The Enemy Is Us

Shortly after 9/11, I got a call from the FBI , wanting to talk to me about the incident because of my involvement in the international women’s peace movement Women In Black. I told reporters then that if the FBI thought Jewish lesbians hung out with Islamist men, their grasp of geopolitical realities was tenuous. That may have been an understatement.

Now the FBI is busy trying to determine whether Omar Mateen, who killed fifty mostly LGBT Latinx people in an Orlando dance club, was “a deeply disturbed man” or “driven by religious or political ideology”. By fixating on which box he belongs in, the FBI is again missing the obvious. Like Dylann Roof, who killed nine people in a Black church in Charleston; like Elliott Rodger, who killed six in Isla Vista, California and left a misogynist screed behind; like Scott Roeder, who murdered Dr. George Tiller at church in Kansas because he provided abortions to women who needed them; like Dzokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who bombed the Boston Marathon; like Wade Michael Page, who killed six people at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, Mateen was a deeply disturbed man, who found purpose in a political ideology.

The FBI should be looking at what Mateen had in common with all these other men who committed similarly horrific murders. The first thing, of course, is that they are all men. The second is that they are all “home-grown extremists,” and the thing about extremists is that they are extreme versions of cultural norms.

Anyone who wants to put an end to these tragedies needs to look at the culture that produced them: ours. Our gunloving, woman-hating, homophobic, individualistic, celebrity-obsessed American culture. Our culture where the most popular movies are the ones in which the population of a small city is killed, without our ever seeing their faces, unless it’s meant to be funny. Our culture where every six minutes, a woman is raped, and middle-class white fathers call it “20 minutes of action.”  Our culture where Black and Latino people are killed with impunity by law enforcement and then blamed for their own deaths. Our culture where little girls performing sexualized dances is represented as cute. Our culture where presidential candidates spend debate time arguing about the size of their genitals. Our culture where a white cop rapes at least 13 Black women in seven months before anyone stops him. Our culture where military personnel painted anti-gay slogans on bombs intended to kill Afghan citizens. Our culture where the Pentagon, in 1994, sought funding for a “gay bomb” to make enemy soldiers sexually attracted to one another (it’s true – look it up). Our culture where fear of bathrooms was able to stop the Equal Rights Amendment for women and deprive LGBT people of equal rights.

We have created a culture that loves violence, hates women and queers, and teaches that darker-skinned people’s lives have less value, at home and abroad. We have the power to change that, but it will take political will and lots of work. It’s time we stopped asking how these terrible things happen and start doing something to stop them.

Posted in Culture, Feminism, Politics, Queer | 2 Comments

So you won a prize. What do you want, a medal?

One Monday in March, in a break from work, I glanced at Facebook and got some lovely news. Murder Under the Bridge: A Palestine Mystery had been named a finalist for the IndieFAB awards.  I am a finalist in both mystery and multicultural fiction, so I have two chances to win.  I was over the moon.

Since the email I dug out of my spam folder telling me of my good fortune had scant details, I went to the website to see what finalisthood gets you.  I hankered for one of those shiny “FINALIST” stickers I’ve seen.  And of course, I can get them – 500 of them for a mere $100 (you can’t get fewer than 500); with that comes the right to print the finalist artwork right on your cover, which is good for a book that’s going to be print-on-demand from here on out.  I figure I’ll wait to see if I win because I wouldn’t want to pay twice.


A couple weeks later I got even better news.  I had actually won an award – the silver medal for mystery in the Independent Publisher Book Awards, also known as IPPY, not to be confused with the Independent Book Publishers Association, the IBPA, which gives out the Ben Franklin awards, the IBPA-BF and the IBPA-BFDA, the Ben Franklin Digital Awards.  If you’re thinking “Life of Brian,” you’re not the only one.

I opted not to go to the awards ceremony in Chicago, which is being held at this week’s Book Expo of America.  Had I chosen to go, I could have gotten free tickets for myself and a guest – not for the expo, not to display my book, and certainly not for travel or hotels, but only for the awards cocktail party (business casual).  If I wanted any extra people to come see me honored, along with over 250 other authors, we could have paid $75 per person for that privilege.  IPPY is, however, mailing me a medalist’s packet containing a dozen stickers.

I was also offered the opportunity to have my book displayed along with other IndieFAB finalists in the Foreword Reviews booth for only $190, or to be part of a group ad for $305.  I can only imagine how big my book cover would have been in that ad.  (To be fair, it is a 15-page ad.)  I passed.

I had never heard of any of these awards until I started getting ready to publish my book.  There are literally dozens of awards open to small press, university press and self-published books.  I only entered the competitions for IPPY, IndieFAB, and the Lambda Literary Association LGBT book awards.  I could have entered at least twenty other competitions including NextGen Indie Awards, National Indie Excellence, USA “Best Books” Award, and my favorite (for which I am sadly ineligible), the Shirley You Jest Awards.  There are the International Book Awards and the Global eBook Awards.

