Articles on this Page
- 06/23/14--09:09: _Book review: Eating...
- 02/15/15--01:07: _Book Review: Peacel...
- 01/01/15--11:24: _The Need of Being V...
- 01/04/16--20:37: _2,015 book reviews ...
- 03/18/16--15:19: _[Book Review] Irrit...
- 07/23/16--09:26: _Book Review: Half o...
- 06/23/14--09:09: Book review: Eating Animals (in Centrafrique)
- 01/01/15--11:24: The Need of Being Versed in Country Things
- 01/04/16--20:37: 2,015 book reviews (or close to it)
- 03/18/16--15:19: [Book Review] Irritable Hearts: A PTSD Love Story
- 07/23/16--09:26: Book Review: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I don't know why I felt compelled to read my first animal rights book in almost a decade after, first, the self-care decision made while getting a degree in agriculture that since I was totally on-board with, convinced by, and actively practicing an animal rights-guided philosophy I do not need to continue to expose myself to paralyzingly violent images of slaughterhouse suffering, and second, while I am working amidst atrocity as an aid worker in the Central African Republic, where I've been trying to limit my violent media exposure to that which is directly relevant to my job.
I read this in a day while in bed with malaria, feeling a little miserable about genocidal atrocities and the constant violences of poverty, colonial-aftermaths, and malnutrition. Amidst this human horror, there is no room in my being and certainly not in my words and outward action to give any fucks about animals. I tell myself this, but still I'm staying vegetarian. I told myself I'd learn to eat animals again, but even on a rice-and-boiled-greens diet, I just don't. (no qualms about eggs though; a girl's gotta survive).
Animals here in CAR are raised free-range; there is no industrial animal agriculture. Pastoral cattle herds are a key cause of conflict and a key towards the restoration of livelihoods and dignity of the Muslim people being ethnically cleansed from the country. Eating animals hunted in the forest or fished from rivers is one of the few reliable sources of protein for a settled population whose crops were destroyed last year and may not make it to harvest this year, a people facing famine. On an individual level though struggling goats are tied down straddling motorcycle handlebars, chickens are grabbed up by the legs and swung like bags, pigs are slaughtered in long, screaming ordeals. Though this book is certainly ripe with the descriptive violence from which I'm trying to media-fast, it felt really good to read an affirmation of kindness extended beyond humanity. Love is not a limited resource and doesn't have to be cut short just because there isn't enough in practice in a current time and place.
I read this book; I didn't talk about it, and I won't. But it felt good to commune with a favorite author on the complexity and importance of animal-based agro-ecoystems while also making a conscious, conscience choice to refuse all of it, to believe there could be something better, even in this world.
View all my reviews
I do not know how to rate this book! Is it 5 stars because of the seriousness with which the author takes praxis ("the process by which a theory, lesson, or skill is enacted, embodied, or realised")? Or is it 3 stars because "thou dost protest too much"-- so much overwhelmingly documented data to prove the smallest of points (individual behavior by staff at the implementation level will make or break a peace process, regardless of how well crafted)? Why not push, go further, take action, if you've got the data, then sweep your conclusions!
I almost never say this, because I hatehatehate poorly sourced work. But Autesserre meticulously researched, qualified, and triangulated every statement and thoroughly documented every method, error, and pathway to a conclusion. I shut the book almost shouting, "When you've got the goods, use them!" The final conclusions and recommendations were so limited that the entire project risks being forgotten in the annals of useless academic theoretical criticism: establish cultural orientations for new staff; use acceptance as the preferred security strategy; ensure foreign military peacekeepers have translators; recruit more people with local experience or anthropological technical skills. I docked a star for the wimpiness with which this much strong, conclusive, indisputable data was wielded.
Frustrations aside, Autesserre wrote a good book. An important book. A book that deconstructs elitism in aid work at the moment of daily life interactions. She dares to question the safety in bunkerization and #CompoundLife at the historical moment when kidnappings and targeted attacks on aid workers risk creating indivisible barriers to expat-national-local interaction. She questions the epistemological value of technical knowledge in place of local and anthropological knowledge, and makes a concrete case for the latter's value, and how NGOs can restructure their institutions to gain and support it. She talks about how things like language and wealth inequality prevent social interaction between expats and communities in which they work, and internally divide NGO staff into classes. I've written about this a little: besides the class gap between high-paid international staff and the national staff and people we work with/for, there is also a tendency for the intl staff to be of a wealthier class background than most people in the country they come from. There’s not a lot of ‘solidarity not charity’ in NGOs because it’s an elitist field; few people link the poverty they see abroad with poverty and economic injustice at home.
