Earlier this week, Erika Dreifus, the author of Quiet Americans, wrote about the inspiration for her book and Jewish-American Literature as Multicultural Literature. Check back all week for her posts on the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog.
The online literary world has been atwitter (please pardon the pun!) about the changes—some are calling it censorship—that appear in a new edition that presents “updated” versions of Mark Twain’s classic novels, Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The change that has attracted the most discussion is the new book’s replacement of the word “nigger” with “slave”; a second modification is the substitution of “Indian” for “injun.” (For general summaries, I’ll point you to news items from The New York Times and Publishers Weekly; for a sample of some of the commentaries, I recommend an AOL News column by Tayari Jones, a blog post by The Christian Science Monitor‘s Marjorie Kehe, and the multiple contributions featured within the NYT Room for Debate forum.)
I’ve followed the flurry of articles and commentaries with interest for many reasons. But here, I want to focus on one. It is both personal and professional, and it involves “Mishpocha,” the concluding story in my new collection of short fiction, Quiet Americans.
In “Mishpocha,” protagonist David Kaufmann, a son of Holocaust survivors, recalls an incident:
It had happened a few years earlier, when [he and his wife] had been visiting [their daughter] at school and spent an extra day and night in Boston on their own, and as they’d walked down a relatively quiet yet decidedly urban street after dinner, a group of teenagers—teenagers whom he’d instantly imagined must cause nightmares for their parents, tattooed teenagers with heads shaven and clothing ripped—strode up alongside them, their ringleader chanting, “KILL THE KIKES, KILL THE NIGGERS, KILL THE FAGS.” And David had seen his wife’s head turn toward them in outrage; he knew that in about one second she would open her mouth with the confidence of a woman with bloodlines rooted in the land of the free and the home of the brave, and so he’d yanked her arm—hard, harder maybe than he’d really had to—because what you learned from immigrant-survivor parents like his was that it was better to be quiet, better not to give crazy people any reason to get any crazier.
Many opponents to the changes to Twain’s work have argued that the word substitutions distort the historical record. As a nervous debut author in an era when using certain words can destroy a career, I draw encouragement from that stance. Because, despite the fact that fiction writers are often instructed not to counter criticisms of their work with the protest that “it really happened that way!”, I will say this about the fictional incident in “Mishpocha“: It really happened that way.
Not to David Kaufmann, of course. To me. And not in the 1880s. During the 21st century. And it happened in one of the most politically progressive communities in the United States: Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Recall, from yesterday’s post, that I am a granddaughter of German Jews who immigrated to the United States in the late 1930s. There’s little doubt that just as this family background has permeated my writing, it has influenced my personality and worldview. Which helps explain why, when those teenagers strode up beside me, and their ringleader recited that awful litany, I, an educated grown-up in her thirties, said nothing. Not one word.
Shortly thereafter (but still about two years before I began writing “Mishpocha“), I received a scholarship and traveled to Prague for a writing workshop. At some point—I no longer recall what prompted the discussion—I mentioned this deeply disturbing incident in class. My classmates, whose backgrounds reflected at least two and quite possibly all three of the groups targeted in the list of epithets, were outraged. But some of them seemed almost as upset with me—for having remained silent—as they were with the person who had uttered the words in the first place.
Absolution came from our remarkable workshop leader: Arnošt Lustig. He listened to me, and he listened to my classmates. And then, this man—who survived Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, and Buchenwald—said that yes, one must fight back. But, he said, one must also live. (I cannot mention Arnošt Lustig without recommending his extraordinary novel, translated as Lovely Green Eyes, which I read in Prague that summer. I treasure my autographed copy.)
Six of my collection’s seven stories have been published previously. Only “Mishpocha” is appearing for the first time, which means that no magazine or journal editors (or paying readers) have yet bothered to take issue with my choice to repeat the same terrible words on the page that I heard on the street. My publisher raised no objections, so to some extent, I had stopped worrying about how this element of the story might be received, and how I might respond to any criticisms it might evoke.
Until now. I harbor no illusions: I’m no Mark Twain, protected partially by virtue of my historical reputation. I’m just a debut author with a book of short stories published by a brand-new press hardly anyone has heard of. But I hope that the support that Twain is receiving now from those who, for a variety or reasons, don’t want to see his writing expurgated will extend to my work, and to me.
Yesterday, Erika Dreifus, the author of Quiet Americans, wrote about Jewish-American Literature as Multicultural Literature. Check back all week for her posts on the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog.
Today is a special day: It’s the official “pub date” for my debut short-story collection, Quiet Americans, which is being released by Last Light Studio, a new, Boston-based micropress.
It is also a special day on an even more personal level: It is the 70th anniversary of the date on which my paternal grandparents, Ruth and Sam Dreifus, German Jews who immigrated to the United States in the late 1930s and met here in Manhattan, were married.
