Lahiri’s “Sexy” at the American Corner & in the Park

May 2 & 9, 2012

Mark Lake, Educational Director for the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention

Mark Lake is a fellow American in Kosova. He is the Educational Director with the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. As part of his program, Lake offers English conversation courses for students at the American Corner.

I joined his class on May 2 and 9 to lead them in a discussion about Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Sexy.”  For the first class, we met at their usual place, the American Corner in the National Library on the University of Pristina campus. For the gathering on the 9th, we met at local park instead because the library was closed in observance of Europe Day.

**Click on the first image to view pictures in a larger, “slideshow” format.

Under the Blue Flag: My Mission in Kosovo

February 16, 2012

Cover of Under the Blue Flag: My Mission in Kosovo

Cover of Under the Blue Flag: My Mission in Kosovo

In 2001, when assistant district attorney Philip Kearney left San Francisco for Kosova, he found himself driven by generous motives: he wanted to help “rebuild” this former Serbian province shattered by a decade of ethnic warfare (4). He would do that rebuilding “under the blue flag” of the UN, serving as a prosecutor of war criminals. But early in his brilliant book bearing the title above, Kearney acknowledges that his selfless wish to help heal the Balkans rooted in personal needs: his mission would help him to squelch the “feeling” that his life “was half over” yet he had not made his “mark” (2). He would fill the “hole” in his life, then, by helping Kosova restore the rule of law.

Early on, Kearney’s mission filled that hole, giving him a sense of “vigor and purpose” that he “hadn’t felt in years” (21). Yet after a year of service in Kosova, where Kearney found the justice system truly in “tatters” (14), one might have forgiven him had he returned to the comforts of San Francisco and written a judgmental book about the cowardice of some Kosovarans who won’t bear witness against murderers and rapists (84), and about the incorrigible corruption of some police and judges: “the same people who were supposed to be upholding the law were the people I needed to go after” (197).

But instead of complaining at home, Keaney stayed to pursue his mission, for the Balkans “had gotten into [his] blood” (224). Having lost himself in Kosovaran stories of suffering and endurance, of courage that sometimes overcomes terror, Kearney no longer had time to worry about making a mark.

Mesmerized by Kosovaran stories, Kearney quickly discovered the hatred—“still very real and still very alive”—that threads through both Albanian and Serbian narratives (39). Those hatreds, now and always, have made “retributive murder…commonplace” in the Balkans, and Kearney found in Kosova “no justice system to reign in the violence” (45). With no rule of law, either during or after the war, Kearney heard stories of Serbian death camps, where Albanian women suffered beatings and rapes daily (159), and of raids on Albanian homes, where rapes in front of family members preceded the lootings (108). Kearney also heard stories of Albanian retribution; one such case involved an Albanian with an AK-47 slaughtering a dozen Serbs, including a four-year-old boy, in front of a store (56). “Nobody here,” Kearney concludes, “has clean hands” (226).

To work toward ending this cycle of hatred and vengeance, Kearney used his Kosovaran courtroom to persuade both sides that “justice had to be blind—especially to ethnicity” (243). Sharing the UN’s commitment to “conquer ancient tribalism and replace it with the rule of law” (256), Kearney argued passionately that atrocities “committed either by military winners or losers” must be prosecuted by one high standard of human conduct, especially when committed “against the civilian population” (257, 259).

Amazingly, Kearney and his legal team won convictions against both Serbs and Albanians. Predictably, however, set-backs followed, like the acquittal of a Serb Kearney thought he had put away (268), and then the 2005 Supreme Court decision that “with the stroke of a pen” reversed “convictions we had fought so hard to achieve” (282). Yet even such reversals, Kearney hopes, persuades Serbs that international tribunals can be fair to “both sides of the conflict” (268).

Looking back on his mission, Kearney stresses two key lessons he hopes that we all take from his narrative: that “good governance takes time,” and that “our need to engage actively in the broader world” remains “stronger than ever” (294, 295).