Then Autesserre slams the lack of social interaction and professional networking as a barrier to the ostensible goals of peacebuilding, demonstrating how little "participation" local actors have in processes that are centered around and respond to the cultural needs of elite, rich, foreign, technical experts who operate in closed feedback loops with each other. Autesserre is clear: while there is value in independent actors and external expertise in a peace process, the mechanism must adapt to local context so that is is comfortable for and makes sense to--and is led by-- the people for whom the process exists! She touches on the need to engage civil society instead of just government elites, as well as many other important points, and uses case studies to give concrete examples.
This was a hard book to read! I am an aid worker in a conflict zone based in a rural outpost doing the on-the-ground, moment-of-implementation, relational, interactive, kind-of-sometimes-dangerous business of daily life peace-building. Autesserre was callin me out, and some of what she said was hard to hear. Yes, I hate bunkerization and I push myself to walk, push against curfews and living in compounds. I go out and talk to farmers a lot. I have close professional relationships with a local NGO with whom I work alongside. But also, sometimes I am tired and want to surround myself with English. Also, sometimes I am scared of being kidnapped, or scared of being street harassed by fearless and mean 12 year olds. Sometimes I work 10 hours days without weekends for a few weeks, and all I want is Buffy time in my concrete box. I made a decision that's part "too tired because my work is already in a 2nd language," part "have learned the beginnings of too many languages to commit," part "don't want to show bias by speaking one local language over another," and I haven't learned any Sango or Mbaya or Pular.
There is a lot of power in the choices I make, in this position, because I am tired or because I am ignorant and that is what Autesserre examines.
And it is so, so necessary. Autesserre: pull no more punches, what you've got is gold. We need to run with this. OK. You're getting that fifth star back.
For a different take on similar themes, check out:
- Direct Action: An Ethnography by David Graeber, which uses similar ethnographic approaches to examine US radical activists (I love the idea of anthropologists turning their trained lens on their own communities, as Autesserre does as a former aid worker)
- Anything by Robert Chambers, particularly Whose Reality Counts?: Putting the First Last, another exmaination of the aid worker's flaws, on recentering aid and development work around the cultural norms of the most marginalized so it becomes accessible and controlled by those aid aims to help
The house had gone to bring again
To the midnight sky a sunset glow.
Now the chimney was all of the house that stood,
Like a pistil after the petals go.
The barn opposed across the way,
That would have joined the house in flame
Had it been the will of the wind, was left
To bear forsaken the place's name.
No more it opened with all one end
For teams that came by the stony road
To drum on the floor with scurrying hoofs
And brush the mow with the summer load.
The birds that came to it through the air
At broken windows flew out and in,
Their murmur more like the sigh we sigh
From too much dwelling on what has been.
Yet for them the lilac renewed its leaf,
And the aged elm, though touched with fire;
And the dry pump flung up an awkward arm;
And the fence post carried a strand of wire.
For them there was really nothing sad.
But though they rejoiced in the nest they kept,
One had to be versed in country things
Not to believe the phoebes wept.
Every year I gather together the best books I read, to recommend and remember those that impacted my life or my paradigm somehow. Here are this year's, with links to the review I wrote of each. Past years' are below the cut, and all my book reviews (of every book I read) can be found on Goodreads.
From 2015 (out of 40)
* Peaceland: Conflict Resolution and the Everyday Politics of International Intervention by Severine Autessere
* The Color Purple by Alice Walker
* The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution by Richard Dawkins
* Teaming with Microbes: A Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web by Jeff Lowenfels & Wayne Lewis
* The World of Mexican Migrants: The Rock and the Hard Place by Judith Adler Hellman
* The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity by Julia Cameron
* The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
* Zeitoun by Dave Eggers
* The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron
Great book. Important book. A "thank you for writing this" sort of book.
