William Joiner Institute Under Siege

Extra! Extra!!  David vs Goliath!!!

In 1995, when reading my paperback copy of The Sorrow of War, by the North Vietnamese veteran and novelist Bao Ninh, I would fall into a trance, feel as if I were floating above my bed. What was happening, I did not know. Several months later, traveling in Southeast Asia, I invented excuses to not locate Ninh.

Once home in New York I purchased the book in hardback; at the sight of Ninh’s dust jacket photo I saw again the faces of enemy soldiers my platoon had hunted down, and who’d hunted us. That night I dreamt my platoon was trapped, out of ammo, trying desperately to escape.

In the winter of 1998  I sent Bao Ninh a hard copy letter. Two months later I received his reply: “On the occasion of Christmas and the New Year, I am very glad to send you our warmest regard from Vietnam. I wish you and your family a new year full of happiness. I hope we will soon meet each other in Hanoi.”

Two years later, I decided to attend the annual William Joiner Institute Writer’s Workshop, located at U Mass Boston. On the first day, while seated in a packed auditorium, forty meters to my right, I noticed five Vietnamese men waiting to be introduced to the audience. Their remarks concluded, single file, they headed back to the exit at the rear of the room. Instantly I jumped up, and pushed past a gauntlet of outstretched legs.

“Excuse me…excuse me…” I said, following my target.  “Bao Ninh!” I stammered as he neared the door.

Ninh turned round. The puzzled look on his face said, “Who has called me? Which of the American’s knows my name?”

From five meters we locked eyes.

“Moc Leby! Moc Leby,” he shouted, when I told him my name.

We rushed to each others open arms. Ninh pulled me close, clapped my back once, twice three times, as if I were a long lost friend. Overcome by deep feelings, I sobbed uncontrollably.  Ninh took my hand, lead me away.

“No…I’m all right.” I said, still sobbing.

A tall graceful woman drew near. Later, I learned that during the war, Lady Borton had provided medical aid to both sides. A noted translator and writer, she had accompanied the Vietnamese delegation from Hanoi. Through her, Ninh and I spoke excitedly. Then Ninh said he had to leave. We could meet tomorrow at noon.

“Yes…thank you,” I managed to say.

The next day, under a grove of trees overlooking Boston Harbor, we spoke for three hours.

That night, a recurring nightmare: the invisible spirit grabs my feet. Yanks them straight up. I can’t move. I scream and struggle. Waking, I’m overcome with dread. But this time, this night, I fight back. Defeat the demon. This time, waking, I’m calm, free, nearly euphoric.

Over the years I’ve attended a half dozen Joiner Institute Writer’s Workshops. This is where I learned to write. With other vets and civilians, I’ve studied with novelists Tim O’Brien and Larry Heinemann, with distinguished poets Bruce Wiegl, Fred Marchant, and Martha Collins. The latter four are my friends, and I have benefitted from their friendship and writing expertise. As have many Joiner Institute writer’s workshop participants. Meeting Bao Ninh was pure chance. It might not have happened without the Joiner Institute.

Writers and activist folk who have appeared at Joiner workshops or forums include: Oliver Stone, Carolyn Forche, Brian Turner, Aafa Michael Weaver, Maxine Hong Kingston, Lloyd Schwartz, Yusef Komunyakaa, Daisy Zamora, George Evans, Gloria Emerson, Nguyen Ba Chung, Grace Paley, Wayne Karlin, Paul Atwood, Martin Espada, Bill Erhart, Macdara Woods, Demetria Martinez, Andrew Bacevich, and Sam Hamill. To name a few. 

Throughout the year, for over thirty years, the Joiner Institute promotes research, curriculum development, events, and educational, cultural, and humanitarian exchanges which address the consequences of war. By serving veterans, family members of veterans, war refugees and all victims of war, Joiner aims to create a public space where the issues of war and their human, social, political, and environmental consequences can be openly discussed, debated, and analyzed.

But all this may soon change. To increase its revenue, U Mass Boston top brass, applying a business model which values profits over people, has slashed Joiner’s budget to the bone. Joiner may not survive. This is textbook David versus Goliath: Joiner is an irreplaceable gem. U Mass Boston, in its hardheaded mercantile wisdom, hopes to squash Joiner bug-like for the sake of cold hard cash. I ask you: is shutting out voices that witness for peace the way to run a university?

Following the devastating news, Joiner staff morale plummeted. Then rallied. With former and current Joiner director’s Kevin Bowen and Tom Kane leading the way, the response has been swift. An online petition. Outreach to persons of prominence. But more voices are needed to compel U Mass Boston to fully restore Joiner’s funding.

CounterPunchers, the Joiner Institute needs your help. Sign the petition. Donate funds. Because sometimes you have to take names and kick ass to give peace a chance.

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Marc Levy was an infantry medic with the First Cavalry Division in Vietnam and Cambodia in 1970. He won the 2016 Syracuse University Institute for Veterans and Military Families Writing Prize. His books are How Stevie Nearly Lost the War and Other Postwar Stories, and Dreams, Vietnam. His website is Medic in the Green Time. Email: silverspartan@gmail.com

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