Joanna

Conversations with Contributors: Benjamin Goldberg (Issue 11, Poetry) by Amanda Silberling

By Joanna Moley, Blog Correspondent

Earlier this month, we talked to Sarah Rose Nordgren for the first new Conversations with Contributors after The Adroit Journal's eleventh issue. Next up is Benjamin Goldberg, whose poems "Havenwyck Hospital, 2002" and "Unguided Tour of the French Rivera" appeared in the last issue. Benjamin talks with us at Adroit about the importance of opening a dialogue about mental health issues and the rewarding qualities of being a teacher. 

Joanna Moley, Blog Correspondent: Both of your poems are named after places. Why is that?

Benjamin Goldberg, Issue 11 Contributor: I’m not sure people are wholly distinct from the places theyve been.  Nor can those places remain unchanged by people.  We engage with them physically, conjure them from synapses, and reshape them in the subconscious, which Im convinced is also a place.  To write about a person, then, is to write about place.  To be a person is to be, among many things, a collection of places.  As I type these words, Im listening to my three-year old nephew carry on a conversation with his toys about the landscapes of the living room.  Over the past minute, the carpet has been a petting zoo, day care center, pool, apple orchard, bouncy castle etc.  These places are lining his interior life.  I guess Im interested in how a person and a place can be records of one another.  In Frosts A Servant to Servants, the speaker says the place is the asylum.  That line resonates with me in ways Im still discovering.  If a person is also a place, then

 

Havenwyck Hospital is a real place – it's a psychiatric/substance abuse treatment center. Is there any significance in choosing to write about that hospital, or the year 2002? What about the French Rivera?

Yes, I stayed there intermittently as a teenager.  The stints were usually brief, and began during my junior year of high school.  They continued into 2002, my senior year, during which I dropped out.  I write about this hospitalthe period of my life it representsbecause Id like to shred the memos from society telling me I should be ashamed to discuss mental illness.  Im sick of how the topic rarely seems to enter public discourse except as a means of explaining away the crimes of mass murderers.  Im sick of how its used in the wake of heinous acts as if to suggest that only people with mental illness are capable of horror.

In fact, as the officers responsible for Freddie Grays murder were being indicted, I came across an article about how one of them had received treatment for mental illness.  It was frustrating.  I wondered where I could find the article explaining that the other five officers had no documented history of mental health issues.  I wanted to shout across the internet that theres no diagnosis whose symptoms include bigotry and murder. 

I ultimately held off on this because it wasnt the right time, and I didnt want to draw focus away from the larger social issues being discussed.  And even that frustrates me.  There almost never seems to be a right time.  To talk about how the media, intentionally or not, uses such events to stigmatize mental illness is to draw focus away from a familys tragic loss, a towns grief over a senseless crime, or how systemic bigotry repeatedly traumatizes a community.  The discussion of mental health, then, gets smuggled into other discussions like pork in a reform bill.  I guess thats part of why I write poems like this one.  I dont like the discussion taking place, and I dont like how and when its allowed to take place.  Im trying to write against that.  For now, writing through the lens of my experience feels like the most authentic way of doing so.

 

There is a theme of memory in both of your poems in Issue 11.  What types of motifs and themes do you find yourself drawn to (both as a writer and a reader)? 

I’d like to shred the memos from society telling me I should be ashamed to discuss mental illness.
— Benjamin Goldberg, Issue 11 Contributor

This takes us back to place, which is what I believe memory is.  Like a place, we live in it as much it lives in us.  I guess with these poems Im interested in, among other things, how memory betrays us.  How we betray it.  Regarding Havenwyck Hospital, 2002, much of that year (and others) is difficult to remember because my medications often had me sleeping at least sixteen hours a day.  My weeks, then, largely centered around remembering dosages, appointments, and items on my backlogged to-do list.  Memory seemed to shrink to the size of the pills I swallowed. 

In a broader sense, Im interested in opposites that seem irreconcilable, which I try to explore in Unguided Tour of the French Riviera.  Southern France is perhaps the most gorgeous place Ive been.  Yet, human trafficking happens to be a significant problem there.  What kind of dissonance allows us to reconcile the beauty and horror of a single place?  Of a world? 

 

 

When did you start writing poetry, and how long after that did you know you wanted to make writing your career?

I started writing poetry when I was seventeen.  During almost every class, I would fill my notebooks with horrible imitations of Octavi0 Paz and sopping performance pieces with which I imagined winning slam championships.  I even read one of them at a local competition.  After the first few lines, the audience started booing and didnt stop until I finished several minutes later.  Two judges gave me a score of one, and the final judge gave me a seven.  Its interesting how symbolic of the writing profession this moment would become.  After dropping out of high school, my therapist at the time encouraged me to come up with a list of things I could do with my life.  I spent about three years failing at various items on that list.  Around my twenty-first birthday, I realized that despite how little time Id devoted to poetry over those years, the desire to write never abandoned me.  At that point, I couldnt envision what a writing career looked like, but I figured going back to school might be a possible first step.  Then I kept stepping.  

