Notes from #AWP18, Part I: “Difficult History,” a panel on Jewish fiction

15 Mar
Flowers in Delray Beach

Flowers in Delray Beach

I’m back home after a whirlwind book tour that ended with AWP in Tampa. Michael and I drove up from Delray Beach through the Everglades, hoping to spot alligators, and though there were none, pelicans abounded.

We arrived in time for me to catch one panel Thursday afternoon, “Difficult History: Jewish Fiction in the Alt-Right World,” which began with brief readings from each panelist. Emily Barton read from The Book of Esther, an alternate history in which a Turkic Jewish warrior state that disappeared in the Middle Ages existed into August 1942. Simone Zelitch read from her novel Judenstaat, another alternate history, this one set in 1980 in the Jewish sovereign state established in the province of Saxony in 1948. Amy Brill read from Hotel Havana, about Jewish refugees in Havana in the 1930s and ’40s, highlighting the fresh pain German Jews felt compared to Polish Jews, since Polish Jews had always been considered Jewish rather than Polish, whereas German Jews had thought of themselves as German. And Irina Reyn read from a work-in-progress ending on this note: “A Russian woman doesn’t wait. A Russian woman acts.”

On the question of what is Jewish fiction, Zelitch quoted a character of hers: “We don’t bow down. We cross borders. We remember.” Reyn recalled her unhappy Jewish day school experience as a Russian immigrant who never felt she belonged (I totally related to this, being neither a “real” American or Israeli at my elementary school); she said, “Jewish fiction is constant negotiation: where do you belong?”

Brill remarked that as a reform Jew who went to Sunday school and never really understood her bat mitzvah asked: how do you handle writing a character that is either less than or more than your own religiosity? Barton said that for The Book of Esther she generated 90 questions and found a rabbi willing to discuss them all with her; then she showed the finished manuscript to another rabbi. She said that after revision and publication she still got things weirdly wrong. Oy! On the question of how much to explicate for the reader, Barton said she wants Christian Americans to know what’s like to be a religious minority: “I looked up pentecost; you can look up havdallah.”

Barton also made a point I feel strongly about (and have written about in Salon and Jewish in Seattle): it is important to revisit history and re-enliven it. Alternate history, she suggested, is one way to get around Holocaust fatigue. Zelitch added, “Judaism has to be more than the Holocaust and Israel,” that we should look to the international Jewish experience and the refugee crisis. Reyn then touched on “diasporic anxiety,” the need to be more Jewish than you really are in order to connect with Jews in a new place (again, something I totally relate to since moving to Seattle from New York, and touched on in an essay for The Rumpus). Zelitch added that today dystopian fiction seems like a cop out and the challenge is to write engaging utopian fiction, that we need to see powerless people taking power and people need to lose themselves in this kind of story. Before opening up the discussion to audience questions, Brill said: “The arc of justice is not necessarily moving on its own. We need to push it.”

It was certainly an invigorating panel! One or two more posts to come…

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