It is lunchtime on a blue sky day in Washington, DC. Outside on the restaurant patio where I’ve had breakfast and have been writing, patrons sit among red and pink flowers and flora tinged with autumn discussing the tangle of Washington politics—still no Speaker of the US House of Representatives at this writing a week ago—chaos in the Middle East after unspeakable brutalities and destruction, intensive fighting continuing in the Ukraine and the borders of Russia. There is a sense of the world pulling apart at the seams of international order.
We have felt stress and strain before, but for historic and emotional reasons, this period feels more acute. Yet the sun is shining, and the patterns of daily life remain uninterrupted for most Americans, including those in Washington, DC. The disruption is in our personal response and emotional reaction to the events at home and abroad.
When friends and acquaintances grow especially upset by political events, I sometimes quietly ask, “Did the President call you today?” Or “Did your Senator, House representative manage to reach you for advice?” No. Though our advice and feelings are often shared with anyone who will listen, in a democracy, our voice is usually heeded indirectly, at least on national and international matters.
We rely on our ability to think and feel freely to interpret events we have no direct role in shaping unless perhaps we’re in the media whose function is to inform so we citizens can react intelligently. We can write letters, text, phone, join peaceful demonstrations and let our views be known. We can join organizations, political and nonpolitical, contribute our work, wealth, and wisdom to effect change, but as a citizenry, our direct opinion is only sought every few years at the ballot box.
So how can we contribute to a more harmonious outcome in world affairs, or even local affairs utilizing our freedom to think and to speak? Tragedies often bring societies together to help each other and unite, but when societies define themselves in oppositional terms, unity and goodwill quickly dissipate and turn into a hardened will to dominate and prevail.
As a writer, words have been my medium, even if the reach is circumscribed. But as I’m watching alarming events and behaviors thousands of miles away in the Middle East and in Europe, words feel inadequate to resolve and to inspire.
The primary mandate in Article 1 of the United Nations Charter is “to maintain international peace and security and to that end to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace.” Is this the goal, the light to be sought and followed? How can the individual citizen’s thought and actions contribute?
The only answers I have come to begin with one. Begin with each. Begin with the smallest, yet largest need to see the good, a good, and build from there. The risk of Pollyanna thinking is profound. I hear voices deride, but my hope is that here is the beginning of prayer which can link to a higher and benevolent Principle governing us all. Yet even as I write that, I hear the commentator this morning saying, “If politicians begin with ‘I hope…’ they have already lost. Hope is not a strategy.” So perhaps not hope, but determination to find and build upon that which words only represent—love, humanity, freedom.… Are those adequate words? What are the words? Or perhaps where is the thought? I sometimes wish I were a musician. I can almost hear the harmony in my head, but I don’t know how to render the notes….
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The week of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) meeting is full of targeted and chaotic energy from around the world. I was there by chance last year with all the traffic snarls, blocked streets and crush of crowds, especially on the day the U.S. President was in town. I vowed to avoid that week forevermore.
But this year with a meeting I could only get on Monday and another on Friday and various events and meetings in between during mid-September, I called to book a hotel, only to find hotels were sold out and the price of the few available rooms had skyrocketed. Alas, I realized it was the week of the UNGA.
I finally managed to find a hotel not costing the price of a car down payment. With more experience, I scheduled meetings I could walk to, and, with the exception of the first day when torrents of rain doused the city, the weather cooperated with sunny fall days. New York bristled with the added energy of the United Nations General Assembly in town as delegates from around the world walked the streets in all the finery and dress from African, Asian, and Latin American countries.
The larger question is what was accomplished at the UN General Assembly. That remains to be seen at this writing, but there are a few hopeful signs. At the least there is something heartening about seeing representatives from the nations of the world come together in anticipation of getting along long enough to solve global problems affecting us all like climate, migration, and armed conflict.
For those of us born after World War Two—and that now includes most of the world’s population— there is a compelling desire to avoid such a conflagration again. Those who witnessed with optimism the fall of the Berlin Wall and a turn towards democratic government in Eastern Europe and around the world in the 1990s are now alarmed by the return of authoritarianism. Signs of stress on the international governing systems are mounting.
There continues to be a need beyond the United Nations for international forums where problems can be addressed and solutions crafted. In August I had the opportunity to visit one institution which keeps watch over a crucial pilar of free societies—the free press and its free flow of information. In late summer I visited Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) whose mission is to promote democratic values and report accurate, uncensored news in countries where the press is threatened and disinformation abounds.
Headquartered in Prague on a secure and sprawling campus, RFE/RL employs 700 journalists around the world to research, write and broadcast stories that uncover corruption and advocate for free societies and their institutions like independent judiciaries and free press. With large newsrooms and correspondents who report the news in 27 languages in 23 countries where a free press is banned or works under threat, RFE/RL is on the front lines.
As the newsrooms of traditional press shrink and the numbers of foreign correspondents dwindle, it was heartening to walk through the halls and newsrooms at RFE/RL and sit around a table with experienced journalists from Europe, the Middle East, and Latin America who have resources available to investigate and report critical stories. Logging a weekly audience of 40 million and 869 million yearly visits to its website and 15 billion annual video views, RFE/RL is one of the most comprehensive news operations in the world with 21 local bureaus and an additional 1300 freelancers and stringers plus two bureaus in the U.S.