Tomorrow,

memory will be a palm full of clouds
tipped from an orange bottle.

I’ll swish it down my throat with a dixie
cup of water. I’ll lift my tongue

to reveal I didn’t forget, then forget.
— Benjamin Goldberg, "Havenwyck Hospital, 2002" (Adroit Issue 11)

 

What has your MFA experience been like so far? What do you think about the controversy over the validity of MFA programs?

The experience has been interesting.  Its as if I trained to be a sprinter, then signed up for a marathon.  The whole experience is requiring me to use poet-muscles in ways I didnt know were possible.  Its been incredibly helpful to be around brilliant people who constantly challenge me with ideas, insights, and perspectives I might not have otherwise considered.  I like to be pushed, and I dont ever want to settle into a schtick.  Thankfully, Im around people who wont let me. 

My answer to your second question depends on which controversy you mean.  To be clear, I do believe there are some fundamental problems with MFA programs in general, and those are absolutely worth discussing.   I think its important to raise questions about privilege, access, and inclusivity in programs, as well any role the programs have in perpetuating a literary canon that ignore these.  I think its important to listen to the answers and act on them. 

Honestly, though, I find many of the other controversies a little tedious.  Ive read too many articles claiming that MFA programs are churning out gaggles of second-rate faculty member imitators.  They seem to think MFA programs oversaturate the publishing landscape, and that MFA students are heralds of the literary apocalypse.  Tedious.  The MFA is an experience more than anything, I think.  If were talking about whether or not to MFA, Id say do it or dont.  The fate of literature isnt hanging in the balance.  The experience benefits many writers, but guarantees nothing.  I think the MFA culture needs to be demystified, not debunked.  When you can think of entering an MFA program without hearing the Hallelujah chorus in your head, maybe thats the time to do it.

 

 How has teaching English helped your own poetry/writing?  

Allow yourself to remember that despite how you feel, you’re still a writer even in the moments you aren’t writing.
— Benjamin Goldberg, Issue 11 Contributor

Many students are surprised to hear that theyre natural writers whether or not theyve acknowledged it.  They write books worth of texts, emails, journal entries, social media updates, blog posts, and so on.  Ive gotta say, Ive seen some Facebook posts that read an awful lot like flash fiction or nonfiction.  Ive read some tweets that sound downright poetic. To be clear, this isnt me saying that Facebook and Twitter are the new prose and poetry, but its interesting to me how they often draw from the same well of craft elements.  I definitely encourage my students to examine how the writing theyre already doing can align with literary writing.  In turn, Im often looking to social media platforms for possible formal experiments.  

 

What is the most important thing you have learned about writing from your students?

With my high school students especially, I got to see what was often the beginning of the writing impulse.  That impulse seems to come naturally to young people.  Most classes have a reliable number of self-identified writers, many of whom are plenty talented.  As they enter their adult lives, its interesting to see whether or not they stick with it.  But some students dont yet know theyre writers.  It doesnt matter if they turn in consistently sub-par work, struggle with reading, or cant explain the difference between simile and metaphor.  Therere certainly predictors of which students might become writers, but theres no way of predicting.  When I was in high school, English was by far my worst subject, and I was constantly surrounded by peers who wrote better than I did.  As a teacher, if a student wants to read me a poem about the dark abyss of his or her heart, I try to remember how necessary it is to write that poem, and to keep writing it.  The student who writes juvenilia can grow into the adult who writes literature.  My students remind every day to challenge my assumptions and remain as compassionate as possible.

 

 What is your most important piece of advice for young writers?

Of course therere the non-negotiables such as read widely, write constantly, and become friends with rejection.  Beyond these, though, Im usually hesitant to offer advice.  I believe therere so many ways of becoming a writer that any advice I can give is bound to be limited.  But let me not cop out.  Young writers: 

Theres no correct writer biography, so be open to the shape your creative life takes.  Imagine your trajectory, but not that youll follow it exactly.  Create your timelines.  Mark down when youll become the youngest writer to receive the MacArthur and the year you win your second Pulitzer.  Its only natural.  But be able to revise or even abandon your plans.  Never mistake them for what you actually write.  Allow yourself to remember that despite how you feel, youre still a writer even in the moments you arent writing.  Theres no life you need to have before you can become a writer.  Nor is there a life youre supposed to have once you identify as one.  Whoever you are, your experiences matter.  Your life is important enough.

 

Did you have a specific teacher or mentor who inspired you to become a writer and/or teacher? 

