”

In the foreword to the upcoming second edition of Lucasville, being released by PM Press in February, death row journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal writes that the Lucasville Five "sought to minimize violence, and indeed, according to substantial evidence, saved the lives of several men, prisoner and guard alike…they rose above their status as prisoners, and became, for a few days in April 1993, what rebels in Attica had demanded a generation before them: men. As such, they did not betray each other; they did not dishonor each other; they reached beyond their prison ‘tribes’ to reach commonality."

Angola 3 News: Can you please give us some historical background on the 1993 uprising and the subsequent convictions of the Lucasville Five?

Staughton Lynd: There were revolts at the old Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus in the late 1960s. The state government decided to build a new maximum security prison in a town called Lucasville, just north of the Ohio River separating Ohio and Kentucky.

The new prison housed between 1,500 and 2,000 prisoners. More than half the prisoners at the new Southern Ohio Correctional Facility (SOCF) were African Americans from cities like Cincinnati, Dayton, Toledo, Cleveland, Akron and Youngstown. Lucasville was all white and inevitably, most of the correctional officers at the new prison were Caucasian.

'Luke' developed a well-deserved reputation for violence. There was a horrible incident in 1990 when, in a sequence of events that remains ambiguous, a black prisoner followed a white teacher into a women's restroom. White guards broke down the door to the restroom and, as they did so, the prisoner cut the teacher's throat.

The State sent in a new warden who instituted 'Operation Shakedown.' Prisoners were allowed one short telephone call a year, at Christmastime.

In April 1993 the new warden proposed to test all prisoners for TB by means of an injection. More than fifty Muslim prisoners protested. They said the injection would contain phenol, a form of alcohol; that this was forbidden by their religion; and that there were alternative means of testing for TB, by sputum or X ray. Warden Tate said it would be done his way, by injection, beginning Monday, April 12.

On April 11, Easter Sunday, prisoners returning from the recreation yard occupied one large housing block, L side. Guards were overpowered. Persons severely injured in the takeover, both guards and prisoners believed to be snitches, were carried out to the yard. Eight officers were held as hostages. In the course of an 11-day standoff, nine prisoners and one hostage guard were murdered. There was a negotiated surrender.

A3N: Why was this story so important to you that you decided to write a book about it?

SL: In 1996 my wife and I became aware that as a result of the Lucasville uprising, a new maximum security prison called the Ohio State Penitentiary (OSP) was being built in Youngstown. We organized a community forum at which one of the speakers was Jackie Bowers, sister of one of five prisoners condemned to death after the surrender. We met her brother, George Skatzes (pronounced 'skates.') His lawyer told us that we could best help by investigating facts not presented at trial and we have been doing that ever since.

The importance of the story is that the five men sentenced to death are three blacks and two whites. Two of the three blacks, Siddique Abdullah Hasan and Namir Abdul Mateen, are Muslims. At the time of the rebellion the two whites were members of the Aryan Brotherhood. One is still an AB leader although Skatzes has withdrawn. These five men have acted in solidarity during their almost eighteen years of solitary confinement. They have refused to 'snitch' on each other.

A3N: What facts do you cite for arguing that the State of Ohio deliberately framed innocent men?

SL: My allegation that the State of Ohio has deliberately framed innocent men is presented in a book, Lucasville: The Untold Story of a Prison Uprising (Temple University Press, 2004), a second edition of which will be published in 2011 with a Foreword by Mumia Abu Jamal, and in a law review article, "Napue Nightmares: Perjured Testimony in Trials Following the Lucasville, Ohio, Prison Uprising," Capital University Law Review., v. 36, No. 3 (Spring 2008) The key fact is that the State made it clear early on that they wanted to put the alleged leaders of the disturbance to death, and built cases against the Five almost wholly on the basis of testimony by prisoners who, in exchange for their testimony, received benefits such as early parole.

A3N: Why you believe the trial itself was unfair?

SL: The trials were unfair for a variety of reasons, but the two basic facts were: 1) the Five were tried before so-called 'death-qualified' juries, that is, juries from which persons opposed to the death penalty were excluded; and 2) the prosecution's evidence, as I indicated earlier, came almost entirely from prisoner informants in exchange for bargained-for benefits like parole.

A3N: How has your 2004 book been received?

SL: My book was banned from all Ohio prisons and it provoked a good deal of discussion in Ohio. In 2007, a play based on the book was presented in seven Ohio cities. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed friend of the court briefs, based on the book, in the trials of Skatzes and Hasan.

A3N: Can you please tell us more about the hunger strike? How do prison officials publicly justify these conditions that are being challenged?

SL: As to the goals of the hunger strike, I refer the reader to Keith LaMar's statement. LaMar emphasizes that he understands the prison system's concern for security, but, he insists, a 'privilege" such as the opportunity to touch a parent or other relative does not threaten security. The more than 150 other death-sentenced prisoners in Ohio enjoy such privileges. On the other hand, the Lucasville Five are held alone in their small cells 23 hours a day, and when released for an hour of so-called recreation cannot be in the same space as any other human being.

A3N: Can you please explain why George Skatzes is not currently housed alongside the other four members of the Lucasville Five and how his conditions differ from the others?

SL: George Skatzes was transferred to OSP when it opened in 1998 along with the other members of the Lucasville Five. He was transferred out two years later because the authorities feared that he was so depressed that he might commit suicide. He is held with about thirty other death-sentenced prisoners considered seriously mentally ill at the Mansfield Correctional Institution, north of Columbus.

A3N: How can our readers best help to support the upcoming hunger strike?

SL: Readers can help by contacting Professor Jules Lobel, vice president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, <>, and Professor Denis O'Hearn, director of graduate studies in sociology at the State University of New York, Binghamton, <> They are circulating a statement of support nationally and internationally.

--Angola 3 News is a project of the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3. Our website is where we provide the latest news about the Angola 3. We are also creating our own media projects, which spotlight the issues central to the story of the Angola 3, like racism, repression, prisons, human rights, solitary confinement as torture, and more.

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