40 plus 5

I had a baby.

For some strange reason, the birth of my son, Nye, went viral after this article about my tweeting through labor appeared in The Huffington Post, and we ended up in the news in about twenty different countries, from Brazil to Japan to Argentina to Italy to France, in publications as diverse as Perez Hilton, The Daily Mail,The Telegraph, The New York Daily News, Clarin, Time

This all happened a few days after I’d given birth and was recovering at home. Because of the craziness of that time – having a few tweets and some pictures snowball into a media frenzy when I was ill-equipped to deal with it – Jared and I decided to document our journey in a photo-essay called ’40 plus 5′ over atMedium. We also started a new site as a family called 10R10.

I hope you like it.

I’m still writing, but the birth was pretty brutal, and it’s taking me some time to get my strength back up as I also grapple with life as a new mama to my (now four month old) son. Work as a screenwriter – how I pay the bills to fund the prose and feed the family – takes priority, so bear with me if the words come slower then before. It hurts to slow down as I want to grab onto every single moment, preserve each memory before they dissipate into ether, but I have neither the time nor the strength. I’m hoping that will come back soon….In the meantime, enjoy what little I can offer you, and rest assured the new screenwriting project I’m working on is also pretty interesting.

The Rescue Fallacy: Race, Privilege and Adoption

This article first appeared in the print edition of ‘CounterPunch’.

In the last few months I’ve been struck by three separate news stories, all concerning adoption. In the first, a black, orphaned teen – Davion Navar Henry Only – who had been in the Florida foster system since birth, hit the headlines after making an emotive plea in church for someone to adopt him following the recent discovery of his biological mother’s death: “I’ll take anyone,” Only said. “Old or young, dad or mom, black, white, purple. I don’t care. And I would be really appreciative. The best I could be.”screenshot_45

In the second story, a blonde Roma child is removed from her adoptive ‘dark’ Roma parents, who are suspected of “stealing” her, “abducting” her, “sex-trafficking” her and running a child-sex ring after authorities became suspicious about her parents’ claim that they took her into their care upon the request of her biological parents, who were also Roma.

 

In the third story, cameraman Duane Watkins and his wife have a chance encounter with the photographer behind the blog ‘Humans of New York’. After impressing Brandon Stanton with his story of adopting a young Ethiopian girl following infertility issues, Duane asks Stanton to put out an appeal on his massively popular blog, begging for the funds to complete another expensive international adoption: “Would there be any possibility that you could help us raise the adoption fees to get her a brother? We’ve already found him, but aren’t financially ready yet.” Stanton agrees, and within a few hours, the blog has raised over the $26,000 requested. Within three days, the total is near $90,000, and the Watkins announce they will take the entirety of this money (over three times what they initially requested) for their children’s college education fund.

 

These three stories, so close upon the heels of one another, represent to me, the overwhelmingly racialized narrative surrounding children and adoption, a narrative which is explicitly denied and ignored by those whites in control of the adoption process. These stories are all deeply troubling, and give us a unique perspective into the centrality of whiteness as it’s inserted into an emotive area which renders pragmatism and common sense null and void against the onslaught of the savior myth.

 

Firstly, Only’s story tragically highlights a common plight for children in care and eligible for adoption in the States. Like Only, there are nearly 500,000 children in the foster system in the US, 29% of whom are black. Of this number, less than a quarter will find adoptive homes. According to a report in Time magazine, “Black children are adopted less frequently and more slowly than kids of any other race. White children are five times as likely as to be adopted than children from any minority group, and are adopted out of foster care an average of nine months sooner than black children.” Only’s case is not the exception – he represents a pretty typical experience for a black child within the American system. Yet white adoptive parents in America comprise a huge percentage of the total number of international adoptions: from a high of 22,991 in 2004, to 8,668 in the 2012 fiscal year. International adoption is preferable to giving a homeless American child a home. Why? Because international adoption places the parents at the centre of the adoption experience. It allows parents to “choose” their child, have a higher likelihood of adopting an infant, and avoid ‘damaged’ children – those who are older than five, those with behavioral difficulties, and those with disabilities. White Americans have a romanticized view of international adoption, specifically adoption concerning black and brown babies, which does not extend to the American black and brown children and teens who are languishing in the foster care system, like Only, with little opportunity for escape.

 

There is something about the black or brown child from a third world country which triggers a deeply insidious savior narrative within the white soul. The ethics of transracial adoption have been questioned many, many times. Adoption has been plagued by notions of racism and ethnic essentialism because it denied white families the right to adopt a black or brown child (and vice versa) and then cultural insensitivity as it placed black and brown children with white families who were, simply, inadequately equipped to educate their child about the issues they might face. In the same Time magazine article quoted earlier:

 

“In its report, “Finding Families for African American Children,” the [Evan B. Donaldson] institute argues that race should be a factor in adoption placement, and that agencies should be allowed to screen non-black families who want to adopt black children — for their ability to teach self-esteem and defense against racism, and for their level of interaction with other black people. The authors’ recommendations reflect the findings that transracial adoptees report struggling to fit in with their peers, their communities and even with their own families. The study also says that minority children adopted by white parents are likely to express a desire to be white, and black transracial adoptees have higher rates of behavioral problems than Asian or Native American children adopted transracially; they also exhibit more problems than biracial or white adoptees, or the biological children of adoptive parents.”

 

The notion of “color blindness” is propounded by (predominantly) white liberals as evidence of their lack of racism. White people claim they do not “see” skin color, and therefore can love a child regardless of skin color. I don’t think anyone would deny that a white family cannot provide a loving home to a child because of their lack of skin pigmentation: however, a white family has a moral imperative to acknowledge the centrality of their own whiteness and its complicity in systemic racism which still exists, and therefore still oppresses, people of color today. They must take pains to allow their child to take pride in a separate, different racial identity to their own. The same report states that: “black children had a greater sense of racial pride when their parents acknowledged racial identity, moved to integrated neighborhoods, and provided African American role models. Black children whose white parents minimized the importance of racial identity were reluctant to identify themselves racially.”

 

When it comes to international adoption, there seems to be a pervasive, implicit but unarticulated notion that ‘foreign’ children, mainly children born to families with immediate economic problems due to their nation’s third world status, are not ‘tainted’ by the same legacies of slavery, systemic racism, imperialism and colonialism which mark the bodies of black people within the US. Duane Watkin’s positioning of himself and his family as a “saviors”, using over-emotional language and details of their first child’s adoption to move the HONY audience into donating to his fund, explicitly situates this unknown child, Richard as a possession, as “his”. He wants to “bring Richard home” he claims, which seems deeply simplistic and disturbing to anyone who has ever witnessed the fear, trauma, uncertainty and pain of the newly adopted transracial international child, who have rarely met their “parents” before they are flown over to a new country, a new language, and a new life which will not be ‘home’ for many many months. This claiming of ownership over a black body who cannot speak and is being spoken for is incredibly disturbing given the legacies of slavery, propriety and ownership that still colors the black experience today: an experience which is denied by the white gaze, the white owner, the white paternal figure who asserts his “right” to bring that child home as a son and brother, without even talking to that child in advance and gaining his or her consent.

 

The HONY blog makes no mention of how far Duane and his wife are in the adoption process. It seems – from the sketchy details they provide – not very far. The flippant mention of spying this child in a catalogue, like a commodity, is disturbing. Watkins, sincere, kind, good hearted man that he may be, has violated his daughter’s privacy by telling her story in order to generate income, and has violated a child’s privacy, a child who is not his son, is not his daughter’s “brother”, a child who is, simply, an unknown black body upon which Watkins and his family have projected their own needs and desires onto with emotive language and manipulation which reeks of white privilege and a massive insensitivity to the legacies of racism and colonialism. Perhaps Richard will be Watkins son one day: perhaps not. Nevertheless, at this moment in time, he is not “theirs” and deserves to be treated with the respect and dignity of any child who is not part of your own family. As an adult adoptee phrases it:

 

An adoptee can already feel the sting of how money plays a role and fundraising may add to this feeling of being a commodity…how would you like to feel bought and paid for?  Your actions today matter to your future adoptee. If you cannot afford adoption and believe adoption agencies are gouging you, then don’t do it.  Start a group and actively work to reform adoption, because honestly, how many of you believe that adoption actually costs as much as being charged?  I don’t and believe they already have all processes down pat and can process an adoption for pennies on the dollar of what it costs now – but the people getting rich off it won’t like it.  The wait times will increase because of less advertising and convincing a mother she is not as good as you are so she “needs to do the right thing” and surrender to create another adoptee to be adopted and this happens in both domestic and international in one form or another.  The supply and demand are driven by you – the prospective adoptive parents, so really – you are in the ones in power but you allow your desires to keep it status quo – so you achieve your dream.

 

International adoption is ethically unsound at the best of times: issues surrounding child trafficking, the sheer extortionate cost of adoption, the historically rank practice of shipping black and brown children to white adults for large sums of money, the numbers of corrupt adoption agencies operating… and the lack of transparency surrounding the Watkins case is just another example of how sentimentalism overrides pragmatism, how the myth of the savior is used to silence the voice of caution, to suggest the voice of caution is somehow racist, bigoted and malicious.

 

We do not know if Richard has a family: the chances are, he does, given the sheer numbers of children in the international adoption system who are not orphaned and the lack of transparency in (amongst others) the Ethiopian adoption system. This has shocked other white American families who have participated in it, so much so that they lend a note of caution to the sentimentalism of the Watkins’ tale. The Watkins use their daughter as a shield for their own desire for another child, and place their family’s need at the center of this narrative, in so doing eliding all the families and children in Ethiopia who could benefit from the money raised, and could have used that money to combat the orphan crisis in the most effective way possible: by keeping families together.

 

But what about the childless parents who ‘need’ children? Raising children is a basic human privilege we continually treat (incorrectly) as a right. Whether we have biological children or whether we adopt, parents are the ones who are ‘blessed’ with a child, and not the other way around. By deliberately subverting the narrative and making Richard and Chaltu the ‘blessed’ ones who have been saved from a life of poverty in a third world country (we are told that Richard “has not been in a car, on a plane, he has never seen a park, been on an elevator, escalator, in a pool or down a slide” as if that is proof that this poor child cannot possibly survive without a white American family to rescue him) The Watkins blithely perpetuate racist cultural stereotypes about a black country and suggest, wrongly, that the best solution is  to ship those children out to white, western families.

 

“It’s too complicated.” “They cannot handle their own kids.” “They are too poor.” “Life is too unstable there.” These are the arguments we bandy around about birth parents. Frankly, this is an easy pill to swallow and goes down in seconds without much consideration. Just like that, I’ve severed the biological tie and discredited the argument for reunification. Yet people working in impoverished countries tell me something totally different. My friends, Troy and Tara Livesay, work in maternal care in Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere. By every statistic and standard, it is a hot mess. Yet at Heartline, their organization that offers prenatal care, safe birthing facilities, and parenting and child development classes for vulnerable moms, their numbers disclose something astonishing: Out of roughly 300 births – and I’m talking very poor women, some raped, some teenagers, some single moms, extremely disadvantaged – only ONE birth mom has ever relinquished her baby. As Tara told me, “If our small, simple operation has virtually a 100% success rate, we are not trying hard enough for birth families.”

What would happen if we reallocated a percentage of the millions we spend on adoption toward community development? What if we prioritized first families and supported initiatives that train, empower, and equip them to parent? This would absolutely be Orphan Prevention, not to mention grief prevention, loss prevention, abandonment prevention, trauma prevention, broken family prevention. What if we asked important questions about supply and demand here, and broadened our definition of orphan care to include prevention and First Family empowerment?”

 

The Watkins case delineates the centrality of whiteness and the white experience: it posits the white westerner’s desires as more important than the silent, blank, black body of the Ethiopian who is spoken for. Those who donated to Watkins and defended his move to crowdsource funds for a child are, it seems in the comments section, overwhelmingly white. But what do black people think of transracial adoption? Why are we, as white people, deciding what is best for black children?

 

United Kingdom-based poet and playwright, Lemn Sissay, entered the British care system in the 1960’s having been given up for adoption by his mother who gave birth in England before returning to Ethiopia. In a BBC interview, Sissay claims that non-Africans should be closely “monitored” when seeking to adopt African children and that while many good adopting parents exist, “having an African baby is often a sign to non-African adopters of their philanthropic, political, familial or religious credentials.” and that, ultimately ”taking a child from another culture is an act of aggression”. The National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW) is against interracial adoptions. “The National Association of Black Social Workers has taken a vehement stand against the placement of black children in white homes for any reason,” the group’s “Position Statement on Trans-Racial Adoption” reads. “We affirm the inviolable position of black children in black families where they belong physically, psychologically and culturally in order that they receive the total sense of themselves and develop a sound projection of their future.”

 

I am not anti-adoption, but I am certainly anti-unethical adoption, and I firmly believe that many international transracial adoptions sustain and perpetuate an unhealthy racialized narrative which privileges white experience and gives many black and brown children a home and parents – at the cost, often, of their own, biological parents, or at the cost of knowing and acknowledging their cultural heritage. But it would be too simplistic to simply condemn children who need a home – children like Only, who’ll “take anyone” – to suffer in the state system simply because of racial binaries. It would be ridiculous and detrimental to deny children of color a home because their new parents may be white. But we need to stop thinking of white families as “rescuing” children from the third world, when clearly these white families are incapable of “rescuing” children from their own country who are also in great need. Adoption is not “rescuing”: adoption is adding to your family and giving your child the best experience that you can. It’s not providing a kid with a “better than nothing” experience.

What’s needed is extraordinary cognizance on the part of white adoptive parents, a recognition that we do not live in a post-racial society, but a society which is still extremely stratified, where white faces dominate magazine covers, movie billboards, talk shows, Congress, the Senate, CEO and managerial positions. It’s a world where dark parents of a blonde child suggests to a racist world “pedophiles”, whereas the blonde parents of a dark child are “angels” and are “rewarded” for being “Good Samaritans” with nearly 60,000 + dollars of money they did not ask for and clearly do not “need” – and yet, have no intention of sharing with those who may most benefit from it: the families in Ethiopia who are unable to care for their own children because of a basic lack of resources and funds.

After Les

This essay first appeared on The Los Angeles Review of Books

But in the end I understood this language. I understood it, I understand it, all wrong perhaps. That is not what matters.

Does this mean that I am freer now than I was? I do not know. I shall learn. Then I went back into the house and wrote, It is midnight. The rain is beating on the roof. It was not midnight. It was not raining.

— Samuel Beckett

I MARRIED A MAN I had only known for six weeks, so I was used to being surprised by him. Despite this, despite our ever-growing list of differences and disparities and discoveries about each other still unfurling, sometimes malignantly, after two years together, I was bemused that he had ordered a book online, an obscure novel set in the 1970s, published in 1995, a novel called The Last Bongo Sunset by Hungarian-American writer Les Plesko.

Husband’s interests were not obscure literary novels set in the 1970s, I had thought. Or maybe they were, clues to something beneath the surface, just like the strange positive pregnancy test that appeared underneath my writing desk in a crumpled envelope with Haitian creole scrawled on the outside, just like the strange faded girls panties I’d found in his drawer, next to strange diaries that I pored over deep into the night, while he disappeared to do strange things I didn’t know about. Husband was something intangible and unknown, and things I found seemed only to deepen the mystery rather than elucidate it. Perhaps that is why I continued to love him when for sane people, it would have been impossible.

The temptation was to lean on memories and hobble on the crutches of his emotions.

— Les Plesko, Firefly (unpublished novel)

I call him, puzzled and pleased by the discovery that we share the same literary tastes. He picks up immediately. Hey. “Why did you order The Last Bongo Sunset online? Didn’t you know I had a copy already?”

This is how we talk, how we have always spoken to one another. No preamble. No introduction. No foreplay. As if we both sense how little time we have to clear up the enigmas we each have accumulated. He screws up his forehead as he answers, interested. I can see it even when I’m not there. Even as we gather more riddles, we collect the safe and the known, depend on them to keep us anchored as everything else is unstable, tilting at the crest of the wave, ready for the fall.

“The writer threw himself off a building last week. He lived in Venice.”

He could not know, did not know, would not have known. It was one of those things we must add to the ever-growing list of differences and disparities and discoveries about each other still unfurling, sometimes malignantly. Husband could not have known, didn’t know, would never have known that Les was my friend, that the parcel Husband had picked up in the mailbox a couple of months previously and handed to me, uninterested in the contents, was, in fact, a copy of Les’s latest book, Who I Was. I’d never mentioned Les to Husband. Les was just another character in the backdrop of my pre-married life, another character that seemed so interminably part of my contingent reality that I hadn’t even thought to mention him to the person I was closest to in the whole world.

I will miss you. I will miss you. I will miss you.

— Jennifer Parkhill, Les’s Memorial Book

Les had sent me a copy of Who I Was after we’d sat for several hours together in April, writing in companionable silence at the old Novel Cafe on Pier Street — 212 Pier or whatever it was now called — a place we always knew as the 24 hour café where van-dwelling folks could come and piss and shit in warmth and eat vegan Bundt cake all night long and write bad novels no one would ever read and good novels no one would read either.

