Category Archives: Immigrant story

Dear Blog Readers,

Portland, Oregon radio host Ed Goldberg interviewed me about The Bones and the Book for Author! Author! and here’s the link: http://www.allclassical.org/author-author/jane-isenberg/

Ed’s a very skilled interviewer, so it was fun chatting with him.

I’m working hard on a new book now, so I post blogs less frequently, but you’ll see another note to a muse soon.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under feminist fiction, Historical mystery, Immigrant story, Jewish fiction, mystery, Uncategorized, Western novel

Dear Sandra Dallas,

True Sisters

True Sisters

Thank you for True Sisters.  As a new member of Women Writing the West, I read it to prepare to attend that organization’s 19th annual conference where both you and I would receive Willa Awards. When we met, I told you how much I enjoyed your stirring novel, but there wasn’t time to tell you why. There are several reasons. While reading it, I felt as if I were striding along beside your fictional Mormon women pulling a handcart through the snow on their real and perilous trek from Iowa City to Salt Lake City during the freezing winter of 1856.

Who knew from handcarts? Not this New Jersey native, still trying to fill in the canyon-sized gaps in her knowledge of western history. But I soon learned

Handcart

Handcart

that these flimsy contraptions designed to carry things and to be open to the elements were the cash-poor pioneers’ covered wagons and all that the Mormon Church could afford. The few novels I’ve read featuring Mormons have been written by lapsed Mormons. Not surprisingly most Mormons they’ve written about are also of the lapsed variety, but in your acknowledgements you explain that you are not a Mormon, and in your novel the women and men pushing those puny uncured wood carts up snow-covered mountains and across frozen rivers are not lapsed.

Most are true believers including Louisa who considers her husband, their leader, to be god’s spokesperson. Jessie, who loves farm life, is tired of the dried-up

Mormon Missionaries in England

Mormon Missionaries in England

church and farmland of England, so she finds the young Mormon religion and fertile American soil appealing. Nannie and Ella, two Scottish sisters, are also drawn to the new American religion. Ella is swayed by the Mormons’ claim that theirs is the “pure religion Our Lord founded so long ago” and Nannie is persuaded by the rhetoric of an engaging young male missionary. Something of a cynic, I was struck by both the effectiveness of the missionaries’ pitch and the credulity of those who buy it. Anne, a pregnant mother, is the only one of the women you detail who is not moved to become a Mormon. Nonetheless Anne feels compelled to leave her home in England to follow her husband and children to America after he sells their family business without consulting her. Before reading True Sisters, I had no idea that Mormon missionaries proselytized abroad, but they did, and so these women and their families are not only pioneers, but emigrants as well.

And emigrants are just a vowel away from immigrants whose stories I know, so I wasn’t surprised to learn that their losses begin on the transatlantic crossing when Anne’s young daughter falls ill and dies. The loss of a child is unbearable and yet must be borne. This little girl’s death is just the first of many losses suffered on this terrible journey. Like most emigrants, they bring with them a few precious items from the homes they left, but to make room in the small carts for the aged and infirm, foodstuffs, and other necessities, they repeatedly have to leave behind their treasured mementos in piles beside the trail.

But there are far worse losses. Many fall victim to hunger, illness, cold, and injury. Near the end of their trek, those still alive are stacking not only belongings,

Woman Pulling Handcart

Woman Pulling Handcart

but bodies “like logs in the snow.” Death is gender blind, but childbearing is not. Pulling a hand cart is especially hard if you’re pregnant. So is starving. And breastfeeding. And what about giving birth in the snow by the side of that same handcart?  The now verboten Mormon practice of “celestial marriage” or polygamy was not gender blind either. The prospect of being taken as a sister-wife or having one’s husband take a sister-wife haunts the women. A few live seemingly contentedly as sister-wives, but being a sister-wife is no woman’s first choice.

In Memoriam Brigham Young

In Memoriam Brigham Young

Because many of the problems the travelers face are the fault of their leaders who are all men, you make it clear without being in the least didactic that female leaders might have made different decisions and that patriarchy itself is flawed. Even so True Sisters is not an anti-Mormon screed. And thanks to your careful reading of archival material, your sense of balance, detailed description, and convincing dialogue, the story you tell about this awful journey is ultimately uplifting. We see the women bond to help one another and their men bear the painful experiences they share. These are tough, smart, and resilient women, true sisters to one another and true heroes to us all. And you give them powerful voices to tell of their experiences so they can take their deserved places in the pantheon of western heroes and so they can inform and inspire transplanted writers like me.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under American classic, Coming of age story, feminist fiction, Immigrant story, Western novel

Dear Ivan Doig,

Work Song

Work Song

Thank you for Work Song! Aware of my desire to explore western writers, several of my friends insisted I read it, and I’m glad they did. In this first person novel about Morrie Morgan, a young former school teacher making his way in Butte, Montana just after WWI, you demonstrate that it’s possible for a man to write historical fiction about the American west without including descriptions of flaying, scalping, and other brutalities.

