Foreword Reviews

Best of 2020 Interviews: Part 2

Best of 2020 Part two

As we do every year, we’re excited to offer you a carefully curated selection of our favorite questions and responses from the year’s fifty-plus interviews between reviewers and authors. Please set aside a few minutes to give this a thoughtful read—we know you won’t be disappointed.

Reviewer Jeremiah Rood Interviews Eric Peterson, Author of Letters to a Young Pastor: Timothy Conversations between Father and Son

The book skirts politics, but the church and politics are very much bound up in today’s society. The book portrays the struggle of finding out what it means to be a pastor. I’m wondering what lesson you turn to when facing such a conflicted society? Do you find it hard to find a place for the pastor to faithfully stand today?

The church can’t afford to be apolitical if it is to honor its prophetic role in society. For too much of its history the church has been timid and silent on matters that are at odds with the coming of God’s kingdom.

Today’s church needs to lead conversations on racial injustice, for example, by speaking and writing with truth and grace. But the words alone are not enough. There is much work to be done as we love our neighbors across all differences, as we insist on legislation that serves the entire commonwealth, as we push for prison reform, and as we critically evaluate how we’ve been teaching American history. There is a lot of room for repentance and reform, which is what the church at its best is uniquely able to lead. If the church fails to be the voice of moral conscience in our society, the political process is doomed.

Reviewer Matt Sutherland Interviews Valerie Trouet, Author of Tree Story: The History of the World Written in Rings

By using ancient wood samples, some of which were found underwater and petrified in deserts, and then comparing tree ring patterns from older and older trees, you and your dendrochronologist colleagues have built a historical record of tree rings dating back an astounding 12,000 years or more. The sheer labor of making all those comparisons sounds exhausting. Can you give us a sense of just how incredible this scientific achievement really is? And then, maybe an example or two of certain, extraordinary finds that filled gaps in the record?

Yes! The German oak-and-pine chronology stretches back continuously from the present to 10,644 BCE. The chronology includes 6775 samples from living trees, dead trees, historical buildings, archeological sites, and peat bogs and river beds and has a ring for each and every year of the past 12,650 years. It took multiple decades of tree-ring sampling, counting, and dating to develop this long chronology, but it was worth it. The chronology has for instance been used to calibrate and validate less precise dating methods than dendrochronology, such as radiocarbon dating. What is also very cool about the German chronology, is that it corresponds year-for-year with a similar chronology from the British Isles over the more than 8,000 years over which they overlap.

The oldest portion of the chronology is based on Scots pine trunks that were found in gravel pits in Germany. The tree trunks are remnants of forests that once grew along large, German rivers (the Rhine, the Danube) but over time were undercut by erosion. The trees toppled over in the water and were preserved underwater for ten thousand years. More recent portions of the chronology are derived from water wells (where wood was also preserved under water) from Roman and Bronze Age times. My colleague Willy Tegel, for instance, found four water wells in eastern Germany that were lined with wood walls and that dated back to 5,206 BCE, not long after the first farmers immigrated into central Europe from the Balkans around 5500 BCE. Willy described this find as “The first farmers were also the first carpenters.”

Reviewer Tanisha Rule Interviews Leslie Kern, Author of Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-Made World

You state that there are no easy solutions to urban planning, since what seems a solution for one demographic of women can spell disaster for another. With that sobering, honest assessment in mind, what is the biggest takeaway you want readers to gain from Feminist City?

The main thing is that city planning can and should start from different perspectives, and those perspectives should include people experiencing different forms of marginalization in cities. What does your city’s development plan look like if, instead of taking an able-bodied, middle-class white man as your assumed “typical urban citizen,” you started from the needs and experiences of a low-income single mother? A disabled student? A sex worker? A recent immigrant working two minimum wage jobs? A senior citizen on a fixed income?

The beauty of this is that improvements made from these perspectives are likely to improve the lives of many people; they’re not niche interventions to benefit a minority. For example, thinking about physical accessibility on public transit improves the lives of disabled people, people with children, seniors, and low-income people who rely on buses and trains to transport groceries and more. Affordable housing is also an anti-violence intervention, allowing victims of domestic violence an opportunity to leave and offering the kind of basic support to people that limits poverty-based crime. I hope people see the ideals of a “feminist city” as not solely about women, but as ideals that could create much more just and equitable cities for everyone.

Reviewer Melissa Wuske Interviews Carolyn Helsel and Joy Harris-Smith, Authors of The ABCs of Diversity: Helping Kids (and Ourselves!) Embrace Our Differences

As parents seek thoughtful ways to address diversity with their children, they can’t shield them from all other influences—homophobia at school, grandparents with different understandings of race, friends with inflexible religious views. How can parents address these kinds of situations?

