Review: A Message from Ukraine

I bought a copy of Volodymyr Zelensky’s collected speeches at an airport bookshop in December. It’s a small book, just the size to wedge into a suitcase, 118 pages at £9.99, of which President Zelensky’s personal income from the book (at least £0.60 per copy) will go to his charity, United24, in support of Ukraine.

I’ve been impressed by Zelensky: his absolute commitment to his country, his ability to lead his people in their struggle against a much larger, heartless, autocratic and immoral aggressor, his skill at coaching Western democracies to come to his aid, but perhaps most of all for his restraint in not criticising donors who pinch pennies. It would be so tempting to call Macron out as a egotistical, French, Putin-loving, tightwad. But whatever he may have thought of Macron, he kept it pretty much to himself. And now, low and behold, there is a transformation: France is backing a military victory for Ukraine and is going to send Ukraine light tanks, prompting Germany to do the same and adding Patriot missile batteries.

Zelensky’s Wikipedia page reads: “Born to a Ukrainian Jewish family, Zelenskyy (in Ukrainian, his surname is spelt with two y’s) grew up as a native Russian speaker in Kryvyi Rih, a major city in central Ukraine. Prior to his acting career, he obtained a degree in law. He then pursued a career in comedy and created the production company Kvartal 95, which produced films, cartoons, and TV shows including the TV series Servant of the People, in which Zelenskyy played the role of the Ukrainian president. The series aired from 2015 to 2019 and was immensely popular. A political party bearing the same name as the television show was created in March 2018 by employees of Kvartal 95.

Zelenskyy announced his candidacy in the 2019 presidential election on the evening of 31 December 2018, alongside the New Year’s Eve address of then-president Petro Poroshenko on TV. A political outsider, he had already become one of the frontrunners in opinion polls for the election. He won the election with 73.23 percent of the vote in the second round, defeating Poroshenko. He has positioned himself as an anti-establishment and anti-corruption figure. As president, Zelenskyy has been a proponent of e-government and of unity between the Ukrainian and Russian speaking parts of the country’s population. His communication style makes extensive use of social media.  His party won a landslide victory in the snap legislative election held shortly after his inauguration as president. During the first two years of his administration, Zelenskyy oversaw the lifting of legal immunity for members of parliament, the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic recession, and some limited progress in tackling corruption in Ukraine.

During his presidential campaign, Zelenskyy promised to end Ukraine’s protracted conflict with Russia, and he has attempted to engage in dialogue with Russian president Putin. Zelenskyy’s strategy during the Russian military buildup was to calm the Ukrainian populace and assure the international community that Ukraine was not seeking to retaliate. He initially distanced himself from warnings of an imminent war, while also calling for security guarantees and military support from NATO to “withstand” the threat. After the start of the invasion, Zelenskyy declared martial law across Ukraine and a general mobilisation of the armed forces. His leadership during the crisis has won him widespread international praise, and he has been described as a symbol of the Ukrainian resistance. Zelenskyy was named the Time person of the Year for 2022 and opinion polls in Ukraine have ranked him as Ukraine’s greatest president.”

The speeches – there are 16 of them – were selected by Zelensky for the book, and range from his inaugural address to the Ukrainian parliament to Ukrainian Independence Day on 24 August 2022. There is a useful preface by Arkady Ostrovsky, the Russian and Eastern Europe editor of the Economist. This is followed by an introduction by Zelensky in which he reflects on changing the past.

His speeches are focused on several themes. Ukraine is a free, sovereign, independent country. Russia is engaged in an illegal and immoral invasion. Russia must be stopped because ultimately, it is at war with Western democracy, its values and principles. If Ukraine loses the war, Europe itself will be next. Ukraine can and must win this war. It will end when all the Russian occupiers are gone.

The language and the images are highly motivational. This is an excellent, two-hour read.

