Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Haiti, Backlash, and the Call to Inaction

With a backlash, we’re responding to that which rides a surge of undeserved popularity. An obscenely lauded sports team we’re certain got lucky at the eleventh hour. An actor collecting one too many awards, his shoulders practiced in a false shrug of humility. The resulting backlash is our collective smackdown, a way of putting the successful entity on watch. We see the world rewarding you unjustly, and we’re going to do our best to turn the tide of your success. We’re going to spread the word that you’re overhyped and overpaid, a phony garbed in an emperor’s new clothes, until the private ill will in our hearts and minds becomes a self-generating force all its own, offering some kind of just equilibrium.

Perhaps our tendency to create a backlash is a good thing under certain circumstances. It’s a turning away from the siren’s call of popularity, a return to the safe harbor of reason, pragmatism. A no bullshit zone.

Yet whatever the merits of a backlash, however one stretches the word to accommodate their personal loyalties, it is utterly unthinkable in conjunction with the human disaster in Haiti.

What, then, explains this Facebook status update?

Shame on you America: the only country where we have homeless without shelter, children going to bed without eating, elderly going without needed meds, and mentally ill without treatment - yet we have a benefit for the people of Haiti on 12 TV stations. 99% of people won't have the guts to copy and repost this. I did.

I admit I was stunned. Of course, it wasn’t the first ignorant, erroneous, inflammatory posting I’d seen. If you’re on Facebook and you have “friends” positioned at various points along the political spectrum, you’re definitely familiar with this kind of posturing. Some people do it because the pre-packaged words of zealots strike a chord in their small, atrophied hearts. Others are pot stirrers, people who enjoy tossing in bitter remarks and watching political factions go at each other in the scalding stew.

I didn’t want anything to do with it. I knew the drill. Ignore it unless it’s on your page, and when it gets to be too much, make the friend invisible in your news feed. Worst case scenario – something I have never done – de-friend the person. But wasn’t that a sign that one lacked (dare I say?) the “guts” for debate, for dissenting opinions? If there’s no honest exchange of thoughts, however diametrically opposed, isn’t there a problem?

But I went back to the posting. It didn’t represent honest thought; instead, it displayed, for all the Facebook world to re-post, a dishonest assertion. Or, generously, an error. (Did I really need to point out that America is far from the only country to neglect its homeless, elderly, and mentally ill?) And in advocating that we ignore Haiti, isn’t that also advocating apathy?

So I took the bait. I “commented,” quoting from the U.N.’s 2009 report measuring quality of life in 182 countries. Norway scored the highest. The U.S. ranked 13th out of 182 in an index of life expectancy, literacy, shelter, hunger, and school enrollment, among other criteria. Truthfully, 13th was kind of shocking, though it was far from the lowest ranking countries. Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, and Niger took those honors.

So, no. America isn’t the only country with shameful problems. And no, as one of the richest nations - our dubious honor - we don’t have the right to ignore the ongoing catastrophic conditions in Haiti. After I posted, I was relieved to notice that someone else had voiced objections to the FB status as well.

The next morning, however, a smear of comments had accumulated. First there were strident calls for inaction, the “government corruption” bogeyman. The Haitian government is corrupt, no one is getting the aid. Why donate millions when they’re not going to get it? Somewhere on the road to apathy, everyone took a mean turn into partisan politics land.

“People don’t stand a chance unless they have a strong faith in God and that’s what will get them thru...”

“It is hard to feel compassion for people who in Pat Robertson’s words ‘made a pact with the devil.’ They chose their voodoo over God and they are paying a price for it now. Notice their Christian neighbors didn’t suffer any damage..”

“Didn’t anyone notice that during Catrina [sic] the only help we received was from our own?”

*Author’s note: According to an April 2007 report in the Washington Post, $854 million in aid was offered by foreign countries in the wake of hurricane Katrina. Those countries included Iraq, Afghanistan, Cuba, and China, among myriad others.

After this, the debate devolved into a series of ad hominem attacks, punctuated with the stale standby, “Maybe you should read your Bible.”

I thought about jumping back in, fighting, at the very least, against inertia. Yes, there’s always government corruption and yes, inefficiency often plagues aid operations. But did they know that according to the Red Cross website, “More than 430 Red Cross and Red Crescent workers from at least 30 countries are in the country supporting thousands of local volunteers... More than 100 represent the American Red Cross, including a group of Creole interpreters on board the USNS Comfort. The relief operation in Haiti is already the largest single-country personnel deployment in global Red Cross history”? Did they care?

Perhaps they were simply disillusioned by reports of thwarted aid attempts, or of the“Haiti” text scams, or that Facebook would contribute to relief efforts in exchange for specific postings. Maybe they felt hopeless. Frustration was understandable, but still.

What about UNICEF, with this January 16th report on their website: “Another plane loaded with UNICEF emergency relief supplies arrived in Port-au-Prince this morning, carrying urgently needed water and sanitation supplies. This is the second load of water and sanitation materials to arrive in Haiti in the past 24 hours. The shipment contained additional oral rehydration salts, water purification tablets and jerry cans. Two experts in water and sanitation were also on the flight. Providing access to clean water and sanitation is essential in the immediate aftermath of disasters, to avoid a second wave of deaths…Two more UNICEF planeloads, loaded with some 70 metric tons of tents, tarpaulin, and medicines, are currently awaiting clearance to fly to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.”

