Archive for the ‘Latin America’ Category

Questioning the Border Emergency, or Que Pasa in Tijuana?

February 28, 2019

I’ve been out-of-touch, and here’s why:

After my week in Tijuana volunteering with Al Otro Lado’s Border Rights Project, urgent questions continue to roil my mind. Come along with me and see if you have answers. Then I’ll walk you through a typical day.

Who thought it would be a good idea to block asylum-seekers from approaching the US/Mexico border at Chaparral?

Why would the US need a barrier of concrete or steel when Mexican officials and US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers form a human wall with their bodies and with lies (such as There’s no such thing as asylum or The US is now full and no one else can come in or You can only apply at certain hours and on certain days), with new (illegal) regulations such as No unaccompanied minors will be admitted?

All that is illegal of course. If you’re fleeing persecution and you fear violence in your home country, you have an absolute legal right under US and international law to present yourself at a port-of-entry (or elsewhere on US soil) and ask for the protection of asylum. That does not mean asylum will be granted. You are simply entitled to a “credible fear hearing”, a first step in the process, in which you must convince an official you have grounds for asylum and a significant possibility of its being granted in immigration court.

Who decided that desperate people should put their names on a list (an illegal practice), and wait for weeks or months to be called.

How come they are housed in distant shelters in territory controlled by organized crime?

Is it reasonable that, to find out if their numbers are called, they have to travel 2-3 hours by bus to reach the waiting area?

By what arbitrary means does CBP determine “capacity” for the day, so that sometimes 20 people will be transferred by van to Tijuana’s older port-of-entry at San Ysidro, CA, and sometimes 40 and sometimes none?

I didn’t see an invasion. I saw a cruelly devised and intentional bottleneck.

I saw the injustice done to the people of Tijuana (and all of Mexico) as they are forced to cope with the chaos and desperate need caused by the US government. How can that be fair?

What happens after that van ride? Maybe that’s what shocked me most.

Whose idea was it that those finally allowed to present themselves get sent for days to la hielera—the icebox—holding cells where the temperature is kept down to 45oF? It must have taken a very special mind that decided to strip migrants (including babies) of all their outerwear, leaving only a single article of clothing on their vulnerable bodies before hustling them into the icebox.

Who thought they could do this with impunity and no fear of ever being charged with crimes against humanity?

If I hadn’t gone to Tijuana, I would not have known about Chaparral or how Al Otro Lado volunteers show up at 7:00 AM with blankets or towels to create makeshift dressing rooms. Migrants get a chance to change their clothes—or receive new warm clothes from the volunteers—so that the warmest sweater, fleece-lined pants, whatever will protect them most in la hielera, is closest to the skin and will not be confiscated. Volunteers also provide Sharpies so parents can write their contact information on the children’s skin in case of separation. (Yes, the illegal kidnapping of children from their parents is still happening.)

If I hadn’t gone to Tijuana I would have relied on the NY Times where I read on the front page an article suggesting Mr. Trump’s hard line has been successful in deterring migrants. The article cited the approximately 1,000 migrants who’ve received work permits to stay in Mexico. In fact, these permits—humanitarian visas—simply guarantee that for one year the migrants will not be deported back to their home countries and can earn money while they await the chance to present themselves to a US official. The news also reports that there are fewer migrants in Mexico and they must have given up and returned home. If only. Migrants are being disappeared. Some are abducted. Some are hunted down by the very people who caused them to flee their countries—and who regularly threaten Al Otro Lado volunteers with death unless we turn over the clients or give information about their whereabouts. The office phones are now unplugged because while the threats keep coming by other means, at least no one has to listen to them all. The more visible volunteers also face regular harassment from both Mexican and US border guards.

Al Otro Lado knows of at least one case in which a truck pulled up at a migrant shelter offering a day’s paid labor. Men eagerly clambered aboard. They had no idea they had just delivered themselves into the hands of organized crime. They were taken, as reported later by an escaping survivor, to the site of a massacre. He came back to tell the story. The others were never seen or heard from again.