Approximately 1500 hours of radio programming are also broadcast every week where listeners can tune in on shortwaves. RFE/RL has a network of partner organizations that rebroadcast across 11 time zones. However, in the current climate, rebroadcasting is prohibited on local outlets in Azerbaijan, Belarus, Iran, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, and journalists are under increasing threat and censorship. RFE/RL’s website has been blocked in Crimea, its broadcasts jammed; the website is blocked in Iran where the bureau was closed and banned from FM and the Internet in Azerbaijan, and the accreditation stripped from journalists in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
Registered as a private, nonprofit corporation, RFE/RL is funded by a grant from the U.S. Congress through the United States Agency for Global Media (USAGM) as a private grantee. Major policy decisions are made by its independent Board of Directors, the majority of whom are career journalists and human rights specialists. To guarantee journalistic credibility, a “firewall” was part of the enabling legislation and prohibits interference by U.S. government officials, including USAGM’s Chief Executive Officer, with the objective of producing independent reporting of the news. Journalists and editors make the final decisions on what stories to cover and how they are covered, according to Jeffrey Gedmin, the interim CEO of RFE/RL.
Recent RFE/RL stories include lengthy investigations into corrupt practices in Russia where it reaches Russian-speaking audiences and beyond via the Current Time digital and 24/7 television network. Other stories include reports on the cease fire between Azerbaijan and Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan’s military operations in the region; Ukrainian infantry breaking though Russian defenses, including a live briefing of Russia’s invasion; Iranian deputies vote to toughen penalties for women flouting the dress code; Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s trial in Tbilisi.
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I spent part of August in London, one of the centers of the universe for many of us English literature majors in college and life. Though I revere Russian literature and have read great novels from Japanese, Ukrainian, Indonesian, Indian, Chinese, Nigerian, French, German and other cultures, these have all been in English translation. I have visited these countries, but I haven’t lived in the countries and cultures. However, I did live in central London on several occasions in my life—first in college, then in my first year of marriage and for six years with my husband and young sons, who were influenced by their experience living abroad, especially during the first Gulf War.
As a college student I lived on my own in London for three months the summer between my junior and senior year in college, working as a receptionist at The Christian Science Monitor where I published my first story in an international newspaper—a feature with photos on Hyde Park Speakers Corner.
As I wandered old haunts this summer, particularly the great parks of London—Kensington Gardens, Holland Park, and Hyde Park—I moved among memories even as I observed current London. It is no coincidence that my recent novel Burning Distance and my next novel The Far Side of the Desert (March 2024) are in part set in London with characters who live there. Both novels required a good deal of research into issues of trafficking—arms, drugs, and people—as well as money laundering and financial manipulation, the smothering membrane that encompasses large parts of many societies.
But research is just the beginning, providing the context of the outer world. A novel works to the extent the author penetrates the inner world of characters and knits inner and outer worlds together into a story. It is the characters who drive the story. As a former journalist, I want to be assured that I have the factual context as accurate as possible so that when imagination and invention take off, I know the platform from which it launches.
The Far Side of the Desert opens in Santiago de Compostela, Spain and flashes to London, Washington, DC, dwells for a time in the Sahara Desert then accelerates to Morocco and Gibraltar and the historic area where the ancients claimed the world ended as two sisters—Monte and Samantha Waters, one a diplomat, the other a TV journalist—get drawn into a criminal vortex.
For me, as for most writers, the process of writing is a journey of discovery. I’m led by the sleuth/journalist in me, one clue leading to another, and by the best friend or mother, listening to what the characters have to say for the characters develop their own voices and view. While the writer has created them, the characters also inform, letting the author glimpse the fullness and creative nature of Mind.
I’ve been writing for years, and in the odd flow of life, my novels are now finding their readers. I hope you’ll be one of them. The Far Side of the Desert can be pre-ordered, and Burning Distance, published March 2023, is available now and will come out in paperback February 20, 2024 with the opening chapter of The Far Side of the Desert included.
I hope you’ll order, read, tell friends, and leave reviews and comments. Thank you! Happy reading!
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I’m launching a newsletter on Substack at the encouragement of my publisher. My Substack “On the Yellow Brick Road” will officially launch in September with the announcement of my new novel coming out March 2024. Those current subscribers and/or those who have received regular notice of my blog posts are automatically subscribed. If you aren’t subscribed, I hope you will be.
This monthly newsletter will include my blog post, along with news about my work and literary events, a focus on a writer at risk in the world you can learn about and on whose behalf you may want to take action. It will include a bit of whimsy with a word or two you may never have occasion to use, but if you’re like me, words you like to know to expand vocabulary, and a list of resources for freedom of expression. I’d also love to hear what you would like included as regular or irregular features.
The Substack allows comments and interactions more easily among readers and other Substacks, I’m told. Like many, I’m trying to keep up with the shape-shifting platforms of digital and social media in order to expand connections with readers and friends. If you’ve read my blog posts over the last 15 years—could it really be 15 years—I hope you’ll continue. My Substack is free, and you can subscribe by clicking here. I’ll try to keep the whole enterprise a short and enjoyable read with substance. I look forward to hearing from you.
A former journalist, I spend most of my writing time these days on fiction in a lifelong admiration for what literature can do. Good literature reveals characters and orders life into stories the reader can connect with and understand. We all live and remember our lives and the lives of others through the stories we tell and are told. History, politics, even religion are rendered through stories.
Because storytellers can be powerful members of society, the storytellers—usually the writers—are often the early persecuted, imprisoned and even killed in authoritarian societies as a result of the stories they tell. I’m a storyteller as are many of my friends and family who are journalists, fiction writers, dramatists and poets. We are fortunate to live in a country that, while stressed at the moment with the banning and censoring of books, still does not put its writers in prison or kill them, though the increasing pressure to ban books is alarming. Freedom of expression includes the freedom to have access to ideas. Imagination has always been the enemy of the tyrant because it can’t be controlled. I’ve spent time over the last many decades working on behalf of writers who don’t have the same protections and working with organizations that defend freedom of expression.