Pretty much every competition has an entry fee.  For the prestigious National Book Award, the publisher must pay $135 to submit a book; the chairpersons of each judging panel may “call in” titles that have not been submitted, but if the publisher wants those called-in books to be considered, they still have to pay the $135.  These less well-known competitions usually charge $50-75 per entry, but if you want to be considered in multiple categories, you pay for each category.  Most give you a discount on the extra categories, like $75 for the first and $50 for each additional category.  Since my book is a multicultural mystery with lesbian content, I submitted in Mystery, Multicultural Fiction, and LGBT Fiction, but I could have also submitted in women’s fiction, Middle East regional fiction, and since it has such great literary merit, literary fiction.  Small press authors typically have to pay all these expenses themselves.  Someone who wanted to, or whose publicist convinced her she should, enter all the contests for which her book is eligible could spend thousands of dollars to win awards that don’t even come with cash prizes.

With so many contests and so many winners, what does winning bestow besides the chance to spend more money?  Opinions vary, but most experts seem to agree that winning the right contests matters.  How much, though, and even which contests are the “right ones,” is very open to interpretation.

Book publicist Scott Lorenz, who has represented quite a few best-selling authors, says “‘Do book awards matter?’  YES!!! … one of my clients won the prestigious Los Angeles Book Festival award. That then led to a flurry of media interest, which subsequently led to a major New York agent deciding to represent the book and pitch it to all the major publishing houses.”

Lorenz lists 37 awards that authors should definitely apply for (last year it was 35, two years ago 32, which tells you something about the way these awards are proliferating).  You’ll notice that IPPY and IndieFAB are at the very top of his list, above National Book Critics Circle, Man Booker Prize, Pulitzer, National Book Award and the Nobel Prize.  Not sure if that means something about how seriously I should take his advice.

Speaking of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer, even those, according to a 1983 New York Times article, have little impact on book sales.  “[T]he Pulitzer Prize … usually has little effect on the sale of hard-cover books, both because it tends to be awarded to books that are already successful and because by the time of the Pulitzer announcement the hard-cover sales have largely run their course.”  More recent information gives a different picture.  In 2012, reported Publisher’s Weekly, “Four weeks after the four National Book Awards winners were announced… [a]ll four winners have experienced sales spikes. Fiction winner Louise Erdrich’s The Round House (Harper) sold 30,000 of its 47,000 copies since its victory.”

Then again, maybe not so much, especially if you don’t actually win the prize.  A lot of people I know read (or tried to read) A Brief History of Seven Killings after it won the Man Booker Prize, but according to blogger Wendy Fox, “the least-selling of the Man Booker dozen short-list clocked in at 604 copies.”

Those short-listed authors may get their revenge.  “Literary prizes make books less popular, study finds,” proclaims a 2014 article in The Guardian.  Researchers compared books that had won prestigious awards with ones that were shortlisted but didn’t win. The prize winners got much more negative response from readers.  But, the authors concluded, that may be because more people read the winning books.

I, for instance, bought the IPPY gold-medal winner in mystery to see if it’s better than my book. Hopefully the bronze winner will buy mine for the same reason.  I have long suspected that writing is a pyramid scheme.  Probably the majority of books sold at group readings are to one’s fellow authors.

So, back to my question, does winning mean anything?  Sarah Schulman, author of 17 critically acclaimed books, says, “It means someone liked your book.”  I have noticed that the same books seem to be winning many awards, which conveys some level of critical consensus.

My publisher, Brooke Warner, says the best thing about prizes is that they give you an opportunity to hype a book that’s been out for a while.

“The life of a book is surprisingly short, after all. You get three to six solid months to push it out the gate. After three months, your book is backlisted, and ceases to be new news. So anything that breathes fresh air into your campaign should be seen as a positive—and winning gives reason for your existing fans to rally around your book, and creates buzz that will hopefully result in new readers finding you.”

So, that’s what I’m doing.  Read my book.  It makes great beach reading.  Recommend it to your book club and your library.  Tell them it won a prize.

Posted in Books, Writing | Leave a comment

Do Fiction Writers Need to Be Honest?








What responsibility do fiction writers have to tell the truth?

On its face, the question is ridiculous. Not only is “fiction” the literal opposite of truth, but it’s increasingly accepted that “truth” itself is a subjective and pretty suspect concept.

When you’re trying to write fiction that captures experiences that are not only your own but are important to many people you care about, it feels important to be true to life. But a story needs to be satisfying and make sense, while reality has no such obligation. Nowhere is this a thornier problem than in fictional stories situated in political or social movements.