I never felt unsafe in Tijuana. For migrants, sheltered in the most dangerous neighborhoods and with targets on their backs, it’s another story. That’s why Al Otro Lado has joined in the lawsuit to block one of Trump’s latest outrages: people who pass the credible fear interview are being sent back to Mexico to wait there for their full hearing before an immigration judge which may take weeks, months, or even years to schedule.

Since November, the Border Rights Project has assisted thousands of migrants from at least 37 countries. My own experience was with people from Cameroon, El Salvador, Ghana, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and Nicaragua. All this is accomplished with only a single staff person, who is dedicated these days to litigation. All day-to-day operations are in the hands of volunteers as the Border Rights Project currently receives no grants or foundation support and has to rely on individual donations. During my stay, we received orientation from a volunteer who’d been on-the-job for 89 consecutive days.

It was easy enough for me to take a bus to the border and cross on foot, but experienced and committed immigration attorneys as well as other volunteers traveled at their own expense from all over the country. While I was there, a team of medics from Alaska flew in to staff the onsite clinic. The preponderance of gringo volunteers does not indicate a neocolonialist agenda. The migrants need to consult with US attorneys expert in US immigration law. Local tijuanenses, some with dual citizenship, were also there to volunteer on behalf of the vulnerable newcomers to their city.

Because new people are regularly rotating in and out, we spend time each morning in training and organizing assignments. There’s plenty for English-only volunteers to do: registration and security checks at the entrance and on the stairs, tech and data entry, lunch set-up, childcare in the playtime area, intake with Anglophone Africans, documentation and more. Everyone helps with cleaning. In the afternoon, clients begin to arrive for the free clinic and for lunch. If they’ve already met with a lawyer once and have follow-up questions or have additional documents with them, they can be seen again. Newcomers attend the charla, the know-your-rights workshop (in whatever languages needed) that provides an overview of the asylum process.

My role usually started after the charla. I’d do intake interviews with Spanish-speakers, explain again that the attorney would offer suggestions and advice but could not offer representation. Some had immigration questions not related to asylum and I’d get answers from one of the lawyers. For someone traveling with their biological children, we had them fill out a form with the kids’ names and birthdates and a statement they would not under any circumstances agree to be separated. The signed statement is not always honored, but we know it did the job at least once when a CBP officer put a pen in a woman’s fingers and tried to move her hand to sign a document agreeing to have her children taken. She resisted and produced our form. (Through a parallel program, Al Otro Lado is working to bring improperly deported parents back to the US and reunite them with the children the US government managed to lose.)

For particularly vulnerable clients—for example, with serious medical issues, or someone speaking only an uncommon indigenous language—we had a special form to try to keep track of their treatment.

During intake, I’d get some basic information about the person, including contact information for them and for anyone in the US willing to serve as sponsor. We went over background and the reasons they feared being sent home. One of the lawyers would then join us and get a better idea of whether a person had a strong case. Some did not, and were told this in a straightforward but compassionate manner, while suggesting another opinion might be different. Then followed the two most important parts of my job as first I helped prepare people for their credible fear hearings.

In my interviews, traumatized people spoke in disjointed, confusing ways, without clear chronology. We didn’t put words into their mouths but tried to help people get the chronology straight and tell their stories in a logical way, highlighting what’s relevant, what actually happened directly to them instead of resorting to euphemism or speaking in general terms. We role-played so they could practice their words and think hard about them. People are sometimes awakened at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning—and who thought that would be a good idea?—taken from the hielera for their hearing in a state of total confusion, so they need to be well prepared.

Finally, I accompanied the client to the documentation table where even new volunteers became the most precise, detail-oriented helpers you could imagine. Here we copied all the important documents the person carried, e.g., identification cards, marriage certificates, birth certificates, medical reports, political party membership cards, photos and videos of injuries and State-sanctioned attacks. All this gets stored in a secure site in the cloud where it can be accessed by the client if the originals are stolen, lost, or—as shouldn’t happen but does—confiscated by border officials and trashed.

Volunteers remain onsite to finish up and debrief each evening though we need to get clients out the door early enough that they can travel back to their shelters before nightfall.

My admiration for the courage of the migrants and the commitment of my fellow volunteers goes beyond what I can easily express. Because of confidentiality and security concerns I can’t share individual stories of asylum-seekers. I can’t give a shout-out to extraordinary volunteers who deserve recognition.