Perhaps our narrator Morrie avoids these atrocities because when he arrives in Butte in 1924, copper mine owners, not cowboys or Comanches, are the villains. One doesn’t think of Montana’s iconic Big Sky as a backdrop for such a grim urban industrial complex. The inhumane working

Miner at Work

Miner at Work

conditions in the mines are hidden deep underground and the mine’s environmental damage is as yet unforeseen. Nevertheless, the setting is Dickensian.  But Morrie is no small orphan boy condemned to slave in the bowels of the earth. You assign that bit part to a lad so skinny he’s named “Russian Famine.” Morrie himself is a grown man, a handsome bachelor, classically educated, with a past just shady enough to make him interesting and a tongue of sterling silver. In the movie he’d be played by Hugh Grant.

Grant’s British accent would work because most of the folks in Butte during this chaotic postwar interval are immigrants drawn there by the guarantee of employment in the mines. Ignoring the fact that Montana is literally a word in another language, I never thought of The Treasure State as an immigrant magnet. And I rarely, if ever, thought of Butte at all. In fact, before reading your novel all I knew about Butte was that once a notorious red light district flourished there. But in Work Song I learned that in 1924 Butte was home to 100,000 miners, almost all immigrants.

As a former resident of Hoboken, New Jersey, that old immigrant mill town and port city where On the Waterfront was filmed, I’m no stranger to conflicts between labor and management. So I can say with some assurance that your approach to the often bloody battles between unions and owners is relatively gentle. Hugh Grant is no Marlon Brando. The Butte you describe is real enough and brutal enough but you spare us the mine owners who remain like puppeteers, in the background pulling the strings. Your decision to keep your story and your protagonist literally above the fray interests me because when I set my Bel Barrett mysteries in my beloved Hoboken the place was still gritty with the residue of its own past. And, like you, I opted to keep that grit in the background and so made Bel a sassy sort determined, like Morrie, to rise above it.

The Most Irish Town in America

The Most Irish Town in America

I loved Morrie’s take on Butte, when the town’s immigrant workers pour from the mine at the change of shift. “It was as if Europe had been lifted by, say, the boot heel of Italy and shaken, every toiler from the hard-rock depths tumbling out here. Old habits had followed them across the ocean, husky Finns clustered with other Finns, the Cornishmen not mingling with the Italians, on across the map until each of the nations of Butte came to its own home street.” You paint these newcomers with a light brush, making us smile at the old Welsh miners who share Morrie’s table at the boarding house and again at the Norwegian funeral director who slants his advertising towards the Irish rather than towards his own countrymen because “Norwegians don’t die enough for him to make a living. The Irish, they’re another matter.” Your treatment of Butte’s foreign born workers interests me because my next book is set in Washington State’s Yakima Valley, another place where jobs, here in agriculture, attract immigrants and where the changing demographic increases the potential for conflict.

Butte, Montana

Butte, Montana

After reading Work Song, I see Butte also as a place where the ongoing struggle between worker and owner that defines capitalism created an indelible monument. Morrie recalls his first view of the place from the train . . . “the dominant rise of land, scarred and heaped and gray as grit which was referred to in everything I’d read as the Richest Hill on Earth, always grandly capitalized. . . . It was a butte called Butte.” I found other descriptions of Butte that I also liked, especially one in which Morrie compares the “long-legged black steel frameworks over the mineshafts” atop the hill to “a legion of half-done miniatures of Eifel’s tower.”

Mine Shaft

Mine Shaft

I identified with Morrie, an accountant, who chooses not to work for the mining company so as to distance himself from its unpopularity.  And I was amused by his description of his first job as the designated crier at funerals and glad when he got a more appropriate one assisting the wealthy and eccentric head of the town library. Both “white collar” positions contrast greatly with the dangerous drudgery going on below ground. But it’s not always possible for Morrie to avoid confronting the fact that potentially hazardous explosions are being conducted underground because the boarding house is often shaken by them. In fact, for Morrie, Butte is an interesting place to visit, but it’s unlikely that he’ll remain there even though he is quite smitten by the pretty widow who runs his boarding house. Fortunately he stays just long enough to teach the union members a song, a work anthem of sorts, to rally and sustain them as they strike for fair wages and safe working conditions. And there are a few other fairy tale touches at the end which I fully appreciate and which Ms. Jane Austen will not mind your borrowing.

