On the long trail of a big story

I have known for years that Betty Medsger, a former colleague and friend when we both lived in the Bay area, was working on the book that became The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI.

And now, it is here, and I see that one reason it took a long time arriving is that it is a very big book: not only the story of a group of eight anti-war activists who stole FBI files from an office in Media, Pennsylvania, but also the story of the world they unlocked the door to: J. Edgar Hoover’s secret FBI.

For more on Medsger’s long journey into the past – and why it matters to us, see my piece in the Berkeley Daily Planet:

Betty Medsger’s The Burglary: They Broke the Law to Preserve It.

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Oaxaca’s libraries

Riches for readers in a centuries-old city

 When I arrived in Oaxaca, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in southwest Mexico, I was expecting sunshine and colonial churches, not a lively literary landscape, but in the coming days, that is what I discovered.

The first week, there was an international book fair that featured booksellers’ and publishers’ stalls under a tent at the Zócalo, the central square crossed by tourists, vendors, and anyone else drawn by the restaurants and bands and political speeches.  While dozens of would-be buyers combed the stalls for good deals, under another tent nearby, a succession of writers, critics, and cartoonists held forth to listeners.

The next week, a series of workshops, manuscript readings, and discussions drew Latin American writers, editors, and others involved in the book business to Oaxaca. Writing workshops were held in the public library and writers read from their manuscripts in its courtyard.

Then came several days of sessions on developing readers’ communities. These were mostly held in a couple of the many other libraries scattered through the city – perhaps the most distinctive element of Oaxaca’s literary scene.

Instituto de Artes Gráficas
Instituto de Artes Gráficas

 Octavio Lara, a photographer, tipped me off to the first little library I visited, across from the grand Iglesia de Santo Domingo with its twin domed spires. There, in a modest one-story building housing the Instituto de Artes Gráficas (IAGO), I found a series of quiet rooms, some displaying art exhibits, others lined with books from the collection of Francisco Toledo, an artist and book publisher who created the institute.

This is perhaps Mexico’s most distinguished collection of books and other materials on the graphic arts – and just a few blocks away there’s a second IAGO collection of books on literature and history. Both libraries’ international holdings are freely open to anyone who comes by.

IAGO has been a model for other multi-dimensional cultural centers that provide space not only for books but for workshops, lectures, and performances.

There is, for instance, Biblioteca Henestrosa, which contains the works and book collection of Andrés Henestrosa, a writer who made varied contributions to the study of the Zapotec language and oral tradition. A man who did not speak Spanish until he was 15, he treasured oral tradition but transformed it into written literature.

Sharing a building with Casa de la Ciudad (which is dedicated to preservation and sustainable development of Oaxaca), the Biblioteca Henestrosa offers free workshops for writers, and the night I dropped by at one of those to meet Fernando Lobo,  a writer whose work I like, musicians were setting up in the building’s courtyard for a concert.

Museo de Filatelia
Museo de Filatelia

Music, art, literature, and history intermingle in Oaxaca like old and familiar friends. A stroll through the Museo de Filatelia took me in and out of multiple worlds: in one room, an exhibit of stamps related to Mexican exports; in another, collages drawn from postal communications; then in the garden, illustrations for two postal-themed children’s books spread out on walls open to the sky.

In the museum’s library, I found David Korminksi Katz, the young staff member in charge of research for the exhibitions. He told me that an important part of the museum’s mission is the production of books based on the exhibits. The books are beautifully designed, their production values high, and, of course, they’re sold in the museum bookstore to bring in income.

 The stamp library and the rest of the 37 libraries that show up on a glossy Oaxaca map devoted to them are just one face of a cultural boom that the city has experienced in the last 10 or 15 years.

Almadía shelves in Proveedora Escolar
Almadía shelves in Proveedora Escolar

There are also small independent publishers like Sur+ Ediciones and bigger ones like Almadía, whose books cover almost an entire wall of its originator, the bookstore­­­ Proveedora Escolar. There are smaller bookstores like La Jicara, which concentrates on selling books by independent publishers in Mexico and elsewhere and, in an adjoining room, offers food and drinks. There are journals like Avispero (Hornets’ Nest), which publishes creative work and receives financial support from the federal government, and El Jolgorio (Revelry), a monthly culture calendar with thoughtful articles.