As for me, I heard about Border Rights Project because the Program for Torture Victims, my home base and social justice family, is part of the Rapid Response Network, receiving calls to action when immigrants and refugees are at risk. I expected to be the oldest person traveling to Tijuana and I was already patting myself on the back when I met the woman older than myself who’d spent months camping out at Standing Rock, and the three seniors so committed to social justice they pack up and go wherever there’s a need.

I returned to LA profoundly inspired by so much resilience and passion. But…at the Ped East border crossing to San Ysidro, as I got in line with my US passport, I saw the cage holding people whose numbers had been called that morning. I saw Central American families with little children and CBP officers barking orders at a group of English-speaking Africans. Their next stop would be the hielera. I wanted to wish them good luck and courage. I wanted them to know there are people who care, but my line moved too quickly past them.

The CBP officer looked at my passport and asked only one question: “What are you bringing from Mexico?” Grief, I thought, and anger, and hope. “Nothing,” I said. I told him nothing.

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The Human Dignity Awards Dinner

April 27, 2018

The theme was Women in Human Rights and Healing and it was amazing to be honored last night along with LA City Councilwoman Nury Martinez, who’s led the fight against the trafficking of women and girls, Lisa Fujimoto of the Change a Life Foundation, and the wonderful Amina Nakiyaga who shook everyone up with her speech. We got the celebrity photo treatment and the photos were then projected in the banquet hall throughout the program. Here I’m with Amina


and here with Rossana Perez, my brave and talented friend who survived the worst in El Salvador in the ’80’s (and brought the flowers).


We raised a lot of money for the Program for Torture Victims – but it’s never enough!

Resistance

January 20, 2018

This post is dedicated to Carol Hand who misses hearing from me. As I explained to her, problems with my eyesight mean I limit computer use, but I can share some images here.

The current regime causes so much outrage and heartache, but we also suffer when violence hits close to home. Last week, a member of our PTV family, Viccky Gutiérrez who came here from Honduras seeking safety, was murdered, her body burned. Last Friday, her friends held a vigil.

Saturday, I joined the Salvadoran community (and Haitians) threatened with termination of their protected status and with deportation. I’m sick of marches that seem to accomplish nothing, but it’s important to let threatened people know they have allies who love them.


For the same reason I participated in the Kingdom Day Parade, held annually to celebrate the life (and meaning of the life) of Dr. King. I walked along with members of STAND, dedicated to fighting against neighborhood oil drilling and for environmental justice. It’s an issue that brings together people of all backgrounds.

There are about 16,000 homeless African Americans in LA, and I can understand why some think that they are being ignored while immigrants get all the attention. Can solidarity and unity defeat Divide and Conquer?

Yesterday was a reminder of what another country—Guatemala—suffered for so many years. First, some signs as I walked down Fairfax, and a section of the Berlin Wall on Wilshire.

Then, in the sculpture garden of the LA County Museum of Art, Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa directed local performers in a staging of the piece that led to death threats against the director and the theater being burned to the ground when presented in Guatemala in the mid-70’s. You can see the indigenous prisoner trying to get free, the guerrilla who ran around the periphery, hiding behind trees and, held up to ridicule, the military, the Church, and the upper class.

Walking home. As Carol would advise: Take comfort in beauty.

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

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.

Damnificados

Read the review here.

He survived war and torture; she married him — and his trauma.

October 13, 2015

Here’s Miguel’s story of survival from the civil war in El Salvador. I always think it’s important to consider how trauma affects others in a family as well so I am grateful that Sandra was willing to talk with me about their marriage, and here is her story, too. Click here, please, to read.

Gay Man Deported to Mexico, Assaulted by Police

October 10, 2015

I’ve just posted the latest oral history to the Second Chances LA website. http://secondchancesla.weebly.com/angel.html

It’s an honor to know people like Angel.

gardenia 2

Trafficking Fiction: US Novelists on Mexico and Colombia

September 9, 2015

My piece in today’s LA Progressive.

The writer and activist KJ Noh recently sent me a link to a new program launched by DARPA, the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Narrative Networks, in the words of our Defense warriors, purports to discover “how narratives influence human cognition and behavior and apply those findings in international security contexts.”

