Tag Archives: Politics

A Plea For Peace From The Archive

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In theory, archives preserve the stories of history’s winners and losers without forwarding an ideology or serving a fight for power. Over the last few months, the archive stories that struck me most related to the aftermath of misdirected political decisions and times of social turmoil. The first story, about volunteers who relay the trauma of Hiroshima survivors, made me think about the long term impacts of war. The second, a look inside remnants of Cold War era East Germany, seemed poignant given the current fears of a growing police state in the U.S. Both stories brought to mind the importance of archives in military and political history.

Summer 2015 marked the 70th anniversary of the only two nuclear weapons ever used in war. Coverage in the New York Times introduced me to a special oral history project in Japan that involves denshoshas – volunteers who tell the stories of aging Hiroshima survivors. Before telling stories on their behalf, denshoshas spend at least three years shadowing the survivor. Giving the past a messenger keeps memories alive and human. The same way families pass down stories from generation to generation.

Japan’s Shinzo Abe is their first Prime Minister born after World War II. It is one thing to read about war in history books and another to have experienced war first hand. The Pacifist movement that came from the traumatic events of the war may be threatened by Abe’s reach for more military action with allies. In the U.S. I’m seeing a lot of politicians talk flippantly about the use of military force and weapons. In an Iowa stump speech, Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz spoke brutally about bombing ISIS. “We will carpet bomb them into oblivion. I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out.” This draconian tone underlines the need to consider history, and the repercussions of military action on civilians.

Wars leave behind stories of people and survivors. Wars also leave behind stories about governments. The Cold War archive at the Wende collects these messages together and preserves them. While others were leaving the old German Democratic Republic, Justinian Jampol went deep inside, collecting remnants of the old Socialist Unity Party in East Germany. Jampol crept into abandoned nuclear bunkers and found propaganda and secret police materials. The Cold War archive now lives in Los Angeles. L.A. is an unlikely home for European spyware but many donations came from perpetrators who fear being outed in Europe.

“People don’t like to think about our past and sometimes how we behaved,” said Jampol. “But we need to because it’s only by that process of discovery can we understand ourselves and remember why we did the things we did.” The survival of these stories could serve as cautionary tales; proof that oppression and war have long lasting effects. We like to think these stories are history, but the language and proposals of today’s powerful say otherwise. Archivists should collect stories of those persecuted around the world and collect the voices of governments as they try to sway the public and create their own versions of history.

Artwork by Natalie Pantoja based on pin archived at The Interference Archive.

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Arts and Politics in Fiction at The Brooklyn Book Festival 2013

Brooklyn Book Festival

The annual Brooklyn Book Festival took place this past Sunday, September 22nd in Downtown Brooklyn. With the grandiose backdrop of the Brooklyn court buildings, scores of publications and niche presses were set up along the sidewalks, mailing list sign-up sheets at the ready.

Joel Whitney moderated “Arts and Politics in Fiction” at the Brooklyn Historical Society. A panel of three authors, Alex Gilvarry, Rachel Kushner, and Nicholson Baker, read selection from their latest books. The readings were sprinkled with insights and anecdotes about mixing fiction and politics. The panel description read, “Art has always been a tool for political and social change. In these novels, it comes in the form of protest-pop songs, motorcycle photography and high-end fashion.” After the event, ideas circled my head as I people-watched and collected free bookmarks for the rest of the afternoon.

The author Nicholson Baker wrote a protest song for his book “Traveling Sprinkler.” Baker, known both for his essay writing and fiction, suggested there may be more truth in fiction than non-fiction. Baker said that writers need characters and a fictional landscape to grapple with their real life emotions. When Baker writes non-fiction he finds one main difficulty arises: the inconsistencies of his opinions and ideas. From one day to the next, his opinions are morphing and shaping. His answer to the complexity is to explore that inner conflict in fiction writing through characters who struggle with those same ideas.

When writing politically, authors face the challenge of finding the right prose. About words like “drone” Baker said“You can almost hear the reader say, oh god!” Certain words have connotations that overshadow any other meaning. Alex Gilvarry in his novel “From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant” takes superficial characters and puts them in a serious and scary world. He had trouble using “Bush” and “Cheney” and ended up replacing “Guantanamo” with “no man’s land.”

Rachel Kushner, author of “The Flamethrowers,” spoke about watching political dramas unfold from the comfort of her living room. Kushner has read about Autonomia Operaia (a ’70s Italian political movement) and has friends and family connections to both Italy and Occupy Oakland. The people around us inspire our politics and our writing. Kushner’s novel developed through her friend’s literature and hearing countless stories about ’70s Italy.

Though many of the vendors at the Brooklyn Book Festival were also participating in the NY Art Book Fair, I felt a very different energy at each. The best aspect of the Brooklyn Book Festival were the families and diverse crowd drawn in by the wide range of book genres. I had a blast last weekend connecting with publishers and book lovers in general. Just for fun, here are some of my photographs from the festival. Read last Monday’s Post on the New York Art Book Fair too.

Brooklyn Book Festival

Passers-by filled a bulletin board writing their current reads on Post-it notes.

Brooklyn Book Festival

The eye-catching Penguin book truck was in attendance.

Brooklyn Book Festival

“Barf Manifesto” called out to me at the Ugly Duckling Presse table.

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