A Conversation with “Letters to Palestine” Editor Vijay Prashad

March 24, 2015 Karmah Elmusa, IMEU
A Conversation with “Letters to Palestine” Editor Vijay Prashad

On April 14, 2015, Verso Books will release “Letters to Palestine: Writers Respond to War and Occupation.” In this collection of essays and poems, American authors and Palestinian authors living in America offer their raw, unfiltered reactions to the relentless oppression of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. The book’s introduction was written by Dominican-American novelist Junot Diaz, and “Letters” includes pieces by Teju Cole and Mumia Abu-Jamal. Palestinian-American writers and activists like Huwaida ArrafNaomi Shihab NyeRanda Jarrar, and Lena Khalaf Tuffaha also contributed work.

Vijay Prashad, the book’s editor, is the George and Martha Kellner Chair in South Asian History and a professor of international studies at Trinity College, and the author of 17 books. The IMEU talked with him about how he first learned about the Palestinian struggle, and how frequent episodes of violence in Gaza inspired “Letters to Palestine.”


Q – I know you’ve been working on Palestine for a long time, among many other things. How did this cause become important to you?

Vijay Prashad: I came of political age in the late 70s and early 80s. I was very young, and I began to hear about various causes. When I got to college in the 80s, and even before that in school, I was struck particularly by the events of 1982. Because of the old principles of third world solidarity, media in India covered Sabra and Shatila very vividly. Even though I come from a family of refugees who left everything behind, and even though there are millions of refugees around the world, this story struck me in particular. Part of that was the remarkable ability of the PLO at the time to make its cause an international one. And part of it was that people of my generation were very marked by the emergence of the Palestinian question. Over the years I’ve written a lot about the area from different angles. In 2003, for example, I wrote a book about the changing relationship between India and Israel.


Q – When did you start conceiving of “Letters to Palestine”?

VP: When the summer 2014 assault on Gaza happened, I felt a shift in American attitudes toward Israel. Though that’s not to say this change is a one way street -- there are different groups moving in different directions. But when The Washington Post published my op-ed on BDS, for example, to me, that was amazing. But still, there’s a level of normalcy to the brutalization of Gaza which has affected me badly, and this books comes out of that personal history. There’s a different set of issues in the West Bank, of course, but the specific brutalization of Gaza is really disturbing.

Gaza faces two kinds of brutalization: The first is endless captivity. The second is punctuated, spectacular episodes of violence. Whether its Cast Lead or Pillar of Defense or whatever they want to call it, these assaults come like clockwork. After Cast Lead I was impressed by the way the UN bureaucrats quickly tried to mobilize accountability, but then the Goldstone Report was basically deep-sixed. When the most recent siege ended, I was really shocked by the open displays of despair by UN officials. It was very powerful when Chris Gunness cried on camera, and the new head of UNRWA made some incredible statements. But I knew immediately that there was never going to be any accountability -- because of this periodic nature of punctuated violence, it becomes normal.

So I thought that at the very least, I could gather some well-known American writers and let them bear witness. It’s really a more like a vigil. We’ve been saying don’t bomb Gaza; that’s nothing new. It’s more that we have American writers of a certain generation coming of age, and standing together against this occupation.


Q – Once you had the idea for the book, how did it all come together?

VP: In the fall of 2014, I started reaching out to people I knew, and people who had already been writing things. The book has ended up being a combination of things that have been published before, and also new work. For example, Najla Said is a friend of mine, and we are friends on Facebook. During the war she would use Facebook to post incredible, powerful thoughts. So I said, “Najla, just put all your Facebook posts into a file.” And that became the basis of her entry in the book, which is called “Diary of a Gaza War, 2014.”

Some of the entries are found material, and some are original. Sinan Antoon wrote a gorgeous poem for the book called “Afterwards.” There are also several travel diaries, which are key to the tone of the book. A book that only catalogues atrocities can be painful to read, because sometimes the reader relives the atrocity. But with the travel diaries, like Ben Ehrenreich’s called “Below Zero: In Gaza Before the Greatest War,” we explore some of the nuances of existence outside of the atrocity. I am not comfortable producing a book on Palestine which says that Palestinians are merely victims. They have to be represented as revolutionaries, and I think the book accomplishes that.


Q – There are some really prestigious writers in this book -- Junot Diaz and Teju Cole, among others. Was it easy to get people to participate?

VP: As Junot Diaz has said: Americans are fucked up about Palestine. Despite the apparent changes in consciousness, that makes it a risk for these writers. Well, Junot Diaz and Teju Cole probably won’t have career issues at this point, but it can be a risk for others. Many of the authors in the book are people I have known for a long time -- the book had to be done fast, and the writers were so generous. I think there’s sort of been a snowball effect with the BDS movement, and the violence in Gaza has produced a real anger, and people want to speak out, whatever the cost.

And as with BDS, which is simply tactical pressure from the outside, this book acknowledges that freedom is going to come from within Palestine. Even though this book is American writers writing to Palestine, in the end, it’s the Palestinians that will free themselves.


Q – Who is this book for?

VP: Honestly, people who live there probably don’t really need to read this book -- this book is really for the Western audience, and about providing context on a few levels. There are so many amazing Arab writers and poets in America and I wanted to draw attention to that, but I was also very happy to have Jewish writers like Sarah Schulman and Kevin Coval give us a sense of the shift within the Jewish-American community. There is, of course, a lot of support in that community for Israel, but here we have a statement that says the Jewish community is split. Netanyahu is saying, “I represent Jews worldwide,” and many Jews are saying, “No, you don’t.”

Another thing Americans don’t have much context for is this need to fight for self-determination. We’re a long way from the days of American farmers putting down their axes to defend themselves and their rights. And so even people who are sympathetic to the Palestinian cause ask me, “Why do they have to fight?” To which I say, “Do you expect people to allow themselves to be smothered? To just roll over and die?”

But when I say context, let me be clear -- there’s no essay in here that gives a step-by-step history. There are no maps that show the shrinking Palestinian state. I’m interested in what produces the conflict now, today. History is one vector, of course, but every time an Israeli soldier goes to a field and uproots an olive tree, it has an immediate impact and it also has an eternal return. I think it’s a mistake for people to look at the Nakba as 1948 when really it’s happening daily -- it’s continuous. I hope that’s what the book conveys.


Follow Vijay Prashad on Twitter: @vijayprashad