Mario Vargas Llosa and the Crimes of a Great Humanitarian

In The Dream of the Celt, Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa deals with the issues that Imageclouded Irish nationalist Roger Casement’s life, making of him first hero, then traitor. The author received a Nobel Prize in Literature for this imagined life and it is not hard to see why:  these are the same issues that drive the human dilemma onwards.  When a person is executed, history tends to recall that individual by final crime, not by preceding acts of goodness.  Roger Casement’s life magnifies the discrepancies of this practice. Casement sacrificed his career and health for human rights, bringing to light the heinous oppression of natives of the Congo and the Amazonian rain forest in the Western pursuit of easy profiteering of rubber. For his dedication, he was knighted by the country he served, Great Britain.  Intimate exposure to the torture of colonialized people caused inner upheaval, so that he dedicated the remainder of his life to freeing his own people, the Irish, from the rule of their colonizers.  The timing was critical. There was only one strong power not allied to Britain, and to that power—Germany—Casement turned during WWI, justifying the means by the end. We can best understand his execution in the light of wartime and the difficulty of forgiveness.

Born in Dublin in 1864, Roger Casement was the youngest of four children. His father was an army captain in whose exotic tales of service in India and Afghanistan little Roger delighted. As a Puritanical military man, Captain Roger Casement did not allow his wife to coddle their offspring.  Anne Jephson (who converted to Puritanism to marry), baptized her children Catholics in secret, Roger at the age of four, and lavished affection, likewise, in secret.  Secrets, early on, were pivotal to Roger’s reality.

He was the kind of boy to make any parent proud:  smart and capable, an athlete who was a great swimmer and could beat children even older than he in races.  When Roger was nine years old, his mother died.  The trauma of losing his secret love caused temporary loss of speech for the child.  Equally consequential was the abandonment by the seemingly strong military father.

The unwritten belief of those who obey rules is that they will be rewarded for so doing, or at the least, not abandoned.  The father who had shown no marked uxorious nature fell apart. A child as young as nine might not have drawn the link to love enjoyed and lavished in secret, but an older person, reflecting, would surely.  The betrayal and collapse in meaning of Captain Roger Casement Sr, authority figure who had used the whip to punish misdeeds in his children, was on more than one level. He sent his children to their paternal great-uncle, John Casement, and his wife, Charlotte, who henceforth stood in as family and raised the children. The strength behind the whip was sheer façade: Captain Casement Roger went half mad with grief and used mediums and crystal balls to attempt to communicate with his dead wife. John Casement occasionally let these details slip.

Roger Casement lost himself in studies of languages and history, devouring books on foreign lands.  He naturally reveled in tales of explorers and adventurers like Henry Morton Stanley, the man who allegedly located the missing altruist, Dr. Livingstone, in Africa. Meanwhile, Casement got a job as a teen in the shipping company in which his Uncle Edward worked.  He made a few trips to West Africa and finally relocated there, to labor idealistically for years, believing he was bringing faith, civilization and order to a primitive land.

Roger Casement bought into the myth of Stanley as a Western altruist akin to Livingstone until he actually met Stanley, journeying deep into Africa with him, and witnessing what the latter was doing with his own eyes. In the name of the “humanitarian” King Leopold II of Belgium, to whom western powers at the Berlin Conference of 1885 granted two and a half million square kilometers of Africa after the fact,  Stanley  “came and went through Africa, on one hand sowing desolation and death—burning and looting villages, shooting natives, flaying the backs of his porters with the chicotes made of strips of hippopotamus hide that left thousands of scars on ebony bodies [ . . . ] and on the other opening routes to commerce.”  The kind of commerce was of no benefit to the indigenous people, forced to sign contracts they did not understand and tyrannized for the sake of enriching their far off “benefactors” who were, apparently, unaware of that thugs and gangsters deprived the tribal people of life, limb, food and dignity in order to squeeze every drop of rubber out of the trees.

