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Wendy Elisheva Somerson
Wendy Elisheva Somerson
Wendy Elisheva Somerson writes, organizes, and makes art in Seattle, Washington.



Recipe for a Revolution with Chipped Turquoise Nails: A Review of Love Cake: Poems by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

Oct5

by: on October 5th, 2011 | 2 Comments »

I am not sure how to convey the power of this poetry collection.

I can tell you that once I picked up Love Cake, I could not put it down until I finished every poem, even though I sometimes had to read through my tears. Upon finishing, I immediately had to call a femme friend to read her a poem that reminded me of her. Relocating from my couch to my bed, I sank in and re-read the entire collection.

I want to say that the poems tore out my heart. I keep seeing an image of my heart getting pulled out of my chest, but my heart does not remain in the air, naked and exposed. Instead, birds carefully wind orange velvet ribbons around it before they replace it in my chest cavity, prettier and stronger than it was before. These poems demand that I feel everything more intensely–including grief and rage–but in return, they give me back something I didn’t know I was missing: an expansive sense of possibility. The morning after I read this collection, I woke up from my sleep with a feeling of anticipation, remembering that I had been given an unexpectedly precious gift that I will carry deep inside me.

The gift of this poetry collection is nothing less than a roadmap to what liberation can look like for queer people who survive personal and collective trauma. Describing border crossings that she experiences as a queer working class person of color, Leah Laskshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha gives voice to the involuntary incursions on her body: child abuse, colonialism, racism, and war; as well as her voluntary crossings of boundaries: leaving her family of origin, rediscovering her roots in Sri Lanka, and reclaiming her body. She maintains a tension between oppression and healing throughout, in poems that leave no doubt about her power as a survivor, healer, and activist.

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Imagining a Different Future: Family Accountability in Eliaichi Kimaro’s A Lot Like You

Jul27

by: on July 27th, 2011 | 3 Comments »

When I saw Eliaichi Kimaro’s moving and complex documentary A Lot Like You at the Seattle International Film Festival in June 2011, one of my first responses to this film was to recognize it as a model for a personal and family accountability process. Having just finished reviewing The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities for Bitch magazine, I was interested in seeing more concrete examples of community accountability, which the authors define as “any strategy to address violence, abuse or harm that creates safety, justice, reparations, and healing without relying on police, prisons, childhood protective services, or any other state systems.” A Lot Like You brings to life the complicated, messy, beautiful, and liberatory process of addressing harm and seeking healing within a family context.

I sought out Eliaichi, a Seattle filmmaker and activist, for an interview and was excited to learn that she also sees her film as capturing the beginning of a family accountability process. The film was originally titled Worlds Apart, and its change to A Lot Like You reflects the journey that Eliaichi embarked upon while creating this documentary about her relationship to her father’s side of the family – the Chagga tribe in Tanzania, who live on the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro. The first cut of the film emphasized the cultural differences in her family, which “spans many different continents and worlds,” but the final version emphasizes Eliaichi’s connection to her Chagga relatives.

After growing up in Tanzania, her father Sadikiel Kimaro earned a scholarship to pursue his PhD in economics in the US where he met his future wife, Young, a student from Korea. While his five siblings remained behind in Tanzania, Sadikiel spent the next forty years or so working for the IMF, while Young worked at the World Bank. They raised Eliaichi and her brother in a suburb of Washington, DC. After her parents retired to Tanzania, Eliaichi and her partner Tom decided to join them with the intention of filming for nine months, partly because Eliaichi felt only a “hazy connection” to her Tanzanian family in spite of having spent every other summer there as a child.

Setting out to portray culture in Tanzania, they interviewed members of Eliaichi’s family and filmed different aspects of Chagga life, but often bumped into cultural disconnect and miscommunication. In the film’s voiceover narration, Eliaichi describes how “everyone around us performed their version of Chagga culture, one they thought that I, as a tourist, wanted to see.” The first cut of the film was focused on Eliaichi’s father’s story, but included interviews with her two aunts who describe, in brutal detail, how their marriage rituals involved violence. Her aunts did not know that Eliaichi was also a survivor of trauma.

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Listening to Palestinian Voices: The Fight for Education Tour

Apr13

by: on April 13th, 2011 | 3 Comments »

This spring Jewish Voice for Peace (I am a founding member of the Seattle Chapter) is sponsoring a tour of young Palestinian activists to speak in over fifteen cities in the US to discuss the challenges facing Palestinian students who live under Israeli military occupation. I was fortunate to hear Mira Dabit and Hanna Qassis speak in Seattle, and I also got a chance to interview them about right to education issues in Palestine, their lives under occupation, and their hopes for a better future.

Mira Dabit photo by Emma Klein

Mira Dabit, 25, was born in Jerusalem to a refugee family originally from the 1948 city of Al Lod. She has been a youth activist and folkloric storyteller for many years. She received her Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Sociology from Birzeit University. After graduating, she moved to Ireland where she volunteered with community initiatives for three years. Back in Palestine, Mira is continuing her activism with youth and education, including the Right to Education campaign at Birzeit University.

Hanna Qassis, 27, is from the town of Birzeit, Palestine. He graduated from Birzeit University in 2006 with a BA in Business Administration, and is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in International Studies. In addition to working for the Academy for Educational Development in the West Bank, Hanna is a political and youth activist who volunteers with several Palestinian civil society organizations.

At a talk at Seattle University on April 11, 2010, they both spoke movingly about the role of education in Palestine. Mira posited that education has been important to Palestinians because the loss of their land in 1948 meant that many Palestinians also lost their homes, businesses, and livelihoods. Education was what they had left, and she sees it as a tool for Palestinians to tell their stories and educate people about their lives.