I hadn’t seen him for a year or so. I’d moved away from Venice, into a van in Topanga Canyon, then into a large communal house with anarchists and sex workers and PhD students in South LA. I missed the beach, missed the bums and the freaks and the mental patients and the weirdoes and the fuck ups, faces I knew didn’t have a lot of time left before gentrification shunted them east of Lincoln. I would drive west to escape the house, to write every day and breathe the scent of piss and sea air, and it’s there that I met Les again in April of this year, when we probably hadn’t talked for a year or more. After he sent me the book, I emailed him back to say thanks and we chatted back and forth a little in a disinterested way, both preoccupied with parts of our life that we probably did not articulate to the other, intending to catch up properly at a later time. Our conversation and correspondence faded out without rancor, intending to be picked up again at a later date. Then Les’s life ended.

Hey man. I am still here reading the emailed pages with your mark ups in them. I am using that stuff. You know, I talked to the guy who saw you the last seconds before you swan-dived off the roof at your place. You freaked him out. You freaked all of us out. He is moving the hell out of there now. We did not want you to die.

— Amanda Copeland

Old Billy with over 30 years sobriety and a ton of unopened letters from the IRS and little to his name but a laz-E-boy and a dog called Buddha, will later say, in a tone of dismal, fatalistic authority, “He was Hungarian. You know those Eastern Europeans, there’s summat fucked up about them. They’re depressed. It’s all doom and gloom over there. I ain’t fuckin’ surprised.”

But I was surprised. We were all surprised. We called each other and traded stories in the spanked, empty tones of the bereaved. Muck, the tagger-turned-painter, had heard the morning after it happened in an AA meeting from a man who lived in his building, Nigel. Nigel had walked, distraught, into the pizza parlor on Main St at 7am, and started his share with “I saw something really fucked up yesterday. Bloke in my building — Les, this really quiet writer — threw himself off the roof. Right in front of me.” Muck ran out crying. She’d seen him the day before. He’d seemed normal. Morose, dour, but then he was Hungarian. They were all like that. He was a little down about the fact the publishers of his book, MDMW of Deyermond Art and Books, had closed down, that copies of his novel were neatly stacked in Michael Deyermond’s garage, waiting for someone more vivacious and pro-active than either Les or Michael to launch a vibrant PR-drive assault upon the unsuspecting literary world.

“D’you think it was that? I mean, that’d piss me off, having all those books just stacked somewhere, not doing shit. Maybe that’d drive me over the edge,” says Muck, and we disappear down the rabbit hole of “maybe,” the rationale of plausibility. Maybe it was his finances. Maybe his girlfriend had recently ditched himMaybe he was depressed. Maybe he was loaded. Billy had heard from a guy in AA that Les hadn’t been invited back to teach Creative Writing at UCLA’s Extension Course, where he’d been teaching for a number of years. UCLA had never heard any such thing and declared tightly that Les’s next writing class was as full and as popular as ever.

Sam had heard that Les had started drinking with some rich trust fund girlfriend after 20 years of sobriety. Muck had heard that he was having a hard time. Some people mentioned a girlfriend, a break up, health problems. Most of us knew nothing, and instead clung desperately to speculation, because when someone dies, when someone kills themselves, it is inconceivable that we might have seen that person, chatted with them, traded pleasantries, not detected the turmoil within, not sensed impending doom, not heard the insidious crackle of smoldering wood, not done something to avert the tragedy, distract the shark, divert the grizzly bear.

Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling “Don’t! » and “Hang on! », can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.

— David Foster Wallace

To make the irrational and the insane seem rational and sane, to make it inevitable perhaps, we invent fictions, crawl into the spaces and ellipses of someone’s life and play out the dramas we have chosen for them. Silence, the unknown, is a terrible thing when it comes to death. Uncomfortable and eerie, it extends possibilities too close for comfort.

Les, like my husband, was someone who had many ellipses.

I think he must have felt he was being burned alive and that’s a tragedy. I think he’s where he wanted to be…

— Pam Alster

There are things we do know about him, facts we can properly recount. Perhaps we should start there. Leslie — Les — Plesko was born in Budapest, Hungary in January, 1954. His biological father was unknown: his stepfather was named on his birth certificate. He moved to the US when he was eight years old, and had one half brother, George. English was his second language. He spent some time in New Jersey, and then the family moved west. Les gained his bachelors in literature from UCLA in the late 1990s, after he had delved into, and limped out of, the junkie life of Venice Beach, developing a heroin habit and a lifestyle that he documented quasi-autobiographically in his first book. By the time he met his long term girlfriend, Eireene Nealand, around 2001, Les lived in a beautiful little cottage at 704 Victoria Avenue in Venice, was several years into recovery, staunchly sober, and would not even walk into a bar with her. It was in this small house that Les first discovered that he had contracted Hep-C from his heroin use all those years before.

White male, slim, 59 years old, 5’ 5”, leptosomatic Les Plesko spoke with a lisping, soft voice which sounded like it could never be raised to anything more malevolent than a quiet, mocking derision. Les Plesko had a monkish bald head, mad wisps of unfettered hair escaping wildly around his ears, a mustache concealing those broken piano-keys of teeth, a gray, straggly, stray-dog beard. Les Plesko had one good eye, one which roved madly around, and few of us knew which one to engage.

I think of funny things like how he’d make fun of his one good eye when we were always looking at the wrong one. He’d clamp his hand over the bad one and be all, it’s this one FOOL. He’d make fun of his teeth and just like tell us his great ambition was to lose all of them with all that chocolate. He had a wonderful sick mind like most great writers.

— Lisa Douglass

Les Plesko looked like a bum at the best of times, a small, sad, innocuous, existential, asthenic, fragile bum shuffling along Abbot Kinney Blvd, perched on a chair in a corner of Abbot’s Habit or Equator Books, regarding everyone quietly, his large glasses sliding down his nose. Les Plesko lived in a tiny studio apartment in a redbrick building at 120 Westminster Avenue, right opposite the dog park, two blocks from the beach, for many years. It was this building that he always associated with The Last Bongo Sunset, and he stayed because it had a kind of grimy, cramped charm, it was cheap for the location and he liked the view, overlooking the dog park with a glimmer of ocean visible from the roof. He eventually left at some point, went to Westwood for a year presumably because he was teaching over there, but then returned to the same apartment in the same building — 120 Westminster, Apartment 14 — to live out the last few years of his life. After working as a DJ, pool cleaner, cotton shoveler, crop-duster flagman, furniture refinisher, messenger, phone sales and “other stuff,” he eventually made a living editing a medical journal and teaching creative writing at UCLA’s extension program. He had published three books, and written several more that were circulated amongst his friends, lovers, and students.

Les’s first book, The Last Bongo Sunset, is a lyrical, raw, dirty and heartbreaking tale of a young college dropout who gets sucked into the white-trash world of a pimp and a prostitute in Venice Beach. Interspersed with flashbacks, it’s the literary equivalent of a Terrence Malick movie: sensory, picturesque, cinematic, emotional. Published by Simon and Schuster, it had an initial print run of 15,000 copies, and never reprinted. Despite being hyped for success, it was either ignored, or trashed disparagingly by reviewers as “another first novel with more promise than delivery,” a “mindless pastiche,” “monotonous and self-indulgent.” Even the ringing endorsement of Les’s mentor, the beloved experimental writer Kate Braverman, failed to impress the critics, who concentrated predominantly on the content. There’s no doubt this guy can write, but why did he write about these people and this time? seems to be the predominant sentiment oozing from reviewers who seem affronted they were being asked to even consider the book. Characteristically, Les had located the most vicious, pretentious review he could find, and had posted it on his website (slowliedetector.wordpress.com) under the title “My Favorite Review”:

self-absorbed, Jun 13 2004
By A Customer
This is a book only one reader will like: its writer.

A solipsistic experiment in writing, this book is the product of ultimate selfishness. The author sees only himself and his words without sending a message to the reader, who is not quite the vulgate audience. What’s left for the reader is to decipher rhythmic lines only.

Editorial reviews have already suggested the lack of a storyline, the lack of plot, of a coherent novel structure. Added to the writer’s autistic verbal universe, this book’s flow becomes an experiment in writing, not a novel per se. Maybe this is why this writer could not publish anything in the past ten years. Not even the excuse that the writer is Kate Braverman’s student is strong enough to justify his wordiness. With no other publication to prove his self-absorbed geniality, this writer remains a mere failed disciple.

The female characters are dehumanized through pain beyond the level the body can take. Ultimately, these women’s hyperbolic decay transformed them in monstrosities, the only thing the author could subconsciously do in order to compensate for his lack of inspiration, for the lack of a story. Characters become cartoonish in their engrossed dehumanization, the product of a misogynist mind.

Such an autistic style poses problems when the writer is faced with alternative creative styles. His stylistic universe is egocentrically closed; it’s the only thing that gives this writer the quality of author, in the absence of other novelistic virtues.

Closed in his word-weaved cocoon, this writer will always miss or hate other creative styles the human mind generates in an infinite universe of expressiveness.

Les’s second book, No Stopping Train, his “Hungarian magnus opus,” as it was known amongst his friends, never found a publisher. His agent at the time deemed it too dark. Whatever happened with that agent, we know that his third, more experimental and less mainstream novel ‘Slow Lie Detector’ was not represented by anyone but did find a publisher — Equator, the local bookstore and independent small press on Abbot Kinney Boulevard run by Les’s friend, Michael Deyermond. Les’s last book, Who I Was, was also published by Michael, this time in his new establishment, MDMW books, part of Deyermond Books on Main Street in Santa Monica. Fragments of a new, unpublished, unnamed final book remain, a love story of sorts, unusually upbeat for Les, a book that existed idly, floating around as attachments on emails to Eireene, his ex, and people like me.

Those who knew Les talk about this decline — the movement away from a large press, to a relatively obscure one which had none of the connections or commitment that an independent press requires to make an impact — as if it were a purposeful decision, not one made by the vagaries of a ruthless publishing industry obsessed with commercial viability, sales, ‘branding’ and social networking.

“He had stopped trying,” says one of his students, Azarin Sadegh, bluntly. “I could feel his own hopelessness and lack of passion for promoting his own work, or going after getting an agent who could understand him and his work. Once I suggested to send his work to European publishing houses, since I am sure that his work is way more understood and appreciated outside of US, but he just smiled and thanked me. I knew he had already given up trying.”

Perhaps it seemed that way to people, but I knew Les hadn’t. He was just quietly plugging away, quietly sending his work out, discreetly writing books, always hopeful that someone would recognize his brilliance. He tried to adapt to a world that tweeted and facebooked and instagrammed and hashtagged and promoted books with movie trailers. He’d even made a trailer for Who I Was: a strange, mad little ditty of random movies clips and songs, entitled Crow. He blogged, he facebooked, he tweeted, he had a youtube channel: these were the signs of a man who very much wanted to learn how to use the tools of the modern world to promote his words. What others assumed was not trying, was simply watching and absorbing. Les had learned that telling people what you were doing, didn’t mean shit. Articulating your productivity didn’t make that agent any more likely to respond, that publisher more inclined to read beyond the first paragraph. It didn’t mean Simon & Schuster would call back, and say “Actually, maybe your first book didn’t sell so good because we handled it all wrong. Let’s have another whirl.” It didn’t mean his long lost agent would suddenly rediscover his talent, regardless of his commercial appeal — or not.

He wasn’t shy about his work but he detested the commerce of it. He thought we were all very Hollywood in questions about the publication, publicity. When my book was published, though, he seemed slightly interested in how things in the “new world” were moving. I don’t think he had the stomach for it. When publishing in general took the fatal dive it’s taken in the last couple years, he was over the race. He was happy to stay in Venice and sell a couple books at a reading or a salon. I can’t say I blame him for that.

— Pam Alster

Les needed readers. In the absence of paying readers, people to pay his bills, (and what legitimacy paying readers bestow upon us starving writers!) he had us, his writers and students and girlfriends and lovers and friends. He sent us his words because a writer needs to be read to be properly alive.

Ruth Fowler <fowler.ruth@gmail.com>

10/05/2010

to Les

Bumped into that guy you taught who came into the programme — tom? He just got 11 months and was singing your praises — said you helped him loads at the start.

How’s you? What’s new? Trying to think up some opinion pieces on current affairs. Got any ideas?!

 

Les Plesko <lesplesko@gmail.com>

11/05/2010

to me

Hi Ruth. All is well (enough). I finished a new book and sent it off to a couple of agents I know, and have started a new one. YAY for Tom. Say hi to him if you see him. Current affairs? They’re everywhere. Maybe we should all reflect on PAST affairs, instead.

I don’t know the details surrounding The Last Bongo Sunset, why, despite the fact it had a relatively wide release and was reviewed in major literary magazines such as The New Yorker, it failed to make much of a commercial or literary impact and seemed to invite derision from most reviewers. I heard from Eireene that it made Les a literary celebrity of sorts in Venice, but Venice is not the publishing world, and whatever stalled with that book failed to launch Les into what we might term a “successful” literary career: publications in magazines and journals, and a second, third, and fourth book, each more widely distributed than the last. It failed to turn Les into the kind of writer who completed renowned residencies and retreats, published essays and stories in magazines, won awards, was in demand as a teacher, the kind of writer that did not live in a bedbug infested studio apartment on Westminster Avenue in Venice Beach, worrying about how to pay the rent. The kind of writer who sold copies of their book, that didn’t get reviews with comments like “an ugly, unforgiving first novel” (New York Times), “profoundly irritating” (LA Times) the “autistic” ramblings of a “misogynistic” “junkie” (amazon reviews) ….

He was scheduled to teach Novel IV at UCLA in early October and took his life in mid-September. Clearly, he gave his two weeks’ notice.

Fuckin’ Les.

— Jamie Schaffner

When I met Les at the age of 30, I was a failed, lonely writer: raw, broke and broken, masticated by New York and spat out in Los Angeles with an attitude and an alcohol problem to boot. Spurned by my publisher after the monumental commercial failure of my first book, ditched by my agent and loathed by my readers, with no work visa, and no home, I was living temporarily in Venice Beach with the crack-addicted son of a famous 1960s Hollywood actor, and could not quite figure out if it was love or need or simply a lack of any better alternative which kept me there.

I was like a character from one of Les’s books. Perhaps we all were.

I am a character in my novel; it is my life.

— Les Plesko

Les, somehow, made me pick myself up, and start writing, start sending my work out again. I found out, at his memorial, that he had a habit of doing that.

Ruth Fowler <fowler.ruth@gmail.com>

20/09/2009

to Les

wot do u think of this — better?

 

Les Plesko <lesplesko@gmail.com>

21/09/2009

to me

GREAT. I think the first person present tense is really working swell.

I found out at his memorial that “swell” wasn’t something he said to make lunatic, lonely females feel better. It was something that he actually meant.

I can’t remember how we met — Les and I. Possibly it was through Muck, the graffiti artist who was my AA sponsor at the time, and whom lived in the same building as Les on Westminster. It might have been with Stan, the homeless mental patient who lurked around Electric Avenue. It could have been Billy, the chain-smoking 65-year-old builder who lived with Lori, the ex-tweaker, in an apartment above the garage Jules used as her art studio on Santa Clara. All I remember about Les was that we were friends, or approximations of this. That he would see me at 7am outside Abbot’s Habit with the happy, energetic little puppy I’d adopted on the boardwalk and carried everywhere like a living security blanket, as if to put him down for a second would make me lose the only connection I had which kept me grounded on this earth, the only thing that kept me linked to something warm and living and vital, not the wheezing corpse of a bofriend with those crack-scarred accordion lungs. Les would duly note the red eyes, the tear-streaked face, the wriggling puppy, and he would roll me a cigarette and let me talk at him as I babbled out whatever new insanity I had plunged into with the actor as a distraction from the pain of failing at being a writer, failing at being a functioning human being, failing at being happy, failing at being sufficiently mad enough to have ended things before they became this tawdry and pathetic.

…you knew I couldn’t afford some of the workshops and included me anyway, and then bought us terribly expensive coffee.

— Ara Bear

Sometimes he would buy me coffee, intuiting, correctly, that I could not afford my own. He invited me to his creative writing workshops, the ones held privately outside UCLA, and never charged me. We would meet at Equator Books or Abbot’s Habit or the outdoor courtyard which Gjelina’s took over and turned into part of their bourgeois celebrity restaurant. We would be eight adoring professional women in their 20s and 30s and 40s, or we would be a rag-tag bunch of tattooed, unwashed, homeless losers from AA, or we would be quiet, innocuous, gentle people who did not come alive until someone gently leaned over our mouths and breathed our words into our own lungs so they inflated with a painful gasp. Les would quietly hold court to us all, and we would be entranced.

Weekend workshop. The places we met at changed, the people too. We sat around at bookstores, on cushions in your apartment…

— Jackie Lam

I think we all took him for granted, to be honest. Looking back, I can certainly see that the babbling madwoman I had become was probably very difficult to deal with, that I did not deserve the patience, grace or kindness which Les handed me. He was a kind man. I wonder how many of us remember to acknowledge that.