Review: True History of the Kelly Gang

I missed reading this novel when it came out in 2000, won the Booker Prize and was made into a movie in 2019. It was written by Peter Carey, an Australian author, who had previously won another Booker. He was born in 1943. He dropped out of the pursuit of a science degree at university and started work in advertising. He began to read important novelists and wrote five unpublished novels. Having spent two years in London, working in advertising, he returned to Australia in 1970. In 1980 he opened his own advertising agency and the following year published his first novel, Bliss. Toward the end of the Australian phase of his career, Oscar and Lucinda was published in 1988 and won the Booker McConnell Prize as it was then known. Carey, who moved to New York in 1990 continues to live there, has received fourteen literary awards, several more than once, nominated twice for musical awards as lyricist, written fourteen novels, two short story collections, a stage play and has been married three times.

Peter Carey

There was a Kelly Gang in Australia in the 1880’s which was famous for its exploits, and for its identity with the marginalised immigrant population. The ‘True History’, however, departs from the historic facts on several points. The character, Mary Hearn, who became Ned Kelly’ lover and the mother of his daughter, never existed. There is no evidence that Kelly sired any children. The relationship between Kelly’s mother, Ellen, and Harry Power, the famous bushranger is a literary fabrication.

The story is told by Ned Kelly himself, in semi-literate writing, without punctuation, to tell his life history to his daughter from his point of view. He began life as the oldest boy of destitute family of Irish extraction trying to survive on a remote farm. His father had numerous brushes with the self-serving rural police which resulted in his death when Ned was 12. His mother then apprenticed Ned to Harry Power so that he could survive as a bushranger. He leaves Power and tries to live within the law, but he is imprisoned for three years for receiving a stolen horse, which he claims was given to him. Released from jail, he worked for two years in a sawmill, but he is drawn back into bushranging when a herd of his horses is stolen by a rival settler. Serious trouble with the police begins when he shoots the gun out of the hand of a corrupt police constable who makes advances on Ned’s younger sister. Four police are sent to kill Kelly, but Ned kills three of them in an ambush. The Kelly gang of four (Ned, his brother, Dan, and two friends are eventually surrounded by a crowd of police who kill the other three gang members and wound Ned. The shootout and Kelly’s death by hanging are told by ‘C. S.’, presumably the relative of the local teacher, Thomas Curnow, who ended up with all the Kelly manuscripts and who warned the police that the train tracks via which they were approaching the gang for the final shootout had been sabotaged. Kelly died a hero to most of the people of northeast Victoria, who amplified his life story over time.

The novel draws an accurate picture of the hard life lived by the large majority of the settlers and of the culture of the police, the judiciary and the ruling class in southeast Australia in the nineteenth century. Life was very hard and it created hard men. The story is told in the uneducated language of an impoverished Irish farmer, who clings to his family and its traditions. Ned never ceases to do what he believes is the just thing, and, in the process, there is an inevitable censure of the values and actions of the authorities. The characters are credible – if unsavory. The action is non-stop. This is a big jump above a good American western in its authenticity, its interest and its contribution to history.

Are Publishers Becoming Censors?

There is an article by Anita Singh in Yesterday’s Daily Telegraph in which Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is quoted as saying that it is unlikely that Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses would have been published had Rushdie written it today. Adichie goes on to say that it is unlikely that Rushdie would have decided to write it today.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was born in Enugu, Nigeria in 1977. She grew up on the campus of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where her father was a professor and her mother was the first female Registrar. She studied medicine for a year at Nsukka and then left for the US at the age of 19 to continue her education on a different path. She graduated summa cum laude from Eastern Connecticut State University with a degree in Communication and Political Science. She has a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins University and a Master of Arts degree in African History from Yale University. Her first novel, Purple Hibiscus (2003), won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and her second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), won the Orange Prize. Her 2013 novel Americanah won the US National Book Critics Circle Award. Her most recent work, Notes On Grief, an essay about losing her father, was published in 2021. She was named one of TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2015. In 2017, Fortune Magazine named her one of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders. She is a member of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The article says, “In the first of this year’s BBC Radio 4 Reith Lectures, Ngozi Adichie spoke about freedom of speech.

She said: “Here is a question I’ve been thinking about: would Rushdie’s novel be published today? Probably not. Would it even be written? Possibly not.