Political movements usually have an identifiable beginning, but they often have no clear end point. A story can’t just end with the protagonists staring into space, wondering if they will ever accomplish anything. It can’t be filled with march after march at which everything goes like clockwork, a few hundred or a few thousand people show up, everyone has a nice day and they all go home without having made a discernible change in their conditions.

So we pick the most dramatic moments to build our stories around, compress the timeline, amp up the tension. That’s no different from what other writers do. As Tolstoy observed, happy families don’t make interesting subjects either. But there are two reasons it seems more problematic to make those adjustments in activist fiction.

First, most of us who write about movements are in movements, and we want people to get involved. While making the work seem more exciting and faster acting might be helpful in drawing people in, they’re not likely to stick around if it seems a lot more tedious and less productive than they imagined. Second, our core audiences are going to be other activists, often people who were involved in some of the same movements as we, and people are notably intolerant of different perspectives on the things they know intimately.

When I read Sarah Schulman’s fictional account of AIDS activism, People in Trouble, I was furious that she made it seem much easier to get national press for a routine direct action than it ever has been, in my experience. From a remove of twenty years, I ask myself why I thought it mattered so much. But at the time, with the chants of “AIDS = Genocide, Silence = Death” fresh in my ears, I hated the thought that people might think all you had to do was take over a hotel lobby for a few hours to have CNN at your door. If that was all it took, would we have stopped traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge? We led a march into a struck hotel the night the first Iraq War began in 1990 and barely got 2 minutes of local press.

A friend who also writes political fiction objected to Sunil Yapa’s new book, Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, about the 1999 protest against the World Trade Organization summit in Seattle, because he felt the characters were too much archetypes and the story line too predictable. I agree with those criticisms, but didn’t mind because ultimately, I felt that he accurately captured what it felt like to be there – impressive since he was not there. He also stayed pretty true to the level of violence that we encountered – bad but not too bad. If someone had been killed in the book, I would have been really angry because no one was killed at those protests, even though someone was killed just a few months later at a similar protest in Genoa, Italy. But writers fictionalizing activist moments often inject deaths that didn’t occur as a way of upping the stakes, and many writing teachers would say that’s a good choice to make.

Some of my friends enjoyed the film, The East, which painted fairly sympathetic portraits of anarchists taking militant direct actions. I hated it because it made the group into a type of cult in which each of the members has some personal score to settle, as if the only reason someone opposes corporate greed is to get back at their parents or avenge the death of a brother. That’s not my experience, it’s not the experience of the activists I know, and it’s not what I want people to think. The ending, in which the FBI agent turned anti-capitalist crusader goes around the world, armed with nothing but a handshake and a story, convincing powerful people to switch sides and spill their beans, is the treacly icing on the stale cake.

Starhawk (The Fifth Sacred Thing, City of Refuge), China Mieville (The City & the City), Ursula LeGuin (The Dispossessed) and Pat Murphy (The City, Not Long After) successfully avoid the truth dilemma by setting their stories in fictional times or places. I can accept that what might not work in 2016 San Francisco might work in the San Francisco dreamed of by Starhawk or Murphy. But for the books I write, about contemporary Palestine, that doesn’t provide much of a guide.

A radio host recently asked me, “Which is more important to you, to teach people about the situation in Palestine or to write a good mystery story?” I answered without hesitation, “I don’t think there’s a conflict, but if there were, I would have to choose good storytelling.” A fiction writer’s first obligation is to entertain, to write the best story we can. And that is more likely to get people interested in our issues and our movements than telling the literal truth. Even Emma Goldman, the early 20th century anarchist and feminist leader, warned that her two-part memoir, Living My Life, is more inspirational than strictly factual. At the same time, I think those of us who write politics should opt for the real over the ideal whenever possible.

Posted in Books | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Three Reasons to Worry About President Trump

Professor Helmut Norpoth of Stonybrook University says Donald Trump has a 97% chance of being the next president. That’s if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, which all the major US media have declared an unstoppable outcome. If Bernie Sanders should pull out an upstart victory (a result predicted by a Reuters poll that went unreported in the mainstream US press)? Norpoth says Trump’s odds go up to 99%.

Most of my friends say it can’t happen. I’m not sure why. Seems that they have an irrational belief in the rationality of the US electorate, or at least of the US political class. Neither, in my opinion, is well founded.

Professor Norpoth has, according to himself (and Fortune magazine), accurately predicted the outcome of every election since 1912, with the technical exception of 2000, when his statistical model predicted a Gore victory. 

But of course, we know what’s wrong with that exception.

There’s a school of thought that says this election is so wacky that a statistical model based on past primary results is irrelevant. That might be true, it might not. But let’s just assume Mr. Norpoth is right and Trump is the next president, which is by no means a long shot. How worried should I be about what that means?