We hung out one evening on First Friday, when hipsters and rich kids would swarm over a rapidly gentrifying Abbot Kinney, and we locals would emerge to seek out the free samples, cheap food-truck tacos, before retreating back to whatever dark Venetian cave we usually lurked in. Les and I were in Equator Books. It may have been just after the release of Slow Lie Detector. I think I missed the reading and turned up when the crowds were dissipating in search of alcohol. I browsed through the store, chatting absent-mindedly with Les, thanking him for the review he had just left on my amazon page in a vain attempt to rescue my book from the baying crowds of online haters. I found an old hardback copy of a recipe book entitled Mother Had a Way With Food. I don’t know why, but it made me laugh, and Les bought it for me, along with an expensive iced espresso, and presented it to me there and then, then drifted off into the night, back to his apartment on Westminster, two blocks from the beach, a building grotesquely afflicted all night long by the drunks and the bums and the mentally ill of Venice Beach, California. But Les liked to watch and listen, and his role of spectator of the circus suited him. Les was good at listening, at guessing what we all needed. Lisa Douglass, one of his students, recounts how he would listen to her for hours on end, talking her out of suicide and depression and whatever complicated and doomed romantic entanglement she had found herself in:

There were countless times we met where I was crying and inconsolable. In that environment, people tell you secrets to get you to stay here. He did that because I literally begged him to. He was always closed off at the beginning and seemed more interested in me and what was going on, but I’d be like, you never tell me ANYTHING. It’s not fair. And I’d throw a tantrum while crying.

Les was good at listening, but he didn’t open up to many of us. Even when I track down his ex-girlfriend of 13 years, Eireene, probably the woman who knew him better than anyone else, the ellipses merely extend dot-dot-dot-dot-dot…….. both of us circumnavigating a page which has more blanks than words, little punctuation aside from question marks.

Eireene is a gentle, girlishly voiced fiction writer, a PhD student specializing in translating Russian literature. I speak to her over the phone, and can barely understand her, so softly and rapidly does she speak. We resort to email, and send each other missives back and forth long into the night. I google her and find a young-looking, serious woman, pretty and grave, with an impressive academic resume behind those preoccupied eyes. He had always planned to get out before age brought too many indignities, she tells me. His suicide did not come as a surprise then. The timing of it, however, the manner — throwing oneself off a building, a not-very-high-building — did.

We must have met in 1999 or 2000. He was in a bungalow across from Beyond Baroque then, running private classes from his house…. I was in the Ph.D. program in Political Theory and he was an English Major, getting his B.A. We were engaged for a short time, but I had moved to SF then switched to the Ph.D. program in Santa Cruz and it was taking so long for me to finish my Ph.D. The drive was long. Probably when he and I met there was some overlap with someone else. And there were a few breakups and maybe some other girls I didn’t hear about. If I’d tried to keep track I would’ve gone crazy so I let him keep track. That’s the dark side of Les.

The dark side of Les, his Hungarian side, the fatherless child born in Budapest, the man who eventually left long-distance Eireene after 13 years because he fell in love with a trust fund kid called Kate, a blonde in her 30s who liked animals and words and could provide him with enough material for his next book. As Eireene states plainly, without pity, with an indiscernible literary shrug, a regretful sigh that I imagine between the ellipses of our email correspondence, “He was tired of writing ‘a girl like you and a guy like me.’ He was pretty darn dedicated to his craft…Then he said ‘Hey, I found Kate’ and I said ‘OK. Be with Kate now.’”

Beyond those lyrical junkie years in Last Bongo Sunset, Les’s other books were starkly about heterosexual relationships between men and women, complicated poetic dynamics which existed in a vacuum-packed, hermetically sealed reality, in gorgeously crafted prose which made even the mundane slightly removed from the strains of Les’s increasingly painful and difficult daily life as an old man growing older, hovering on the brink of poverty. The man whose teeth had fallen out, the man who had recently started drinking and smoking weed after 20 years of diligent sobriety, the man who could no longer bike from Venice to Westwood, the man plagued by chronic unexplained stomach pains that compelled him to multiple expensive, lonely trips to the Emergency Room, the man who complained three times to his Property Supervisor that his $1,150 a month studio apartment was infested by bedbugs (“I sent the best guy there is to his place three times. He treated the place twice. By the third time, there were no bed bugs. But people get paranoid, you know?” Andrew Sanesi, Property Manager) the man who fretted when Kate left him after a year or so together (“he was worried he wouldn’t be able to finish the book” — Eireene), the man who eventually found out that Kate was pregnant with another man’s child.

“Even if the bugs are gone I have to move because I’ve had two girlfriends in this room, three if you count the whole building,” he said. He thought he’d get some smart reply but she just blew it off.

“Sorry I’m late,” she said, “My ob-gyn is the same as Kim Kardashian’s. You always have to wait.”

She really could be pregnant, so it seemed. Her time of month had come and gone without a spot. He was surprised she wasn’t freaking out. She too hardly believed how calm she felt. “Well,” she said, “I wanted this, but maybe not so fast.”

“Does Hardy know?” Lee said.

She shook her head. “I’m going to see if I miscarry first,” she said.

— Excerpt from Les’s last, unpublished manuscript.

Eireene tells me that she and Les used to talk about his past a lot. His father died when he was young, his stepfather was named on his birth certificate. Les was left behind with his grandparents in Budapest when his mother, a theater actress, and stepfather, an architect, left Hungary illegally in 1956 during the uprising. They moved to New Jersey, had a child — George, his half-brother — and then sent for the eight-year-old Les, who could not, at the time, speak any English. Even years later, after his parents had divorced, after his mother, whom he had been close to, had drunk herself to death, Les felt that they had favored George, and was profoundly affected by his absent father. He sent Eireene pictures of the man he suspected it could be: a successful Hungarian film actor called Rozsos Istvan. It seems unlikely, but according to Eireene, Les stubbornly clung to this belief, and had several pictures of Istvan in his apartment. Perhaps he found something in the myth of Istvan that eased his loneliness, something that adequately filled the omission in the sentence, provided a verb his life was lacking.

“Yeah, I’d have a kid,” Les told me once.

“You would?” I said, because I might or might not.

“Sure,” he said.

— David Rubenstein

Eireene pauses nervously over the phone, and then she hurtles on with another story, barely stopping to mention, almost in passing, that Rozsos Istvan had killed himself by jumping off a building.

I’d wake up and he’d be at his desk, smoking. He wrote by hand and then typed the pages out on a typewriter and retyped them again and put them in a 3-ring binder. He didn’t like to go out because he’d rather be doing that, same thing with keeping up with acquaintances.

Billy walked down to the building on Westminster the morning after it happened. Nigel, the guy who lived on the roof, was standing outside with Sam, who lived on the first floor, and they chatted for a little while, Billy smoking his Winstons, all of them trying to get to grips with what had happened. Nigel wasn’t too pleased with Sam because he’d taken a picture of Les’s body when it was lying there, on the street, covered by a bloody cloth. When a cop had protested that this was in poor taste, Sam had said “Fuck you. That’s my friend lying there and that’s the last time I’ll ever fucking see him.” Nigel secretly felt that the cop was right. It was in poor taste and he couldn’t wait to get the hell out of the building. He’d already told the landlord he couldn’t stay. He wasn’t sleeping well. Billy probably said, though I have no way of knowing for certain: “He was Hungarian. You know those Eastern Europeans, there’s summat fucked up about them. They’re depressed. It’s all doom and gloom over there. I ain’t fuckin’ surprised.”

Billy, Lori, my husband and I attend the memorial together, in the courtyard of Beyond Baroque, the community center on Venice Blvd that Les used to live opposite, on Victoria Avenue. It’s September, Indian Summer, too hot. I stand, hidden at the back — or as hidden as my pregnant belly will allow me. An overweight child actor-turned-novelist wearing an appalling hipster hat is talking when we shuffle in late. “…. and as Les was standing outside the coffee shop, someone dropped a quarter in his coffee…” I later contact him, as I do many others, to talk about Les, and he assures me he really wants to meet up, but has so many “meetings.” A day full of “meetings.” He’s taking “meetings.” His Hollywood-ness and his hat depress me and after he evades me for three weeks due to his “meetings,” I stop trying to meet him. But for now I’m at the memorial, listening to speaker after speaker talk about themselves and pretend that they are talking about Les. I listen to crepe-necked ladies read pretty passages about a man I do not recognize as burgers smoke and sizzle with delicious inappropriateness on a grill and Michael Deyermond keeps asking the two black guys who own the burger joint on Abbot Kinney to take the burgers off, put them back on again but perhaps that man was Les, and his talent was for becoming whomever we wanted him to be, whenever we so desired.

…the women of top-notch sophistication twist their poisonous-glorious Salome lips, and one by one confide in me, “I have a thing for Les.”

I shrug— “Everybody does. It’s like a Point of View.”

Ridiculous toothless man has nothing and everything.

— Dana Mazur

“Sexy” is how many of those elderly ladies describe Les at the memorial. Eireene laughs about that on the phone with me. “He really got the girls,” she says. “He dated a lot of his students. They fell for him.” Most of the people attending are middle-aged female writers, colleagues and students from Les’s UCLA life. He was loved, his classes were always full, he won an ‘Outstanding Instructor’ award… I wonder if they are the “girls” Les got. I would have said no, but seeing Eireene and Kate, both young and attractive, I am awed by the secret life of a player disguised as a shaggy dog with evaporating teeth and growing health problems. I am awed by a man I didn’t know. I’m awed by a man whom I think we are all desperately trying to turn into an image, an icon, a member of the 27 (x2) club. An image for whom? For ourselves, for our need. I’m aware as I write this, that as soon as we try and tell a story about someone else, it becomes about ourselves. Later I find that Linda Venis, the Director of the UCLA Creative Writing Program, will write that:

On September 26th, over 100 people gathered at Beyond Baroque to pay tribute to the man that many present said would take one look at the gathering, say “Oh brother,” and walk out. Les despised, as Janet Fitch wrote, “the sentimental, the cornball, the witchy-poo.” But we did it for ourselves, for our need to remember and grieve and laugh and most of all, to celebrate the exquisite gifts as a writer and teacher he so generously shared. [emphasis mine]

I go to the memorial not to remember, but to find answers and words and verbs and adjectives for the constructions that hung in the air, loaded with the weight of their ellipses. Remembering doesn’t give me answers, nor does the Les of someone else’s elaborately constructed eulogy bear any resemblance to the Les I knew.

I tune out after a while, concentrate on hopping from one foot to the other, feeling heavy and pregnant. No one offers me a seat and I don’t ask. Husband falls asleep contentedly on the ground, in the sun, dust and dead grass in his soft brown hair. I wonder how many people would turn up to my memorial. I wonder what Les would make of all this. I wonder if Les would even bother coming to my funeral. What would Les do. I like to think he’d be there, but none of us seem adequately qualified to answer on the general likelihood or probability of Les’s potential actions, given none of us had foreseen he’d rather leap to his death from a not very high building in preference to living, in preference to the dignified, slow, somnambulant sepsis of a heroin overdose. People mention the bed bugs several times in their carefully crafted eulogies, making Les’s property supervisor, Andrew Sanesi, visibly sigh in irritation and say to me later in a dark, comedic tone, “OK, it was the fucking bed bugs. I killed Les! I admit it!” Several more people say aloud, in various approximations, in tones of sad, resigned, fond weariness, as one might talk of a child throwing a tantrum again, “I always knew Les would go on his own terms.”

I can’t say I had ever given Les’s death much thought before it happened.

Ruth, I’m sure your intentions are the best, but I really can’t answer these things. If you want to know anything about how I feel, look at the Pleskoism.wordpress.com site for my comments.

— Janet Clare

I try several times to reach out to Kate, Les’s pregnant ex-girlfriend. She does not want to talk, and who can blame her.

Mornings were prosaic, her panties hiding in the bed while Lee played with her hair and they smoked cigarettes. We’re doomed, Lee thought. His long and lost sobriety had left him pragmatic. He looked away from all his faults and noticed hers but kept them to himself. They thought they had their secrets but really they were obvious. Her bed-face made her look completely like some other girl. It must have been the angle of repose. That little roll around her waist felt like white cream. Don’t scream! Lee said.

At night, he saw her lying there beside him when she wasn’t there -— just the pillows in her long pale shape, the blanket’s slightly salty smoke and almond scent. It meant something that this felt comforting, but dangerous.

When they met she’d sat across from him with that Jean Seberg haircut and a low red blouse. He’d found out all about her on her Facebook page. Then she changed her hair to kind of red. No, black, she said. Now she was off somewhere in a bikini with a green drink in her hand. He tried to sleep and wished for bright consoling dreams, those obvious and vivid mysteries.

The room grew cold, the window open, too much light striped through the blinds while he pondered his handwriting he couldn’t read. His tongue annoyed the hollows of his newest broken tooth. This mood needed another attitude. This day-to-day needed a bigger room.

— Les Plesko, Unpublished Manuscript

Les’s demise was quiet and graceful. Like his life, it was full of absences. It was a sad and poetic demise, lacking fury, lacking passion, substituting quiet pain for the hyperbole of our 21st-century lives. His last unpublished manuscript was weirdly upbeat, positive, connected with contemporary life in a manner that was unusual for Les. It was as if something new, alive and vibrant had come into his life, distracting him from the painful inconveniences that age and our own perceived failure brings.

I wish I had known things were getting so bad.

— Eireene Nealand

I call Nigel a few days later.

There’s stairs going past my door which lead to the roof. I was on my computer in a positive Monday morning mood — it was 10.10am, I remember. I had my door open that leads onto the stairs, and Les came stumbling up — he wasn’t too stable. I looked at him and thought “What the fuck’s he doing? and noticed he had blood all over his neck and his hands. I went to my window and asked him “Are you alright?” and he looked right through me. I wondered if he’d been drinking. You look in someone’s eyes and there’s nothing going on there… I mean — he was determined to do what he was going to do. He laid down, and rolled himself off the roof… the noise when he landed was just fucking horrible. I yelled out to Mick [the handyman in the apartment below], “Come here quick” and he ran downstairs. I called 911 first. I think I said, “Someone in my building just jumped off the roof.” They asked if he was breathing — asked me to look — and I said “I worked in the WTC and saw people jump from Tower 1, I’m not looking over that fucking roof  — The Coroner came about three hours after it happened. So many people in the dog park were taking pictures and stuff, and they covered him with a sheet and the sheet was all bloody — all these fucking assholes were taking pictures and it really pissed me off — one guy took a picture of Les’s body — I don’t even wanna talk to that guy anymore, it’s horrible.

Les’s brother George came down the next morning from his place upstate to clean out the apartment and deal with arrangements for the body. He was heavier than Les, younger, fitter-looking, well fed, slightly taller, with startling blue eyes and a kind face which buckled under the circumstances of his visit. The coroner took away the body to perform an autopsy that afternoon. Andrew Sanesi went into Les’s apartment — a small, south-facing room with a kitchenette area, closet and bathroom. A few spots of blood had pooled and dried on the floor. There was no evidence of any kind of alcohol or drug binge. Andrew called a company he knew which specialized in bio clean-up, and once George had taken away Les’s few belongings, they moved in to efficiently zap the apartment of any biological remnants of Les, before the contractors arrived to repaint the interior and to make sure everything else was working. I asked Andrew it if was difficult to rent out with the stigma of suicide attached. He shrugged it off. “That shit happens a hundred times a day all around the world. Statistically, people need apartments. And anyway, you’re only obligated to tell the potential new person if someone died in the apartment. Technically Les died on the street, not in the apartment.”

Last time she visited she said, “Me and Hardy haven’t even said ‘I love you’ yet, although he makes those eyes.”

“We said it once.”

She looked down and smiled, remembering or not.

“Though we were drunk,” he said in case she cared, so she wouldn’t feel bad.

— Les Plesko, Unpublished Manuscript

Les died on Monday, September 16th, 2013 at approximately 10:10 am. Nigel left 120 Westminster within ten days of Les’s death, and moved to a new place less than a mile away, owned by the same landlord. Kate and George never called me back.

The new tenant moved into Apartment 14, 120 Westminster Avenue, on November 1st that same year.

An Elegy for Love

This essay first appeared on Salon.

Polyamory icon

Three things happened the year we lost our love. We got married, we went bankrupt and we moved into a house with a polyamorous family.

I’d like to trace it back to one event, say definitively “it was moving into the poly house!” when the dropped stitches started to appear. It would be easy to blame the cracks in a monogamous relationship on proximity to friends committed to loving more than one person. But just as gay marriage probably isn’t the reason for your divorce, polyamory wasn’t the reason for our problems. By then we’d been broke and bickering and living in a van for three months, the romanticism of our itinerant life frozen by a bitter Pacific winter. By the time we limped into the home of our friends — the only ones who’d offer us shelter when the cold and the van became too much — we were already so deep into a knotted pattern that we either had to unpick completely and start again, or continue and pretend the holes weren’t getting bigger.

We kept on going.