In my own novels—in particular my recently published novel Burning Distance and my next novel The Far Side of the Desert to be published March 2024—I’ve sought insight through narrative. Both books took a good deal of research into the factual context of the story and the inner journeys of characters. In naming my newsletter On The Yellow Brick Road, I pay tribute to L. Frank Baum’s iconic novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Interpretation is extensive on the many elements of this story and of the Yellow Brick Road in particular. According to commentary:
Collaboration, communication, innovation, positivity, nurturing, and fun are the six core values of Yellow Brick Road. The values emphasize team spirit, transparent two-way communication, support for new ideas, nurturing of bonds and relationships, a positive, solution-based mindset, and a fun learning environment.
Is that a mission statement? It sounds a bit like a gathering of strategic modelers at a conference. I’m not aiming for a didactic newsletter, but I think the values hold. I’d also like to have some fun and explore new thoughts and occasionally inspire.
Other commentary notes:
With the help of her newly-minted friends, Dorothy is able to melt the Wicked Witch of the West and save the citizens of Oz. No matter what the situation is, you should never allow that to get in the way of your morals.
With the help of new and old friends, I look forward to embarking on this path, alert to occasional wicked witches but mostly exploring ideas large and small. Thank you for coming along.
I greet the day early each morning listening to bird song when I’m in the country—chirping, whistling, trilling as the sun rises. The birds tweet all around me, warbling up and down the musical scales with their own rhythms and melodies. I don’t see many of the birds, except when the bird feeder is full. They are high in the trees, occasionally swooping out over the river then disappearing again. All the while they continue their songs and conversation among themselves and to each other.
This week I came across an app on my phone that will identify a bird by its photo or by its sound. I’ve downloaded this electronic savant and now aim my phone and its microphone towards the dominant sound and am given the name of the bird. I’m still deciding if I’ve taken the magic away from my moments or have enriched my morning. I now know I’m serenaded at various times by House Wrens, Bluebirds, Mockingbirds, Blue Jays, Brown-headed Cowbirds, Bobwhite Quails, Purple Marlins, Wood Thrushes, Chickadees, House Sparrows, Western Meadowlarks, Kingbirds, Flickers, Merlin’s, Tufted Titmouses, Sandpipers, Golden-crowned Kinglets, a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Anna’s Hummingbird, a Great Blue Heron, an Osprey and some days a Cardinal and Crows and at night by a Great Horned Owl, a Barred Owl, a Screech-Owl, a Pygmy Owl and now an Alder Flycatcher. Could there really be that many different birds? I’ve been adding names and sounds ever since I downloaded the app and each day record new bird songs.
As autumn arrives, the sounds will be enhanced by ducks and geese who will arrive for the winter. I wonder if the birds distinguish among themselves and their flocks? Do they talk only to their own or also to each other? They often sing at the same time with the sounds layering on each other like some celestial disco. Do they compete for space in the skies and trees? Or do they party and sing together?
Ornithologists no doubt have the answers, or at least informed observations. Over time, I’ll read more on my new app about these birds and their habits. For now, I’ll keep the birdfeeder filled and try to enjoy my flighty neighbors with more knowledge and appreciation though maybe with some of the symphonic magic drawn from the morning.
The summer solstice June 21 slid by on a cloudy chilly day with buckets of rain on the Eastern Shore of Maryland so that I barely noticed the longest day.
As summer officially begins, the light starts to retreat as the earth tilts slowly away from the sun, at least in the northern hemisphere. Whatever the vagaries on the surface—politics, wars, elections, hurricanes, coups or celebrations—the earth moves imperceptibly beneath our feet.
For me, June before the solstice meant a week in Chicago with book events, significant for my new novel Burning Distance and for an interview with Lisa See about her new novel Lady Tan’s Circle of Women and an energized discussion with novelist Sara Paretsky about censorship and banned books, the latter events at the American Writers Museum.
On this trip, I fell in love with Chicago, a city I’ve visited before but never for as long a stretch. Walking along Michigan Avenue from Millennium Park with detours down to the Chicago River and up to the rooftop of London House, I passed (and contributed to) a musician on almost every street corner playing the sax or French horn or violin or music from a box. I had a soggy sprint to an opening night of a new musical at the Goodman Theater.
While the earth spins beneath us, Chicago reminds us to enjoy the moments—cold or hot, windy or still, pouring rain or bright sun (sometimes all in the same 24 hours)—and to enjoy the music.
The song heralds: “Bet your bottom dollar, you’ll lose the blues in Chicago.”
And the universe echoes back!
The one commonality around the world, in every country, every religion, for every sex, race and culture is the mother. We have fathers too, though paternity is not always as clear.
When I travel in different countries and cultures, be it in Africa, Asia, Latin America, in communities whose language I can’t decipher and sometimes without a translator, I can usually communicate with a mother and her child. Even hardened men yielded to a mother.
I remember a colleague who was a mediator and also a mother. She was once tasked with retrieving children from a notorious warlord in a country which had recruited and used hundreds of children as soldiers. She told me how she looked into this man’s empty eyes, put her hand on his arm and said in a firm voice, “Give me the children.” He refused and grew irate. She kept looking him directly in the eyes, kept her hand on his arm and said with all the authority of a mother to a wayward son: “You must give me the children.” She saw him flinch and then he turned to his men and said, “Let her take the children.” And she walked out of the camp with the children.
The mother we celebrate on Mothers’ Day around the world is strong, loving, smart. Her children are primary for her care and affection. She helps them develop into caring, thoughtful adults.
