Interview with Ru Freeman: “You can’t let words be co-opted by a certain group”
As Iberia flight 3316 approached Ben Gurion airport last week the pilot provoked fury on board when he announced the aircraft’s imminent arrival in Palestine. One passenger summed up why when he told Israel’s Channel 2 TV, "We live in the State of Israel and he should have said 'Israel'.”
According to Ru Freeman, the editor of a new anthology on Palestine, Extraordinary Rendition (American) Writers on Palestine, published by OR Books, says that even in America people don’t use the word Palestine: “The fact is, people need to do that; they need to speak that word,” she says.
The issue of language or the “semantics match” that is as old as the Israel-Palestine debate itself is explored nicely in Nate Brown’s contribution to Extraordinary Rendition. Recounting a story from his time working at the Cornell Daily Sun, Brown debated with a reader over whether to use “Palestinians” or “Palestine” in a headline. He points out that not using the latter (as the reader wished him to do) denies the existence of a place which millions of people call home.
Freeman tells me that even naming the book Extraordinary Rendition provoked a debate; many believed that it evoked images of the notorious Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Prisons and as such should only be used within that context. Freeman didn’t agree: “You can’t let words be co-opted by a certain group. You need to take them back and use them to talk about something else.”
Language is just one issue tackled by the sixty-five American poets and writers who have been drawn together to examine Palestine and various ways in which America contributes towards denying human rights and dignity to Palestinians. As Freeman puts it in the introduction, “…Americans, willingly or not, fund the perpetration of such violence through our taxes, but more so by our silence...” The erasure of history and memory in Palestine, the imprisonment of children and house demolitions are all covered in the book. “Addressing these things through literature and non-fiction essays, poetry and fiction is a significant contribution to the discussion,” she says.
Initially, both writers and publishers were reluctant to contribute. Some said that politics was not for writers, others feared that there would be repercussions from the literary industry for tackling the issue of Palestine. Freeman, though, says that the tide of cultural opinion in the United States is beginning to turn and mass protests against the 2014 Israeli war on Gaza can be taken as evidence of this, even if they weren’t reported in the mainstream media. With this in mind, the latest round of violence in Palestine that has killed 72 Palestinians and injured over 8,000 may, says Freeman, garner a quicker response from the literary world.
“I think there is a real change and people are feeling more able to speak and also feeling more supported in speaking out because they see these other names coming up, such as Alice Walker, George Saunders, Colum McCann; it gives these people courage to feel that they can also say something.”
In the introduction to McCann’s contribution, “Cathal’s Lake”, he writes, “One of the reasons the peace process worked in Northern Ireland is that our writers did not, in general, take distinct sides.” It’s a comment which at first appears confusing; haven’t the all the writers inExtraordinary Rendition chosen the side of the Palestinians because of the intolerable human rights violations they suffer? After all, why would they choose to contribute if they had not?
“I didn’t want it to be for and against because frankly I don’t think it is against human beings anywhere even in Israel,” explains Freeman. “It is actually as human beings here saying this is inhumane treatment and we are going to write about what we see… it isn’t taking a side, it is speaking for humanity and I think there is a distinction there.”
Freeman does believe that it is a duty to write about those who have been deliberately silenced: “My goal is not to have a fight with every person who disagrees, but to gather the people who might feel differently and have them speak. I think that writers should speak because we expect this world to pay attention to the things we say so it might improve us to pay attention to the world also and to do for it what we can. I don’t by any means think this book is going to stop the demolishing of the Bedouin villages or the arrest of the children, but it is a way of changing a corner of the world where we have some power to change something and I believe it is the responsibility of every person to do that in whatever place they find themselves.”
Speaking out is particularly important in the United States, adds Freeman. The US currently provides Israel with around $3 billion of military of aid a year yet ordinary Americans have no idea what is really happening on the ground: “In the US there is a complete lack of information because of the way the media covers Palestine,” she offers by way of an explanation.
It is this subject that the writers Dwayne Betts and Ed Pavlic tackle; the issue of Palestine in the news, or its absence in the news, which may be a more appropriate description. Like Brown’s contribution on the issue of semantics, the debate surrounding journalistic coverage of Palestine and Israel is the “oldest of old hats” as Pavlic puts it. His observation that coverage of the 2014 bombardment on Gaza created the false impression of symmetry or equal power between Israel and Palestine can be said of the two wars before that and the recent wave of violence taking place in the occupied territories. Meanwhile, the day-to-day collective punishment that Palestinians endure – illegal settlements taking more land, house demolitions and military checkpoints, for example – receives little attention in the media.
What has caused a stir in the British press recently is a letter in the Guardian, signed by, amongst others, Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, stating that Israel needs cultural bridges, not boycotts. “The academic boycott where over 300 academics from 72 different institutions signed was a far more meaningful gesture than this stance,” says Freeman of the joint statement made by academics in British institutions which demanded that Israel should comply with international law, before confirming that she is behind a cultural boycott.
With big names included in Extraordinary Rendition Freeman is hoping that the book will reach a wide audience, and make people think twice about Palestine. “That there is a different story for Palestine and that it’s OK to talk about it and to mention that name,” is her message to other authors. “That the forces aren’t stacked insurmountably high and that if you actually wish to take a stand you can and you will survive and your books will still continue to be published and you will still be invited to things.” It is important to know that we all need to be doing something and saying something, she insists. “It sounds so trite in some ways to say that we all do what we can, but I’m constantly amazed by how many people wait for someone else to say something before they’re willing to say something. That’s another thing I want people to realise when they read the book; they are also able to do something and say something and eventually there will be a change.”
Published in Middle East Monitor