“the city will live and the Wall will fall”*

Even though I’ve lived in Berlin for more than a year and spent around 2 1/2 months here on two separate occasions before that, I’m often still struck, as though it’s my first day, by how amazing this city’s 20th century history is and how amazing it is to be living here amidst it all, a place that I grew up reading about: the wars, the Berlin Wall. Berlin is a story in my head, and it’s also a real place, and I feel so fortunate to have the opportunity to get to know it even a little bit.

(“Do you know Berlin?” I asked a German friend living in the U.K. before I came here the first time. He laughed and said, “Does anyone know Berlin?”)

I think Berlin has integrated the past century of history into the cityscape so thoughtfully and intelligently, preserving it without glorifying it. There’s nothing to mark Hitler’s bunker, although you can go there–I have, it’s a car park. But there’s a street I was walking down one day and I realized there were little plaques set into the sidewalk, and I stopped and looked at them. They were the names and birth dates and death dates of the Jewish people who had lived in the apartments I was walking past. Entire families, extinguished in the death camps. Memorialized not with fanfare, just there. A street, bearing witness along with everyone who walked along it and looked down.

Today I went for a wander in Prenzlauer Berg, the neighborhood next to mine, and wandering brought me to a museum. “Museum in der Kulturbrairei,” the sign outside said, which wasn’t really very descriptive given that I was literally standing in the Kulturbrairei, but it also said admission was free and you know what, I love museums. So I went inside, where a man at the door told me that the museum was free and that I could leave my backpack in one of the lockers. I still didn’t know what the museum was all about, but I went over and struggled with the lockers for about five minutes until a couple came in and watching them I realized OH THERE IS A LITTLE SLOT INSIDE THE DOOR I NEED TO PUT A EURO COIN IN which was a really good thing as I otherwise might still be there, now, trying to get one to lock.

It turned out to be a really good museum! Museum in der Kulturbrairei is a museum about everyday life in the DDR/GDR/East Germany. It’s wonderful because it has loads of interesting items and a lot of video and is quite interactive, but also because it’s just a museum about ordinary people and their lives. I like a grand archeological find like the Staffordshire Hoard as much as the next person (and did I nearly die of excitement at seeing some of it? I DID), but there’s nothing like learning how people lived day to day. There’s something profoundly humanistic about making museum pieces of children’s essays, of the complaint book left for supermarket cashiers, of the longed-for Levis that could be bought in Hungary, if you could afford it and could manage to get a visa.

I wasn’t going to bother taking any photos because the battery on my regular phone needs replacing which means I am using my ancient phone with a broken camera, but I couldn’t resist a few shots–apologies for the dreadful quality.

I was, as ever, particularly interested in some of the displays on youth movements and artists’ resistance, especially efforts to circulate forbidden material. I’m a passionate believer in free expression, including free expression I dislike and disagree with, created by people I dislike and disagree with. I found myself thinking about all the ways that art and expression can be discouraged–it’s not always just about the government knocking down your door–and how often it begins from a well-meaning place, a belief that it is a good and necessary thing, to protect people and a way of life. There were some examples of samizdat literature, which I remember hearing about in the 1980s. I really wanted to be a dissident fighting against a totalitarian government–it sounded exciting and glamorous and meaningful. Vaclav Havel, the playwright-turned-revolutionary-turned-statesman, was kind of a hero of mine in those days, so I was struck by his name on the cover of this one. Too bad it was under glass!

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I saw photos of and read about youth movements, including the “hitchhiker” movement of the 1970s. This was all new to me.

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I loved this little window into the youth movement of the East exploding just as it did in the West.

Of course, as the Cold War raged, over in the West the story was that we were endlessly unfettered and free and They were miserable and oppressed. Neither of these is entirely true, of course, and as East Germans liked to go on holiday with the family as much as anyone, I was also quite taken with this display: the car tent. When you fold it up, it’s the shape of a double mattress on top of the car, a big rectangular box. The tents were easy to pop up. Apparently camping was a very popular pastime in East Germany. How much weight could you put in a car tent, a reporter asked the inventor in the video footage about the tent. A Trabi could take up to 250 kilos, he said, so three people of 70 kilos each, no problem. Unfortunately, the inventor’s company folded after reunification as he couldn’t keep up with demands as well as his competitors.