My high school philosophy teacher, Mr. Authier, inspired me to become both.  He was brilliant, charismatic, and passionate in ways no evaluation metric can quantify.  One day in class, he interrupted his lesson on classical idealism to read Regie Gibsons stunning poem, Eulogy of Jimi Christ.  I remember how my spine awakened when he read that poem.  It took many years for me to recognize this as the moment I converted to poetry.  Poetry not only steeled me during some chaotic years, it gave me a way out of them.  Im not being hyperbolic when I say that this moment in class was mystical, and that in many ways Mr. Authier saved me.  Thats exactly what happened.

Poetry not only steeled me during some chaotic years, it gave me a way out of them.
— Benjamin Goldberg, Issue 11 Contributor

I believe this is the most profound effect a teacher can have on a student, and it’s why I wanted to teach.  It saddens me that the profession hasnt found a legitimate way to evaluate this dimension of teacher effectiveness.  I sometimes wonder what our most notoriously rule-oriented vice principal mightve written down had she observed Mr. Authier that day in class.  Would she have known to quit scanning the board for a learning objective and look instead to our faces?  Would sheve seen on mine how entranced I was by the soundscape of that poem and Mr. Authiers joy in reading it to us.  Theres no way to measure how much I wanted whatever it was that happens between poem and reader.  How much I wanted to wake peoples spines.     

 

 Finally, tell us a funny story from class.  

Ha!  Okay, so this happened a few years ago.  The school years winding down, and each day Im losing students attention to clouds and chipmunks and chipmunk-shaped clouds.  One day, Im rambling rather egregiously about something grammatical (I think).  A student chimes in with the suggestion that I record a demo of the lecture and get it on the radio.  Two other students jump in.  The three of them take turns talking about what I would do after going platinum.  This goes on for ten minutes.  The class is hijacked.  Everyones laughing as Im trying unsuccessfully not to.  The three students go on to describe what an album of Goldbergs most tangential anecdotes would sound like.  To my shock, they remember each of my stories with such immaculate specificity I begin to worry that it was all theyd learned.  Before long, they have me on an episode of MTVs Cribs giving a tour of my literature-themed house.  Their impersonations of me are hilarious.  Yet somehow theyre demonstrating so much content knowledge I begin to wonder if every English test should be given in impersonate-your-teacher form.  I tell them that theyll hear my comeback on the last day of school.  Over the next few weeks, I enlist the help of a staffer on the school newspaper to conduct interviews with each of the students, then I film myself giving a tour of my house.  On the last day of school, I bring in donuts and fruit punch, and we all watch a very curiously edited episode of Cribs. 


Benjamin Goldberg lives with his wife outside Washington, D.C. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Ninth LetterThe Greensboro ReviewHayden’s Ferry ReviewSalt HillThe Southeast ReviewDevil’s Lake, and elsewhere. He was a finalist for the 2012 Gearhart Poetry Prize, the 2013 New Millennium Writings Award for Poetry, and the 2013 Third Coast Poetry Prize. He is currently earning his MFA at Johns Hopkins University. Find him online at www.benrgold.com.

Five Books to Read Over Spring Break by Amanda Silberling

By Joanna Moley, Blog Correspondent

 Photo via  Contrary Magazine

t's finally spring break, which means you can put down all of your school books and do some pleasure reading for a change. Whether you will be relaxing by the pool, bundled up in a ski lodge somewhere, filling free time on a sports team training trip, or taking time off at home, here are a few spring break book suggestions to take your mind off real life for the next week.

1. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

This novel is recommended for anyone who loves books told from multiple perspectives, people interested in music and the music business, and PowerPoint enthusiasts everywhere (read it, I promise that will make sense).

2. The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

This is a great pick for dog lovers and people who love heart-wrenching, yet uplifting stories about life. I suggested this book to a certain editor-in-chief back in high school, and it was a big hit (Ed. note: A solid testimonial)

3. This is the End by Various Authors

Check this out if you're a fan of dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction, or if you just really hate big business and love/identify with awkward people.

4. The Thing Around Your Neck by Chiamanda Ngozi Adichie 

Read this if you love intertwining short fiction, intellectual-yet-enjoyable beach reads, and stories about Africa. This book was written by the amazing Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who not only writes amazing novels but also gives killer TED talks.

5. Emma by Jane Austen

This one may be a stretch, but anyone looking for a great classic novel to indulge in during their week off should pick up a copy of this classic. I recommend it for fans of complicated love triangles and powerful female protagonists. As an added bonus, read the book and then use the rest of your free time to watch the movie "Clueless" and find the parallels.
 

Whatever you're up to this break, make sure to find time to read! As second graders and school librarians everywhere will remind you, books can take you on vacation without your ever having to leave the house.

