The ProsenPeople

Bagels and Groucho

Friday, March 20, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Judith Claire Mitchell wrote about her thoughts on autobiographical novels and her two decades living in the Midwest as a “passing” Jew. The author of A Reunion of Ghosts and The Last Day of the War, Judith is an English professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Q: How can you tell if a man is Aryan?
A: He’s Aryan if he has the towering height of Goebbels, the slim physique of Goering, and the blond good looks of Hitler.

Okay, okay, it’s not the funniest joke you’ve ever heard. But it killed in 1944, and in more ways than one: If you lived in Nazi Germany, telling it could have cost you your life. Political jokes were essentially illegal in the Third Reich, and you could actually be hauled in to a so-called joke court for telling one. Punishment ranged from imprisonment to death.

Needless to say, this attitude toward jokes wasn’t unique to that rancid regime. Remember Seth Rogan and James Franco’s run-in with North Korea? Very few dictators, it turns out, are fans of skewering wit. That’s why Elie Wiesel says, “The best answer to fanaticism is a sense of humor.”

It’s true that humor is a formidable weapon. It’s also the only weapon I can think of that simultaneously flays the oppressor and provides sustenance to the oppressed. The persecuted, the denigrated, the outcast, those whose humanity is systemically dismissed, denied, or snuffed out, have always told these kinds of jokes even in the face of prison or worse, just as the starving have always stolen bread. The latter provides essential nourishment for the body; the former, it seems, provides essential nourishment for the spirit. Both food and humor turn out to be human necessities.

The food and the humor also happen to be two of my favorite things about being Jewish. We’re much more than those things, of course. But still...nova on bagels and Groucho Marx, Seinfeld and kasha knishes. What’s not to love?

When my agent was pitching A Reunion of Ghosts to editors, he described it as a funny book about suicide. Me, I’d have tweaked that description a little. I see Reunion as a very serious book about the twentieth century as embodied in the stories of four generations of a single family, some members based on historical persons and others of my own invention. The book is about suicide, yes, but it’s just as much about war and random gun violence and cancer and AIDS and genocide and diaspora and alcoholism and isolation and mental illness and sexism and assassination and bigotry and the human capacity for cruelty and pretty much everything else that can go wrong as we make our way through this Vale of Tears.

But I also knew that the narrators of this story would be sisters for whom humor was simultaneously weapon and comfort. They’d love puns and word play. They’d make jokes in the midst of grief and defeat. They’d invent riddles like this one:

Q: Where can you run into all the suffering souls of this sorrowful world?
A: At a Job's fair

We are all, even the most blessed of us, versions of Job. Even the luckiest of us suffer unfathomable loss. There’s not a one of us who doesn’t die in the end.

Yet despite everything, most of us find opportunities to laugh. Bad jokes. Puns. Cat videos.

A generous reviewer has said that A Reunion of Ghost “may sound unutterably bleak...but the novel is not, and it’s filled with...humor.” When I first read those words, I couldn’t help notice that they don’t only describe my novel. They also describe life.

“Praise to life,” writes the poet Adrienne Rich, “though its windows blew shut on the breathing-room of ones we knew and loved.” Sooner or later the windows will blow shut on our own breathing-rooms, too. We know this. And yet, despite that death sentence, we form friendships and fall in love and raise children and are drawn to art and movies and literature, and we tell jokes and we laugh. With full knowledge of how all this will end, we are silly and irreverent. In the face of annihilation we are comedians.

Praise to life! And pass the knishes.

A graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, Judith Claire Mitchell has received fellowships from the James Michener/Copernicus Society, the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, the Arts Institute of the University of Wisconsin, and elsewhere. She currently lives in Madison with her husband, the artist Don Friedlich.

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Some Thoughts About Autobiographical Novels

Wednesday, March 18, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Judith Claire Mitchell wrote about her two decades living in the Midwest as a “passing” Jew. The author of A Reunion of Ghosts and The Last Day of the War, Judith is an English professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing. She is blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

I’m sometimes asked if my novel, A Reunion of Ghosts, is autobiographical. The first time I heard this question I was taken aback. A Reunion of Ghosts is essentially a long suicide note written by three unhappy sisters whose family legacy has left them with a shared burden of shame and guilt. Delph, the youngest sister, believes they are being visited by the sins of their great grandfather—a chemist who developed and personally deployed the first poison gases used in war. Lady and Vee, the two older sisters, don’t believe that they’re cursed, exactly, but they sure don’t think that they’re blessed. The sisters are often witty and droll—dark humor is their saving grace—but they have dreary jobs and drinking problems and no real friends and zero love lives and poor Vee has cancer and... well, things are just not going well.