“There are writers like Rushdie who want to write novels about sensitive subjects, but are held back by the spectre of social censure.

“Literature is increasingly viewed through ideological rather than artistic lenses. Nothing demonstrates this better than the recent phenomenon of ‘sensitivity readers’ in the world of publishing, people whose job it is to cleanse unpublished manuscripts of potentially offensive words.”

Ngozi Adichie said that publishers are also wary of committing “secular blasphemy”.

She claimed that the issue went far beyond the publishing world, with young people caught in an “epidemic of self-censorship” because they are too afraid of being cancelled.

The author faced her own backlash in 2017 after stating in an interview: “When people talk about, ‘Are trans women women?’ my feeling is [that] trans women are trans women.”

In her lecture, Ngozi Adichie said: “We now live in broad settled ideological tribes. Our tribes demand from us a devotion to orthodoxy and they abide not reason, but faith.

“Many young people are growing up in this cauldron afraid to ask questions for fear of asking the wrong questions. And so they practise an exquisite kind of self-censorship. Even if they believe something to be true or important, they do not say so because they should not say so.”

Ngozi Adichie said the alternative to this “epidemic” of self-censorship was people stating their beliefs and as a result facing a “terrible” online backlash of “ugly personal insults, putting addresses of homes and children’s schools online, trying to make people lose their jobs”.

She said: “To anyone who thinks, ‘Well, some people who have said terrible things deserve it,’: no. Nobody deserves it. It is unconscionable barbarism.

“It is a virtual vigilante action whose aim is not just to silence the person who has spoken but to create a vengeful atmosphere that deters others from speaking. There is something honest about an authoritarianism that recognises itself to be what it is.

“Such a system is easier to challenge because the battle lines are clear. But this new social censure demands consensus while being wilfully blind to its own tyranny. I think it portends the death of curiosity, the death of learning and the death of creativity.”

Ngozi Adichie called for a raising of standards on social media, and reforms including the removal of anonymous accounts.

She suggested that “opinion sharers, political and cultural leaders, editors [and] social media influencers” across the political spectrum should form “a coalition of the reasonable” to moderate extreme speech.

I agree with Ngozi Adichie that social media needs drastic reform to stop harmful misinformation, libel and threats. She seems to believe that the ‘tech’ owners of the social media platforms will not regulate properly because of the cost. She is right, but the cavalry is coming in two regiments. One regiment is government regulation and legislation which is starting to be announced and enacted. This will say ‘reform or pay billions’ and if social media platforms want of survive, they must change their business models. The other regiment is the digital advertisers, who, as the defunding of Twitter shows, do not want to be a part of their customers’ misery.

Publishers and authors are different kinds of problems. Publishers have historically had to navigate a fine line between capturing the public interest on the one hand and not causing public outrage on the other. Some authors face a similar set of choices. But neither publisher nor author has an incentive to lie or cover up the truth. On the contrary.

It seems to me that The Satanic Verses is a special case that has nothing to do with current truths or falsehoods. Most Muslims would regard passages in Verses as blasphemous, though is seems doubtful that Rushdie actually intended such severe criticism of Islam. To me, it seems that he intended the dream sequences featuring Mohammad (the Messenger), the polytheistic deities, the devil and the Prophet’s companion as a demonstration of how absolutist systems can go horribly wrong – one of the themes of the book. But the author framed the example with fictional characters and action which are completely contrary to Islam.

In September 2012, Rushdie expressed doubt that The Satanic Verses would be published today because of a climate of “fear and nervousness”. I agree that it wouldn’t be published even today, in 2022, but I wouldn’t attribute the decision to ‘fear and nervousness’. Today, most publishers would look at the manuscript and think, Muslims won’t like it and there will be mass protests. If he wants us to publish it, the dream sequences have to go.

You can call it the ‘sensitivity reader effect’, but really it’s a question about what’s good for the business.

Review: Life after Life

This novel by Kate Atkinson won the Costa Novel Award in 2013. Her novel, A God in Ruins,which I greatly admired, also won the Costa. I wasn’t quite as taken by her third World War II novel, Transcription, but I was fascinated by the blurb on the back cover of Life after Life: “What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?”

