The acclaimed author and New Yorker staffer's small, salon-style reading last night on the North Side completed a nice thematic package. Packer visited Pittsburgh courtesy of his friendship with Khet Mar, the exiled Burmese author who's City of Asylum/Pittsburgh's current guest. And he read from "Drowning," the August 2008 New Yorker article that described how he and Khet Mar met: He traveled with her while she was doing volunteer relief work just after the devastating cyclone there.
"Drowning" is one of two dozen long articles dating from 2001 to 2008 and revised for inclusion in Packer's new book, Interesting Times: Writings from a Turbulent Decade (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Other pieces (written for several publications besides The New Yorker) include "Betrayed," about Iraqi interpreters, and "The Hardest Choice," exploring how the 2008 presidential campaign was playing out in Appalachia.
Broadly, the book is about how regular people affect -- or more likely, feel the fallout from -- nationally and internationally significant events and movements. At the reading, held at the home of City of Asylum founders Henry Reese and Diane Samuels, Packer said his journalistic method amounts to finding "the ordinary within the extraordinary and the extraordinary within the ordinary."
No one embodies this better than Khet Mar, who spent part of her young adulthood in prison as a dissident, and who appears in "Drowning" under the pseudonym Hnin Se.
Packer encountered her as she was working in May 2008 to feed and shelter victims of the recent cyclone, which killed 140,000. The article's main theme, however, was the military men whom Packer says constitute the "criminally negligent" Burmese government. He calls them a "terrible junta ... one of the world's three or four worst governments."
That government -- infamous for its continual recurring imprisonment of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi -- had been the target of a widely reported September 2007 uprising led by Buddhist monks. Less than a year later, in the cyclone's wake, the government did worse than leaving their people to fend for themselves: Packer documents soldiers explicitly preventing volunteers like Khet Mar from feeding victims.
Yet, Packer told the reading's audience of about 60, "In every country I've written about there is a Khet Mar, who in the worst of circumstances [is] holding onto this frame, which is literature, which is truth, which is the cause of human rights and democracy, in their own modest way."
The cause of democracy in Burma is a difficult one. President Obama, Packer said, has switched course from the Bush years by attempting to engage Burma, rather than punish it with sanctions, while still avoiding support of the government. Packer said this route is made more difficult by Obama's failure thus far to pick up the mantle of human-rights defender that Bush dropped. In Afghanistan as well, Packer fears, Obama is seeming more and more "a cool calculator of American interests" rather than the idealist some hoped he was.
Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh, where Khet Mar is living with her two sons, things are going better. Thanks to City of Asylum, she told me, she can write without fear, and she's been giving public readings.
I bought Packer's book, which he signed. Then I got Khet Mar to sign it, too.