The ProsenPeople

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An Interview with Spencer Wise

Wednesday, August 22, 2018 | Permalink

Spencer Wise headshot and cover of his novel The Emperor of Shoes

Spencer Wise’s debut novel The Emperor of Shoes is the story of a young Jewish shoemaking heir who starts to question the ethics of his family business, which makes its shoes using Chinese labor. The book’s protagonist, Alex, falls in love with a Chinese labor organizer named Ivy, who gets him to think more deeply about himself, his father, and capitalism. I chatted with Spencer about the intersections between his book and his own life; how he approaches writing fiction versus nonfiction; the intricacies of writing dialogue for non-native speakers of English; and Jewish identity, whiteness, and Otherness.

Emily Heiden: Your book largely deals with the issue of identity. At one point, Alex says that perhaps the reason he came to China is to be in a place where he’s so different that he finally belongs: “I pictured myself at peace, in a place where I stood out so goddamn bad that I finally fit in." Can you talk about that moment, about the role of the outsider, and Alex’s search for identity?

Spencer Wise: Well, there is the sense that being Jewish is no longer “different”—and that used to be such a big part of our identity, that we were this unique group. Less than 100 years ago, Jews weren’t considered white. We were completely Other and different. In our rush to assimilate to America—to succeed—that changed. I mean, my parents named me Spencer. It’s an absurdly non-Jewish name.

In Judaism there’s been this sense of self-loathing, the sense that “I’m different and there’s something marking me as Other.” Unlike other minority populations, I think we were able to blend in to the point that we were no longer considered Other. But Alex is longing to be Other again. There’s a self in Otherness; it’s like “I’m somebody now, I’m unique.”

EH: Continuing with this theme of identity, it’s interesting to me that when Alex goes to meet the labor organizer, Zhang, he imagines the lizard on the floor cocking his head as if to say “What’s with the Jew, bub?” instead of “What’s with the white guy?” or something along those lines. Alex himself, on the next page, tells Zhang “the Jewish part is just stories, traditions handed down. For me.”

SW:  In your heart you know what marks you. That’s what comes out when the lizard looks at Alex. I think that, throughout the book, Alex says things that don’t necessarily reflect what he really is. He’s in denial at times. So with the lizard, he has this almost paranoid flash of a moment where he feels like the lizard sees straight through him into his Jewish soul—this very soul that he’s trying to disavow to Zhang as “merely stories and traditions.” So, he’s conflicted. As readers we get that. We almost understand more about Alex than he understands about himself. That’s the dramatic irony that’s fun with a first-person narrator; if they know everything, it’s really boring. So, at times, Alex is proud of his heritage; other times he shuns it. Isn’t that life? It’s not so straightforward. We’re full of contradictions. In fiction, as in life, if you’re going to go into someone’s heart it’s going to be full of hypocrisy, and it’s messy. I guess I don’t see that as a bad thing. I find that interesting and very human.

EH: In the scene where Alex meets Zhang, Ivy is uncharacteristically quiet. Can you talk about the choice to have these two men discussing the best plan for a potential uprising in the factory, when Ivy has been such a key figure in the planning?

SW: I think it’s Zhang’s turn; he needs his time on stage. And Ivy is the only one who can bring the two guys together. She’s on the sidelines for this scene, but we’re supposed to understand she’s vital to the uprising. And, you know, I would love to read a book from Ivy’s point of view, but you really don’t want a white dude writing that book. That would really be a reach for a white Jewish guy from Boston.

EH: Let’s talk about the character of Ivy. Her personality is really charming, really open; she feels fully fleshed-out—and her dialogue is a large part of that. How do you write dialogue? Does writing dialogue for a character who’s a non-native speaker of English change things? How did you handle that during the writing process?

SW: It was so hard. I was so conscious of that. One thing I did to get my dialogue to feel real was I interviewed tons of Chinese people and I recorded it. I also read tons of oral histories, which were really just transcribed interviews. That was immensely time-consuming.

The Chinese characters in my book can’t speak in American colloquialisms. Ivy can’t be like “What’s up dude?” But I chose to make the Chinese characters speak mostly decent English. I worried that if my Chinese characters spoke really broken English  they could end up saying these profound things, but it might be less understandable or sound less intelligent. Also Americans have a stereotype of what “Chinese-English” sounds like from TV and pop culture. I didn’t want to go there at all. So the reader is going to have to suspend their belief and just accept that everyone in the book speaks English pretty fluently.