Kate Atkinson

The novel begins in 1910 with the birth of Ursula Todd into an upper class English family in the London suburbs. There is a heavy snowstorm at the time and the doctor is unable to reach the house. The chord is wrapped around the baby’s neck, and unfortunately, she died. But there is another version where a 14 year-old maid recognises the problem, cuts the chord and the baby survives. And there is another version in which the doctor arrives in time. Similarly, when Ursula is a toddler at the beach with her older sister, they wade out into the sea and they are struck by a huge wave. Ursula drowns. No, she is saved by an elderly artist on the beach. Then, there is the time when she is taken advantage of as a teenager by the American friend of her brother and becomes pregnant. Or is she? No, she bats him away.

The story continues to the run up to the war. Ursula visits a family in Munich where she meets Eva Braun and her older lover, Adolf Hitler. Ursula’s family includes some remarkable and memorable characters, like her aunt, Izzie, who is a loose cannon socially, financially and romantically. Then there is Teddy the much-loved younger brother who becomes a bomber pilot and is killed in the war. Or no, he was shot down, parachuted, spent the remainder of the war in a prison camp, and finally made his way home.

Ms Atkinson’s descriptions of the London blitz of 1940 when Ursula worked as an area warden are astonishingly authentic, the settings devastating and the characters memorable. There are so many twists and turns in Ursula’s life, that one can’t be away from the story for very long.

There is a passage which occurs at the beginning and the end of the book in which Ursula assassinates Hitler in 1930 in a Munich cafe with a family handgun which she takes from her purse. She, in turn is killed in both versions, yet she lives to work into the 1950’s. Perhaps this is just her imagination of how the war may not have been.

For me, the idea of living one’s life again until one get’s it right is misleading and doesn’t actually happen in the book. Rather, it is a question of slightly different circumstances and reactions of the characters which make for a different result. So, the point for me is how a small bit of fortune – or misfortune – can dramatically change one’s life.

Do Books Make Kids Feel Stupid?

“Reading books can make modern children feel “stupid”, the author of How to Train Your Dragon has claimed.” (Article by Will Bolton from the Daily Telegraph 8 October 2022)

“Award-winning author Cressida Cowell said television and computer games have made children “more visual” than when she was young.”

Cressida Cowell

“Ms Cowell is most well known for her best-selling book series, How to Train Your Dragon, which subsequently became an award-winning franchise adapted for the screen by DreamWorks. As of 2015, the series has sold more than seven million copies around the world.

“She warned that young people who suffer from dyslexia and are used to watching TV may be put off reading books because they make them feel stupid.

“‘How on earth can you love something that makes you feel stupid?’ she added.

“The 56-year-old former children’s laureate described TV as ‘incessant’ and effortless to watch, while books can be associated with school and make youngsters feel stupid. Writing in Teach Primary magazine, the author said: ‘Making a book that a child of today will read with the same amount of pleasure that I read books with when I was a kid is rather trickier than it sounds.

“‘When I was a child, the telly was terrible. There was no internet, no PlayStation. Now the telly is glorious and incessant, and it is magically ‘beamed’ into children’s heads without them having to do anything, whereas books can become associated with school and hard work, but if a child has dyslexia, it can be worse than that. In that case, books can sometimes come to represent something that actively makes the child feel stupid, and how on earth can you love something that makes you feel stupid?”

I have several grandchildren who are avid readers in spite of the availability of television and iPads. Given a choice between watching television and reading a book, they will choose the book. For them, books are associated with school, learning and growing up. For them, school isn’t ‘hard work’. It’s about discovering ideas and maturing. They don’t feel stupid reading a book. They see the grown-ups around them reading books and they feel clever. Where did Ms Cowell get the idea that reading a book makes a child feel stupid?

For me the issue is not children, it’s the parents. Do the parents set an example by their own reading and by reading to the child art an early age. Parents can also help the child select books that will interest them, and they can set limits on video games and TV.

