Author Archives: Michael Wex

Michael Wex

About Michael Wex

Michael Wex is the author of Em>Born to Kvetch. His newest novel, Em>Shlepping the Exile, will be published by St. Martin's Press next week.

Publishing the Unpublishable

shlepping-the-exileIt took me more than three years to finish Shlepping the Exile. I had a job as a researcher in pediatric neurosurgery to go to and a dissertation on the Middle English Pearl to try to avoid, and more than disappointed, I was positively crestfallen to discover that nobody in the exciting, high stakes worlds of commercial and small press publishing really cared. I sent queries, unagented and unsolicited, to various publishers, submitted selections to every literary magazine whose address I could find. The encouraging rejections usually included a Yiddish word or two—le-chaim at the end instead of yours truly, or “Mazl tov on a stunning achievement, but it’s not for us at this time.” The less friendly ones tended to come from editors who’d received my manuscript from one of their writers. To many of them, I was an anti-Semite; to a few others, a disgrace to my people—”Would you let your parents read this?” Virtually all of them saw the use of Yiddish as an anachronistic drawback. The only thing that might have interested them about my adult characters was their experiences during World War II: “You can clearly write,” one of them told me, “give us more Holocaust.” After letters like that, I was almost happy to have the manuscript called “pornography in dialect,” a put-down that didn’t really sting, though I’d have been even happier if the woman who’d handwritten it on the title page put “pornography mit a heksent” instead.

After two or three years of this, I was starting to get desperate. I forgot about publishing and took the book back to its origins, presenting self-contained excerpts in comedy clubs, storytelling venues, theatres, anywhere where I could get onto a stage. I’d done enough storytelling and stand-up that finding places to appear wasn’t much of a problem, especially because I only held a piece of paper in my hand if the event was called a reading. Otherwise, I gave performances of material from the book, selling photocopied, perfect-bound copies of the texts wherever sales were allowed.

They moved surprisingly briskly, even though they didn’t look like much, and proved beyond any doubt that the suspicions I’d been nursing for so long were true. Jews liked the stuff, gentiles liked the stuff; English-speaking Francophones really liked the stuff. Young people, old people, women and men. Everybody liked it except people who worked in publishing. I like to think of it as the dawn of a tradition.

Five years after I finished the book, I performed part of it at a party in honor of the great Chilean poet and artist, Ludwig Zeller, who was living in Toronto at the time. After I’d finished, his Canadian publisher came up to me and asked if I had any of it written down. “All of it,” I told him, and explained what I was up to. He told me to send him a copy; I did. Two years later, it came out. There was no line-editing, no copy-editing; aside from typos, it was the text as submitted, but it took two years to come out.

If he’d ever sent me any money, it might not be coming out again, corrected and plumped up, a good forty pages longer than it used to be. People ask me how you fit new stuff into the midst of material up to thirty years old. The answer deserves a book of its own.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on February 14, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Normal English and the Novel

michael-wexPlot was the last thing on my mind when I sat down to make a novel out of the stories about Jews in Alberta that I’d written for A Night in Odessa. I didn’t want to capture a landscape or a moment; I was after a sound, the breathless, slightly strangulated blast of dissatisfaction and unsublimated pain that was the aural blanket in which I’d been swaddled. A jumble of demotic English and storm-tossed Yiddish that flowed in and out of each other with utter indifference, it was a world away from the quaint and cutesy Yinglish of satire and dialect jokes. This was the argot of thoroughly bilingual people who knew that they were never at home.

I was damned if I was going to let it disappear, so I made it the book’s setting, its subject and leading character. The people in the book might live in Alberta, but the space inside the walls of this non-Phil Spector sound is its real locus. I wasn’t terribly interested in foreign accents or mangled syntax; I wanted to portray a way of thinking that didn’t want to squeeze into the patterns of proper English any more than it had wanted to fit those of the German from which Yiddish arose in the first place. I was a huge fan of Ishmael Reed’s early novels, especially The Free-Lance Pallbearers and Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, both of them tours-de-force of African-American English, and I wanted to do something similar with the non-standard English that I was supposed to have been educated out of. It was the next best thing to writing Yiddish.