So what, then, I wonder, are people asking when they want to know if this book is autobiographical? Are they inquiring as to whether I, too, am chronically miserable and alcoholic and suicidal? For the record, my answer is: Unless I am being forced to watch a sporting event on TV, no. None of the characters in A Reunion of Ghosts are inspired by my own life or even by people I know or have known.

And yet, I have to admit I’ve put parts of me into those sisters. The sisters and I are similar in age. They live in a part of New York City where I once lived. They go to the college I attended. Lady has the same wooden dishes that were my first set of dishes, both of us figuring we’d have them forever because they’d never break. Neither of us had considered the splinter problem.

In terms of personality and behavior, the sisters and I share other attributes. Like me, they crack jokes in the midst of dark times. Like me, they are introverted and once they’re home, they have a hard time going out again. Also we share an obsession with certain German-Jewish chemists circa World War I.

This is the way novels come to life. The novelist imbues her characters and their environs with all sorts of borrowed flotsam and jetsam from real life. Some of these details are small—a photograph of a dog attending a wedding that the author once saw—and some are large—the author is diagnosed with cancer (she is fine now) and decides to share the illness with a character. That doesn’t mean the character is the author in any truly meaningful way. For the author, her own cancer is a disturbing reality, but her character’s cancer is metaphor.

And yet, even while I demur at the suggestion that I’m writing some sort of thinly-disguised memoir, I do understand the impulse to ask if a work of fiction is autobiographical even when it seems abundantly clear that it isn’t. The author may not have experienced the specific events she writes about; she may not have had her heart broken in the same exact way as a character has; she may never have been abandoned by a parent; she may even be merrily writing about chemists without having taken a chemistry course in her life. But if she’s going to breathe life into her characters, she has to find a way slip into their skins and see the world through their eyes. That calls for an act of the imagination. Fiction, of course, is such an act. But so is empathy such an act. For me, writing fiction requires empathy for every single character in the book—including the villains. Especially the villains. In fact, if I’m truly writing empathetically, there are no villains.

I think, then, that when readers ask if a story is autobiographical, what they’re actually asking is, How did you manage to make these characters feel whole and complex and idiosyncratic and human? Did you borrow from your life? Or did you actually imagine and make a new life?

It’s a wonderful question when you think of it that way. It’s a reminder that novelists, in writing about people who are not like themselves, can persuade readers to care about people who are not like themselves. Our fictional characters exist not because they are us, but because they are born of our understanding of the human condition with all its sorrows and joys and irrationalities. In that way, then, these characters do come from a deeply personal part of the author. In that way, perhaps all novels are autobiographical.

A graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, Judith Claire Mitchell has received fellowships from the James Michener/Copernicus Society, the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, the Arts Institute of the University of Wisconsin, and elsewhere. She currently lives in Madison with her husband, the artist Don Friedlich.

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I’m Telling Everyone

Monday, March 16, 2015 | Permalink

Judith Claire Mitchell, the author of A Reunion of Ghosts and The Last Day of the War, is an English professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing. She is blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

In 1996, shortly before I left the East Coast for the Midwest, a transplanted Iowan told me how much I was going to love his home state. “The people there are so nice,” he said. “You’ll make new friends in no time. Just don’t tell anyone you’re Jewish.”

“Excuse me?” I said.

“Well, they don’t like Jews,” he said. “But other than that, you’ll love it there.”

I did love Iowa. I also ignored his advice. I’m not sure who my acquaintance hung out with when he lived here, but I’ve now lived in the Midwest for about twenty years—after two years in Iowa, I moved to Wisconsin—and I haven’t found it all that different from anywhere else in terms of anti-Semitism. In fact, when I arrived in Iowa two decades ago, the first time I told a new acquaintance I was Jewish, I didn’t get the cold shoulder, I got invited to a Seder.

