“Airport Security,” by Joshua Furst

Joshua Furst has an excellent short story in our new issue. To read it, you’ll have to buy the issue or, even better, subscribe. In the meantime, I asked him to send something we could post here that took the theme of issue 9, “checkpoints,” as a point of departure. Enjoy.

In 1979, I escorted the GI Joe doll that my grandparents had given me for Christmas onto the airplane that was to take my family home to Wisconsin. When we got to security, the doll was detained and frisked. His pistol was confiscated. He wasn’t interrogated or otherwise humiliated, but I, as his representative, was told in slightly scary, slightly condescending terms that, without clearance, carrying guns on planes was prohibited. Confused as to why this was happening to me, and sensing that I’d somehow done something criminal, I promptly started to bawl.

My lawyer, who also happened to be my father, interceded on my behalf and a battle of wills ensued. My father-lawyer explained the obvious to the security guard who’d detained us, that the pistol wasn’t a real gun; it was a toy, made of solid plastic and barely an inch and a half long. If GI Joe and I planned to hijack the plane with it, we surely wouldn’t get very far. “Don’t you think you could let him keep it, sir? You see how upset you’ve made him.” The man wasn’t accustomed to being challenged, at least not here in the lane behind the airport-security metal detector; this was his domain—he was the authority here. He knew every sub-clause of the regulations he was charged with enforcing. He believed in them. Reason was not something that interested him. Logic was an affront to his power. The longer my lawyer tried to argue, the more truculent the guard became, and eventually, he broke off all engagement with us. “Move along now before I have you forcibly removed,” he said. My father couldn’t argue with that.

Once I’d calmed down, I began asking questions—well, one question, the same question I always asked, the question that’s gotten me in trouble throughout my life: Why? But there’s no room for why when confronted by the raw exertion of power. There’s only capitulation or conflict. I can choose to think this man had a goal in mind, that he was trying to show me how safe I was, how scrupulous and unswerving he was in his mission to protect the citizenry as they travel the airways. I can choose to believe he was standing on principle, that he was making his small contribution to a noble cause. What I do believe is that he sensed somehow that my family and I were skeptical of power and those who serve it, and by choosing us to arbitrarily punish, he proved our skepticism to be well founded.

My GI Joe doll abandoned the army soon after this incident. He stripped off his cammies and started wearing the flared trousers and pirate cut shirts that my twelve-inch Star Wars figurines had laying around. As the years went by his disillusion and embitterment grew exponentially with the rightward turn of our country. He’s hiding in some box in a dark basement now, shouting hysterically, but no one is listening.

Joshua Furst is the author of The Sabotage Café, a novel, and Short People, a collection of stories that Jay McInerney called "scary, funny, brilliantly observed." He has received fellowships from the James Michener Foundation and The MacDowell Colony, and was awarded the Nelson Algren Award for his short story "Red Lobster." He lives in New York and teaches fiction and playwriting at The Pratt Institute.


Baghdad, Damascus, Atlanta

Up now at PEN.org are two pieces from PEN America 9 that we’re particularly proud to publish: “Baghdad, Damascus, Atlanta” by Ahmed Ali and “A Little Explosion” by George Packer. The latter is an excerpt from Packer’s play, Betrayed, which grew out of his epic New Yorker article of the same name (and which will very soon be broadcast on PBS). Betrayed depicts the lives of Iraqi interpreters and journalists who worked with western news organizations and the US government and were then left behind as the country went to hell. “A Little Explosion” is a scene set in 2004, when the worst of the war had not yet come to pass.

Ahmed Ali is the pen name of one of the Iraqi interpreters and journalists Packer got to know—in Syria, where Ali lived for a year and a half after fleeing Baghdad. His brother-in-law had been kidnapped and killed, and Ali’s own life had been threatened. He lived in Damascus with his wife and two young children until the US government, under pressure from PEN and other organizations, helped resettle him (and several others) in the US. Other Iraqi interpreters and journalists were resettled in Europe.

Ali describes this journey in his essay, which begins with him learning, at age eighteen, that he’s Sunni. Until then, he didn’t even know what Sunni and Shiite meant. He ends the piece by describing what it was like to watch George Packer’s play and re-live the harrowing experiences of the previous two years.

After he saw the play, Ali visited the PEN office in New York, and had a taped conversation with Packer, which you can listen to here. You can read more about Ali in this article by Jeremy Gerard, as well as, very soon, The Red Zone, by Oliver Poole, one of the journalists he worked with in Iraq.

(Above, Waleed F. Zuaiter, Jeremy Beck, and Sevan Greene in a scene from Betrayed. Photo by Carol Rosegg.)


PEN events tomorrow: Reading Burma & Other Means

As I mentioned last week, Orhan Pamuk, Salman Rushdie, and several others will be reading at a benefit for Burma tomorrow at Cooper Union in NYC. The event begins at 7 pm, and all proceeds go to the International Burmese Monks Organization, a network of Buddhist monks providing relief to victims of Cyclone Nargis and also promoting democracy and free expression in Burma/Myanmar.

Tickets to "Reading Burma" are available at www.smarttix.com or by calling 212-868-4444.

If you can't make it to the Burma reading, join me in Brooklyn for the Other Means Reading Series, where Joshua Furst and Irina Reyn will read from 8 to 10 pm in support of PEN American Center. Josh has a devastating story in PEN America 9: Checkpoints. He's also the author of Short People, a collection of stories, and The Sabotage Cafe, a novel. Irina is the author of What Happened to Anna K, a novel, and the editor of Living on the Edge of the World: New Jersey Writers Take on the Garden State.