The article concludes, “Ofcom estimates that three-to-four-year-olds spend an average of three hours a day watching screens. Children’s screen time is thought to have increased significantly during the pandemic when home schooling and Zoom calls became common. A recent study by researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign found that children who spend less than an hour on iPads and other gadgets each day are likely to develop better brains than their peers. Children who were on electronics for less than an hour a day were significantly better at remembering information, controlling impulses and had greater overall executive function.”

Denouement

“The word ‘denouement’ is a borrowed word that came to the English language via the French word denoue. Its literal Latin meaning is to ‘untie the knot’. This is why we now use it as a literary term to refer to the conclusion of a novel.”

This post is from an article by Isabella May in the Jericho Writers blog. She is the author of The Cocktail Bar and The Chocolate Box. She lives in Andalusia, Spain, although she grew up in Somerset on Glastonbury’s ley lines (she loves to feature her quirky English hometown in her rom-coms.) After a degree in Modern Languages and European Studies at UWE, Bristol, she worked in children’s publishing selling foreign rights for novelty, board, pop-up and non-fiction books all over the world.

“The denouement of a story (whether it’s a book, play or movie) is a literary device that involves the tying up of all the loose ends, the ironing out of the plot, and the final resolution that should leave your audience feeling satisfied. As writers, the narrative of our work should have a story arc and take readers through the five stages of development; exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement. Denouement occurs at the very end and it needs to help readers understand the bigger picture and how all of the subplots and events have led to its creation. This is true for all genres and forms of storytelling.

“Simply put, stories demand conflict. Conflict, in turn, leads to a climax which then demands denouement in the final scene to give the audience a sense of closure. You can’t get to the exciting point then leave readers guessing! It is also the part where we discover the moral of a story, or we learn the lesson. Human beings love to see good beat evil. This is why denouement is particularly important when it comes to children’s books (where everyone ‘lived happily ever after’). Of course, this doesn’t mean every single novel has to have a fully-formed denouement in its final pages. If the book is part of a series, the final chapter may wrap up the book’s side storyline, but there may be a cliffhanger for the bigger story thread in order to entice readers to the next book. Although some standalone books break the writing rules and shun denouement completely.

“William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet highlights the importance and impact of employing denouement as a technique for closure. Instead of offering a happy ending, the double suicide of the main characters means this particular denouement teachers the audience a lesson – that it was their death, not their love, that healed the family feud. William Shakespeare was a master of denouement, ensuring that every last scene in his plays culminated in a dramatic (and conclusive) finale!

“The popular Netflix series (and book adaptation) could not have left us with a greater celebration of accomplishment on behalf of its genius chess-playing protagonist. Beth’s life challenges up until the point of denouement have been enormous. But despite everything her life has thrown at her, she overcomes every one of her hurdles to finally defeat her greatest chess rival, bringing her story to a highly satisfying conclusion.  

“Here are five basic rules to follow:

  1. Denouement should tie up every single loose end in such a way that a quick tug won’t make everything unravel again! Readers should not be left with a single niggle.
  2. Denouement should allow key characters the chance to reflect realistically on their story, whilst taking into account whether their reactions feel warranted.
  3. Denouement should be plausible and believable (even if you write fantasy, the book should be wrapped up in a way that makes sense).
  4. Denouement should complete the aforementioned story arc and work in harmony with the previous components of it: exposition, rising action, climax, and falling action.
  5. Denouement should link effortlessly with the main themes of your novel.

“The denouement of a story is at the author’s discretion, but it is definitely the point at which the bad guys should be revealed (and hopefully brought to justice), the hero rewarded, secrets unearthed, and loose ends tied up. Writers take readers on a journey of escapism, so that journey needs to have a satisfyingly plausible ending. It may be tempting to cut corners when you’re on the verge of typing THE END, but it’s vital to be just as diligent with your denouement as you are with your opening chapter. Because your final words, and that final scene, will stay with your readers forever.”

Faith, Law & Writing

On Writer’s Digest (16-04-22), bestselling author Robert Whitlow talks about how he combines writing what he knows with writing what he’s passion about—faith and law—and how his characters get to that crossroad.