We argued through Christmas and the van shuddered into the New Year, where it, like me, promptly collapsed. By February, at a loss about what to do, we moved the van into the backyard of our friends’ home. We became a newly married monogamous couple, living with a polyamorous family in their new home.

In the face of our distressed and suffering love, living with a family who had committed to loving more than one person was not challenging to our monogamy and commitment to each other; it was simply a depressing example that we were, both of us, malfunctioning beings incapable of any relationship that wasn’t incredibly painful. It reminded us daily that we were failing at love. Here we were, just two people, struggling to communicate and make it work, and yet we were living with a family of four who put daily, exhaustive effort into making their relationships with each other and their multiple other partners work.

Caroline was in a committed relationship with Laura, and also with Mike, a transgender male. Allegra was married to David, but was also in a committed relationship with Laura. But Allegra was insecure about David’s secondary relationships, and so David’s primary partner remained Allegra and he didn’t, like her, have a secondary partner, although, with her consent and presence, they could occasionally have casual sex with another couple to spice things up. And then there were the other members of the family who did not live in the house: Laura’s partner Jonas, who lived in Oregon with his wife Mary, and Caroline’s partner Dean, who was touring the country as a drummer in an indie band.

So many misperceive polyamory as either “cheating” or free love — some strange kind of permissive, boundaryless no-man’s land where curious sex-mad creatures can suck and fuck and screw and lick whomever they choose, without repudiation from their “committed” partners. In reality, polyamory is the practice of loving more than one person at a time, with the consent and agreement of all partners involved. It’s the polar opposite of “cheating” — it involves an incredible amount of introspection, self study and communication skills. And free love? Love is never free. Love always comes with the promise of pain. It’s merely asking yourself, seriously, whether the pain is, in the end, worth it.

Our daily existence, which had become punctuated by crying and arguments shivering in a freezing van in the mountains of Topanga Canyon, took on a new tone as we became sucked into the practical daily chores of the house: gardening, cooking, cleaning and participating in a larger community than just us two. We’d wake up in the morning, the man and me, untangle each other from twisted sheets on the cramped futon we shared, wander out of the tiny spare room we’d been loaned, crammed with books and clothes and college papers, into the kitchen for coffee, and find four people, still in their pajamas, deep in a long and involved discussion over whether Laura should continue seeing Jonas, and whether her ambivalence toward their relationship was a sign that it was over, or that she was suffering from PTSD after a recent bereavement.

The man and I would watch and feel quietly ashamed that our efforts to communicate were shrill, giddy, high-pitched and panicked, that unlike the hours of calm, often emotional, discussion which our friends patiently devoted to their love, we tried to plaster over the cracks of our pain with mutually silent pleasure: the joy of eating sushi without resorting to crying, the achievement in watching a movie together without hurting the other, getting through an entire day without a personal Chernobyl.

“Do you think it would help our relationship if we were poly?” I asked the man once, about a month after we’d moved in, after another fight. “Maybe we wouldn’t have a chance to hurt each other so much if we had two other lovers as well.” He looked sad. “Having more people involved wouldn’t fix our problems, it would just distract us. I don’t want anyone else. I only want you.”

I felt the same.

Polyamory directly challenges institutions that we hold dear: sexual fidelity and monogamy, the ownership we feel over one another’s bodies. To poly folks, compersion trumps propriety: the notion that your partner’s pleasure and happiness is just as important as your own. This is why poly folks must directly confront jealousy on a regular basis: a partner might, at any given time, request to have a relationship with someone who is not you. Compersion means asking yourself if you truly believe that a relationship with another person might benefit your partner. Of course, compersion isn’t limited to sex. Compersion means directly challenging your own assumptions and plans for your partner. Compersion meant that I had to question whether my desire for my own home and stability trumped the man’s desire to live in a van, always challenging the norms of society.

I felt often, that we — the boring, married couple with our dysfunctional arguments and inadequate communication methods — were like zoo animals to our poly friends. Allegra would question us deeply about our monogamy, curious as to how and why two people might only want to be with each other when it was so obviously painful for both of us. David would launch into a long and complicated evangelizing argument about why everyone should be poly, and why poly was the “better” way. Laura would yell at us to “challenge our monogamy!” whenever we became too couply — meaning, not stop sleeping with each other and choose other partners, but avoid the insular and isolating conversations we would have without choosing to invite other people into our discussions. No one had ever been interested in why we argued before. Living in a poly house, it was required that we share our thoughts and our feelings, however shameful and disgusting they felt.

When we talk about trust in the here and now, the 21st century, our minds always flee to sex, the ability of a person to give another human being the power to harm them through a physical act of intimacy. We trust that this betrayal will not happen, and the physical act of sex becomes the marker by which we judge someone’s loyalty to our love, as if betrayal is only something that happens between the mouth and the genitals.

But our mistrust — me and the man’s — was never about whether we loved one another, whether or not there might be contenders for our love, whether or not we wanted to fuck anyone else. It rarely is. Our mistrust was about whether either of us two selfish beings could ever be happy with the necessary concessions and hard work and disappointments and small victories and tiny, intimate pleasures that forging a life together brings. Our mistrust was forged from the suspicion that we weren’t quite the same people we’d fallen in love with. We may not have had airbrushed wedding pictures, but in our minds we’d created idealized versions of the other, photoshopped reality into romantic, sepia-tinted memories of us two as lone rangers, Hunter S. Thompson figures with American Spirits dripping ash out of our mouths as we drove along the Pacific Coast Highway in a battered VW surf-van. We weren’t sure if the other would still like us, never mind love us, when the rain stopped falling and the music stopped playing.

After three months in the house, I left my husband for several weeks while I worked abroad in Afghanistan. I was five weeks pregnant at the time, by accident and not design, but I never once worried that while I was away he would break our commitment to our monogamy. What threatened us was simply ourselves and our own love, inadequately defined and hopelessly immature.

When I came back, husband and I left our life shuttling between the spare room and the van in the backyard. We left cleaning toilets and cooking group dinners and tending vegetable gardens and long intense debates about Allegra’s temper or Laura’s apathy. We left drunken conversations until deep into the night, tears, tempers and tantrums. We left laughter, exhaustion and the intricacies of other people, and we rented our own apartment, with enough room for us and the baby and all our unsorted issues to finally stumble out from deep within where they’d been metastasizing or sleeping, we couldn’t tell.

Our interactions with our friends had become tense and awkward by this time, as if the baby, this symbolic creature swimming deep in my uterus, represented something more insidious they could not quite articulate — a betrayal of some kind, a broken promise the terms of which were murky to all. They never offered to help us move, invited us over a few times, visited us just once, asked us back to a painful and disastrous lunch that only highlighted our new alien status, and then — prolixity removed, curiosity dampened, written off as just two more people lost to hideous social conventions —  we did not hear from them again. With our tasks and responsibilities for their household relinquished, no one seemed interested in helping us make ours.

We grieved painfully for a long time.

 And then, as the baby grew, my husband and I slowly fell back in love.

12 Years A Slave: Everybody’s Protest Movie

This article first appeared on Counterpunch.

If we wanted to applaud a movie for superb acting, for faithful and dedicated adherence to an original text, for a sensory and almost tactile aesthetic of complicated brutality, then we must look no further than Steve McQueen’s ’12 Years A Slave’, the current darling of the film world, critically applauded almost universally across the board. Based upon Solomon Northup’s 1853 slave narrative ’12 Years A Slave’, directed by a (black) British director, Steve McQueen, adapted by a (black) writer, Philip Ridley, and starring the incredible (black) actor Chiwetal Ejiofor, the movie itself is unusual in that its production team and cast challenges – or seems to challenge – the mainstream conventions of Hollywood whitewashing. I say “seems” to challenge because at its heart, I find this movie deeply conventional and troubling in its failure to engage with any message other than that slavery was brutal, that slavery was disgusting, that slavery was wrong. I’m echoing James Baldwin in his criticism of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ – “her book was not intended to do anything more than prove that slavery was wrong; was, in fact, perfectly horrible. This makes material for a pamphlet but it is hardly enough for a novel . . . .”

promotional image for '12 Years a Slave'

Unlike the white, Christian Stowe whose experience of slavery was obviously second-hand and fictionalized, Northup wrote about his own autobiographical experiences as a free-born black male kidnapped into slavery. However, like most slave narratives, his experiences are framed and filtered through a white lens. Specifically, Northup’s own experiences are recorded “as told” to a white abolitionist writer, David Wilson. In this, he was not unusual. Scholars, including Henry Louis Gates, one of the consultants on the movie, have written extensively about the unreliability of slave narratives due to their frequent collaboration with white abolitionists, who were crafting stories intended to be consumed by a literate, white, sympathetic audience: the kind of people who had read, enjoyed and been moved by the “sentimentality” of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s work, to whom Northup’s own book is dedicated.

I err on the side of Baldwin: I find the diktat that slavery is bad too simplistic a message. I think the mainstream success of ’12 Years A Slave’ lies in the simple fact that once again, we have been provided with a work of art which does not challenge the dark heart of American racism, but simply reconfirms a moral that we all knew: slavery is a very bad thing. Of course, we have not been subject to McQueen’s unique aesthetic on the subject before, nor Ejiofor’s incredible acting, nor Ridley’s excellent script, but watching ’12 Years A Slave’ is not revelatory in any way – certainly not to black American audiences, at least.

Solomon Northup is an educated, free-born, black man living in Saratoga, New York. He dresses like his white contemporaries, he talks like his white contemporaries, he expects – and receives – the same freedoms as his white contemporaries. By framing the slave’s experience with an unexamined nod towards respectability politics, the movie sends a disturbing message which is echoed by Solomon’s own lines on the slave ship going South, where he differentiates between he and his two educated free companions all of whom have been kidnapped into slavery, to the “other niggers” who are born into slavery, or who have been directly shipped over from Africa.

There is something deeply disturbing to me that if Hollywood cannot place at the center of its narrative a white male, it instead places a black male acting like a white male. My criticism is not focused towards the Director nor the Writer of this movie, nor towards the obvious fact that they are working from historically accurate material. My criticism, or rather, my disappointment in this fact stems from their understanding – their correct understanding – of the racial politics and dynamics of American society which are reflected in the tastes of the commercial, predominantly white, movie-going audience today. McQueen made a movie which is digestible for the racist, produced by Pitt’s production company Plan B, complete with long list of famous white male stars – Brad PItt, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giametti – who usually demand top billing, graciously allowing Ejiofor the top spot, but not, apparently, his excellent female co-star Lupita Nyong’o. This allows the white liberal to talk proudly and short-sightedly about how “important” this movie is, overlooking the white supremacy of the cast and production team, and allowing Manohla Dargis to over-optimistically declare in The New York Times that, “It may be the [movie] that finally makes it impossible for American cinema to continue to sell the ugly lies it’s been hawking for more than a century”.

In Baldwin’s stunning essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel”, he examines Harriet Beecher Stowe’s  “laudable determination to flinch from nothing in presenting the complete picture”. The same could be said, here, of McQueen’s direction, his long hours in rehearsal, his respect for the original text, his diligent research with respectable scholars such as Henry Louis Gates “…an explanation which falters only if we pause to ask whether or not her picture is indeed complete, and what constriction or failure of perception forced her to so depend on the description of brutality – unmotivated, senseless – and to leave unanswered and unnoticed the only important question: what it was, after all, that moved her people to such deeds” (emphasis mine)

We might say that Northup’s narrative need not answer these questions: after all, it is a first person narrative, not a fictional novel. These are the words of the oppressed, not the liberal, guilt-ridden white skinned oppressor with a political motive. The Director and Writer, two black males, do not have the urgent weight of their ancestors’ guilt whispering in their ear, forcing them to confront – or rather, avoid – difficult truths. Yet the white lens surrounding Northup’s original narrative ‘as told to’ David Wilson, the white scribe, is mirrored here by the white lens of Hollywood, the production team, the demands of commercial viability, the knowledge that this movie is not, really, that far removed from ‘The Help’ in terms of prioritizing and excusing the white experience within the framework of slavery. For all of Fassbender’s hideous, plantation-owning, foul, drunken, raping savagery (What a role! What an actor! And such “bravery” of him to take this challenging part!) we are provided with the delicate foil of Pitt’s morally upstanding white savior, Bass. For the kind but weak and morally ambiguous Ford (played by Cumberbatch) who obviously finds some aspects of slavery reprehensible, but nonetheless remains complicit within it, we are shown the dehumanizing and difficult paradoxes which play out in Northup’s own character, which culminates in his whipping Patsey, at his Master’s request.

Northup repeatedly chooses survival over ethics, and in doing so, deprives us of the right to regard him as a hero. He instead earns our sympathy as a complex and flawed human being. Let’s think about that for a moment. One of the few main characters in a mainstream, commercial Hollywood film to be black, is a character whom we do not actually like, and cannot entirely respect. We can, however, pity him.

While it is profoundly moving and distressing that we both see and feel Northup’s humiliation and his dehumanization at the hands of white supremacy, while it is entirely accurate that he can be rescued only by his white friends from the North, the narrative’s failure to reflect upon the significance of a flawed protagonist in an industry which adores those it can place upon a pedestal, its George Clooneys and its Brad Pitts, ensures that “the black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar” – and that he continues to function in this role, preserved, petrified, immutably fixed there by Hollywood and our obsession with ourselves as white people. Instead, what is prioritized is the role of the white man in Northup’s liberation, and by extension, that of all slaves. It allows us whites to watch and applaud this movie, to be OK with the horrors perpetuated by our people because they are cancelled out by Brad Pitt’s quiet five minutes of goodness (simplistically representing the “good” white savior North, as opposed to the “bad” evil racist South, a dichotomy which belies the rampant racism in the North), and the complicated and broken black male protagonist whom Pitt saves and returns home to a loving family who act just like white people!

This report from the pit reassures us of its reality and its darkness and of our own salvation; and “As long as such books are being published,” an American liberal once said to me, “everything will be all right”. (Baldwin)

Many people will argue with my reading of this movie. They will declare that it is not the role of a movie to educate, to challenge, to define history, to shape convention. A movie is an aesthetic experience, not a political commentary on history, on politics, on culture, on race. What Steve McQueen did was to expertly, and uncomfortably, portray the horrors of being a slave to the ignorant, selfish white masses using the historical account of a slave to do so. But the responsibility we have to the tremendous weight of slavery, the overwhelming burden of racism we still labor under in a society which has black men incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites, which kills a black male every 27 hours, where a young black teenager’s senseless murderer can be acquited, a life lost over a bag of skittles and a hoodie, dictates that this is not enough.

There’s no difference between the North and South. There’s just a difference in the way they castrate you. But the fact of the castration is the American fact. If I’m not a nigger here and you invented him, you, the white people, invented him, then you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that. Whether or not it’s able to ask that question. (Baldwin)

Steve McQueen has given us an impressive achievement: a celluloid journey into America’s heart of darkness, its under-examined Holocaust. But by failing to pose the question of ‘Why?’, by failing to portray Northup as the impressive individual that he became, aiding fugitive slaves and lecturing against slavery – professions which, no doubt, held little literary and political interest for white abolitionists – McQueen’s movie has failed to deserve the praise it’s been showered with. Ultimately the movie fails to achieve anything apart from turning a problematic book into a problematic movie, a movie which elides difficult and important questions, which is peppered with ellipses (the perspective of black females is, to my mind, unexamined even with Patsey and Eliza’s small but pivotal roles), and ensures that black people will once again be seen on screen as slaves, as maids, as cotton pickers, as victims, as a race of people incapable of articulating their own oppressions, rescued only once they put on a bonnet, learn how to hold a teacup properly. It is only with our generous approval, with gushing reviews, with the pompous declaration by white liberals that the movie we funded, based on a book we half-wrote, published and disseminated, is worthy of an accolade we created, do we white people authenticate the experience of our black brothers and sisters, avoiding the question in our hearts:

What white people have to do, is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place, because I’m not a nigger, I’m a man...

Open Letters are for Passive Aggressive White “Feminists”

There are so many things wrong with Sinead O’Connor’s unpleasant, condescending ‘Open Letter’ to Miley that it’s hard to know where to begin. Sent with “motherliness and love”, Sinead claims disingenuously, ignoring the plain fact that a mother’s love would have picked up the phone and had a private conversation, not denigrated and shamed a young female artist extremely publicly. I hate Open Letters as a rule. There seems to be a fad for them at the moment, as if people in the 21st century aren’t quite confident enough to be a douchebag without framing it in a faux epistolary form which feigns a dialogue. People who write Open Letters don’t want a dialogue. They don’t want a conversation. They don’t want a response.

They want an audience.

People who write Open Letters want to ejaculate what they think about a particular human being all over the public domain, whilst maintaining the appearance of propriety and concern by pretending that they’re actually writing to the addressed human being. While I’m a fan of the epistolary form, if another passive aggressive, attention-seeking, earnest, celebrity obsessed idiot writes another fucking letter to another fucking star and posts it all over their fucking blog, I think I might have to stab myself in the uterus with a virtual envelope cutter.