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(again, sorry for the terrible photo.)

There were some wonderful examples of what I think of as Soviet-style propaganda posters although of course they were East German (and I’m not really a fan of the word “propaganda” because I remember as a kid thinking of propaganda was something their government did and not ours, which is of course nonsense).

There was also this.

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History doesn’t so much repeat itself so much as it does, as someone who was almost certainly not Mark Twain said, rhyme. In other words, the cyclical juggernaut of history is deceptive: because now never looks quite like then, so surely, we are not repeating ourselves; perhaps there are parallels but we are not like them.

We are not just like them, we are them, being human, in our endlessly blundering ways. We keep making the same mistakes and we’re too myopic to realize it. But we also keep being wonderfully, endearingly, human, and a place like the Museum in der Kulturbrairei reminds us. The city of Berlin itself, the fact that it still exists, and thrives, and changes (and does not change, is still that city of artists and intellectuals and decadents and dissidents it was 100 years ago) reminds us, if we’ll just listen.

 

*title is from the memoirs of former Chancellor of West Germany and former Berlin mayor, Willy Brandt

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“Every Exquisite Thing” reprinted at The Dark and other news

My story “Every Exquisite Thing,” which originally appeared in The Scarlet Soul: Stories for Dorian Gray, is available to read for free online at The Dark. The Scarlet Soul was edited by Mark Valentine (a very talented writer in his own right) and published by Swan River Press, but it sold out pretty much immediately on publication, so until now, this has been a rather hard-to-find story of mine!

Also, in July, a new story by me, “The Sideways Lady,” appeared in an anthology for “kids of all ages,” as they used to say (do they still say that?), Terrifying Tales to Tell at Night. That link goes to Amazon but of course if you ordered the book through your friendly neighborhood brick and mortar independent bookstore, all the better. Edited by Stephen Jones and spookily illustrated by Randy Broecker, the book is mostly reprints of short tales by great writers (Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Michael Marshall Smith among others) suitable for kids–Lisa Morton has the other original story in it besides me. I’m particularly chuffed to be in an anthology alongside the legendary Manly Wade Wellman for what I believe is the first time.

I feel like there has probably been other news worth sharing in the past almost-seven months since I last posted anything here, but in the spirit of onwards and upwards, let’s just move along. I’ve got a few things coming out in the months ahead and am working on some other exciting things, so watch this space.

The Moon Will Look Strange: Deluxe Limited Hardcover

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I’m delighted to announce that the very fine Undertow Publications is releasing a gorgeous limited edition reprint of my first short story collection, The Moon Will Look Strange. There will only be 100 copies. You can take a look at the specifications and preorder here. The amazing Vince Haig is responsible for the beautiful design.

I’m particularly pleased to be first in a line of “Contemporary Classics” released by  Undertow that will include Joel Lane’s The Lost District. I’ve written here before about what an influence and inspiration Joel was for me.

In other news, I am on the jury this year for the Shirley Jackson Awards, which means that outside of the usual work-sleep-eat survival stuff, my life is mainly consumed by reading like a maniac. This is a huge honor and also provides the opportunity to read a lot of really amazing fiction and is also a lot of work! Unless I have any more publication news to share, I’m unlikely to resurface again here until after the nominations are announced in late spring, but I’ve got quite a few projects going on and a lot to say, so I’ll be back when I can. In the meantime, you can always find me on Twitter and Facebook (though I post less on Facebook and am also really bad about keeping up with friend requests unless we’ve met, so . . . )

And of course, the paperback and ebook version of The Moon Will Look Strange is still available at all the Amazons. There are also copies of my second collection, You’ll Know When You Get There, available from Swan River Press.

“the only lasting truth is change”*

“When the generation that survived the war is no longer with us, then we will find out whether we have learned from history.”   -Angela Merkel, 20 July, 2018

I don’t really believe in the progressive theory of history–that is, the idea that human civilization is on an upward arc toward enlightenment. I think there are definitely certain eras and cultures that are better for certain types of people than others, and I am constantly grateful to have been born a woman in the West in the latter half of the 20th century; I never had to fight to get basic rights such as education, bodily autonomy, and things like my own line of credit. But in general, I think human history is a story of ebb and flow from tyranny and oppression to freedom and back again, and that ideological extremes of any stripe tend toward the former and not the latter.