As a writer of fiction as well as a sometime journalist, I don’t need a research project to validate my belief that a well-told story engages both heart and mind, affects attitudes, and embeds itself in memory the way, I regret, journalism too often does not. As for advocacy journalism, we’re often addressing people who already agree with us, but a good novel can reach and influence readers who have never before stopped to think about the issues we try so hard to bring to public awareness.

Consider this Amazon review of Don Winslow’s 2005 bestseller, The Power of the Dog. “This is not a subject of much interest to me, but… [h]is characters are fully believable and spring off the page with great force and achieve a totally convincing documentary-like reality that grips you from start to finish. Believe me it’s tough to put down for a moment the characters are so mesmerizing.”

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Winslow’s subject is our misbegotten War on Drugs and the damage it’s done in Mexico and Colombia (where aerial spraying to get rid of coca instead kills food crops and poisons people and livestock), about corruption and deception on both sides of the border, about CIA (and Reagan and the first Bush president) complicity in drug trafficking and the rise of the brutally violent cartels.

I’ve written articles on the subject year after year and I can yak your head off about US policy–and all my well-intentioned talk will bore you half to death. Winslow offers the same disturbing information but in a form that makes your pulse race.

So rather than write one more article about Mexico or Colombia, I want to talk about three works of fiction, The Power of the Dog; Winslow’s new follow-up novel, The Cartel; and Vanessa Blakeslee’s debut novel, Juventud, (available for preorder now; officially published on Oct 13), in which a privileged young woman comes of age during Colombia’s seemingly endless civil war.

At the center of both exhaustively researched Winslow novels is DEA agent Art Keller, trying to make amends for inadvertently facilitating the rise of the ruthless Barrera family, causing a massacre, and bringing about the abduction, horrific torture and murder of Ernie Hidalgo, a fellow DEA agent. Keller has had blood on his hands before. Serving in Vietnam, in Operation Phoenix, he put names on lists knowing that the people he named would be assassinated. In Mexico, he will have to decide if he’s willing to become, himself, an assassin.

In The Power of the Dog, I was particularly gripped by Ernie Hidalgo’s fate at the hands of traffickers (with the complicity of representatives of the Mexican and, apparently, US governments), a fictionalized version of the killing of DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena in 1985.

Years ago, I briefly crossed paths with Camarena’s widow. She wanted his true story told, outraged by the Mexican government cover up. The whole story has yet to be revealed but in the last few years former agents and at least one cocaine pilot have come forward to claim that the US government and CIA were complicit in Camarena’s horrific death. Why? To discover a leak in the trafficking organization and to find out how much Camarena knew about the Reagan White House scheme by which the CIA trafficked drugs to finance the provision of arms to the rightwing Contras in Nicaragua.

The Cartel picks up where The Power of the Dog left off but offers no further revelations about “Hidalgo’s” death. Winslow goes off in another direction. He stopped my heart starting with the two dedication pages, name after name in small print. I counted them. 131 in all. Followed by this note:

Journalists murdered or “disappeared” in Mexico during the period
covered in this novel. There were others.

Journalists are among the most vivid characters of the book.

The Cartel isn’t as fast-paced and easy to follow as The Power of the Dog, and it certainly is not for the squeamish, but it may do better than any news report to explain what fueled the bloodshed and what this meant to cities, towns, and the vast majority of Mexican people. From Juárez to Tamaulipas to Veracruz and Michoacán, rival crime organizations battle for control of territory, border crossings and shipping routes while making and breaking alliances with each other and with police, military, and two government agencies at the highest levels in both Mexico and the US including the White House and Los Pinos, its Mexican counterpart.

In both novels, Winslow underscores US responsibility: Mexican and Colombian drug trafficking wouldn’t have developed without the insatiable demand in the US for the product; NAFTA eased the passage of cocaine; weapons and training provided by the US under the Mérida Initiative are easily transferred from corrupt institutions to the cartels. Winslow writes about the Zetas, psychopathic cartel killers and the Kaibiles, perpetrators of Guatemala’s genocide against the Maya, both elite fighting forces originally trained and equipped by–you guessed it–the US.