Amanda Palmer performing with The Dresden Dolls at Kings Arms Tavern in Auckland, New Zealand (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Amanda Palmer performing with The Dresden Dolls at Kings Arms Tavern in Auckland, New Zealand (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Amanda Palmer makes some great points in her own Open Letter, but loses kudos by unimaginatively using the epistolary form and a fawning tone to Sinead who, quite frankly, comes across as patriarchal, paternalistic, ragingly conservative and a bit of a cunt. I’m sure Amanda is just acting out of concern for Sinead’s mental health problems and severe decline after a once brilliant career, but I can’t help thinking if you’re mentally fit enough to write a particularly patronizing and unpleasant takedown of a fellow female artist who is younger than you, more successful than you, more attractive than you, richer than you, and has expressed nothing but admiration for your work up until that point, you probably deserve a kick up the vagina, not some reassurances that Amanda Palmer’s fans still like you on twitter.

 

I, too, am fed up of Miley’s ass and Miley’s tits and Miley’s tongue slithering across my daily internet life. I don’t like Miley’s ignorant and offensiveappropriation of black culture and find her twerking rather pitiful and banal. However, I find most female music artists and celebrities pretty goddamn ridiculous, whether they’re dressing themselves like human popsicles in candy pink hair like Katy Perry, wearing conical bras and sensationalizing their contempt for the Catholic Church, or walking around like inflated, airbrushed Kardashian dolls™. It’s not my thing, but I support all women who make informed choices about their lives, from those who choose to wear the hijab or niqab and cover their bodies, to those who want to flaunt their bodies in an overtly sexual manner. I don’t, like Sinead, see the word ‘prostitute’ as an offensive slur, having met many female sex workers who freely choose to participate in the sex industry and have found this industry has given them a greater sense of freedom and agency than any other employment.

I’ve written before about my despair with feminism in the 21st century, and I’ve clashed with so called ‘feminists’ such as Julie Bindel who have made a career from conflating violence against women with those women who freely choose to work in the sex industry. I’m still shocked that supposed ‘progressive’ media outlets like The Guardian publish such astoundingly misguided views, which infantilize and patronize sex workers and women who unashamedly express their sexuality. Only last year The Guardian, amongst other newspapers, expressed its support for a campaign to remove ‘Page 3 girls’ from Britain’s tabloid newspaper, The Sun. Page 3 girls are usually heavy breasted glamor models with their tits out on the page of a newspaper whose predominant audience is working class British men. The arguments against Page 3 suggested that the women were being exploited, that The Sun was a newspaper and should report news, that children could see these images and be permanently damaged by the sight of bare women’s breasts, and that such images are responsible for sexism, and by extension, violence against women.

The campaign gained a tremendous amount of momentum – from middle class educated people who did not read The Sun and were not glamor models, and would probably never read The Sun or wish to become glamor models. The paternalism, combined with the aggressive classism at work, went unnoticed, and the left wing eagerly took up the fight against Page 3 girls, as if they were single handedly responsible for every single rape, every single airbrushed anorexic model, and every single issue of sexism in the United Kingdom. It didn’t surprise me. Britain is still stuck in the era of Andrea Dworkin, disgusted and ashamed by porn, sex and female bodies. I’ve been called, disparagingly, a “happy hooker” by “left-wing” “feminist” Laurie Penny, who offered a similar opinion to Sinead’s when she wrote about my time as a stripper:

“This is all we’re good for’ – that’s the only subtext, every time a well-heeled young woman decides to rent her ‘pert little academic arse at a hundred for hire. Johns everywhere must be rubbing their hands with glee: even the clever ones, the posh bitches who think they’re better than you, will turn into the willing nymphettes of your stickiest wet dreams at the flash of a fiver, is the implication. We’ll let them into our elite universities, but under their scholar’s gowns they’ll always be slappers.”

The problem is that Sinead’s attitude is simply regressive. There is no room in feminism for the judgment of other women based upon their attitudes towards sex and how they relate to sex sartorially, and with their bodies. Every woman has a different standard of what is acceptable. Shaming and trolling women for their choices, assuming those choices are dictated by men, is not only vicious, it perpetuates the divisions within feminism which lead young women to feel alienated from its ideals. For many young women, Miley is their feminist role model. She’s young, fun, rich, successful, outspoken, fiercely progressive and confident. She’s sexual, and she’s sexy. She works hard. She’s never, to my knowledge, been photographed fucked up. Even if she had been, this new era of feminism doesn’t allow us to make disparaging comments or judgments about another woman because of what she imbibed. This new era of feminism is heading into shaky ground though, if it allows Sinead O’Connor to posit herself as a role model for female empowerment (which she does by suggesting others view her as such), dictating to another woman how to empower other women, and thus making herself the gatekeeper of who is or isn’t a suitable candidate to be a feminist.

While Sinead snickers at Miley’s choices (disparagingly calling her a “young lady”) and tells her she’s being exploited by men (as Miley looks like she’s having the time of her life and completely in control), as Bindel dictates to muslim women that their desire to wear the niqab “is a clear, physical representation of a patriarchal culture of a fundamentalist minority that treats women as second-class citizens.”, as Penny dismisses any sex worker with agency as a “hooker”…. women out there, in the big wide world, are being raped, beaten, attacked, humiliated and exploited. These are women who were not born with Miley’s silver spoon in their mouth. These are women who do not have the privilege of choosing whether to wear the niqab or the bikini. These are women who cannot go from Oxbridge, to the stripper pole, to Hollywood, and end up on the pages of CounterPunch writing about feminism. These are women who are not wasting their lives judging other women, but probably waiting for a chance to escape, hoping that their feminist “sisters” might pay them a bit of attention, show them some solidarity, instead of squabbling over Miley Cyrus and her tongue. These women will probably consider feminism as the realm of women who are white and privileged, like all the women mentioned in this article, women who still don’t get that feminism is not about them, it’s not about what they think, it’s not about what they don’t like, it’s not about blame, or judgment, or someone making the wrong or right choice. Feminism is about us.

The Unethical Pregnancy

I hate people who claim to have fallen pregnant “by accident”. Sure, there’s the .01 percentage of folks who actually did have a birth control fail issue, the fat fertile kids below the age of 12 who were playing some weird game of doctors and nurses that went badly wrong, and the idiots who were “using the rhythm method”… and then there’s everyone else. We had sex. It made a baby. Well, fuck me.

I can’t claim that I fell pregnant “by accident”. I fell pregnant because my husband and I didn’t use birth control. We actually didn’t think we needed to, as I had endometriosis which can cause infertility, and had thought my body was incapable of producing a baby, because it hadn’t managed to over the last 18 months. When it did produce one, it was an inappropriate time to say the least. But whatever. This is no time for a pity party. We wanted a kid, we just wanted to adopt first so that we didn’t inflict our genes upon an innocent. We fucked that up.

Ruth Fowler

Falling pregnant would have been the perfect time to have started some kind of sensationalistic pregnancy blog and tapped into the mommy market, which seems to comprise of women who use acronyms like DD and DS and DH and LC on desperate sounding message boards, begging strangers to confirm their pregnancies or miscarriages via vague symptoms and discharge they describe over the internet (“like green egg yolk”), or smug pregnant bitches lecturing at hormonally inferior barren women. It’s an unhealthy community ripe for an uprising, begging for someone as offensive as myself to lead a minor revolution and cash in on the process, like all good anarchists trapped in Capitalism should do without qualm.

I’m good at using social media to get what I want: I started my blog in 2005 with the express intent of getting a book deal and a screenwriting agent, and that’s what I did. I had no love of sharing the intimate details of my life with people who would leave comments like GET AIDS AND DIE FILTHY STRIPPER BITCH (except with less punctuation and less adherence to conventions of spelling) but I sucked it up because I wanted to write a book for a real publishing company, and blogging was cheaper than an MFA, with just as fucked up people. I assumed I would write about being pregnant, but moments after I took the test and my husband looked like he wanted to puke, he made me promise not to tell anyone quite yet. He wanted to wait out that 12 week window just to make sure the Beast inside made it before we had to endure the inevitable raised eyebrows and shocked looks and snide comments about our blatant incompatibility for the monumental task of parenthood.

So instead of writing to the internet and a book deal and the hordes of judgmental pregnant women, non-pregnant women hoping to be pregnant, and smug women who had had their babies and knew EVERYTHING IN THE WHOLE WORLD THERE IS TO KNOW ABOUT KIDS AND PREGNANCY, I just shut up and handwrote a little diary to my Beast, and worked on longform literary essays and screenplays and retired from the internet for a few months. Beast, in case you were wondering, is what we called the blastocyst. Beast#2, because my dog, Mr Chips, is Beast#1. Other people call their bundle of cells bump, and nugget, and grape, and pea, and all those other crappy pet names. We called our bundle of cells our first pet’s name with the addendum of a number because we lack imagination and are pragmatists about the kind of child we will inevitably produce.

When we found out I was pregnant, we were living temporarily in the spare room of our friends’ communal house in South LA, regularly shuffling between the spare bedroom and my VW van parked in the yard, our clothes stuffed into cardboard boxes and milk crates in the garage. The spare room always smelled of toilets and farts and weed and stale alcohol and other people’s knickers stained with dried vaginal juices. It was stuffed with ashtrays and roaches and school papers and dust and drinks that had been left long enough to develop a moldy film on top. Our lives were cyclical: sleep there for five nights, then move into the van for five days when one of the family had a friend, relative or lover staying. Once they had departed, we would move back into the spare room, clean the place thoroughly, try and eliminate the stink, fail, and then as soon as it was clean, shuffle back out to the van in the backyard when another visitor arrived.

I liked communal living. I liked not being lonely, having people to talk to when I emerged from the writer’s cave. I liked living an alternative, non-insular lifestyle. It’d be even better if communal living was organized, so that everyone took turns cooking healthy nutritious food, shopping, gardening, doing laundry and cleaning the bathroom, leaving us all enough time to pursue our individual projects which were probably more fun. The problem with disorganized, ad-hoc, figure-it-out-as-you-go-along communal living which doesn’t have a clear philosophy or agreed upon cooperative terms, is that hierarchies emerge, and some people end up doing more than other people: Consumers and Producers rear their ugly heads, Bourgeoisie and Proletariat. Some people don’t really care about food, or cooking (“I don’t see why I should spend hours cooking when I can live off cookies and pasta”) or cleaning (“I don’t see anything wrong with the house covered in 5 inches of dirt”), and see time spent on these projects as wasted time they could have spent more productively on something they preferred to do. Although they’re happy to live in a clean house with a well stocked fridge, their claim that they could live in a dirty house with no food means they exempt themselves from participating in whatever it takes to keep the house clean. Some people become the money-makers, funding the majority of the expenses, which can often lead to a sense that they are more entitled to make decisions because they’re paying for more, or they can feel exhausted, put upon, that they’re missing out on socializing or political organizing while facilitating others to do things they are denied. Others have responsibilities or relationships outside the house that they have problems prioritizing successfully, which then affect their participation in the community of the house. Some become the financial dependents, and if their non-paid work isn’t valued, or the work they are doing around the house isn’t perceived to be equivalent to what the money makers are doing, resentment arises.

All members of a community house are not created equal. Some are more equal than others.

If communal living isn’t organized, and if dialogue isn’t there, and if what you’re living in is, in fact, a place to sleep, shit, get drunk and eat occasionally rather than a home built on cooperative principles, you either find yourself living in a situation which isn’t comfortable and withdrawing from the community, or you spend every waking moment trying to make the house conform to what is comfortable and acceptable for you, taking up the majority of the workload, and burning out in the process.

It was clear that husband and I couldn’t keep shuffling between a van and a spare room in a communal living situation that was ad hoc and improvised because we were burning out even before the kid had arrived, and while he didn’t find the sleeping situation stressful, being a more shambolic, easygoing, filth loving type than myself, I did. Our preferred option was to buy some land, buy a school bus, convert it, live entirely off solar-power and live in harmony in a forest by a river which was not too far away from civilization, because if we couldn’t go to the movies and I couldn’t get to a yoga class and he couldn’t get to work, we might go mad. Our other preferred option was to purchase a house in Brooklyn and another in Costa Rica and one more in London.

Given the restraints of our budget, we decided to wait three months, save money, rent an overpriced apartment in Venice Beach (close to his work and my donation yoga), and plot our escape from LA once Beast#2 had arrived and confirmed what we always knew: LA fucking sucks.

What happened next is probably the reason I could not write for five long months of my pregnancy. Jared and I fell out with each other, argued over money and child rearing philosophies, let the stress of our long itinerant stretch and the impending Beast press down upon us and squeeze out as much anxiety, anger and depression it could muster. I ran away with the Beast to Afghanistan and India and Costa Rica and London, getting as much paid writing work and distance from the airless, smelly spare room as I possibly could while saving money for the move. When I returned, my husband and I were at a crisis point, everyone knew we were moving out and our friends seemed to regard us (or at least me) as traitors to the ethical cause. My desire to work and save money for midwife’s bills and the Beast were seen as “bourgeois, liberal values”. I was set on saving money, making a home, and from a place of comfort then working out our escape and how best to forge our life into something more in line with our principles, less ‘conformist’. But it became clear, to me, that we needed space, and we needed it fast.

I’m never worried about “selling out” because as much as I hate Capitalism, I find that dumpster diving, communal living, making zines, marching endlessly, scouring thrift stores and volunteering for every cause possible isn’t my thing. It’s great for a short period, and then I want to hibernate and write and be comfortable and stop eating moldy shit and cook and garden and live a quiet life of contemplation and independence for a while away from the masses, figuring out what it all means. Avoiding Capitalism often seems more fucking exhausting and pointless and judgmental than just living in it and fighting it, or living in it and observing it quietly, with skepticism, while you figure out how to engage with it. Few people I knew had managed to effectively forge a sustainable and enjoyable living situation in Los Angeles which actively challenged Capitalism. I don’t really have any interest in becoming a cliche of a radical, wearing patches and combat boots and cooking lentils for Food Not Bombs (a fine organization which does amazing work, but not work I personally want to do) and so my approach was: I kind of want to just earn some money for a while and provide for this Beast.

Pregnancy makes survival mode kick in: your sensory alerts go into overdrive. There was no safety net for me or for the Beast. I was now someone else’s safety net, and a safety net with a big mouth is a dangerous thing. The one thing I couldn’t bring myself to do was start a Mommy blog and post dreadful recipes any idiot can rip off Jamie Oliver’s website in seconds, harping on about ethical consumerism while spending thirty bucks on a stupid eco-conscious cotton onesie designed by some dumb Hollywood actress that my kid will grow out of overnight. I couldn’t lecture other women on the importance of chemical-free households and DHA and how that medically unnecessary epidural would significantly fuck with their kid’s moods and their mobility. I didn’t give a fuck about these other women, to be perfectly honest. Let them have their mommy message boards and fight it out over the internet and feel inferior because they don’t want to breastfeed and superior because they gave birth without a fucking aspirin.

When I returned to LA, 12 weeks pregnant, arguing with my husband and poised to move into an apartment which was bigger than 300 square feet where we could rip each other apart in peace, when I fell out with the friends we had been living with, I felt that being pregnant was at once the greatest and the shittiest thing that had ever happened to me. Sure, I loved the Beast and sang to the Beast and wrote to the Beast every night, I swallowed my prenatal vitamins, I ate 100 grams of protein a day, I nurtured my body with yoga and hiking and swimming and I devoured every pregnancy book going (they are mainly shamelessly heteronormative, white and privileged, it will not surprise you to know). I found a brilliant midwife who also ran a non-profit providing free and sliding scale pre and postnatal women’s clinics in South LA. I worked my ass off and saved money like a demon and…. got torn to shreds and judged by white males and friends for assuming the role of provider: for not trusting the community to provide, for having the gall to lose my temper with my husband when I came home from working abroad to find we had no money saved up for our planned move, for starting to think about unethical things, like buying property and tucking savings away for the Beast’s future.

I didn’t trust the community to provide because the community hadn’t provided, up until that point. It had never provided. It didn’t because the community was birthed from Capitalism, and however hard it tried to escape, Capitalism was in its blood. The survival of the fittest, the rewarding of the richest, the whitest, the most privileged…. this was part of its DNA. The community gave out unwanted scraps from the table and acted like you should be grateful for them, and then when you politely said it wasn’t enough and went out to get your own, you got told your politics were fucked and your soul was filthy by all your friends on the left, and everyone in the middle hoped you’d fuck up until you didn’t, you became really successful, and then they could be friends with you, and everyone on the right was still going on about guns and abortions and black people to notice what you were doing. You got told – correctly – that this is what Capitalism wants. It wants you to be discontent with your lot, so you enter the rat race, start running the fucking marathon, trying to convince yourself that there is a way to do it ethically and morally, in line with your politics and your ideology (Liberals) or telling yourself that morality doesn’t matter as long as you’re making a buck (Libertarians and Republicans). Or else you stay in the ghost of an ethical situation: in a dysfunctional utopia which functions like a deformed hybrid monster of anarchism and socialism and communism and anarcho-syndicalism and syndico-alien-venus-capitalism with a hierarchy to boot, and yet spends its days in self-congratulations, policing everyone else, its very existence dependent solely on defining itself by what it is not.

