Opening remarks at my book launch
Just over a week ago, at the official launch event for my debut book This Won’t Help here in Maine, I read some opening remarks. I’d like to share them with you today.
Thank you all so very much for coming. I know that this is an event about a book I wrote — a book that, I hope, makes you laugh. So this may be a surprising and awkward way to begin.
I’ve been thinking a lot about trauma and about suffering. The ways in which violence begets violence — how our response to suffering is so often to create more suffering. Looking back through this book I worked on for the last few years (a book that is, I promise, funny) has me thinking about the ways in which we justify unjustifiable violence, and about the unrewarding tragedy of suffering, and the way dehumanization dehumanizes all.
I’ve been thinking about the mass shooting our state experienced just two weeks ago. That’s a very immediate, collective trauma. We need a ban on assault weapons. More access to guns does not make other guns safer. I say as much in a piece in my book titled “The Only Way To Prevent Car Crashes Is More Cars.” It’s not about cars. You should read it.
I’ve also been thinking about my great-grandmother, who survived the Theresienstadt Ghetto, a waystation to the extermination camps of the Holocaust. Other members of her family were not so lucky. That’s generational trauma.
I’ve been thinking about last month, and the horror and atrocity of the worst massacre of Jewish lives since the Holocaust. That’s a reappearance and reopening of trauma.
And I’ve been thinking, almost all the time, about the relentless violence, destruction, human rights violations, and second Nakba facing the people of Gaza — the collective suffering of the past decades, and at this very moment, while I’m talking to you. That’s trauma being created, now and for many years to come.
Encouraged by a good friend, I joined other writers of Jewish practice or descent in signing a letter calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. Moreso, the letter warns of a dangerous conflation. The conflation of any criticism of Israel’s government with antisemitism. Similarly, the conflation of a government with a people. This conflation itself has perpetuated and fed the fire of antisemitism here in the US. At the same time, this conflation also dehumanizes Palestinians.
To paraphrase the letter, we must reject antisemitism in all its forms, including when it masquerades as criticism of Israel’s policies. We must also reject the false choice between Jewish safety and Palestinian freedom; between Jewish identity and ending the oppression of Palestinians. We must not conflate liberation of one with annihilation of another. Because when we do, the diminishing value of human life is the ultimate tragedy — and the suffering it leads to has no reward. I’m reminded of author Art Spiegelman’s recounting of a conversation with his father, a Holocaust survivor, who told Art that “suffering doesn’t make you better, it just makes you suffer.”
These dangerous conflations and seemingly impossible choices — between two peoples, or even between mass shootings and more guns — are so often presented to us by those who seek power and seek to hold onto it. Many of those people show up in my book. Again, you should read it.
And just as I can’t stop thinking about suffering, I also can’t stop thinking about the poem “Red Sea” by Aurora Levins Morales, which really does bring me hope. In it, Morales writes the following:
Listen, they say there is honey swelling in golden combs, over there,
dates as sweet and brown as lovers' cheekbones,
bread as fragrant as rest,
but the turbulent water will not part for us.
We've lost the trick of it.
Back then, one man's faith opened the way.
He stepped in, we were released, our enemies drowned.
This time we're tied at the ankles.
We cannot cross until we carry each other,
all of us refugees, all of us prophets.
No more taking turns on history's wheel,
trying to collect old debts no-one can pay.
The sea will not open that way.
This time that country
is what we promise each other,
our rage pressed cheek to cheek
until tears flood the space between,
until there are no enemies left,
because this time no one will be left to drown
and all of us must be chosen.
This time it's all of us or none.
This is probably not what you were expecting to hear tonight. The rest of the evening probably will be what you’re expecting. But I say all of this because the project of my book, though primarily to be funny, is also to point at injustice and critique oppressive systems. Injustice can feel heavy and overwhelming. I’m sure most of what I just said felt that way.
But there are also real, tangible, accessible ways to work for change in our own backyards. All work for justice lifts all others. That’s why we have sign-up sheets here tonight for anyone who would like to get involved with Maine Needs, a community donation center just down the street, and with Planned Parenthood of Northern New England and their storyteller project, both of which I’m involved in, and both of which need more support.
The project of the book is also to offer catharsis, in big and small ways. Catharsis for anyone feeling overwhelmed by issues large and small. So that’s what we’re gonna do tonight. Thanks for listening to me talk. Now, I’m going to read a piece from my book about lizards.
Order “This Won’t Help”
You’ll get to read the piece about lizards.
My debut satirical essay collection This Won’t Help is out now. It’s been listed as a New Yorker best book of the week! You have already have a copy. If you don’t, you can order it right now on Amazon, Bookshop, or — better yet — through your local indie bookstore. If they don’t have it on their shelves, tell them to stock up!
Here’s what early readers of This Won’t Help are saying:
That’s all for today. Thanks for reading, and see you right here very soon.