For this Sunday, some thoughts triggered by this @nytimesbooks review by @ABarnardNYT of Elliot Ackerman's latest book – while I will touch on the substance of the work briefly, this is really a thread about who gets to be part of these conversations…
Different NYT pages have given over a lot of space to Ackerman; in the last 6 months we’ve heard FROM or OF him 3x at @nytimesbooks as well as also at @nytopinion
A Marine who participated in the invasions/occupations of #Iraq & #Afghanistan & was awarded Purple Heart & Silver Star for what he did there on behalf of the US military in those invasions/occupations of Iraqis/Afghans, he then became a novelist. What did he write about?
1st book he wrote in the voice of an Afghan; in the 2nd, in the voice of an Iraqi who goes to #Syria. In the latest NYT Ackerman appearance, Barnard is tasked with reviewing his memoir; the memoirs focus (to my surprise) is on Syria – to which Ackerman is “drawn.”
(sidenote:many “war” journos/photogs suffer from this affliction, of needing 2b near tragedies their home countries have helped perpetrate/perpetuate but whose direst consequences–ie collateral damage-are not borne by them, but rather by the unfortunate natives of those places)
Part of the draw is that Ackerman (w/o irony apparently) sees himself in the idealistic and disillusioned Syrian civilians of the Syrian revolution
Barnard appropriately (if not too diplomatically) calls Ackerman to task for comparing his voluntary service in the US military invasions/occupations of #Afghanistan & #Iraq to what Syrian democracy activists wanted to accomplish in 2011
From the review: “We are veterans of the same war,” Ackerman writes of his Syrian translator Abed, a democracy activist, “the same disillusionment, one where high-minded democratic ideals left a wake of destruction.” 🤦🏽‍♀️🤦🏽‍♀️🤦🏽‍♀️
Thankfully, Barnard quickly dismisses this, writing: “This equivalence doesn’t work.”
In 2017, when Ackerman’s “Syria” novel came out,so did my non-fiction book on #Syria, my country of origin, where I returned to throughout my life, where I have lived, whose language I speak & whose history I meticulously studied.I found myself paired w him at major US book fests
In Nov 2017, he told our audience in Portland the same thing – that he was like his Syrian translator: for each of them, their respective “wars” gave them the best and worst days of their lives
That was a bold claim. RECAP: Ackerman volunteered for the (morally & tactically questionable) US invasions of foreign countries.
Meanwhile, Abed was instead part of peaceful civilian grassroots uprising AGAINST Assad, a long-standing dictator, one with whom the US partnered when it rendered people (often innocent) to his dungeons as a way to outsource torture/skirt the US Constitution during“War on Terror”
Ackerman carried a gun; Abed did not; indeed, Syrian civilians who started the uprising were on the precise other side of the guns
Ackerman’s assertion was remarkably tone deaf, esp in front of me though maybe Syrians aren’t usually imagined to be on these panels (I was the only Syrian or Arab ever on our book fests panels together)
There I realized he actually not only knew very little about Syria, but that he also -- like many others -- was so captured by US exceptionalism that he could not see clearly the enterprise he had been a part of and why that would mean he and Abed could never be equivalent.
And also why it would require some serious deconstructing of his US exceptionalist thinking before he could ever truly write in the voice of an Afghan or Iraqi (as well as much studying, research, and listening to Afghans and Iraqis on their own terms)
Let me be clear: being critical of US involvement in the forever wars WITHOUT ALSO understanding how US nationalism/exceptionalism allows Americans to forever be innocent or just “mis-guided but well intentioned” is no intellectual accomplishment
(To remedy this, I can’t more strongly suggest that folks read the very excellent “Notes on a Foreign Country” by @suzyhans)
I am however surprised that what I thought was a spontaneous and poorly conceived anecdote trying to make false parallels told at the book fests actually appears to have made it into print
But perhaps not surprising as in June, the @nytimesbooks deemed it necessary for readers to know what it is that Ackerman reads -- spoiler alert: there are no Afghan, Iraqi, or Syrian writers…
What I want to focus on here however, is not the content of his work. Folks will pick their subjects as they will. It's a free country. But let’s talk abt @nytimesbooks & WHO its editors allow 2b part of the convo about how US forever wars & ripples are discussed and remembered
Ackerman has now been reviewed 3 times on said pages; each of those times, spoiler alert again, his reviewers have NOT BEEN Iraqi or Afghan or Syrian. Why doesn’t it come to mind to assign these reviews to them?
If an American (ex soldier no less) takes the voice of an Afghan or Iraqi, wouldn't it be interesting to know from actual Afghans or Iraqis if the voice feels real? Would that not be enlightening? Would that not get us out of our echo chamber? Isn't that obvious?
Why doesn't this new atmosphere of attempted gender& racial inclusiveness in US journalism/criticism (sincere or not) apply to foreign writers or Arab or Muslim writers (often themselves Americans) w/backgrounds in these countries that the US is actively shaping the destinies of?
Also, again apparently without irony, when in February, @khaled_khalifah, one of Syria’s greatest contemporary novelists was given a brief review in the NYT of his excellent novel “Death is Hard Work,” who wrote it? Spoiler again, it was Ackerman.
Why didn’t the editors think of assigning this to any of the many Arab or Syrian writers out there? Or any writer from a country or a diaspora that has experienced civil war/unraveling? Or a writer who actually knows the country?
Wouldn't this have been an opportune occasion to hear about the Syrian experience -- one of the most important tragedies of the 21st century -- and how Khalifa did or did not capture it?
Similarly, would the conversation about Ackerman’s work be different if the reviewers weren’t always white? Maybe. Maybe not. But thanks to the editors, we will never know
Instead, in the NYT review of Ackerman's novel in the voice of an Afghan, the white male reviewer preempts any criticism of appropriation and silences any discussion at the very start of his review.…
But Ackerman is not some civilian American trying to be empathetic. He was an active and perhaps even at the time enthusiastic (multiple tours w commendations) participant in these wars that destroyed the lives of millions.
Maybe this is actually all halal. Maybe Afghans and Iraqis are so happy he’s writing his novels. But who knows? We never get to hear from them. Because I guess the editors don't know where to find them?
To that quote slandering any criticism as banal identity politics:if there’s any way to tame appetites for war through literature, then perhaps its by reading writers from the rest of the world;reviewing them;& assigning reviews to people outside the echo chamber
& that depends on editors/readers/Americans showing less interest in the experience of “the American” in another country & more interest in the ACTUAL peoples those correspondents are writing about...
...not just when they become headline worthy but also when they are just living their lives or writing their own novels.Good night from Berlin, where FYI there are many brilliant Afghan Iraqi Syrian writers who could be informing American conversations. Enough navel gazing. FIN
Ps here’s one of those panels from a 2017 book fest. It was called “Telling Syria’s Stories” - yup, only Syrian and only woman.
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