Butte Public Library

Butte Public Library

Just as I identify with Morrie, I also identify with you because instead of focusing only on the grim, you opt to people your pages and your beloved native state with good hearted souls who make us realize that even in a hellish place like Butte, the American dream lives on in the minds and hearts of our newest arrivals. Thank you for reminding me to look for it in the denizens of Yakima.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under American classic, Immigrant story, Uncategorized, Western novel

Dear Junot Diaz

This Is How You Lose Her

This Is How You Lose Her

Your collection of short stories, This Is How You Lose Her, made me nostalgic. Yunior, the young Dominican narrator of the first tale, “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars,” reminds me of my community college students in Jersey City where I used to teach.  Yunior is, to hear him tell it, “. . . not a bad guy.  . .  . I’m like everybody else: weak, full of mistakes, but basically good.” And like a few of my students, Yunior goes on to write about the especially big mistake he made when he cheated on his devoted girlfriend Magda and she found out. She attributed his infidelity to what she and her girlfriends believe: all Dominican men are cheaters, a view shared by several of my female Dominican students who sometimes wrote about similar mistakes their Dominican boyfriends made.  The matter of sexual monogamy comes up repeatedly in the stories and, to your credit, you seek no simple resolution.

Yunior finds visits to his country of origin restorative no matter how poor and corrupt it is, so he hopes he and Magda can repair things on a trip to Santo

Dominican Scene

Dominican Scene

Domingo. Instead, their vacation only serves to reveal their different expectations and needs. On the story’s final post-break-up page, Yunior, now dating again, gets a letter from Magda telling him of her new boyfriend. This missive “hits like a Star Trek grenade and detonates everything.”

Star Trek Grenade

Star Trek Grenade

After reading it, Yunior recalls ruefully how, at the end of their sad holiday, he was still insisting to Magda that their relationship could work if they tried. It’s the optimism and determination of the youthful immigrants I taught that I miss as well as their insider’s take on the vibrant lives they lived right under my nose but not always on my radar.

My voyeuristic nostalgia for proximity to the experiences and personalities of my immigrant students grew as I read the other stories. There’s one about two young brothers experiencing their first snowstorm from the dubious vantage point of their isolated and ghettoized tenement apartment next to a landfill. The troubled state of their parents’ marriage and the cold cruelty of white flight are reinforced by the strange freezing whiteness of the deepening snow.  Each story has a slightly different take on the same theme: Yunior’s lifelong struggle to come of age as a bi-cultural writer, professor, son, and lover.

But Yunior is different from many of my students in that he is linguistically gifted in two languages which he blends in sentences that are literate and witty. Here’s Yunior’s rant that opens the final story in the collection, “The Cheater’s Guide to Love.” “Your girl catches you cheating. (Well, actually she’s your fiancée, but hey, in a bit it so won’t matter.) She could have caught you with one sucia, she could have caught you with two, but as you’re a totally batshit cuero who didn’t ever open his e-mail trash can, she caught you with fifty! . . .

Telltale Clue

Telltale Clue

Maybe if you’d been engaged to a super open-minded blanquita you could have survived it . . . . but your girl is a bad-ass salcedeña who doesn’t believe in open anything; . . .” Here you demonstrate your mastery of slang and colloquialism in two languages in perfectly grammatical and correctly spelled English befitting the savvy, culturally aware college prof that Yunior is. And here you enable me, a reader unfamiliar with three of the four Spanish words in the passage, to get what you mean without a dictionary. Like the French word fiancée, near the top of the excerpt, these four Spanish words are not italicized, probably because although they’re foreign to me, they’re not foreign to Yunior. And folks lucky enough to be bilingual like Yunior turn to their home language for personal and highly charged topics like their love lives. Finally, in this quote, Yunior displays the self-deprecating wit that reveals self-understanding, a kind of comprehension I’m partial to. It didn’t surprise me that by the end of this story and the book Yunior resumes writing and, after reading his opening pages of what probably became one of the stories in this book, he reports that for once he doesn’t want to burn them or give up writing forever.

Oops!

Oops!

You’ve given us a portrait of the writer as a Dominican-American young man, and I love it. I only wish that you’d written it before I retired from teaching so I could have shared it with my students. Instead I have to be satisfied with reading it for my own purposes which include learning that sometimes it is our mistakes, not our triumphs, that make the best stories.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under American classic, Coming of age story, Humorous fiction, Immigrant story, Uncategorized

Dear Art Spiegelman,

Maus I

Maus I

 If my mother and father were still alive I think your Pulitzer Prize winning Maus books recounting your father’s life before, during, and after the

Maus II

Maus II

Holocaust would astound them more than the ten-dollar movie ticket, a black president, or cell phones. It’s not your subject matter that would dumbfound them, but your chosen format. Maus I: My Father Bleeds History and Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began are what my parents disparaged as comic books and forbade me to read or buy.