The whip, symbol of authority, must have eaten at Roger’s psyche once he saw it and what it had wrought.  The same instrument used to keep him and his siblings in line by the father who had abandoned and deprived them of much love was being used to subjugate an entire nation. Roger’s report horrified people of conscience in Great Britain and led to his being sent once more to verify the truth of rumors stretching, this time, from the rubber trade in the Amazon. The cruelty he encountered there was, if anything, more horrific.

Novelist Llosa makes absolutely no judgment about the disconnect between Roger Casement’s selfless human rights efforts, frequently putting his own life into grave jeopardy, and the revelation of his alliance with Germany, which Casement sought in an attempt to help the Irish nationalist movement.  Casement was arrested at the failed Easter Uprising, which he may, in fact, have been on his way to attempt to quell.  At the same time, the “black” diaries, in which Casement wrote of his homosexual and pedophile activities, damned him in the eyes of the public and helped seal his fate.


The Dream of the Celt could not have been written at a better time.  Readers, much as those famous individuals who did or did not sign the petition for clemency surrounding Casement’s death sentence—must decide where they stand. If wrongdoing is unacceptable in so great a humanitarian as Roger Casement, what does that say about the rest of us?Image

Salon agrees with Grassroots Writers on the Disturbed Publishing World

It took almost two weeks, but Salon is on board with our assessment of the book publishing arena posted October 27th, concerning the merger of Random House and Penguin. The ever edgy and astute online Salon magazine titled the bad news this weekend: “Book publishing crisis: Capitalism kills culture.”

Scott Timberg provides a lucid assessment, most of which you could figure out yourself, but his admission of a few logical details, sanctified by mere association with a big name like Salon, should help everyone who is trying to sell a book understand why life is not as it was twenty years ago: “[A]uthor advances . . . now stand, by some estimates, at about half of what they were just four years ago.” This, Timberg explains, is due to “[t]he digital revolution [which] has effectively marginalized traditional publishers.”

Some authors who got a two million dollar advance five years ago probably helped cripple their publishers who didn’t see the change coming.  On the other hand, publishers, like movie producers, count on unexpected sales to make up for the massive advances given to books that don’t pull in the expected $$.

Another truth which I have long felt in my gut is articulated by Timberg, and I take my hat off to him since I didn’t have the gumption to say it yet in a post: Amazon is the new dictator.

How many struggling authors have put their books up on Amazon? Each percentage earned by Amazon, even on those books that are so bad readers try to philosophically cut their losses–nothing worse than a Venti purchased at Starbucks, right?–is  money in the pocket of a growing giant. We are both grateful and afraid.

A Full Wheelbarrow

I am a writing teacher. Whenever I say that to anyone, eyebrows go up. Wow. My classroom must be full of fledgling J.K.Rowlings and Ernest Hemingways. How awesome, they think. No, not really, I think back. It would be awesome if students wanted to learn, to improve their writing skills, but too many  think that is so unnecessary.

This blog post could go 100 different ways but I am going to swing it now onto the mesmerizing subject of what I am sitting here doing. I am reading a classification paper that I warned the entire class would be graded once only. Whatever grade students get will stick. (For the first part of a semester, I generally revise/ edit a paper so that my students can take and “fix” their essays, changing “D”s and “F”s to “C”s and “B”s. I do this hoping students notice how much smoother the syntax reads and may realize I have only advised semicolons where they actually belong.)

Apparently my warnings have not worked. Almost all my classroom explanations and advice fall on deaf ears. I know this because as soon as I say something, I call on students to repeat it back. They never can and find that hilarious. We always get a good belly laugh.

How many times have I counseled,”Read your essays out loud to yourselves”? Most of my writing students don’t have time. I ask them not only for two peer edits of the first draft and two peer edits of the second draft but to take their papers to the Writing and Reading Center where the tutors are free. I have to remind my students about this requirement as they are trying to quietly lay the paper down on my desk, hoping I won’t notice the lack of the tutoring slip. When I bring the matter up, they look up at me aggrieved. Oh Crap, really? We actually have to walk over there and waste some of our precious time so that this essay reads better?

