A Black Expatriate Writer and Fear of Hashtags

July 25, 2016

(published today in LA Progressive)

When the review copy of Harbors by African American expatriate Donald Quist came in the mail, I’d been looking forward to it ever since one of the essays in the collection appeared a year ago on the Awst Press website. In it, we find Quist mouthing platitudes on behalf of a South Carolina town during a racially inflammatory police dragnet even as he himself is profiled by cops and only let go when one recognizes “the boy who writes for the mayor.” I kept telling people You’ve got to read this and I certainly wanted more from this man and his hard won perspective.

But when the book arrived, I was engrossed in the TV production of The People v. OJ Simpson and I was struck by something that hadn’t registered in the past: A Black man suspected of a brutal double homicide evades police. They know he’s armed with a (presumably loaded) handgun. The pursuit brings police out in force. No shots are fired. There are phone conversations and negotiations till Simpson ends up in custody. The OJ television series shows me it isn’t merely that celebrities are treated differently. It’s that when the orders are clear–the suspect is not to be shot, injured, or killed–the police are able to do their jobs while showing restraint.

As we know, this is not what usually happens. I hadn’t lived in LA very long when a Black man with whom I was collaborating on a project was shot and killed in what the police almost immediately acknowledged was a tragic mistake. And now? I’ve been struggling with this essay-review as each time I sit down to write another Black man is killed, more officers are ambushed. It’s easier to watch TV–and be reminded that the OJ case also opened the window on racism and police misconduct in the LAPD. When Simpson was acquitted, those who believed in his guilt–mostly white Americans–should have recognized how their interests, too, were harmed by racist policing. There was nothing simple about the case, its context, its outcome. It was complicated. And as I watched the series, I became weary of how our necessary discussions of race, class, and violence rarely acknowledge what’s complicated or take us past familiar easy categories.

Damn it, we know better. The media has (albeit briefly) told us that the son of Dallas Police Chief David Brown was a cop-killer and was himself then shot dead by the police. I support the Black Lives Matter movement and also rode for months as a civilian observer in the backseat of NYPD patrol cars and some (note I say some) of the officers I rode with were truly there to serve the community and are among the finest people I’ve known. We live in a country where many people have life experience that should make it impossible to see issues and events from only one side.

When Donald Trump says he’ll make America safe, safety means something very different to many people I know. My African friend who fled his country and came here to save his life now sits nervously in the back of the mosque, keeping an eye on the door, wondering if each man who enters is the one who will take out a weapon and kill all the Muslims present. My Honduran immigrant friend didn’t feel safe when stopped by police on the false claim that his car registration was expired. Taken from his vehicle, he was pinned face down on the ground with police officers on top of him. He wasn’t resisting, he explains, but yes, he moved his body, trying to push them back and lift his head because he couldn’t breathe. (Until you’ve felt, literally, the full weight of the law, you are not going to understand why people don’t simply “cooperate” and lie still.)

So I find myself longing for complexifiers, not simplifiers, and then catch myself, somewhat shamefaced, because that’s what Daniel Patrick Moynihan said we needed as, from his elite position, he studied the Black family and then saw his work used to stigmatize and harm. Was that what he intended? Maybe not, but perhaps that’s the inevitable consequence when white people with influence address themselves on the subject of people of color to white people with power.

Now along comes Donald Quist.


I finally open his slim volume and find the author in all his complex experience and identity. The bullied child who shuttles between his father in low-income housing and the world of his professional, middle class mother–and finally explodes. He’s the eccentric, beret-sporting Francophile communist vampire in middle school intent on becoming a writer who becomes the spokesperson for a smalltown Southern mayor who becomes a restaurateur with a short fuse. He’s the “dirty little secret” of his white girlfriends, then the beloved husband of an immigrant from Thailand with whom he chooses to start a new life in her homeland where he becomes a teacher and graciously answers the sort of questions that would be offensive back here. And he’s got questions: How to make sense of the kindness of people responsible for reprehensible acts, how to recognize virtue and vice. And why is it that in Thailand he at last feels free?–though the country is under the kind of military control that made his father leave Ghana years ago to settle in the US.