As a mother I have tried to do that with my children, and as a daughter I had a mother who did just that. She saw my needs sometimes before I did, helped me grow and learn what I needed to learn, and then she had the wisdom to urge me to take what talents I had into the world, and she urged me to see the world.
When I was a girl, I used to go to the flight deck of the Love Field Airport in Dallas, Texas to watch the planes take off with my mother and sister. My mother hadn’t traveled much in her life, but she knew the world was out there, and she urged me to be part of it. “Where do you think that plane is going?” she would ask, and we would let our imaginations go. At least half of the destinations we determined were New York City, where I eventually lived, as well as in Baltimore, Boston, Los Angeles, London and Washington, DC. Because of work, I’ve had the opportunity to travel and work on every continent except Antarctica, a geography my mother would have enjoyed, at least in theory.
I once complained to my mother, “You never criticize me!” How is that for a complaint though it wasn’t entirely true. Her answer I still remember: “Don’t worry. The world will do that.” She saw her role to support, encourage and see the best in me so that I might see and become the best I could be.
I know not everyone may have had that kind of mother. In fact, my sister and I offer different versions of our mother. We are both mothers ourselves now. We try as mothers do, though never quite succeed, to cherish and guide and then let go of our children so that they might flourish as their best selves in the world.
In the wake of recent events in the Tennessee General Assembly which expelled two African American lawmakers for their role in an unorthodox protest calling for more gun control after deadly school shootings in Nashville, I wanted to share my short story “The Beginning of Violence.” The story is set at the first sit-in in Nashville in 1960 and was published in my short story collection No Marble Angels. It was republished in Short Stories of the Civil Rights Movement: An Anthology (ed. Margaret Earley Whitt, University of Georgia Press, 2006.). The anthology includes 23 short stories by black and white writers—stories of the heart, not just politics—an historic journey we continue to travel.
THE BEGINNING OF VIOLENCE
by Joanne Leedom-Ackerman
The wind shot through you that day like fate or some might say like the will of God. No matter what you did, it got you. It weaseled under the buttons of your coat, pulled off your scarf. You couldn’t fight against it though you could stay indoors, but once you came out, you had to face the wind and find your way.
It was the day before Valentine’s, and snow was falling in thick wet flakes, had been since early morning and threatened to keep on all afternoon. As I said, it was not a day to be outside, but I was. I was downtown on the arcade doing last minute shopping for a sorority party that night. We’d been decorating all morning, but we’d run out of crepe paper and balloons; and Janie, the food chairman, was afraid she’d run out of paper plates and cups so I said I’d go downtown and pick up everything.
I went to Woolworth’s. At the Grand Ole Opry counter I bought a red plastic guitar set inside a big red plastic heart for the centerpiece on the officer’s table. I was an officer. I was treasurer of the Kappa Alpha Thetas at Vanderbilt University.
I didn’t feel like turning right around and going back into the cold so I stopped at the lunch counter for coffee and a grilled cheese sandwich. I was sitting there eating and reading “When Lilacs Last in the Door-Yard Bloom’d” for English class when a blast of air swept across my back. When I turned to see who was holding the door open, I saw dozens of Negroes coming into the store.
They moved straight down the aisles then disappeared among the cheap jewelry and face powders and school supplies.
I turned back around and finished my sandwich and Whitman’s poem. I was about to pay and leave when three Negroes sat down at the counter, one of them next to me. They all held brown paper bags with purchases they’d made. The girl beside me smiled, showing a curve of white teeth and asking more than most people thought she had a right to ask. I looked over my shoulder and saw thirty or forty more Negroes lining up to sit at the counter.
It took me a minute to understand what was happening. I’d grown up in Arkansas and Tennessee, and in nineteen years I’d never eaten beside a Negro. I’d never sat next to one on a bus or gone to the same bathroom. Things were changing in the South, but these were facts I’d lived with. Once in high school in Little Rock I’d signed a petition favoring integration, and that had almost gotten me thrown out of cheerleading. Some people thought anyone for the Negro was a Communist. I wasn’t a Communist; I just thought the Negro should have a chance. And yet even feeling that way, I wasn’t prepared to have the order of things put to question right where I was sitting.
The girl kept smiling. She had a soft mouth and big, dark eyes. Her hair was straightened, and she wore it like mine, in a pageboy with bangs. She was taller than me, and under her coat she looked strong. When she saw my poetry book on the counter, she reached into her pocket and took out a copy of the same book. I couldn’t help but feel she’d just drawn her gun. I glanced away. My eyes fell on her hands; they were the color of dry soil, large and muscular and deeply lined like an old woman’s.
I glanced at her friend next to her, but her friend’s eyes were flat and hard, and her mouth looked set to tell me her mind. It was this girl who got me moving again. I’d been about to pay and leave when they’d sat down. My purse was open on the counter, and I went on counting out the change. I closed my wallet and my purse; I gathered my bags, stood and left. The act of leaving wasn’t a decision so much as a resumption of the way I was already going.
Not till I was outside in the blowing snow, moving towards the bus did I think about what I’d done, not till I was getting on the bus did I hear the words of the waitress: “I’m sorry, we don’t serve coloreds here.” All the way back to Vanderbilt, and as I walked on campus through what by now was a small scale blizzard, I kept thinking about those words. At the party that night, dancing under the crepe paper streamers we’d draped from the ceiling to make a tent, I could still hear the words and see the face of the girl.
