If You Build It, They Will Come: On Blogging, Service and Platform-Building

Shoeless Joe Jackson by John McNab

I started my blog almost two years ago after attending a writers’ workshop on publishing in the digital age. There wasn’t much talk of e-books or self-publishing from the presenters. Instead, they hammered a single message into us all day: you, as writers, need an electronic presence . . . preferably a blog. It’s how you control the message of who you are and what you do. Your site is Google’s gateway to you and your work.

Like many writers, I long resisted self-promotion, finding the very idea distasteful and embarrassing. But I’d learned from the experience of publishing my first (mostly overlooked) book, Silence is Death (oh! the irony of that title in this context…), that if you don’t advocate for your own work, no one will. I knew that this time around, I had to swallow pride and do things differently. So, in preparation for the publication of my second book, Epistolophilia, I decided to take the workshop’s advice. I bought a domain name (my own name as well as my books’ titles), and started a blog.

Despite my initial reticence, blogging quickly brought unexpected rewards. From the very beginning, I enjoyed the discipline regular posting required, and the way the site grew slowly, like a garden or a manuscript. I’m obsessed with archives, so I love the way blogs are keepers of their own histories. Finally, I have been delighted by the community-building opportunities that a blog creates.

A long time ago, I sat on an academic board that organized a biannual conference whose participants’ median age was going up and up. Board members worried constantly about the organization’s impending death and wondered how to attract younger attendees. “Offer them something,” I suggested. “An opportunity to win a book prize or a shot at a fellowship. Offer them something, and they will come.” So, that’s what we did. Once the association started a modest fellowship program and book prize, youthful scholars began returning to the association (and the financial investment quickly paid for itself).

The same principle works for a blog: offer something, and readers will come.

Blogs need not be navel-gazing, self-aggrandizing, or mean-spirited. When setting up the parameters of my blog, I asked myself how I could serve fellow writers. I decided on a ratio of 1:2. For every post about myself or my work, I featured at least 2 items about someone or something else: a review of a book or essay; a funding announcement or call for submissions; an author interview with a fellow writer of creative nonfiction.

By shining the spotlight (small as mine may be) on another writer, or by giving her a platform to talk about her work, I not only gain traffic on the blog (for every other writer brings friends and fans with her), I also gain insight, contacts, friends, knowledge and the occasional free book.

The more I extend myself to other writers, the more they reach back.

Writers are also readers. We are each other’s colleagues, but also each other’s audiences. Serving writers means reaching readers.

Be brave, be bold, and build. Then open yourself up to others and share.

[Photo: Shoeless Joe Jackson, by John McNab]

This post is part of a weekly series called “Countdown to Publication” on SheWrites.com, the premier social network for women writers.

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CNF Conversations: An Interview with Nancy K. Miller (Part I)

Nancy K. Miller. What They Saved: Pieces of  Jewish Past. University of Nebraska Press, 2011.

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In her new memoir, What They Saved: Pieces of a Jewish Past, Nancy K. Miller tells the story of how she reconstructed her family’s missing past from a handful of mysterious objects found in dresser drawers and apartment closets after her father’s death. The strange collection–locks of hair, a postcard from Argentina, a cemetery receipt, letters written in Yiddish—moved her to search for the people who had left these traces of their lives and to understand what had happened to them. As Miller slowly pieced together her family portrait and assembled a genealogical tree, she felt connected in unexpected ways to an immigrant narrative that began in Eastern Europe at the turn of the twentieth century, when her ancestors headed for the Lower East Side of Manhattan. At the end of her decade-long quest, Miller started to imagine the life she might have had with the missing side of her family. Suspended between what had been lost and what she found, Miller finally comes to terms with the bittersweet legacy of the third generation—tantalizing fragments of disappeared worlds.

Nancy K. Miller is Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She has written, edited or co-edited more than a dozen volumes, including Bequest and Betrayal: Memoirs of a Parent’s Death, But Enough About Me: Why We Read Other People’s Lives, and several books on feminist criticism and women’s writing.

Julija Šukys: I once heard a novelist talk about how she decided to write a book about a house. One by one, she told the story of each room. I very much like the idea of writing biographies of objects or places. Your book, it seems to me, has similar origins; in your case, a private archive of objects passed down in your family, including a collection of letters, a tallis bag containing tefillin, a map of a plot of land in Israel, and a lock of hair enclosed in a soap box. Talk a little about this collection of items, and how your contemplation of them led you to write this book.

Nancy K. Miller: Not long after my father’s death in 1989, as I emptied the family apartment, I found the tefillin and the locks of hair in a drawer. More precisely, I found the tefillin in a set of drawers that resembled a secretary and that was part of the living room furniture, and the box of fancy French soap in which the hair had been preserved in a bedroom dresser. The distinction seems important, if only because following the model of the house, I now in memory recall the objects in their original location. But also perhaps because, now that I think about it, the tefillin were destined to be worn in a public place—a synagogue, or any other place of prayer—and therefore were stored in the living room, whereas the box of hair was stored in the more intimate space of the bedroom. Not that I thought then about what possible difference that made.