But I’m just listing information. This is a literary project: Quist teases out elusive truth by assembling fragments, memories, conversations in which his own words and thoughts shift and run into the words and imagined thoughts of his wife. In one essay I wasn’t always sure who was speaking or what was real as the form of the text itself communicated uncertainty. In Quist’s writing, boundaries get blurred to reveal people in all their complexity and contradictions as well as the shifting lines of privilege and oppression.

Some of these essays have nothing to do with race. The more I read, the more I’m reminded of how little we know of a person when what we see first is the obvious visual: color. And I remember standing before a college class, a sea of white faces, citing works by people of color and speaking up for more inclusion of minority faculty and minority voices and not only is this welcomed by the group, but I slowly learn how many of these white students have a partner, a child, a half-brother or sister, a stepparent of a different race. When you look at people, Black or white, how dare anyone presume to know their life stories or which “side” they are on?

And yet … for all this individual diversity of experience, African Americans–I dare say without exception–share much that puts this nation to shame. Here, Donald Quist speaks for himself, posting on social media during a visit to the US after his book had already gone to press:

1. Every time I return to the States I’m reluctant to drive, because I’m scared of being pulled over by police. 2. Every time I come back to the USA I try to limit the amount of time I spend out in public. When I am outside, I walk fast and try to stay mindful to keep my hands out of my pockets even if I’m cold. I try not to gather outside with friends, unless the majority of the group is white. 3. Every time I come back here, it takes weeks to pack a suitcase. I mull over every shirt and garment to try to ensure my appearance is “nonthreatening.” 4. Every time I return to this nation I’m reminded of the endless concessions I make in order to survive here. I bend and bow and remember to smile even when my blood is boiling, because I’m selfish, because I want to make it to my next flight. 5. Every minute I’m in America I am always afraid–of being made into a hashtag. ‪#‎AltonSterling‬ ‪#‎PhilandoCastile‬,

The hashtag #DonaldQuist should refer us instead to this complex, talented author.

If I learn nothing else from these essays, may I always remember how Quist concludes his visit to Bangkok’s Erawan Shrine: “Press your palms together in respect for what you don’t know.”

* * * *

Donald Quist is co-host of the Poet in Bangkok podcast.

Harbors in paperback can be pre-ordered from Awst Press; free shipping if purchased through 8/9/16. awst-press.com/. It will be on sale through the usual online booksellers and independent bookstores starting 9/22/16. An e-book will follow in December or January and readers placing pre-orders for the paperback by 8/1 will also receive a free copy of the e-book once available.

Now I’m a Snowflake

July 6, 2016

Today I’m happy to share a link to the site Snowflakes in a Blizzard where journalist and author Darrell Laurant surprised me by choosing to feature my 2007 short story collection, California Transit. His site is dedicated to bringing renewed attention to books that came out some years ago and can be lost from view in the blizzard of millions upon millions of published pages.

Darrell is the author of a novel, The Kudzu Kid, and another work I’ve just finished reading: Inspiration Street, a nonfiction work of local (Lynchburg, Virginia) history. We’ve never met but since he contacted me I’ve gotten to know him a bit via email and through Inspiration Street.

Till now, I thought Lynchburg was notable only as the home of Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. Unlike me, Darrell has (in his capacity as a journalist) actually met Falwell, and he told me that while he disagreed with much of what the man had to say, he also recognized what was good in him. From that and other email exchanges, what comes through to me is that Darrell is the kind of person who believes in mutual support and cooperation rather than competition or antagonism. So I can see why the history of two blocks – the 1300 and 1400 blocks of Pierce Street – appealed to him. The African American residents of those city streets didn’t accept messages that said people like you don’t, people like you can’t. Without much fuss, they just went ahead and they did and they could. Anne Spencer and her son Chauncey, Dr. Walter Johnson, and Clarence W. Seay (to name just four) may not be widely known in the US, but the impact of their lives, work and influence resonated far beyond Lynchburg. The people living on two short blocks in an often overlooked city brought change that affected us all.