Robert Whitlow

Robert Whitlow is a film-maker and a best-selling author of fifteen legal thrillers. He is also a contributor to a short story The Rescuers, a story included in the book What The Wind Picked Up by The ChiLibris Ring. In 2001, he won the Christy Award for Contemporary Fiction, for his novel The Trial.

Mr Whitlow says, ” My newest novel, Relative Justice, sits squarely in the middle of the crossroads of faith, law, and writing. Well, maybe faith and law. The characters leave the writing part to me. But the journey referred to in the title of this article is often lived out by the fictitious people who inhabit the pages of the stories I write. How do my characters get to this crossroads? What are the rewards of the journey?

Let’s start with the law, not faith. In the real world, ethical attorneys (and the vast majority of lawyers I’ve known over the past 43 years as an attorney are ethical) don’t knowingly misrepresent the facts or the law. They strongly advocate for their client’s recollection of what took place and why the law should be applied in a certain way, but they don’t make up facts or evidence to deceive a jury or mislead the court. When writing about the law, believability of character is linked to accurate portrayal of the legal process.

One of the axioms repeated countless times at writer’s conferences is “write what you know.” Knowledge empowers creativity. By writing based on knowledge, an author can craft a story with nuance, texture, and freedom from stereotypes. I’m from the South. I’ve lived my entire life in Georgia, South Carolina, or North Carolina. My professional career has been spent as an attorney. I write southern, legal dramas, and I populate my novels with people drawn from the cultural soup I’ve eaten since I was a small child.

So, when writing a novel containing legal elements, I enter the creative arena with an awareness about the world of the law—trials, investigation, depositions, motions, client relationships, law office politics, etc. That knowledge is obtained either by direct experience, observation, or research. These are all a form of “knowing.” Only then can a story achieve the acceptance awarded by a discerning reader. Courtroom time can be compressed, cross-examination shortened, and shocking surprises inserted. But no writer wants a reader to stop in the middle of a chapter and inwardly think, “There’s no way anything like that could happen in real life!” Such a tragic moment takes the reader out of the world the author created and boots them into a place from which he or she may never return.

Relative Justice is a story about a small, southern law practice consisting of family members preparing to battle a behemoth drug company. It’s a David versus Goliath scenario. Every lawyer has a few rocks in his sling, but do the attorneys in the novel have the right ammunition and skill needed to slay a giant? If not, is there another way to legally bring down an imposing enemy? That’s the law part of the journey.

A second, less common axiom for writers is “write what you’re passionate about.” That’s equally important. For me, that means incorporating faith into the lives of my characters. Not every character, but faith is strategically interwoven into the lives of some of the people who inhabit my books. And because the world of faith is someplace I “know,” based on experience, observation, and research, it’s possible to achieve the goal of credibility. The reader may not agree with a character’s expression of faith (neither do I in every instance), but what a character believes and how it impacts life can be told in a way that fits with the flow of the novel to the intersection for faith and writing.

To safely arrive at this intersection, it’s necessary to avoid writing what I call “a crusader novel,” a story in which the writer has an agenda or message that the characters can’t carry. This doesn’t just happen in the Christian fiction genre. There are crusader novels written about many topics: environmentalism, race relations, and political agendas, to name a few. A book is relegated to this category when the author’s opinion becomes intrusive (preachy) and overrides the capacity of the characters to convey the message in a legitimate way consistent with who they are.

There’s nothing wrong with characters having opinions about a topic. But the writer must provide them with the background, education, or life circumstances that can justify what they believe and express. In Relative Justice, there are characters with various levels of faith or no faith at all. I take them as I find them and discover where a faith journey might believably take them, just as it occurs all the time in real life.”

Review: The Moral Imagination

This non-fiction work, subtitled The Art and Soul of Building Peace, was recommended to me by a colleague who is a peacebuilder. Since I am a trustee (chairman) of the Peaceful Change initiative, a UK peacebuilding charity, I felt I should read it. The book confirms much of what I have learned on the subject, and it explains why so many in the general public (including those who should know better) misunderstand it.