Harris-Smith: Parents have to be willing to be uncomfortable. Parents have to be willing to say, “I don’t know.” Parents have to even be willing to lovingly confront loved ones and others for the sake of their children. They can’t remain silent—not in today’s current climate—silence has too often killed, maimed, and irreparably damaged lives . Silence can speak both positively and negatively. Therefore, parents have to gage when “speaking up” is the lesson and example that needs to be set for their children as they engage others with different views.

Helsel: Parents can help challenge these other perspectives by pointing out differences and making them seem normal. For instance, be intentional about the kinds of books your family checks out from the library or reads together at night. Choose books that show a variety of families and perspectives, so that kids have a broader understanding for what makes a family. Take time to respond if you hear your child say something that seems to suggest a more limited view, such as saying something like “a boy can only marry a girl” or “that kid is weird because they are ___ [fill in the blank with a religion or a quality deemed different].” Ask them to share why they think that way, and invite them to consider who gets to make the rules for what counts as normal or weird. Encourage them to see how differences exist among us, and that only makes us more interesting.

Reviewer Rachel Jagareski Interviews Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Author of World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments

Your essay capturing your young sons’ volley of questions during a birdwatching session was another masterpiece of emotive prose. You intersperse their exuberance and quickly-shifting attention spans with their questions about why some white people don’t like brown people and whether they have “good camouflage” even though they are “mixed.” Imagining your unwritten responses is powerful. Aside from the topicality of birding while black/brown, how are you preparing them for living in a culture where white privilege is still dominant?

Oh this is such a good question. I’m sure I mess up lots of times, but the one thing I’m so proud of is that my (white) husband and I have always talked and kept lines of communication with our sons wide open. They know there’s not a single subject to be afraid of asking us but also from the get go, we have talked about moments where I get treated differently than their father—and most often, thankfully, it is my husband who points that out as a matter of fact and why it is so wrong. He is just such a model for them in every way possible to navigate a school where they both have a rainbow of friends.

We very purposely have gathered a vast selection of books that feature characters of all abilities and backgrounds—my dream library as a kid! So since they could read they were already imagining and having empathy for people with backgrounds different from their own. The art and TV shows they consume are also full of people from different backgrounds. Depending who they are with, my sons might “read” to others as 100 percent white, but they have been looking out for others of all backgrounds since they were in pre-school. Now if I could only get them to stop leaving wet towels on the floor.

Reviewer Camille-Yvette Welsch Interviews Daniel Nayeri, Author of Everything Sad Is Untrue

Your book enters the world at a crisis moment in history. What do you hope young writers glean from reading it and how does that relate to the state of the world?

George Orwell said all art is propaganda, and he’s never been more right. But he was never less right either. I think all art is an act of persuasion. All art is trying to convince us of something. Broadly speaking, that something is, “What is important?” Some might say, “What should we worship? What should we prioritize in life?” Even a coloring book is telling you to prioritize some things over others. You bought it after all. There is no neutral art. Some art is doing nothing more than trying to convince you that the artist is a genius.

So then, what does this book ask you to prioritize? What does it ask you to spend your time thinking about? I think we set up the problem in your first question. The patchwork nature of a refugee is his shame, sure. But we are all ashamed, I think, because we feel unloveable. And, as in the book, we all want loving hands to hold our faces and tell us we are good. What would it mean if we all saw ourselves as refugees, claimed into a love like that?

I think at the very least, it would mean we would welcome outsiders in. And maybe we’d even go outside to meet them.

Reviewer Michelle Anne Schingler Interviews Caroline B. Cooney, Author of Before She Was Helen

The culprits, technical victims, accidental accomplices, and heroine of your novel take on ageism with humor and heart. What is Before She Was Helen’s takeaway for those who underestimate folks of age?

I’ve never met anybody who felt old. Every woman my age feels the same as she ever did. We’re all wearing great disguises, though. The grey hair, extra pounds, and sagging chin aren’t visible from the inside, where we are the same girl we used to be. I write entertainment and I’m not teaching lessons. But it would be cool if my younger readers (i.e., under 70!) realize that age has nothing to do with it. We’re just as interesting as we ever were.

Reviewer Matt Sutherland Interviews Kristen J. Sollée, Author of Witch Hunt: A Traveler’s Guide to the Power & Persecution of the Witch

Witch Hunt pulled at my heartstrings several times when you alluded to the connection you feel with all those tortured and murdered victims of past witch hunts. They’re your peeps, and even though the persecutions might have happened centuries ago, your empathy is moving and awesome to behold. Will you talk about the connection you feel to witches past and present? Do your powers allow you to telepathically connect with your brethren, perhaps even those no longer walking the earth?