What about my time? Why do I have to read endless essays with glaring pronoun disagreements that we have gone over and over in class? Why do I have to point out run-ons that anyone reading aloud would have noticed?

For example, “If a person can’t sleep, they put on some soft music and low and it will comfort them. A football player is getting ready for a game but they aren’t really energized yet, so they put some loud music to get the blood flowing and before they know it, they’re ready and amped up to play. If people didn’t have music in their lives, then it would be awkward at events also weird and quiet.”

Let’s say that is my job. I am supposed to spend my golden years reading really bad syntax. But why do my students  have to look so pained and surprised when I hint that they may not pass? Why isn’t writing class like shoveling manure, they clearly wonder, so that when the wheelbarrow is full, the job is done?

I am wondering too. How on earth did that analogy come to mind?

Mike Brown fired: Thanks Dr. Buss

Well, well. I guess Dr. Buss did read my post after all! Thank you for listening, sir. Thank you very much.

Okay, obviously I’m not so delusional as to believe anyone in the Laker organization read my plea on this blog for Brown to go, but there were thousands of similar posts all over cyberspace, so it’s safe to say our message was received in one way or another. As a collective, we made our voices heard and the Laker ownership listened. They listened to us, they listened to the big wigs at Time Warner Cable who are literally shelling out billions of dollars to broadcast Laker games—but most of all, they listened to their own hearts and minds and did what was best for the team. (Thanks, Jim Buss for swallowing your ego, I know that must have been hard.) The Lakers have always been about winning championships, dating back to their days in Minneapolis with George Mikan. Clearly that trend was not going to continue under Mike Brown.

I’m only a fan, but from my prime seat on the couch, it’s my expert opinion that Brown’s biggest failure was his inability to adapt to the game’s flow. From what I understand, he was a great x’s and o’s man. He could draw up brilliant plays with the best of them. But what he never seemed to get is that basketball is a game of runs. A game of punches and counter-punches. Whatever one team is doing well in a quarter or half is pointed out to the opposing team by its coach, and adjustments are made. Brown never made those in-game adjustments, and that’s why he’s not an NBA-caliber head coach. All the pundits around the nation are going to say how unfair it was to Mike Brown to give him only five games. But in fact, he had all of last season, a full month of training camp this summer, and 8 preseason games to prove he could coach a team whose starting five is considered the first or second best in the entire league. The result was one win in those 13 games. And the worst of it was, the team wasn’t showing any improvement.

Brown claims to have been caught totally off guard about his dismissal—and that’s yet another clue as to why he isn’t head coach material. Recently, when asked when he thought the team might start to show improvement, he said that hopefully after Christmas they would start to gel “a little bit” and after the All Star Game (which is in February) he thought they would start to stack up wins. Meanwhile, he would no doubt have continued to play Kobe and D Howard and Pau 37+ minutes per game, ensuring that they would be worn out once the playoffs arrived in May. Just last week, when asked about how well the Clippers were playing, he said he didn’t know because he only watched two teams in L.A., the Lakers and his son’s high school team. There were numerous other quotes that suggested Mr. Brown’s priorities were a bit out of whack, that he simply didn’t understand the Laker culture of winning now.  So, at the risk of sounding classless and rude: good riddance, and don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

Fire Mike Brown: An open letter to Dr. Jerry Buss

Okay, this post is for NBA fans only, and so I warn you beforehand, it will have absolutely nothing to do with writing (except for that fact that it is bothering me to the extent that I can’t concentrate on writing). Kindly, Julia told me today that she believes we should be free to write things that are weighing on our minds whenever the mood strikes. And so, after watching my beloved Lakers lose their 12th straight game last night to a team with inferior talent, there is indeed something weighing on my mind.

