Sunday, March 4, 2012

Interview with Pamela J. Olson @PamelaJOlson

The Digital Ink Spot interviewed author of Fast Times in Palestine, Pamela J. Olsen. Olson is a Stanford physics graduate from small town Oklahoma who worked as a journalist in Palestine for a year and a half and served as the foreign press coordinator for a Palestinian presidential candidate in 2005. Her writing has appeared in The Stanford Magazine, The International Herald Tribune, and the Encyclopedia of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. You can find Pamela at pamolson.org.

The Digital Ink Spot: With a title that starts off with the words "Fast Times" I quickly think of the movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High. But you book is about Palestine. Not my idea of a comedic place. Did you find humor while you were there?
Pamela J. Olson: Absolutely! The first thing that strikes people when they visit Palestine is all the trappings of military occupation. But once they get inside, once they're deep in a Palestinian area, the next shock -- and for me, at least, it was almost a bigger shock -- is how kind and welcoming the Palestinians are, despite the situation, and their wicked sense of humor. It shouldn't be such a shock, I guess. They're human beings, and most humans have a sense of humor (with the exception, possibly, of the Swiss). They make fun of their own politicians, they make fun of Western politicians, they make fun of themselves, and they makes jokes about the ironies and absurdities of their situation. There's a lot of dark humor as a kind of coping mechanism, and my book is full of it. As for the title, I thought of it before I saw the film, and I liked the resonance of it and the fact that the title alone challenges many people's conception of Palestine. It's an early warning that reading the book will challege it even more. It fits, too, because with work, travel, tour guiding, olive harvesting, spending time with a secret love interest, and visiting various places for Muslim, Christian, and Jewish holidays, "fast times" is an understatement!

The Digital Ink Spot:  Is it scary to be an American Woman in the Middle East?
Pamela J. Olson: When I first landed in Cairo, all by myself, I was not only scared out of my mind, I was painfully ignorant and ill-prepared. I was wearing a tank top, for heaven's sake. Showing shoulder in public in Egypt is kind of like walking around with a bare midriff in New York City. It's just not done. But people were incredibly kind and patient with me as I slowly figured things out, and I generally felt not only safe but welcomed everywhere I went. Of course, sometimes young men would make little catcalls or try lame pick-up lines, but when that was the dynamic, I just pretended they were squawking pigeons and ignored them. For the most part people were very gracious, and it felt as safe as anywhere else I've traveled. Conflict zones are another matter, but even in Palestine I only had a few brushes with death, and all of them involved Israeli soldiers in Palestinian areas who didn't realize I was American.

The Digital Ink Spot: What do you want readers to take away from your book?
Pamela J. Olson: To quote from my book, "I’d always hazily pictured the Middle East as a vast desert full of cave-dwelling, Kalashnikov-wielding, misogynistic, bearded maniacs, and I figured anyone without an armored convoy and a PhD in Middle Eastern studies should probably stay out of it." But I took a chance on it, because every other place I'd traveled -- Russia, China, Croatia -- showed me that the world was more kind and familiar, and less scary and inscrutable, than I had been led to believe. The Middle East was kind of the last frontier because it's so thoroughly demonized and misunderstood in America. Now that I've gotten to know it, it's one of my favorite places on earth to spend time. It's difficult to explain why in a short interview -- that's a big part of why I felt I needed to write a book. But despite all the horrible things I saw, and how naturally cynical and skeptical I am, my time in Palestine actually had a huge positive impact on my faith in human nature. I hope the book gets that across, if nothing else.

The Digital Ink Spot: If you could magically transport to any place on Earth, Where would you go?
Pamela J. Olson: If I could do it right now, I'd visit two college friends who live on a farm in Argentina and just had a gorgeous baby girl. If I could regularly transport myself to any place on Earth... That's tough. I love the mountains of Switzerland in summer (who needs a sense of humor when you live in Narnia?) and the beach in San Sebastian, Spain, and of course Palestine during the olive harvest. But if I had to pick one place, it would probably be the Sinai in Egypt. I write about it in the book. It's absolutely magical -- a place to recharge and drink in pure naked grandeur.

The Digital Ink Spot: What can readers expect from you this year?
Pamela J. Olson: Half a ton of carbon dioxide, give or take. (Sorry, I used to be a physics major.) I'm working on a sequel to Fast Times, tentatively titled Palestine, DC, about my time working at a think tank in Washington after I came back from Palestine, trying to "change Washington from the inside," or at least learn about why some of its policies are so (pardon my French) bat-poo insane. I did a lot of learning, not so much changing. As Upton Sinclair said, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it." I'm also working on my first novel, The Bracelet: A Novel of Freedom. But it's still in that nebulous first trimester stage where I'm too scared and superstitious to talk about it, in case it somehow disappears. If all goes well, I hope to publish it early next year.



You can find Pamela at her website pamolson.org and on Twitter @PamelaJOlson.  She blogs at FastTimesinPalestine.com