Adroit's Best Books of 2014 by Amanda Silberling

By Amanda Silberling, Blog Editor

Nothing is better than waiting for a book release and finally taking a trip down to Barnes & Noble to purchase the book the second it's on the shelf – we just cannot trust Amazon Prime's shipping policies with matters as important as reading new books.

Whether we counted down the days for a book to come out, or just stumbled upon it during the year, the Adroit Blog Staff lived up to that New Year's Resolution of actually making time to read. Here we have an assorted mishmash of our favorite books of 2014, including everything from bone-chilling poetry to short stories in The New Yorker to The Princess Bride.

ALexa Derman, Managing EDITOR
BArk BY Lorrie Moore

Admittedly, if you had asked me in 2013 what my favorite book was going to be in 2014, I probably would’ve said Bark. I’d been waiting for the collection, Moore’s first in fifteen years, for quite some time. Lo and behold, the hardcover I pre-ordered months in advance did not disappoint. At turns acerbic and earnest, Moore’s prose is above all else honest. Maybe that’s why some of the pieces included in this collection are so troubling – they prize honesty first, forfeiting contrived endings and conventionally likable characters for the sake of authenticity. If the people who populate Bark wouldn’t be a reader’s first choice for friends, it’s because they’re (perhaps too) real.

 

Amanda Silberling, Blog Editor
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

 Amanda's "Bad Feminist" costume, alongside "Cat" and "Overzealous College Freshman"

Amanda's "Bad Feminist" costume, alongside "Cat" and "Overzealous College Freshman"

Let’s start by saying that I loved this book enough that I kept an extremely close eye on the web-o-sphere the week when Roxane Gay was giving away free Bad Femnist t-shirts on Twitter. Like the social media superstar I am, I managed to snag the t-shirt – score! I also loved the book so much that I was “Bad Feminist” for Halloween. Okay, maybe that costume was just borne out of necessity, because it’s really challenging to create a Halloween costume in a dorm room, and I thought the shirt would look awesome with fishnets and leather. But my Twitter expertise and Halloween costume are aside from the point. The fishnets and leather are also aside from the point.

The point is that Roxane Gay’s essay collection is hilarious, thought-provoking, informative, and tear-jerking all at once. It’s varied and diverse, like the practice of feminism. Gay can write about experiences with sexual assault, competitive scrabble, and Fifty Shades of Grey – and it all blends together with ease.

In the essay "I Was Once Miss America," Gay writes, "There is nothing more desperate and unrequited than the love an unpopular girl nurtures for the cool kids." But in the literary world, Roxane Gay sits at the cool table and eats her school cafeteria lunch with grace. Bad Feminist is more than just a cultural studies book. It's a Roxane Gay book. As a reader, I should probably care more about the implications of white-washed beauty pageants and racial tensions than Roxane Gay's middle school experiences. But what makes Roxane Gay such a great writer is that when you're reading her essays, her anecdotes weave seamlessly around dire commentary to the point that you become convinced that Gay's scrabble tactics are a serious social issue.

 

Talin TahajianPoetry EDITOR
Crystal Eaters BY Shane Jones

This book is difficult to explain. I’m going to start with a disclaimer that I’m very biased toward Shane Jones because I think he’s pretty much a crazy god with a literary mind so absolutely bizarre that it must be holy. (I discovered Light Boxes in the bargain bin at Barnes & Noble four years ago and it changed my life—and the way I think about writing—for the better.) Essentially, Crystal Eaters is the text version of that weird time after midnight when you’re scared to look at the clock and are pretty sure it’s only about 1:30 a.m. but really it’s nearly 4:00 in the morning. The narrative loosely follows Remy, a child who lives in a world where the length of your life is dictated by the number of crystals inside you, as she discovers beautiful and terrible shit about people, the universe, drugs, death, daughterhood, illness, what it means to be alive. Its constant stream of vivid imagery has the same kind of beauty as that guy with a lot of multicolored tattoos and a black septum barbell ring who takes the Red Line into Boston on Monday mornings. If you enjoy Crystal Eaters, which you will, you may also enjoy the following unofficially related products, all of which also premiered in 2014:

-       iPhone app: Monument Valley
-       Electronica album: How to Run Away by Slow Magic
-       Remix of an alternative rock song: “Last Train” (Dactyl Remix) by Dawn Golden
-       Literary magazine issue: Columbia Poetry Review (Issue No. 27, Spring 2014)
-       Tweet by a poet: “The more you try to convince me I’m not dead the more I am dead.” (@MathiasSvalina, 19 October 2014)

 

Lucia Lotempio, Poetry Reader
Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals by Patricia Lockwood