Maybe that’s something for writers – for everyone – to remember: fame is not, after all, the measure of our lives.

PS: This is the cover image I wanted to use!


Betting on Peace

June 10, 2016

After billions spent on destruction through Plan Colombia, will the US now support Peace Colombia? And will Colombians take the wager on peace? My article today

He went to Honduras in search of his roots – and ran afoul of the military

January 23, 2016

The latest story at the Second Chances website comes from an American citizen of indigenous Lenca descent. This is what he found in the land of his ancestors.


AARON MONTENEGRO’S STORY (along with his photographs)

My colonized name is Aaron Montenegro and the photograph shows my bloody face from the military in Honduras. They tried to criminalize me and said that I was an international terrorist training fieldworkers for a communist takeover. They said I was in the country illegally, when I had my passport and visa all in line.

As a disclaimer, I don’t really like telling my story. I challenge how narratives can be framed, especially within the non-profit industrial complex. I don’t want to be tokenized and don’t want much attention centered on me. Instead, I’d rather use my position to share space and highlight more of the stories that have been systematically silenced. I also don’t want to portray myself as a victim. I am a survivor. Although, I did experience some physical and psychological abuse on behalf of the US-trained Honduran military, I do not consider my experience as torture. What the soldiers did to Maria Guardado was torture. How prisoners are held in solitary confinement is torture. My case is exceptional, but it’s just as important as any other narrative of resistance. Using my social position, I try to highlight more the cases of the people who’ve been killed, disappeared, and displaced.

This narrative is based on the Bajo Aguan region, of the land we refer to as Honduras. First off, I would like to challenge this concept of the nation-state, because “Honduras” is the name Columbus put on us. When he invaded, he said “Gracias a Dios que hemos salido de esos honduras/ thank god we have left those depths” referring to deep waters off the coast. The departments (states) in which he landed are named Colon (after him) and Gracias a Dios, the country: Honduras. Using this language perpetuates a colonized mentality that reinforces the colonizers’ rule over our land, language and customs. So part of my resistance is to deconstruct this mentality by first of all not identifying with nation-state. There are numerous indigenous groups that have been lumped together between these borders. As a persyn [“son” perpetuates patriarchal bias] of Lenca descent, my family has survived the genocidal campaign that has worked to systematically erase the population through different forms of violence. Apart from the outright murder of indigenous communities, our language and many customs have been sadly erased. However, there are some pockets in isolated regions in which there are still some remnants of its existence. For the most part, our language is gone, but there is a cultural and social revitalization which is trying to bring back our traditions and ceremonies, as well as actively protect our lands from capitalist exploitation.

My ancestors are from the southwest are of “Honduras” near the border of “El Salvador”; but due to forced migration our family ended up living in different regions. I do not have much knowledge on my great-grandmother, except that she migrated to the northern coast and died at a young age. My grandmother, Zoila Marina, has a story in herself, which I’d like to highlight first and foremost. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be the persyn I am today. She faced many different forms of violence and was able to overcome so much indescribable adversity. She loved poetry, started a school for young girls, and was able to dream big. She came to the US in the 1960’s and left everything that had to do with Honduras behind. She had nine kids and eventually brought them all up along with her siblings and extended family. She lived in Hollywood and started a housecleaning business all on her own. She never wanted to talk about ‘Honduras’, so I had to learn about our family herstory on my own. My grandma never went back. She didn’t want to go back. My parents didn’t either. But I didn’t know my roots. I was lost. I didn’t know who I was or where I was going or what I was going to do. I’m the only one in my family that decided to go back and over time I grew a great affinity with the people and land so chose to stay there.

I had a strong relationship with my grandmother so I got to learn a lot from her but certain things she wouldn’t share. That’s what led me to go down. I was in school and would go on and off to ‘Honduras’. As I was finishing my thesis in Washington, DC as part of my Masters program, I chose to stay down in ‘Honduras’ as part of an independent study.

