Monthly Archives: November 2011

Dear Carolyn Heilbrun aka Amanda Cross,

  I owe you my life, or at least my life story. In Writing a Woman’s Life, I recognized the silencing script that had defined my own life. My dad, whom I idolized, used his lawyer’s training and patriarchal power to silence my mother. Not surprisingly, my first husband muted my voice too. He tired of listening to the stories I told of my struggle to learn to teach and accused me of having a “pseudo-sophisticated New York-New Jersey-Jewish sense of humor,” apparently a very bad trait to have in Connecticut in 1962.

Decades later when I read Writing a Woman’s Life, I wondered if you’d been a fly on the wall of our apartment. You describe how until the 1970s, scripts for women’s lives differed from those for men and how these scripts kept us from participating in public discourse, kept us powerless. Then you go on to explain how these scripts also limited the way biographers, autobiographers, and historians, female and male, wrote about women’s lives. Your insight and analysis inspired me to write Going by the Book where I finally tell the teaching stories that mean so much to me. That this memoir was accepted for publication and won an award validated my newfound public voice, and I became a professional writer.

Not content to have launched me as a nonfiction author, you also are partly responsible for my becoming a writer of feminist academic mysteries. An English prof myself, I was no stranger to campus politics, sexism, and silliness, so I loved Death in a Tenured Position featuring Professor Kate Fansler. When I dreamed up menopausal sleuth Bel Barrett and a story to put her in, I remembered Death in a Tenured Position. Like that novel, mine would skewer academic pretensions and sexism not at Harvard, but at a humble urban community college in a poor county. Unlike fortyish, chic, childless, and wealthy Professor Kate Fansler, Professor Bel Barrett would be a sweaty midlife divorcée coping with “adult” kids.   

As you acknowledged Kate to be your alter ego, Bel would be mine. Where I have always been fearful, Bel would be brave. No pre-feminist script would prevent her from going after murderers or from making public her experience of that then unmentionable passage: menopause. The silence surrounding menopause as recently as twelve years ago infuriated me as did the marginalization of midlife and older women. What fun I had sending brave Bel on dangerous quests and making her the booming voice of my sweaty fifty-something sisters!

Your example and analysis continue to influence my work. The three Jewish women whose stories I tell in The Bones and the Book, a historical mystery, also struggle to escape patriarchy-perpetuating scripts that would deprive them of meaningful public roles. Writing about these women was not the giggle fest I enjoyed as I wrote about Bel’s crusades. The limited lives of women before feminism are no laughing matter, so at times I wept even as I typed.

Thank you for writing books that helped give me the push and the power to write my own. And because I just celebrated yet another birthday, thank you for pointing out that for some women who write, aging gives us the opportunity to use “our security, our seniority to take risks, to make noise, to be courageous, to become unpopular.”

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg.

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Filed under feminist fiction, mystery, Uncategorized

Dear Michael Chabon,

 

 Thank you for liberating my inner Jew! A few years ago I experienced an adult bat mitzvah and moved to Washington State. These two experiences, a belated reunion with my Jewish roots and a Diaspora-worthy sense of dislocation, inspired me to write something different from the comic cozies featuring a menopausal protagonist that I wrote in New Jersey. I’d write the Great Northwest Feminist Jewish Mystery, a herstorical whodunit. I was well into this project when I discovered that you’d already written it: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.

 Giving rein to professional jealousy over your novel’s deliciously high concept would be silly. I love the image of Sitka, Alaska as The Promised Land and the way you recreate Yiddishkeit there. How clever is that? And loathing you for your ability to write perfect dialogue or for your superior knowledge of all things Jewish is not in my moral make-up. I’m not the petty sort who would despise you for describing people, including a possible Messiah and your protagonist Meyer Landsman, so vividly that I reread some passages several times just to savor your artfully arranged sequences of telling details. What reader could resist Meyer who “has the memory of a convict, the balls of a fireman, and the eyesight of a housebreaker”?  Nor do I hold it against you that your story made me laugh and cry which, at my age, is a risky business. And who am I to resent a man for twisting the testosterone-tinged formula of the noir into a tale in which a woman saves the day and the “hero” is happy about it? Not my style.

 Instead, I took the high road and used your fabulous book to keep me from being discouraged when members of my writing group complained about the occasional Yiddishisms in my manuscript or when my own inner voice, a one-woman chorus of self-doubt, chimed in: “No one will publish this, Jane. It’s too Jewish. It’s not Jewish enough. It’s too commercial. It’s not commercial enough. There’s not enough sex and violence. There’s too much sex and violence. It’s not like your other books. . . .”

            The Yiddish Policemen’s Union offered me a timely perspective on Jews as outsiders and on the significance and nature of a Jewish homeland presented in the highly palatable form of a really good mystery. You make the many dreads of the Diaspora accessible to younger Jews and non-Jews alike, no small feat. I’m also grateful to you for using your Pulitzer- enhanced prestige and overdose of storytelling talent to legitimize mysteries in the minds of those who insist crime fiction is not “literary.” The Yiddish Policemen’s Union disproves that notion. I forgive you for writing it. Thank you and mazel tov

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under feminist fiction, Humorous fiction, Immigrant story, Jewish fiction, mystery