El Jolgorio, like much of the cultural activity in Oaxaca, carries on with the support of Fundación Alfredo Harp Helú, named for the man who funds it, a former banker and very rich (974th on Forbes’ billionaires’ list). The foundation has played a leading role in preserving and renovating Oaxaca’s historic center – most dramatically in the case of the Ex-Convent of San Pablo, which, along with foundation offices, houses an academic center and library.

 The original sixteenth-century edifice had undergone earthquakes and conversion to other uses and was really a wreck of its former self until finally, in the early twenty-first century, the Harp Helú Foundation invested in its restoration—a dramatic merging of old and new. Along one side of the courtyard, the architect raised a three-story sheet of glass behind which you can see users of a library dedicated to the history of Oaxaca and Mesoamerica – and through the glass, the ghostly old convent wall.

Impressive as the San Pablo edifice is, I suspect I’m not the only one to be just as beguiled by the new public library for children – a series of rooms winding like a snake through a hillside site where the architect was instructed not to cut down any trees.

Children's library
Children’s library

When I arrived there at dusk one evening to hear a librarian from Colombia, just a few adults and children were dispersed through the library’s rooms. When I left in the dark about an hour later, the lighted rooms I passed were nearly full.

Oaxaca’s riches for readers are astonishing in the capital of a state that is one of the poorest, and most indigenous, in all Mexico. Just steps from the little libraries of the historic downtown, street vendors go from tourist to tourist with their stacks of hand-woven cloth and embroidered blouses, while indigenous families with nothing to sell sit against walls holding out plastic cups for alms.

Coming into the street one day from a session on encouraging reading, I remembered the line erroneously attributed to Marie Antoinette: “Let them eat cake.”  Given the poverty all around in Oaxaca, I wondered: Was I hearing a variation in these sessions – “Let them read books”?

As in Paris at the time of the French Revolution, discontent rumbles through the streets of Oaxaca. In 2006, rising up against what they saw as the Oaxaca state governor’s indifference to people’s needs, thousands occupied the city center where the libraries are concentrated. The protest began in May with a strike by teachers. Others joined their marches, streets were barricaded, the tourist trade turned upside down, and death squads attacked demonstrators. The federal riot police came in. Six months and at least a dozen deaths after it started, the uprising was over.

Demonstration against privatizing oil
Demonstration against privatizing oil

But unrest still simmers, and police keep a watchful eye on the city. While I was there, the city hosted a conference of representatives from other UNESCO world heritage sites, and overnight the number of policemen in the tourist area ­– already plentiful by American standards – multiplied. Open trucks bearing police with military-style automatic weapons patrolled the streets.

Then, too, there is the wave of drug-related violence sweeping across Mexico. In a session on reading communities held in Proveedora Escolar, the director of the bookstore’s  radio program on books – Oscar Javier Martínez – linked the crisis of violence in Mexico with the fact that too few Mexicans read.

After the session, he told me he got the idea from Mexican poet José Emilio Pocheco but Javier himself elaborated. In a country where many children are growing up in families that have been destroyed or are themselves violent, he said, the only way those children will learn empathy is by reading – seeing in the characters of novels the humanity of others.

Raising the question: how to build communities of readers?
Raising the question: how to build communities of readers?

The problem is, by and large, most Mexicans don’t read books. Although Mexico’s official literacy rate approaches 100%, studies show the rate of book reading considerably below the United States’. That’s not surprising, given the low incomes and high prices of books in Mexico. As one librarian told me, Mexicans are busy “trying to survive.”

Indeed. Threaded through my own exploration of Oaxaca’s literary life were confrontations with naked need: a child peddling toothpicks in a cafe, a hunched man in a sombrero offering me his little wooden spoons for a dollar apiece, insisting, over and over, as if I just did not understand: “Es para sal. Es para sal.” (“it’s for salt. It’s for salt.”)

In such a context, I suppose it would be possible to dismiss the little libraries of Oaxaca as entertainments for the privileged, but I can’t help but think that their spaces incubate thoughts that spill into the streets – just as after the 2006 uprising, demonstrators’ graffiti spilled into an IAGO exhibit dedicated to their art.