With all that said, hey! the world is pretty crazy right now, isn’t it? I often feel like I am surrounded by extreme voices on all sides and very little reason. But in the last few years, I’ve spent a lot of time in two European cities wracked by wars and profoundly divided in the 20th century: Barcelona and Berlin. What I find heartening is how much those cities have recovered–which is not to say they don’t bear scars, both physical and psychological. There’s something extraordinarily moving about encountering the physical remnants of those scars in the present day, and the way that people go about their lives around them–because one of our simultaneously best and worst attributes, as humans, is our ability to adapt.

Just a few blocks up the street from me in Berlin is one of the former checkpoints between the former West Berlin (where I live) and the former East Berlin. Today, I zip from my flat in West Berlin to my friends’ flat in East Berlin on the tram in under 15 minutes, or walk there if I have more time and want to stretch my legs. Thirty years ago, that would have been impossible.

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“Mauer” is German for wall.

This is a remnant of the wall that once divided my neighborhood, Wedding, from Prenzlauer Berg.

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Imagine waking up and learning that literally overnight, a “wall” (it wasn’t yet a wall then, of course, in 1961) had been constructed that divided your city in half.

There are panels up about the construction of the wall, and photos from the night it came down, juxtaposed against what’s left of it.

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Now, it’s just an ordinary bridge. Unless you were looking out the window from the tram or car at this particular point, you’d speed right past without knowing it.

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It takes more than a generation or two to recover from a devastating war and a totalitarian government, but cities, places, people heal. New generations are born who are largely untouched by what came before, which is both a blessing and a curse.

It’s a shame we don’t learn a damn thing from history.

 

*title of post is from Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower

We are all in Omelas

Today I’ve been thinking about the classic Ursula K. Le Guin parable, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” If you haven’t read it, it essentially posits a moral dilemma: there are people who live in a utopia–a real one. Imagine, the  narrator tells you, your own idea of utopia, whatever that may be: this is your Omelas, a place where all people genuinely live in a state of bliss.

Except. When they become teenagers, they learn the truth about Omelas. Somewhere hidden away in the city, a child lives an existence of filth, misery, darkness, and torture. This is the way it must be: for Omelas to exist, a single child must always suffer dreadfully.

Most people in Omelas accept this. But a few do not. Those few walk away. It is a very short and deceptively simple little story, and it presents what is on the face of it a rather simplistic moral dilemma. Would we allow the child to suffer, or would we walk? Of course, most of us would like to imagine we would walk away. Of course I would not live in paradise at the cost of such suffering! we might think. But of course we do; in the modern Western world, we live in what is far less than paradise, at the cost of far more suffering. Short of going away to live in a cabin in the woods like the Unabomber, I think we would be hard-pressed to give up everything that involves the exploitation of another human being. Hey, in some places, like the United States and Australia, unless we’re also descended from the indigenous people, even going off to live in the woods means we’re technically living on stolen lands. There’s no escape. We’re all compromised. You could go mad thinking about it. The best we can hope to do is try to do the least harm possible, and put some good out into the world along the way.

And, I mean, Omelas is paradise. Think about what a sad and hard place the world is. Imagine if you could wave all of that away for a large group of people. The only price would be the suffering of one child. One. It would be easy enough to justify simply by pointing out that without Omelas, far more children would be suffering. The needs of the many and all that.

The story is also a bit of a cheat. It sets up a choice that is so stark, and so unrealistic. The game is rigged; the dice are loaded. There’s no such thing as the paradisaical Omelas, and there never could be. It’s a thought experiment, but of course the world is far more complex than that. Yet it’s interesting: if you think about it, the story doesn’t so much ask should Omelas exist as what would you do? The ones who walk away aren’t raising an army to come back and smash the state and rescue the child, and the story doesn’t suggest that they should. They are simply unable to reconcile their existence with this suffering. Walking away is a singular act of conscience.

Maybe it’s harder to accept the child’s torture, though, when you live in Omelas than it would be for us already morally compromised folks. It must come as a shock to the system if suffering is alien to you, and you then learn that for one human being, you are causing unimaginable suffering. I suppose that in that way, the people of Omelas are different from us. I don’t mean this as any particular indictment of us; this is the imperfect world that we inhabit.