Do facts matter? Can solid evidence of aid workers on the ground combat this apathy? Or is that not the problem at all? Has Haiti, God forbid, become a partisan issue?

Maybe that’s an extreme leap to take from a Facebook status update. After all, the original poster finally fired back, making it clear this wasn’t really about Haiti, poverty, or politics at all. It was about her. “People should be used to the fact that I voice my own opinion. Right or wrong.” She went on to apologize somewhat facetiously for “offending people.” As if she had merely suggested someone’s football team sucked.

Maybe I’m just letting myself get distracted here. People around the world are helping in Haiti. Miracles – not the kind generated by a vengeful God but rather those created by doctors, aid workers, and volunteers – are happening every day, and Haitians will endure.

But it still bothers me. Somewhere in a dark corner of the Facebook world, someone is writing hateful, fallacious postings. Some people will copy and re-post them. 99%, that seemingly constant number, won’t, will you? Many will believe it, and of those, many will spread it. Who are these people? And how does it benefit them to equate hate with having guts?

When the noise dies down, Haitians will still be trapped under the rubble, they will still have nothing, but we’ll have our posturing. We will argue about Facebook postings and politics. We’ll find a place in ourselves where we can sweep away the facts and the suffering, and proudly take ownership, once and for all, of our own self-righteous right to be wrong.

That scares me. And yes, it offends me too.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Review in The Boston Globe

‘Bone Worship’ and the human family

"The title of Elizabeth Eslami’s debut novel comes from a ritual that elephants perform. When an elephant dies, its family members cover the body with brush and soil, revisiting the bones for years, caressing them with their trunks. A haunting symbol of remembrance, bone worship becomes the organizing principle of Eslami’s investigation of familial and cultural memory.

When Jasmine Fahroodhi fails out of the University of Chicago in her final semester, she returns home to her parents in Arrowhead, Ga. Her American mother, Margaret, and Iranian father, Yusef, offer an uncomfortable homecoming by announcing their intention of arranging a marriage for her. With the strident bedside manner he perfected as a radiologist delivering bad news, Yusef works to locate potential husbands while Margaret uses the disarmingly calm demeanor she developed as an emergency dispatcher to reassure Jasmine that the hastegar - the arranged marriage - is in her best interests.

Yusef’s frenzied attempts to recruit husbands through newspaper advertisements and Internet postings create a comical “groom soup’’: Mohammed, who protests that Jasmine looks nothing like her online photograph; Ali, a moneyed sloth, who declares “he would never, under any circumstances, work a day in his life” ; John, who after three dates declares “I don’t believe in buying untested merchandise’’; Omar, who chooses a pure Iranian wife over Jasmine; Alan, who brings along his mother and Greek baklava on their first date; and Gabe, a convicted shoplifter who after puzzling over the Fahroodhis’ ethnicities declares his preference for “zebra’’ over “mixed’’ as a description of multicultural families.

With her parents distracted by the husband hunt, Jasmine uses the months following her fall from academic grace to study her father’s Iranian heritage and family, understand her failed collegiate career and confused ambitions, and find a job in the narrow-minded and economically starved town of Arrowhead. She settles on a janitorial position at a nearby zoo, leaving her plenty of energy during and after work to uncover and revere her father’s history.

These reverences and the sometimes unrelated mythologies they provoke become the most compelling geography of the novel, taking Jasmine far from Arrowhead to: the pistachio trees and mud floors of her father’s childhood in Tehran; the icy tundra of the North, where Eskimos lure wolves with bloody caribou bones; the bustling streets of Delhi, where a snake handler and his sons sleep with cobras; and the Yucatan Peninsula, where jaguars live high in the mountain jungles. These beautiful waking dreams of life abroad consume Jasmine as she labors to learn the past her father refuses to share with his American family." - The Boston Globe

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Bone Worship Reviewed in Eugene Weekly

My favorite alt-weekly just published a lovely review of Bone Worship! Have a look here.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Don't ask me how this happened...

...but the 16 year old in me is jumping for joy.

The Daily Beast. Timothy Hutton. And yours truly.

All right here.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Review in The Inkslinger

I can't tell you how much I love this review of Bone Worship from The Inkslinger!

"Elizabeth Eslami’s debut novel is a culture clash from the get-go, but it’s a beautifully written clash filled with the most familiar kinds of yearning, both familial and cultural.Jasmine is the prickly college dropout daughter of an Iranian father and an American mother. She is uncertain about what she wants, or if indeed she wants anything at all, but her father has plans for her new path—a hastegar, or an arranged marriage. Jasmine is horrified, and as father and daughter begin their wary but determined dance around each other, she wonders exactly who her father is, where his strange ways came from, how it is that people ever come together in the first place. Cultural confusion becomes less of an issue than the desperate need for connection, and the earnest ways in which Jasmine and her parents go about trying to simply see each other are equal parts heartbreak and revelation." – Kimberly Snow

Monday, January 4, 2010

The San Francisco Chronicle cites the first sentence of Bone Worship!

The San Francisco Chronicle has listed the first sentence of my novel as one of their top "grabbers," along with one by Joyce Carol Oates! Pretty neat, even though a "grabber" sounds more like a new fast food snack item than literature. :)

Have a look here.