Dear Dr. Jerry Buss, wonder owner and keeper of all that means winning and championships:

PLEASE FIRE MIKE BROWN!  Please, please, please, please.  Our team—well, okay, actually it’s your team, kind sir, but you have through the years made it feel like the Lakers belong to all of us who follow them—has a fantastic chance to get number 17 this June. Number 6 for Kobe. And number one for Steve and Dwight! Listen, this team your group put together with Mitch is amazing. I have never been more proud to be a Laker fan. There is only one thing standing in the way of this super team reaching its goal, and we all know what it is. Who it is.

Look, I don’t know Mike Brown. I’ve never met the guy. He seems like a nice enough fellow. But so is my dentist, and I wouldn’t expect him to be hired as Laker head coach. Since Brown’s hire last summer, I have tried to figure out how he got the job. He managed to get the Cavs to the finals once thanks to LeBron, but had no idea what to do once he got there, as evidenced by the losses as he paraded up and down the sidelines with a confused look on his face. Now we Laker fans have to look at that confused face night after night after night. Let’s face facts: Brown started his basketball career as a video coordinator. A video coordinator! How in the world that translates into a head coaching job with the premiere franchise in the league defies explanation. At least any logical explanation. Whatever was on those DVDs he showed to Jimmy Buss when interviewing for the head coach vacancy must have been magic. Maybe they had some kind of subliminal messages inscribed in the content, like an old X-Files episode that comes to mind. Whatever the reason, it’s time for Jimmy to admit his mistake and move on.

The Lakers are not a team that’s used to losing two in a row, let alone 12, dating back to last year’s disastrous playoff series against OKC. While it’s true that 8 of those were preseason games, a loss is a loss. And the fact that those losses don’t seem to bother Brown in the least (at least according to his public comments) proves he is the wrong man for the job. A team that has a starting lineup of Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, and World Peace (aka Ron Artest) is not a team that should lose more two games in a row all season. Brown’s silly Princeton offense, which basically negates the signing of Steve Nash by taking the ball out of his hands, is both foolish and boring. And for all the talk of Brown being a great defensive coach, our poor defense and ridiculous number of turnovers suggest otherwise.

I realize Dr. Buss will never read this post, but perhaps it will spark other people to step up and be heard, people who Jerry knows and respects. (Magic, Mitch, and Jerry West, are you guys listening? And by the way, thanks Charles and Kenny for calling the Princeton offense what it is–stupid!) So, fellow bloggers, let’s get moving. The more of us who ring in on this, the better chance it will pick up speed. I just visited a Facebook page dedicated to getting Brown fired. ( And I rarely visit Facebook, let alone sign in and post a comment. But this thing has begun to take over my life. It’s all I find myself thinking about, how great our team could be, how much fun it will be to watch them win games by margins of more than a few points (as it went last year). That can and will happen, as soon as we show Mr. Brown the door. And please, Dr. Buss, do it sooner rather than later!

Yours sincerely,

Connie Kirchberg, Laker fan for life

Sandy Hates Books!

We wonder why agents or editors are not responding with at least minimal interest to our queries, and along comes Hurricane Sandy to mess things up further.   I was just as oblivious as most writers, thinking in terms of energy and mud-soaked homes and offices, of friends back East without heat or electricity until I came upon this plea for help from a book store.

As if the hard copy book sales world did not have enough to deal with in terms of an ever- decreasing number of publishing corporations (turn that around to read “mergers”), Hurricane Sandy rolls in to decimate bookstore’s inventory. If I ignore this plea for help on the premise that I do not live in Brooklyn, then that will possibly mean one less bookstore in the USA, a circumstance which may or may not affect me.  

I look at it this way: Thanksgiving is coming up. I could redirect one dollar for toys or a meal to this bookstore. All I have to ask myself is if I am glad to be an American writer.

powerHouse Arena is the name of the Brooklyn bookstore whose inventory went afloat. See the pictures at