EH: Fedor, the father in the novel, is a major figure. He’s believable but not necessarily likeable; the book essentially ends with his own son ousting him. What has been your father’s response to the book, as a lot of the book reads as autobiographical?

SW: He’s been the number-one supporter and champion of me becoming a writer. At no point in my life did he envision me getting into the shoe business. He wanted me to get out of it. And of course I picked a really crazy thing to do. 

Although the book is critical of capitalism and global capitalism, one thing that it also does is pay homage to the shoemaking industry, and that’s a huge part of my heritage and my tradition. I think my dad sees it as honoring our family—five generations deep of shoemakers, going all the way back to a shtetl in Russia. When my great grandfather came over on the SS Carmania, he was illiterate, and he had three cents in his pocket. Writing this book was a chance to go into that legacy.

Also, the unlikeable parts of the father in the book are not like my dad at all. I was worried when he saw it on the page that he wouldn’t like it, that he would think it was him. I was thinking “Oh my God, he’s going to disown me and be so pissed.” And then it got published and I think he was just proud. I had bigger problems with other family members who just couldn’t separate the character of Fedor from my dad. It’s not him. He’s the opposite of Fedor. I mean, nothing in the book actually happened. I’m not Alex. Fedor’s not my dad.

EH: NOTHING in the book actually happened? Not even the poison ivy scene?

SW: The poison ivy scene is true. It happened, but I didn’t tell anyone. A lot of what I do in my writing is I embellish it. So: I got poison ivy while making out with a girl in the woods, but no one examined me. But I thought, “Wouldn’t that be hilarious if that happened to me?” That’s taking something from real life and stretching it until it becomes funny.

EH: Okay, so some of it’s based on reality. I confess, when I was reading it, I was looking for those moments in the book that felt like they might be autobiographical. Personally, as a nonfiction writer, I have no interest in or compulsion toward invention, so I’m always reading for the real. But you’re saying you made most of it up? How do you navigate that?

SW: Nonfiction is amazing but I sort of know the plot before I start. When I sat down to write the essay about the time I met Rod Stewart, I knew Rod was going to walk in, act crazy, and I was going to have an existential meltdown because I had no idea what the hell I was doing with my life at the time. With fiction, the plot isn’t there. You have to dream it and it’s hard because there are endless possibilities. So, I sort of let myself imagine all of them and then see which one feels right.

Traveling around China is different from the West in many ways. It’s sensory overload. Like at a tannery, every single sense is bombarded, and there’s a man squatting by the splitting machine and he looks at you with these bloodshot eyes, and it’s all pretty intense. So I tried to just stay open to all the different possibilities of what could happen to my narrator at that tannery.

Objectively, moments and events don’t really count until we make them count. We read into things. We make them matter. So in fiction I’m experiencing the moment, walking through this tannery, and I’m trying to feel for those scenes that matter intensely to my narrator, that challenge, change, or reinvent him. The scenes that count. The things that feel like they were meant to happen.

EH: To go back to the idea of people or events based in the real, what about the character of Alex’s mother? There are some moments that work to create a really believable, emotionally powerful caricature of her. There are also some unflattering moments that reveal the rough edges of the mother and father’s relationship. Does embarking on a project that potentially reveals such sides of a family member’s character ever hold you back from beginning?

SW: It did hold me back for a while, but I think it was Philip Roth who said to write a book your mother will hate. Meaning write so close to the bone, about what is so urgent and intimate and honest and troubling about your conflicted sense of self and identity, that you have to tell it.

Eventually, you go so deep into the rabbit hole that you think, “I don’t even know what’s going on anymore, I don’t know if this will ever get published,” and then finally you’re like, “Let me just create a work of art I’m proud of, that engages the kind of urgent questions I wanted to ask.” And if that resonates with someone, awesome. I wrote it because I had to write it.

