I hadn’t made it far when I heard a train-sized roar coming from the ocean behind me. I hung from my arms and glanced over my shoulder. A wave hit me, and I slammed into the rock and cut my chest on the mussels. I recovered, but the next hump of water was so tall, it would strike above my head. I had to jump.
I think the question for writers is what do you want the legacy of your work to be? And how can approaching your work through an inclusive solidarity-driven cultural humility framework actually support the expansiveness of your legacy? I want writers to sit with that, to let that shape their writing […]
I’m on the six-o-five Palmetto train from Penn Station to Union Station, Washington, DC, all set up with coffee in the dining car, tip-tapping on my laptop. I’m on my way to DC to participate in a couple of panel discussions after back-to-back performances of a new play about Rwanda, where a million people lost their lives in the hundred days of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi.
I’m writing-thinking about my time in Rwanda where I was one of the creative directors for the twentieth commemoration of that genocide. The guy across the table from me—tall, bearded, campsite-hip in an olive green parka and cap—is banging away on his laptop, too, and at the same time, he’s on the phone talking to someone (I can’t tell exactly who) about the contractor who’s doing the patio behind his house. And all of a sudden I hear him say the word genocide. And that doesn’t happen all that often in public places, ordinary encounters. So I wait for him to get off the phone and we’re nearly at Union Station, and I say, as we’re packing up our mobile offices, Did you say genocide?
He says, Yes, I did say genocide. He’s an editor for an international news service, has been for many years, so he has covered—as an editor, not a writer, because he is adamant he is not a writer—Sudan and Kosovo and, currently, Syria and Central African Republic and Yemen and Nigeria and countless known, intractable conflicts and mass atrocities all over the world. His writers covered events I worked on in Rwanda, he says, but he doesn’t travel. He stays at home. He’s building a patio.
He asks me how I define genocide, which is a rather intellectual and inside-political conversation people have in the genocide industry. I say what I always say: the definition in the United Nations Convention is pretty specific. He wants to talk about how the g-word gets bandied about for political gain, and I say, nonetheless, the UN is pretty specific: mass targeted murder or calculated efforts to make it impossible for a specific group to live and prosper. Because when people indulge in the kind of discourse he’s inviting, it becomes an obstacle to simply saying, when we see killings start—or know people are planning to kill—we need to be able to stop them. We can discuss why they want to kill later. I say that, just like that, and he nods.
He asks what brings me to this realm and I tell him I was in the Middle East during the Intifada, wound up working for ten months on the twentieth commemoration of Rwanda, and came away with what I now believe might be a touch of PTSD.
Yeah, he says, you got to keep that stuff at arm’s length.
And I think, well, he can do that. He’s an editor; he doesn’t write. He doesn’t travel; he doesn’t dig in. It never occurred to me that keeping this stuff at arm’s length was an option, but if you have a choice, arm’s length might be exactly the thing to do.
* * *
Because shit happens
and it knocks you over
boom boom boom:
You move to a new city
There’s a breakup (a biggie)
There’s the death of a parent after sickness for years
You’re two years in the Middle East, mid-Intifada
Things blow up
You come back to the States
You meet and marry
You buy a home
The economy tanks
You’re way underwater
Other parent gets sick and too-soon dies
Black mold invades your bathroom
My LA job gets mean
I get a new job in Rwanda
I immerse myself, open my heart to what happened in Rwanda twenty-odd years ago. But twenty years is the emotional equivalent of five minutes, and, in my line of work, the present is still defined by the bad shit that hacked more than people to pieces. Trust is the first thing that gets smashed in the wake of a genocide, especially there, where neighbor turned against neighbor and could easily turn again. And now do-gooder muzungu (white people) come from afar, saying they want to help.
Where were you, muzungu, in 1994, when all hell broke loose and no one came?
You sat watching us die on TV.
And I learn first-hand about the cruelty of those who have been cruelly treated.
* * *
I refer to the awful stuff with which I am “invited” to interact—Intifada; Holocaust; familial pathology; genocide in Rwanda—as catastrophic. Shoah, the Hebrew word for the Holocaust, literally means catastrophe, as does Nakba, the Arabic word for what happened to the Palestinians when the Jewish state was founded.
The physiological effect of those catastrophic events is trauma, and trauma is cumulative. It builds up, and it creates us. The way someone might threaten to carve someone else a new asshole, trauma fashions us a new nervous system, right on the surface: we no longer have skin.
This is what I have been thinking about, writing about, for the year and a half since I got back from the lush and terrible and glorious land of Rwanda.
I’m a theatre artist, a writer-performer. I wrote a play about my Russian great-grandfather who abandoned the family, which led to a commission to write my next play in the Middle East, which led to a play about the Holocaust, which led to my being asked to go to Rwanda. Because people think I know how to find my way into rough stuff and tell compelling stories. Insider-outsider, that’s who I am.