The author is John Paul Lederach, who is an American Professor of International Peacebuilding at Notre Dame University and a Distinguished Scholar at Eastern Mennonite University. He has a PhD in sociology from the University of Colorado. His academic work draws on his experience in the field as a mediator, negotiator, peacebuilding practitioner, trainer and consultant. At the international level, this has involved input into peace processes in Somalia, Northern Ireland, Nicaragua, Columbia and Nepal.  He has written widely on conflict resolution and mediation. He is a Mennonite Christian. He currently works for the foundation Humanity United.

John Paul Lederach

Lederach describes ‘Moral Imagination’ in terms of three parameters: an Awakening – the capacity to see things at a deeper level and beyond what initially meets the eye; a kind of Aesthetic Creativity which surpasses logic; and Transcendence, the refusal to be bound by the existing views of perceived reality. Having read the book, I would define Moral Imagination as: the application of God-given creativity, planned or accidental, so as to achieve a unique and valuable amelioration of a complex human problem. I say God-given, because its source is genuinely inspirational. Sometimes it is accidental – what Lederach refers to as serendipity. It is unique because every human situation is different. And it is rarely a ‘solution’ because complex human problems are almost never solved in one go.

Lederach says that there are four disciplines which are necessary for peacebuilding. These are relationship, paradoxical curiosity, creativity and risk. In peacebuilding it is essential to be able to visualise the complex web of relationships which make up any particular human society, because it is the dynamics of those relationships which can lead to conflicts. Paradoxical curiosity approaches social realities with a respect for complexity, a refusal resort to dualistic truths (e.g. good vs evil). Risk is the ability to step into the unknown without a guarantee of success or even safety.

Time is an important parameter in peacebuilding. Humanity has developed the capability of developing mechanisms and agreements for stopping violent conflict, but we have little capacity for building and sustaining a stable, peaceful society in an unstable environment. What is required for the latter task is the creation of a flexible, effective platform, which houses dynamic processes and patience.

An effective peacebuilder exhibits constructive pessimism in order to be aware of distrust in society, because distrust can be glossed over ignored, and violence will resume.

Lederach tells us that creativity in peacebuilding is more of an art than a technique. In this sense it is akin to writing haiku.

In terms of relationships, the peacebuilder must learn to think of them as a dynamic web which exists in all sorts of social spaces and which include unexpected interdependencies. Thoughtful, unhurried observation of this human web is essential.

Critical mass is not an effective test of numbers of people required to make a change successful, because the critical mass can override a vocal minority, and distrust is renewed. It is better to have a ‘yeast strategy’ in which small numbers of effective and trusted communicators become distributed throughout the society.

In modern, Western society we tend to think of time in the order of past, present, future. But in many societies, the past can lie ahead in the sense that the recent past, including the legacies of those recently deceased, can not only affect our futures, but our sense of who we are as a people and individuals. It is counterproductive in these societies to adopt a ‘forget the past’ solution. The past must be included in the future.

Finally, Lederach says that finding voice is an essential act in peacebuilding. Neglected members of society must also find their voices, and the peacebuilder him/herself must find their own, authentic voice, shaped by a sense of vulnerability and an appetite for risk.

Judging by the attitudes of many philanthropists, who view peacebuilding as a low return investment and one where achievements are difficult to measure, much of Lederach’s peacebuilding is not understood. What he is saying is that Moral Imagination Peacebuilding is the only way to achieve lasting peace in conflict-affected regions. Military solutions, mediated deals and other top-down solutions will ultimately unravel because they fail to address the underlying causes of the conflict. MIP takes time, patience, commitment and money, but the ultimate costs of continuing conflict are far greater.

This book should be read by every president, prime minister and secretary of state. And by those of us who wish for a more peaceful world.

Review: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Having never read any James Joyce, I decided I should start with something shorter, that Ulysses. I am disappointed, but not put off enough to abandon the idea of tackling Ulysses.

Joyce was born in 1882 into a middle class family in Dublin. He was educated at Catholic schools and universities, a brilliant student. In 1904 he met his future wife and they moved to mainland Europe. He published a book of poems, Chamber Music, and a short story collection Dubliners, before serially publishing Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Ulysses was published in Paris in 1922; it’s publication in the UK and the US was prohibited because of its perceived obscenity until the mid 1930’s. In 1939, the next major work, Finnegan’s Wake, was published. He died Zurich in 1941 shortly after surgery for a perforated ulcer at the age of 58.