Also, about unflattering portraits: some people have told me that what we need are books that depict Jews only in an angelic or heroic light. But that’s not the world, nor is it the business world. People don’t want to think about where their shoes come from, where their things come from. We can’t just tell ourselves hero stories all day long—we have to take responsibility for our place in the world, and that’s part of what my novel is about. As Jews, activism is part of our legacy, but capitalism is also part of our legacy. The Jewish experience is really diverse and complex.

EH: At the book’s end, Alex says he loves Ivy, but she’s told him that he’s not really at home in the revolution. Pages later, you write “She’s gone." Are we to read this as an end to their relationship, or is it meant to be more ambiguous?

SW: I think it’s the end of the relationship. Ivy’s going to lead a revolution for a Democratic China.

A lot of the book is about how awesome China is, and Ivy’s profound sense of losing that. It’s about her losing her own sense of identity and her past in this hyper-capitalist China. And Alex’s sense of losing himself. The question becomes: How far can we drift from the center before we lose every sense of who we are? What Ivy goes to do is for her country. It’s a hopeful ending—not for them, but for China.

New Reviews August 20, 2018

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New Reviews August 13, 2018

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New Reviews August 6, 2018

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New Reviews July 30, 2018

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How American Fairs Became a Breeding Ground for Nazism

Friday, July 27, 2018 | Permalink

By Dawn Raffel

In the early 20th century, world’s fairs were an enormously popular source of entertainment and education. It was where the public was introduced to new inventions and ideas: from the ice cream cone to the milking machine, to the boob tube itself.

President William McKinley, addressing a crowd at the Buffalo World’s Fair in 1901, called the expositions “timekeepers of progress.” As it happened, McKinley was shot by an anarchist at the fair the following day—and although the X-ray machine was one of the new inventions on display, no one knew how to use it on the President. The bullet that doctors couldn’t find led to McKinley’s death from gangrene a few days later.

Meanwhile, at the Buffalo Fair, a mysterious European showman was introducing the east coast to the infant incubator, having first presented this French invention at the Omaha World’s Fair a few years earlier. “Dr. Coney,” born Michael Cohn in Krotoschin, Prussia, would later legally change his name to Martin Arthur Couney. At first, the reaction to the infant incubators was largely positive; Pediatrics and Scientific American lauded the new invention. But one detractor was chilling. An anonymous article in The Buffalo Medical Journal questioned the wisdom of saving premature infants—“weaklings," as they were called. Whereas any good stock breeder raises only “the most sound, healthy, and perfect animals,” the anonymous author continued, medical science was sentimental in helping inferior humans perpetuate their kind. This nascent strain of eugenic thinking (an offshoot of the new science of genetics) would grow uglier, not only dimming the prospects of premature babies but also fueling a war against the “degenerate” and “unfit.”

Between 1911 and 1913, "Better Baby" contests, often sponsored by local eugenic societies, were held all over the United States. Infants were brought to state fair grounds and awarded prizes based on physical characteristics such as height, weight, quality of skin, and shape of eyes, nose, and jaw—the way you might judge a livestock exhibition. Forty-five states, out of forty-eight then in the union, held such contests. Although the emphasis was allegedly on health, the shadow was "master race." One organizer, a Denver gynecologist named Mary Bates, wrote of the contests in terms of her larger goal: to “speed the day when we can have the scientific elimination of the unfit."

Over time, three prongs of eugenics emerged. So-called positive eugenics focused on better prenatal and infant care (with disturbing undercurrents), while negative eugenics led to the horror of involuntary sterilization for more than sixty thousand "undesirables,” including African Americans, Mexicans, people with intellectual disabilities, and those who'd committed petty crimes. American eugenics was robustly funded, including by the Carnegie Foundation. The U.S. government even adopted eugenics-based, and Nazi-influenced policies: In the most exhaustive and horrifying book about the link between American eugenics and the Nazis, Edwin Black's War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race reveals that many American eugenicists were Nazi sympathizers, and successfully persuaded the State Department to limit the number of Jewish refugees they allowed into the country. 

The third prong of the eugenic trident came close to outright murder. In 1917, Dr. Harry Haiselden at German Hospital in Chicago publicly advocated for allowing severely disabled infants to die, even if they could be saved. He not only withheld treatment but also invited the press to watch these children die, on multiple occasions. Privately, some American eugenicists did discuss murder—but they never went that far. 