First and foremost, I aimed to honor the victims of the witch hunts with this book, so I’m very glad to hear that came across. To me, identifying as a witch today means identifying with those persecuted by patriarchal religion, by corrupt institutions, by mob rule, by a distorted gender binary. Because of my ancestry and my practice in the present, I feel a connection to accused witches of the past. But I actually don’t think you need any ancestral connections or special “powers” to palpably feel trauma and loss when you visit the sites I did in my research. The structures and the land hold the memories, and if you have trained yourself to listen to your surroundings, what some call “geomantic empathy,” you are more likely to pick up pieces of the past in voices, in visions, in a strange feeling that overtakes you, even in whispers on the breeze.

Reviewer Matt Sutherland Interviews Nicolas Bommarito, Author of Seeing Clearly: A Buddhist Guide to Life

I’ll do my best to make this question as succinct and neutral as possible: Will you help us understand why certain people spend their lives seeking a state of grace, willing to do the hard work it takes to understand themselves and the world around them as a means to benefit humanity, while others couldn’t give a frog’s fat ass? On one hand, we have those committed to right behavior, kindness as a default position, and a general attitude that we’re all one big family on this earth. And, on the other, evil, selfishness, violence, and the like seems to keep chugging along unabated. How does Buddhist thinking explain the whole breadth of human behavior?

I should say that I don’t really think Buddhism is in the business of explaining all human behavior. A doctor isn’t really in the business of explaining why human bodies are the way they are; they’re in the business of curing certain ailments. Knowing about the human body is, of course, relevant for that task, but that’s not the main aim. Similarly, Buddhism is about solving a problem, and of course being sensitive to the whole range of human attitudes and dispositions is important for that task, but it’s not primarily trying to explain these differences.

That said, one way Buddhists can make sense of this is as different kinds of mistakes. Think about people who are beginners at learning a musical instrument—they make a lot of different kinds of mistakes. Some can’t hear certain bad sounds, some have an ear for tone but not for rhythm, some want to get better but don’t want to practice. There are lots of different ways to go wrong and Buddhists will say that people are in a similar situation with regards to living well. Many of these mistakes aren’t about not knowing something intellectually, but not having the perceptual sensitivity to realize things—you haven’t trained your ear to hear certain aspects of the sound or you haven’t trained your attention to notice the harm you’re causing.

Buddhists do spend a lot of time thinking about how people go wrong, not in order to explain human behavior, but to better diagnose and treat it. A music teacher should know the different ways students can go wrong because they will require different techniques to set them right. So Buddhists will talk about different abilities and mental tendencies that obscure things so that different techniques can be applied to correct them. This is partly why for many Buddhists having a relationship with a teacher is important; they’ll be able to help figure out what mistakes you in particular are making and so can tell you the corrective steps that will work for you.

So there are a lot of ways people can go wrong, but in the case you bring up, that of someone who just doesn’t give a shit about other people, a Buddhist-style diagnosis of what they’re missing might go something like this: It’s only from a certain point of view that caring about yourself and not others makes sense, one that sees your own interests and desires as separable from those of others. So if you’re not careful it can seem to make sense to think “Who cares about minimum wage workers? Their problems have nothing to do with me,” but then a pandemic hits and you realize that for you to get the food you want means having healthy workers to stock the shelves. Your food-buying was always deeply intertwined with the workers that stocked the shelves. Buddhists are keen to point out that when you really examine what you want closely, the idea that your happiness is something independent of others’ starts to fall apart.

Reviewer Kristine Morris Interviews R.E. Burrillo, Author of Behind the Bears Ears: Exploring the Cultural and Natural Histories of a Sacred Landscape

In her beautiful introduction to your book, Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, leader of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, wrote, “Our Mother Earth is me, and I am her.” What might it take for non-Native peoples to understand and embrace this spirit of identification with, and love for, the land?

We really need a major shift in our culture, in a lot of ways. We preach individualism to the point where nobody asks for help when they desperately need it, especially men; where the idea is to cinch up your bootstraps and punch your problems into submission. We don’t really have a sense of solidarity. The reason social media does such a great job of sewing divisiveness in our culture is partly because it’s such a great tool of propaganda, as Sacha Baron Cohen said, but also because we are hardwired by our upbringing to be divisive. We don’t think of ourselves as a single community. And that’s just Step One. Step Two is to expand that sense of community beyond our political borders, to include everyone else in the world; and beyond our Judeo-Christian perceptive border, to include the animals, the plants, the air we breathe, etc. Much of Indigenous philosophy has a surprising amount in common with Buddhist and Taoist philosophy, in this regard. The idea that we’re all “one,” so to speak, and that the differences are either of no consequence or else totally illusory. We need, in short, to stop being a culture of spoiled and self-centered swine.

Matt Sutherland

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