All posts filed under: Storytelling and narratives

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The rituals of writing: How I write, with help from Zadie Smith

At a time when “no human realm is unironized or not belittled”, it strange that the label ‘writer’ still inspires awe. These are the words of Zadie Smith at a Museum of Fine Arts lecture titled “Why Write?” Zadie Smith fills an entire auditorium with her presence, even though she jokes that she is British and, therefore, “does not speak off the cuff.” I want to have a glass of wine with off-the-cuff Zadie Smith, but for now, I settle contently for scribbling everything she says and noticing the craftsmanship of her words. “Writers feel acutely,” she offers. “Writing can be an echo chamber of complaint. Writers forever feel neglected. They romanticize other eras. Epoch envy.” I was bred to disdain generalizations; any sentence that begins with “women all…” or “humans…” or “Greeks…” is met with my raised eyebrows. And yet, I can hear her generalize about writers and their feelings and nod in submissive agreement, compelled by assonance and rhythm and internal rhyme. She examines various explanations for our attachment to writing. “Write because …

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Reflections on an experiment: One photo a day

“All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) vulnerability, mortality, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” — Susan Sontag“ Darling, do we have to sleep with Susan every night?,” he asked, pulling Sontag’s Reborn: Journals and Notebooks from underneath his back. “She pokes me!” Well, she pokes me too. We seem to seek the jarring comfort of particular writers’ words at different epochs and this is the Susan era. Actually, it is always the Susan era, the Joan days, the Mary mornings. Even though I am currently absorbed in Sontag’s diaries, only to realize she was a more complex, eloquent 16-year-old than I could have ever aspired to be, I was first acquainted with her during a course on authoritarian cinema as an undergraduate. I do not remember the text, I cannot provide you with a reference, but I remember what the page that contained the excerpt I am recalling looked like. Her passage spoke …

Death by reading

“Oh my God, we are going to die.”After three years of living and working in conflict and post-conflict zones around the world, I did not expect to hear the above sentence uttered outside a library in Boston, Massachusetts. “We are going to die, I’m telling you.” This time it is neither of cholera nor of rocket fire, neither of a mine nor of malaria. You see, we will allegedly die of . . . reading. “Four hundred pages. A thousand. Eighteen thousand six hundred and fifty eight.” People try to calculate the number of pages we will have to read per week to complete our graduate coursework in law and diplomacy. We signed up for this, just as we did for that stint of work in Sudan or Colombia, in Uganda or on the Iraq border, and our freedom to parachute in and—most importantly—out will always make every page turn feel like a privilege to me. Imminent death does not feel like autumnal breeze, the laws of humanitarian intervention, or blank pages waiting for ideas …

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Lessons from Measuring Life in Photographs

In an interview last August, Beth Nicholls asked me: “How differently do you see the world through the lens of a camera?” I responded: In The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton discusses the process of drawing while traveling. He remarks that drawing enables the traveler to see: to squint, to scrutinize, to look in a way that transcends the fleeting glimpse. Photography plays a similarly enabling role in my own life, even though it is more instantaneous than the process of drawing. I look through the viewfinder searching for beauty… or for surprise, incongruence, contradiction, conflict. The camera reminds me to look — to really look. I embarked on a project to photograph life every day in 2012 as an attempt to do exactly that: to look closer, to squint, to be surprised. To find wonder. Inspired by T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock,who “measured out his life with coffee spoons”, Measuring Life in Photographs was born. I was hoping that the practice of taking a photograph every day would make me a better photographer. …

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The poetry of silence

In a feature titled Poets I Didn’t Study in School, PeacexPeace sheds light on the unsung poetry of conflict. And in a confluence of literary minds this National Poetry Month, Akhila Kolisetty prompted a reflection on the poets of our lives. In a notebook with a yellow straw chair on the cover, I capture the stanzas that caused a small gasp when I first read them. They range from words out of a newspaper article, to half a line from Mary Oliver, to dozens of verses out of Elytis’ The Monogram. My childhood was a collage of setting out on the road to Ithaca and “να εύχεσαi να ‘ναι μακρύς ο δρόμος…“ and “nobody, not even the rain has such small hands.” Tucked onto a fridge in Washington D.C., I found Mary Oliver: “let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.“ In the remainders basement of the Harvard Bookstore, Neruda came into my life. And at an outdoor bookstore in the Plaza de Armas of Havana, I met Benedetti: “te quiero porque …

