Wednesday, September 9, 2015

From Despair to Hope at the National Book Festival

Phil Klay.jpg

Phil Klay has garnered several important awards for his collection of short stories culled from his year serving in the Marine Corps as a Public Affairs Officer in Anbar Province. "Redeployment," which I reviewed last February ( is a stunning book, a perfect marriage of an MFA from Hunter College and a year in Iraq.

I was so pleased that Klay was on the agenda at the National Book Festival but, being a great writer doesn't always translate into being a powerful presenter. I'm here to tell you, Phil Klay was electric. I'd guess that he has some acting chops in his background because when he read his stories he was as animated as the sign language interpreters who are phenomenal. It made me sorry that he isn't the narrator on the audio versions of the book.

Klay's stories ring of despair. We sit at the shoulder of a young man hoisting his rifle to shoot at a stray dog because he's angry and the dog is the only moving thing upon which he can vent that rage. Why is he this way? Because he doesn't know where he is or why he's there. He can't distinguish who is the "enemy" or even why they're the enemy. He knows that someone killed his friend and so the young man kills in return.

The chaos of war, the wasted money, the decimated bodies, the scrambled brains, are vividly portrayed, and when the author uses humor it is very dark indeed. The message seems incongruous coming from such a sunny personality. I wish that I could have stayed in my seat for the Q and A but I was racing to meet my sister in the front row of Bryan Stevenson's talk about his foundation, The Equal Justice Initiative.

Now here is a man whose life's work involves despair, yet he exudes hope from every pore. A Harvard educated lawyer, Stevenson took an internship in Georgia that changed him forever. The criminal justice system in the United States, the death penalty, mass incarceration, and incarceration of juveniles, are all in his sights and if anyone can make a change, I believe, after listening to him speak and watching the audience, that he could be the one. He received the only standing ovation of the day.

His book, "Just Mercy, A Story of Justice and Redemption," addresses this country's shameful history of accusing, trying, and sentencing to prison the most vulnerable among us, young, poor, and black. In particular, Stevenson concentrates on the story of Walter McMillian, the victim of corrupt police, judges, and lawyers, who was sentenced to death row for a murder he didn't commit.

 You might think that this kind of travesty is a thing of the past, but you'd be wrong. We Americans jail more people, proportionally, than any other country in the developed world, children, the mentally challenged, and the innocent among them. Stevenson spoke eloquently about some of his most emotional cases and few of us were dry-eyed. He was generous with his time when answering questions and signing books. Here's my sister to prove it.

Cynthia Pease's photo.

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