The climactic event occurs with a US-sponsored (through a private contractor) attack on the traffickers’ drug stronghold in the Petén rainforest of Guatemala. In the novel, the traffickers have taken over the village of Dos Erres. But Dos Erres is where, in 1982, Guatemalan military forces carried out an infamous massacre of the indigenous population. At first I thought this was another of the novels’ regrettable errors–like referring to martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero as a Guatemalan rather than Salvadorean, or citing the old name of Ciudad Juárez as Paseo–when it should be Paso–del Norte. (Where was the copyeditor?!?!) Turns out Winslow knew all about Dos Erres and chose it for his fictional raid in order to work the history of the massacre into his novel.

Where this sprawling, often horribly brutal work of fiction stands out for me is in its portrayal of the people of Ciudad Juárez and the Juárez Valley. Even before the drug war massacres, beheadings, and mutilations, to North Americans the city across the river from El Paso was synonymous with debauchery and sin. When US states tried to limit divorce, Americans got “quickie divorces” across the border. When divorce laws in the US were liberalized, Juárez was still the place to go for bars and brothels. When the maquiladora factories set up on the Mexican side of the border with jobs attracting thousands of young women, “Juárez” became synonymous with the femicidio–the abduction and killing of young women.

But Winslow writes about the city and surrounding rural areas not just with respect, but with love. The war for the soul of Juárez is horrific not just because of the daily atrocities but because as seen through the eyes of Winslow’s characters, the city is worth living for and dying for: a place of beautiful plazas, a lively cultural and intellectual life, civilians of almost unfathomable courage. These women of Juárez may risk their lives and may die but they never die as the anonymous victims of the femicidio: 19-year-old Erika becomes the police chief (and sole cop) in Valverde after the men have been killed or have fled; Dr. Marisol, Art Keller’s lover, continues to treat her patients and becomes Valverde’s mayor when there’s no one else willing to fill the seat. There’s Jimena, the baker and community leader, and Ana, the journalist whose unshakeable integrity shames her colleague Pablo Mora. He broods over his moral exhaustion:

You start by being idealistic, morally strong if you will, but then the rock of your moral strength is eroded,
bit by bit, until you’re well, exhausted, and you do things that you never thought you would. Or you do things
that you always feared you would…

The novels excel not only in twists and turns and betrayals and corruption, but also in moral ambiguity. In The Power of the Dog, the elite hooker Nora becomes Adán Barrera’s mistress but truly loves (platonically) a cartel-compromised priest, and I found myself rooting for the Irish American hit man from New York’s Hells Kitchen. In The Cartel, Chuy is a depraved killer, but we also get to know him as a victimized child who was taken in by the Zetas and forced to commit unimaginable acts from the age of eleven. Crazy Eddie Ruiz (who prefers to be known as Narco Polo) thinks of himself as the good trafficker as he alone refuses to kill women and children.

If the spine of The Cartel is the enmity between Keller and his former close friend Adán Barrera–Keller comes out of retirement to hunt Barrera down while at the same time Barrera has put a multimillion-dollar bounty on Keller’s head–it’s the portrayals of dozens of characters in the supporting cast that make the novel so memorable.

There’s plenty of moral ambiguity in Juventud (Youth) as well, but Vanessa Blakeslee’s focus is on the experiences of her narrator, Mercedes Martínez, rather than in exposing and criticizing policy. From the opening pages, rich in detail and suspense, her novel is vivid and full of life.

Juventud+Front+2

Mercedes, mysteriously abandoned by her North American Jewish mother, grows up with her adored father, Diego, amid thousands of acres of sugar cane, coffee on the steep hillsides, alpacas and horses on the warm valley slopes and hacienda workers who call her princesa. She expects this life to go on forever and takes for granted the armed bodyguard/driver who escorts her every day from the countryside to school in the city of Cali.

At age 15, Mercedes is exposed to bus hijackings and the desperation of men, women and children driven from their land by violence, but her main preoccupation is finding a boyfriend. She has the perspective you’d expect of someone of her social class who would also get her views from the conservative mainstream media. Realistically, she assumes that all the atrocities she hears about are the work of the guerrillas from the FARC and the ELN. (Similarly, later, when she tries to connect with her mother in Israel, her perspective is again partial, informed by her fear of terrorism and her affair with a special operations officer in the IDF.)