Forbidden Fruit

Forbidden Fruit

My mother, a former school teacher, was sure that reading comics would instantly deplete my vocabulary and distract me from reading “real” books. My father refused to allow even one thin dime of his hard-earned money, including my allowance, to be squandered on “that trash.” Of course, my curiosity was piqued, and I devoured the adventures of Archie, Betty, Jughead, and Veronica at the home of my next-door neighbor with that furtive lust kids reserve for the forbidden.

            So why didn’t I read Maus I when it came out in 1986? It got great reviews, earned you a Pulitzer, and was responsible for the transformation of the much-maligned comic book into the graphic novel. I’m not sure what kept me from your book, but I suspect that I didn’t think I would assign it to my students, almost none of whom were Jewish or European and, after reading The Diary of Anne Frank and Sophie’s Choice, I didn’t care to read Holocaust stories. Even as an adult, I found them terrifying and depressing in spite of the fact that back in 1986, I thought anti-Semitism was over.

Jews as Mice

Jews as Mice

Now, a quarter of a century later, I know anti-Semitism lives on and I decided to read your Maus books. I found them fascinating and am so grateful to you for making the effort you describe and for being so forthcoming about your own thorny relationship with your dad. I’m also very grateful for those black-and-white drawings. You are an acclaimed visual artist and by depicting Jews as mice, Germans as cats, and Poles as pigs, you somehow condense our stereotypes of the animals and the humans and remind us of them without having to constantly reword or qualify them. You are not afraid to evoke those stereotypes either, and the fact that they’re politically incorrect does not detract from their effectiveness.

Thus your medium leaves you free to concentrate on what happens when your characters converse and what is going on in the background. Your

Yinglish Word

Yinglish Word

father’s speech with its overtones of Yiddish and Polish is familiar to me even though my parents’ English was uninflected. It becomes clear in your dad’s transactions with you that his life experiences have left their mark on his everyday acts: eating, sleeping, talking, managing money, and relating to those he loves. To be a survivor is no cakewalk. So it follows that to be, like you, the offspring of two Holocaust survivors, one of whom killed herself, isn’t either.

Although I am very glad I read Maus I and II, I am also glad it didn’t take me too long. I didn’t want to linger in those trains and trucks or at Auschwitz or even in your dad and Mala’s kitchen in Rego Park or their cabin in the Catskills. Reading your books is a little like looking at scans of one’s broken bones or a suspicious cluster of cells. One wants to know the worst and yet one doesn’t, so one looks quickly. I did not dwell on your illustrations but scanned them as I read the dialogue in the balloons and in the rectangular spaces enclosing your dad’s narrative interjections.

While reading I was very aware of your scribbling notes or taping your dad’s answers to your questions. I share with you the desire to preserve the past, especially the Jewish past, as it was actually experienced by those who lived it. That’s why I relied heavily on oral histories of Seattle Jews archived by the Washington State Jewish Historical Society at the University of Washington when researching material for The Bones and the Book.

Pulitzer Prize

Pulitzer Prize

I suspect that my parents would have to admit that by telling your father’s story so graphically, you have done us all a great service. Thank you.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under American classic, Coming of age story, Immigrant story, Jewish fiction, Uncategorized

Dear Jamaica Kincaid,

See Now Then  A Novel

See Now Then
A Novel

I didn’t exactly enjoy reading your controversial book See Now Then: A Novel, but I’m glad I read it and glad that you persevered for the decade it took

Trophy Wife

Trophy Wife

you to complete it. Some reviewers panned it as a purely personal fusillade of fury aimed solely at exposing and humiliating your socially prominent ex-husband after he dumped you. I see it differently. To me, your book is fueled by the pain and rage of all the powerless, and who is more powerless than the middle-aged wife and mother, dumped in favor of a younger woman? I’ll tell you who: the brown-skinned, middle-aged, immigrant wife and mother who lost the love of her own mother and is dumped in favor of a whiter, younger woman. Such a dumpee is the epitome of powerlessness─ unless she’s a really good writer. And you are such a writer.

You’ve always been able to express scathing sentiments in the perfect, grammatical sentences of the English schoolgirl, a reflection of the British education you received on Antigua when it was Briton’s colony. My students, many from islands in the Caribbean, and I used to marvel over how brilliantly you skewered Brits and Antiguans both. You attacked the former for displacing Antiguan culture with Anglican mores, books, and history and the latter for keeping the worst aspects of colonial rule after the colonizers were long gone but letting their excellent library and educational system decay. You even managed to work your distaste for colonialism into your books on gardening such as My Garden (Book). Who else would look at a hollyhock growing in Vermont and recall harvesting cotton as a child in Antigua?