Additional Links about Kearney

Radio interview with Philip Kearney and Verena Knaus, Here On Earth: Radio Without Borders, Wisconsin Public Radio, February 17, 2009

Interview with Philip Kearney, San Francisco Chronicle, March 1, 2009

Philip Kearney, Richard Reeves*, and Geoffrey Robinson^, Rising Above Oppression, Panel Discussion at Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, April 24, 2010

*Richard Reeves, Daring Young Men: The Heroism and Triumph of the Berlin
 Airlift - June 1948 - May 1949 (Simon & Schuster; January 5, 2010)

^Geoffrey Robinson, "If You Leave Us Here, We Will Die": How Genocide
 Was Stopped in East Timor (Princeton University Press; November 16,
2009)

Feminist Theory, Flexibility, and a Trip to the Mall

January 30, 2012

In preparing for this teaching adventure, I completed all readings and drew up my syllabi before leaving MSU, but today I began preparing class sessions, which begin February 15.

Of course, my syllabi notwithstanding, flexibility will be key.  I won’t know until I meet my students exactly what they need or how far they have progressed as MA students.  The first unit in my 20th-century American lit class will, I hope, allow for such flexibility.

For the first nine weeks, the students will explore a single broad theme, “Marriage, Family, and the American Dream,” a theme that will give continuity to their work and facilitate comparative analysis.  To sharpen that thematic focus, the first week will feature feminist theory applied to Susan Glaspell’s one-act play Trifles, to Zora Neale Hurston’s short story “Sweat,” and to Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story “Sexy.”

If it turns out that students already have a good grounding in early feminists and theorists such as Wollstonecraft, Fuller, Woolf, Beauvoir, Ellman, and Showalter, then we can jump right into these three works, which span the century: 1916 for Glaspell, 1926 for Hurston, 1999 for Lahiri.  On the other hand, if the students lack this theoretical background, then I will introduce the feminist critique of the patriarchal order and its oppression and suppression of women, and I will sketch gynocriticism as a framework for evaluating works written by women.

Either way, these works will help experienced readers review feminist theories and reading strategies, or provide more inexperienced students access to female characters who suffer physical and psychic battering or sexual objectification, yet who overcome brutish husbands or hypocritical lovers with their intelligence and strength.

Their triumphs over the patriarchal order also involve breaking laws or ignoring social mores, so we should have some interesting class discussions accounting for our sympathy and admiration for characters that conventional patriarchs might label as criminals or sluts.  To help students to discover the ambiguity surrounding each woman’s situation and their own ambivalence in responding to the women’s actions, I will rely on journaling prompts as homework and on small group work so that students may arrive inductively at their feminist insights.

After spending the morning planning approaches to this great stuff, I set out with Dave McTier to enjoy the sun and to visit Albi Mall (see gallery below).  I enjoyed the sun but much prefer the old markets all over town to the glitz of the mall.

**Click on the first picture to scroll through the gallery in a larger format.

Contentment…and Gaps

January 29, 2012

I can’t recall the last time I felt so content, the product of a good sleep, a satisfying meal, and a sense of mission.

My severe-looking bed turns out to be quite comfortable, and with two wool blankets I stayed plenty warm.

Look, Ma--I made my bed!

Look, Ma--I made my bed!

After rising at 5:00, I fired up the hot-water pot, drank coffee, and read from Bron Taylor’s Dark Green Religion: Nature, Spirituality, and the Planetary Future, a book that celebrates Thoreau but actually relates in powerful ways to much of the 20th-century American literature I will read with my students. Think of Willy Loman longing for a garden to plant, or Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim finding some peace in a world of fire-bombings in his Buddha-like discovery of the simultaneity of every moment. More on this later.

Then breakfast: cranberry juice and yogurt (both chilled on my balcony) as well as a tomato, a banana, a chunk of cheese, and an even chunkier slice of bread. Such basic food satisfies deeply, and I’m certain that the pleasure comes as much from touch as from taste and smell.

My ‘mission’? To teach my Kosovaran students American literature by helping them to grow as writers and researchers, yes, but—even more fundamentally—to teach myself to listen and to lose myself in others’ stories.

But my rich experiences here come at a heavy price: my separation from Judy and from all the people and critters I love. Skyping helps, but I know that days will come when the mission fails and even electronics can’t bridge the gap between here and home.