I wanted to talk about people who were using Yiddish in places where they weren’t supposed to be, post-War lower middle- and working-class people living thousands of miles from anything that could called a major Jewish community, and—in the case of the protagonist and his family—retaining their commitment to Orthodoxy. Anyone who has spent ten minutes as an Orthodox Jew knows that it’s a twenty-four hour a day job, and I wanted to show people of unshakable Orthodoxy trying to make their way in a world in which Jewish law is a joke to everyone else—and doing almost nothing about it. I was aiming for an anti—bildungsroman. If people change, it’s because they’ve aged, but no one learns a thing.

I should have learned something from the storyteller who disapproved so strongly of the original sketch. While non-Jews seemed to like the stuff no less than the Orthodox Jews who got all the jokes, a surprising number of people who don’t keep shabbes or worry about kashrus found it offensive: “Religious people don’t behave that way.” Thirty years of klezmer bands and increasing interest in all aspects of Yiddish culture (not to mention recent scandals in the Orthodox community and the popularity of off-the-derekh memoirs) have gone a fair way to familiarize the general reader, Jewish and non-, with ritual behavior so deeply ingrained that it can be practiced in circumstances that would seem to make it absurd. When a teenage boy sends his Jewish girlfriend to the mikveh, it isn’t offensive, it’s merely consistent.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on February 12, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Beginning a Literary Career

shlepping-the-exileAlthough St. Martin’s Press would probably prefer me not to mention it, Shlepping the Exile, which comes out next week and would seem to be my newest book, is really my oldest; the first version was published in Canada–with fewer pages and many more typos–in 1993. I can understand why a publisher might not want to call attention to a new book’s having been available as an import for twenty years; what scares me is having a book begun before the writer was thirty judged as the work of a man about to turn sixty. People might read a young man’s book as an old man’s–and in this kind of novel, it makes a difference. If I were starting it today, I’d write from the narrator’s parents’ point of view.

But I started it in 1983, after being invited to take part in a storytelling show called A Night in Odessa. Ninety percent of what I knew about Odessa, I knew from Isaac Babel, and Babel, I was told, was already covered; the other storyteller on the show had called dibs. What they wanted from me was forty-five minutes of material “in Babel’s spirit,” but not necessarily his neighborhood. They were more interested in psychic than physical ambiance–and in something new, if at all possible.

“So you want, like, original material?” Forty-five minutes of it, breezy and slightly transgressive.

Had my parents’ English been better, Breezy-and-Slightly-Transgressive might well have replaced Yisruel as my middle name, but even for the breeziest, forty-five minutes of new material isn’t something you leave to chance, especially when there’s nowhere to run it in front of an audience before the show goes up. I decided to write the whole thing down, contrary to my usual practice, if only to have a map of where I was going and how to get there.

I came up with an early version of what eventually became the first forty pages of Shlepping, a faux-autobiographical piece about a teenage boy ten years my senior living in circumstances similar to my own, but in the mid-50s, when I was a toddler, not a teen. I gave the other storyteller a copy–a carbon fresh from my typewriter–and he called me that night to tell me that he wouldn’t cross the threshold of any building where such filth was being presented, let alone allow it on the same stage with him. “I threw it in the garbage and took the bag outside. It offends me as a man, as a Jew, and as a human being.”

“And how do you tell the difference?”

The other storyteller hung up.

Much to my chagrin, management took his side. “It’s a bit strong, Michael.”

“Jewish gangsters killing people are less offensive than frustrated teens and lusty old men?”

“Can’t you just give us a folktale or something? Something a little more heartwarming ?”

I guess they’d forgotten about breezy and transgressive. I sat down and wrote the silliest fake folktale I could come up with–”They want folktales, I’ll give them flanken folktales”–about a potato kugel that talks. It, too, became part of Shlepping the Exile and has been anthologized a number of times.

I guess that’s what they mean by “having to eat humble pie.”

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on February 10, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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