Saturday, July 30, 2016

"The Hungry Years in Catalonia: An Interview with Peter Bush about 'Black Bread'"

"Black Bread, one of the major novels of Catalan literature, makes its appearance in English in the Biblioasis International Translation Series this month, in a translation by Peter Bush. Series editor Stephen Henighan asked Bush about the narrative world of the novel’s author, Emili Teixidor, who grew up in rural Catalonia under fascist occupation."

Read text of interview here.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

"In Andalusia, on the Trail of Inherited Memories"

"ARCOS DE LA FRONTERA, Spain — I still wonder how I ended up living in a former medieval bordello on the brink of a sandstone cliff on the southern frontier of Spain.

It was 2008, the start of the Andalusian region’s economic meltdown, La Crisis, and anxiety spread like the Black Plague. But from the roof of my apartment in this ancient white pueblo, I plunged back in time.

The other world worried about bills, real estate values, tourism, lost jobs, the immediate future. In contrast, I retreated into my quest, hoping to take new stock of my identity by reclaiming ancestral memories, history and DNA clues that I believe had been faithfully passed down for generations of my family, the Carvajals.

They had left Spain centuries ago, during the Inquisition. That much I knew. We were raised as Catholics in Costa Rica and California, but late in life I finally started collecting the nagging clues of a very clandestine identity: that we were descendants of secret Sephardic Jews — Christian converts known as conversos, or Anusim (Hebrew for the forced ones) or even Marranos, which in Spanish means swine.

I didn’t know if my family had a connection to the white pueblo. But by living in its labyrinth of narrow cobblestone streets, I hoped to understand the fears that shaped the secret lives of my own family.

History is a part of daily life in the old quarter, where Inquisition trials were staged and neighbors spied on neighbors, dutifully reporting heretics — Christian converts who were secretly practicing Judaism. The former Jewish quarter, where white houses plunge down a steep, silvery lane, is still standing, though unmarked by any street sign. I wanted to understand why my family guarded secret identities for generations with such inexplicable fear and caution. When my aunt died a few years ago, she left instructions barring a priest from presiding over her funeral; my grandmother did the same."

Read more from source here.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Ladino - "On what a dying language leaves behind"

"My grandmother’s mother tongue was Ladino—old Spanish, the language of the Sephardic Jews. 

Like Yiddish, it’s a kind of pidgin language, a collage of words drawn from multiple sources, among them: Medieval Spanish, Galician-Portuguese, Mozarabic, Greek, Bulgarian, French, Serbo-Croatian. 

And like Yiddish, it’s a vulnerable language. Once the trade language of the Adriatic Sea and the Middle East, and renowned for its rich literature especially in Salonika, it’s now under serious threat of extinction. UNESCO has called it “seriously endangered.” 

I’ve never heard it spoken in person, though one can listen online at the Ladino preservation council’s website. When I do, I feel like I should understand the voice that sounds like my grandmother’s, with its purring R’s, but I don’t. Not a single word.
I’m not sure how much Ladino my grandmother remembered when she died in the American Midwest at 103. As a girl, she’d studied in Egypt at French schools. Later, she studied law in France, married a Frenchman. French was the only language I ever heard her speak, besides a richly accented English. French was my mother’s first language. My brother and I never considered taking Spanish in school. We took French, naturellement. And explained our interest, if asked, by saying our mother was French.
In researching my collection of linked stories, Heirlooms, which is based on family stories, I came across old letters written in what I came to understand was Ladino. I knew from reading other old family letters that much about the writer could be revealed in their word choice or turn of phrase. I stared at the undecipherable swoops of cursive, wondering what the letters conveyed. 

My mother could glean a few words, because Ladino, like French, is a Romance language. My mother’s cousin who grew up in Israel couldn’t help us, as he’d heard Ladino only when the grown ups didn’t want the children to know what they were talking about. 

Read more from Rachel Hall's article in Guernica magazine here.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

"Times in the balance" - My latest opinion column for Catalonia Today magazine

Now that summer is here it is easy to ignore the wider world and only take in what we see through the sun's glare at the beach or from the top of a shady mountain.

Away from the ease of nature’s innocence though, it seems to me that we living in both pivotal and fascinating days. The good news is that Europe can take heart from some real achievements in environmental energy over the last few months. 