Patricia Lockwood’s second collection is brilliant. I will shout it from high-up open windows—dammit, it is brilliant. She pushes every image, every metaphor to the edge of the poems—I was constantly amazed at how effectively she stretches her metaphors and how complex each conceit was. The way she talks about sex and gender is sharp and invigorating. She uses the obscene and the absurd to expound on gender theory and the murky exactness of how gender is performed and perceived. And she uses absurdity with such skill: each exaggeration is purposeful, each ridiculous moment is with motive, and each poemscape is bright as it is intricate. What really drew me in to this collection were her titles. From the opening “Is Your Country a He or a She in Your Mouth” to “The Whole World Gets Together and Gangbangs a Deer” to “Bedbugs Conspire to Keep Me from Greatness,” Lockwood just nails it.  Must read poem: “The Father and Mother of American Tit-Pics”—you’ll get the D.L. on what Dickinson’s and Whitman’s (the Father and Mother of American poetry respectively—yes, you read that correctly) real contributions to American poetry were (hint: it’s mostly tit-pics). 

 

Ariella Carmell, Blog Correspondent
As You Wish Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride By Cary Elwes

I must confess that I only read one 2014 release this year, so by the transitive property my favorite book of 2014 was As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride. Cary Elwes (who plays Westley, the usurper of my heart, in the film) divulges some behind-the-scenes antics in the production of the cult classic. Elwes is by no means a florid writer, but he writes with an earnestness that’s hard to resist as he goes on about the lovely qualities about the cast and crew. In fact, the only issue I had with the book was that it was almost too nice. Where was the gossip, the rumors? Give me some dirt, Cary. The most interesting tidbit I gleaned from this memoir was the inconceivable (hah!) fact that Samuel Beckett would drive Andre the Giant (Fezzik) to school. An image worthy of any Beckett play.

 

Henry Heidger, Blog Correspondent
Lila by Marilynne Robinson

Because I work primarily as a poet, I often find myself behind on fiction reading. However, one novelist on my 2014 reading list shadowed all of the others—Marilynne Robinson. Prominent professor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Robinson first rose to literary acclaim in 1980 with her novel Housekeeping. After a long period of relative silence, she again stormed the literary scene with her 2004 novel Gilead. This autumn saw the release of Robinson’s third book set in the town of Gilead, Iowa—Lila, nominated for the National Book Award for Fiction. Lila is the story of a woman, alone after years of rural homelessness, whose life takes a breathtaking lift after stepping into a small-town church to escape the rain. Lila is quaintly beautiful with its evocative storyline, but its most masterful quality is the breadth and vastness of its characters. Questioning religion, morality, and love to their comprehendible reaches, Lila was the most vital book I read this year.

 

Joanna Moley, Human Rights Correspondent
The Alaska of Giants and Gods by Dave Eggers

Because life is a crazy and mysterious thing that seems to be filled with everything except for free time, I didn't read any books that came out in 2014 during 2014. In my defense, I did read a bunch of other books, they were just released before this year.  Despite my lack of expertise on the books of 2014, I do regularly read the fiction pieces in "The New Yorker," and I was especially impressed by Dave Eggers' The Alaska of Giants and Gods.  This piece is full of simple but unexpected lines that make the reader do a double take – within the first few paragraphs that protagonist declares that her children, "were strange but good."  I think that is an amazingly nontraditional way to describe your offspring.  It's loving, but also vaguely and wonderfully insulting.  Most of the important information about the characters is revealed throughout a cruise ship magic show, which is seriously unconventional method for creating characters with depth.  I would recommend this story to anyone who loves literature, has no free time whatsoever, and enjoys seemingly whimsical stories that actually contain nuanced themes about origins and identity.

 

Eloise Sims, Human Rights Correspondent
Life: An Exploded Diagram by Mal Peet

My favorite book of the year is definitely Life: An Exploded Diagram by Mal Peet. I love Peet's frank and detailed way of writing, and his characters are the kind that literally leap off the page and wave their arms in your face. Life: An Exploded Diagram is a Romeo and Juliet-esque story of forbidden love between two teenagers in a tiny town in England during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but in a deeper sense, it's a story about the power of family, hope, and resistance. Clem, the main character, is a vaguely hopeless Bill Nighy-esque artistic genius, trapped in the stifling environment of his family home, who falls madly in love with Francoise, the French, posh, and out-of-reach daughter of his father's boss. I couldn't recommend it more for anyone wanting to be pleasantly surprised by a novel's dexterity and depth. The events in Francoise's and Clem's lives intertwine beautifully with actual historical events in the 1950s, making it a huge bonus for the history nerds out there. Altogether, as my friend once said, this book "will take your insides, lure them into comfort with strawberries, then tape them to a nuclear warhead and fire them to Mars."

 

And then we have the Adroit staff who were so rebellious that they wrote about books from 2013. If a book is good enough that it stays with you the extra year, is it fair game?