They will read at The Flying Saucer Cafe, at 494 Atlantic Avenue, between 3rd Avenue and Nevins Street, in Brooklyn, at 8pm. Hope to see you there.

Update: Here is the Facebook listing for the Other Means reading.


Brooklyn Book Festival conversations

On Sunday, PEN had a booth at the Brooklyn Book Festival. Among many other activities, we arranged impromptu conversations between writers on subjects dear to PEN: the role of the writer, art and politics, etc. These conversations will eventually become podcasts at PEN.org. Among the writers over at
stopping by were Breyten Breytenbach, Elizabeth Nunez, Nick Flynn, Rob Spillman, Hanna Tinti, Calvin Baker, Patrice Nganang, Adrian Tomine, Pico Iyer, John Wray, Patricia Spears Jones, and A.M. Homes. Above, Kate Christensen chats with Arthur Nersesian and Philip Levine speaks with Kimiko Hahn.

Subscribe to PEN podcasts to hear their conversations as soon as they're available.


Shimon Adaf on poetry and prose

Our next issue features two poems by Shimon Adaf, an Israeli writer born in Sderot in 1972. Shimon is about to publish his third collection of poems in Israel, where he has also published three novels. His second poetry collection has been translated into English by Becka McKay, but has not yet been published here.

Shimon is in New York this week, and I asked him over coffee whether he thinks of himself more as a poet or a novelist or simply as a writer. Simply as a writer, he said. He used to be in a band and still collaborates with musicans—any medium of expression will do. But, he added, poetry and prose come from very different places for him.

When he writes fiction, he said, he thinks that words are sufficient to say what he has to say. However, when he begins to feel that words are not enough, and will never be enough, then he writes poetry.

You can read the two poems from our next issue here.

PS. Also featured this week on PEN.org are poems by Fady Joudah and Mahmoud Darwish and fiction by Rabih Alameddine.


PEN America 9: three fictional encounters

PEN America 9: Checkpoints will ship later this month. In the meantime, we're putting up selections from the new issue at PEN.org, starting with new fiction by Yousef Al-Mohaimeed, Xiaolu Guo, and Anya Ulinich. In each of these stories, a woman describes an encounter with a man-- an encounter that becomes a metaphorical checkpoint, a threshold between one place and another.

Anya Ulinich, in a story every bit as brilliant and funny as her fans have come to expect (her novel Petropolis was called "a real feast of sharp wit, quirky characters and amazing situations" by Lara Vapnyar) invents a meeting between a nurse and a novelist in Brooklyn.

Xiaolu Guo, author of A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers (hailed as "an inventive, often humorous and poignant story") and the recent Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth, describes a call girl in contemporary China who gets caught between her present and her past.

And Yousef Al-Mohaimeed, whose Wolves of the Crescent Moon was described as "the first great Saudi novel" by the excellent critic Benjamin Lytal, imagines a widow and washer of corpses who travels with a kind-looking stranger to the desert and there witnesses something she cannot shake from her memory. This piece is adapted from Yousef's novel The Bottle, which has been translated by Anthony Calderbank but not yet published in English. It caused quite a stir in Saudi Arabia:
Two months ago, a group of men entered a bookstore on one of the capital's broad avenues, lined with designer boutiques and glass-and-steel shopping malls. They seized copies of "The Bottle," which includes an unflattering portrayal of an Islamic militant, after it had sold 500 copies in just three days, a feverish pace in the kingdom. Although the government had approved the book for sale, the men warned the shop not to carry it again.
There are some other pieces online as well, and I'll be highlighting those in the weeks to come. And there's much more in the issue itself, so of course you should pre-order a copy now-- or just subscribe already.

(The cover photo is by Alex Webb, and was taken at Border Field State Park in San Ysidro, California, in 1992. It appears in Webb's excellent book, Crossings: Photographs from the U.S.-Mexico Border.)


Pamuk, Rushdie & others reading for Burma: 9/23

More news about PEN America 9 very soon. In the meantime, if you're in the NYC area, please join us at this PEN-sponsored fundraiser for cyclone relief in Burma, which will focus on dissident writers and activists in the country.

A year ago, thousands of Buddhist monks protested Burma's military dictatorship. Twenty years ago, millions of ordinary civilians held pro-democracy protests. In order to raise awareness of the situation in Burma-- and money for victims of the recent cyclone-- PEN is holding a benefit at Cooper Union on September 23rd, at 7 pm, co-sponsored by The Burma Project of OSI, The New York Review of Books, and Cooper Union.

Kiran Desai, Siri Hustvedt, Joseph Lelyveld, Orhan Pamuk, Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, Salman Rushdie, and special guests will read work by suppressed writers from Burma/Myanmar, and George Packer will speak with the Venerable Ashin Gawsita, leader of the 2007 Monks’ Uprising.

All proceeds of this benefit will be donated to the International Burmese Monks Organization (IBMO), a network of Burmese Buddhist monks collecting relief aid to the victims of Cyclone Nargis. Audience members can purchase a $100 ticket, which includes a post-event reception, or $20 and $15 tickets at www.smarttix.com.

Reading Burma:

A Benefit for Cyclone Relief

and Freedom of Expression in Burma/MyanmarSeptember 23, 2008, 7:00 p.m.

The Great Hall at Cooper Union

7 East 7th Street

Subway: 6 to Astor Place; N/R/W to 8th Street-NYU

$20 (general admission) and $100 (includes post-event reception)

$15 for students and PEN members (with valid ID)

Tickets: www.smarttix.com or call 212-868-4444

(The photo above, of the Japanese photographer, Kenji Nagai, lying wounded before a Burmese soldier as troops attack protesters, is from Reuters. Mr. Nagai later died.)