I take pride in the following response to a script I wrote, from a Rwandese writer who graciously helped me understand what it was to live through the killing times there: Ce que tu as écrit est si touchant, si précis et si juste qu’on comprend bien que tu le vis de l’intérieur. “What you wrote is so moving, so precise and so true, that it is clear you see our situation from the inside.”
But on that six-o-five train last week—fighting a miserable cold with four hours’ sleep and looking ahead to a day watching and responding to both matinée and evening performances of a play about one of the most god-awful events in human history—I think, maybe this guy in the parka is right: arm’s length would be an excellent way to go.
* * *
I’ve had lots of therapy: talk therapy; bashing-pillows-with-a-foam-bat therapy; wiggling on the floor like a serpent to liberate primordial rage. Yoga. Deep breathing. Baths. Long walks. I got a dog.
I could get myself a job somewhere idyllic, untouched, but if there’s trouble there, I’ll find it.
What works for me—in the realm of addressing personal or global distress—is writing. Writing entails wrestling meaning from the senseless, the unspeakable, which, sadly, wriggling like a serpent does not do. Meaning is story, and it will set us free.
I screw whatever courage I can muster to the possibility that what gets made—what I make—might be of use, might unlock empathy in an audience or a reader; that it might foster engagement with rough narratives, with which it is deeply difficult to engage. Because engagement begets awareness; awareness leads to agency, the sense we might be able to take action.
And all of this counters the impotence we feel in the face of things over which we think we have no control. And if we are engaged and aware, we may find we have more control than we think.
Can I do this in a parka on a patio, at arm’s length?
Can I get up close—dig deep—and not get burned?
Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.
— Gustave Flaubert
For the past few months, I’ve been investigating what it means to “slow down” in order to support and deepen a viable creative practice. I’ve looked at adjusting rhythms of transport and control, and a new way of listening. This month, I want to address sanely (safely) approaching difficult narratives.
Antioch’s Creative Writing MFA includes an explicit focus on the pursuit of social justice. That means a lot of writers in the program, including myself, explore narratives—personal and otherwise—ripe with catastrophe. These might involve abuse, bigotry, racial and/or gender bias, or flagrant crimes against humanity. It’s cruel and awful stuff, which challenges our equilibrium. Or it ought to.
In order to swim in these pools (meandering among metaphors) and find something useful to say, it’s a good idea to shore up that equilibrium in whatever ways we can, including planting ourselves in communities of like-minded fellows, and developing a strong sense of what we are hoping to accomplish. This is what I mean by finding and claiming a safe place from which to work.
What does finding a safe place—what Flaubert calls being “regular and orderly in your life”—have to do with slowing down? Well, for the purpose of this series, I’ll define “slowing down” as any practice that demands our consideration and conscious, thoughtful choice in the interest of deepening our work.
An appetite for trouble
The world is not a particularly safe place, and for those of us who—by virtue of history or sensibility—do swim in the perpetual potentiality of catastrophe, there is no illusion, even, of safety.
I was raised in a home ruled by the impetuous violence of unnamed mental illness. We never knew when things were going to blow up. The experience of mother-love was married to constant danger, which infected the family fabric. Even with parents long-gone, we sisters still walk the world in fear that our essence will get eaten—most likely by one another—if we ever dare to let down our guard.
The nature of our home life created in me an appetite for trouble. I sought serial boyfriends who had suffered psychotic breaks, done terrifying things. I spent years in Israel-Palestine during the Second Intifada, took deep dips into the Holocaust, had a big job in Rwanda twenty years (a.k.a. five minutes) after the 1994 genocide. I choose to live in Downtown LA because the sad stuff on Skid Row is right there on the surface, not simmering underneath.
Yesterday morning, 4:30 a.m. I was wide awake at my desk in the home I share with my husband, Marty, and dog, Billie. We’ve lived here nine years, by far the longest I’ve lived anywhere in my toppling nomad life.
Marty and Billie were fast asleep in the nook at the opposite end of our loft. It was pouring down rain outside, streaming down the windows. Big, gracious, sloppy drops in this time of terrible drought.
It was early enough in Downtown LA to be quiet enough to hear the rain falling, punctuated by the occasional car or truck ripping into the thick wetness of Main Street below. There were faraway sirens and the click-click-click of Billie’s nails on the concrete floor when she realized I was up, pranced in from the bedroom, and curled up on the red rug at my feet.
Safety in community
Yesterday was Day Two of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. I took the whole day off, despite looming deadlines and massive amounts of work as yet undone. I was greedy. The day before, I had discovered an unexpected sanctuary in the basketball gym where Ikar, the Los Angeles synagogue to which I belong, meets to worship. It’s the first synagogue to which I have ever belonged. Outside the home I’ve made with Marty, it is my first sensed sanctuary. Time spent in that gymnasium with that community, I realized after Day One, is precious time where I-who-has-never-felt-safe, feels safe.
