An Interview with Ru Freeman

3 Dec
Ru Freeman is a Sri Lankan born writer and activist whose latest book is the anthology, Extraordinary Rendition: (American) Writers on Palestine.

Ru Freeman is a Sri Lankan born writer and activist whose latest book is the anthology, Extraordinary Rendition: (American) Writers on Palestine.

Ru Freeman is the author of the novels A Disobedient Girl and On Sal Mal Lane and, most recently, the editor of the anthology Extraordinary Rendition: (American) Writers on Palestine. She was born in Sri Lanka and is a contributing editorial board member of the Asian American Literary Review. She has been a fellow of the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, Yaddo, Hedgebrook, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and was the 2014 winner of the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for Fiction by an American Woman.

To read an exercise about avoiding ideological and biased language, click here.

In this interview, Freeman discusses the eye-opening possibilities of faith, the responsibility to try to understand the incomprehensible, and why Edward Said’s daughter, Najla Said, loved the play Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

Michael Noll

Identity plays a significant role in the book. Naomi Shihab Nye in particular hones in on this with her poem, “Before I Was a Gazan,” which asks the reader to see the speaker first as a human. In the poem, Gazan is a political term. As I read this poem, I couldn’t help thinking of when Mike Huckabee said there is no such thing as the Palestinian people. How important was it to you for this book to fight for a particular way of seeing this conflict and the people within it?

Ru Freeman

When you ask 65 writers to speak of anything, you cannot inflict an agenda on them; writers are, by nature, both opinionated and in flux at all times. My editorial statement made the point that we were at a historic moment where it was impossible to say nothing, and asked each writer to consider what their response could be, what form it might take. Definite and specific or diffuse and searching? Did a lack of knowledge prevent any of them from speaking and did having deep familiarity with Palestine have the effect of paralyzing them? If there was a fight, it was only to make the book itself, to create a solid, unassailable, complex work of collective art about a topic, a word even, that we had avoided for far too long.

Michael Noll

There’s a particularly bitter poem by Alicia Striker (who is Jewish), “The Story of Joshua,” in which God tells the children of the Jewish slaves who escaped from Egypt, “Here is what to do, to take/This land away from the inhabitants: Kill their men/Kill their women/Consume the people utterly. God says: is that clear?/I give you the land, but/You must murder for it.” In short, the poem is asking us to reconsider what is probably the central narrative for those who support Israel’s right to build settlements. It’s also a central narrative for Americans in general, not just because it’s the basic story most Christian kids are taught but also because a lot of us grew up watching that very American movie The Ten Commandments every Easter. How difficult is it to get people to reassess a narrative that they’ve been taught basically from birth?

Ru Freeman

Well, if we were robotic entities, it would be very difficult, but we are not. We are human beings whose learning comes from living, from adaptation, from withstanding, and from engagement. Alicia’s poem is particularly salient because, as you say, it speaks to a certain interpretation of God’s word. A different reading of that story would maintain that God did not “give” the land to anybody, but rather that “He” asked that work be done upon land which belonged to “Him.” To claim ownership of that land could be considered as ludicrous as tenant-farmers fighting over the earthly spoils of the land-owning class. But more than that, of course, is the absurdity of the notion that any single system of belief can dictate our human relationships with each other. Faith ought to open our eyes to the existence of faith in others even if they do not believe what we believe. Any other practice of it would make small what should in fact be vast.

I am reminded by your question of Edward Said’s daughter, Najla Said, who has a beautiful performance piece where she talks about how much she loved the play, Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and how she would stride about the house singing “for we have been promised a land of our own,” while her brother railed at her. So yes, we pick these things up, even the best of us, the most unlikeliest of us. Still, religion is, in the end, a story we tell ourselves, but unless we are psychologically aberrant, it ought not to persuade us to murder.

Michael Noll

Extraordinary Rendition: (American) Writers on Palestine, edited by Ru Freeman, follows a vision of art stated, here, by Edwidge Danticat: "It is both the artist’s burden and duty to witness what is going on in the world."

Extraordinary Rendition: (American) Writers on Palestine, edited by Ru Freeman, follows a vision of art stated, here, by Edwidge Danticat: “It is both the artist’s burden and duty to witness what is going on in the world.”

The book draws many parallels, comparing or juxtaposing the Palestinian conflict with, for example, racial conflicts in the United States and Mexico’s struggles with narcos. On one hand, the introduction of these other conflicts could potentially distract from the book’s subject: Palestine. On the other hand, it seems that the book is making an argument about injustice in general—about conflict and racism and bigotry and violence in general. When you first began putting the book together, did you expect Ferguson and Tijuana, for example, to appear in it? Or was the scope of the book shaped by the writers within it?

Ru Freeman

Oh, absolutely! The line between what happens in Ferguson and what we as a nation are comfortable with allowing to continue to happen in Palestine is crystal clear. Tracing that line in words and images is an acknowledgement of how deeply these things are connected, and certainly brings it to light for people who may not have been paying attention. Some of these pieces actually talk about the responsibility, as writers, certainly, to stay open to what we see, to listen, to report back, no matter how incomprehensible a situation might be to us, or how divorced from our own realities, like in Leslie Jamison’s essay, “La Frontera.” That whole essay ends with the request that people try to listen above “the clattering of your own guilt.” The book, too, aims to overcome that sense people have when they hear of the magnitude of suffering (in Palestine, elsewhere), of shutting down. It says, listen to what is being explored here by these many voices, let in the nuance of feeling that is missing when you just read of numbers in a newspaper.

Michael Noll

As I write this, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is speaking in Washington D.C., a day after meeting with President Obama. Relations between the two leaders are not warm, to put it mildly. Netanyahu is saying that he still supports a two-state solution, but the consensus seems to be that there is not presently any conceivable plan to achieve that solution. It’s also the 20th anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by an Israeli religious extremist who did not believe in negotiations with Palestinians. On this anniversary, several newspaper columnists have asked the question, “Would Rabin have brought peace?” It’s an impossible question to answer, of course, and any answer says more about the person asking than what might have happened. Given that, here is what a writer for the Jerusalem Post had to say on the matter: “Palestinians will always oppose a peace agreement with Israel regardless of who the prime minister is…Any compromise by Israel is viewed by Palestinians as demonstrating weakness. Any concessions only encourage more violence.” This is a pretty common point of view. I won’t ask how peace can occur when two sides are so apart. But I will ask this: This is the chasm of perception that Extraordinary Rendition enters. What effect do you hope the book will have?

Ru Freeman

Always, never, forever: this is the terminology of kindergarteners, not great leaders and certainly not great literature. The writers in this anthology engage at a deeply personal level, bringing the weight of their art and their own history to bear upon the idea of solidarity with our fellow human beings. They explore the connection between grief and grievance (as Tom Sleigh does), between Palestine and Ferguson (as Kiese Laymon does), between travel and return (as Jane Hirshfield does), and on from there into what they have seen, what they imagine, what they hope. Yes, we enter a chasm of ignorance, but we come bearing news of other ways of seeing. It’s a victory, don’t you think?

December 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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