 

PETER LABERGE, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
SEAM BY TARFIA FAIZULLAH

In nearly every poetry class I’ve taken, the instructor has told me that I would one day come across a collection so profoundly moving I would never again have to question the purpose or power of poetry. For this reason, I am especially grateful to have recently read Tarfia Faizullah’s debut collection Seam.

From my perspective, there seems no greater honor than being invited to partake in an intensely personal life-changing journey. This is precisely what Seam offers; the reader gratefully accompanies Faizullah as she takes the reigns from history books, and paints the most gruesomely evocative picture of the Bangladesh Liberation War in existence today. Specifically, Faizullah leads the reader through the stories of Bangladeshi war victims, sharing both the intimate and the expansive. To the patiently attentive reader, Seam strives to be concrete proof that quiet beauty can sprout from the ash of injustice, and that where there is a story, there is life.

 

Derick Edgren, Blog Correspondent
Americanah by Chimamanda Adichie

Usually when I listen to music — and I promise, this is relevant — it's typically per song, but sometimes there's that gem of an artist that produces only good music (read: Sia, Florence + The Machine) and that's how I feel about literature most of the time. When someone asks me what authors I enjoy, names don't come to mind. Titles do. No book has ever had this spark to it that's made me think yes-can't-wait-to-check-out-this-guy's-entire-album. 

When I read Chimamanda Adichie's book Americanah, I fell in love with her equally direct and abstract prose. A friend of mine recommended it to me, It's long but it won't feel like it. And after six hundred pages, and mind you, I'm a very slow reader, I couldn't agree more with her precaution or whatever you want to call that. Which I found to be quite complimentary — when a book feels quicker than it is. The story follows the life of a young woman, Ifemelu, who moved from Nigeria to the U.S. to attend university. While marketed as a love story, between her and her childhood friend/lover, it's so much more than that. An amazing commentary on America's sweepingly vague perception of Africa and Africans versus African Americans. It's beautifully written, a winding road, written in part-blog form as Ifemelu's blog gains success. Nevertheless, it all ties together, with a surprisingly simple ending, that I felt (maybe not all felt) was well-earned is a story, there is life.  Chimamanda Adichie is the Sia or the Florence + The Machine of literature for me. I've found myself attracted not only to her semi-autobiographical story, but the way she tells it. Which I’ve always felt was more important.

HumanWrites: Interview with Richard Lubben of the South Texas College Annual Human Rights Art Exhibit by Amanda Silberling

By Eloise Sims, Human Rights Correspondent

  South Texas College Annual Human Rights Art Exhibit

South Texas College Annual Human Rights Art Exhibit

The South Texas College Annual Human Rights Art Exhibit is an annual exhibition of human rights art from around the world, which has been running for ten years, seeking to express beliefs and ideas on human rights, social justice, and environmental issues through the powerful medium of art. Richard Lubben is the juror and coordinator of this annual display. We caught up with him to ask a few questions about this exhibition’s achievements, aims, and hopes for the future.

 

Eloise Sims: So, what inspired you to create this exhibition?

Richard Lubben: So, I was having a conversation with our Women’s Studies Committee President- who is a political scientist, and an activist- and she organizes human trafficking and human rights conferences, every year, at our college. She’s a photographer and an arts enthusiast as well as what she does in her discipline, and we were talking and you know… I just said, “Well, I can throw together an art exhibit in a couple of weeks, just with the people that I know.”

This was about ten years ago. So there was really something last minute, just, you know- “Let’s do it!” And it worked out!

The first one was about women in war. And then we started finding ways to include more artists, and broaden the conversation, and so I decided to expand it to human rights in general. Next year, I want to expand it even further, and focus a little bit more on environmental issues- to just broaden the conversation again.

So it was really just a collaborative project that started in a casual conversation that just took people who wanted to do something collaboratively. It just really was an unexpected blessing, I guess, because it began to involve a lot more people than what I anticipated.

  Not My Country,  Bart Vargas (South Texas Annual Human Rights Art Exhibit, Permanent Collection) 

Not My Country, Bart Vargas (South Texas Annual Human Rights Art Exhibit, Permanent Collection) 

ES: And with this involvement of lots of different people, what would you want to achieve through your exhibition?

RL: That’s actually a fairly common question. Ideally, of course, you know, change the world and everything! And then everybody will be happy and work together and world peace and everything…. But realistically, you think about it as if you just plant a seed sometimes. Just starting a conversation, having someone thinking about an issue or a topic from someone else’s point of view. Something else that is interesting when I think about art is that you can often diffuse anger to some extent, or prejudice, or hate, or many things. We all have very strong opinions about politics, or religion, or many other things, which these artists are talking about. But often in a clever and very unique way, artists can open a person’s eyes or their heart to an image through originality. And they start to plant that seed to start thinking about, you know, “Maybe this person might have a good point of view” or “Maybe I’m not necessarily right about something” or “Maybe my prejudices are outdated and no longer needed in this world.”.