James Joyce

Portrait is set in Dublin in the late 1800’s and is narrated by an omniscient, neutral third person, except for some stream of conscious in the final chapter. It traces the experiences of its protagonist, Stephen Daedalus, from his childhood to his early 20’s. Stephen is a bright, perceptive individual, but he lacks self-confidence, and his relations with classmates are somewhat difficult. The themes in the novel are family: his father is a heavy drinker and an unreliable bread-winner. His mother is kind and loving but dedicated, uncritically, to the Catholic church. The church restricts Stephen’s desire for artistic freedom, and there is likewise a tension in his image of women: virginal purity vs prostitute. There is also tension in Stephen’s view of Ireland and its culture: loyalty to its homely comforts vs a ‘nation of clodhoppers’. Amidst all this conflict, Stephen searches for his own identity: priest vs artist. He chooses the later, leaving family, Dublin and the church behind. Joyce’s innovative techniques, including stream of consciousness, internal monologue and description of a characters psychic state rather than his actual surroundings.

Joyce’s prose is certainly captivating; one never has a doubt of what is going on in Stephen’s mind, but, for me, sometimes it seems too detailed. I felt that there was to much of it, that it would be better to show rather than tell. Do we have to know exactly how he was feeling? Would not a hint now and then suffice? Let the reader pick up the thread.

Some of the scenes in the novel seemed superfluous or repetitious in their effect.

But my largest complaint about Portrait is that my edition had over fifty pages of footnotes, so that one had to continually flip back and forth. Some of the footnotes had to do with Dublin places or real Irish people, and might be skipped. But many others were translations of Irish word or Latin phrases, and were a necessary aid to comprehension. One has the impression of a novel set in a particular time and place, and that therefore its issues and messages may not be transferable. For me, this rules it out as a classic.

Review: Me and White Supremacy

I was attracted to this book by a favourable review and by it having been on the Sunday Times bestseller list. It was written by Layla F Saad, “who is a writer, speaker, and podcast host on the topics of race, identity, leadership, personal transformation and social change. As a East African, Arab, British, Black, Muslim woman who was born in and grew up in the UK and currently lives in Qatar, Layla has always sat at a unique intersection of identities from which she us able to draw rich and intriguing perspectives.”

The book cover

You’ll notice the subtitle, “How to Recognise Your Privilege, Combat Racism and Change the World”. Before I opened the book, I didn’t expect to learn a great deal from it, but I do recognise my privilege, having grown up in an environment of private education. And I think it is fair to say that my mother and grandparents were racist. I never accepted my mother’s views, or the views of my Navy colleagues who were white, Southern officers. I felt they were wrong, but I’m sorry to admit that I didn’t ‘call them out’.

Ms Saad’s book is very well organised. After several chapters which lay the groundwork very clearly and well, the book has a chapter-a-day format for four weeks. In each chapter, a particular aspect of white supremacy is described in depth. There is a chapter, for example, on white fragility in which the action is explained, examples are given, when it shows up, why it’s important to understand it, and some searching questions for the reader on his/her experience and understanding of white fragility. The reader is asked to write their answers in a journal. For me the number of actions which make up white supremacy is astonishing. Many of them, like tone policing, I never heard of before, but I could see how each action contributed to the white supremacy structure.

Toward the end of the book, Ms Saad begins to move the reader gradually toward action, with chapters like, You and Your Friends, You and Your Family, You and Your Values, You and Losing Privilege, You and Your Commitments. She lists a number of possible commitments. One, for example, is “I am committed to my lifelong antiracist education by . . .” There is also a section toward the end of the book that deals with how groups should work through the book together.

Probably the best aspect of this book is its persuasiveness. Ms Saad’s tone is friendly, factual, clear and certain. She knows what is wrong and how to correct it. This book will stay with me for the rest of my life. It should be required reading for every sensible white person.