It really sucks being on the left.

My husband thought there was another way, some other solution we hadn’t yet figured out. Some way to cut our costs, to find the perfect place to live which wasn’t giving 2k to some landlord and working our asses off to pay for it, or squeezing three people and a dog into a part-time spare room, or gentrifying a poorer neighborhood and pretending we weren’t as white and middle class as we were.

Frankly, I was past giving a shit. I just wanted to pay the money, nest, not set up an online store at Etsy to sell my revolutionary ovaries on a goddamn t-shirt proclaiming my shit politics to the world. Fuck the fake community and fuck the friends who failed to even enquire about the Beast and kept saying patronizing shit about my hormonal imbalances due to pregnancy and my bourgeois liberal leanings towards sleeping in one place in a gentrified, bourgeois, white, liberal neighborhood (Venice Beach) for more than a few days. Fuck revolution and the battle and the ethics and the morals and every other goddamn fucking thing that had made my life and my career so fucking difficult up until that point. Fuck it all. There’s a baby on the way, so shut the fuck up, and get the fuck out of my path.

That’s pretty much what it’s like being pregnant, in case you were wondering. It’s fierce and hopeless and heartbreaking all at the same time.

For the entirety of my second trimester, I scowled at interfering women who shrieked at me for eating sushi, doing handstands and drinking one cup of coffee a day, as if living and enjoying my pregnancy were somehow worse than getting a needle jabbed in my spine for no medically necessary reason, my drugged up kid suctioned out of my vagina by some doctor who wanted to get home before 5pm.

[In case you were wondering: I do not judge women who have epidurals and c-sections for medically necessary reasons. I may well be one of these women in three months time. I do not judge women who do not have the resources or the education to make informed decisions about birth. I do not judge women who have been suckered by the medical industry into interventionist procedures and have suffered because of it. I DO judge women who sound off about natural birth advocates like they’re the devil and, as has happened to me, police other women about the informed choices they make during their pregnancy in consultation with midwives or OBGYNS, and yet order other women to make choices which could be detrimental to their health and their baby by telling them horror stories about a birth they were too drugged up to even experience properly. Yeah, I’m talking about you, Miss ‘Too Posh to Push’ lecturing me about my morning caffeine, judging women who make any other choice than what’s acceptable for you. Hop it. On your bike]

I made friends with women who talked about things like the ethics of diapers: Cloth vs. Compostable? Co-sleeping vs. Cribs? Hospital vs. Home Birth? Breastfeeding vs. Bottle? While I found these conversations interesting and important and kind of soothing, they didn’t move me or excite me or inspire me or convince me that my choices might do anything significantly different in a fucked up world. They didn’t make me want to become a mother, provide me with a role model I could follow, make me think things might be OK. They didn’t make me feel better about the situation I had landed myself in: pregnant with my first baby at a time when my career and my marriage and my politics were hovering on the cusp of something important or disastrous, something which might teeter either way if I didn’t pay attention, and I couldn’t pay attention to, with the blood in my head rerouting to my womb to nourish the beast and keep him or her safe while I slept and dragged my ass throughout the hundred numbing daily routines that life demands. These conversations did nothing to alleviate the anxiety and loneliness I felt when my husband – feeling abandoned and alienated when his partner-in-revolutionary-alternative-living-sleeping-in-the-back-of-cars-crime just wanted a safe, comfy bed at any fucking cost – withdrew into an insomniac twilight zone of working maniacally all night, crashing in weird places at 6am, where I’d discover his cold, supine body like a corpse at 7: dead husband in the bath, dead husband slumped over the keyboard, once, even, dead husband at the wheel of the car.

We went to birthing classes which were filled with vibrant, glowing, large-bellied, ethical, liberal, Obama-loving women excitedly reporting that everything was perfect for them. They were so in love, this pregnancy had just brought them closer together. This pregnancy was everything they had expected and more. They couldn’t wait to meet little pea-in-the-pod. They’d just chosen thirty onesies from an eco-conscious designer who only sold their handmade (in Mali) outfits in Farmers’ Markets, but they couldn’t decide between the Inglesina Avio or the Bugaboo. They’d hold hands and coo at each other and kiss, and husband and I would exchange panicked, gray faced looks because we were lonely, we were unhappy, and we were struggling, cut off from our families and devoid of any community in our new, beautiful overpriced apartment which finally gave us space and privacy, but which felt empty, strange, expensive and wrong. I began to fantasize about being a single mother in New York, getting away from LA and its relentless sunshine and earnest judgmental white privileged liberals posing as radicals, or worse, the anarchist kids who’d swallowed a dictionary and discovered dumpster diving and communal living and thought that made them Jesus. I just wanted to save some money and have this fucking kid without having to think about the ethical implications of every goddamn decision I made concerning its future. I just wanted to concentrate on healthy and happy, ducks and tortoises and monkeys and shit. I just wanted the circus in my head to fucking stop.

I had no pregnancy complications and looked better than ever: for sallow, skinny, heroin-junkie pale girls, pregnancy fills out the angles and plumps up the curves and gives you a softness and a glow you always lacked. My soul felt soft too: raw and quivering, like someone had peeled away lawyers of skin and exposed nothing but shrieking nerves. Husband probably felt the same, and he covered it up with anger and insomnia. I smiled, went to yoga, went swimming, ate right, went to birthing class, went to midwife visits, hiked, read books, suffered through writers block, stayed busy, cried when no one was looking and apologized to the Beast that things weren’t more simple, as they were for the enormous content in-love women in my birthing class. I cried because I loved the Beast and I felt unbearably sad that husband and I weren’t getting on, that our friends from the House had not once asked me about the Beast, that we were alone, that we weren’t in New York, that we were tied to Husband’s job because we had no savings and no plans, that while I could plan for a home birth, avoid doctors, eat the right foods, buy used baby clothes and stuff off Craigslist, plan to breastfeed and think about alternative schooling, these things didn’t make me ethical, didn’t make my pregnancy ethical, they just made me someone who was lucky enough to have some choice in the matter and a modicum of education on the subject.

I’m now in my third trimester, and this is the first thing I have written about being pregnant. It makes me sad that while I’ve had the kind of textbook-perfect pregnancy not every woman is privileged to have, my predominant feelings during the majority of the Beast’s gestation have been grief and exhaustion and alienation and fear, and that I haven’t really shared that in the only medium I truly feel comfortable: writing. I feel great fear that my poor little kid will be brought into a world where my desire for a savings account and security – my privilege in having the means to achieve this – somehow cancels out my ethics and my politics and my friendships. I know there are women out there battling infertility who probably want to throttle me for not expressing the kind of unbounded, limitless joy we all imagine lies at the end of that positive pregnancy test. There are women who have suffered miscarriage after miscarriage who cannot comprehend that pregnancy can bring with it a host of hostile and complex, alien emotions and situations which we could never imagine. There are women who are facing this without a partner and an extra income to help them out. There are women who don’t have access to the amazing medical resources and women who have helped me the past few months. I get it. Existential angst is hard to swallow. I’d been lonely in my life many times, but I got pregnant at a time when I thought loneliness and alienation would be the least of my problems. I would love for my ambivalent feelings to be easily explainable with a simple medical diagnosis we could all comprehend, something like ‘Prenatal Depression’, but having seen a (sliding scale) therapist throughout, I can assert with confidence that it’s not chemical. It just is.

Pregnancy is fucking lonely. It’s even lonelier on the left. Like most things, we on the left have a hard time stepping out of the Oppression Olympics, fearful that utilizing our privilege as well as our talents, even in making a healthy Beast, is somehow unethical. We hold the horrendous spectre of Liberalism – those easy to mock hypocrites, saving the oppressed world, one Tom’s shoe at a time – dangling in front of us like a victim of the gallows, scaring us into paralyzed inaction. I don’t know what an ‘ethical’ pregnancy would look like anymore. One where we crammed our kid into the spare bedroom of a communal house, I stopped working for the Film Industry, we lived off the kale we grew and asked our midwife if we could swap home grown vegetables for a 4.5k home birth? Is it the one where I left a script I loved because I couldn’t make the changes the Producer wanted me to make, even knowing that we needed the money? Is it the one where the Producer fired me because I went on vacation when he wanted to meet with me, and I was clear about not being able to pick up the phone until my return? Is it the one where I told my boss I found her attitude racist and ensured she’d never hire me again? Or is it where I keep struggling in a world with alien values to my own, half because I like it, and half because I still believe writing is the only way I can engage with this world – and perhaps change it – even when they pay me to pretend, often unsuccessfully, I’m just like them?

Sometimes I think the truth is that I’m having an unethical pregnancy in an unethical life, bringing yet another poor kid into a truly fucked up world, making money from people I’m always going to offend because I just can’t pretend to agree for the sake of it. And I have to just get over that.

Tonight, I’m going to have an unethical Whisky Sour, and hope that writing this has finally let the circus sleep for a while.

The Kabul Diaries 5: Drones

Aimal Faizi is Karzai’s press guy. It takes half an hour to navigate security into The Arg – the Presidential palace where Karzai and his staff reside. They assign me a security guard with acne scars that remind me of Kenickie in Grease. The six foot guy sweating in a polyester suit eyes me dispassionately and makes me walk behind him. When I go through one of the many pat-downs by women, they grasp the drawstring from my pants – about an inch of which extends down from underneath my kameez – giggle, and call all the other women in to look. Eventually they ask me to hide it in case it’s deemed too sexual. At the next security check, the female guard gently rubs her hands over my body, cups my pregnancy-swollen breasts – three cup sizes bigger than normal – and smiles kindly, pointing at my belly in delight. It shocks me, the familiarity, after being clad in long, dark clothes and the hijab for two weeks, the only intimation of my femininity remaining the small creature swimming deep inside me, a secret between myself and this strange lady with the kind eyes.

Aimal’s office is cool and dark, a haven away from the exhausting, cloying dryness of Kabul. His staff bring me green tea, little orange flavored sponge cakes, small foil-wrapped chocolates, apologize for Aimal’s tardiness. I watch what I assume is an Afghan game show on TV, basking in the a/c. I can’t remember anything about it, just the lubricant of the cool, the ceiling fans gently swishing. Eventually, Aimal walks in, ten minutes late. He’s young, handsome, tailored and debonair. He speaks French fluently and misses Paris. I’m unsure how I found that out within ten minutes, but doubtless there was a reason behind the announcement. Aimal Faizi is nothing if not politic.

I’m here to talk about drones and US withdrawal, and Aimal sticks firmly to party line. “We are strongly against drone strikes in our territory – it is not an effective way to fight terrorists. We cannot allow airstrikes to target 1 or 2 insurgents because of the sheer number of civilian casualties they result in. We believe NATO and the US are fighting the wrong war.” Karzai is outraged by drone use, and has told the US it shall not continue. The US has failed to define who is a terrorist, and who is the enemy, and Afghanistan has demanded an answer to these questions. The US brought the War on Terror to Afghan villages and homes because of their failure to adequately answer these questions. But Karzai’s not in a hurry to sign the Security Agreements, and he’ll wait to do so until the major contentions issues have been settled – issues like the large financial contracts which “Corrupt the system”, the “6,000,000 Afghan militia the CIA has in their pay”, the “control of the coalition forces on airspace” and the frequency of night raids and unilateral air strikes.

And with that delicate monologue delivered, Faizi sips his green tea, smiles politely, and hands me a glossy full color book of photographs entitled “Scenes of Afghanistan.”

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A deserted fairground near the Afghan tourist hub The Spogmai Hotel, the site of a Taliban attack  

Babur came back to me that day with his non-Chepsak, Atal. Atal is a 28 year-old fixer for the bureau of a US newspaper. On his first vacation in years (he avoids them as he gets bored), Atal is freelancing to fill up time and supplement his wages. Atal believes the US invasion is more of a threat to Afghan independence than the Taliban (“At least we weren’t getting blown up everyday”), and speaks humorously about the paradox of earning his income and an impressive scholarship to a US college by working for western journalists who often treat him as if he were stupid and patronize him for his “naive” anti-Imperialist views. But unemployment in Kabul is high – exact figures remain elusive and even the term is impossible to define, given individual employment doesn’t exist, and families usually have one, maximum two sole earners – and jobs are scarce, and as the sole breadwinner for his parents and five siblings, Atal would be a fool to turn down the opportunity to work for  a major newspaper.

Farid refused – thankfully – to come to Budyali Village. Bringing a Hazara into an ethnic Pashtun, Taliban-sympathizing village was asking for an ugly explosion, and while I’d naively hoped the village was close enough and progressive enough that race wouldn’t prove a problem, this was a vain hope. Instead I’ve been fortunate enough to find a fixer, Atal, who everyone likes to call ‘Che’ because of his radical leftist tendencies. Atal and I find our politics meld perfectly, and while I’d struggled with the adoration and deference DJ and Farid displayed for America, Atal’s calm brand of pragmatic cynicism blended perfectly with my own. I find myself telling him that I’m pregnant. He looks surprised, and then pleased, his kind, young face crinkling in pleasure. He doesn’t patronize me, nor does he pretend that I’m “brave” – I am not. We are simply two people, caught in dirty politics which disturb us, making money we despise from something we know is wrong, trying in vain to highlight its complexities to an unthinking world.

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The next day, at 6am, we’re on the road to Jalalabad, me wearing the thick, black, hot cotton salwar kameez of traditional Afghan women, my burqa tucked under the seat, rolling around on the backseat as Atal’s uncle swerves round the hairpin bends of the Koh-e-Paghman mountains, following the Kabul river. Even at six the air is warm, dry and abrasive with dust and altitude. The road to Jalalabad is relatively safe in the day, though the tarmac is scorched from the combustion of Soviet tanks, trucks and fighting. Occasionally the Afghan National Army (ANA) rolls past slowly, and Atal shivers imperceptibly. “It is very dangerous, when they are so close to you on the roads. They are the Taliban’s target.” The roads are empty until we reach Surobi and its busy market street, Hezbi Islami’s former stronghold, and a kidnapping hub. Atal warns me to keep my headscarf tight and avoid eye contact with anyone. He never stops here, he says. Say the wrong thing, and the next time you pass through they’ll be watching for you. When it gets dark the Taliban will come down and stop each car, demanding money and looking for foreigners to kidnap. I lie down and sleep the rest of the way, and wake up just as we meet Hashmat, Ali’s cousin, outside the Spingmar Hotel. We stop in at the hotel so I can use the bathroom. As I walk into the stall, I hear a sudden boom in the distance. A bomb? I forget to ask as I leave, we get in the car, and drive on our way, through the center of Jalalabad, on Stadium Street, when suddenly, about 50 metres ahead of us, is a loud boom, a puff of smoke, the sound of tinkling glass, the sharp tang of sour fear. No other sounds. No cries, no screams, no panic. Simply grim, pragmatic reality. Without comment, Atal’s uncle takes a right, and re-routes. Seconds later a bloody corpse and an injured policeman with blood pouring down his face are rushed past on the back of a truck. Atal’s uncle sighs, and mutters something. Atal leans forward. “He says, ‘What kind of life is this?’”

I imagine looking down and seeing my flesh melting off, I imagine the slow, rising moans of the injured, I imagine the dirty sputter of glass and twisted metal and blood, I imagine praying for a quick death, I imagine the thick black hot smoke and taste of chemicals and bile rising like a tsunami in your crushed accordion chest.

In reality, we keep driving, and no one says anything more.

*

By 10 am, we’re driving through a dried-up riverbed on the only road into the village. It’s hard to believe we’re only 45 minutes east of Jalalabad. The landscape is green and rocky. Women in colorful scarves with children slung on their backs work in verdant green fields surrounding small clay houses with thatched roofs. We’re met by the elders of the village, who greet Atal, and talk to him, giving m.e a perfunctory but polite nod. Atal turns, “Come. They want to take you to the site of the old school.”

We drive slowly behind five elders as they lead us a little way out of the village, to a more open, rocky expanse of land at the foot of the mountains, and then stop at the jagged foundations of a building scarred with bullet holes, thin grass growing over the land, a few olive trees standing, lonely in the old courtyard. This school once educated 800 boys who would travel miles everyday to come here. Now, the village instead has a dirt yard covered with UNICEF tarps and a few blackboards, kids crammed together on woven mats baked by the sun or frozen by the wind.

A half-hearted attempt to rebuild from the old foundations lies abandoned in the corner. “The Americans came and promised us they would build us a new school. They were here one week, when some rebels shot at them. They left, furious, telling us we were Taliban sympathizers, and they never came back. We never got our school.”

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It’s stark and heartbreaking. The elders watch me in silence, and sit, waiting for me to talk. Overhead, an imperceptible drone buzzes quietly past and everyone’s eyes flick upwards. The men laugh bitterly as the noise retreats. “There are less than there used to be, but still, at least once a day we hear them.” I ask them what happened that night, in December 2011, when the dronestrike hit the school. They said that the Taliban carried out an attack on the town center. Taliban flighters fled to the empty school to hide. It was winter break, so no children were likely to be there. One of the elders – Hayat Gul – was working as a security guard that evening with 63 year-old Ghulam Ahad. They were asleep, and were woken by an ensuing gunfight as the Americans arrived. Ahad was shot and Gul wounded, while thirteen Taliban fighters were killed. And then the drone came, and the missile hit the school, leveling it completely.