At that point in my life, I was about to take off for a year’s sabbatical in France, and there was little time for contemplation. All I could do in the days I had before leaving was to gather these objects—and others, the letters, photographs, and random scraps of paper—and set them aside for storage. I knew I wanted to hold on to these things, but the idea of writing anything inspired by them was very far from my mind. I was working on the book that was to become Getting Personal (1990), and while I suppose I might have contemplated, to use your word, the significance of these objects, I did not. Weirdly, though, it now strikes me, before my father died, I wrote a very short essay about his debilitating illness, a meditation I called “My Father’s Penis,” and that constitutes the last chapter of that book. Even when I wrote the book Bequest and Betrayal (1996), in which I deal with the death of my parents and their legacy, as well as other family matters that I dwell on in What They Saved, I did not turn my attention to what now seems to me a precious collection of memorial objects.

It was only when I received the strange phone call from the realtor in Los Angeles telling me that I had inherited property from my paternal grandparents that I began to realize that this small cache of objects contained, or potentially contained large stores (not yet stories) of information about my father’s side of the family. Since I knew almost nothing of these people—his people—I started to wonder about who they were, what had happened to them, and how their absence, their silence might have affected my childhood. But again, I was not thinking about a book. I related the anecdote about the phone call and the meeting it led to with my father’s nephew (I had known neither my father’s brother, nor his son, except for their names) in an epilogue to But Enough About Me (2002), saying that it was a good story. But the story, such as it was (and wasn’t) kept tugging at my mind, and I continued to research the missing family members. I wrote an academic essay (2007), in which I sketched out whatever I then knew—not much!—and interwove those bits of knowledge with stories of immigration (Mary Antin, Amos Oz) in order to create some perspective for my very slender speculations.

Still no book.

In 2008, after vowing I would never follow the path of the “root-seekers” heading for Eastern Europe, I traveled there myself. And when I returned home, I realized that I had to write this book. It was at that moment that I first understood that the objects not only grounded my story, in some sense they were the story, or at least they provided the clues I needed to construct a narrative.

While reading your book I felt a host of tensions at play in the narrative. You write how as a young woman you rejected your father’s surname, Kipnis, and took on your mother’s name, Miller (retaining only the middle initial K. from your father). Yet, here you are, many years later trying to reconstruct the very past, the otherness, and the patriarchal footprint, I suppose, that you once rejected.

There’s another similar moment: the story of the tefillin — sacred prayer boxes — that you inherited. You consider what to do with the tefillin: “Because the paraphernalia of prayer belongs to men, I could not see the point in saving this legacy, but something about putting the velvet bag in the trash along with the household garbage made me uneasy – would I be throwing away an entire tradition? Part of me said yes, and why not?” (217). In the end, as a kind of compromise, you get rid of the bag and straps, and keep the boxes themselves as a souvenir of your father’s (and your?) abandoned religious past.

It’s a big question, I know, but I wonder if you could talk about this complicated desire both to excavate the past (by tracing family trees and reconstructing histories) and to turn one’s back on it (by discarding pieces of the past like family names, languages, and religious beliefs).

The fact that all the objects were, in one way or the other, connected to Jewish history posed a conundrum. How could I pursue this research when so many of these markers—the pogrom-driven immigration, the property in Palestine, and so on, were parts of my inheritance that I had rejected, or at least distanced myself from? In particular, because of what you nicely call “the patriarchal footprint” (I love that phrase), I had rejected religious observance and, what we used to call “the name of the father.” Above all, in keeping with the seventies feminist ethos I believed in, I dreamed only of self-invention, the second-wave version of the “new woman.”

But by the time I had launched myself into this project of reclaiming the past, I could not quite so neatly sever myself from everything that had shaped it—and me. What surprised me the most and what led me to backtrack on some of my earlier positions was seeing how much closer I was to my grandparents’ immigration than I had realized. I mean that I understood in a wholly new way how much my parents were touched by the fact of their parents (on both sides) being immigrants, and then, by extension, how their manner of inheriting that immigrant past—my father was probably conceived in Russia—had been passed on to me, if only through their silence on the matter. There’s a term from psychoanalysis that one of my students (Molly Pulda) writing about memoir has introduced me to: nescience. Not knowing. The notion is that knowing that there is something you don’t know, in this case in a family setting, can have a powerful effect on one’s psyche. The further I delved into my research, the more I saw that what I saw as far from me—having nothing to do with me—was not outside me, but in me.

This is Part I of a two-part interview. Click here to read Part II.

[Photo: Nancy K. Miller, courtesy of the author]

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CNF Conversations: An Interview with Nancy K. Miller (Part II)

Nancy K. Miller. What They Saved: Pieces of  Jewish Past. University of Nebraska Press, 2011.

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This is Part II of a two-part interview. Click here to read Part I.

Julija Šukys: I loved reading your descriptions of how you related to “The Old Country” before this quest. “Russia, a vast faraway, almost mythical kingdom ruled by Czars, was filled with mean peasants, who lived in the forest with wolves [. . .]. Basically, Russia was a place one left, if one was a Jew, as soon as possible” (36).

