Jen Marlowe: Women Authoring Change

By Hedgebrook Staff

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Jen Marlowe is a writer, activist and Hedgebrook alumna. We asked her about her work as an activist and about being a Woman Authoring Change.

 

Tell us about your work as a writer—do you write in multiple genres/forms?

All of my writing is non-fiction, but within that, I do write in multiple forms. Two of my three books were other people’s stories. In The Hour of Sunlight, I partnered with Sami Al-Jundi, a former Palestinian-militant-turned-peace-activist to write his memoir. In I Am Troy Davis, I partnered with death row prisoner Troy Davis and his family to tell their story. My essays and articles, however, are typically more personal reflections on witnessing situations of oppression and marginalization. In my writing (as in life, I believe), the personal is always intertwined with the political. I have also written one play, There is a Field, which is probably most accurately described as a docu-play, in that the script was edited from primary source material, including emails, in-depth interviews and court transcripts. (There is a Field is about the political and personal journey a young Palestinian woman inside Israel takes after her 17-year old brother is murdered by Israeli police.)

 

Do you consider yourself an activist?

Absolutely. I consider myself primarily an activist, before being a writer or a filmmaker. I consider my writing and filmmaking as tools of my activism. When there is a situation that I want to respond to, and I feel that I have the capacity to respond to it, my first question is: what can I bring that would be most useful? (And often that question is answered not by me, but by the folks I am working in solidarity with.) Sometimes the answer to that question is filming, sometimes it is writing. Sometimes the most useful writing I can do in a particular situation is writing a press release, or a call to action. Sometimes what I am most needed for is straight-up organizing. I try to offer whatever would be most useful.

Speaking of writing as activism, I would like to encourage everyone reading this to participate in the I AM TROY DAVIS Community Book Club initiative. We’re calling for folks all over the country to organize book discussions with I Am Troy Davis during the months of September and October. If we are successful in having hundreds of grassroots book discussions taking place, we will have a real impact on shifting the discourse on our country’s death penalty policy and criminal justice system. Take part in the Community Book Club and be a part of that shift!

 

Would you characterize your writing as activist? Why or why not?

My writing (and filmmaking) is in the service of activism, but I don’t know if that makes it activist writing. If by activist writing, you mean writing that has the underlying goal of encouraging readers to develop a deeper commitment to working towards social justice and to human rights—then yes, I would characterize my writing as activist. However, I think the characterization as activist carries the danger of being perceived as propaganda for a cause or an agenda. And I hope that my writing/filmmaking would not be characterized as propaganda.

Also, my writing and my filmmaking seldom promote a specific “call to action.” Only rarely will you find my articles pointing to a link to a petition, or something along those lines. Though I think it can be important to offer people a simple, concrete action they can take about an issue you have just been part of exposing them to, I think there is a danger in this approach as well. For example, I was reluctant to screen my film Darfur Diaries and then giving audience members post cards to fill out to their representatives. I worried that offering this simple action made audience members feel absolved, and permitted them to leave the room patting themselves on the back for having done their share to stop genocide—rather than leaving the room grappling with the uncomfortable questions of how they may be part of a system and structure of power and privilege that underlies many of the atrocities we are seeing in the world today. My hope is that my work is part of pushing people towards those underlying questions.

 

What impact do you hope your writing will have in the world?

In July, I gave a book reading for I Am Troy Davis in Seattle. There was no way I could launch into my usual discussion about Troy’s story and the death penalty without acknowledging the carnage that was currently taking place in Gaza. At the start of the book talk (which was a joint talk with the poet Diane Raptosh), I said that I thought it was critical to explore the connections between Gaza and the death penalty. At one level, the connection is that our country, which incarcerates the largest percentage of its population than any other country in the world, is also funding and supporting a policy that is keeping 1.8 million people in Gaza encaged in the largest open-air prison in the world. On another level, it has to do with dehumanization. If those locked away in our prisons were not so thoroughly dehumanized, we could not be comfortable with a system that orchestrates the intricately, highly scripted state-sanctions murders that is this country’s death penalty. If those human beings imprisoned in Gaza were not so thoroughly dehumanized, we could not be comfortable with our role in supporting a military that is responsible for massacring entire families, and calling it self-defense.

At the most fundamental level, I hope my writing is a part of resisting that dehumanization. I believe is not possible to walk away from reading I Am Troy Davis and The Hour of Sunlight without having deep compassion for the very real humanity of Troy and the Davis family, and Sami Al-Jundi and his family and friends. And it is only when there is true recognition of the equal humanity and equal value of lives—whether of Israeli and Palestinian lives, or African American and Caucasian lives—that is there hope that we will begin to dismantle the structures of power and privilege that exist today and replace them with structures that lead to true equality, justice, and dignity.

 

What’s the best feedback you’ve received from a reader?

Do I get to count a blurb from Maya Angelou as among the best feedback I’ve received from a reader? She said, about I Am Troy Davis, “Here is a shout for human rights and for the abolition of the death penalty. This book, I Am Troy Davis, should be read and cherished. It will inspire courage in the heart of those who are willing to use their efforts to save lives and increase the quality of life for all people.”

I was pretty psyched about that feedback!!

But as far as feedback from folks who have not yet reached the status of icons…

Someone once characterized my writing as “radical empathy.” By “radical empathy” she meant that I never soften or shy away from my political analysis—but at the same time, my writing conveys empathy for all the human beings who are impacted by a particular crisis. In the context of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict—this would mean that, though I am very clear in my analysis that the core of the conflict is the Israeli occupation, including the siege on Gaza—I also insist on holding Israeli civilians in my concern. Recently, a 4-year old Israeli boy named Daniel was killed by mortar fire coming from Gaza, the only Israeli child- victim in the 6-week period of hostilities. While it is true that 500 Palestinian children were killed during that same time-period, and the value of each one of those children’s life must be insisted upon—the lost Palestinian children must not be used to minimize or dismiss the tragedy of the killing of this Israeli boy. Daniel deserved to live. He deserved a future. He deserved to learn how to read and to make new friends and to play and to grow. He deserved to have his mother and father tuck him safely into bed at night. As did every one of the 500 Palestinian children who were killed.

This insistence on the equal value of human lives—all human lives—along with an insistence on exposing the oppressive systems that puts these human lives at risk—is what this reader meant by “radical empathy.” And it’s my favorite description of my work!

 

 

About Jen Marlowe:

Jen Marlowe is an award-winning documentary filmmaker, author, playwright and human rights activist. Through film, writing, theatre and other artistic platforms, Jen seeks to share the resilience and courage of those who have been marginalized and oppressed and are choosing resistance with nonviolence, humanity and dignity.

From Sudan, where she made the films Darfur Diaries and Rebuilding Hope to Palestine/Israel, where she made the film One Family in Gaza and wrote the book The Hour of Sunlight, to the Kingdom of Bahrain, where she documented the Arab Spring, to death row here in the United States, where she worked to prevent the execution of Troy Davis, an innocent man executed by the state of Georgia, Jen brings us film footage and stories of heroic individuals she has met in some of the most devastated places on earth, and shares their struggle to be heard.

 


 

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Hedgebrook supports visionary women writers whose stories and ideas shape our culture now and for generations to come. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily representative of the opinions of Hedgebrook, its staff or board members.

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