In the morning the elders came and collected the body parts and remnants of the dead, and buried them in a small shrine.

They take me to the shrine, about 30 feet away from the school, and show me the brown, torn bloodied clothes they collected from that night, faded from the elements, lying on a rock.

We drive back, sombre, to the village, and drink green tea with Sayed Habib, the principal, and about ten other elders who asked not to be named, in the shade of the girls’ school, which was burned down three years before by the Taliban. They give me a plate of freshly picked mulberries, and take me to the temporary boys school under ragged tarps.

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Like Atal, the war has made the villagers look upon the Taliban’s rule almost fondly. Sharia law may have been draconian and brutal, but it provided a period of unprecedented domestic stability for Afghans habituated to occupation and war. The villagers express, simply, a desire for life without the threat of drone attacks, IED’s or clashes between troops. They have little need for the ‘freedom’ America has said it will bring, a freedom which to them means death, destruction, and disrespecting their religion and culture. “We respect your culture in the West, but here it is different. It is different for women. We ask simply that you westerners respect that difference.” Do they support the Taliban? There is a low chuckle. They don’t mind me asking. They answer all at once, ten or so voices mingling, so Atal has a hard job translating. Of course they don’t support the Taliban! The Taliban never come to this village! Always, the Americans use the Taliban as an excuse for depriving the villagers of compensation for bombing their schools!

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I suspect the truth is more complex.

After we’ve talked for several hours, it’s time to leave. I leave gifts for the villagers, a small amount of money for Ghulam Ahad’s son. Journalists never pay their sources, but I’m here in the capacity of a screenwriter, and I don’t feel like disrespecting local customs for ego or integrity. As we drive away, one of the Afghan National Police (ANP) posted to the village during the day, waves me down frantically.

“I heard those elders. Don’t believe anything they say. I go home at night, and the Taliban come down from the mountains and the villagers feed them and look after them.”

I imagine there’s not really much of a choice. It’s a bit like telling Tony Soprano to go fuck himself. As we drive away, I turn to Atal. “D’you think he’s telling the truth?”

“Always in Afghanistan, you have to realize there may be some truth, and there may be some lies. Is there Taliban here? Yes. We’re in Nangahar Provice. They’re everywhere. The villagers probably told them you were coming and got permission from them. The mujahideen want more press. Everybody does.”

On the way back to Kabul, we drive past the drone base in Jalalabad. The thick gray walls are high and barbed with chickenwire, and there’s no stopping anywhere near the periphery. On the long, hot drive home, this time made tortuous by traffic, heat, fumes and warm bottled water, I sleep.

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*

I came to Afghanistan to find drone victims, but what I found instead was a country so churning and boiling with turmoil, seething with daily violence, a country where things which kill you fall out of the sky every day, that distinguishing whether it was a Hellfire missile, a Taliban rocket, a Blackhawk, an IED or something else seems like the least of their problems. Clashes with Pakistan over the Durand Line, squabbles between Taliban and Pakistan on the Khyber Pass, the constant threat of a Taliban who had just launched their spring offensive, rising tensions between Afghan forces and US forces…. in a country where death and warfare is simply a fact of life, a country which has rarely known peace, the drones – those pesky benghai buzzing like flies over head – rarely get a look in.

CounterPunch – A New White Face On Chicken Street

This article first appeared in the print edition of ‘CounterPunch’ July 2013 Vol. 20 No. 7

You feel closer to death in Kabul. As a white face with an unfurrowed brow, a face that no one’s seen on Chicken Street, or in the Flower Street cafe, or at the USAID guesthouse, in the UN compound, the first questions they’ll ask you are “First time here? Who’s your driver? Do you have a phone? Do you know where you’re going? Do you know what to do if there’s an emergency?”. We’re in a warzone winding down, when the bombs and the violence and the attacks are so intermittent that you’re never as prepared for them as you were when it was a daily occurrence and you lived life in one constant rush of adrenalin, a heart like a tweaker. You feel it in the tension held in thin, tight-lipped smiles exchanged between cliquish expats who rarely look an Afghan in the eye, in the sharp inhale of the driver when he turns onto a street and it’s empty during rush hour. You feel it when the toothless ancient chowkidor looks at you in concern, pats your arm and says, before you ask, “Security is very good here. Very very good. You sleep well. No worry.” You feel it when you close your eyes and an ugly image scorches onto your brain, and you imagine the sharp tang of sour fear, you imagine looking down and seeing your flesh melting off, you imagine the slow, rising moans of the injured, you imagine the dirty sputter of glass and twisted metal and blood, you imagine praying for a quick death, you imagine the thick black hot smoke and taste of chemicals and bile rising like a tsunami in your crushed accordion chest.

I came to Afghanistan to research drones. I’d tried to get a visa to Pakistan, and after four consulate visits, three months of bank statements, a letter from my father, enrollment in the local community college, a forged student ID, an itinerary from a Pakistan based tour company, three Pakistani ID cards, a Pakistani business registration, a letter of introduction from a Pakistani, my marriage certificate, my green card, four pictures, two phone interviews and my passport, they’d informed me that they needed four more months to send my documents to Islamabad for approval. By this time, the elections were bearing down, I had work in London rapidly approaching, and the suicide bombings in Peshawar, my destination, had increased in frequency to two or three a week.

I managed, instead, to make it to Kabul, a hastily thrown together trip made possible only by the assistance of remote reporters and foreign correspondents and aid workers, nebulous connections, friends of friends, blurry pictures on facebook. Afghanistan was not, however, ideal for researching drones. Despite the fact the numbers of ‘targeted killings’, or as their detractors call them, ‘remote assassinations’, rose sharply from 294 in 2011, to 506 in 2012, and is set to be even higher in 2013, with 44 such strikes in January alone, drones are not big news in Afghanistan nor are they closely monitored. Unlike the CIA-run operations in Pakistan and Yemen, Afghanistan’s drone program is run by the Pentagon, and most drones are used as surveillance in support of ground troops, rather than in the infamous assassination program which has proved so controversial. President Hamid Karzai has failed to identify drones as an issue in his campaign against air-strikes – possibly because the actual drone strikes in Afghanistan go largely unreported, taking place in remote, rural areas, areas wracked by warfare and seething with insurgents, in Helmand and Kandahar and Nangahar, in small villages that people in Kabul have never heard of, in obscure locations which no one can get to without risking the Taliban, the US army, or unfriendly locals who think nothing of putting a bullet in the back of a dangerous-looking stranger on territory which is so tenuously theirs.

*

The plane to Kabul is two hours late. When we arrive at a dingy arrivals hall which looks like it was last upgraded in the 50′s, the bags take an hour to unload. After the bags have unloaded, it takes another half hour to get through customs. I’m walking over muddy puddles with the rest of the plane passengers, snow-capped mountains fringing a brown and gray drab airport. Buses and taxis hover expectantly outside security and a chain link fence. Money changers working from dirty wooden desks, grubby, crumpled currency beneath glass cases, fringe a group of men in salwar, lungee and pako. Amongst them, I have a fixer waiting for me – DJ, dark-skinned, chubby cheeked, Tibetan eyes – the features of the Hazara, Twelver Shia Muslims who comprise the Pashto Taliban’s most hated minority ethnic group. He’s wearing an uncomfortable looking brown suit, the self-conscious Americanized drawl of the modern Afghan, a curious half-breed made foreign translating for troops. DJ approaches me, hands outstretched. “Ruth! I am DJ! Here is your driver and translator, Sohrab.”

A fixer, driver and translator? This seemed like an expensive deal. Sohrab, a tall, silent man wearing desert fatigues, comes forward and smiles awkwardly, nodding his head. Inauspiciously for a driver, he seems to have hired a driver, and bobs his head in incomprehension everytime I talk, smiling vaguely without reaction or response. I ask DJ if he needs the address of my location. He brushes me off. “I know the house you speak of.” Just off Shahr-e-Naw? Denise’s house? You’re sure? “Of course!” he says.

After an hour, DJ looks at me with barely concealed anger, decides to admit defeat, and with dignity asks for the address. After several frantic phone calls and a fifteen minute wait, he navigates us two blocks to the house. We pass a security guard, slide into a dusty, pitted side street, stop. An old toothless man waits outside – Mr S, the chowkidor.

DJ gets into a deep conversation with Mr S, leaving Sohrab with me. “What time you want I come tomorrow?” he asks abruptly. “I’m not sure yet,” I say, feeling pregnant and nauseated. “I’ll call you.” Plaintively: “Will you call tomorrow?”. “I think we need to reassess this arrangement” I say. “What time?” he asks uncomprehendingly, and in quiet, firm desperation, I say goodbye, and close the door. DJ slinks off in shame. He knows I’m not happy. Denise, the American journalist who rents the whole compound, comes by to say hello, and then quickly disappears to an expat party. Mr S. quietly lights the fire and fetches me a kebab. The muezzin sounds. As the sun drops rapidly behind mountains, the parched, dusty basin of Kabul cools. I’m glad for the wood fire. I sit alone on the step of my tiny new apartment. I have seen nothing of Kabul but dusty streets and faded signs in Dari, infrequent women in sky-blue burqa, the flash of curious dark eyes under a hijab, more frequent men, in shirts and pants and salwar and lungee and little turbans of varying shapes, staring into the car as I drive past, naked even with a scarf.

I wake to find text messages from DJ “I have fired Sohrab and Farid will now be your driver. You owe Sohrab fifty US dollars.” For a twenty dollar taxi ride? I can tell these guys are used to journalists on expense accounts. I call Farid and he drives up, waits outside the security gate. He’s a good looking 32 year-old with Hazara features, a t-shirt and jeans, a habit of boasting about his sexy, modern, skinny, non-scarf wearing sectarian 21 year-old educated wife. Farid drives me round to Chicken Street, to empty stores with bored shopkeepers drinking endless cups of tea, murmuring “Parlez vous Francais?” or “Deutsch?”, brandishing colorful Afghan-esque shirts without much hope. I buy some thick woolen socks from Habib, who tells me the Americans won’t come to Chicken Street since it got bombed. Their insurance doesn’t cover it. Instead, at the weekends, the storekeepers pack up their wares, pick up their ID badges, and set up shop inside the UN compound so the Americans can shop safely and securely in their Bureaucratic expat bubble.

I’m not really interested in Kabul, the Bird Market, Chicken Street and Babur’s Gardens. I’m interested in the people, what it’s like to live here now, under American occupation, what it’s like to live in a country which is not so much a warzone, but one long wailing Shakespearean epic bloodbath of a tragedy, the place where empires come to die. Farid expounds happily in his lazy drawl, tells colorful stories from Taliban rule (“they kept me alive as a Hazara boy because the Taliban, they need boys to fuck”) to translating in Kandahar and Helmand for the troops (“So this Humvee stopped dead, would not go forward, and I called the base and spoke in Pashto, and the Officer freak out, he goes crazy, he says, “Fuck you, you Taliban loving killer. I know you want to kill us all. I know you are telling your people where to find us and kill us,” and I say back “Fuck you American”). In between the braggart was a man who, like DJ, believed he no longer belonged in Kabul. During Vietnam, American solders left Vietnamese women holding their bastards: and the same could be said of the kids who’d come of age during American occupation. They were bastard half breeds, ripe for the ire of the Taliban should they ever return to occupy Kabul again. “Because I am translator and Hazara, I have no chance,” says Farid soberly. “So you know this word ‘nigger’? Once this American soldier, he say to me, “Farid, go to the cook – ” The cook, he is a black man – “and call him ‘Nigger’. So I did and he was very mad, and he said to me, ‘Farid, I know you are not of this country and so this was not your idea. But I want you to promise me never to use this word again.’ So I say, ‘Sure thing, Nigger.’”

Farid knows nothing about drone strikes. People die in Afghanistan, period. We’re at war. That’s the justification for everything. What can you expect? We’re at war. Most of the journalists in Kabul are currently focusing on US withdrawal. Drones aren’t a big deal here. Drones in Pakistan, a country which to all intents and purposes, is not at war – now that will sell. That will interest more than the Glenn Greenwalds and the Jeremy Scahills and the small but fierce anti-war activists doggedly standing outside Creech or Waddington.

The next day, I manage to locate the author of a small feature piece which had appeared in the AP a few weeks previously, one of the very few recent pieces on drones in Afghanistan I’d been able to find. Kathy Gannon, a correspondent for AP, had written a short feature on a group of Afghans who had been displaced from their homes in Meya Saheeb, near the Pakistan border, after it was droned by the US. She’d also visited a small village in Nangahar – Budyali – whose school had been destroyed by a drone attack about two years previously, leaving the students nothing but a UNICEF tarp to study beneath. The village ominously had only one road in which led over a rocky dry riverbed, and had been the subject of numerous attacks by insurgents. Kathy had been in Islamabad for a month, covering the Pakistan elections, but had just arrived back in Kabul, and was willing to give me all the contacts I could wish for – including her guide to the droned village, Ali, a man she’d known for twenty years.

*

I meet Ali at The Flower Street Cafe. When Ali arrives, it’s clear that he and Farid have some undeclared issues. They eye each other warily, like fighting dogs restrained from worrying each other only by my presence. Ali sips his water politely, eyes Farid with resentment, and launches into a complicated story about the kidnapping of his brother in Peshawar by the Taliban, and their demand for a million dollars for his release. Budyali, Ali’s village, is safe now. “The Afghan police have secured it. From 8am to 4pm it is Afghan police, from 4pm onwards it is ruled by The Taliban. But by then you will be gone.” He says the village is an easy, 45 minute drive from Jalalabad.  And then he asks to speak to me alone.

Farid sniffs at this and seems annoyed. Ali smiles at him in smug victory as we move to a separate table. “How well you know this driver?” Ali asks as he waves the waiter over and orders more coffee. “He is Hazara. I am worried about his Pashto. Translation is very important to tell the best, most accurate story possible. Is he trustworthy? I do not want my identity to be known.”

I try and placate Ali. It’s obvious he’s taken a dislike to Farid based on sectarian and ethnic prejudices – anathema to me – but then Farid, like many westernized Afghans who consider tribal people backward and ignorant, also has a military swagger, an air of condescending arrogance, a provocative attitude, which without justifying Ali’s racism, makes it apparent that relying on Farid in a volatile, Taliban-sympathizing, rural area where he’s seen as the enemy and the American collaborator, could be extremely dangerous for both of us. I tell Ali I will find an ethnic Pashtun as a translator. Placated, Ali drinks his coffee and calls his cousin to figure out the specifics. We will leave Kabul at 5am on Wednesday, arriving into Jalalabad around 8am. We’ll meet the cousin – Hashmat – at the Spingmar Hotel. He’ll guide us to the village, which is 45 minutes east of Jalalabad. We return to Farid, who stands up, and announces he is quitting. He does not trust Ali, all this talk of Taliban, this Pashtun prejudice. This trip is madness, and we will all be killed. He pauses dramatically, and the waiter arrives to punctuate this statement with Farid’s take-out bacon burger in a styrofoam box.

On the ride home, Farid and Ali chat together comfortably, almost like old friends.

*

Atal is a 28 year-old fixer for the bureau of a US newspaper. On his first vacation in years (he avoids them as he gets bored), Atal is freelancing to fill up time and supplement his wages. Atal believes the US invasion is more of a threat to Afghan independence than the Taliban (“At least we weren’t getting blown up everyday”), and speaks humorously about the paradox of earning his income and an impressive scholarship to a US college by working for western journalists who often treat him as if he were stupid and patronize him for his “naive” anti-Imperialist views. But unemployment in Kabul is high – exact figures remain elusive and even the term is impossible to define, given individual employment doesn’t exist, and families usually have one, maximum two sole earners – and jobs are scarce, and as the sole breadwinner for his parents and five siblings, Atal would be a fool to turn down the opportunity to work for  a major newspaper.

