Veterans Writing Group Fundraiser Sunday

By Ken Bullock
Friday January 11, 2008

Author Maxine Hong Kingston, an Oakland resident and UC Berkeley teacher, will appear with members of the Veterans Writing Group she helped found in 1993 on Sunday at the Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists as a benefit reading for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. 

Kingston, whose brothers served in Vietnam, will be just one of the readers who’s not a combat veteran. Other peace activists who belong to the workshop will join war veterans to read jointly. Some, like Sean McLain Brown, a Desert Storm vet, are represented in the anthology Kingston edited, VETERANS OF WAR, VETERANS of peace, which brings together the work of 80 writers on war and peace.  

“I hope people will stop and figure out just what the title means,” said Kingston.  

“Peace activists have often used the expression ‘Fighting for Peace,’” Kingston noted. “And people have, at first, thought of veterans as all men. But women have come forward, some of them civilians—Red Cross workers, Quakers, even CIA—who served in Vietnam in various roles, taking on the name of veteran, whether or not in uniform. That definition changed as we struggled along, working together through the years. And though some of the combat veterans weren’t in favor at first of nonmilitary members joining the group, after awhile they recognized, acknowledged ‘Yes, you’re a veteran, too. People who have been to war—and the war at home—we can call it that.’ And many combat veterans have become peace activists.” 

“At the beginning, when the group began, I felt anxious that I was not a veteran,” Kingston continued, “Who am I to talk to these people, try to teach them anything? But I kept my belief in the power of literature, of art to bring people home from war.” 

One peace activist who will read is Lee Swenson of Berkeley, head of the Institute of Natural and Cultural Resources, and former director of the Institute for the Study of Non-Violence, cofounded by David Harris and Joan Baez.  

“I have a couple of different stories in the book,” Swenson said, “One about choosing to write to friends in prison during the Vietnam war, draft resisters like Randy Keeler, a friend of David Harris, telling them what’s going on outside while they were in prison.” 

“Maxine’s been wonderful,” Swenson recalled. “We traveled the length of Vietnam together, 10 years ago as part of a veterans’ group. The William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences in Boston invited us. It’s named after its founder, a young black fellow who loaded Agent Orange onto defoliant planes on Guam, and later died of cancer.” 

Swenson went on: “The writing group used to meet every month. Now it’s four times a year. It’s helped get people’s heads together. Some have been really transformed.” 

“I was teaching at UC when the group was founded,” said Kingston, “But it  

wasn’t sponsored by the university—not by the government nor private corporations. I care so much about our group being independent. The National Endowment for the Arts is now sponsoring writing workshops for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. I wonder about the efficacy of government-sponsored groups using some of the same writing techniques to get stories out just as people are coming home. Some of the veterans I’m working with have put a decade and a half into thinking about it. It’s different when it’s mulled over.” 

“This work we’re doing is reverberating all over the place,” Kingston concluded. “The L.A. Public Library has started a group like ours. In Canada there are workshops for deserters of the current wars. I just came back from New York, where I read in a bookstore and met young Iraq War vets who wanted to start a group right away, coming back. They’re so young and energetic. They already have two chapbooks out. They made rags of their uniforms for the paper. They turned their uniforms into paper for books!” 

The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom was founded at the time of the First World War. For more information see www.wilph.org.