“There are so many more important things to worry about than how you're perceived by strangers.”
― Dennis Lehane
― Dennis Lehane
I have some sad news, due to a personal decision I had to take [several weeks ago] and one that makes me very sad - but first let me share something that made me very happy this weekend, during this year’s Theakston’s Crime-Writing Festival [hosted in the wonderful city of Harrogate in England].
Some know of my early championing of the writing of Dennis Lehane back in the 1990s. I recall vividly the attention his 1994 debut A Drink Before the War gathered including winning the Private Eye Writers of America [PWA] Shamus Award for best PI Debut. But it wouldn’t be until his second novel landed on my desk Darkness Take My Hand that I realised that a writer of considerable power had arrived.
Incidentally his British Publishers at the time Bantam / Transworld used the ‘as good as Thomas Harris or your money back’ line as a marketing tool which first attracted my attention to Darkness Take My Hand.
Incidentally, I spoke to Lehane about this remarkable sophomore work, as well as the significance of titles in general a few years ago –
Ali I heard one of your earlier novels Darkness, Take My Hand was originally titled Cold, Cold Heart but you changed it because of a novel with the same title by James Elliott [a pen name of J.C. Pollock]. Have you had other changes of title?
Dennis Yes, well spotted. I’ve had a few title changes, for instance Shutter Island I was originally going to title The Barrens, then I found out that Joyce Carol Oates had a book out with the same title. The Given Day was originally going to be A Country at Dawn, but I decided that title sounded a little pretentious, however I discovered that The Given Day has been published in several countries under that title, such as France; my French publishers liked that title.
Read More Here
During that time, I devoured his work finding merit especially in Gone, Baby, Gone; Prayers for Rain and Mystic River; Shutter Island - for they provoked deep thought, as they told their exciting stories examining morality and acting as mirrors to view our own thinking; our own value systems. My enthusiasm for Lehane’s Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro PI series was very high so I used to write to Dennis via his wonderful literary agent Ann Rittenberg who kindly passed my letters to him [as did Morton Janklow earlier when I used to correspond with Thomas Harris]. Dennis kindly signed bookplates for me as I would buy many paperbacks of his work, and glue the signed bookplates inside [to motivate reading] and pass them to friends, family and colleagues as gifts – as I love sharing work that moved me, and wanted to spread the word, supporting the best of the best.
Dennis Lehane was a writer that helped me get through some interesting periods of my life. The Irish Catholic backdrop of Boston mirrored my own experiences in Dublin, as my family has links to Southern Ireland, so I felt some resonance in his work.
Years later, work such as Mystic River, Shutter Island, The Given Day would spark my cognition and that of many other literary commentators, with the moral dilemmas that their denouements presented the reader as part of the narrative journey unfolding and challenging the reader’s value system.
I felt the same feelings toward his latest work Since We Fell when I read this interesting novel, for it promoted deep thinking and it also challenged my own liberal value system -
There are sections of writing in Since We Fell that stop you in your tracks; make you contemplate your own life and situation and that of others, for Lehane’s narrative is peppered with insight and questions. There is humour but it is cloaked over the veils that cover the characters.
Read my full review HERE
Dennis was over as one of the Guests of Theakstons Crime-Writing Festival, during which he was in conversation with Mark Lawson. Though it would be the opening comments that Dennis made to the packed audience that made me realise that not only is he one of my favourite writers of literary thrillers, but also that he is a very decent human being, and one brave enough to speak his mind, articulate what some of us feel about the new American political regime, under Donald Trump.
Mark Lawson after introducing Dennis Lehane to the Harrogate crowd, opened his questioning with “so as an American, let’s get the obligatory Donald Trump question out of the way – so Dennis, what are your thoughts about Donald Trump as US President?”
Dennis laughed, and made his feelings clear about Trump and his cabal who reside in Washington. He added that he feels most sadness [and I quote] at what the people with Brown Skins are currently experiencing thanks to what Trump and his people are doing. There was much clapping by the audience at Lehane’s candid response, which later would touch upon many aspects of what Trump, Bannon and the so-called ‘alt-right’ have whipped up in terms of making some feel free to be unpleasant to others - who do not have white skin.
He said though he knows that America will survive this period, as he believes in the principles that the country stands for, and despite all the flaws – America will survive Trump.
Later that night I chatted with Dennis privately, and thanked him deeply for being a brave man, and standing up for some of us who feel anxiety with Trump and his supporters feeling they have been issued a mandate to be hateful to others. I know many writers who avoid mentioning their feelings about Trump publically, for fear of alienating their readership, as many people voted for Trump, and may secretly agree with some parts of what he stands up for.
“Bring Back Coal” – yeah, right. We are indeed in a strange time.
But not Dennis Lehane – he is fearless for in a packed room, he spoke up for the underdog. In a crowd that looked close to a Thousand [or maybe more] there were less than a handful who wore Brown Skin, like me, but he spoke up for us. There are other writers who share via social media the propaganda from Breitbart, FOX and other right wing ‘news’ outlets, throwing in epithets to stir up fear and hate - and I know some privately share the same views as Trump [….I’m not a racist, but……].
In a democracy, freedom of speech is something I applaud; but enjoy it while you can for Trump is an Oligarch, not one who celebrates the democratic process and will attempt to dismantle it, like he is trying to destroy healthcare for millions.
