Interview with Diane Lefer

By Liz Blood

Liz spoke to Diane Lefer about violence in its many forms, responding to events and injustices as a writer, her recent writing, and her work with torture survivors.

LB: First, I want to say that I'm really excited to talk to you. I loved the essays you wrote for Awst: “What I Learned from Genital Cutting,” and for Numéro Cinq: “Ain’t We Got Fun: War, Video Games, and the Nonviolence Playbook.”

DL: Thanks, Liz! It's sad and strange doing the interview today. I wrote “What I Learned from Genital Cutting” for Awst in the aftermath of the killings at the Emanuel Ame Church in Charleston. Now we are caught up in horror and shock—though we can hardly call it surprise, given that a massacre happens in this country every day—about San Bernardino, roughly an hour from where I am right now.

LB: I wanted to speak with you about San Bernardino today, so let's start with that. It is sad. I'm sorry for your community and every community this happens to. As you mentioned, a mass shooting has occurred on average once a day this year in the U.S. This week, it happened very near to you. How do you respond to that as a writer? 

DL: With a heavy heart. And pain and frustration—not just at the failure of Congress to deal with gun safety, or allow the public health community to study gun violence—but because I feel this country has a major deficit of kindness and connection. I work with torture survivors and refugees and I’m especially interested in second generation or, “1.5 generation,” which is what we call people who were born overseas but came to the US very young.

I just finished interviews with two women—one born in Cambodia and one in Korea, both of whom came to the US as children. Both suffered a great deal of trauma and each came out of it as beautiful, accomplished human beings. But, they went through very difficult adolescence in this country and neither one felt able to break the silence and talk to anyone about what they were going through. Each one feels she was saved by people who were kind, who simply listened to them and connected with them. This is true of immigrant children but also of white American children whose families have been here for generations when there’s a failure of emotional connection. People need and seek that connection and, these days, they can find it easily with too many violent surrogate families and too many available weapons.

LB: In "Ain't We Got Fun,” you write about violence and mention various forms of it: violence of poverty, violence of racism, etc., not just physical violence. Is a "deficit of kindness" another form? 

DL: I think you are right! When there's no kindness, don't we respond in very hurtful ways? Sometimes with coldness or indifference but very often with anger, punishment, or by shunning someone. All of these responses leave wounds.

LB: Yes, and the wounded often go on to wound others because it's what they know. It's a self-propagating cycle. The work you do with torture survivors and refugees is interesting, especially in that you see the good a little kindness can do for someone. There are simple ways to help those persons heal.

DL: Though, I admit it's complicated. I'm sure you've had the experience of being kind to the outcast in junior high or the weirdo in high school and if that person is desperate for connection, you find s/he's latched onto you and the neediness is overwhelming. Where does someone turn when no human being can fill the void?

LB: Good points and a good question. I wanted to ask about the arts workshops for torture survivors that you lead, and your collecting of survivors’ oral histories. Why do you do that or feel it's important? 

DL: For me, this all started when I dropped out of college and ran away to Mexico. I was "adopted" there and treated with so much love that I feel such love and loyalty in return. The violence in Mexico today shatters me. But anyway, I was treated so well when I crossed the border and I hated the way Mexicans are treated here. Not long after I moved to Los Angeles, I volunteered alongside lawyers at immigration detention centers who were hoping to help the prisoners. Before I went into the centers, I went through training with the Program for Torture Victims (PTV). Years after that, I met Hector Aristizábal, a theater artist and psychologist, who was on the board of PTV and was himself a survivor. He'd been arrested without cause and tortured by the US-trained military in Colombia. We worked on some projects together including a play about his own experience and his brother's torture and murder. And then we collaborated with PTV on a couple of Theater of Witness projects in which survivors and family members performed their own stories onstage.

Once you know these people, of course it feels important. I came home from the detention centers shaking and in tears because—especially back then—there was almost no way to help. I was outraged and powerless and confronted daily with human rights abuses that blew to pieces any notion a person might have about American values.

With torture survivors, even though their lives here are often very difficult, there is such hope. Especially doing the arts workshops because we don't focus on the trauma. We play games to help focus and concentration—which can be hard to regain after trauma. We sing. We write imaginatively and sometimes collaboratively. We share snacks and meals. People who find it hard to speak aloud get practice reading their work aloud. And for people who've been isolated, we create a small community. Sometimes the therapists walk by and can't believe what they see: their clients laughing.

Some of the clients there are so inspiring and talented and courageous. I learn from them and I feel so happy that I know them. I suppose that's why I make some of their stories public, that I want the wider public to see and appreciate them too. I'll tell you so many of the Africans arrive not knowing anyone and sometimes not speaking English and without a dollar. And here they are, once they were doctors and engineers, and in L.A. they are sleeping under the freeway overpass, homeless, and people walk by and assume they are mentally ill or substance abusers. With a little bit of guidance and support, they have much to contribute. 

LB: I suspect most Americans don't know those sorts of things go on. I see part of what you’re doing as nonviolent action to right some of the violent action that has been done to these people. You write about “nonviolent action” in “Aint We Got Fun.” Do you agree? Does that work, and your work of writing, fall under "nonviolent action" for you?

DL: I’m trying more and more to think of my writing as action. But aside from the website with survivor stories, I'm cutting back on the nonfiction. I've probably contributed more than 100 pieces of advocacy journalism. At first I was thrilled to find outlets for this work, but it got very frustrating. Pieces on Sarah Palin or Donald Trump get thousands of hits, while issues I worked on and researched and spent a week writing would be read by five or six people. It began to seem pretty pointless. So, I'm focusing a lot more on fiction again, which may have just as small an audience, but at least it's an audience that is not necessarily politically involved. I hope that through fiction some of these ideas reach people who may not have thought about the issues before.