Initially, I went down to the Bajo Aguan as a student, an independent journalist, and as an international human rights observer but I challenged the “nonprofit industrial complex”–the salaried positions, people getting paid, while fieldworkers were being used as the face. I didn’t really appreciate that or agree with it politically so I left these organizations and got involved with the actual fieldworker movement. I connected with the people and was invited to become a member of one of the farmworker cooperatives. They taught me how to grow my own food, ride a horse, fish and helped me build an adobe home. By living in harmony with mother earth in my ancestral homeland, I felt spiritually fulfilled.

There have been many cases of state-sponsored violence, including extra-judicial killings and forced disappearances, in the region where workers have organized a social movement to recuperate stolen land that had been used to create African palm plantations. The fruit from this plant is used for many products including vegetable oils, makeup products and most recently biofuels. It is a huge industry and many fieldworkers were forced to sell their cooperatives to big landowners through violence and intimidation decades prior. It’s a struggle that’s been going on for generations, since colonization, but it’s been exacerbated since the coup. [In June 2009, democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya was abducted and forced into exile by the military.] There have been new cooperatives of campesinos and campesinas organizing and reclaiming the land, growing their own food and building their own homes. For this, they’ve been constantly attacked and criminalized.

Since the coup, there have been an increase in militarization and everywhere one goes, there are always numerous military checkpoints. There has always been corruption and due to the influx of funding coming from the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) and other imperialist programs promoted by the US State Department. There have also been numerous accounts of extrajudicial killings and State-sponsored violence that go unresolved. I personally worked closely with families that were affected directly by the high levels of impunity, who had loved ones killed or disappeared, as well as families that were violently evicted from their recuperated lands. One of the first times I was confronted by the military was on a bus during a checkpoint. As usually they would take the men off the bus to be searched and identified.

bajo aguan 20

They went through my belongings and all I had was my camera and dirty clothes. I complied but I also made a comment. I asked if they found what they were looking for. They didn’t like that. They kicked me off the bus. They encircled me, twelve soldiers heavily armed, and they took me to the jail for disrespecting an officer of the military. I was confronted face to face with German Alfaro who is now the head of the military police. He asked me a couple of questions as they had me handcuffed. I refused to comply and give information because I saw their power as illegitimate. They didn’t like that either.

People who were driving by saw and other people, particularly vendors who I have built a relationship with, kept an eye out for me. The military took me to a holding cell in an isolated region and told me they were going to leave my body under a bridge, and that my family was going to receive bad news. From there they took me to the regional police station in Trujillo and by that time I had people from the capital, people from local communities, people from the US calling and pressuring them to let me go. So after finding out who I was, an international student, they thought twice about detaining me and decided to let me go.

Their intelligence was already working on me but they didn’t have a face to go with the name. So after that incident it became a bit more difficult for me to do my work. I was still growing food, corn, beans, squash, and I would get on my motorcycle and take part in whatever was happening with the locals, with the evictions, killings and disappearances.

Then a case came up. A year before I had helped a family looking for somebody that was disappeared and never came home. Jose Antonio Lopez Lara wasn’t involved with any social movements. He was just a fieldworker who wanted to go fishing in the river which is located around the plantation of Miguel Facussé [the richest man in ‘Honduras’, whose private plane transported President Zelaya out of the country when he was kidnapped and deposed]. His Dinant Corporation has private security that worked hand-in-hand with the police and the military. No one knew what happened to the man. He just didn’t come home. So a year later we found his body buried under a palm tree with fish bones, with his boots, with his machete. I was there taking pictures and providing emotional support for the family.


Then the military came. They saw me present, and this reaffirmed their despise for me and the work that I was doing.

