Overcoming Speechlessness: A Poet Encounters the Horror in Rwanda, Eastern Congo, and Palestine/Israel by Alice Walker
(Seven Stories Press)
“In Kigali I paid my respects to the hundreds of of thousands of infants, toddlers, teenagers, adolescents, young engaged couples, married people, women and men, grandmothers and grandfathers, brothers and sisters of every facial shape and body size, who had been hacked into sometimes quite small pieces by armed strangers, or by neighbors, or by acquaintances and ‘friends’ they knew.” So begins Alice Walker’s Overcoming Speechlessness, an account of Walker’s travels to Rwanda and Eastern Congo in 2006 and Palestine in 2009. Working with Women for Women International and CODEPINK, Walker has done what few North American writers are able to: bear witness to atrocities in places that are geographically far away, but politically connected to the West.
Without a doubt, the strongest aspect of this lyrical little book is the parallel she draws between Dutch control of Rwanda and British influence in the creation of the state of Israel. In the first chapter, “Three Years Ago,” she gives us a quick history lesson: when the Belgians colonized Rwanda in the 1800s, they measured the skulls of two of the country’s ethnic groups, the Hutu and the Tutsi, and placed the supposedly larger-skulled Tutsi in charge, only to reverse the decision a hundred years later when they returned to Europe. “The hatred this diabolical decision caused between these two formerly coexisting peoples festered over generations,” Walker writes, “coming to a lethal boil in the tragedy of genocide.” (The cliche at the end is unfortunate – do we need to be reminded that genocide is tragic? – but we can forgive her for that.) Similarly, when discussing the situation in Gaza, Walker focuses on the British decision to encourage the relocation of Jews to Palestine (although, of course, much of Jewish emigration was at least semi-voluntary, based as much on Theodore Hertzl’s idealization of a Jewish utopia as on the realities of pogroms and discrimination), which was predicated on the Christian Zionist perception of Palestine as devoid of “a people,” and thus ripe for settlement. Walker also compares the partition of Israel and Palestine to the partition of India and Pakistan – another clumsy and artificial “solution” the British helped put into place. What’s especially heartbreaking about all three of these cases is that the strings being pulled by colonial powers conceal themselves in the resulting conflicts. Who can conceive of a time, for example, when Jews and Muslims in the Ottoman Empire coexisted as peacefully as Jews and Christians in the US today? When Hutus and Tutsis mingled and intermarried?
However, Walker misses an opportunity to really explore that parallel. Most of the book is devoted to Palestine; in fact, Rwanda and Eastern Congo get less than 18 pages total. Instead, after recounting her entry into Gaza with CODEPINK and discussing some of her meetings with Palestinian women, Walker turns the book into a soapbox from which she explains, in fairly conventional terms, why the occupation is wrong. Combine this with a few harmful inaccuracies (for example, the claim that West Bank settlers – despicable as they are – have “absolutely no connection” to Palestine) and the disconcerting decision to devote a chapter to “Jewish friends of the planet” (it’s well-meaning, but the fact that good Jews exist should be taken as a given, not highlighted as some noteworthy thing), the book falls short of presenting a new perspective on the occupation.
Which isn’t to say it’s a bad book, though. It’s a swift and compelling read, and the stories she brings back from her travels are gruesome, but important: the young girl forced by Hutu raiders to eat part of her mother’s severed leg; the woman berated for not wearing a headscarf while fleeing an Israeli rocket attack; the conversation with the parents of Rachel Corrie, the activist killed by an Israeli bulldozer. Throughout the book, Walker comes back to the theme of her own speechlessness at confronting atrocities, and uses it as a metaphor for the broader speechlessness of Western culture: the uncomfortable realities we deny or push away. I was heartened, though, by passages such as “So Many Jews,” in which she describes the overwhelming number of Jewish CODEPINK activists. In response to the charge of self-hatred, one activist proudly claims that “I actually love myself too much as a Jew to be ignorant of something so obvious. Ignorance is not held in high regard in Jewish culture.” Amen to that! I wondered, reading this passage, about all the tense silences I’ve observed in Jewish gatherings when the subject of Palestine/Israel comes up. If, as I suspect, the occupation is a sort of Emperor’s New Clothes situation – that is, if many people are afraid to speak out against it because they wrongly believe that they will be the only ones – then can publicizing the large number of anti-occupation Jews turn the tide?
In short, Overcoming Speechlessness is flawed, but useful. If only Walker had devoted more space to Rwanda and Eastern Congo and less space to preaching to the choir. As it stands, though, the book functions well as one activist’s response to horrible acts, which will hopefully inspire other activists to speak out, as well.
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