The next morning I read about what had happened at Woolworth’s on page ten of the Nashville Tennessean. Without knowing it, I’d been in the middle of Nashville’s first sit-in. I decided to write my own version of what I’d seen, and I turned it into the college paper. The paper ran the story under the headline: “At the Counter: A Student’s View.” The editor asked me to write on what happened next though no one knew what was going to happen next, but the editor thought something would. He told me I should stress the Vanderbilt angle. I wasn’t sure what the Vanderbilt angle was, but that’s the way I got involved. Before the year was over, I’d witnessed more than a dozen sit-ins.
The next time I saw the girl was two weeks later. In between, the snow had kept falling, making it one of the worst winters in Nashville’s history. During those days on the front pages of the Tennessean, Jack Parr was battling NBC over his contract with the Tonight Show while in Washington Lyndon Johnson battled for national civil rights legislation. A hundred miles away in Chattanooga fighting had broken out after sit-ins there. The Nashville sit-ins had stepped up but were still reported on the inside pages. So far no arrests had been made.
All week rumors had been going around that the largest sit-in ever would take place downtown Saturday. I decided to go. Jeff, my boyfriend, tried to argue me out of it then said he’d go with me, but he got sick after a fraternity party Friday night, and so I went by myself. No one at the sorority house could believe I would go, but I did.
When I got there, thousands of people were already on the arcade, and policemen lined the streets. Just after noon the first demonstrators showed up, including the girl. She was wearing the same oversized brown coat; on her head she wore a white crocheted cap. She walked with her head down, bowed against the wind. She didn’t look at anyone. Most of the protesters were students, and they were glancing around at the crowds on the sidewalk. But she stared straight ahead. She was so focused that she didn’t even answer her friend who spoke to her as they entered McClellan’s Variety Store.
I followed them inside. The lunch area was packed with people standing about waiting to see what would happen. The girl made her way through the crowd to a seat at the counter. One by one other students took stools under the faded pictures of salisbury steak, Irish stew, hamburger deluxe. A railing separated the eating area from the rest of the store, and the press stood behind it among hair nets and hair rollers; I took my place with the press.
A waitress approached the girl. “I’m sorry; we don’t serve coloreds here,” she said. “You’ll have to leave.”
“A cup of coffee, please,” the girl answered.
“I’m sorry, we don’t serve coloreds,” the waitress repeated.
“A cup of coffee.”
Half a dozen white teenagers stepped into the area and started catcalling. They picked out a white demonstrator sitting near the girl. “Nigger lover! Nigger lover!” they taunted. A man with a cigar began blowing smoke into the face of the girl and the other students. Several more teenagers moved in, bumping against the protesters, trying to knock them off their stools.
The students didn’t react. The girl pulled her poetry book from her pocket and opened it on the counter. She was starting to read when suddenly she let out a cry. I looked and saw a teenager squash his lighted cigarette on her back. I couldn’t tell if he’d actually burned her or only ruined her coat. She jerked around. She stared straight at the boy. She met his jeer with a question which again asked more than people were willing to have asked of them. Her look must have shaken him or touched something in him because he stepped away. His friends started lighting their cigarettes and pressing them out on the backs of other students, but the boy left the store. The exchange took only a moment, but in it I saw some possibility, some viewpoint I hadn’t considered before.
Before I could think about exactly what this was, however, someone shoved a white protester from his stool and began hitting him in the ribs. The man blowing cigar smoke laid a fist into the back of a black student. Other teenagers began pulling at the hair of the girls sitting at the counter. None of the demonstrators raised a hand to defend him. I saw in the faces of many, anger and a struggle not to fight back. But in the face of the girl I saw something else.
The police finally arrived, but only after the teenagers had run away. They told the protesters they had to leave because the store management had decided to mop the floor. When they refused, the police moved in, taking hold of the students one by one and escorting them into police vans waiting outside. The girl was arrested.
I followed the rest of the day’s events, including the beatings of several Negroes late in the afternoon at Woolworth’s where no police were around. Members of the press, including me, watched as a white teenager pulled a Negro protester from a chair and hit him again and again in the face spreading open his nose with a fist, bloodying both their skins with the same blood and as another white pushed a Negro student down a flight of stairs, sending his arms and legs clattering against the metal. None of the experienced press stepped in to stop what was happening; instead they stood recording the incidents so I did the same. Yet inside I was trembling as if someone had hit me, and I wanted to strike back. I didn’t know what to do with the violence I suddenly felt. I left the store.
I decided to meet the girl. I told the newspaper editor I wanted to write a profile of a demonstrator, and he agreed. I found out her name was Cynthia Davis. She was a senior at Fisk University. When I called her, she at first refused to be interviewed, said there were better people than herself, but I convinced her she was the one I wanted to talk to. She agreed to meet me at a diner near Fisk after classes Friday.
Fisk is only a few miles from Vanderbilt, but like most everyone else, I’d never been in the neighborhood let alone seen the campus. The streets around it were quiet and lined with trees and houses. The campus itself was much smaller than Vanderbilt’s and more run-down. It had one main walkway. On both sides of the walk were dorms and classrooms. I decided to go in just to look. I stayed only long enough to walk to the end of the path and back again, but in that time the world closed in around me. I was the only white person, at least the only one I saw, and I felt everyone staring at me.
When I reached the end of the walk, I read the sign in front of a huge Victorian Gothic building. I tried to concentrate on the fact that this was the first building of the university, the first in the country built to educate Negroes, but the truth is I was thinking only about myself and the color of my skin for all at once my skin seemed alive as if it were plugged in and glowing and separate from me. For a minute I couldn’t feel myself under it. To be suddenly separate from your body is scary. Everyone thinks you’re your body because that’s what they see only you know you’re not. I’ve heard of people coming back after dying, saying they’ve watched themselves from outside, watched everyone else watching their bodies while they knew that wasn’t them only they couldn’t make themselves heard. I don’t want to go on too much, but that’s what I felt: a separation I couldn’t make my way across. The space between me and my skin was like the space between me and the Negroes, and in it was a kind of panic and darkness I wanted to strike out against. For the first time I understood why separation was the beginning of violence.
