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The Sticky Resin of History
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Can writers riff or am I just a wanna-be musician? Today’s post in Beyond The Margins by my friend and member of my long-term writer’s group and multi-writer blog (and fantastic writer) Javed Jahangir, stopped me in my morning compu-reads, where the daily Beyond post is always a first stop. No one but Javed could come up with a line like:

“ . . . were we simply writers unable to snap off our stories from the sticky resin of history?”

Of course, I stole it for this post.

Javed writes of the difficulties of knowing how to tackle one’s history when writing. I think this is something that can be looked at large or small. There is the history of a country that one carries within one—even when leaving that land—and there is the history of a family which one carries—not matter where you travel.

In his piece, Javed references the push and pull of revealing all of one’s ethnic and cultural past. Is that not also true when revealing our family histories? Do we spill it out, perhaps all gussied up in fictional ribbons, or do we tamp it down and let it spill out in odd moments? (For instance when the vampire-hero begins musing on his over-bearing father at the moment of clamping his teeth into the heroine’s neck.)

When I wrote The Murderer’s Daughter, I drew on a history of violence in my family—but I don’t want to be known as “the domestic violence writer.” The novel I am currently pushing to it’s conclusion addresses infidelity and the waves of collateral damage it engenders. Will it make me a “family issues writer?”  An ‘infidelity writer.”

So far, there is always a Jewish character or family in the mix of my writing. Thus, will I be labeled a “Jewish writer” even when my Jewish families break all stereotypes of what might be considered typical?

Javed has no final answers, any more than I do—though I find it interesting how some are labeled: Jewish writer, African-American writer, Bangladeshi writer, women writer, but rarely do you see white-man-writer. Does this make the WMW the norm and all else outside the norm?

Just asking.

Oh, and since Javed’s piece is so extraordinary, I’m making sure to guest post it here very soon. Thank you, Javed for allowing me to do that.

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Significant Questions.

First of all, congratulations on your book! That's a marvellous review from the LA Times! Second of all, thank you for asking these questions. I taught Jewish American Literature (in the UK and to students who, for the most part, had never met a Jewish person, read a Jewish book or known many or any Americans! Their questions therefore were significant. One of the many many things I found useful in addressing them was an interview that Chaim Potok gave in Contemporary Literature (attribution below). Here is a very small part of it:

Q. What is your reaction to being called a Jewish writer?

A. If the categories remain consistent, it doesn't bother me. By
consistent I mean that if you call John Updike a Protestant writer or
if you call Flannery O'Connor a Catholic writer, then I don't mind
being called a Jewish writer. Academicians need these categories in
order to teach coherently, but all I ask is that the categories be consistent.
I think the proper way to categorize, if I were to do it, is to
say that all of us are American writers with different kinds of subjects
and territories. Updike, for example, is an American writer whose
territory often is small-town Pennsylvania and New England, and I'm
an American writer whose territory is a small section of New York.

Q. Another way of looking at this categorizing appeared in an
article Alan Lelchuk wrote last year for The Times (Sept. 25, 1984).
He argues that it is time for the Jewish writer to become just the writer,
a writer. Lelchuk maintains that it's a disservice to call someone like
Henry Roth, for example, an ethnic writer. Lelchuk wants to call Henry
Roth a "writer, period." Do you agree with Lelchuk?

A. Yes, I agree. I think those are old categories. I think they were
used at a time when Jewish writing began to move on to center-stage
in American literature so they had to categorize Jewish writing somewhat.
They didn't quite want to categorize it as American literature
because Jewish writing was too new. I think only the most provincial
of minds would regard the Jewish writer as too new today because he
or she is clearly center-stage in American literature.
My first novel, which was almost published, was entirely about
Americans and Koreans. There were no Jews in it at all. It was taken
by the editor-in-chief of a New York house, but the publisher didn't
want it: he thought it wouldn't sell because it was too artistic. So he
agreed to publish it and then warehouse it because he didn't want to
upset his editor. I didn't like that, and the editor didn't like that; so
I withdrew my manuscript. I was told that the editor quit in part as
a result of that fracas, and I went on to write The Chosen. My first
novel has never been published; it became the paragraph or so in The
Book of Lights which deals with moving the Korean grave. It isn't
necessary, you see, for a Jewish novelist to write only about things
Jewish. Indeed, the first half of Davita's Harp doesn't have all that
much Jewishness.

Q. No, it certainly doesn't, and your point is especially interesting
in light of Murray Baumgarten's recent book City Scriptures, in
which Baumgarten maintains that Jewish writing is at an end because
the Jew now symbolizes marginality- the modern situation. For that
reason, Baumgarten argues that Jewish writing will be both Jewish
and universal at the same time. What do you think of his conclusion?
A. Well, I don't know. Jewish writing always was both Jewish and
universal. What is more Jewish and universal than the Book of Isaiah?
What is more Jewish and universal than Maimonides who was read,
understood, and used by Aquinas?

( from An Interview with Chaim Potok by Elaine M. Kauvar; Chaim Potok
Contemporary Literature, Vol. 27, No. 3. (Autumn, 1986), pp. 291-317.
Stable URL: http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0010-7484%28198623%2927%3A3%3C291%3AAIW...)

My own answer to your question is this: people love to categorise and put in boxes things and people that are often uncontainable. I write what has been called "genre-defying literature." I also write about a great number of subjects, each of which *appears* to be unrelated to other things. This is why I have pseudonyms. I wrote an extremely successful book in the science fiction world, so I changed my name when I wrote an academic/intellectual book because it would be (stupidly but truly) considered the product of a "science fiction" writer. Our fellow writer, Farzana Versey, says in her bio on the Red Room (in fact it is her first sentence): "To be categorised is near-death." I think she's right.

Thanks for the thought provoking questions and post and congratulations again~ Harrison

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Harrison, Thank you for


Thank you for this incredible response--so on target and thoughtful. And your book sounds so good--I immediately went to pre-order it (might have to do it through UK, as Amazon is being wonky with it (and with many others these days--including mine!)

I very much enjoyed that interview w/Chaim Potok. Thank you for putting that down.

So nice to meet you.

Warmest regards,

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Yes amazon is a little odd. They had my book listed as "out of print" when it wasn't even out yet! My publisher had to contact them. But I have no complaints about them as a customer! One of the best companies I've dealt with. Back to your friend Javed's post - I went to the website and read it. It's very good - raises all sorts of powerful questions. I don't seem to have the difficulty with the questions that some others do, but I fully understand the situations of others who do. I tend to write the truth as I see it. This is a salvation in two ways:

First, I tend to see truth in a Welsh way which means past, present and future all at the same time and highly symbolic, highly metaphysical.

And second, I just write what I know. What I saw. What transpired when I was present. Then, if it looks as though it might upset someone, and if I care, I change a few things around. But my stories are not about parents or siblings and I have no traumas to disclose. Still, if I did, I think I would write the same way. Thanks for looking into Felicity and Barbara Pym - which does address some of these questions. I appreciate that. Thanks for this post.