As you begin to piece your family’s past together, you start to see a much more nuanced picture. Your family, it turns out, comes not from this fictionalized Russia, but from Bessarabia, present-day Moldova. Thus “The Old Country” morphs into a real place. You learn too that your family likely lived a middle-class life rather than a shtetl existence as you’d imagined. How did this process of discovery and understanding change your thinking about both about your Jewish past and your American present?

Nancy K. Miller: Like many third-generation descendants, I had pictured my ancestors as Jews from Eastern Europe were portrayed in Fiddler on the Roof. What other image was there? It took my second trip to Moldova to understand that my paternal grandparents were already modern, Westernized, and to some degree distanced from Orthodoxy (my grandmother was not wearing a wig, my grandfather trimmed and then shaved his beard): city dwellers and not living with goats. True, as Jews, they were subject to pogroms—and probably witnessed the famous pogrom of 1903 that took place in Kishinev (now Chisinau, the capital of Moldova) where they were living before emigrating in 1906, but they were not peasants; nor were they wealthy (alas). At the same time, their decades on the Lower East Side of Manhattan—where my father grew up—had to have deeply influenced my father’s tastes, and ultimately mine. When I was in Kishinev, for instance, I was amused to be served “mamaliga” (polenta), a Moldovan specialty–one of my father’s favorite foods and that he made for himself when he was living on his own after my mother’s death. I saw my father as both more Jewish—and less. In other words, he did not “lay” tefillin, he and my mother joined a Reform synagogue—horrifying my mother’s parents—but he saved what his mother had saved, the traces of their immigration. I now see myself as an inheritor of that history, not purely American, unless we understand American as always marked by ethnicity and coming from another place, never fully belonging.

I was very interested to read your book for purely selfish reasons: I too am writing a sort of family history largely based on a collection of letters that my grandmother sent to her children from Siberia. A constant preoccupation as I write this story is whether or not anyone outside of my immediate family will or should care about this narrative I’m piecing together. I imagine it’s the preoccupation of anyone writing a book based on private and invisible lives. Was this the case for you? How did you work through this question of why this story matters, and what conclusions did you draw about what family stories and private histories can teach us?

Indeed, I was tormented by the “so what” that all autobiographers grapple with. Why should anyone care about these people? The way I convinced myself that readers could care was by trying to show their story as representative—generational and historical. But beyond that, and only readers can say whether I succeeded in wrestling with this paradox, I tried to bring out the less specific, more universal aspects of my quest: wanting to know the story of one’s origins, who our parents were before we were born, where our grandparents came from, how we always come so late to wanting to know, and therefore not being able to ask. I confess that I’m always thrilled when someone who isn’t Jewish, who isn’t from an immigrant past, connects to the story as just that: the attempt to grapple with the past, with incomplete memories, with loss, with absence. I don’t expect anyone to care about my dead ancestors—as people, I’m not sure I did, either—but I hope that readers will relate to my desire to discover them, and the importance of finding out whatever one can. The book is a celebration of knowledge—maybe that’s because I’m an academic at heart. I guess that’s the lesson: there is so much to be learned, it behooves us to search for it. The search itself is probably the most important aspect of my book.

A major theme of this book is the absence of children. You are the last in your father’s line, and therefore there is no one to inherit these objects. It seems to me that your book is a kind of meditation on life, aging and death. Can this book take the place of the heir? Even if there is no child to inherit the dunams, there are the story and map of them, and these will never die. To what extent is writing about the family archive a way of creating non-biological continuity?

Yes, I hope that this book can take the place of the heir—even though I also know that that is impossible. I have found some consolation in having turned the objects into language, put them as words on the page, even though after I die, no one will want them, keep them, save them. That is a sadness but a fact of life, of my life, anyway. So it’s true that the book meditates on the meaning of loss and expresses the mad desire to hold on to whatever remains as traces of what we have lived.

The book ends with the acceptance that some things are unknowable. You can’t connect all the dots. You can’t know what caused a seeming rift between your father and his brother, but “a story about finding always returns to the places where the story got lost. It’s also a chance to begin again.” How does this new beginning look for you now that the book has appeared?

Well, for one thing, I have a different, richer view of my childhood, which always seemed mysteriously unhappy and vapid—standard issue professional, middle-class New Yorkers. But it’s not only about the past. I also feel newly excited to experiment as a writer. To circle back to your first question, in my mind, I’ve created a book about objects, from objects. I had no clue about how I was going to write this book until I did. So I look forward to my next projects emboldened by the adventure.

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CNF Conversations: An Interview with Beth Kaplan (Part I)

Beth Kaplan, Finding the Jewish Shakespeare: The Life and Legacy of Jacob Gordin. Syracuse University Press, 2007 (Paperback 2012).

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In this revelatory biography, Beth Kaplan sets out to explore the true character and creative achievements of her great-grandfather Jacob Gordin, playwright extraordinaire and icon of the Yiddish stage.