I hurried back to the car I’d borrowed. I locked the doors and sat for a moment. Finally I started the engine and drove to the diner a few blocks away.
It was five o’clock, and only a handful of students were at the counter and in the booths. When I came in, they glanced up, and again I felt my skin starting to glow. Behind the counter the waitress stared at me. She had a thick ridge of brown hair and dull eyes. She was wiping the stained formica with a rag which she tossed in the sink behind her without taking her eyes off me.
At first I didn’t see Cynthia in any of the tall wooden booths. From the front of the restaurant I could see only the person sitting at the edge of the booth facing forward. But then on the hook of the last booth I spotted the rough brown coat. When I approached, I expected her to recognize me as the girl she’d sat beside in Woolworth’s, but instead I realized she too saw me only as the singular white person in the diner.
She was studying at the table. She wore a grey knit sweater and a white crocheted cap on her head. I’d never seen her without her coat. She was much thinner than I expected. Her shoulders were narrow and her neck quite slender. Again I noticed her hands; they seemed disproportionately large now.
“Cynthia Davis?” I asked.
I sat down and moved towards the wall. Immediately I was hidden from view of the other people. “Thank you for meeting with me.” She didn’t answer. I glanced at her books on the table, and tried to think of what to say. “Do you study here often?”
She nodded again, watching me without speaking. She didn’t seem hostile, only reserved. I’d wanted to meet her to find out where she came from and how she’d arrived at this point in her life. Yet as she stared at me without recognition, I realized I’d also come here to have her meet me and approve of me, and her failure to recognize my imperative made me falter.
I set right into the interview. I asked about her family. She was third in a family of six children from Fayette County, Tennessee. Her father was a preacher, a small plot farmer and owner of a modest dry goods store. Her mother worked the farm and raised the children. Cynthia would be the first of her family to graduate from college. At Fisk on a scholarship, she was an A-student, an English major, and she hoped to go on to law school next year.
She answered my questions without self-consciousness, and because she was at ease with herself, I began to feel more at ease. When I’d run through all the facts I wanted to know, I set my pad and pencil down. Leaning forward on the table, I fixed my eyes on the translucent lobes of her ears which supported the weight of heavy metal hoops. I stared at these as I tried to form the question I had come to pose. Finally I asked, “Why don’t you fight back? The other day, when that boy burned you, why did you just sit there?”
“He was bigger than me,” she answered.
“What would it have proved?”
“That he can’t get away with what he did.”
She smiled. “But he can. We both know that. Fighting him wouldn’t have changed anything.”
“How does getting beaten up or burned change anything?”
“It doesn’t.” She picked up a napkin from the table. She was quiet for a moment; then she asked, “You ever taken a hound dog hunting?” I smiled, surprised by the question. “When a hound dog gets a scent, he won’t let go. He doesn’t care if it’s raining or it’s getting dark or it’s time to go home to bed. You can beat him; you can pull his collar till you choke him, but if he’s got the scent, he’ll do everything he can to take it to the end. Our movement’s like that hound dog. We got the scent, and no one can beat it out of us or burn it out of us. The only thing they can do is show their own meanness.”
She began folding the napkin in her broad hands. Her expression was serious, yet the corners of her mouth turned up, almost smiling, as though she were extending tolerance not only to me but to herself. “We used to think the white man controlled our lives,” she said, “only since we can’t control the white man, we thought we had no control. But it doesn’t matter what white people say we are; it doesn’t matter what unjust laws say we have to do. We know who we are. First and foremost we are God’s children, and no one can turn us into hateful, beaten-down human beings; no one has that power. Power—that’s the scent. It comes from treating a man right. Once you understand that, it will change your life. Jesus Christ showed us how. Mahatma Ghandi showed the people of India they could do the same thing.”
As she spoke, her curious smile remained as if she understood the difficulty of her point of view. She spoke deliberately. She wasn’t carried away by her words but reasoned through to her conclusions with a logic as careful as any lawyer’s. “The righteousness of our cause will win over the hearts of good men and women and eventually change a whole system,” she insisted. She glanced down at the napkin which she’d shredded into a small mound of confetti. She swept the paper into the palm of her hand and dumped it in the ashtray.
“From what I’ve observed,” I offered cautiously, “your friends aren’t as free of the hate and anger as you. Perhaps you understand more.”
Her shoulders straightened against the back of the booth; her face roused. “Don’t try to separate us,” she warned. “You can’t choose among us. What I understand, we all understand.”
“I don’t think that’s true. Your friend next to you, both times I saw her, she was angry. She wanted to strike back; I saw it in her face. You didn’t. I understand what I saw in her; I don’t understand what I saw in you.”
“I’m angry. Anyone not angry is asleep. But we have to struggle with our own weaknesses as well as with society’s.”
“But if your movement depends on society having a conscience and that conscience stirring…well, frankly, I doubt how many good-hearted men and women you’re going to find.”
“Then that doubt is your weakness, isn’t it?” she offered.