Antiguan Stamp 1942

Antiguan Stamp 1942

And you’ve always written movingly and, often angrily, of characters and events that are recognizably and unabashedly autobiographical. You did not spare your mom or your brothers from your acid critiques. So it’s not surprising that the defection of your husband, son of your onetime American benefactor and father of your kids, should inspire a novel that reads like a cri du coeur from your own hurt and hurting heart of domestic and erotic darkness. It took creativity and guts to fashion an unusual novel from the ruins of your abandonment.

Heracles

Heracles

Your use of names and mythology is provocative. Mr. and Mrs. Sweet are often anything but and their progeny, the “young Heracles” and the “beautiful

Persephone

Persephone

Persephone,” have twisted versions of the qualities that make their namesakes memorable. The athletic Heracles suffers from ADD and his affection for the plastic soldiers that come with Happy Meals borders on addiction. Persephone, daddy’s girl, is easy to imagine reigning in the netherworld when, old enough to know better, she curses her mother for doing the writing that helps finance their middle class lifestyle.

Fueled by fury, your novel is powerful, your sentences Faulknerian tirades crammed with surreal snapshots of life as seen through the eyes of your third person narrator and through those of the Sweets. Mr. Sweets envisions his “beastly,” “bitchy” wife decapitated, her severed head greeting him on the yellow Formica counter in their kitchen. Mrs. Sweet envisions her spouse as a balding rodent, scurrying around filled with loathing for her, for their son, and for life in their New England village. She also envisions herself as deformed with a crooked spine, bent shoulders, too-long legs, and flared nostrils resting “like a deflated tent” on her “wide fat cheeks.” You even articulate the adolescent Heracles and Persephone’s hatred of their mom’s writing life so the reader can see how they curse the very vocation which has sustained their family and how much they fear her power to expose them.

Power of the Pen

Power of the Pen

I suspect conjuring up and articulating your own version of the violent imaginings of all these characters required you to call upon your store of writer’s power. This power is not the fleeting edge granted to the young and beautiful, but rather it is the lasting power of the really good novelist. Like many male authors who have fictionalized their relatives in the process of asserting authorial power, you have hung up an imaginary version of your family’s dirty wash to dry in the front yard of your book and in so doing, you too have created memorable fictional characters who live and breathe fire on the page.

Astronomical Clock

Astronomical Clock

And these characters will live on, and that is partly what, I think, your book is about. The present, or Now of your title, eventually morphs into the past and becomes the Then, only a memory, as subjective and fleeting as love itself unless it gets captured and crystallized on the page. Not every dumped ex-wife has the writing chops to do this, but you do. You turn your pain into potent prose images that linger in the hearts of your readers. I will remember your novel and use it as a lesson in how to make a powerful story, a modern Grimm’s fairy tale complete with ogres and witches, out of a lousy situation. Thank you.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under American classic, feminist fiction, Immigrant story, Uncategorized

Dear Gary Shteyngart,

Super Sad True Love Story

Super Sad True Love Story

You’d think I’d be angry with you for the blast of satire that begins your novel Super Sad True Love Story and forces me to face the elegiac music heralding our nation’s abrupt decline. And I was furious, for as long as it took me to read how Lenny Abramov, your 39-year-old balding and paunchy narrator, the book-loving son of hard working Russian Jewish immigrants like your parents, knows no better than to fall for adorable 24-year-old Korean-American Eunice Park. “Eunie,” whose hobby is shopping, has an abusive father and a degree from Elderberry College where she majored in Images and minored in Assertiveness. Eunie is America’s future on steroids while Lenny is our past.

Serious Shopper

Serious Shopper

I’m grateful to you for writing this offbeat immigrant love story even though it occurs in a future that makes me fear for the eventual health and safety of my five grandchildren. How will they manage in the America you foresee where the very wealthy live forever and the rest of us die young? Where “unimportant” people are wired with electronic “äppäräts’ transmitting information about everything from their innermost thoughts to their life expectancy to anybody interested? My grandkids love printed books which, in your barely literate America are obsolete.

Even the youngest of this bubbe’s babies’ babies has learned to pay his debts or face consequences if he doesn’t. What will he make of our debt to China, so huge that the Chinese refuse to wait any longer for recompense? Of the rioting of Manhattan’s ILNWs (Individuals of Lower Net Worth) during the resulting credit crisis? Of the National Guard policing the Big Apple’s streets in tanks? And how will my sweet moppets feel when they see me and Papa and their other grandparents literally kicked to the curb as “unneeded people?”