The retrospective narration allows Blakeslee to acknowledge the violence wreaked by the government and the Army’s allies in the rightwing paramilitaries forces. And the man Mercedes thinks of as Uncle Charlie, her father’s associate, is none other than the real life Carlos Castaño, founder of the AUC, the rightwing paramilitary organization which was financed in part by drug trafficking and notorious for brutal murders and the massacres of thousands of civilians.

A more conventional author would have had Mercedes fall in love with a charismatic guerrilla. Instead, she becomes involved with a Catholic youth group that advocates and demonstrates in favor of peace and negotiations. Her friend Ana, a youth group member, prays for everyone. “Even the drug traffickers, the paras, the guerrillas?” Mercedes asks. Ana answers, “God lives in everyone, even the worst.” (Or, one might suggest, even the best make deals with the Devil.)

Through Ana and the youth group, Mercedes meets and falls for Manuel, a guitar-playing carpenter, six years her senior. The lovers meet secretly. But is Manuel interested in her only to uncover the dirt about her father’s past as a drug trafficker and his links to rightwing violence? Does her father’s disapproval put Manuel in danger?

As the novel goes on, with revelation following questionable revelation, nothing and no one can be trusted.

If Juventud does have an agenda it must be this: As Colombia seeks peace–as in any other conflict zone on this earth–Blakeslee’s novel makes us ask how a person forgives and moves on when the truth remains veiled, when you can’t even be sure who or what is to blame and therefore who you must choose or refuse to forgive.

So what is the agenda of Narrative Networks? According to the DARPA website,

The program aims to address the factors that contribute to radicalization, violent social mobilization, insurgency, and
terrorism among foreign populations, and to support conflict prevention and resolution, effective communication and innovative
PTSD treatments.

Conflict resolution? Treatment for PTSD? Sounds good, but only, I guess, if you still believe Defense means defense. That bit about “effective communication”? Surely the Pentagon isn’t interested the way the novelists are in complexity and ambiguity. The Pentagon wants narratives that get results. The project, Noh believes, is aimed at learning how to weaponize stories.

But fiction writers were there first. The fictional world can reflect our own experiences back to us but most important, it encourages us to identify and empathize with characters different from ourselves, living through circumstances we ourselves have not had to face. What we read can change us.

Stories as weapons. My thanks go to Don Winslow and Vanessa Blakeslee for taking up arms.

And to poets like Ruth Goring. An American who grew up in Colombia, Goring has returned again and again to stand with villagers threatened by paramilitary forces. Her new collection, Soap Is Political, explores the experience of adjusting to a new environment, a new language, but also makes us see the displaced, the disappeared, the dead as individuals.

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In one poem, women circle a jail, calling out names, planting them like seeds.

In another we meet Deiner, age eleven, his father and his stepmother as they clear brush around the cacao trees. Armed men emerge from the trees and Goring warns the reader:

Now you may need to turn the page.

For if you stay, and travel with the search party,
at the river you will find three
entangled bodies, boy’s head tossed
to one side, flesh gouged by vultures.

On the days when, even as activists, we find ourselves tuning out the news, novels and poems can still compel our attention and hold it and stop us from turning away.

Murder and Mayhem (on the page)

August 9, 2015

A lot of people think I’m so very very serious that the only books I would deign to read are the most high-minded works of literature and nonfiction but when I was sick in bed with pneumonia, I must have read every one of Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder mystery and crime novels.

I can blame my low tastes on bad company. Friends like Domenic Stansberry whose Edgar-Award-winning novel, The Confession, had a gratifying and disturbing reception when some readers mistook this first-person narrative of a psychopathic killer as Domenic’s autobiography.
Confession_cover
I love visiting Mona Linstromberg at home in the Siuslaw National Forest, distant from bookstores, libraries and, in fact, anything resembling so-called civilization, but a place well stocked with shelf after shelf of crime novels. François Camoin writes of the mystery of existence, not books of detectives and bad guys, but he turned me on to John Burdett’s Bangkok novels featuring detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep.