Born of an Anglican mother and a Jewish father who disdained religion, Kaplan knew little of her Judaic roots and less about her famed great-grandfather until beginning her research, more than twenty years ago. Shedding new light on Gordin and his world, Kaplan describes the commune he founded and led in Russia, his meteoric rise among Jewish New York’s literati, the birth of such masterworks as Mirele Efros and The Jewish King Lear, and his seething feud with Abraham Cahan, powerful editor of the Daily Forward. Writing in a graceful and engaging style, she recaptures the Golden Age and colourful actors of Yiddish Theater from 1891 to 1910. Most significantly she discovers the emotional truth about the man himself, a tireless reformer who left a vital legacy to the theater and Jewish life worldwide.

Beth Kaplan is a writer and actress in Canada. She has taught memoir writing at Ryerson University for sixteen years and at the University of Toronto for five. Her essays have appeared in the Globe and Mail and other newspapers and magazines. Visit Beth Kaplan’s website at www.BethKaplan.ca.

Julija Šukys: In your bio in the opening pages of the book, we read that you spent twenty years raising children and writing this book – “they both left home together.” My writing became entangled with and inextricable from my private life once my son was born four years ago. In light of the connection you draw between your kids and the process of writing, I’m interested to know more about the relation between them.

Beth Kaplan: I had my first child in Vancouver when I was nearly 31. I’d been working as an actress in Vancouver for eight years; when I got pregnant, I left the stage and registered to take an MFA in Creative Writing at UBC. So it was as if pregnancy gave me permission to finally sit down and write.

And then the birth of my daughter took that permission away – or at least, made the process difficult. I adored being a mother and didn’t know how to focus on anything else. I’d take the baby to a YMCA daycare for a few hours every few days, so that I could write – but often instead I’d grocery shop or sleep or read the newspaper, things I couldn’t do when she was around. And I felt alone. Almost none of my friends in the theatre or at UBC had kids, and I didn’t know, or even know of, any mother writers.

Someone said once that of the 3 things of vital importance to a married woman – husband, children, work – she could only successfully have two of the three. I thought about Virginia Woolf with husband and work, Margaret Laurence with children and work, L. M. Montgomery with all 3 and a wretched life. There were very few examples of a writer with all 3 successfully. Later I discovered Carol Shields as one very good example, and there are now lots. But around me in the eighties, there were few.

I wrestled with that constantly. I managed to finish the degree long-distance – we moved to Ottawa for my husband’s work in 1983 where I had my son, and then to Toronto in 1985, where I finished my thesis on my great-grandfather and decided to keep going with research and to write a book. When my kids were 6 and 9, my husband and I separated, he moved shortly after that to the States, and so I was a single mother with financial support from him but 100% custody of two difficult children and an old, disintegrating house, in a city where I had no work connections and no family.

The result – the book wasn’t published until 2007. I don’t blame that solely on being a single mother. I also completely lost confidence in myself, was isolated with no support group, had no idea what I was doing – in academic research, there are methods, I just didn’t know what they were. I compared the book to an octopus with its tentacles around my neck – the minute I pried one away, another had me in its grip. And that’s just the writing, let alone getting the thing published. It’s a miracle it ever appeared, in fact.

So this is a very long answer to your question, which is – that I came too late to understand something I call beneficial selfishness. I think writers, artists, have to be selfish sometimes, even with their children. That is, not selfish to the point that their needs are neglected. But selfish in asking them to recognize that their mother has important work that requires something of them. Writing is so invisible. If I were playing the cello or painting, they could hear or see that. But they could see nothing of my work. That was hard for me too, as most of the time, I didn’t believe either, with very little published, that I was a writer.

What helped was writing essays for the CBC and newspapers and for “Facts and Arguments” in the Globe and Mail – I published a lot of short term things that got me out there, got my name in print and showed the world, and me, that I was a writer. Incidentally, many of my essays were about my kids. They grew up being chronicled on the back page of the Globe – always with veto power, of course. But they liked it.

25 years later, I’m still in the same house; the kids live on the other side of town and their rooms here are rented out to help pay the mortgage. I teach but have lots of time, lots of quiet for writing, which is heaven. Except that my daughter has just told me she’s pregnant. Omigod, I’m going to be a grandmother. I can’t wait. But this time, I’ll be able to cuddle and hug and read stories, and then give the baby back and get on with my work.

The fact is that unless you have a spouse who can take over, which I did not, young kids do and must come first, especially when they’re very young (and again when they’re teens but that’s another story.) But that doesn’t mean shelving the work. It means being creative with finding time, and it means taking it and yourself seriously enough to be selfish, sometimes. Otherwise, the work is constantly last, and the book takes 25 years to emerge.

Finding the Jewish Shakespeare constitutes a kind of textual archaeology. It tells the story of your great-grandfather, Jacob Gordin, a Yiddish playwright once compared to Shakespeare and Ibsen, now largely relegated to oblivion. Tell me about the impetus to embark on such a journey, and the research path down which it took you.