I forgave you for making me face America’s grim future when I got hooked on Lenny’s narrative voice as he shares his diary with us. I’ve written a novel partly told by an

Diary

Diary

immigrant Jewish diarist, so I know well the pitfalls an author risks by creating the sort of person driven to chronicle her/his travails and then letting that genie out of the bottle to narrate that author’s precious novel. But you knew what you were doing. Lenny’s very schlubiness makes him easy to identify with and credible too. A guy who admits right off the bat to being a balding, middle-aged man of average height and above average bmi, is both familiar and believable to me. Lenny’s message may be threatening, but as a messenger, he himself is not.

Middle Aged Guy

Middle Aged Guy

How could I be scared by a guy who elaborates on how “unnoticeable” he is? He tells us that to get the attention of the “upper society” clients he solicits for his employer, a corporation claiming to extend indefinitely the life and youth of these well-heeled clients, he “must first fire a flaming arrow into a dancing moose or be kicked in the testicles by a head of state.” Lenny is not only a reliable and unthreatening narrator, but a funny one. So when he falls hopelessly in love with a totally inappropriate woman, I’m further disarmed. His doomed romance with Eunice does indeed make for a super sad true love story.

Or Lenny is a Hamlet for our youth-obsessed and health-fetishizing times, literally deciding not to be, not to prolong his youth and forestall his death by undergoing the treatments his company hawks. Rather he opts to exist as a mortal, a regular human who will die when his time is up. It

Snake  on a Forked Stick

Snake on a Forked Stick

takes guts to embrace life which is, after all, often sad and always terminal. I am reminded of our inescapable mortality by the reams of paper that arrive in my snail mailbox every day. These missives are pleas for me to subscribe to publications endorsed by prestigious university medical schools and purport to be able to help me ward off disease and the effects of aging. There is even one promising to advise me on which modern medications are the “worst.”  These envelopes nest in my mailbox like serpents, ready to strike so their venom can activate my worst fears. It is with an imaginary forked stick that I carry these poisonous pamphlets into our garage and drop them unopened in the recycling bin. When virtual versions of these same serpents slither onto my computer screen, I delete them. I have nothing at all against modern medicine, but, like Lenny, I do not want to make a lifestyle limited to self-maintenance and the hopeless pursuit of longevity and immortality.

Super Sad True Love Story might well be titled Super Sad True Love Stories because Lenny and Eunice’s romance is not the only one you relate. You also tell of the immigrant’s love for his adopted nation and his disappointment when the safe and happy harbor that is America self-destructs and so becomes just another place to flee. Thank you for a powerful read that will stay with me as I struggle to write my own version of what happens when the melting pot that is America boils over.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Dear Anouk Markovitz,

I Am Forbidden

Thank you for I Am Forbidden. It can’t have been easy for you, a born and raised Satmar Hasidic, to write this astonishing saga that spans 70 years and two continents, two worlds really. One is our modern world where, in an orgy of free will, we confront a myriad of choices about everything from what to

GuidingGoodChoices

eat, wear, read, and believe to what to teach our children. The other world is a medieval theocracy where a manipulative rabbi manufactures a convenient miracle and preys on the fears of his traumatized congregants to coerce them into unquestioning obedience to outdated laws. Unlike the critics who have praised I Am Forbidden for its evenhandedness, I see it as a beautifully written and imagined condemnation of the Satmar Hasidism for what amounts to fanaticism fostered by deceit, ignorance, and desperate longing for the families killed in Satmar, Hungary during WWII.  To me your novel is a poignant critique of fundamentalism.

But it’s more interesting than most such critiques because you turn to history to explain the origin and staying power of Satmar Hasidism. And you focus not only on how

Sperm

women suffer in this community, but also on how Satmar beliefs affect the intimate lives of men. You open your story during World War II in Satmar where a devout teenaged boy has a wet dream in spite of having lashed his hands and feet to the bed frame to prevent him from committing this sin. Semen is only for procreation  to speed the repopulation of this community decimated by the Nazis.  A rabbi has decreed that “He who emits seed deserves death.” Decades later this same taboo makes it sinful for another male character to have a test to determine the viability of his sperm after his wife has not conceived during ten years of marriage. Not content with supervising men’s emissions and women’s menstrual cycles, the rabbis mandate positions and sexual pleasure limiting the former to missionary and forbidding the latter.