In 1933 and 1934, Chicago held a world’s fair called The Century of Progress. This isn’t the famous Chicago World’s Fair most people think about with the ferris wheel, which was held in 1893. This second world’s fair took place at the bottom of the Depression. It opened the year Hitler came to power in Germany. It was also the first American world's fair to host a eugenics exhibition, in the Hall of Science. Described as "the self-direction of human evolution," eugenics was explained in four wall panels showing, for instance, good versus “degenerate” family trees.

Meanwhile, Dr. Martin Couney was still out on the midway, fighting for the lives of premature infants with his incubator show. But while the eugenics exhibit was housed in the Hall of Science, Couney’s incubators were considered entertainment. American doctors had largely abandoned the lifesaving technology, and there was scant interest in saving “weaklings.” Couney not only demonstrated repeatedly that premature babies could be saved but he also argued persuasively that they should be. He liked to say he was making "Propaganda for Preemies."

Couney died broke and largely forgotten, but he provided the unconventional inspiration for American neonatology. He had a profound effect on the physicians who would eventually standardize both hospital care and public health policy for preemies. He also saved the lives of an estimated 7,000 American children.

As for the eugenicists, we know where that led.

Dawn Raffel is the author of  The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How a Coney Island Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies.

Unknown / Wikimedia Commons

Readers Remember 'The Jewish Catalog'

Wednesday, July 25, 2018 | Permalink

We recently launched a new Friday edition of our e-newsletter, in which our Executive Director Naomi Firestone-Teeter shares her weekly reading picks and invites subscribers to write back. It's been a great way to connect on a more personal level, We've been thrilled to hear back from readers, whether with their own reading recommendations or their thoughts on a book we suggested. If you're not already subscribed, you can sign up for our email list here.

When Richard Siegel, Jewish educator and co-editor of the "Jewish Catalog" (Jewish Publication Society) series of do-it-yourself guides to Judaism, passed away two weeks ago, Naomi asked readers to share their memories of the Jewish Catalog. Here are some of our favorite responses that demonstrate just how impactful these books were:

"I always felt comforted by and had been spiritually committed to Judaism but The Jewish Catalog infused it with the 'cool' factor, activism and a pluralistic observance. The book was a first step for the seriously engaged Jewish life I've lived. Those '60's and '70s Jewish communal movers and shakers no doubt made a huge contribution toward diversity within our community. I do hope, moving forward, we can continue this path without forgetting kindness, legitimacy of feeling and understanding all sub-groups in our Jewish world. There's much lip-service but not much honesty and introspection." —Susan

"I was a young woman when the Catalog was published. Its with-it way drew me to Judaism, and its challah recipe, now famously known as "Janet's Challah" has become one of my dear friend's own famous challah. Amusingly, I practiced baking this challah for our son's bris. It was huge and barely fit in the oven. But delicious it was, and quite a stunner!" —Janet

"The Jewish Catalog was purchased for the reference collection in our local branch of the library. I know this because I was the reference librarian in charge of buying the books for that collection in 1986. I used it occasionally to answer obscure questions in the days before the internet. It was not easy to find answers in books at that time to cultural questions about Judaism, especially in Arizona with a fledgling Jewish community. It served the purpose of introducing many to Jewish practice in a way that was neither stodgy nor inaccessible." —Sue

"It was 1974/75, I had fallen in love with a young man—not an observant Jew but very staunch in his traditions and desire to have Jewish children and a Jewish home. I am Italian and was raised in a strong Catholic family. I too knew a lot about traditions, family dinners, and the need to honor and respect one's parents. In 1975 I was exploring the possibility of converting to Judaism. The Jewish Catalog allowed me to view Judaism from its unique perspective and opened my heart to a world and life I could not have imagined. We were married after my conversion in 1976, started a family in 1980 and I have had the privilege and joy of making a Jewish home and raising a Jewish family. The Jewish Catalogs accompanied me for all those years." —Carol

"I found The Jewish Catalog to be life-changing. Though I grew up in a wonderful Conservative Jewish home, in a great shul in Pittsburgh, PA, I learned so much from the book. I especially learned what kind of questions to ask, and I shared this with my parents. It was also a great equalizer at college! I went to Clark in Worcester, MA, and when we would see someone had the book, it was an instant connection!" —Sandra