Tell the Truth and Then You Die

Screen Shot 2014-12-22 at 10.33.28 AMThe year is winding down. Classes are finished, my grades are completed, and the kids are out of school. We are able to dodge the manic holiday pace of North American in our desert retreat.

Before we make the trip home for a few weeks, to sling around wet sludge, pretending it’s snow, the slower pace means movies. Going to the movies. Renting movies. Movies on the plane (if the kids manage two hours of sleep when I am also awake).

Running counter to the holiday cheer are the dystopian films. We began with Snowpiercer, a post-apocalyptic look at the world’s problems encapsulated in a train. Sounds like a bad version of the Keanu Reeves’ Speed but between Chris Evans’ steely blue gaze and a super charged plot are riveting. My laptop on my knees and eyes glued to screen: I was horrified by the exploration of class issues central to the film. Which person would I be on that train is the thought you can’t avoid. Sort of like when you hear about the Titanic for the first time.

We managed to sneak away for two hours to get in a screening of Kill the Messenger. The title should have been the first warning that this was a downer. Hollywood did not flinch from the truth: Garry Webb, a California based reporter, writes a series about the CIA’s use of cocaine to raise funds for to support the Contras in Nicaragua, is fired, discredited, and found dead seven years later, with two shots to the head. His death was ruled as suicide.

The film brings back the shocking story, not only of Webb’s allegations, but of the mass media refusing to investigate his story. Webb himself became the story.

As a writer this true story has stayed with me in the days since we saw the film. We tend to think whistle blowers or truth tellers are rewarded in the end. Yes, they struggle, and like all three Act plots, their lowest point comes at the end of Act II. They eventually rebound.

But there was no rebound for Garry. His story ended in unemployment and death. Erasure seems to be the price of telling the truth.

Are some stories, as the Michael Sheen character says in the film, too true to tell?

 

Sunday Supper: Curried Celery Soup

Not every recipe is a winner right out of the pot. This curried celery soup was an excellent way to use up an entire bag that was languishing in the fridge. I skipped a step in the coconut milk, which was straining the powder out of the broth. If you like coconut, that’s probably okay. If you don’t, make the time!

You know I love soup and curry: this was the ideal combination. Can’t wait to try over rice the second time around.

How to Talk about Race

You’ve probably been in the room when someone starts off with “I don’t want to sound racist BUT —”

The speaker goes on to expand on a stereotype that is likely to make the other listeners uncomfortable.

Or, you’re at the dinner table a friend’s house and without any warning, someone drops the N bomb in casual conversation.

“They like him, for a nigger,” a man said, standing in my friend’s mother’s kitchen.

Lucky for him, and me, and them, my hosts, his Southern accent muffled what I heard, and we moved on.

I grew up in the UnitENGL 103 Privilege Bingoed States as an the child of Indian immigrants. Race was everywhere around me, in how people reacted to what I brought to school to eat to what they said to me about dating.

“Oh, I don’t think of you as black,” was an often repeated phrase, intended as a compliment.

But I’m not white either I would think. So what am I? Who am I in relation to you?

I didn’t have ways to talk about race when I was teenager. The prevalent idea then was that we didn’t have to: the Civil Rights movement had solved all our problems.

Post 9/11 anti-Islamism and recent cases of police brutality show us that race and ethnicity are still very much divisive forces.

We have to talk about them and in ways that are useful, that go beyond excusing ourselves for holding on to stereotypes.

We can begin simply by questioning our assumptions.

A friend, who teaches anthropology gives an exercise which goes like this: everyone in the room anonymously writes down racial stereotypes and passes them in. She reads them out. “Pakistanis smell,” read one card. She keeps going until anyone is so uncomfortable that they call out “Stop.”

Another friend, teaching a class on migrant labor, had all the students play Privilege Bingo. I heard someone present about this at a conference. You restructure the game of Bingo to make all the categories related to positions of privilege: access to education, living within city limits, specific religions, etc. When someone calls out Bingo, thinking they’ve won, you explain the categories.

You can give everyone in the room a ball (or a piece of paper to crumple up) and ask them to toss into the same basket.

On and on. Students seem an easy group to begin this type of dialogue. Talking about race is our collective responsibility.

Have you had any uncomfortable or productive talks about race?

 

Secrets to Cooking Veggie and Well

New Year’s Day 2014, while driving to the first lunch of the year, I debated in the backseat of my sister’s mini-van. Meat or soda? Which would be easier to give up? Sitting at the table, waiting to order, I still couldn’t decide. I had identified a healthy lifestyle as high on my list of priorities. I love New Year’s Resolutions, since I follow them through with the gusto of someone with OCD. Meat seemed the easier choice, since a world without soda was as foreign as life without the Internet. _DSC0984-Doha-QA

December 2014, I ‘m happy to say that I’ve been meat free for 12 months. What began as an experiment, has become a lifestyle.

The strange thing about becoming vegetarian is that it triggers an interest in food: my passing fancy for cooking grew into an experimental passion which you have been following through the Sunday Supper posts.

The results will soon be shared, as a cookbook. Stay tuned!

What changes have you had this year?

Writer Wednesday: Edgy YA fiction, Cassidy Jones and the Luminous

Cassidy Jones  The latest installment in the exciting Cassidy Jones series by multi-tasking mother-teacher-writer Elise Stokes.

How to Get Rid of Santa

I felt very much like one of Ms. Hannigan’s girls, growing up as a Hindu child in north Florida. “Santa Claus, who’s he?” When friends called in the afternoon on Christmas Day, asking me what I had received, static filled the line on my end.

In the years since, the holiday season became a tradition of giving and exchanging gifts between the doting auntie and uncle my brother and I had become to our three nieces. The tree, the gifts, the anticipation were part of their childhood, if not ours.

