(Dispatch number 2 from Ubud, Bali, by Robin Hamley, um, Hemley)
I had been slightly dreading my first panel of the day at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, "State of the Union," in which we were going to discuss "the shifting preoccupations of literature, society, and politics in Obama's America."
As I've spent most of the last two years outside of the U.S., first in the Philippines and then in Southern , France, I didn't feel especially qualified. My other panelists seemed much more so, among them Los Angeles-based novelist and short story writer, Lisa Teasley, novelist and painter Rabih Alameddine, who splits his time between San Francisco and Lebanon, and Mike Otterman, a young New York writer who's written two books on torture and Iraq.
Not that I wanted to avoid controversy, I just wasn't sure I could comment on or had even noticed the "shifting preoccupations" in the U.S. After all, the U.S. is huge. Over 300,000 books are published annually in a traditional format, and when you count non-traditional forms, which are way up (Ebooks, self-published books, and print-on-demand), the number soars to over a million titles a year. But there are undoubtedly shifts that concern me, none more than the decline of fiction in the U.S. According to Bowker, approximately 53,000 fiction titles were published traditionally in the U.S. in 2008, while only 45,000 were published in 2009. That's nearly a 20% decline in a year. What does this say about Obama?
Well, I think the statistics are clear on this matter. Obama opposes the novel and short story. And is out to destroy our literary way of life. The fact that he was seen carrying Jonathan Franzen's new novel around recently simply shows what a clever politician he is. By reading a popular work of fiction he thinks he can avoid responsibility for the decline of the novel and blame it on his on his predecessor (well known for his love of fictions). But it won't work, Mr. Barack Hussein Obama. We know you've written a memoir. This is where your loyalties lie.
I had planned to expose Mr. Obama for the literary hypocrite he is, but my fellow panelists had other ideas. The panel was slightly unfocused until the late arrival of a fellow panelist, a young American journalist whom I had not previously met. The panel was galvanized when he told the audience that "the Muslim world needs to accept responsibility for 9/11." Mike, who was seated next to me, tensed and leaned back in his chair in the manner of a patient who sees the dentist's drill approaching. An older woman in the front row lifted her umbrella in front of her like a Kendo warrior, ready to strike. Rabih answered gently, reminding his co-panelist that there is no such thing as "the Muslim world," that it is not a monolithic entity, just as the Christian world is not monolithic, and that there are many Americas as well . . . But our fellow panelist suggested that "the Muslim world" was not doing enough to project a positive image of itself, that it was suffering from a "crisis of extremism." This led to a discussion of the controversial mosque at ground zero.
Of all the issues facing the U.S., this manufactured issue depresses me the most, because it's such a distraction from the real, serious issues facing America and the world. Mike mentioned that the mosque at ground zero was an issue manufactured by Fox news, that it had not been an issue until Fox made it one. I mentioned that the site was on the Sacred site of the Burlington Coat Factory. Rabih mentioned that it was near the Hallowed Ground of a strip club. Our friend said that while he was ultimately in favor of the mosque being built, he understood why it was distasteful and not simply a response motivated by fear and misunderstanding.
In order to speak, we needed to press a button on our microphones, and only three could be on at once. Mike reached for the button several times in response to the sweeping generalizations and condemnations by our fellow panelist, but Rabih gently placed his hand on Mike's and gave him a "take a deep breath" look. Later, Mike, who lives in Manhattan, told me that the closer a person is to ground zero, the more likely he is to support the mosque. The people of lower Manhattan largely support it as do others in the city, but the further west you travel, the more you run into opposition to the "victory mosque." This seems to me emblematic of most of human nature. The less you know of what you speak, the less familiar you are with another people or religion, the more likely you are to speak with certainty about it. The old saw goes, "familiarity breeds contempt." Perhaps. But proximity leads to understanding.
Rather than give a blow-by-blow, I'll say that Lisa Teasley spoke in the end about working with at-risk youth in Los Angeles, and how it's personal interaction of course that leads to understanding -- such festivals as Ubud do a good deal to promote the goodwill that's so lacking elsewhere. I'm paraphrasing, of course, but her words were warmly received by the audience, and the woman with the umbrella struck no one. My second panel on "true stories" was nowhere near as controversial. I had the pleasure of joining a distinguished group of Australian journalists, including Paul Ham, Tony Maniaty, and Gerald Ryle.
That evening I attended a dinner hosted by the American Consulate at a local restaurant. I sat across from one of the consuls, an engaging and charming career diplomat. He asked Rabih, at the same table, if he ate pork, and Rabih said, yes, he wasn't Muslim. My name was misspelled on the name card. Robin Hamley. Was this a purposeful affront? Did he know that I'm Jewish? I eat ham, but still! What would the Jewish World think of this if I decided to make a stink?
But I'm a forgiving sort. I decided not to cause an international incident. I took the name card as a souvenir. My host mentioned that Mr. Obama will visit Indonesia soon: "While it's only a stop over for twenty-four hours, it's better than nothing," he said. He will not be visiting the statue of him in his honor. He will not be carrying one of my books. While this strikes me as a further travesty, I'm willing to forgive him. The important thing is that he stops, that he engages Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, the diplomat said. It's hard to disagree with that. I think. But I'm sure there are those who would . . .