I needed to choose a thesis subject for my MFA, and it was my husband who said, You have a great man in your family, write about him. Once he’d said it, of course, I knew that was exactly what I wanted to do. Because there was the mystery I’d grown up with – why did my father and other relatives have such disdain for a man who’d been in his time so revered? So I blithely began, without realizing that almost all my research materials were in New York City– this was 1982, the Dark Ages before Google, so research meant writing letters, making phone calls, and getting on airplanes. The first time I flew from Vancouver to New York for research in 1983, the thrill of arriving at the YIVO Center for Jewish Research on 5th Avenue, asking for their materials about Gordin, and watching the cart rumble up to my desk with all those file boxes. Then opening them eagerly, and finding that nearly everything was in Yiddish or in archaic Russian – the next tiny hurdle, as I spoke and read neither.

I was lucky enough to find a woman who translated from the Yiddish for me for 25 years. So it’s really our book, Sarah Torchinsky’s and mine.

I wrote lots of letters of enquiry, discovered family members to interview – several of them just in time, as they were extremely old already when I found them – and read everything I could find on or around the subject. I didn’t start using a computer for writing until 1987 or so. And Google, of course, much after that. It seems unbelievable now, how much time research took. And several people have pointed out that in the Internet age, we lose the thrill of hunting and holding the actual artifacts and books.

As I read your book, I found myself continually pondering questions of language. Interestingly, Jacob Gordin’s strongest language, and the language he appears to have loved best, was Russian. Yet, he wrote his plays in Yiddish, a language that always represented a bit of a struggle to him. It’s not the language he used in private: with his wife he spoke Russian, and to his children, English (a language it appears he never mastered). Why, once he had gained some success, do you believe that Gordin never made the switch to Russian? Why did he continue to write in Yiddish, despite the limited audiences, the community politics that you describe, and despite the fact that it was not the language in which he planned his plays?

Gordin didn’t switch to Russian because nobody on the Lower East Side ever wanted to hear Russian again; he would have had no audience at all. Yiddish was the language of mothers, of home, hence not only of the theatres but of the burgeoning Yiddish newspapers. Russian was the tongue of the oppressor, the Cossack enemy, there was no place for it amongst the Jews in America. But Gordin always dreamed of going back to Russia one day. Before he died, he knew that his plays were touring Russia – one of his sisters, who still lived there, wrote to him from her town in Ukraine of her pride in going to the theatre to see two of her brother’s plays. But she saw them in Yiddish, not in Russian. There were Yiddish theatres and troupes performing Gordin’s plays in South America and in Eastern Europe – in fact, all over the world.

This is Part I of a two-part interview. Click here to read Part II.

[Images: Courtesy of Beth Kaplan]

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CNF Conversations: An Interview with Beth Kaplan (Part II)

Beth Kaplan, Finding the Jewish Shakespeare: The Life and Legacy of Jacob Gordin. Syracuse University Press, 2007 (Paperback 2012).

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This is Part II of a two-part interview with Beth Kaplan about her book, Finding the Jewish Shakespeare. Click here to read Part I.

Julija Šukys: My second question about language is about your relationship to the various tongues at work in this book. What is your relationship to Yiddish and Russian, the languages of your ancestor? Given the decline of Yiddish since World War II, there’s a real sense of loss that surrounds that language these days. Does this sense of loss come into play in your relationship to Gordin’s texts and history at all?

Beth Kaplan: Well, this is a very profound question because it also goes to the heart of my hybrid status – as a half-Jew delving into this very Jewish story. Several people, hearing of my work, told me I should learn Yiddish first. A Yiddish academic, who continued to be extraordinarily unhelpful, told me when I called to introduce myself at the beginning that writing a book about Gordin without speaking Yiddish was like writing about Moliere without learning French. As if my family connection were meaningless.

I had no interest in learning Yiddish, though I did take a term of Yiddish classes through the Toronto school board, where my suspicions were confirmed – the class was filled with people wanting to reconnect with memories of their childhoods, especially of their grandparents. I had no such desire. In fact, my grandmother, Gordin’s daughter, spoke no Yiddish and had no interest in it. That’s the irony at the core of all this, as you noted – Gordin, revered as a Yiddish playwright, spoke Russian or English at home and hadn’t much respect for the language of his great success. I did take Russian lessons, incidentally, which interested me much more because it’s the language of a country I could actually go and visit.

So it was thanks to my dear Sarah Torchinsky that the Yiddish documents revealed their secrets to me. My father, whose relationship with his own Jewishness was conflicted, as I point out in the book, loved Yiddish phrases and expressions and used them often, but he would have been horrified at the thought of actually learning to speak the language. Intellectuals like him thought of Yiddish, not as a vibrant language in its own right, but as a kind of hybrid, debased German.

I respect and admire those trying to keep Yiddish alive, especially the amazing Aaron Lansky of the National Yiddish Book Centre in Amherst. Right now, I am corresponding with a woman living in rural Texas, who speaks Yiddish in complete isolation and is translating one of Gordin’s plays. But the future of the Yiddish language is simply not my cause.