Facing what is incomprehensible
There was nothing cozy or coddling at Ikar’s Rosh Hashanah service. Rabbi Brous’s sermon challenged us to face our collective human inclination to zone out in the face of terrible events. We wake up for a moment to reports of a school killing, a racially motivated mass murder, the photo of a dark-haired three-year old in a red shirt and shorts lying on the beach. The boy seems to be asleep but, no, Eylan Kurdi is dead. Drowned when Eylan’s father Abdullah, in the effort to get his family safe—out of war-torn Syria to Canada via Turkey—could not save his wife Rehen, or his son Eylan, or five-year-old Galip. The waves on the Mediterranean were too high and too fierce for their small boat to endure, and Rehen and the boys could not swim.
Last week, the image of Eylan on the beach flashed across all our screens, suddenly waking our collective empathy to a crisis that has been ongoing for the past four years.
Faced with the dead boy on the beach, the world woke up and said, Something must be done. Some stingy Western states finally opened their doors. Ikar arranged to partner with a Catholic hospital in Germany, which offered to house hundreds of the hundreds of thousands who need housing. That is not nothing.
And then we—the collective we—will go back to sleep.
A sense of impotence
We go back to sleep because when we see the image of tiny Eylan, one in many, many millions of Syrians who have fled their homes, when the veil lifts on the too-widespread hatred that inspired the murder of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, when we become aware of the entitled police killings of people of color, we feel utterly paralyzed, impotent. There is the immediate outcry, but ultimately we sense there is nothing we can do, and that is too much for our poor psyches to handle. We have no idea what to do with the information we have been given. We have no place to file it. Sleep seems safe. Of course, it is not.
Strength in purpose
During one of the times I was in residence in Israel, I was invited to perform a solo play at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. They gave me a private VIP tour of the new galleries in which, as with many things Israeli, there was no gentleness, no filter, no effort to slowly introduce newcomers to the full Holocaust narrative. Rather, my guide deposited me in the first room, and bam. I was face-to-face with twenty-odd videotaped survivor testimonies, all rolling at the same time, each describing unimaginable horrors. On the walls were gruesome facts, figures and images. I could not take it in. After about ten minutes in just that first gallery, I was hyperventilating, saying to myself, No No No. Out loud. It was just me and that poor clueless guide. She didn’t know what to do. I asked for the ladies room, ran out the gallery door, down the long hallway, past the many more galleries I was expected to visit that day. I threw open the doors into the courtyard at the end of the hall. The cool autumn air. I fell to my knees and I wailed.
I compare that experience at Yad Vashem with the full year I spent in the Holocaust and Genocide Studies Collection (the Hole) in the basement of Doheny Library at the University of Southern California. I was there doing research for a play I was commissioned to write for an event that would mark the official opening of the archive.
In that basement, I had a job to do. It was my responsibility to bring forth from the archive’s morass of documents and ephemera a story that had never before been told. The process of reviewing the narratives cataloged there was excruciating, indeed, but I knew why I was there. I had a purpose. I wept, and I stayed, and I applied every writerly tool I had to the work at hand.
The safe place for me in the face of that deeply difficult material was my sense of purpose, intention, and craft, along with the responsibility I felt as an artist hired to bring forth from awful narratives a story with which an audience would be able to engage.
The material itself, unsorted, evoked impotence. All those people were dead; there was nothing they could have done. There is nothing we can do.
Making story: from impotence to agency
In the Hole, I discovered I’m allergic to impotence. Trained as an actor, my whole identity is grounded in doing things—preferably impossible things. My job on this planet, as I understand it, is to identify and fiercely pursue an objective. Besides, if we succumb to the sense that we are impotent, we give in to perpetrators who have—historically, in every crime, big or small—begun their bad work by making victims believe they were powerless.
And there’s no way we’re going to do that.
The very making of story shatters impotence, offers the reader a realm in which they have agency. And we do have agency.
We makers of story have a job to do. We stand as witness to terrible things. We take them in, chew, swallow, digest, metabolize, sort through for details and meanings that resonate, all the while knowing none of it will ever make sense. That level of cruelty will never make sense.
Which brings me back to the notion of safe place and Flaubert’s counsel (to artists, specifically) to keep our lives “regular and orderly,” that our work may be “violent and original.” To me, that means having the discipline to accept the sanctuary of a safe place, a like-minded community, a clear purpose, in order to be able to do the rough work we are called to do.
With our feet planted firmly in that ground, we can afford to tear things open—write bloody—without endangering our own fragile equilibrium, the platform at the edge, from which we stand as witness.
Shana tova = good year.
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