But we do at least try to minimize harm, most of us, not consistently, but sometimes, and where we can.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about Omelas because of the enormous sacrifice we are asking of children, all children, in America right now. Not one of you go away to be tortured for all eternity but all of you put your lives on the line, every day, so some of us can preserve this one right. It’s–it’s not even a good right, it’s not, say, the right to vote–fought for so long and hard by women and black people and people who didn’t own land and essentially people who weren’t rich white men–and still denied to felons. No, it’s the right to possess a small arsenal. Why? I don’t know. I’ve yet to hear an adequate defense for it. And yet now those children have had enough. They’re rising up, they’re walking out of classrooms, they’re marching, and they don’t care if people 20 or 30 or 40 years older than them make fun of them, call them pawns, call them stupid, call them liars, call them crisis actors and worse. They have that conviction that they are going to change the world that you can only have that fervently when you are that young, and more power to them, because people do the change the world. A gunman changed their world, after all, just a week ago. They’re coming out en masse to tell the adults, who are failing to protect them every single day, that enough is enough, that they are walking away from their frankly pretty crappy version of Omelas.

I’d like to think they will succeed. I’d like to believe in a world where that could happen, even though slaughtered first graders couldn’t change it, and 58 dead and more than 800 injured in 10 minutes couldn’t change it. Surely this, we’ve said over and over in America throughout the years, surely this, and a week after the massacre in Florida the state legislature decided not to ban assault weapons, despite the presence of the very kids they had failed to protect. We need more discussion, said one lawmaker on an issue we’ve been discussing for decades, to excuse his inaction in the face of teenagers who just a few days earlier had to run past the slaughtered corpses of their classmates and teachers as they fled to safety. More discussion, while a 15-year-old with more courage than every Republican lawmaker in Florida has put together lies in a hospital bed after saving the lives of 20 of his classmates by putting himself between them and the shooter and taking five bullets.

It isn’t guns, people say. It’s moral decay. It’s the decline of religion. It’s the lack of corporal punishment. To self-plagiarize from a Facebook post I made yesterday, So tell me, friends in the rest of the world. How on earth have your countries managed to avoid the bad parenting, video games, Hollywood movies, lack of personal responsibility, divorce, violent youths, abortion, inability to reach out to the sad and alienated, back-talking youngsters with no sense of right and wrong, and general moral decay that have led to mass shootings in the US becoming commonplace? Because from what I am reading, those are all the uniquely American problems that are resulting in mass shootings having become a commonplace event, and not the easy availability of guns designed to end many many lives in a matter of minutes. And one after the other, my friends in other countries said the same thing over and over again: We have those things too. What we don’t have is the guns.

Should we strive to build a better world, one where guns or no guns, things like this would never take place? Of course we should. But to further plagiarize myself from Twitter: Arguing that we have to dig down into society and figure out why mass shootings are happening before banning guns is like saying we have to solve the Problem of Evil before we can send anyone else to prison.

What an absolute disgrace it is that right now, no one is talking more sense in America at this moment than teenagers. Their strength and moral clarity and composure should be an inspiration to us all. Republican politicians–and I feel comfortable making this sweeping remark, because it is largely Republicans who are bankrolled by the NRA–would gladly see children and adults murdered for the sake of bankrolling their own reelection campaign. Here’s the thing: It isn’t even a moral dilemma for them.  It’s just business as usual.

Walk away from this extremely shitty Omelas, kids, and keep walking, and the principals and the school districts and the school superintendents better damn support you as you walk out of your classrooms and walk into the government buildings all around the country that have failed you again and again. You go. As Le Guin wrote in the final lines of her story “The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”

Lake Tegel at sunset

Yesterday I set out on a walk through some woods in the northern part of Berlin. Because I get lost very easily, I got turned around (not in the woods, but on the road) and ended up at my intended destination later than I planned, but it turned out for the best, because I was there in time to catch the sunset.

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Then I met this fox! I love foxes. We met eyes for several seconds, but by the time I came to my sense to try and get a photo, he was on the move again. This is the best of a batch of blurred photos.

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