I was surprised to read that The Sympathizer won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2016. Although I had enjoyed the novel, its literary merit was overshadowed by its political and moral need. There were parts which read like a political history talk to naïve Americans. It seemed the judges felt it opportune that a novel by a Vietnamese-American finally be allowed to puncture the narcissistic Vietnam War narrative set in motion by White (anti-war or not) authors.
Those who think art and politics shouldn’t mix were in for a shock as Viet Than Nguyen, the author of the novel, pulled off another miracle by lending support to the BDS movement, advocating the boycott of Israel for its continued colonisation and dispossession of the Palestinians. The US newspapers, and literary circles, turned a deaf ear. His support came on the heels of another unprecedented event, hushed by the media despite a storm among the supporters of Israel.
A group of mostly American and white (and one black) writers, some of whom have also won Pulitzer previously, led by an Israeli American author, Ayelet Waldman, visited Palestine to witness first-hand what the occupation looks like and how its foot soldiers operate. Waldman’s husband, celebrated writer Michael Chabon has written about it without mincing words. He said if his writing makes him lose Jewish readers, he doesn’t want them.
The media, again, kept mum. Damage control.
A few years ago, an African American author of far higher stature, Alice Walker, made a trip to Palestine, challenging Israel’s embargo, to bring attention to what she described to Amy Goodman on Democracy Now as an “intolerable situation”.
The media – the mainstream media – didn’t say a word about it.
In 2014, my own dear friend F.S. Rosa (we call her Francesca) penned, as a member of the nonviolent direct action group, International Solidarity Movement, her account of living in the Muqata’a in the city of Ramallah, anticipating Israeli military invasion, a repeat of near total destruction of the Muqata’a in 2002. I reviewed Francesca’s book for this publication on December 14, 2014.
In this article, I am not concerned with the stand musicians such as Roger Waters or actors and playwrights such as Tony Kushner have taken, nor the poets, who have spoken for this cause – but, hello, who reads poets in the US! Brave and conscientious academics and political activists such as Norman Finkelstein and Anna Baltzer continue to push against the tide of wilful ignorance at heavy personal cost.
My focus, here, is with those entrusted to write fiction or (creative) non-fiction and that too for a very selfish reason. Fiction is my primary mode of expression. I see fiction writers as my extended family. It is for this reason alone I have time and again tried to understand the silence among the US prose writers regarding the suffering of the Palestinians and the behaviour of the Israelis, a serious moral lapse questioned by a poet of Jewish origin, Ammiel Alcalay.
My other purpose to write this piece is to make an assessment, also, of the new, nascent, stirring of conscience among prose writers, however belated or even pointless it might turn out to be.
There was a time when the only subconscious effort to test the waters of the Israel/Palestine conflict with a somewhat critical eye that people could point to was Philip Roth’s The Counterlife. In the preface of his interview of late Edward Said, Salman Rushdie discusses his predicament with Cynthia Ozick’s rabidly anti-Palestinian ribaldry at a writers meeting.
Basically, emotional blackmail by the likes of her upon the younger generation of American writers has held sway. Up until now.
There’s a telling scene in Molly Antopole’s recent collection of stories The UnAmericans, where a Jewish-American couple pays a visit to the woman’s aunt in Jerusalem. When the young husband tells the aunt that his research is on a certain Jewish poet, the aunt snidely remarks. But when the young woman shares that her work is on an Arab poet who lives on the other side of the wall, the aunt politely escorts the two out of the house.
The aunt’s behaviour symbolises the fear and punishment imposed upon the American writer’s mind lest they cross the line.
More telling in Antopole’s story, however, is the fact that while the Jewish poet’s name is mentioned, the Palestinian poet is just the Arab poet. A nameless entity. The reader is given no insight into the inner thoughts of the young woman or her husband.
Allow me to digress for a moment.
Some 15 years ago, helped by alternative news sources, emerging social media began to challenge the power of corporate news outlets, and reported about Israel’s genocidal onslaught on Palestinian children and women in Gaza disrupted the tranquillity of many Americans (for the first time). Partially inspired by an article by Jeff Halper in Harper’s Magazine, I sat down and wrote my short story Barbarians and the Mule, about a Brooklynite transplant to the Occupied Territories who sadistically humiliates a Palestinian father in front of his young son only to be stunned by the audacity of the boy who grabs a rock. I posted the story to a San Francisco Bay Area-based listserv that connected writers. My purpose was to jolt the shameful apathy among the writing community. A handful of writers wrote to me backchannel while remaining respectful. No hate mail. Yet the responses were straight from the hearts of apologists. Millions of excuses about why it’s not kosher to write about the victims of Israeli policies. We now call that PEP (progressive except Palestine) talk.
Since then a handful of novels have been published by Palestinian-Americans, a drop in the bucket, but the overall situation has remained as Queen Ozick would have wished. There are stirrings evident from the trip by 24 American authors who will write about their experience, these will be published in 2017.
There are those, however, who have already begun the work. I was pleasantly surprised to read in my friend Zafar Anjum’s recent collection of stories, Kafka in Ayodhya, a sentimental story set in Palestine about a young girl who misses her brother who had been murdered by Israeli soldiers. Then there is Jonathan Tel, born in Britain but educated at Stanford, who in 2002 published Arafat’s Elephant, wherein stories dealt with the impact of Israeli occupation.
I don’t recall any major newspaper showing any interest in it. The most pleasant surprise so far has been one by a San Francisco Bay Area resident and activist, Kate Jessica Raphael, whose Murder Under the Bridge: a Palestinian Mystery was published a few months ago, to critical acclaim.
Again no mainstream press has reviewed it, although it has won a major prize.
The novel brings a Palestinian police officer to centre-stage, assisted by a Jewish-American Lesbian peace worker with a camera and an annoying Israeli police officer, as she deconstructs the myths of Israel and occupation. This is unprecedented. Her novel has also been endorsed by Ayelet Waldman.
Due to the pressure that money and influence carry upon a writer, there will always be shameful acts such as those by Amitav Ghosh and Margaret Atwood when they collectively accepted the Dan David Prize in Israel. But there will be from now on writers like Junot Diaz, another Pulitzer Prize winner, who don’t give a damn about what others think and can come out in support of the BDS movement and say things like “if you are occupying other people’s shit, guess what — you are f***ed up. That’s that. And that’s a tough thing for people to stomach.”
The message is written on the wall: As the tide turns, there’s no turning back.
For those who have maintained the status quo, there’s going to be embarrassing moments ahead.