I looked up. She stared at me with a calm, penetrating gaze which struck at that separation I’d felt on campus, first from myself then from others. I didn’t answer. Instead I began asking about her friends, again setting her apart from them. Again she held to the group, answering only in the plural. She emphasized she was committed to the Christian ethic of nonviolence for only as one was able to yield himself to God’s goodness was he able to express his own and see goodness in others. Yet as we talked now, I felt uneasy for she’d seen something in me which I hadn’t seen, yet which, when named, I knew: a doubt, a smallness of belief, a smallness of heart. I had wanted her to know me, but now I resented what she’d chosen to know. I found myself wanting to expose something in her.
We talked almost an hour as the diner started to fill with students. One by one the booths around us sounded with chatter. Cynthia was leaning closer to me so we could hear each other, her head propped between her ashen palms, her sweater pushed up above rough elbows. Finally as the interview wound down, circling around questions I’d already asked, the quick light in her eyes resumed a quieter glow and her half smile drew back into the reserved lines of a stranger’s.
I wrote my article for the paper the next week. It brought me immediate attention. I didn’t exactly glorify Cynthia Davis, but I set her up as an example of a generation of blacks with expectations to achieve beyond their parents and with a commitment to American ideals of equality. In writing it, I forgot for the moment my own discomfort over what she’d seen in me, and I wrote in an inflated prose that would touch the sentimental strain in a white, liberal audience. I also told the story of a girl’s ambitions which would offend those of a different persuasion. In the article I mentioned only that Cynthia’s family lived in Fayette County.
The next week a reporter for the Nashville Tennessean called me to ask if the Tennessean could run my story as a side piece with a larger article they were doing on inter-college contact in the civil rights movement. The reporter was particularly interested in the fact that I’d gone over to Fisk to have the interview.
I agreed. It would be my first paid article. Because the audience of the Tennessean was statewide, the editor wanted to know exactly where Cynthia’s family lived, and so I gave him the town’s name just outside of Memphis, and he printed it.
I thought of calling Cynthia and telling her about the story, but I didn’t. I suppose I was afraid she’d object. I was also in the middle of mid-terms. I finally did call her Sunday, the day the article appeared. I phoned that afternoon, but she wasn’t in. I left a message for her to call me back and then forgot about her. For the next few days friends and people I hardly knew stopped to talk about the story. They didn’t talk so much about what it said as the fact I’d had it published in the Tennessean. Finally on Wednesday when I hadn’t heard from Cynthia, I called again, and this time a friend of hers got on the phone.
“Cynthia’s not here,” she said. The friend’s voice was strained, but matter-of-fact. “Her father’s store was bombed Sunday night. Her brother’s in the hospital. I don’t know when she’ll be back.” Her friend didn’t say anything about the article. I didn’t know if she or Cynthia had even seen the article. I couldn’t be sure the bombing was a result of the article.
I didn’t see Cynthia Davis again. I phoned her several times, but she was never there. Then school got busy. I was starting to write freelance for the Tennessean, and I quit calling. At one of the sit-ins that spring I saw her friend, whom I recognized from that first day at Woolworth’s, and I went over to her. She answered my questions formally. She told me Cynthia had taken a leave from Fisk to help at home and in the store until her brother got out of the hospital. She told me nobody knew how long that would be or how her brother would adjust for among his injuries, his right hand had been blown off.
The Nashville sit-ins kept on through the spring. There were more arrests, more beatings of Negroes, negotiations with white business and political leaders, a cessation of arrests and sit-ins during negotiations, an economic boycott of downtown stores, a bombing of a black lawyer’s home. But finally on May 10, less than three months after the first sit-in, an agreement was announced. Six downtown lunch counters would open on an “unbiased basis.” The victory was the first of many to follow in Nashville. In the annals of southern history in the early 1960’s, the Nashville movement was considered a nonviolent success story. Cynthia Davis was not among the names who moved onto prominence out of that movement. To my knowledge, she never returned to Fisk.
I’ve thought about Cynthia Davis from time to time since then. Once the following fall on the way back to school, I drove through Memphis with the intention of going to see her, but I lost courage. To be honest, I didn’t want an answer. If there was an answer. I didn’t want to be told that what happened was my fault. In some ways I was sure it was; and yet in others, no matter what anyone said, I wouldn’t accept the blame. I didn’t know what to do with it, and I didn’t see how having it helped anyone.
I changed because of what happened in small, slow ways. By the spring of my junior year, I’d dropped out of my sorority. I became wary of my own ambition. I began to regard it as a subtle, unpredictable beast which, if I was not alert, would bite with sharp teeth.
When I think about what happened now, I account it to the wind. To what happens because of all that’s happened before for reasons you don’t understand because you’re in the middle of them and because you don’t understand yourself. I don’t account it to fate or the will of God or any other cosmic design. I account it to my ignorance of design. And as I said, to the wind. I let the flow take me with it because I hadn’t learned to face the wind, to pick up the scent but not be blown about. Because I didn’t heed dark, unexposed places in myself, I fell inside one of them and perhaps took another with me.
The Manuscript in the Drawer
by Joanne Leedom-Ackerman
published by The Hopkins Review
I’m sitting at a bar sipping club soda and writing. I’ve discovered this corner of a Washington, DC restaurant that has a long bar with plugs underneath for my computer. If I sit at the very end, I can occupy two or three seats—one for me, the others for my work—without inconveniencing anyone. I order soup or a cheese board, drink soda or a cappuccino and write for hours with the hum of trivial and sometimes consequential conversation around me, but not addressed to me. The clientele ranges from college students to government officials. I can eavesdrop, not to gather anyone’s business or secrets but rather the rhythm of life and conversation while I write from my own thoughts and imagination.