And so I think, realistically, if you can just open your eyes and your heart to some subject that you didn’t before, which would be something great out of the show. Ideally, the more people that collaborate in these exhibits, the more likely it is that something on a large scale could happen. I am working with some really great advocates for human rights, with scholars and artists, and some of the things that people in this show do is just amazing and brave.

I imagine you have heard on the news about the border here- between Mexico and the United States- the cartels, and the human trafficking. It’s a very dangerous area in many ways. When you challenge these subjects that are connected with huge amounts of money and power- corruption is pretty rampant when you would think, “We’re in a modern world”. You would think that there isn’t that much corruption but there really is, even in developed countries.

So I guess, in short, any positive step or opening the minds of anyone is something I would like to achieve, but of course, ideally, something more grandiose would be excellent as well.

  Set Up,  Ellie Iranova  (South Texas Annual Human Rights Art Exhibit, Permanent Collection)   

Set Up, Ellie Iranova (South Texas Annual Human Rights Art Exhibit, Permanent Collection) 

ES: I guess that makes Texas a really great place for the exhibition, firstly because it’s so close to Mexico, with the border disputes.

RL: That’s a good comment.

ES: Where do you see the exhibition going, ideally, in the future?

RL: It seems to get bigger every year. The quality of artwork, I think, is getting better every year as well, as more people hear about it. It is judged, so not everybody gets in. It’s interesting because I think there’s not a huge group of artists working in human rights and social justice issues. However, it is growing. Ten years ago, I think there were fewer artists, now, I think, in contemporary art, more interest seems to be opening up in human rights and social justice art, as well as environmental art, of course. So I see it more as in, maybe, traveling exhibits in the future.

We have a pretty large permanent collection of over 50 artworks from generous donations from human rights artists, and so, in the spring, it’s travelling to Texas Tech University, which is a major university in Northern Texas. We displayed it at the Human Rights Centre in the University of Ottawa, in Canada, last year. I’m running a grant to hopefully bring it to Mexico, and ideally focus more on collaborating with local communities- civic engagement. I think if we leave it here, where I am, at the border, that’s fine- but going back to your first question, it really has a lot more power if it travels, and when it involves more people. When you have the local people of a community involved in an exhibit, it becomes a much more interesting conversation, and a much better collaborative project. Ideally, I would like to travel the exhibit internationally, if the funding ever happens with that. That’s always a bit difficult.

ES: Does your exhibition center on a particular annual theme or do you just display what you think is suitable?

RL: It started out with an annual theme. Like I said, the first one was about women in war, the second one was focusing on human trafficking, and then on the third annual exhibit we opened it up to general human rights. I don’t focus on any particular theme- I do like to include the biggest variety of subject matter possible, just because not everybody is interested in one particular theme. There are so many different subjects to consider and talk about. But I would really like to focus a little bit more on environmental issues in upcoming years- not necessarily to put a priority on that, but to encourage more conversation about the environment. Particularly here, on the border, as we’re in Texas, and it’s a big oil state. We’re not really the best when it comes to environmental concerns, unfortunately. I would like a little bit more of a conversation about sustainability, and the environment, but of course not taking away from the human rights issues.

  Raw Edges Dresses of Emotions,  Deborah McEvoy  (South Texas Annual Human Rights Art Exhibit, Permanent Collection)   

Raw Edges Dresses of Emotions, Deborah McEvoy (South Texas Annual Human Rights Art Exhibit, Permanent Collection) 

ES: That’s great. So, the last question is- and this is sort of one for our readers, as they’re young artists themselves- do you have any advice for young artists, particularly those who are really interested in human rights art?

RL: Yeah, sure. I mean, in general, with any artist, its important to be faithful to what you want to do. I remember, when I was a student, I was always thinking about- what to paint, what to create, and what would sell. Every artists needs to make money and a living and everything. But what I found throughout my life and seeing other artists, is that, if you’re faithful to yourself and what you believe in, as far as subject matter and concepts that are important to you- and if you are interested in human rights and social justice themes- then continue with that. Don’t try to find something that you think will sell, because often it will show that you’re not interested in that subject matter. But if you are interested in something that is very profound and important, such as human rights, continue with that. You will find a market and a way to survive, or a future job. I think that’s good advice for any art student or career. If you’re in a field that you really enjoy, and that you have passion for, you’re most likely not going to have a miserable career and life.

All Images Courtesy of Human Rights Art Exhibit

If you would like to learn more about the South Texas College Annual Human Rights Art Exhibit, please visit http://www.humanrightsartexhibit.com/

HumanWrites: Sofia Roberts of Amnesty International Writes Letters for Justice by Amanda Silberling

By Joanna Moley, Human Rights Correspondent

Here at Adroit, we are passionate about supporting organizations that use the arts to promote change and further the pursuit of global human rights. I was lucky enough to speak with Sofia Roberts, a student at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, who uses art and writing to try to change the world for the better.  