Although your portrait of Gordin is nuanced (you don’t hold him up as the best playwright who ever lived, nor do you sugarcoat difficult aspects of his personality like his ego), the book nevertheless reads as a project of rehabilitation. Gordin’s legacy has suffered terribly from a vicious campaign waged by the New York Yiddish literary critic, Abraham Cahan. Talk a little bit about the conflict between Gordin and Cahan. How much did you know about it when you began researching? What, in your opinion, lay at the heart of Cahan’s fervour in destroying his rival so thoroughly?

Abraham Cahan was a critic at the Jewish Daily Forward. The more I learned about his vindictive personality and especially his campaign against my ancestor, the more I felt that if nothing else, this book would defend Gordin and expose what he endured. I learned that Cahan pursued several other vicious vendettas, one against the writer Sholem Asch even more single-mindedly destructive than the one against Gordin.

I posit in my book that there was something about Gordin’s largesse, huge family (eleven children) and enormous popularity that goaded Cahan, who was the opposite in nature, an anti-social man with very few friends, no children and an unhappy marriage, who lived not in a home but in a hotel. So the surface of their battle may have been political – they disagreed vehemently on how Jews should be helped to adapt to their new land – but I think with a burning personal base.

When I found some of Cahan’s articles against Gordin and had them translated by Sarah, they broke my heart – they were so petty and cruel. Not without an occasional point, certainly – but far, far beyond the boundaries of criticism. They attacked everything about Gordin with a kind of nasty glee with made me, literally, feel ill.

You describe finding a number of Cahan’s assessments of Gordin’s work almost verbatim in current descriptions of his work, namely that his plays have little literary merit. To me (and I think to you), it is this question of tainted legacy (that of Gordin as a hack, and even, as you describe, of a plagiarist) that is the greatest tragedy of this story. What does Gordin’s story tell us about the capricious nature of literary legacy, or of how writers are made and destroyed?

I made a lot of the tragedy of Gordin’s humiliation by Cahan, because I did come to feel that Cahan had left an accusatory legacy of plagiarism that my father absorbed. But in the end, I have to point out that many people did remember and respect Gordin – that Cahan’s campaign wasn’t completely successful. After all, a quarter of a million people, apparently, packed the streets the day of his funeral. I think that Gordin was more a newspaperman or a teacher than a playwright, in that he was so didactic, always preaching his message. But an elderly Yiddish actor I spoke with from Britain told me his plays were spectacular vehicles for actors. I had to keep in mind how much the theatre itself has changed; that many of the most successful playwrights of a particular time vanish pretty quickly. Our list of great playwrights of other times is much smaller than the list simply of great writers; it’s hard to write a play that is relevant to its time but will also endure. Gordin was a marvel for his time and place, bringing theatre with dignity and finesse to a people who’d had no theatre at all only decades before and who only knew a kind of vaudeville of melodramas and operettas. He accomplished a great deal, but he was no Ibsen.

Most of my own contact with the Yiddish literary scene has been through my research on Vilna. I was amazed to learn of the vibrant Yiddish scene that Gordin was a part of New York at the turn of the century. Do you see echoes of that theatrical and, in some ways, revolutionary world? Or is it really gone for good?

I describe in the book the scene in the 1800s in New York, when factions supporting rival actors playing Macbeth began to fight each other in the streets, resulting in a number of deaths. If only audiences cared so much today about the theatre! But today when people are sitting at home in front of a thousand different screens, we can’t reproduce that time, when sitting in a theatre meant so much, gave people a taste of home, let them hear their past, their homeland… It was an incredibly vibrant time, when New York was flooded with immigrants, desperate to learn and prosper. In a startlingly short time, many of them did.

This is a book not only about your great-grandfather, but also about your extended family, and about you. It’s about your hybrid identity (half-gentile, half-Jewish). It’s about the family silence surrounding the one great, but somehow shameful family member. It’s about the discovery of roots, and the drawing of a line back to the other writer in the clan. How important to this story is the fact that you are Gordin’s great-granddaughter? Talk a little about the decision to write a book that was a work of creative nonfiction, infused with the writerly gaze and experience, rather than a “straight” biography.

I had a big technical problem writing the book, which was never really resolved – that it was, in fact, two books. The first was the scholarly Gordin biography that was needed because there wasn’t one – detailing the history of the man and his plays. The other book, the one that really interested me, was the family story and my connection to him and to his life. I got trapped in the biography, loaded down with facts and names and dates, and then did my best to bring life to all that with the personal stories.

The problem was that the resulting manuscript was too weighty and scholarly for the mainstream publishers, where my New York agent first sent the book, and too personal and informal for the university presses, which wanted a dry biography with footnotes and no personal material. Footnotes! I’d been doing research for over 20 years, most of them as a single mother in chaos, I had paper stuffed into boxes all over my house with no idea where I’d found this quote or that bit of play, and no desire to spend years digging it all back up. I said no footnotes, which meant most university presses were not interested.

Luckily, Syracuse was happy to take the manuscript and turned out a beautiful book, though I had to cut some of the personal stuff. If I had to do it again, I might try to actually do two books – one for the university Yiddish departments, with just cold facts, and another with far fewer facts but more heart and soul about the family.