I realised after Harrogate, that not only is Dennis Lehane one of my favourite writers, but he’s also a very good man – for as Anglo-Irishman Edmund Burke once said –
The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.
Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.
So I come full circle.
Following the magnificent Theakstons Crime-Writing Festival, many were asking me in person [as well as on social media] “so excited for Bouchercon Toronto and planning to meet-up” – for which I smiled, though I have told only a few people that I will not be attending. It took a long time to make this difficult decision – namely to not traverse the North Atlantic for the foreseeable future.
I know a great number of people, so am sad at missing Toronto Bouchercon and this decision was one that I did not take lightly.
This is very sad for me, as I studied in North America and loved the country despite all its imperfections as it struggles to live up to its ideals; but now my love affair with North America is on hold. My decision is not related to religious issues as I am a fervent atheist, but it is all to do with the issues I have endured over the years at American Airports which my various friends and travel companions have witnessed. I have always remained good natured, laughed off indignity with the people who have jobs to do, but knowing that some appear to enjoy some aspects of their roles a little too avidly.
I totally understand the serious need for enhanced security at places of mass transit, especially commercial passenger aircraft, but when enhanced background checks are available, each and every time I wish to cross the Atlantic Ocean, I get additional attention and experience unpleasantness.
I have put up with the casual as well as not so casual racism [including physical violence] since childhood, and usually get over unpleasantness retaining my dignity and moving on and not dwelling on the hatred in the eyes of some.
But no longer, because some people who share this reality feel that now we’re in the era of Trump and Brexit [“we got our country back”; yeah, right], there are some that feel they have a mandate to be hateful to people who are not White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant. There have been cases at Airports, words and actions I have witnessed that have made me come to this difficult decision. I’ve seen people pulled off flights, detained or held for questioning because of something ‘others’ may have said.
During the flight, when you have brown-skin you feel self-conscious going to the toilet, or when you need to get another book from the overhead locker – you see people’s faces, and their eyes tell you much, and then there’s the overt unpleasantness, spoken just loud enough so that the speaker ensures you’re within earshot to hear the comment.
I used to laugh it off, and smile ignoring the hostiles and ignorant among the crowd.
At my age now, I am not prepared to put myself in a position where the opinion of a random stranger can embarrass or hurt me, or result in me missing a flight or result in detention while ‘we check things out’ - because as Dennis Lehane once said “There are so many more important things to worry about than how you're perceived by strangers.”
The level of ignorance I see around me is baffling as the ranks of the under-educated and manipulated grows. I don’t wish to embarrass or put my travel companions in an awkward position – when they see what’s going on as I get pulled from the queue, or what to say when they hear an unpleasant epithet uttered with the brown skinned bloke within earshot. Many times my travel companions have waited for me at the airport, as I have been detained, my luggage swabbed and much else on both entry to the US, as well as returning to the UK, or overheard the unkind words from some, as well as feeling self-conscious on the flights.
The most unpleasant was an episode at Baltimore Airport in 2008 on my return to London that was witnessed by my travel companion at the time Roger Ellory; and which I wish not to detail here as dignity is a keyword to me. Some close friends know the tale, which I highlighted the absurd and amusing aspects – to hide the fear of what could have resulted.
I totally understand today’s need for robust security, and as I am no longer prepared to go through this again; it posed a huge dilemma for me. I am a Board Member of Bouchercon, and have been since election in Long Beach in 2014 and I enjoy the relationship with my colleagues on the Board who are all very decent, hardworking people, all supporting the genre on a pro-bono basis as Bouchercon is a non-profit fan organization.
We all pay our own way.
So I have decided to cease transatlantic travel for the foreseeable future, despite the video-conference calls – I do not feel I could fulfill my obligations to the Board by not attending annual Bouchercons as I have done for some time now.
So last month with a sad heart I composed my letter of resignation to David Magayna, Chair of the Bouchercon Board, as well asking him to share my letter with the wider Board. I passed personal apologies to Janet Costello and Helen Nelson the co-chairs for Bouchercon Toronto 2017 as I had paid my registration [and I know this year the event is being held in Canada not America] – however I have decided for the foreseeable future I would not be taking North-Atlantic journeys.
The personal messages I have received from my colleagues on the Bouchercon Board since my resignation have moved me; including some that brought me to tears as I feel sorrow at not being with the team – But they all know where I am, and my helpful nature should any of them need any help from me in the future.
Please understand, I am not being a prima-donna ballerina; I totally get the need for robust security at Airports - but at my age, I am not prepared to put myself though the hell of mass-transit when as a brown-skinned person, I’m open to be vilified by the ignorant around me – as there is an agenda out there, and some of us do not feel welcome; because I do not require validation by strangers, as I like to ensure my own dignity is maintained.
So from now on my travel will be restricted to Europe, for when it comes to visiting North America, I’m “Gone, Baby, Gone” to quote Dennis Lehane, an insightful and elegant writer, but also a very decent person.
And I have a family who worry about me, then a deadline on a current novel project to complete by October, books to read and evaluate from other writers & publishers, as well as comment upon; because for every Dickie Greenleaf, there is a Tom Ripley in the shadow.
I only wrote this as I know so many folk who attend Bouchercon annually, and who I enjoy meeting up with, and I wished to explain why I won’t be coming to Canada this fall / autumn.
27 / 7 [July] / 2017
Gone, Baby, Gone