The Unravelling: Emma Sky at #AWF16

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pp_emma_skyI had never heard of Emma Sky before I saw her name in the festival programme, and this was a mistake, because it turns out this self-deprecating English woman has been quietly influencing 21st-century world history. She was the Governorate Coordinator of Kirkuk, Iraq, for the Coalition Provisional Authority from 2003 to 2004, and served as the political advisor to U.S. General Ray Odierno from 2007 to 2010. She’s met Obama, argued with Joe Biden, and tried to keep the US military in Iraq honest.

I haven’t read her memoir The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq, and in fact haven’t even touched it, because the hundreds of copies the booksellers had in stock sold out in a flash. Simon Wilson had read it carefully, though, and his interviewing was excellent.

cv_the_unravellingSky was strongly influenced by her time on a kibbutz as a young woman, and wanted to help make peace in the world. When the war in Iraq broke out – with which she strongly disagreed – she wanted to help. She answered a call for volunteers from the British government and went to Iraq “to apologise”.

“I’m Emma from England and I’m here to volunteer.” When she arrived in Iraq there was no one to meet her and she was shifted from pillar to post before ending up in Kirkuk. “I assumed the British government knew what they were doing but had just neglected to tell me.” Sky was equally wry about the violence all around her: “Insurgents tried to assassinate me in my first week … it usually takes longer for people to try to kill me.” She met the US army when she went to ask them for accommodation: “It’s all rather awkward and embarrassing but my house has been blown up”. She told another funny story about her employer back in Britain asking when she’d return: “I’m very sorry but I can’t come back to work in Manchester because I’m running a province [of Iraq]”. They told her to stop exaggerating.

As well as filling me with a desire to learn more about Iraq, Sky also made me miss England (I am an English Kiwi). I was reminded of Kate Fox’s Watching the English (one of the truest books I’ve ever read), in which she argues that the distinguishing characteristic of English humour is not is dryness but its omnipresence. There was humour underlying nearly everything Sky said, and when Wilson asked her to speak of the horror of living in a war zone, she became uncomfortable. She did try to articulate it, though, telling us that at one point Iraqis stopped eating fish because the flavour had changed, because the fish were feeding on all the corpses in the river.

Based on the success of her work in Iraq, US General Odierno invited Sky to be his political advisor. Her job was to follow him around and tell him when he was screwing up: “It was fantastic!” They were two very different people but obviously developed an enormous respect for one another. One senior US official Sky has far less respect for, however, is Joe Biden. She blames him for screwing up Iraq’s chance to create itself a robust democracy by focusing instead on his own political gains.

Wilson asked Sky about the sexism she had experienced. She seemed reluctant to talk about it too much; maybe – as Mallory Ortberg said at Writers Week in Wellington earlier this year – she’s sick of the ‘you’re a woman, that must be so hard’ kind of question. In any case, if bombs and gunfire couldn’t slow her down, mere sexism never stood a chance. She made a couple of intriguing allusions to her upbringing in a boys’ school, which she likened to a Lord of the Flies experience. Men, she said, “are much better when they’re adults than when they’re boys”. Feels like there might be another book right there.

The hour we had with Sky flew by, and we could easily have done with a whole other hour for audience questions. I would have liked to have heard her thoughts on voluntourism and the white saviour complex, for example. She says her students at Yale, where she now teaches and writes, tell her to get back out into the world. I’m sure that, for Sky, there are many more history-changing years ahead.

Attended and reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage 

Book: 
The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq, by Emma Sky

The State of America, with Janna Levin, Thomas Mallon and Gloria Steinem at #AWF16

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The ASB Theatre at the Aotea Centre was packed out to hear cosmologist Janna Levin, writer Thomas Mallon and feminist icon Gloria Steinem discuss the state of the United States of America, ably chaired by Guyon Espiner.

US FlagTrump-bashing was the order of the day and Mallon wasted no time getting stuck in. “I’m less interested in explaining Trump than in vanquishing him … he is dangerous, grotesque … If this means the end of the Republican party, so be it … He believes in nothing.” This played well with the crowd, who, drawn by their horrified fascination with the current US presidential nomination race, had come in their hundreds to receive an explanation from US intellectuals who presumably had some kind of insight into what the hell is going on.

Insight was duly delivered with varying degrees of helpfulness. Levin admitted right away that she couldn’t explain Trump’s popularity at all. “I have very little insight to the human psyche, I do math … I live in a bubble of academics, and we don’t realise what others are thinking … We didn’t take [Trump] seriously soon enough – and by ‘we’ I mean sane people.” I think this is an important point: there is a danger in surrounding yourself only with people who agree with you, and developing the delusion that you must therefore be in a national majority. Although she was playing it for laughs, I think Levin’s last comment is very telling: there a danger too in characterising your own point of view as ‘sane’, thus demonising the views of your opponents.

I found Steinem’s view much more insightful. She spoke of how Trump is “a backlash candidate”; a backlash, that is, against the advances of civil rights, feminism, environmentalism etc over the past few decades. Trump supporters “feel displaced by a lack of hierarchy … they have been raised to believe their identity depends on racial hierarchy”. Mallon added that “people will vote for Trump even though they fear his presidency because he gives them a chance to insult those they feel aggrieved by [such as Muslims and people of colour, but also professional politicians and the media]”.

Steinem gave an interesting historical perspective, saying that the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s drove the racist Democrats into the Republican party, which has become more extreme. She hopes that Trump may cause the old centrist Republicans to reemerge.

Steinem is optimistic: “I’m a hopeaholic”. Speaking about the upcoming Presidential race, she says Clinton can be elected “but it’s gonna be hell … Trump is ruthless … I live for the day an atheist is President! A single, gay atheist … the only thing better would be a pagan.” She said that “hope is a form of planning”, and noted that within our lifetimes the USA will no longer be a majority white country – “This is crucial source of backlash but also of hope because change is inevitable.”

Moving on from Trump, Espiner invited the panellists to explain America’s allergy to public healthcare and gun control: two other issues on which we as New Zealanders feel comfortably superior to the USA. Steinem says you have to follow the money – the reason these things are so hard to change is because they’re protected by wealthy and powerful vested interests. Only in the ballot box are we all equal: “It’s up to us as the social justice movement to combat money with people power.”

I was struck all of a sudden by the oddness of the event: to have invited three Americans to the stage to explain their country to us, because we think they’re screwing up. And all three of the guests took our fascination with their society to be completely natural: America is so globally all-encompassing that of course we would feel involved. Would there have been such a large turnout for a panel discussion on the state of China, or Germany, or India? I wondered too under what circumstances there would be a session at a literary festival in another country to dissect what’s wrong with Aotearoa (and who would they invite to do the explaining?).

In considering this event, I was reminded of Helene Wong’s warning in her magnificent Michael King Memorial Lecture earlier today: beware the ultra-nationalism growing overseas because it could happen here as well. Maybe we shouldn’t feel so superior to the US after all.

The State of America, reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Thomas Mallon‘s solo event, Power Tales, is at 3.00pm  on Saturday, 14 May
Janna Levin
‘s solo event, Gravitational Sensations, is at 4.30pm on Sunday, 15 May