June 26, 2018

Drawing by a nine-year-old in immigration detention (Photo: Australian Human Rights Commission)

Hello  dear tribe of readers, thinkers, seekers, and  imaginers,

Given the degree of chaos and distress in the world, it feels like an important time to reach out and connect. I won’t even try to be optimistic or upbeat. Like many of you, I find myself increasingly disoriented in a world that is shape-shifting on a daily basis, a world in which the humane values I’ve always assumed are part of our human package are under assault. Fear of the unknown is one of our most primitive responses to change, and while fear is always with us, it is definitely on the uptick these days, possibly because fear thrives when instability presides and people have given up hope.

The news from the science community is that trauma endures, its effects afflicting not only the generation that first experiences the events, but that trauma continues to shape the biology and psyches of succeeding generations. The research is startling. The famine our great-grandmother experienced while pregnant may show up as an increased risk for diabetes in her descendants. The offspring of Holocaust survivors may be neurologically more prone to depression. (Anyone interested in the subject can search for articles on the epigenetics of trauma. I explore this in more detail in one of my blog posts on Psychology Today “The Things We Carry: What Our Ancestors Didn’t Tell Us.” Intergenerational trauma is one of the themes I’m exploring in my new novel.)

As I write this, hundreds of families in this country are in jeopardy of being torn apart and sent into exile by a brutal public policy that labels them aliens and invaders, words that conjure the paranoia-tinged sci-fi flicks of the 50s, the Invasion of the Body Snatchers or It Came From Outer Space. Like the spooks from outer space, to label a creature as “alien” places them outside the realm of humanity. How different is this labeling from the Nazi propaganda machine’s brilliant categorizing of Jews as vermin? Only a shift of perspective is required to see a human face become a cockroach’s, a filthy pest to be stamped out. (This is another theme I find I keep returning to: See “How Facing Our ‘Shadow’ Can Release Us from Scapegoating” and “Why Do We Harm Each Other?”)

We have seen this national tragedy played out before, in Hitler’s Germany, and Hirohito’s Japan. More difficult and terribly painful to look at is our own darkness and dysfunction. This is where fiction can help us through its ability to tell compelling, complex stories about our inner lives. Among the best novels that take a reader deep into the paradoxes and confusions of individuals struggling with collective moral issues are Toni Morrison’s Beloved, J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, Gunter Grass’s Tin Drum, and most of James Baldwin. At this moment, our government is creating the conditions to traumatize children, parents, and generations to follow. The infants howling in detention centers, the wailing mothers with empty arms have already been marked by a crisis of heart and soul proportions. Sigh. Take a breath.

The issue of immigration and asylum is complicated. I don’t feel qualified to address all the nuances of policy, except to say that monstrous evil is afoot. Elected officials are culpable, but so are those of us who are unwilling to acknowledge the harsh reality of the sufferers. I’m not here to argue politics; I am here, as a writer, to bear witness to the suffering and to the smashing of our national myth of American exceptionalism as a country founded on liberty and justice for all. In his essay, “Stranger in the Village,” James Baldwin wrote: “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” Baldwin was prescient. The effects of our current national trauma will not only haunt the descendants of today’s horror, but will lodge itself deep within our collective national psyche. Eventually, we will need to grieve and heal.

On a happier note, I have some good news to share. Some of you may recall my mentioning in a previous TinyLetter my obsession with Mary Magdalene. Well, The University of Massachusetts Press will include my essay “My Magdalen: Divinity and Desire” in Strange Attractors, a new anthology that will feature 35 writers exploring how an unexpected encounter can change how a life unfolds. The publication date has now been confirmed for March, 2019 and I’m thrilled to discover that the tireless and brilliant editor, Edie Meidav, will be including my work alongside essays by Bonnie Friedman, Indira Ganesan, Sheila Kohler, Elizabeth Rosner, Liesl Schillinger, Rebecca Wolf, and many other writers I’ve admired for years. And that’s not all! Andrea Watson, publisher of 3: A Taos Press, has agreed to publish my book of poems on desire and loss in the summer of 2019.

Let me close with some thoughts prompted by a recent invitation to participate in the Southeast Wisconsin Festival of Books this November. The theme of the 2018 festival is “American Stories.” So I’ve been thinking what makes a story American, as opposed to Italian or Maltese? This is something to think about, for all of us. Surely, at the core of who we are as a country is our self-identification as a melting pot of immigrant peoples and as a sanctuary for the persecuted.

I must confess I am hesitant to send this letter out to you. I am worried about your reaction, your anger, dismissal, or you taking offense. Why, I ask myself, am I making myself vulnerable? The answer that comes to me is that choosing vulnerability might be exactly the point. I have a voice and an opportunity to speak. If I feel vulnerable, what about those who are deprived of having a voice, those whose pleas go unanswered and unheard? They are the vulnerable ones. Don’t we owe it to them to speak out on their behalf? I worry conscience has become an old-fashioned idea and an outdated word. Please, tell me I am wrong.

Wishing you peace, joy, and the courage to be vulnerable,