The ProsenPeople

The Importance of Coming-of-Age Novels

Friday, August 04, 2017 | Permalink

Sharon Leder, author of The Fix: A Father's Secrets, A Daughter's Search, has been guest blogging throughout the week as part of the Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

In this final segment of my Prosen People series, I will discuss how reading coming-of-age novels encouraged me to change the structure of my novel, The Fix, entirely, and to drop the character of adult Sara in favor of the young protagonist who witnesses first-hand her father Josef’s affliction of heroin addiction.

Anzia Yezierska, Johanna Kaplan, and Myla Goldberg: Daughters in The Authors’ Coming-of-Age Novels:

I learned from the Jewish women authors in the “A Mind of Her Own: Fathers and Daughters in a Changing World” seminar series how to bring scenes of the child Sara and her father to greater prominence in the novel. It was an obvious solution, but like Poe’s purloined letter, it was not on my radar screen! The novels by Yezierska, Kaplan, and Goldberg were all coming-of-age stories, narrated mostly by the young protagonists themselves. I needed to change The Fix’s point of view! The young Sara—not the adult Sara—needed to tell the tale. Was I bold enough to perform the “surgery” and leave the adult Sara on the operating table because she was no longer alive? Could I revive the character of Sara as a child, starting from the moment she learns of her father’s addiction and then trace her unfolding understanding of him and of the meaning of his illness?

Yezierska, Kaplan, and Goldberg had their female protagonists—Sara Smolinksy, Merry Slavin, and Eliza Naumann—all follow a similar narrative arc: Each develops autonomy in rebellion against her father and follows a life path guided by her own will but ultimately comes to see her father in new ways, more maturely. This is what I wanted to show in the arc of Sara Katz’s life: rebellion against her absent father for whom she harbors unresolved anger and rage, and ultimately reconciliation with that same father once she gains greater distance and understanding.

Bread Givers

Sara Smolinsky in Yezierska’s Bread Givers (1925) is the youngest but most outspoken of Reb Smolinsky’s four daughters, the one he calls Blut-und-Eisen, blood and iron, because of her strong will. I followed the pattern Yezierska set when she began her story with an eight-year-old narrator who finally explodes against the tyrannizing of her Orthodox father when she is seventeen. In this scene, Sara is speaking up for herself and her three intimidated sisters:


“For seventeen years, I had stood his preaching and his bullying. But now all the hammering hell that I had to listen to since I was born cracked my brain ... Should I let him crush me as he crushed them? No. This is America, where children are people.”

Those ages, eight and seventeen, became markers in my character’s life as well. My Sara first learns at age eight of her father’s heroin addiction, a condition she doesn’t understand at all. By seventeen, she’s attending the funeral of her father, a victim of heroin overdose. By this time, her needy mother and grandmother have turned her into a “parentified” child who has learned more about the family wreckage her father’s condition causes than any youngster should know. At the funeral, she says to her younger brother:

“I can’t believe it. Daddy was just with us at your bar mitzvah. And now he’s gone ... "

"How do you think Daddy died? … Did Daddy ... do it ... to himself?”

“You know about things like that?” Sara asks in surprise.

He nodded.

“We just don’t know. Maybe we’ll never know ... Ma and Grandma didn’t want an autopsy ...”

Never in the past could she speak to her father about what she knew—his shameful life. Never could she find the right words, the right time. She had imagined approaching him that very week. And now it was too late. … Anger welled up in her—anger at her father for leaving them. And later, when Sara’s guidance counselor at school suggests she write to her deceased father to process her lingering anger, Sara says in her letter:

“I blamed you. ... Mom was willing to endure the rough periods, even your hurting her at times, when you were desperate for money. I can’t believe I watched you hit her! ... How could you? Oh, Dad, when will I stop blaming you for not giving up heroin totally?”

O My America!

In Jewish Book Award winner Johanna Kaplan’s novel O My America! (1980), the tables between father and daughter have turned. Merry Slavin’s father, Ez Slavin, is the flamboyant radical this time, an anarchist/pacifist whose Old Left politics in the 1930s morph into New Left politics in the ’60s. He’s an inveterate individualist constantly fighting off media attention that he claims will threaten his ability to think. After Merry’s mother dies after giving birth to her, Merry seeks greater intimacy with her absent father, a public political personality who soon partners with other women and has other children with them. Ez, who believes the nuclear family is a bourgeois construct, refuses to play traditional father with Merry.