Choosing compassion: Kony 2012 edition

Jason Russell, the co-founder of Invisible Children, was detained for public masturbation a few days ago. He and his organization had been in the spotlight because of Kony 2012, the Invisible Children advocacy campaign that yielded the fastest viral video we have known. Critical reaction to the campaign raised some poignant questions about storytelling and advocacy: How do we balance a compelling call for advocacy among those far away with respecting the wishes and priorities of those on the ground? How do we preserve Ugandans’ dignity, integrity and agency over their lives in the process of telling their story? How do we transform a complex history into a call to action without oversimplifying, dramatizing or falling into the very stereotypes we seek to combat? Many have argued that Invisible Children has failed in striking this balance, thus potentially creating a video that is inaccurate, disrespectful or out of sync with the wishes of Ugandans for their country and with their perceptions of the conflict. I have read these opinions with respect and am proud to …

The darker corners of storytelling

This post is part of the Books Well-Loved series, in which I share quotes, impressions and insights from the books that have touched me. Book and author: The Lotus Eaters, Tatjana Soli Where I read it: I wish I could tell you. On a terrace somewhere, accompanied by papas bravas; in bed, to chase away the nightmares. Soundtrack: Both the book and my thoughts about it flow better to the sound of this. Favorite phrase: “…but for her, the value of the picture was that it returned her purpose — to find small glimmers of humanity.” “There is a very real chance we will spend the rest of our lives in prison,” I said to her. “Well, then we will have plenty of time for you to teach me Spanish,” she joked with a nonchalance that made me hate her and promptly love her. We were both out of our depth. Conflict, development, social change, photography, documentation, storytelling, journalism — these words and their variants were fluently part of our professional lexicon. They were also on …

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Field of mines [or: Choked]

“I think we may be spending the night in a minefield.” I have slept at some strange places. There was the middle of the Black-and-White Desert in the Sahara, when I woke up to find that a fox had eaten my breakfast. Or the middle of a wheat field, where I woke up to find that I had accidentally pooped on the hiking trail. Let’s not forget about the Amazon jungle during a monsoon. A minefield, however, would be a first. A sign informed us that we were in the “Tuscany of Israel.” The light was warm, the hills were rolling as they do, and I even got a mosquito bite on the eve of December. The rental car with the sunroof was a far cry from its cousin that broke down on the Damascus-Baghdad highway a few warm-lit falls ago. The souvenirs of that drive, though, soon converged with this journey. Radio Lebanon overpowered the newscast in Hebrew. The hills became rocky and populated with signs ‘strongly discouraging’ us from getting off the road. …

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Guest post: Life’s work

Christine Mason Miller has been an inspiration in my journey through storytelling, creativity, and service. A few months ago, I wrote about books well-loved and the impact Christine and her writing have had on my life. Today, on the eve of her launching her new book Desire to Inspire: Using Creative Passion to Transform the World, it is my pleasure to host Christine on Stories of Conflict and Love. *** That’s me on the far left in Bartlesville, Oklahoma in 1976, during one of my extended visits with my grandparents. Remember Slip & Slide? Well, instead of buying one, my grandparents let me create one with a few of their vinyl table cloths and a hose. Can’t find what we want? No problem — let’s just make it ourselves. When I asked Roxanne if she would do me the honor of sharing a guest blog post on Stories of Conflict and Love as part of my virtual book tour for Desire to Inspire, she not only gave me an enthusiastic “Yes!”, she also asked if I …

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If a place can make you cry

Book and author: If a place can make you cry: Dispatches from an anxious state, by Daniel Gordis When I read it: Spring 2011, in an anxious state Where I read it: In Jerusalem, fittingly. Favorite phrase: “For after all, if there’s a place in this world that can make you cry, isn’t that where you ought to be?” Barbed wire sunsets, here I come again. Daniel Gordis writes: “After all, if you focused on every victim these days, you’d never be able to get out of bed in the morning. You survive only because you can forget.” It is the eve of my return to the Middle East, my return to the places where you survive only because you can forget. Gordis rightfully reminds me of the centrality of forgetting for my own survival, but I have so far led a life of remembrance. I like to catalogue, to scribble notes on unlined pages by which to mark the days, to photograph, to document, to tell. My stomach is clenched today. My beloved friend Erin …