Before the pandemic, this was my modus operandi for decades, writing in restaurants. I began my career in a newsroom. Once when asked my ideal writing environment, I answered without thinking, “In the middle of a newsroom where I’m left alone to write fiction.” I like the hum; it concentrates my mind. At the moment three coeds a few stools away are bubbling over the boys and boyfriends in their lives. The conversation seems ephemeral and young to me but important to them. I remember that focus, though I think I was in junior high school then.
In these various venues, I have written four novels. Two of these are at last getting published, one in March 2023, the other spring 2024, demonstrating that writers write and eventually publishers publish. Burning Distance and The Far Side of the Desert are being published with a promotional tag suggesting “Jane Austen meets John LeCarré.”
I’ve been writing a long time, beginning as a journalist then shifting to fiction. In the late 1980s I published a collection of short stories—No Marble Angels—then a regional best-selling novel—The Dark Path to the River. Then came a long hiatus in publishing fiction. I suspect I am not the exception but rather part of a large family of writers whose novels may not be immediately published but who continue writing because sorting and organizing life and experience through words and stories is what we do.
Anatole Broyard, famed New York Times columnist and literary critic a generation ago, noted the value of the manuscript in the drawer. By writing you were helping order the universe, he claimed, staying faithful to the task of thinking and seeking harmonies in the world. I often shared his column when I taught writing. It resonated with me and always with my students.
The value of the manuscript in the drawer expands when it finally gets out of the drawer and into the universe. Burning Distance, released this spring by Oceanview Publishing, might have been prescient if published when first written. It is a love story between an American girl and Lebanese/Palestinian boy who meet at the American School in London before the first Gulf War and whose parents turn out to be connected to arms trading and the weapons smuggling that fueled the war and the years that followed. The novel spans 1981–1996. Now it may be read as historical fiction.
Living in London at the time, I was able to do extensive research and interviews after the first Gulf War. Along with others, I recognized the detritus of weapons, including those of mass destruction, left behind and accumulated in the build-up to the war and learned of the complicity of Western suppliers in that process. With children at the American School in London, I also witnessed how their generation was relating and developing friendships across national, political, and religious barriers and offered the possibility of a more connected world.
Among my ten-year-old son’s friends at the time were the son of the Kuwaiti Ambassador and a student from Iraq. When I picked my son up at camp the summer of 1990 and told him about Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, his first question was: What will happen to Talal and Alec? The Kuwaiti friend began to travel with bodyguards, and the Iraqi friend never returned to the American School. The personal and political intertwined in my imagination, and the seeds of Burning Distance were planted.
I did extensive research. Through journalist colleagues who traveled and covered the Middle East, I was able to interview individuals, including an ex-director of one of Saddam Hussein’s ministries crucial to the acquisition of nuclear components. When Saddam insisted he work to develop an atom bomb, the man refused. Saddam put him in prison. During the chaos of the war, he managed to escape to Iran and eventually made his way to England.
The challenge for me as a novelist was to take all the research and massage it into story and literary language, masticating “long-range ballistic missiles” and “isopropyl methylethylphosponoflourodite” into story and the language of literature. Sometimes the book seemed larger than my experience and skill as a writer, and yet I couldn’t put it down. Between drafts I wrote short stories, articles, and two other novels, then I came back again, fresh, ready to reenter the lives of my characters and live through another and then another draft. Time has passed, but the themes remain relevant.
“Burning Distance is a double helix of a book, carefully plotted and beautifully told,” novelist and Washington Post columnist David Ignatius has offered. “It’s a spy story interwoven with a love story, and the strands fit together in a way that moves the reader effortlessly from chapter to chapter. While fiction, its narrative of the CIA and the Middle East arms trade are very close to fact.”
Writers have been generous in their early response. After writing, the affirmation of readers is one of the payoffs, though the process of writing remains the gold.
My son Elliot Ackerman, the friend of Talal and Alec, is now himself a novelist and journalist. He once dubbed me “the last of the paper generation.” He was right. My basement is filled with research files and drafts of manuscripts. Somewhere among these is Anatole Broyard’s essay which I haven’t been able to find in my files, but its sentiment and the value of the manuscript in the drawer abides.
Umbrellas snap open like a flock of blackbirds arriving at the grave. Twelve of us stand wing to wing as clouds roll over the green hills and the rain falls harder. Few families endure one murder. I am mourning the second in my lifetime. I’m nineteen years old, and I am beginning to see that life connects.
My father used to say, “There are no coincidences, only life showing you its patterns.”
As I watch our small gathering on the hillside, I strain to see the pattern….
So begins my new novel Burning Distance which publishes on March 7 and can be ordered now. The opening chapter of the novel and an essay “Manuscript in the Drawer” will also appear on pub day in The Hopkins Review online.
I hope you’ll enjoy the story—find it moving, entertaining, informative, surprising…
I leave the adjectives to readers who I hope will also take a moment to write a comment or review with online booksellers if that is how you order. These are used to offer extra promotional benefits for the book. They also help the book on its way.
Burning Distance took years to research and write and even longer to publish. You may find of interest the Author’s Note at the end of the book which shares some of that journey and history. The publisher through Goodreads promoted Burning Distance this month with some giveaways of the digital book.
While the facts are well-researched for Burning Distance, the characters, the story and the world created sprang from imagination. The novel’s promotional copy heralds the novel: “Jane Austen meets John le Carré in this cross-cultural love story and political thriller….A modern-day Romeo and Juliet set against a background of arms smuggling in the Middle East.” I hope the book will appeal to readers who like international political thrillers and also those who enjoy a love story and family drama with characters you can care about.
I hope you will come along on the journey of Burning Distance. If you find yourself engaged, please tell a friend or many friends. A book extends its life through its readers and expands that life through word of mouth. Let me know what you think. And make some noise!
Thank you in advance,
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