You’re generous to your characters when they endure, indeed, demand this way of life because you show how most of them suffer from what,

today, we know as post-traumatic stress. You describe one little boy watching his toddler sister killed with a pitchfork inches from him and hearing his mother’s final screams as she too is killed. A little girl sees her pregnant mother shot down while trying to board a train and finds her father tied to a post and left to die after being tortured by the dreaded Iron Guard. It’s not surprising that these two orphans grow up desperate to believe that if they are very, very good, when the Messiah comes, they will be reunited with their pierced, shot, and castrated relatives who will be whole and healthy once again.  You don’t blame the survivors and this reader doesn’t either.

Well, I do, a little. The small girl, who never forgets watching her parents die at the hands of Jew haters, grows up in the Satmar community where her father arranges her marriage to the young man who recalls seeing his sister impaled and hearing his mother’s dying screams. In spite of the love these two have for one another and in spite of their faith, they run afoul of the regressive Satmar reproductive rules with predictably tragic results. It is not their faith in God that is the problem, but their faith in these rules. This misplaced faith is a kind of mass delusion brought about by the trauma of seeing their parents and community cruelly annihilated. This delusion flourishes in mandated ignorance and fears of modernity and masquerades as faith in God. The Satmar are like children who seek safety under the bed while their house burns down around them. If they don’t look at the fire, it cannot destroy them.

Another of your characters, the young daughter of the nocturnal emitter, suffers a brutal beating from her father, now a rabbi himself, for riding a bicycle on the Sabbath.

Whip

Not surprisingly she grows up to question rabbinic authority, to read forbidden books, and, when she reaches marriageable age, to leave her home, family, and the Satmar community in Paris for the United States. Here she goes to college and becomes a film maker and professor living alone in a New York studio apartment and a country home. Does she miss her family? Yes. Would she return is she were allowed? No. Can she live a rewarding and meaningful life estranged from her family of origin and childless and, perhaps, manless as well? Yes.

It’s scary to think of an entire community of PTSD sufferers just across the bridge from Manhattan and determined to remain separate from the evil influences they think are rampant only in the outside world. At a time when globalization, scientific breakthroughs, climate change, and wars waged in the name of religion are changing the way we all live, these people’s muddled medievalism is ill-timed and even dangerous. Like many other fundamentalists, the Satmar Hasids seem ill-equipped for life in the diverse democracy that took them in. I admire the courage you show in taking readers into the hearts and minds of the Satmar and then taking us out again. You make that journey memorable.

Firecracker Exploding

There is a lengthy, complicated tale I want to tell, and in I Am Forbidden you show me how to make a long, complex story quick and explosive like a firecracker going off in the reader’s head. Thank you!

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under Coming of age story, feminist fiction, Immigrant story, Jewish fiction, Uncategorized

Dear Jean M. Auel,

The Clan of the Cave Bear

Clan of the Cave Bear was like my first date with my second husband, so good that I didn’t want it to ever end. The plight of the orphaned and homeless five-year-old Cro-Magnon girl Ayla gripped me. And the customs, rituals, and beliefs of the Neanderthals who find and adopt the child fascinated me. I read Clan in the early Eighties and got my teenaged daughter hooked on your Earth’s Children series too. But she’s not the only one with whom I shared your research-based stories of Ice Age life.

The others I introduced to your take on our prehistoric ancestors were community college students in a course called “Cultures and Values.” Most had jobs

Neanderthal Man

and/or families competing with college for their time and energy. Imagine their dismay when, after buying the book, they saw how long it was. They protested. I insisted. Of course, by our next class most had read far more than I assigned because, like my daughter and me and a zillion other readers, they were hooked. Ayal’s survival engaged them too, and your detailed descriptions of hunting, healing, mating, cooking, and worshiping astounded them. These descriptions reflect the research you did in anthropology, geology, and paleontology, and make those complex sciences accessible.

Neanderthal Cave-Croatioa

But it’s your storytelling that makes them matter. You make us realize that this tale you tell of a clan in a cave is our story, the human story, a backward glance into our very own family album. And we like who we see there or most of the family anyway. Our Ice Age ancestors weren’t the savage cave dwellers of myths and movies. Rather, most were folks very like us─ caring, familial, hard-working, and status conscious with customs and beliefs rooted in survival, tradition and faith. But like some of our relatives, Neanderthals weren’t all paragons. They were capable of envy and all were condemned by their brains’ structure to an overreliance on historical memory and a corresponding shortsightedness about the future.

Your research-based suppositions about pre-historic male-female relationships─ women are excluded from the Clan’s worship services and must kneel to ask permission to speak to a man, serve as pack animals when the Clan is on the move, care for children, gather and prepare food, AND submit to sex whenever a passing man indicates a “need”─ generated heated discussions. Many of us recognized vestiges of these patriarchal customs in our own families.