There was no pretense of Santa in my father’s house. His insistent “Who gave that? Who? How much?” said after each present was opened – always in ascending order of our ages, beginning with the youngest niece.

Fast forward to becoming manager of my own house and the Christmas tree is decorated by little ones while adults scurry around the kitchen putting the finishing touches on the Thanksgiving dinner table.

Santa and I have a continuing contentious relationship now that I am a parent. Why should he get all the credit for my hard work all year? I haven’t raised the idea of Santa to our sons. But I didn’t need to, when Mickey’s Magical Christmas could do it for me.

The recent crackdown in Doha against Christmas, is seen as a competition with the December 18th observation of National Day, inappropriately flashing holiday glitz in hotel lobbies and street poles.

Teddy Bear Tea apparently is no longer allowed to have Santa to grace the occasion, the entire reason any parent would spend close to $100 for an afternoon’s entertainment.

“We are not allowed to have Santa this year, ma’am,” said the apologetic hotel receptionist.

Schools have been banned from trees, winter performances, and snowmen. Nurseries, however, have not, as I found out being summoned to my one year old’s Christmas party in the middle of the workday.

My ambivalence to Santa has been challenged.

Sunday Supper: Roasted Butternut Squash Soup

You know how I feel about soup: we should eat it once a day in the cooler temperatures. If you have broth and a slow cooker, you have the makings for a low prep, nutritious and filling meal any day of the week.

Tougher vegetables like potatoes or squash, take on a delicious tenderness when allowed to simmer.

Through in a good base of either bullion cubes + water, or homemade broth, plus your vegetables of choice. I did squash, carrots, and onions in this one that was our Thanksgiving first course.
Pulsing the contents about 10 minutes before you serve (with a hand-mixer or transferring to a food processor) can give a clear broth more texture.

Give the Gift They Don’t Have

Want to save yourself the stress of finding a unique gift for that person or child who had everything?

Get him/her a book in a subject they’re already passionate about. Someone gave our son The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Years later, here’s the result. We hadn’t practiced him reading during the Qatar-Brazil festival. In fact, he was begging me to leave before he spied this book on the shelf.

The other option is to make a donation in their honor and give an ornament or a magnet to commemorate. I started doing that in high school for my best friend, and now my grown up Christmas tree is littered with ornaments from an almost 20 year old tradition.

Superb Ways to Show Without Telling

nanoIn the story of the Tortoise and the Hare, I know exactly which creature I am: the hare. This was evident when I was younger: studying a bit all semester and sleeping while my college roommate crammed all night, her Dr. Pepper’s lined up on her desk. When the exams were handed back we each had an A; hers was .5 higher than mine.

The memory of the lesson I learned that day stays with me: do a little bit at a time and you’ll be done by the deadline. This was my secret to NaNoWriMo 2014. I began the month on an overnight flight to Prague for a conference, with my laptop out, typing away. There was a week or so where I thought the story I was telling was utter rubbish; then the detective found his sidekick and sparks flew.

You’ve got a great story, I told myself, in the lead up to Thanksgiving when it was unlikely I would be able write one word, while hosting 7 adults and 7 children. 30,000 words that didn’t exist before November 1.

Then an interesting thing happened: I went through my chapter list on Saturday and Sunday, adding words to those under 1666 (the daily NaNo average).

11:30 p.m. on November 30th (the last day you can get in your 50,000 words) I uploaded my manuscript.

Yesterday I wrote another 1200 words. That hare won the race. This hare has more story to tell.

Here’s the final excerpt I’ll share in my NaNo journey.

 

Amita, Manu’s sister, is looking for her brother who was reported to have entered the country a few weeks ago. Her dismay is representative of the many families who do not hear from their relatives once they enter their host countries.

Stay tuned for more updates about this work in progress (and the title is still missing…).

PS this scene employs the infamous writing adage “Show, don’t tell” the reader what’s going on with your characters. We try to experience Amita’s confusion with her, rather than learning about it second hand.

 

——————-

 

Amita took another step forward, grateful he hadn’t pushed past her like so many other Europeans did when given half the chance. “I look for my brother,” she said. She pushed the passport copy of Manu and his approved work visa under the opening.

 

“You housemaid?” The man asked, his hands unmoving.

 

“I’m looking for Laxmi Pande,” Amita switched to Hindi.

 

The man’s narrowed gaze is why she had hoped Madam Cindy would take her to the embassy; her whiteness would have shamed him into being helpful.

 

“She not here.”

 

“My brother missing,” Amita said. “He here for three weeks. I no see him.” She managed in the English he was forcing her to speak. “Miss Laxmi she arrange contract for him.”

 

“That’s terrible,” the woman murmured behind her.

 

The man picked up the sheet of paper. There was no nametag for her to record a name, like Sir Paul had asked her to get before he left on his trip. He would have come with her but he had to go to a conference in Paris. Busy. Everyone was busy.

 

“Contracts,” he said, tossing the paper back at her.

 

“This not contract?” Amita asked in confusion. This was the document the woman had supplied the last time she visited the embassy, looking for a job for Manu. She had promised an office job, as a kitchen service man, boy as they were called here, where he would bring water, tea, coffee, or juice to those having meetings.

 

The man turned in his chair and tapped the window in the direction of one of the stations in the main room. “Contracts, there. Go see contracts.”

 

Amita picked up the copies of the visa and passport, the only tangible proof she had that her brother had made plans to join her in the Arabian Gulf. She moved through the rows of chairs to the counter the receptionist had indicated. There were two men here, one seated, the other standing and pointing out something in a stack of papers. Similar stacks rose like little towers on every surface of the room, some in chairs as well. The men in this room stopped talking when she approached. “My brother,” she said. She pressed the papers forward again. “I no hear from my brother.”

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