A wealthy friend of mine, after reading the book, said, “Too much detail. Why didn’t you turn it into fiction? That would have been more fun and would have sold much better.” That may be true. But I have not the remotest interest in taking a fabulously interesting true story and fictionalizing it, inventing characters and situations when I’d hunted for decades to uncover the real ones. My friend Wayson Choy has written two novels and two memoirs; I admire that kind of ambidextrousness, switching between fiction and faction. I have no interest in even trying. Give me a true story, any day.

[Image: Courtesy of Beth Kaplan]

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Pre-order Epistolophilia

My second book is now a virtual reality at the University of Nebraska Press (never mind that it doesn’t even have a cover image yet! Ha!). I’m expecting the copy edit in a matter of weeks, then proofs, then voilà!

If you’re the kind of person who likes to have all her ducks in a row, click here to be among the first to own Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Šimaitė.

[Image: virtual reality by OlivIreland]

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On Archival Photographs and Paper Friends

Today I received the last photograph for my forthcoming book, Epistolophilia.

It shows the translator, Vytautas Kauneckas, at the desk in his Lithuanian summer home. Behind him stands a stack of texts sent to him from France by Ona Šimaitė, the subject of my book.

The photograph is from 1959 and has a few water stains. Yet somehow, despite the fact that his image was captured more than fifty years ago in the USSR, the man in the photograph looks utterly contemporary. When I opened the email attachment my colleague at the Vilnius University archives sent me, I found myself deeply moved.

Since I’ve been reading Kauneckas’s letters for the past decade, he (like Šimaitė) is someone I feel I know. Of course, since he died long before I began this project, I never met him. Our posthumous acquaintance only goes one way, but the eyes in that photo tell me I would have liked him not only on paper, but in person too.

In all, my book will contain twenty-seven photographs and two maps. There are lots of images of the book’s subject, the Holocaust rescuer and librarian, Ona Šimaitė, portraits of her correspondents (like Kauneckas), images of her letters and details from her diaries, as well as the shots of significant landmarks I took in the course of my research: her apartments in Paris and Vilnius, and the camps where she was interned.

The process of finding the archival photographs and obtaining permission to publish them has been complex. It’s required a lot of good will and patience on the part of archivists, who (lucky for me) tend to be kind and generous people. I have to say that it’s been worth the trouble, and I can’t wait to see all the visual materials in print.

I wish I could post the Kauneckas photo here, but I must respect the usage agreement I’ve made with the archive — which doesn’t include posting the image on a blog!

I hope that once they appear in Epistolophilia, these photographs will seduce my readers as much as they have me. And that you too will come to love these marginal, ghostly and paper friends as much as I have.

[Image: Dunesong]

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On the Dying Tradition of Letter-writing

I’ve been working with letters as literary artifacts for just over a decade now. As a graduate student, my attraction to letters was instant. The very first time I sat down with stack of yellowing missives, I was hooked, and never looked back.

I work with letters because I like the intimacy they afford. Piecing a story together through an unexamined correspondence is a way to tap into untold stories and to break new ground. Reading letters also gives me a glimpse into the ways in which people meld writing and life and make sense of their time on earth. And I’m interested in the ways the big and small combine in letters — how, for example, a letter can give a ground-level view of historical events.

But as we increasingly eschew handwritten letters on paper for electronic correspondence, the materials I use for my research are becoming a bit of dinosaur. I myself have boxes of love letters written on lined notebook paper from when I was a teenager, but mine may be the last generation to be able to say this.

And as I embark on the writing of my third book — my second to use letters as a primary resource — I realize that it’s time to start reflecting not only on what letters say, but on what they are.

I’ve never really cared all that much about physical objects in my work. Whether I read a second-hand copy, a library copy, or a first edition of Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, as long as all the pages are intact, it’s all the same to me. It’s why I could never be an art historian, because the value of objects that interest me has little to do with money, or physical uniqueness.

But now I see that it is no longer enough simply to consider the content of the letters I work with. Because letters are on their way out as a cultural practice, I will inevitably have to start reflecting more seriously on their physical form, the way they travel from sender to recipient, and how the process of letter-writing differs from or in some ways resembles the way we communicate today.

National Public Radio has kick-started this thinking process for me. It’s currently doing a series on the United States Postal System, which is apparently in deep crisis. As part of its Postal series, NPR has curated an on-line exhibit of interesting pieces of mail, called “Mailed Memories: Your Cherished Letters.”

The exhibit includes images of an annual cake-package sent by post, a posthumous birthday card, and a postcard sent to a kid by Allen Ginsburg that was originally addressed to John and Yoko. The last piece in the exhibit is my contribution: a 1947 postcard sent from Siberia to the US by my grandmother. Its tagline: “Finally, a letter from mom.”

It is indeed a cherished piece of mail, and I’m honoured to have it used as part of the piece. You can see the exhibit here.

I rarely write letters anymore myself, and wonder if others do. Share your letter-writing and -receiving stories with me through in the comments section. I’m interested to know about your writing life.