The next day, at 6am, we’re on the road to Jalalabad, me wearing the thick, black, hot cotton salwar kameez of traditional Afghan women, my burqa tucked under the seat, rolling around on the backseat as Atal’s uncle swerves round the hairpin bends of the Koh-e-Paghman mountains, following the Kabul river. Even at six the air is warm, dry and abrasive with dust and altitude. The road to Jalalabad is relatively safe in the day, though the tarmac is scorched from the combustion of Soviet tanks, trucks and fighting. Occasionally the Afghan National Army (ANA) rolls past slowly, and Atal shivers imperceptibly. “It is very dangerous, when they are so close to you on the roads. They are the Taliban’s target.” The roads are empty until we reach Surobi and its busy market street, Hezbi Islami’s former stronghold, and a kidnapping hub. Atal warns me to keep my headscarf tight and avoid eye contact with anyone. He never stops here, he says. Say the wrong thing, and the next time you pass through they’ll be watching for you. When it gets dark the Taliban will come down and stop each car, demanding money and looking for foreigners to kidnap. I lie down and sleep the rest of the way, and wake up just as we meet Hashmat, Ali’s cousin, outside the Spingmar Hotel. We stop in at the hotel so I can use the bathroom. As I walk into the stall, I hear a sudden boom in the distance. A bomb? I forget to ask as I leave, we get in the car, and drive on our way, through the center of Jalalabad, on Stadium Street, when suddenly, about 50 metres ahead of us, is a loud boom, a puff of smoke, the sound of tinkling glass, the sharp tang of sour fear. No other sounds. No cries, no screams, no panic. Simply grim, pragmatic reality. Without comment, Atal’s uncle takes a right, and re-routes. Seconds later a bloody corpse and an injured policeman with blood pouring down his face are rushed past on the back of a truck. Atal’s uncle sighs, and mutters something. Atal leans forward. “He says, ‘What kind of life is this?’”

I imagine looking down and seeing my flesh melting off, I imagine the slow, rising moans of the injured, I imagine the dirty sputter of glass and twisted metal and blood, I imagine praying for a quick death, I imagine the thick black hot smoke and taste of chemicals and bile rising like a tsunami in your crushed accordion chest.

In reality, we keep driving, and no one says anything more.

*

By 10 am, we’re driving through a dried-up riverbed on the only road into the village. It’s hard to believe we’re only 45 minutes east of Jalalabad. The landscape is green and rocky. Women in colorful scarves with children slung on their backs work in verdant green fields surrounding small clay houses with thatched roofs. We’re met by the elders of the village, who greet Atal, and talk to him, giving m.e a perfunctory but polite nod. Atal turns, “Come. They want to take you to the site of the old school.”

We drive slowly behind five elders as they lead us a little way out of the village, to a more open, rocky expanse of land at the foot of the mountains, and then stop at the jagged foundations of a building scarred with bullet holes, thin grass growing over the land, a few olive trees standing, lonely in the old courtyard. This school once educated 800 boys who would travel miles everyday to come here. Now, the village instead has a dirt yard covered with UNICEF tarps and a few blackboards, kids crammed together on woven mats baked by the sun or frozen by the wind.

A half-hearted attempt to rebuild from the old foundations lies abandoned in the corner. “The Americans came and promised us they would build us a new school. They were here one week, when some rebels shot at them. They left, furious, telling us we were Taliban sympathizers, and they never came back. We never got our school.”

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It’s stark and heartbreaking. The elders watch me in silence, and sit, waiting for me to talk. Overhead, an imperceptible drone buzzes quietly past and everyone’s eyes flick upwards. The men laugh bitterly as the noise retreats. “There are less than there used to be, but still, at least once a day we hear them.” I ask them what happened that night, in December 2011, when the dronestrike hit the school. They said that the Taliban carried out an attack on the town center. Taliban flighters fled to the empty school to hide. It was winter break, so no children were likely to be there. One of the elders – Hayat Gul – was working as a security guard that evening with 63 year-old Ghulam Ahad. They were asleep, and were woken by an ensuing gunfight as the Americans arrived. Ahad was shot and Gul wounded, while thirteen Taliban fighters were killed. And then the drone came, and the missile hit the school, leveling it completely.

In the morning the elders came and collected the body parts and remnants of the dead, and buried them in a small shrine.

They take me to the shrine, about 30 feet away from the school, and show me the brown, torn bloodied clothes they collected from that night, faded from the elements, lying on a rock.

We drive back, sombre, to the village, and drink green tea with Sayed Habib, the principal, and about ten other elders who asked not to be named, in the shade of the girls’ school, which was burned down three years before by the Taliban. They give me a plate of freshly picked mulberries, and take me to the temporary boys school under ragged tarps.

Like Atal, the war has made the villagers look upon the Taliban’s rule almost fondly. Sharia law may have been draconian and brutal, but it provided a period of unprecedented domestic stability for Afghans habituated to occupation and war. The villagers express, simply, a desire for life without the threat of drone attacks, IED’s or clashes between troops. They have little need for the ‘freedom’ America has said it will bring, a freedom which to them means death, destruction, and disrespecting their religion and culture. “We respect your culture in the West, but here it is different. It is different for women. We ask simply that you westerners respect that difference.” Do they support the Taliban? There is a low chuckle. They don’t mind me asking. They answer all at once, ten or so voices mingling, so Atal has a hard job translating. Of course they don’t support the Taliban! The Taliban never come to this village! Always, the Americans use the Taliban as an excuse for depriving the villagers of compensation for bombing their schools! 

I suspect the truth is more complex.

After we’ve talked for several hours, it’s time to leave. I leave gifts for the villagers, a small amount of money for Ghulam Ahad’s son. Journalists never pay their sources, but I’m here in the capacity of a screenwriter, and I don’t feel like disrespecting local customs for ego or integrity. As we drive away, one of the Afghan National Police (ANP) posted to the village during the day, waves me down frantically.

“I heard those elders. Don’t believe anything they say. I go home at night, and the Taliban come down from the mountains and the villagers feed them and look after them.”

I imagine there’s not really much of a choice. It’s a bit like telling Tony Soprano to go fuck himself. As we drive away, I turn to Atal. “D’you think he’s telling the truth?”

“Always in Afghanistan, you have to realize there may be some truth, and there may be some lies. Is there Taliban here? Yes. We’re in Nangahar Provice. They’re everywhere. The villagers probably told them you were coming and got permission from them. The mujahideen want more press. Everybody does.”

On the way back to Kabul, we drive past the drone base in Jalalabad. The thick gray walls are high and barbed with chickenwire, and there’s no stopping anywhere near the periphery. On the long, hot drive home, this time made tortuous by traffic, heat, fumes and warm bottled water, I sleep.

*

I came to Afghanistan to find drone victims, but what I found instead was a country so churning and boiling with turmoil, seething with daily violence, a country where things which kill you fall out of the sky every day, that distinguishing whether it was a Hellfire missile, a Taliban rocket, a Blackhawk, an IED or something else seems like the least of their problems. Clashes with Pakistan over the Durand Line, squabbles between Taliban and Pakistan on the Khyber Pass, the constant threat of a Taliban who had just launched their spring offensive, rising tensions between Afghan forces and US forces…. in a country where death and warfare is simply a fact of life, a country which has rarely known peace, the drones – those pesky benghai buzzing like flies over head – rarely get a look in.

The Kabul Diaries 4: Women, War and Racism

The next day, after wasting time in expat hangout The Flower Street Cafe, listening to listless American twenty-somethings talk about their NGO’s and flights to Doha while tracking down more fixers and journalists who may be able to help with the drone question, I get lucky.

One of the many journalists I’d reached out to for help with my research called back with good news.

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Just five weeks before I’d arrived, Kathy Gannon, a correspondent for the AP based between Pakistan and Afghanistan, had written a feature on a group of Afghans who had been displaced from their homes in Meya Saheeb, near the Pakistan border, after it was droned by the US. She’d also visited a small village in Nangahar – Budyali – whose school had been destroyed by drone attacks, leaving the students nothing but a UNICEF tarp to study beneath. The village had only one road in which led over a rocky dry riverbed, and had been the subject of numerous attacks by insurgents. Kathy emailed me. She was in Islamabad, working on the elections, but was back in Kabul the next day. Would I like to meet her?

I’d been conditioned by Denise to use a local trustworthy taxi service to get around town. They were not cheap, but were cheaper than Farid, and did not insist on telling me how sexy their wife was at multiple opportunities. No one walked – although god forbid any white foreigner have a recognizable car parked outside their compound – and folks tried to break up their routine to prevent the emergence of obvious patterns. I called the taxi service, and they drove me to see Kathy at the wire service house, a huge, grandiose, pink, meringue monstrosity known to everyone. It stuck out like a sore thumb and was the least unobtrusive work compound I’d ever seen. Whenever I used a taxi service, or spoke to a local Afghan who worked in media, I’d never use addresses. I’d use the name of the wire service, newspaper or cable channel, which were usually located in houses they’d rented for years. Everyone knew where everyone was located simply by the name of the organization through which they’d worked, which, I suppose, is why DJ had assumed he knew where Denise’s house was when I first arrived, although it later turned out the house we has taking me to was simply an office.

This is hardly a radical revelation I’m making. Any idiot in Kabul can figure this shit out in five minutes. It seemed a particularly inept form of security culture, and indeed journalists I’d spoken to had talked about the mistakes, complacency and flaws in this system which had led to the deaths and kidnappings of expats. People leaving their houses in the same cars, at the same time, day after day, was a big non-no. Using an armored car was simply asking for a suicide bomber. Being located near to an American or ANA base was another. An armed compound like the ridiculously impenetrable UN compound was preferable, but the presence of security would then make your presence pretty obvious to even the most casual observer, and you may as well be living in Iowa, not Kabul, for all the exposure to local culture it offered. The increased security surrounding these areas was nonetheless often more alluring to NGO’s than the anonymity offered by a more obscure area of town, but this again was tempered by the reality that expats clustered in the same spots – the same cafes, restaurants and bars – which again seemed contrary to the notion of any security culture. It seems a safe assumption to make that if someone really wanted to find a specific foreign individual in Kabul, it would not be that hard, and while security precautions, guards, chowkidors and the like were necessary, they were ultimately futile. No one could be truly anonymous as a white foreigner working in Kabul. Unless you were completely underground and undercover and refused to socialize with any other expat, you were always taking a risk.

For many people, this risk was what gave them a sense of altruistic self-worth. For others, the rising tide of daily stress and fear was simply a necessary, but unpleasant reality to keep doing their work, cranking out expertly researched news reports about a country the rest of the world was rapidly losing interest in. And for Afghans, this daily risk was not a choice at all, but simply another unasked for byproduct of American occupation.

*

Kathy greets me warmly, and hands me a green tea. She’s on a tight deadline, and only has a few moments, but kindly gives me as much information about the villages and the drone attacks she’d covered as she can. Out of all the journalists I met in Kabul, the women impressed me the most. Between Denise, who diligently and rapidly researched and wrote all her own TV reports, and Kathy, who’d been working between Afghanistan and Pakistan for twenty-five years, I was in the company of some of the most expert western female war correspondents working today. And along with consummate professionalism, I found these women intelligent, warm, dry, funny and pragmatic. They weren’t hardened by the realities of war, they were simply painfully honest about them. They had lost close friends and colleagues and yet kept reporting, kept telling their stories, kept fighting for journalistic integrity against the pressures of viewing figures and cable channels and hot, vapid anchors and the death of print media. So few journalists impress me, but the women I met in Kabul – women like Kathy and Denise – were, simply, pretty brilliant at their job, and dedicated to doing their job in an overtly sexist and misogynistic environment, an environment nurtured by white males as well as their Afghan counterparts.

By the time I left the AP house, I had more than enough information to plan my research trip to a droned village. I have no qualms in admitting that without Kathy’s kindness and willingness to share her sources and information garnered from thirty years of working in the business, I would never have found my way to Ali, and then, to Budyali. She, like Denise, made my research trip a reality.

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I meet Ali at The Flower Street Cafe. When Ali arrives, it’s clear that he and Farid have some undeclared issues. They eye each other warily, like fighting dogs restrained from worrying each other only by my presence. Ali sips his water politely, eyes Farid with resentment, and launches into a complicated story about the kidnapping of his brother in Peshawar by the Taliban, and their demand for a million dollars for his release. Budyali, Ali’s village, is safe now. “The Afghan police have secured it. From 8am to 4pm it is Afghan police, from 4pm onwards it is ruled by The Taliban. But by then you will be gone.” He says the village is an easy, 45 minute drive from Jalalabad.  And then he asks to speak to me alone.

Farid sniffs at this and seems annoyed. Ali smiles at him in smug victory as we move to a separate table. “How well you know this driver?” Ali asks as he waves the waiter over and orders more coffee. “He is Hazara. I am worried about his Pashto. Translation is very important to tell the best, most accurate story possible. Is he trustworthy? I do not want my identity to be known.”

I try and placate Ali. It’s obvious he’s taken a dislike to Farid based on sectarian and ethnic prejudices, although Kathy’s colleague who had accompanied her to the village without incident, and whom Ali spoke of fondly, had been Hazara. But then Farid, like many westernized Afghans who consider tribal people backward and ignorant, also has a military swagger, an air of condescending arrogance, a provocative attitude, which without justifying Ali’s racism, makes it apparent that relying on Farid in a volatile, Taliban-sympathizing, rural area where he’s seen as the enemy and the American collaborator, could be extremely dangerous for both of us.

I tell Ali I will find an ethnic Pashtun as a translator. Placated, Ali drinks his coffee and calls his cousin to figure out the specifics. We will leave Kabul at 5am on Wednesday, arriving into Jalalabad around 8am. We’ll meet the cousin – Hashmat – at the Spingmar Hotel. He’ll guide us to the village, which is 45 minutes east of Jalalabad. We return to Farid, who stands up, and announces he is quitting. He does not trust Ali, all this talk of Taliban, this Pashtun prejudice. This trip is madness, and we will all be killed. He pauses dramatically, and the waiter arrives to punctuate this statement with Farid’s take-out bacon burger in a styrofoam box.

On the ride home, Farid and Ali chat together comfortably, almost like old friends.

*

That night, I sit in Denise’s kitchen with David, a Pulitzer prize winning print journalist, and his photographer C. They’ve just arrived back from a six-week embed with the Americans. He’s the last of the old school journalist, a beautiful writer who excels at long-form feature pieces. Nowadays, you need to be fluent in digital photography and video editing, and features are a dying art.  David.’s pieces are getting smaller and smaller for the attention span of the Americans. The newspaper David works for is under threat, like so many others. A man with his talent and resume will be fine: he’ll always have work. But the next generation of writers will find it hard to make a living from honed prose and good research skills alone, unless they can condense 3,000 words into 30, look like a Sports Illustrated model on camera, and have a minute long self-shot and edited video to accompany it.

I tell David about the episode with Fazel and Ali, and he agrees I made the best call. Denise looks at me sharply. “You gotta get yourself a decent fixer. I don’t know who these guys you hooked up with are, but I don’t have a good feeling about them. It doesn’t sound like they know what they’re doing.” Babur, David’s fixer, a twenty-six year-old who is always impeccably dressed, nods in agreement. He speaks slowly, precisely, with an American drawl. “I will call my friends and ask around for you. You must not go to this village alone.”

A good fixer is essential for any western journalist. Indeed, controversy surrounds the role as a good fixer will often carry a western journalist and receive little credit for it. They put the ground work in, receive a good – but far smaller wage than their western colleagues – and rarely get a byline on stories they locate, research and set up. Not every journalist/fixer relationship is like this. David had a great relationship with Babur, a relationship based on mutual respect and admiration. Babur’s work with David had enabled him to hone his English, get his name on several well respected articles, and support his entire family. Babur wanted, like most young Afghans, to get a degree or study in the US. But unlike most Afghans I met, Babur wanted to come back to Kabul afterwards. He didn’t want escape or assimilation into a western culture which wasn’t his own: he simply wanted to learn from it, choose what parts were most useful or not, and then apply them, or not, to his own culture and values. Babur exemplified the difference between the intelligent young Afghan, and what he disparagingly termed as “Chepsaks” – the ‘Yes Ma’am, No Ma’am’ Afghan who simply absorbs the culture of the occupier like a sponge, without question or criticism, and changes their views and opinions based upon opportunity. Chepsaks were opportunistic collaborators who wanted out. They’d been brought up as what Homi Bhabha or Gayatri Spivak might term “a hyphenated identity”, a “hybridized” individual partly divorced from their own culture by western culture and influence and utterly intolerant and condescending of any Afghan who seemed to them to represent ‘traditional’ views, or views which weren’t entirely in sympathy with the Americans. People like Babur, who managed to work with westerners without ascribing wholly to their views and compromising their integrity, held the Chepsaks of this world, those who were contemptuous of the very culture which they’d been born into because of western influence, in low estimation. It’s no coincidence that ‘Chepsak’ again becomes an unintentionally racist term by the fact many Hazara were accused of being Chepsaks because they had embraced American culture so fervently. The international presence in Afghanistan was obviously responsible for widening divisions and blowing up what Kathy called “the tit-for-tat massacres which characterize Afghanistan’s history”. The Taliban had hated the Hazara thanks to the 1997 massacre of Mohaqiq’s men in Mazar-e-Sharif. In 1998 when they took Kabul, in retribution, the Taliban slaughtered thousands of Hazara.  Should the Taliban return, America had posited itself as their only hope. Sadly, America was about as likely to give a fuck about the plight of the Hazara people as the Taliban. America was not their savior. America is no one’s savior.

I asked Babur to find me a non-Chepsak. Someone who wasn’t afraid to voice their opinions about westerners, about the American presence, about the war, about the proliferation of corrupt NGO’s, indeed about my own presence in Kabul. I was clueless in Kabul, but I was not inured to the tired propaganda that was being fed to me.

And while Babur, David and Denise asked around to find me a fixer, I went to see Aimal Faisi.