I suppose if it were a matter of life or death I’d lie about my background, but even then I know I’d have a hard time. Being Jewish is such an intrinsic part of who I am that sooner or later I always find myself waving my flag.

It’s sort of like the old joke about the elderly Jewish man who enters a confessional and tells the priest he’s just had sex with a young and beautiful woman. “But you’re Jewish,” the priest says. “Why tell me?” “Are you kidding?” the old man exults. “I’m telling everyone.”

That’s my strong preference when it comes to being Jewish: to tell everyone.

But often, in my work, my characters are more reticent. Take, for example, eighteen-year-old Yael Weiss, one of the main characters in my first novel The Last Day of the War, which is set in the aftermath of World War I. Because the U.S. government has appointed the sectarian YMCA to run its military canteens in Europe, Yael changes her name to Yale White and claims she’s Methodist. She thinks she’s just being practical, doing what it takes to enroll in an organization restricted to Trinitarian Christians. If lying and passing and giving up a part of one’s self is what’s required, she’ll lie and pass and become who she’s implicitly urged to be. This being literature, repercussions ensue.

In my new novel, A Reunion of Ghosts, there’s another character who sloughs off his Jewishness, in his case by converting. This character, Lenz Alter, is based on the German-Jewish chemist Fritz Haber, whose work in the early years of the twentieth century led to the development of both nitrogen fertilizer and the first poison gases of World War I. A Nobel Prize winner (for the fertilizer) and a feted German war hero (for the gas), Haber’s conversion was not atypical in an era when many non-practicing Jews identified more as German than Jew. Conversion, of course, was no protection a few decades later, and with the passage of 1933’s Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, which essentially threw Jews out of their jobs, Haber left his beloved Germany, heartbroken and blindsided. He died a few months later in a Swiss hotel. Many believe he’d been on his way to Palestine.

I sometimes wonder whether my literary exploration of Jews who, for one reason or another, find their Jewishness an impediment to be brushed aside has to do with the fact that people don’t always realize I’m Jewish, which means, I suppose, that I might be able to pass if I wanted to. Once (and not in the Midwest, but in a big liberal city on the East Coast), I was buttonholed by a woman who was railing against Jewish lawyers. As she carried on, I was very aware that, in the event she should run out of breath and actually allow me to speak, I’d have a choice to make. I could simply change the subject. Lovely weather we’re having. How’s about those Mets?

Instead, when I was able to get a word in, I said, “Yes, I’ve had experience dealing with Jewish lawyers, too. My brother, for example.”

It took her a moment to do the math. Then she reddened, which I first took to be embarrassment, but, no, it turned out to be umbrage. “Well, how was I supposed to know,” she snapped as if I’d done something sneaky and, therefore, typical. “You don’t have a big nose.”

Whether or not I have a big nose may be up for debate. But what I definitely don’t have is a Jewish last name. That, rather than my features, is what I think throws people off—as, indeed, it was meant to. Long before I was born, my father and his brother, children of Orthodox Jews from the Ukraine, believed they weren’t finding work in their fields due to their surnames. They legally adopted the nondescript Mitchell, and—nu!—jobs for everyone!

I get why my father changed his name. His suspicions about his industry were hardly unfounded. And “Americanizing” one’s name (the word seems to mean the complete opposite of what it's supposed to) was done more frequently back in the 1950s. Tony Curtis. Burt Lancaster. Judith Mitchell.

Mitchell has been my last name since birth, and I’m not planning on changing it back to my paternal grandparents’ name at this point in my life. Still, for an “I’m telling everyone” Jew, going by Mitchell can make me feel a lot like a “don’t tell anyone” Jew.

Given all this, I guess it’s no surprise that when I was a kid, I was fond of a song by Jacques Brel that included this lyric:

If we only have love,
we can reach those in pain;
we can heal all our wounds;
we can use our own names.

Fiction has given me the opportunity to explore the outsider status that too many of us—Jews, yes, but hardly Jews alone—struggle with. After all, fiction is essentially a means of artful truth-telling, and there is no more important truth for each of us than “this is who I am—and I’m telling everyone.”

A graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, Judith Claire Mitchell has received fellowships from the James Michener/Copernicus Society, the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, the Arts Institute of the University of Wisconsin, and elsewhere. She currently lives in Madison with her husband, the artist Don Friedlich.

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