A. Very worried – make an exit plan (Denmark, anyone?).

B. Not worried – they’re all the same.

C. Impossible to tell because no one knows what Trump really stands for.

I pick A, but not because both of the other rationales are not accurate. Here’s what we know.

1. Unlike Rubio and Cruz, Trump is not a right-wing ideologue. He’s pro-choice (, in favor of some form of universal health care, and might even secretly be pro-gay. Well Mitt Romney was pro-choice too, until he was running for president, and was the architect of one of the most successful universal health coverage examples we have. What people like that have said in the past doesn’t really matter once they start running for president.

2. The enemy of my enemy is not my friend. Yes, Trump opposes free trade agreements, but not because they give too much power to multinational corporations or because they’re going to be bad for international labor. He doesn’t want to see smaller countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America have the opportunity to develop with democracy and without displacement. Trump says he doesn’t want people dying on the street. Well Gavin Newsom, former mayor who brought “care-not-cash” to San Francisco, didn’t want people dying on the street either, he wanted to move them somewhere else to die. No one wants people dying on the street. Trump says his great new plan to make sure everyone has health care “is not single-payer” and won’t cost any money. Which means he has no plan. Just because Trump talks about “a few people on Wall Street” who are not paying enough taxes, I can’t ignore the fact that apparently, 20% of his avowed supporters think slavery should not have ended. Or that he didn’t want to refuse the endorsement of former KKK leader David Duke without doing research because “I know nothing about white supremacists.”

3.  No one keeps their campaign promises, or even intends to. Remember, “On Day 1, I will shut down Guantanamo”? Remember, “I can end the ban on gay soldiers with the stroke of a pen”? Contrary to claims by Trump and Romney, the president doesn’t get to eliminate Obamacare or abortion rights. There is this little thing called Congress and this slightly bigger thing called the Supreme Court.

Campaigning is by definition lying. Hillary Clinton was mercilessly hazed a couple weeks ago for saying she “tries not to” lie. Any ten-year-old, said Stephen Colbert, with a live 10-year-old to prove his point, knows that when asked, “Have you ever lied?” the only answer is, “No, never.” By the same token, voters don’t want to hear, “I will attempt to get this or that bill through Congress, although I realize the odds are against my being able to accomplish it.” Maybe back in Calvin Coolidge’s day or something, but in the age of television and Twitter? No way. You’re supposed to promise the moon with a wink. Trump is great at that because it’s how he’s made his fortune. Or several, some of which he also lost, but we’re not supposed to talk about that or even notice it.

Trump will not be building any walls on the Mexican border, with or without Mexico’s money. He will not be deporting 11 million immigrants or even banning Muslims, although that he might manage because honestly, it has not been very easy for Muslims to get visas for a long time now. He won’t be creating great jobs for US workers, forcing China to stop devaluing its currency or making America great again.

So all those angry white guys (and gals, sad to say) who are voting for him in droves are gonna be mad. Even if he were doing what he said he would do, they’d be mad because even if someone really tries to fulfill their promises, changing social policy takes a long time. Economies do not turn around at the stroke of a pen. If Trump (or Sanders) did all the wonderful things he says he is going to do, it would probably take a couple or more years before people who have been out of work for a long time started getting hired. And what is Trump going to fall back on to keep that formidable anger and sense of betrayal from landing on him?

Misogyny and racism. Trump’s not an ideologue but he is a macho, woman-hating, racist. A lot’s been written and said about his “tough guy” act, and how important this aggressive form of machismo is to his appeal. (For an amusing example of this literature, check out Friday’s Washington Post article, “Has Donald Trump Actually Punched Anyone?”.) We’ve seen how he has wielded vile sexism against Megyn Kelly (someone I don’t normally feel that much sisterhood with) and Hillary Clinton and racism against Jorge Ramos and President Obama. There’s the comment about how he would like to date his daughter and and the more basic one, allegedly made to a friend and quoted by New York Magazine, “You have to treat ’em [women] like shit.” There’s his fat-shaming of Rosie O’Donnell and others), and the simple fact that he owns the Miss Universe pageant. The list goes on and on.

We also saw how Arnold (“Girlie-Man”) Schwarzenegger, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush utilized the swagger to distract people from what they were not doing to improve their lives. We can expect more wars, more militarized policing, more ruthless rhetoric about people who aren’t making it. The divisions that gave us a weekend of stabbings and Klan rallies in California and the murder of Sudanese immigrants in Indiana will intensify, as will verbal and physical abuse of women and kids. And unfortunately, it works. When white men have nothing else to feel good about, feeling like part of the biggest, baddest, toughest team on the planet seems to appease them. And eight years of that I cannot abide.

Posted in Feminism, Politics | Tagged , , | Leave a comment