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The Right of Return for New Orleanians and Palestinians: An Interview with Jordan Flaherty

Mar21

by: on March 21st, 2011 | 8 Comments »

When I first picked up Floodlines on assignment to write a review for Bitch magazine, I thought I knew something about what went down in New Orleans after Katrina, but after reading this firsthand account of surviving the storm, I realized I didn’t know much at all. It reminded me of the first time I read a leftist account of the history of Zionism. Only then did I realize how much the US mainstream media had framed my perception of Palestine by focusing on individual acts of violence by Palestinians taken out of context from the larger frame of Israeli state violence.

Similarly, while reading Floodlines, I was forced to confront how my understanding of New Orleans has been shaped by mainstream media reports that focused obsessively on individual acts of violence while ignoring the large-scale state violence imposed on mostly poor communities of color. I was moved by how Flaherty, a white journalist and organizer based in New Orleans, manages to tell a story that encompasses both the staggering injustice of structural racism and the inspiring grassroots activism of New Orleanians.

He juxtaposes first-hand stories of communities helping each other survive the storm with the mainstream media’s racist depictions of their struggles. For instance, while the media portrayed African American men in New Orleans mainly as criminals, Flaherty describes how, in the wake of abandonment by official rescuers, groups of working class African American men travelled through neighborhoods, rescuing people and delivering supplies in the first days after the storm. Meanwhile, African Americans who needed help were treated like criminals: the National Guard placed many of them in militarized evacuee camps and eventually forced them to leave the state.

Flaherty explains how such inequity continued throughout the so-called recovery efforts. Money did not go to the people and local community organizations who needed it. Instead, it flowed to corporations who profited from rebuilding contracts, security firms who made money from criminalizing the victims of the storm, and large-scale corporate charities with high overhead costs. As Flaherty describes, “living in New Orleans in the first years after Katrina, it was as if the sky were filled with money. I imagined it thirty feet up in the air, clearly visible, but out of reach” (121).

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Pinkwashing, NYC Style: The LGBT Center Caves to Pressure

Feb27

by: on February 27th, 2011 | 28 Comments »

LGBT Center

Credit: Flickrcc/marcin wojcik

Watching NYC’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Center succumb to pressure to cancel a kick-off party for Israeli Apartheid Week, I feel compelled to write an epilogue to my recent post on Pinkwashing.

I am reminded once again that we must be vigilant in refusing to allow queer liberation to be pitted against Palestinian liberation because as we know from our queer Palestinian colleagues, the two struggles are intertwined.

On February 22nd, Michael Lucas, a right wing Advocate columnist and gay porn entrepreneur, issued a press release calling on the LGBT center to cancel the scheduled “Party to End Apartheid,” which he called anti-Semitic. He threatened to “organize a boycott that would certainly involve some of the Center’s most generous donors.” Infamous for his attacks against Islam, Lucas argued that “Israel is the only country in the Middle East that supports gay rights while its enemies round up, torture, and condemn gay people to death…” Relying on traditional Pinkwashing tactics, Lucas positioned Israel as a liberal democracy in opposition to its backwards and homophobic “enemies.”

Just a few hours later, the LGBT center announced it would cancel the event and bar its sponsors from meeting at the Center in the future. The Center’s executive director Glennda Testone issued a brief statement claiming, “We have determined that this event is not appropriate to be held at our LGBT Community Center, which is a safe haven for LGBT groups and individuals.”

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Resisting Pinkwashing: Queers Won’t Hide Israel’s Dirty Laundry

Feb10

by: on February 10th, 2011 | 16 Comments »

Credit: Flickrcc/bsolah

Recently a pro-gay ad from Israel popped up on my Facebook feed. It used the metaphor of the closet to push Israeli parents to accept and support their queer kids. I’m queer. I’m Jewish. And I care deeply about queer issues. So why didn’t the ad spark even an ounce of excitement in me? Because I am wary of my queerness being used by Israel. For some time now, Israel has been promoting gay rights to “pinkwash” its image in an attempt to divert attention away from its treatment of Palestinians.

Why Brand Israel? Why Make It Gay?

As Israel’s reputation becomes more and more unpopular around the world because of its increasingly publicized violations of Palestinian human rights, the Foreign Ministry and other Israel advocacy organizations have been attempting to bolster its image with a “Brand Israel” campaign that promotes Israel’s innovation, culture, and tourism. In the last few years, this effort has started including Israel’s support for gay rights as part of its “cosmopolitan” culture.

While emphasizing the thriving gay community in cities such as Tel Aviv in order to portray Israel as an oasis of gay freedom and democracy in the Middle East, Israel advocacy groups use colonialist language to suggest that Israel is surrounded by “backwards” homophobic, uncivilized Arabs, including Palestinians. Blaming “fundamentalist Islamic beliefs,” groups such as Stand With Us (SWU), a Right Wing Israeli advocacy organization highlights the violence that gay Palestinians face from their families and authorities in Palestine. Of course, they never mention the violence all Palestinians, whatever their sexual orientation, face from the Israeli government.

Israel, they proclaim, is a sanctuary for the LGBT community because of its gay pride parades, LGBT themed TV shows (seriously?), and civil rights. Gay Palestinians, according to SWU, find “refuge” in Israel; however, Palestinians living under Occupation are specifically ineligible for asylum under Israeli law. Claiming that Israel is the only country in the Middle East that supports gay rights, SWU explicitly asks gays around the world to support Israel. SWU and other advocacy groups attempt to recruit gays by creating concern for some universal category of GLBTQ folks. Queer Palestinians can only be a part of this category if they disavow half of their identity; as queers, they can be oppressed by homophobic Palestine, but as Palestinians, they cannot mention oppression by the Israeli government. SWU never acknowledges the work queer Palestinians are already doing as they simultaneously fight homophobia and Israeli oppression.

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