In this wedding photograph, my grandparents are pictured front and center, cutting their cake. Although I can’t help being struck, as I always am when I look at this photo, by the many absences—of parents and siblings, aunts and uncles—and by the evidence that my grandmother had no money to spare for a traditional wedding dress (the fancy cake might have been a benefit of my grandfather’s job as a baker), I’m equally moved by the presence of family and friends celebrating with the bridal couple. For my grandparents were, indeed, surrounded by family and friends, including Rabbi Herbert Parzen, who officiated that January day in 1941 and performed my parents’ wedding ceremony 25 years later as well.
Rabbi Parzen (second from the left, standing next to the bride) was family and friend: His wife, Sylvia (front row, second from the right, beside the groom), was a cousin of my grandmother’s. As an American, Aunt Sylvia, as my sister and I called her, helped facilitate my grandmother’s immigration to the United States in 1938, just months before the Kristallnacht. It was in New York that my grandmother found her groom, who had emigrated from Germany the previous year.
In fact, my grandparents met through another émigré present in this photograph: my great-uncle Berthold (“Bob,” seen in profile on the far left). My grandmother had become friends with Bob, and when she went to his boarding-house to pay him a get-well visit while he was recovering from pneumonia, my grandfather—Bob’s older brother—was there, too.
Without the people you see in this photograph, then, many lives would have been dramatically altered, and some (mine included) would not have come to be. Without them, there would be no book, either, because Quiet Americans is inspired so profoundly by the stories that have come to me from my father’s family, and by my preoccupations with the historical legacy I have inherited as a granddaughter of two Jews who were lucky enough to escape Europe in time, and marry in New York City seventy years ago today.Check back all week for more posts from Erika Dreifus.
Early next month, four other writers—Andrew Furman, Kevin Haworth, Margot Singer, and Anna Solomon—and I will gather in a conference room for a panel titled “Beyond Bagels & Lox: Jewish-American Fiction in the 21st Century.” (Hopefully, some semblance of a critical mass of an audience will be there as well.)
This session is just one among a dizzying array of offerings organized by the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) for its annual conference. If you aren’t familiar with AWP, you may find this description from Executive Director David Fenza to be helpful:
The mission of The Association of Writers & Writing Programs is to foster literary talent and achievement, to advance the art of writing as essential to a good education, and to serve the makers, teachers, students, and readers of contemporary writing.
More than any other literary organization, AWP has helped North America to develop a literature as diverse as the continent’s peoples. This, of course, is also a boast for the democratic virtues of higher education in North America and the many public universities that comprise AWP. AWP’s members have provided literary education to students and aspiring writers from all backgrounds, economic classes, races, and ethnic origins.
True to this mission, the conference travels around North America. We’ll gather in D.C. this winter; next year, the conference returns to Chicago. After that, Boston, Seattle, and Minneapolis will play conference host.
I hesitate to speak for my co-panelists, but it’s probably safe to say that we’re all very pleased to be part of this year’s conference program. Since we’re hoping to run our panel on something akin to a roundtable model, we won’t be reading individual papers serially (as is often the case at academic/scholarly conferences). Rather, we are aiming to offer a lively discussion—among ourselves and with the audience—in line with what our official description in the conference program promises:
Jewish-American fiction has long been seen as a literature of emigration from the shtetl, assimilationist angst, and overprotective parents. But what’s nu? How do Americans born decades after the Holocaust and the birth of the State of Israel deal with those complex subjects in fiction? Who are the “new” Jewish immigrant characters? How does American Jewry’s more than 350-year history inspire plot/setting? And how are writers today influenced by Judaism’s rich multilingual and spiritual legacy?
When we submitted our panel proposal last spring, we were also required to share a brief “statement of merit” for the conference organizers to consider. Here is what we wrote:
Although many Jewish-American writers participated in the 2010 AWP conference, not one panel session was devoted specifically to Jewish-American writing—in any genre. Our panel not only enriches the conference’s already distinctive multicultural character, but also surveys the variety within contemporary Jewish-American fiction, offering support, inspiration, and resources for attending writers whose work addresses material similar to that reflected in the panelists’ publications.
If you peruse this year’s schedule, you’ll see that the AWP conference indeed possesses a wonderfully multicultural character. You may even notice that “Beyond Bagels & Lox” is not the only panel featuring Jewish-American writers or writing. And I suspect that those other sessions, like ours, will demonstrate diversity within themselves, too. For, as our literature teaches us, there are innumerable facets to “Jewish-American experience.”
The important point is this: Jewish-American writing belongs at the multicultural literary table, as was noted at a different conference one year ago. Next month, when AWP meets in our nation’s capital, it will be.
Check back all week for more posts from Erika Dreifus.