[Photo: Sea Dream Studio]

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Postcard from Siberia

Pictured above is one of my most cherished possessions. It’s a 1947 postcard sent from my grandmother in Siberia, addressed to her husband and children. It was sent to a town in Massachusetts where we had relatives, though at the time my grandfather and his kids (my father among them) were living in the UK. My grandmother wrote their church’s address from memory, I think, and sent it off as a kind of Hail Mary attempt to reach her loved ones.

Amazingly, it made its way out of Stalinist Russia and into the hands of distant cousins in the US. From there, the card found its addressees: my father, my two aunts and grandfather. It was the only moment of communication my grandmother had with her children between 1941 and 1955, when regular correspondence between Siberia and the West became possible.

The back of the postcard reads:

1947.II.16

My Dear Children Birutėlė, Janutė, Algutis and Antanukas [the latter, her husband, is addressed as one of her children, because she had told Soviet authorities her husband was dead],

It made me indescribably happy to learn that you were alive and well. I’m healthy, I work on a farm. In my thoughts and in my heart I am always with you.

The priest, my uncle, is still alive and lives in Liepalingis [Lithuania], as before.

Write to me, all. I await your letters.

Your mother,
Ona Šukienė.

After weeks of working my way through my travel notes from Siberia, I’m now back to my archives: reading my grandmother’s letters, and travelling in my mind across languages, time, space.

My grandmother wrote letters to her children from Siberia from 1955 to 1958, then from Soviet Lithuania from 1958 to 1965, when she joined her family in Canada. The above card marks the first step in their long process of return to one another. For me, now, it marks the beginning of my next stage of writing.

While working through my Siberian travel notebook over the past few weeks, I wrote a great deal in a very short span of time. It was going so well that I didn’t dare stop, question, or even re-read too much. In fact, I was working so fast that I  became uneasy, and started bracing myself for the other shoe to drop.

Well, crisis averted. With the complex tasks of weaving past with present and of melding my life with that of another back in my sights again, the familiar feeling of wading through mud has returned. Writing hurts again and the book resists.

All is well with the world in this regard.

Onward. (Squish.)

[Photo: J. Šukys, Ona Šukienė’s Siberian postcard from 1947, private collection]

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Life-blood: Mary Gordon

Mary Gordon, The Shadow Man: A Daughter’s Search for her Father (Bloomsbury, 1997 [1996]).

I read this book on the recommendation of a colleague who thought it could be useful to my work. She was right: I found that it spoke to me on many levels.

I hadn’t expected to have so much in common with Mary Gordon.

Gordon’s book tells the story of her attempt to reconstruct her father’s life and identity through visits to archives and libraries, by wading through murky memories, and taking by both real and imaginary voyages.

She tells us that she connected to her father first and foremost through writing, and that she had become a writer because of him. But her daughterly love and pride get disturbed when she begins to learn unanticipated truths: that her father was both a Lithuanian Jew (who converted to Catholicism) and an anti-Semite, not an American-born, Harvard-educated once-married Catholic, as she had been told. Though he had indeed been a writer, his texts reveal he was not a very good one. His life revealed that he was not a very good husband. Certainly not a very good Jew.

This is a very honest book, so much so that at times it made me uncomfortable. As I read one bald truth after another, I wondered where Gordon got the courage to reveal so much about the things her father believed, about the lies he told, about family secrets. I wondered whom this book was for and who would care.

But just as I asked the question, I began to care about this family. This moment coincided with the author’s offering up of a portrait of her mother: a woman crippled by polio in childhood and struck by senility late in life Gordon’s discussions of her mother’s body struck me as particularly poignant:

For many years, the only adult female body I saw unclothed was, it must be said, grotesque, lopsided, with one dwarf leg and foot and a belly with a huge scar, biting into and discoloring unfirm flesh. She’d point to it and say, “This is what happened when I had you.” (221)

This mother is a phantom presence throughout the book (a shadow woman of sorts), the third member of the family, overlooked and largely unloved. But with her introduction, the narrative somehow fell into place for me, and the book began to sing, if sadly.

It was then that I started to find all sorts of common threads between my own life and work and Mary Gordon’s.  I began thinking about my own Lithuanian father who died too young, about my posthumous discoveries about his life, about my own processes of reconciliation with the dead, my relationship to Catholicism, to the country my parents left behind as children, and — most unexpectedly — about my relationship to my own mother and her poor body, battered by multiple sclerosis.

I read this book as I was starting to map out the first chapters of my current project, a family history of sorts. Gordon’s baldness forced me to ask: How much do I dare to tell? How much do I have the right to reveal? What do my parents’ stories have to do with the story of my grandmother that I’m writing?

Mary Gordon’s book is, at least in part, about learning to love someone with all their faults. It’s about forgiveness and acceptance, but without being too pretty or tidy. And (something that surprised me), it managed to speak to me on a most fundamental level by reflecting back my own story of intimacy, familiarity, and discomfort.

[Photo: Thomas Hawk]

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