Besides citing peer pressure, I can justify my love of well written crime fiction this way: The thing about genre fiction–especially of the noir/crime variety–is the way there’s so often a political sensibility behind the dramatic action. Police and judges turn out to be corrupt; the rich and powerful are usually guilty (if not of murder, at least of something), and neighborhoods are gentrified to the detriment of most of the human beings who live there. So today I thought I’d write some short notes about the crime fiction I’ve been reading lately, including a couple of thrillers that actually confront politics and policy head-on.

Like Don Winslow‘s remarkable novel, The Power of the Dog, published in 2005 and covering events from the early 1970’s to 2004. See, I can yak your head off about the misbegotten War on Drugs and what it’s done in Mexico and Colombia (where aerial spraying to get rid of coca instead kills food crops and poisons people and livestock), about corruption and deception on both sides of the border, about CIA (and Reagan and the Bush president #1) complicity in drug trafficking and the rise of the brutally violent cartels–and all my well intentioned talk will bore you half to death. Or you can get the same disturbing information from Winslow in a form that makes your pulse race. I am so grateful that people who never thought about any of this before but do read bestsellers are now exposed to this history.

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I’m looking forward to reading his new novel, The Cartel, that picks up the story of DEA agent Art Keller who risked everything as he tried to make amends for inadvertently facilitating the rise of a ruthless cartel.

My only complaint about the novel: Winslow obviously did much research and has so much expertise, how could so many errors slip through, all of which detract from his credibility? Martyred Archbishop Romero wasn’t Guatemalan. The whole world knows he was Salvadoran. Mexico’s telecommunications industry wasn’t nationalized, it was privatized, and more. Where was the copy editor? Is there so little respect for Latin America that errors like this and more slip right by? But Winslow is so precise, it made me wonder if it wasn’t, after all, the copy editor who was at fault. Someone who doesn’t know as much as s/he thinks s/he knows adding “clarification” and getting it wrong.

Apparently I love books that validate what I already believe. The Interrogator’s Notebook, for example, a novel by Martin Ott, former Army interrogator and critic of the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, a/k/a torture. (I came across Ott through his website, but as it turns out, his next book will soon be published by one of my own publishers, Fomite Press.)

ott

His protagonist, Norman Cross, has lost his center. Poor Norman, who used to be unparalleled in recognizing the lay of the land, now blunders through his life. He used to do things (most of the time) the right way–learning all he could about a terrorism suspect, building rapport, getting the subject to trust and open up. But when he fails to control the team around him, he also fails to stop an imminent attack. Now, he makes notes to himself about what it means to be an interrogator–which means being someone who, as it turns out, again and again crosses the line he felt he’d never cross, and who at times shares the torment he inflicts. It means “I turned away from acts of torture and instead ended up turning myself into a deity of sorts….the more I reveled in my power, the more my humanity slipped away.” Cross is progressively more estranged from his family. He earns a living teaching workshops to private security operatives. He never wants to sit down face-to-face with a subject again–until he is pressured into learning the truth about George Stark, a deliciously malevolent character actor who’s been acquitted of homicide. Stark agrees to be interviewed but sets up conditions that put him in control of the bizarre and unsettling interrogation.

This is a fast, sometimes comic, read which does validate my own convictions: “The greatness or smallness of a country is defined in windowless rooms with no witnesses…”

But I also read hoping to be changed. Robert Crais, author of many crime novels set in Los Angeles has a very different take on the power of dogs in Suspect in which a former military dog and an LAPD officer–both in mourning and both suffering from PTSD–partner up. The book is so imbued with dog-love, it should have been a stretch for me, a cat person who is actually pretty afraid of dogs, but I cared and rooted all the way for the cop and the German shepherd.

Of course Maggie, that wonderful K-9, is always ready to rip the throat out of anyone approaching her wounded partner, even if that someone is trying to save his life. So I guess it’s possible to love dogs and still fear them.

And speaking of cats, to celebrate Millie’s moving in (thank you, Amanda Foundation),
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I’ve started reading the quite violent mystery novels of Norwegian author Jo Nesbo. When I first laid eyes on Millie three years ago, I’d never seen anything like her. I found out yesterday she is apparently a Norwegian Forest Cat, named by King Olaf as the official cat of Norway. Does the US deserve an official cat? (Maybe let’s not go there. We could face a government shutdown with Republicans refusing to pass a budget unless Congress honors the Fat Cat.)

