The Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer once complained that American writers try to create quick roots for their stories.
"I grew up on a little street in Krakow," he said, "and almost everybody I've written about came from that one street. I remember every face. I remember every house. And that's where I get my stories. You Americans write as if you didn't have a past. You go to France for a year and write about that. Then you go to Hawaii. Then you go to Spain. You Americans want to develop quick roots! What about the street you grew up on?"
What roots? I thought. What street? My mother is the daughter of two Rumanian Jews. My father is the son of a Presbyterian minister. When I was little, we shuttled back and forth between Illinois and the Bronx. By the time I was sixteen I'd gone to eight different schools and lived in seven different houses. As a kid, I didn't even know how I was supposed to talk. Sometimes I spoke with a Bronx accent and bantered in a street-wise way. Sometimes I pretended I was a Christian from Illinois. When I tried to do Bronx, I felt tight, a caricature of my midwestern father asking for pastrami at Olinksi's. When I tried to do Illinois, I could hear the loud, self-revelatory voice of my mother in whatever I said. Besides, we never had pancakes at home (Peggy Cosler's mother had to teach me how to eat them). And I wasn't allowed to go to Sunday school.
By the time I heard Singer speak, I was writing stories where men glowed in the dark, wells of blood appeared in state forests, and women became animals. I thought I'd left the multiple streets of my childhood for the mythical world of surrealism. Yet without knowing it, I'd transported the crowded, complex life of the Bronx to the flat plains of the midwest. My characters' lives were exotic and enmeshed. But they often spoke calmly and could always see the sky. I woke up to what I was doing when a friend once said to me: "You write tall tales about flat places."
Many writers use their childhood--its people, its places, its streets--as a kind of ore for their fiction, whether or not they are literally autobiographical. The surreal and imaginative Polish writer, Bruno Schulz once said: "I do not know just how in childhood we arrive at certain images, images of crucial significance to us. They are like filaments in a solution around which the sense of the world crystallizes... " Schulz's most famous book, The Street of Crocodiles, was outlandish, mythic, and surreal, yet he called it an autobiography. Like Singer, Schulz went back to a specific place, in this case to his father's dry-goods shop which, in Schulzian mythology, housed extraordinary events.
The Paradox of American Origins
If, indeed, childhood gives writers the richest ore for their fiction, many American writers are caught in a paradox, because they've grown up with diverse backgrounds and do, indeed, feel rootless. Whenever I teach, I always ask: "How many of you had a childhood that felt 'American'?" More than two thirds of the class say they felt so marginalized they don't know how to use their past. "We lived in Arizona but spent every summer in a little town in Ireland," one person told me. " "My uncle from Georgia told amazing stories when he came to visit us in Maine. It was like listening to something from another country," said another.
"Can you use this in your work?" I ask.
"No. And I wouldn't want to," is the common answer. "I've spent too much time feeling like an outsider."
As more writers from groups that were previously marginalized are publishing, the definition of an American childhood is changing. Amy Tan, Sandra Cisneros, Alice Walker and Ishmael Reed are writers who worked to break the mold of “correct English.” Still, many Americans live with a sense of uneasy marginalization, and all kinds of people who left their families are confused about how to speak, as well as how to write.
How do we find our roots in the middle of a profound sense of diversity? The answer is by being willing to claim and use our memories, and claim and use the cadence of the languages we first heard. We may incorporate them differently—as speakers and as writers. But even if the people who surrounded us felt alien, these were the voices that we first heard speak. Let these voices talk to you. Whether you’re a writer or not, they were your first spoken introduction to the world. And, if you are a writer, they were your first storytellers.
It is Christmas at my grandfather's manse in Illinois: We bow our heads while my grandfather says grace, his mouth working like a hinge on a narrow mailbox. My great grandmother Coles turns to look at me. "Hello there!" Pause. "Good ta see ya." Pause. "Ever been baptized?" Pause. "Well. Ya oughta be." She is the oldest citizen in Harvord, Illinois. "That's right." Pause. "I've been here and I've been there." Later I help my grandmother dry crystal goblets in the kitchen. "Have quite a bit of space here, dontcha know?" she says to me, referring to the manse, which has fourteen rooms and looks a lot like the house in Clue. "Means quite a bit of work for me, doncha know?" she continues. "Oh yes. Quite a bit of work." I wait. Nothing more. It is the longest speech she ever makes to me. Dontcha know remains embedded in my ears, my heart, my bones: An alien, yet familiar, dialect.
And now I am in the Bronx, where we spent every summer. My grandmother makes me pot cheese and calls me shoene madele. Her apartment faces a long avenue lined with women on camp stools, crocheting, gossiping, fanning their crotches with copies of the Post or the Freiheit. Every day my grandmother sits among these women in a mouton coat (it is at least eighty degrees outside), and when the Good Humor man arrives she calls to me: "Yoo hoo! You should come very quick! The ice-cream man is here!"
At night in the Bronx my relatives stay up late, sitting around a tiny linoleum-covered kitchen table. They tell dirty jokes in Yiddish, eat fruit, and roll rye bread into little balls--a custom that shocks my father, who has been told never, not ever, to play with food. When he eats with his mouth closed, they call him a goyishe prince, adding that even though he has class, he'll never know how to bargain for whitefish or recognize a good pastrami.
And now I'm in a large gymnasium in Evanston, Illinois for the Girl Scout inauguration ceremony. Everything smells of disinfectant and, on an ornate side table, there's a crystal punch bowl from Miss Peacock's Confections. When it comes time to say my pledge, I hear my mother's raspy nervous cough. She's the only mother who is coughing, and the only mother who's not wearing a pillbox hat. I see her crimson dress. It looks like an alien flag.
As a result of remembering, I discover that the voices of my childhood do contain stories. They're in the cupboards of my grandfather's manse, the voices around my grandmother's linoleum kitchen table, in childhood games we played on the flat clean streets of suburban Illinois and the crowded ragged streets of the Bronx. They’re also in the street language that we children used to create our own culture and put a barrier against the world of grown-ups. In fact, they are everywhere. I still don't feel that I belong. Yet I've found my roots in the mythic landscapes of my childhood.
Once I had a student from Panama who wrote stilted, perfectly spelled stories. "What did you speak when you grew up?" I asked her. "Oh," she said, "I spoke a dialect, but now I speak English very well." "Go back to that dialect," I told her. "Listen to it."
I couldn't duplicate her dialect for her, so I told her to read Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid, who came from Antigua. "It was like I opened the book, and I heard myself talking," she said to me. "And now I've written a story."
Indeed she had written a rich and complicated story that took place on a bus in Panama. As I read it, I looked from the window of that bus to fruit stalls and people bargaining. I saw every face, heard every inflection. "What happened?" I asked the woman. "I don't know," she said, "I just began to remember how people talked when I grew up."
If you're having trouble returning to the landscape of your childhood, here are some things to try:
Remember the voices of all your relatives and the people on the streets
you lived on. Write down everything they said.
Draw a map of every house you lived in when you were small. Walk
through all the rooms. Open the cupboards and drawers. Write about it. Now go for a long walk on each street.
If you grew up feeling that you didn't belong to the culture, write about your childhood from the point of view
someone from a different country. Conversely, write about your sense of rootlessness and what situations made you feel it most keenly.
Your characters may never have roots the way Singer's characters did. They may travel through their landscapes with an odd detachment, like Kafka's character, K., in The Trial and The Castle. Nonetheless they will be people no one but you could have created. And they will come to life in a world of unique and mythic resonance.
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