RIP Irina Ratushinskaya 1954-2017

Irina Ratushinskaya, the Soviet dissident poet and novelist, was a legendarily defiant figure. Sentenced in 1983, on her 29th birthday, to seven years in a labor camp for “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda,” she not only survived, but wrote poems on bars of soap with the burnt ends of matchsticks. She memorized and erased them before…

RIP Liu Xiaobo, 1955-2017

Chinese poet, essayist and activist Liu Xiaobo has died while in custody. Xiaobo was President of the Independent Chinese PEN Center, and in this role he supported writers all over the world in their struggles against tyranny. His death from cancer, which he contracted while in prison, is a terrible indictment of China’s human rights…

The U.S. and Original Sin

What was the original sin of the United States? It was what the European settlers did to the Native American populations. They massacred them; enslaved them; removed them from ancestral lands either by force, coercion, or guile; gave them smallpox-infested blankets; and enclosed them in ‘reservations.’ “Ah, but …,” say the pedants, “that was before it…

“Here there is no why”: on re-reading Primo Levi

Desperate times call for great books. Primo Levi, a Jewish prisoner arriving at Auschwitz, is thirsty. He reaches to break off an icicle with which to sate his thirst and a guard snatches it away. Levi asks, “Warum?” (Why?) The guard replies, “Hier ist kein warum.” (Here there is no why.) If This Be A…

Twelve New Books with Social Justice Themes

1. Decolonization: A Short History by Jan C. Jansen and Jürgen Osterhammel (Princeton University Press) Decolonization examines the consequences of European, Japanese and American decolonization from World War I to the 1990s. It details the dramatic collapses of long-established imperial regimes, some in peace, others in a torrent of blood, and describes the long shadow cast…

Margaret Atwood on the role of the artist in testing times

I met Margaret Atwood last year. It was at an author party at the Brooklyn Book Festival.  She appeared to be quite shy – although maybe it was just me boring her to death – and her physical stature was in inverse proportion to her talent. What I’m trying to say is that, for a…

Egyptian novelist Ahmed Naji released from prison

It’s been a terrible year politically, but finally a bit of good news: Ahmed Naji, who I wrote about here, is free. His treatment was like something out of the Theatre of the Absurd: he was imprisoned for giving a reader palpitations – a thinly veiled excuse for persecuting a critic of the Egyptian government….

RIP Tom Hayden 1939-2016

On October 23rd we lost writer/activist/politician Tom Hayden. He’d lived a life of service in the pursuit of social justice. Hayden was one of the original Freedom Riders, journeying to the Deep South in 1961 and getting beaten up for his efforts. The following year, while in jail in Georgia, he drafted the Port Huron…

New Books with a Social Justice Theme, Summer 2016

LAW AND DISORDER Obama’s Guantánamo: Stories from an Enduring Prison edited by Jonathan Hafetz (NYU Press) Illegal rendition, torture, indefinite incarceration without charge or trial. Narratives delivered by the lawyers of Guantánamo inmates remind us that this crime against humanity endures. Aboriginal Rights Claims and the Making and Remaking of History by Arthur J. Ray…