What else have I found out that I didn’t already know?

Sakina Murdock, author of Autotherapy, and I also share a publisher (Rainstorm Press). I’ve met her only in cyberspace where, among other things, she offered advice on how to keep track of the close to 100 flamingos I was monitoring at the LA Zoo. Her own expertise gained through geese-farming didn’t translate, requiring the use of ten fingers, not easy when you’re holding a clipboard in one hand and taking notes with the other. But her novel, featuring dead bodies drained of blood and people with secrets, also taught me stuff I didn’t know (in addition to the resolution of the mystery).

Her writing about genetic engineering (something I know a little about) and the geography of Cumbria (of which, till reading her book, I knew nothing) as well as the way to go about exploring a cave (ditto) is rendered with the kind of authority that convinced me I was in good hands as the bizarre events unfolded.

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As a writer, I was intrigued by the unusual structure Murdock chose for her novel. Most crime/mystery novels maintain forward momentum–this happened and then this and then this–with some flashbacks or backstory. The dramatic action of Autotherapy is told in short sections taking place from 10:00 AM, April 17 through 1:10 PM April 23. Interspersed among these sections, and not in chronological order, we find out what the main characters said and what they withheld when interviewed in sessions taking place between 9:00 AM on April 24 and 3:15 PM on May 1.

After Shelagh Connor Shapiro interviewed me for her radio show Write the Book, I wanted to read her own fiction. Her novel, Shape of the Sky, also has an atypical structure for a mystery but that’s because though it features a homicide, a missing person, and an assumed identity, it’s not really what you’d consider a mystery. I enjoyed it so much, however, I decided to stretch the category and include this vivid picture of life in a small Vermont town. The people of Resolute, Vermont take a big risk in agreeing to host a rock concert. Sure enough, the mini-Woodstock attracts hordes of outsiders who camp outside in the rain bringing some needed cash as well as excitement, music, and opportunity as well as the disaster some townsfolk predicted.

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Shape of the Sky doesn’t progress chronologically because each section gives us chronologically overlapping points of view as lives intersect. Shapiro offers compassionate and nuanced portrayals: a farm wife, a groupie, a town constable, a rock star, the town’s most annoying gossip, and more. The town is a place where a decades-long resident can still be considered an outsider but where newcomer-drifters are quickly offered work and where people take care of each other. Becca, for example, who uses a wheelchair after a car accident, wants to be allowed to do for herself what she can do, but also recognizes how much she still can’t, and how “…the town had healed around her like the edges of a wound.”

What I wish I could learn from Shelagh Connor Shapiro is how to write with such beauty and tenderness without ever crossing the line into sentimentality.

As long as I’m straying from my mission, I can’t overlook Jen Grow’s new story collection, My Life as a Mermaid.

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Though I know Jen Grow to be a very talented writer, I approached this book with some trepidation because of the back cover. Did I really want to read about the dark side of living “happily ever after”? Did I really need another book about housewives, mothers, and cheating husbands? Of course, if that’s your cuppa, yes, you’ll find fiction here about love gone wrong. I don’t mean to put any subject matter down. But really…When I first started leading writing workshops, I can’t tell you how many stories I read about unhappy wives who end up running on beaches only to throw themselves into the ocean and transform into mermaids. That is not at all what Grow’s fiction is like. Her remarkable title story instead vividly and dramatically explores the anxiety of privilege. It’s a story I’ll reread often. And if there’s a fairy tale being questioned in My Life as a Mermaid, it’s the American Dream as when Grow writes in the voice of the wife of a severely injured veteran, and spotlights the fragile communities of the down and out. It’s a moving and memorable collection.

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Coming up soon: Cartels, politics, corruption and the US hand in Latin America. After I finally get around to reading Don Winslow’s The Cartel, I’ll write about it along with The Power of the Dog and Vanessa Blakeslee’s Juventud, a coming-of-age novel set in Colombia amid the violence of drug trafficking and civil war.

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Till then…

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