Amnesty International is a global organization that uses various peaceful methods to fight injustice, and in particular, wrongful imprisonment. Sofia and her amazing, student-run Amnesty group show us what it means to take matters of human rights violations into our own hands. Through letter-writing, chalk-drawing, and other methods, Sofia and her peers are working to improve the world while embracing their creative sides. In our inaugural HumanWrites feature, Sofia speaks to us about the impact of snail mail, girl power, and the importance of her organization.


Joanna Moley, Human Rights Correspondent: How did you become involved with Amnesty International?

Sofia Roberts, Amnesty International: My mum joined our local Amnesty group when I was very young so I grew up around them. I started out just sitting at fundraising concerts stamping people’s hands, and helping out at collection day. The people in the group were hugely inspiring and really made me passionate about human rights.


JM: Is your AI branch student-run?

SR: It’s 100% student run. Occasionally we ask Amnesty International New Zealand’s head office for resources or permission to do something, but all the meetings are run by and participated in by university students.


JM: Letter writing is an art form. Do you have any advice for writing effective lobbying letters?

SR: Amnesty International has some pre-prepared letters on their website which I would recommend looking at. Essentially, lay out clearly what the problem is and what you think the desired outcome should be. Be firm but polite. Usually I say, “I am very concerned about [problem], [state why you think this is wrong, try using laws to back it up, e.g the Universal Declaration of Human Rights], I urge you to [clearly state desired outcome]. Also, if you’re writing to an authority figure, make sure to check the title you should use (your excellency, sir, etc).


JM: Do you think that the fact that letter writing/snail mail is a dying art form adds to its strength as a tool for lobbying/protest?

SR: I think there is something powerful about letter writing as a medium. Amnesty International mostly uses letter writing for prisoners of conscience (people who have been wrongly imprisoned, usually but not always on religious or political grounds). There’s something powerful about the captors being bombarded with hundreds of letters. It’s such a statement, basically making clear that the world is watching them and they won’t be able to unlawfully cut corners.


JM: Have you or any of your group members ever received responses to your letters?

SR: Not personally, but a lot of released prisoners do thank Amnesty International supporters for their efforts. Probably the most high-profile example being Aung San Suu Kyi*, who said that Amnesty International had “helped [her and fellow prisoners] to keep [their] small wick of self-respect alive.”


JM: Do you write letters to prisoners, government officials/prison administrators, or both?

SR: Basically both. It really depends on what contact details Amnesty chooses to put up on their website. We either write to prisoners letting them know that we know what has happened and that people are working on freeing them, or we write to the government officials calling for their release.


JM: How have your group’s letters and actions helped to enact change and further human rights?

SR: Amnesty International actually has a pretty good record of getting prisoners released via letter writing. One of the ones I remember was Ahmed Zaoui**. My Amnesty group back in Napier was one of the groups that had written to the New Zealand government urging them to release him. Though I was quite young, I remember him being released and thanking Amnesty supporters for their help.


JM: What has been your most rewarding or exciting experience as part of Amnesty International?

SR: Last year an Amnesty group at Wellington East Girls’ organized a chalking event, and they involved Amnesty groups from other high schools and Victoria University. It was part of Freedom Challenge week, which is basically an annual, themed event where young Amnesty groups fundraise and campaign throughout the week. Last year’s theme was women in Egypt, who had mostly been overlooked during the revolution despite incredibly alarming sexual violence statistics. Everyone met at the bottom of one of the main streets in town and we chalked drawings, slogans and statistics all the way up the street. For me it was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had with Amnesty because it garnered immediate attention from the public and raised a lot of awareness. It’s nice to see a group of young people not afraid to just roll up their sleeves and educate people.


JM: Do you have any advice for young people who want to get involved with human rights activism?

SR: Amnesty International groups are a great way to start. Being an international organization, there are community groups all over the world, and it’s an amazing way to get educated and make a difference, even if it’s just meeting monthly to do some letter writing at a potluck dinner.


*Aung San Suu Kyi is a Burmese politician who was placed under house arrest by her country’s military leaders for almost 15 years because of her commitment to democratic government.  Aung San Suu Kyi received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, and has also received numerous other awards for her activism.

**Ahmed Zaoui is a member of the Islamic Salvation Front who suffered imprisonment in both Algeria and New Zealand (where he tried to seek asylum).  Zaoui and his party were persecuted by his government, which eventually led to civil war within Algeria.  Zaoui was granted citizenship in New Zealand in May of 2014, and his 2005 book of poetry titled Migrant Birds (containing poems inspired by his imprisonment) has received significant critical acclaim.