McClelland is a journalist who experienced trauma while reporting in Haiti, and was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD. This book is a first-person memoir of the experience of having and healing PTSD, girded by research and resources on the science, psychology, and impact of PTSD in the world and how to heal it.
McClelland masters a delicate balance between wrenching, deeply personal experience and situating that experience within the context of other trauma survivors, particularly sexual assault survivors and soldiers. It's a hard balance and I cringed often in the early pages of the book, which leans more heavily on the author's personal history, but she does this purposefully. First she lays bear the trauma of experiencing trauma, as only a self-pillorying writer can do, critically examining and over-honestly recounting awful nuances of psychological pain. And crazy bitchiness. McClelland is brutal in her unveiling of the way PTSD can turn one into a crazy bitch-- overwhelmed by or deadened to emotion, hypervigilance unveiling itself as anger and self-protective cruelty. I write as one who also has PTSD, whose experiences have embodied so many of the words McClelland was able to write down. Things I can apologize for or give heads up to lovers about, but cannot articulate. Like I said: Thank you for writing.
I embodied similar experiences of suffering and healing in my own PTSD journey that McClelland writes, right down to embracing the explicit consent of BDSM sex as a healing mechanism, testing physical boundaries with a loving partner to demonstrate to myself that no, it wasn't the physical pain of my assault that was traumatizing-- I can handle pain, can embrace good kinds of pain-- it was the violation, the lack of control, the inability to protect myself. For me, BDSM play was a way to explore and differentiate assault and abuse from the act of sex, things that look very much alike but are so very very different. I remember reading the short essay she wrote soon into her recovery and the controversy that surrounded outting the use of violent sex as a healing mechanism-- even as survivors of sexual assault have long explored consensual BDSM play as a means to physically take back ownership of sex perverted by assault. Controversy is intellectually good, and it's worth reading the critiques of whose story is whose to tell, deeply considering the words to talk about the secondary trauma of witnesses and providers of support. But I am so thankful McClelland braved a world of shame and stigma to share her pain and process in all its mess. That's how this shit is. It is messy and complicated, surprising and embarrassing and awful. That's what McClelland captures-- the whole of it.
This book is a treasure because it's not a textbook but it is substantial. I have my list of psych resources I can list off when I have a new lover or am helping a friend. Those books can help someone learn the technical skills of coping. But what I appreciated about Irritable Hearts is that it tells a story of experiencing these textbook symptoms, and it shows the application of the healing process over time, in all its yo-yoing, layered complexity. It shows the difficulty and importance of growing relationships and love as a part of healing despite the ease with which trauma and abuse can transfer and replicate. This is one you can hand someone who cares but does not understand, one that is harsh and scary at times but shows with clarity and honesty the way that, yes, things can get better. It's a lot of work! But you can heal.
One final thought. I understand that it was some legal and care issues that prevented McClelland from fully disclosing the traumatic incident she witnessed that she feels pushed her over into PTSD. That means the things she does share in detail were all sexual assault close calls. This absence was so important. It prevented the reader from comparing herself with McClelland or other survivors, underlining the point that traumatic stress comes about through complex interconnected lifelong experiences of trauma interacting with one or many traumatic incidents over time. It kept the book readable for triggered trauma survivors-- I don't think I could have handled graphic details of sexual violence at the same time I was absorbing all the descriptions of psychological pain. And finally, it pushed McClelland to focus on the "close calls" themselves: sexual terror, as she finally allows herself to call it late in the book.
If you're trying to heal or understand PTSD, I also recommend:
- Trauma and Recovery
- Healing Sex: A Mind-Body Approach to Healing Sexual Trauma
- The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse
- Aftershock: Confronting Trauma in a Violent World: A Guide for Activists and Their Allies
- Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others
I am grateful for this book of history of a brave people, corrupt systems and powers that broke them, and the ongoing consequences of the Biafran war. I'm also grateful too for this accounting at a moment where so many in the world must react to the whistle of aerial bombings, the shock of a gunman, the trauma of choosing between a hopeless just cause and survival or love, and the interpersonal terror brought on by external circumstances (domestic violence, cruelty, abandonment). We should know what that's like, if we don't. We should know that we share this, if we do.
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