I adopted two of Kaplan’s structural devices. The first is having the father die at the beginning of the narrative. Kaplan opens her novel with Merry waiting in her New York apartment for her father’s phone call to arrange a place for them to meet. Instead, the call comes in from the police, who have brought her father to a hospital where he dies of a massive heart attack. I open The Fix with Sara and her family waiting for Josef’s Sunday morning visit, now that he’s living with Sara’s grandparents. Instead, Sara’s mother, Helen, gets the call from her brother-in-law, who has found Josef dead from a heroin overdose in his father’s butcher shop. The deaths coming at the outset set up the question of what these men’s lives were really like. Both protagonists, Merry and Sara, have devoted much of their young lives to uncovering the mysteries surrounding their fathers’ identities.

The second is the failure of the funeral scenes in both novels to yield the true picture of the deceased, and what the impact of lack of full disclosure is on loved ones. The honorific eulogies by those who knew Ez Slavin professionally present a stark contrast to the flawed man we have met through Merry’s eyes. Likewise, Josef’s funeral scene in The Fix highlights the discrepancy between the ill man who has terrified Sara’s childhood and the good husband and father praised by Rabbi Korn’s falsehoods of omission.

Bee Season

Finally, Myla Goldberg’s Bee Season (2000), a New York Times Notable Book, features protagonist Eliza Neumann, a grade-school student at McKinley Elementary who is second fiddle in her father, Saul’s, eyes to her older brother, Aaron, until her remarkable and uncanny ability to spell difficult words becomes an “item” of note to her teachers. Eliza has always desired more of her father’s attention, but once she has it, the attention turns sour because Saul’s doting becomes a helicopter dad’s means of control. We learn that Eliza’s mother, Miriam, also has needed to “free” herself from Saul, turning to solitary activities like letter writing, shopping, and housework at odd hours. Bee Season taught me to balance my attention in The Fix on the parenting Sara receives from both parents, Helen and Josef. Bringing in the seemingly less dominant character, the mother, at the end of the novel can make use of the strategy of surprise if the mother is exposed in some unexpected and ironic way. Toward the close of Bee Season, the reader learns how psychologically ill Miriam has become “from years of being alone” avoiding the family dynamic in an unusual way. In The Fix, Helen’s insistence on keeping Josef’s addiction a secret, even after his death, turns out to be her own way of veiling her complicity in the addiction pattern, her years of enabling.

The Fix: A Father’s Secrets, A Daughter’s Search

I am left with gratitude for having had the occasion to read with care these novels by great Jewish writers and to discuss them with thoughtful audiences. As I reflect on my writing process, I see how the magical osmosis of influence has enabled my work to become invested with elements I found both consciously and unconsciously in these stimulating works of fiction. My revision of The Fix as Sara’s coming-of-age story enabled me to find the right point of view for getting in touch with my character’s childhood trauma and for communicating it convincingly. By reading fiction, I was able to reach more of the essential truth of my own story. The Fix is based on my life.

Sharon Leder taught English, women’s studies, and Jewish studies on several campuses of the State University of New York before beginning the second half of her life as a fiction writer and poet and releasing her novel, The Fix, in 2017 (KiCam Projects). As a teacher, she wrote books and articles on women writers, on the literature of the Holocaust, and on women in academia. In her fiction, Leder uses her life story as the oldest daughter of a heroin addict to help her imagine ways for her characters to survive conflict, tragedy, and trauma without losing sight of the supports they need to prevail. You can learn more about Leder at SharonLeder.com.

Taking Inspiration from Tevye's Daughters

Wednesday, August 02, 2017 | Permalink

Sharon Leder, author of The Fix: A Father’s Secrets, A Daughter’s Search, will be blogging here all week for the Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series. Check back here throughout the week to read more from her.