LB: That must be very frustrating. They're big and weighty topics. Do you think people might be more receptive to ideas—like the importance of kindness—if they read about it in fiction? 

DL: As a teenager I was deeply affected by James Baldwin—his essays, of course, but what really got me was his novel, Another Country.

LB: So, did Baldwin's fiction have more of an impact on you than his nonfiction? By the way, I love James Baldwin. He made me want to be a writer.

DL: Yes, the fiction affected me more. It was like I recognized my tribe and the people I'm committed to. But now you have me thinking. Maybe what’s important isn’t whether something is fiction or nonfiction, but whether there’s a story. I just mentioned Hector Aristizabal. At one point he wanted me to help him write about his ideas of addressing trauma through art and through ritual. After some false starts, we ended up writing about his life—it’s a tumultuous and dramatic life—and using his personal story as the scaffolding for the book, The Blessing Next to the WoundIt gave us a more interesting way to share these ideas and write about our work. 

I also think people are most receptive to what they take in through humor. When you're laughing, your defenses fall right down and stuff spills in. I hope my newest novel, Confessions of a Carnivore, works that way, but sometimes my fiction is simply dark and not at all funny. Or it's a bleak kind of humor. But I do think fiction can reach the emotional core of the reader. People change when they feel, not when they are harangued or insulted or bombarded with data.

LB: Right! That is why comedians are so important to cultural dialogue. In Confessions of a Carnivore you make the connection between animal rights and human rights. Can you talk a little about that?

DL: Yes, but you have to understand the novel isn’t an animal rights manifesto. I offended vegetarians. I offended people who would like to close zoos. What I tried to do was make the cats and the zoo animals just as three-dimensional as the humans. So maybe it goes back to questions of kindness again. And agency. Humans make these life-and-death decisions over animals as though they don't have lives and thoughts and desires of their own. Humans also impose on and oppress other humans. Sometimes we get sentimental about nonhuman animals and ignore what we do to each other. For example, animal lovers were up in arms about the gorillas being killed in Congo while at the same time millions of Congolese people were being slaughtered and little attention was paid. 

I guess something I'm always trying to do is expand our notion of community. For all our differences, everyone is still “us,” not “us” versus “the other.” The members of our community are the people we care for and listen to and protect and feel some responsibility for and it has to go beyond the nuclear family. You know, it's the consciousness that sees all species and the earth and water and air as part of the community, and other people whatever language they speak or culture they come from. 

LB: You've just mentioned commitment to the people you write about. You write a lot about people who have been abused by violence, by government, by injustice, etc. In "Ain't We Got Fun,” you write: "For an effective nonviolent movement, don’t we need to be every bit as committed? To accept that waging peace is every bit as difficult as waging war and demands just as much sacrifice?"

DL: Yeah, and that goes beyond what can happen facing the police or going to jail. The other thing about kindness is that we live in a world in which kindness is too often read as weakness. People may take advantage or you may get yourself a beat-down. Those are the risks you have to be willing to take.

LB: I believe that writing can be a form of action, and a form of peace-seeking. You go on to say there is something Sisyphean about Marines and the wars we send them to fight, “wars we cannot win.” Do you mean to say that we can win the peace “war”?

DL: Oh, Liz. You're asking questions so I'm answering, but I don't have the answers. Can we win the peace "war"? Within ourselves. And we can work to change the culture to seek nonviolent alternatives. That doesn't mean there will never be another conflict, but what we have learned (or should have learned), there's always a catch to what you win through violence. It's toxic in the culture, it ultimately leads to more violence. We need more kindness and connection, but those things aren’t enough. Our nation, founded on genocide and slavery, needs to purge itself of the lies we tell ourselves and of the conviction that violence creates prosperity. As for nonviolence, even when it doesn't solve everything entirely, it's at least nontoxic and doesn't set the stage for more suffering. A simple example of nonviolence is the current campaign for trauma-sensitive schools. All that really means is that when a kid acts out, you look for the reasons for the behavior instead of going immediately into shaming or punishment mode.

I'll give you an example of "within ourselves." Someone pointed out to me during the Bush administration that I might be nonviolent in action but my language was very violent. The way I talked about the administration and Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld, etc. I started to watch my words. And what was interesting to me is that when I stopped using violent insulting language, I also calmed down. I was still angry, still involved in protest, but I wasn't filled with rage. And I started to realize that the rage came out of powerlessness. When I started to control my language, I claimed at least that much power, and I was able to confront the situation with greater calm. I think there's a huge difference between anger and rage, which is violent and uncontrollable. I don't think people need anger management—anger is a good thing—but we need rage management.

LB: And managing language is at least an intro to managing rage. You wrote, “Every small victory proves the oppressive power isn’t omnipotent after all.” That’s hopeful! Personal, within-ourselves-victories like you’ve just illustrated are a step in the right direction.

DL: Here's another distinction: Years ago, at the start of the AIDS epidemic, a public health official in NYC said he wasn't optimistic but he was hopeful. He said he'd learned the difference from Vaclav Havel, that optimism means blindly believing everything is going to be OK, while hope is persevering and not giving up even when the outcome looks uncertain or bleak. Years after that, I heard Vaclav Havel got the idea from B.B. King. You see how beautiful ideas cross borders. I am hopeful.

LB: That’s a lovely note to end on.  

DL: Much as I love to reach people who disagree with me, it is a pleasure to chat with someone who shares my values. So, thank you, and regards to everyone at awesome Awst.