A day or two later there was a meeting with ambassadors, with the municipal government leaders, the police, and with tourist destination businesses. I questioned why a tourist business was at this meeting during a time in which disappeared bodies were being discovered. So I went as a journalist to cover that issue, but didn’t have the opportunity. Once the military saw me they ran me out and I had to go into hiding. I was transported to a safe place and I become a little hesitant to leave after that but then I came out for the upcoming May Day march.

We marched from one end of the city to the other and we were going to end in the central park but instead we got word that some of our comrades were being attacked on one of the plantations so we went to support them instead. And that’s when the military and police came to violently evict us, it was around 200 armed personnel in total.

bajo aguan 29

When we left the plantation peacefully we gathered outside the gates. I sat for about two minutes to eat some tortillas and cheese and that’s when the military came down with tear gas and targeted me, they wanted to take me in, they beat me across the head, and along my back. My comrades began throwing rocks at them to protect me and I was able to run out and get to a safe space.

I had to go into hiding. I was in a state of constant paranoia. But I had my ticket to leave. A week later I had my graduation to go to so I was lucky to get to the airport and since my paperwork was all in line, I got on the plane got back to DC in time for my graduation. Then I came back to California, never went back to Honduras. I wanted to live the rest of my life there. I hope to go back sometime but don’t know when. Despite the distance that separates us, I am still connected to the communities of the Bajo Aguan. My role now is to build more international support for the farmworkers. Since my return I have helped start an autonomous community center in which we host events highlighting these struggles. It’s been difficult for me to make this transition back to life in the north, but I try to stay balanced within this concrete jungle through art, creativity and protest.

For me, all our struggles are interconnected. I do not want to simplify things too much, but it all relates back to our resistance against all different levels of oppression manifested through patriarchy, white supremacy and capitalism. I just don’t want to see us repeat the same cycles. Different forms of violence and oppression have been ingrained in us through colonization and reinforced through some of our practices. So we’ve really got to challenge it every day. I think we’re all on a journey. We all learn from each other and it’s and intergenerational struggle. We’re all connected and there is beauty in our struggle.

Where Will My Hope Come From? – Chheng’s Story

December 22, 2015

The images of Syrian refugees in the news made Chheng break her silence and remember what she prefers not to think about: surviving the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the atrocity carried out against refugees by the Thai Army, and the challenges of resettlement in the US. I am grateful to her for speaking and being willing to share this. I learned from her and was inspired. Read her story here.

chheng 2

From Russia, with self and alter ego

December 16, 2015

Sonya found that taking on a male alter ego let her write freely. Leaving Russia for the US lets her live freely. Her story, the latest at Second Chances LA.

Sonya image

Interview at Awst Press – Beautiful ideas cross borders

December 11, 2015

Liz Blood was in the process of leaving Austin, TX for Tulsa, OK but still caught up with me and edited our interview for Awst Press. If you check it out, I also highly recommend the essay by Donald Quist.

and for something lighter and happier, the latest cat photo.

Millie and plant

Escape into a novel

December 5, 2015

With so much heartbreaking and terrible news around the country and the world, I was happy to escape into Damnificados, JJ Amaworo Wilson’s new novel.


Read the review here.

Her parents escaped North Korea; she grew up with her father’s PTSD

December 4, 2015
Korean Dance of Peace

Korean Dance of Peace

In addition to collecting survivor stories, I’m very interested in the 1.5 generation – that is, immigrants who were born overseas but came to the US at a young age. Maryann’s story is so illuminating about what is passed down through generations, what it’s like to grow up with secrets, traumatized parents, and cultural confusion. And to me, it’s such an important reminder of how much care and concern can mean to a child, even when we don’t understand.

Maryann is the latest eloquent storyteller at the Second Chances LA website. You can read her words here.

She can’t go back.

October 23, 2015

Nancy said, “I have to forget about Uganda. There are some sweet memories but that’s a place I can never go back to. What happened was they arrested a few people at an illegal meeting and somebody during interrogation named me….”

She impresses me so much with her intelligence and ambition and grace.

Her story also illustrates how the ordinary assumptions Americans make so easily can confound a person seeking asylum. I just posted her story here.