In one of the Jolgorio articles celebrating IAGO’s 25th anniversary, Pedro Valtierra, the director of Cuartoscuro, a national photo magazine, speculated that cultural centers like those in Oaxaca could be the true solution for social problems in many parts of Mexico.  As a historian, I know there are no single solutions to anything, but perhaps it is not too much to hope that through these open doors will blow winds of change. – Carol Polsgrove, January 2014. Photos by Carol Polsgrove.


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Writers and the Civil Rights Movement

For journalists who wonder if the little bit they do, day by day, week by week, makes a difference, paging through the Library of America’s anthology, Reporting Civil Rights, newly reissued, should reassure them.

I was reminded of that recently when an invitation to appear on the Tavis Smiley radio show sent me back to those two volumes, which I and three other editors helped to edit.

Many of the writers of these 1,800 pages were not professional reporters but people in other walks of life who felt moved to bear witness.

Lawrence Reddick, a professor at Alabama State, wrote about the sit-ins his students were staging – and lost his job for his efforts on their behalf.

Anne Moody (Coming of Age in Mississippi) was herself a Tougaloo student caught up in the movement in Jackson, Mississippi – and scared her mother so much that “she said if I didn’t stop that shit she would come to Tougaloo and kill me herself.”

Novelist James Baldwin was in Paris when he saw a photo of a young African-American girl braving a hostile crowd and came back home to travel south, where he seriously feared for his life. Meeting the students determined to make things different, he wrote a series of magazine articles that led finally to the powerful New Yorker piece we know as The Fire Next Time.

The writers’ bios at the end of the Reporting Civil Rights volumes don’t begin to describe the work that went into these chronicles and meditations – or the sacrifice: the dangers run, the personal prices paid. For that readers may want to go to The Race Beat by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff or my own Divided Minds: Intellectuals and the Civil Rights Movement.

But readers can imagine from the stories themselves what it was like for the writers writing them:  to be Murray Kempton, crowded into a pew in that Montgomery church with a mob howling outside…  or Julian Mayfield, caught up in the melee of Monroe, N.C. (and later fleeing the country to live the rest of his life in exile)… or Garry Wills, riding the bus to Atlanta with the striking Memphis garbage workers bound for the funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr.

As my fellow editor Clayborne Carson pointed out in the Tavis Smiley interview, important as he was, Martin Luther King Jr. was not the Civil Rights Movement. The movement was powerful because so many were involved – giving up their lives, temporarily or for good, to bring change about. Among those were the writers who walked alongside them, taking notes.

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African writers in 2013: what has changed and what hasn’t

Pleased as I was to read Taiye Selasi’s new novel, Ghana Must Go, I could not help thinking too little has changed since the writers I described in Ending British Rule in Africa struggled to get their books published in London in the 1930s and ’40s. Despite the many honors paid to Chinua Achebe on his death, the truth is that writers from sub-Saharan Africa still face great obstacles to getting into print, or, if published in their home countries, drawing attention on the world stage. READ MORE OF THIS MAY 24 POST ON THE MANCHESTER UNIVERSITY PRESS BLOG.

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Weaving the cloth of historical fiction

Elaine Neil Orr and I shared a childhood in Nigeria as missionary kids, so it was a special pleasure to read her new historical novel. After an adulthood apart, we met again one afternoon in Asheville, N.C., and talked about how the story of actual nineteenth-century missionaries Lurana and Thomas Jefferson Bowen became the story of fictional Emma and Henry in A Different Sun. READ MY INTERVIEW WITH HER HERE.

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Appeal Qatari poet’s sentence

The international writers’ organization PEN asks that writers protest the continuing imprisonment of Qatari poet Mohammad Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami. In an email to members today, PEN wrote, “This week, an appeals court reduced his sentence to 15 years, but the conviction on charges of ‘inciting to overthrow the ruling system’ and ‘insulting the emir’ still stands—a clear violation of al-Ajami’s right to freedom of expression.”

Please protest this sentence at https://www.pen.org/content/demand-immediate-release-mohammad-ibn-al-dheeb-al-ajami.

–Carol Polsgrove, February 28, 2013

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