For example, in the month of May Germany was almost entirely powered by solar and wind, Britain functioned without coal for the first time in over a century and Portugal ran on renewable energy alone for four days straight. 

Also, the EU Parliament has called on the European Commission to severely restrict permitted uses of the toxic agricultural herbicide glyphosate - a probable cause of cancer and a substance already found in our bloodstreams.

Just across the sea in Tunisia is another development that must be welcome to anyone who cares about basic human rights. In that part of the continent that originally sparked the Middle Eastern Arab Spring protests over five years ago, Tunisia’s once-extreme Ennahda party "officially declared that it will separate its religious activities from its political ones...[and] acknowledged the primacy of secular democracy over Islamist theocracy." 

In other words, mosques there will be politically neutral - a major blow to any recruiters of fundamentalist terrorists.

But there are also current affairs stories that are not at all heartening. Conservative party attacks on the taxpayer-funded BBC TV are continuing without mercy. 

David Cameron’s government is trying to take further money away from children’s programmes in a move towards corporate advertising on that great media institution. This idea of complete abandonment of the public sector is now being taken to it’s logical conclusion elsewhere. In Gurgaon, a booming new Indian city with a population of millions they live and work “without a citywide system for water, electricity or even public sewers.”

It is exactly this kind of problem that billionaire technology magnate Bill Gates sees holding the United States of America back. He recently made the case for public funding of crucial infrastructure, arguing: ““Since World War II, U.S.-government R&D [research and development] has defined the state of the art in almost every area. The private sector is in general inept,” he said. 

At least North America is experiencing a resurgence in the sales of books however. In 2015, incomes for independent booksellers were up just over 10%, and are remaining strong in 2016. Sadly, this is not the case for the United Kingdom where over six hundred independent bookshops have closed in the last decade.

Meanwhile in Australia, Peter Dutton (a man that doctors voted ‘the worst Health Minister in 35 years - having cut $57 billion from public hospitals) has just been put in charge of the area of national immigration. He was promptly caught on camera making jokes about climate impacts on low-lying Pacific Islands while on diplomatic visit. Then, as part of Australia’s right-wing government he made the self-contradicting comment that refugees “won't be numerate or literate ... They would languish on unemployment ...These people will be taking Australian jobs."

Over the summer I’m going to stop thinking about the above news items. I’m sure there will soon be fresh pieces of our human doings to be amazed by.

[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, July 2016.]

Saturday, July 2, 2016

"Why British boarding schools produce bad leaders"

[Boarders … Boris Johnson and David Cameron. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA]
 "In Britain, the link between private boarding education and leadership is gold-plated. 

If their parents can afford it, children are sent away from home to walk a well-trodden path that leads straight from boarding school through Oxbridge to high office in institutions such as the judiciary, the army, the City and, especially, government. 

Our prime minister was only seven when he was sent away to board at Heatherdown preparatory school in Berkshire. 

Like so many of the men who hold leadership roles in Britain, he learned to adapt his young character to survive both the loss of his family and the demands of boarding school culture. The psychological impact of these formative experiences on Cameron and other boys who grow up to occupy positions of great power and responsibility cannot be overstated. It leaves them ill-prepared for relationships in the adult world and the nation with a cadre of leaders who perpetuate a culture of elitism, bullying and misogyny affecting the whole of society.
Nevertheless, this golden path is as sure today as it was 100 years ago, when men from such backgrounds led us into a disastrous war; it is familiar, sometimes mocked, but taken for granted. But it is less well known that costly, elite boarding consistently turns out people who appear much more competent than they actually are. They are particularly deficient in non-rational skills, such as those needed to sustain relationships, and are not, in fact, well-equipped to be leaders in today's world

I have been doing psychotherapy with ex-boarders for 25 years and I am a former boarding-school teacher and boarder. My pioneering study of privileged abandonment always sparks controversy: so embedded in British life is boarding that many struggle to see beyond the elitism and understand its impact. The prevalence of institutionalised abuse is finally emerging to public scrutiny, but the effects of normalised parental neglect are more widespread and much less obvious. Am I saying, then, that David Cameron, and the majority of our ruling elite, were damaged by boarding?"

Read more from source here.