In my previous post, I wrote about the deep profiling of character that Philip Roth achieves in American Pastoral, enabling the reader to understand how a privileged youngster of the 1960s becomes a terrorist. Merry Levov’s evolution convinced me I could find a way to make my character, Sara Katz, more sympathetic than the radical feminist in the original version of my manuscript of The Fix: A Father’s Secrets, A Daughter’s Search. Today, I’ll discuss Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem’s skill at using dialogue to develop the characters of Tevye’s daughters in Tevye the Dairyman (1894-1914), and how I then amplified dialogue between my young Sara and her father, Josef, a heroin addict, in flashbacks in my novel to illustrate my characters’ complexities.





Sholem Aleichem: Tevye the Dairyman’s Daughters

Aleichem, storyteller par excellence on whose Tevye the musical "Fiddler on the Roof" is based, taught me I needed more dramatic dialogue between Sara and her father to make their characters more convincing, more alive. Tevye’s dialogues with his daughters brilliantly illustrate the way parental influence really works. Each time a defiant daughter of Tevye marries, his great conscious obsession to have his daughter marry rich is undermined. The father-daughter dialogues reveal that the daughters are much more like Tevye than he is willing to admit. In choosing husbands, the daughters express Tevye’s own fantasies and values, even his unconscious ones. For example, Chava, the daughter Tevye loves the most, is ironically the most transgressive because she marries Chvedka out of her religion, a goy! Aleichem’s sparkling, humorous dialogue shows Chava taking to heart—more than Tevye ever imagined—her father’s yearnings for a more equal and democratic Russia free of unfair class structure, especially when Chava says to Tevye in defense of Chvedka, “God … created us all equal.” Tevye’s response shows his witty manipulation of language, “‘So He did,’ I say. ‘He created man in His likeness. But you had better remember that not every likeness is alike.’”

How could I use dialogue to show that in spite of Sara’s father’s addiction, Josef also could be a positive influence on Sara’s activism? The Tevye his daughters defy is a complex, many-layered character whose bottom line is his love for his family. Could I follow Aleichem’s model and create a more complex Josef? I did not want to present my protagonist’s father as a villain. Could dialogue show the necessary nuances?

The published novel, The Fix, includes many more scenes filled with dialogue between the child Sara and her father than did the original manuscript of 2006. One such scene occurs on a Saturday, a Shabbos afternoon. Josef takes Sara to Manhattan with him to get Johnny Mathis’s signature at a Sam Goody’s record store and to meet customers on the Upper West Side to whom Josef, a butcher, delivers kosher meats and poultry. But on the drive home, he makes a stop in Greenwich Village, where Sara sees a black man quickly pass something to Josef-something he places in his pocket.

“These people seem different,” Sara says out loud. “Do they all get along together?”

“Down here,” Josef says ... “lots of different people mix with one another.”

“This is the first time I've seen a Negro man with a white woman,” Sara says. ... Wouldn't it be nice, she thought, to have a Negro friend? ... “What about those other people on the street?” Sara asks. “Like those two men holding hands. Do you know them?”

“They’re homosexuals, Sara,” Josef says. “They like to be with people of the same sex. Good people come in all colors and sexes. The important thing is not to judge someone because of what you see on the outside.”

When Josef and Sara arrive home, and Sara’s mother, Helen, asks if all is okay, Sara excitedly shouts, “We went to Greenwich Village and saw homosexuals and lots of Negroes with white people.” Helen’s smile turns to a frown, and she asks suspiciously why Josef has taken Sara to the Village. He replies that Helen can’t keep Sara in a shell forever. Sara is ten, and though she knows her father has sneaked something wrong into his pocket, the positive lessons she learns about integration and tolerance stay with her for her entire life. In the process of making his connection, the drug-addict dad has taught his daughter how to be a human being.

Because I saw how the use of dialogue could enable me to humanize Josef, I created more and more scenes between the young Sara and her father. I was then left with many other new flashbacks and dream scenes of the young Sara’s life in school, of her relationships with friends, and of her relationship with her mother, who relied on Sara as a confidante. I wondered how I could integrate this new material with the struggling adult, Sara, who found it difficult holding onto jobs in the field of women’s studies when the conflicts she had with male administrators threatened her career. I found my answer after studying the “A Mind of Her Own: Fathers and Daughters in a Changing World” seminar’s coming-of-age novels by Anzia Yezierska, Johanna Kaplan, and Myla Goldberg that I will discuss in my final Prosen People segment.