Herbs Once Used for Contraception

But my late Twentieth Century students living in the age of AIDs when it was hard to avoid sex education had a really tough time understanding how our ancestors could be so wrong about where babies come from. Clan members worship spirits and at birth each receives a totem, the spirit of an animal, from the Clan’s shaman. This protective spirit is represented by a small sculpted critter worn on a leather strip around the neck to ward off harmful spirits. For conception to happen, a man’s totem must overcome his mate’s. This totally invisible and literally out-of-body battle of two spirits has nothing to do with human biology and everything to do with the totemic spirit’s perceived prowess. Clan members make no connection between a man using a handy woman to relieve his sexual needs and the pregnancies that often result. Students were skeptical until I reminded them of how many “enlightened” and “modern” men and women are surprised to find themselves prospective parents.

Jewish Studies

Clan of the Cave Bear sensitized my students to how environment and human needs shape our culture and determine what we value. Not surprisingly, your work sensitized me in much the same way and was much in my thoughts when I finally dared look into my own family album, something I had resisted doing for at least half a lifetime. My research made me confront factors that influenced Jewish culture in Europe and then in America and see how those same factors shaped the priorities of the two people who raised me. Years later, these revelations about persecution, exile, loss, assimilation, and survival informed The Bones and the Book.  Like Ayla, Aliza Rudinsk becomes an outsider who must adapt to her new surroundings without the support of family and the security of familiar landmarks, language, and customs. And like Ayla, she wears a talisman of sorts around her neck.

Thank you for your important and catalytic research and writing.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under Coming of age story, feminist fiction, Immigrant story

Dear Zadie Smith,

White Teeth

I read White Teeth first at a lovely lakeside resort in Maine where my husband and I used to vacation for a week every summer. There we retreated from the many stresses of our workaday urban lives. There one afternoon I lay prone on a glider on our porch beside the same loon-friendly lake Steven King views from his home. Digesting a fabulous lunch I didn’t make or microwave, I started your novel. I was transported back to 1975 to a heavily trafficked intersection in London similar to countless intersections in the New York metropolitan area we’d just fled. Not exactly my idea of vacation reading. But then I found sluggish post prandial me laughing my head off while bearing witness to the aborted suicide attempt of one Alfred Archibald Jones.  Not only did you make Archie’s failure to self-destruct amusing at the exact same time that it was pathetic, but you also definitively answered a question I’ve often pondered: What Makes Shit Happen?

As I read on, you answered another question for me too. Or maybe I should say you validated my sense of the role of a novelist in our diverse society. I always thought

From Cuban Santeria Museum

it was our job to reflect our vision of the world, not to tailor that vision to what we imagine readers might like. (That’s why I’ve never even been tempted to write about a menopausal vampire!) But that summer I was still writing The Bel Barrett Mystery Series and had submitted a proposal to my editor for what would become Hot and Bothered. The plot depended on the practice of Santeria, the mix of Catholicism and African religion that many immigrants from the Caribbean bring to America and practice. At that time there were still many practitioners in Hudson County, New Jersey where my

East London Anti mosque Protesters

series takes place. I was fascinated by their rituals and beliefs. Alas, my editor found Santeria “too exotic,” and I conceived another plot for the novel. But in White Teeth you reflect the beliefs, rituals, and histories of several immigrant groups and social classes as well as the particular patois of their members. Nothing is ‘too exotic” for you to mirror or skewer, and as a longtime urban community college prof, I recognized the fluid world your Bengali-Brits inhabit. Those characters themselves are plausible rather than exotic. Reassured, I kept your example in mind as I wrote Hot and Bothered and Hot Wired in which Bel ventures into the worlds of strippers and rappers respectively.

Years later when I began The Bones and the Book, I again found inspiration in White Teeth.For in that novel you roam freely throughout world history as

Geneology Book

one must when peopling a novel with descendants of colonials and crusaders. I marveled anew at your knowledge and appreciation of how memory distorts history and affects how the past influences the present. In The Bones and the Book I include characters representing three different generations of Jewish immigrants to Seattle and move backwards and forwards in time as they maintain and/or shed rituals and beliefs some editors would no doubt deem “too exotic.”

Present-racial America

I also enjoyed your next novel, On Beauty. Again, I marvel at your ability to capture the zeitgeist around you, in this case, the “post racial” world of American-Anglo academics in a New England college town. Even more, I marvel at your sense of humor. Jon Stewart aside, it’s not easy to be funny about serious issues like racism, elitism, betrayal, sexism, ageism, and the decline of the liberal arts but, as in White Teeth, you manage it. Thank you.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under feminist fiction, Humorous fiction, Immigrant story