Sharon Leder taught English, women’s studies, and Jewish studies on several campuses of the State University of New York before beginning the second half of her life as a fiction writer and poet and releasing her novel, The Fix, in 2017 (KiCam Projects). As a teacher, she wrote books and articles on women writers, on the literature of the Holocaust, and on women in academia. In her fiction, Leder uses her life story as the oldest daughter of a heroin addict to help her imagine ways for her characters to survive conflict, tragedy, and trauma without losing sight of the supports they need to prevail. You can learn more about Leder at SharonLeder.com.

Jews in Narnia

Friday, December 16, 2011 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Lavie Tidhar wrote about his fixation on historical figures and being compared to Philip K. Dick. He has been blogging here all week for JBC and MJL.

Michael Weingrad made something of a splash last year in writing “Why There is no Jewish Narnia” at the Jewish Review of Books. Of course, Weingrad misunderstands Narnia. To explain the seven novels succinctly, let us refer to the following equation:

Jesus was Jewish (therefore) Aslan was Jewish (therefore) Narnia = Jewish Autonomous Oblast (and) The White Witch = Christianity/Rome. QED.

But before you give me the combined Nobel Prize for Physics and Literature, let’s think about that seeming paradox. The fields of both science fiction and fantasy are filled with Jewish writers, from Isaac Asimov (can you get more Jewish than that?) to, erm, William Shatner. (Yes, he wrote TekWar! No, the Federation is not proud). Why, then, do so few genre works deal with Jewish universes? Where are the vampires who laugh at a crucifix, the Space Navy with Stars of David proudly painted on the hull of the ships? Imagine the ending for 2001: A Space Odyssey: “My God! It’s full of Jews!”

Or the Jewish immigrants passing en masse through the wardrobe to get to the safe-haven of Narnia, kicking some holy lion butt in the process. No?

Well…

Yes and no.

Joel Rosenberg’s novel Not For Glory (1988) features a galactic corps of Israeli mercenaries from the planet of Metzada (no, really, it does!). And one of the most obscure of science fiction’s Jewish masterpieces (its only one?) is the unjustly neglected The Tsaddik of the Seven Wonders, by Isidore Haiblum, concerning the comic adventures of two galactic operators trapped in Jewish history, and turning to the eponymous Tsaddik (and his travel maven Greenberg) for help. If Rosenberg’s novel is, how shall we say, not so great, Tsaddik is a true classic, one I return to with joy every time (appropriately enough, I have both the English and Hebrew editions, both long out of print).

Israel is enjoying something of an awakening in terms of Jewish fantasy and science fiction. Recently it has produced the first true masterpiece of Israeli SF – the novel Kfor by Shimon Adaf. It is an astonishing novel, following the lives of several characters in the Jewish city/country of Tel Aviv in five hundred years’ time, and combining science fiction, detective fiction, poetry and absolutely wonderful, heart-breakingly beautiful writing. It is unlikely to ever be translated.

Another novel by Adaf, however – the massive Sunburnt Faces – will be published in English next year by PS Publishing in the UK, the same small publisher that had taken such a chance on my own Osama. Small publishers can afford to take risks larger ones can’t, and to me this is nothing less than an event, an opportunity for a new audience to appreciate, for the first time, Adaf’s unique talent.

Do we need Narnia? This is what we ask ourselves after a couple of pints at the pub. What’s the real estate value on Cair Paravel? And just which law firm represents the White Witch’s interest? We picture Maurice Levy from The Wire as he defends yet another faun or centaur caught in the deadly world of illicit Turkish Delight wholesaling.

Let them have their Narnia, I say. We have the Tsaddik of the Seven Wonders, and we now have Shimon Adaf.

And we’ll always have Shatner.

Lavie Tidhar’s most recent novel is Osama (PS Publishing). It has been compared to Philip K. Dick’s seminal work,The Man in the High Castle by both the Guardian and the Financial Times. His other works include steampunk trilogy The BookmanCamera Obscura and the forthcoming The Great Game, all three from Angry Robot Books, the novella Jesus & The Eightfold Path (Immersion Press), and the ground-breaking Jewish fantasy collection HebrewPunk. He grew up on a kibbutz in Israel and has since lived in South Africa, the UK, Vanuatu and Laos. He currently lives in London, and tweets too much.