The online lit­er­ary world has been atwit­ter (please par­don the pun!) about the changes — some are call­ing it cen­sor­ship — that appear in a new edi­tion that presents updat­ed” ver­sions of Mark Twain’s clas­sic nov­els, Huck­le­ber­ry Finn and The Adven­tures of Tom Sawyer. The change that has attract­ed the most dis­cus­sion is the new book’s replace­ment of the word nig­ger” with slave”; a sec­ond mod­i­fi­ca­tion is the sub­sti­tu­tion of Indi­an” for injun.” (For gen­er­al sum­maries, I’ll point you to news items from The New York Times and Pub­lish­ers Week­ly; for a sam­ple of some of the com­men­taries, I rec­om­mend an AOL News col­umn by Tayari Jones, a blog post by The Chris­t­ian Sci­ence Mon­i­tors Mar­jorie Kehe, and the mul­ti­ple con­tri­bu­tions fea­tured with­in the NYT Room for Debate forum.)

I’ve fol­lowed the flur­ry of arti­cles and com­men­taries with inter­est for many rea­sons. But here, I want to focus on one. It is both per­son­al and pro­fes­sion­al, and it involves Mish­pocha,” the con­clud­ing sto­ry in my new col­lec­tion of short fic­tion, Qui­et Amer­i­cans.

In Mish­pocha,” pro­tag­o­nist David Kauf­mann, a son of Holo­caust sur­vivors, recalls an incident:

It had hap­pened a few years ear­li­er, when [he and his wife] had been vis­it­ing [their daugh­ter] at school and spent an extra day and night in Boston on their own, and as they’d walked down a rel­a­tive­ly qui­et yet decid­ed­ly urban street after din­ner, a group of teenagers — teenagers whom he’d instant­ly imag­ined must cause night­mares for their par­ents, tat­tooed teenagers with heads shaven and cloth­ing ripped — strode up along­side them, their ring­leader chant­i­ng, KILL THE KIKES, KILL THE NIG­GERS, KILL THE FAGS.” And David had seen his wife’s head turn toward them in out­rage; he knew that in about one sec­ond she would open her mouth with the con­fi­dence of a woman with blood­lines root­ed in the land of the free and the home of the brave, and so he’d yanked her arm — hard, hard­er maybe than he’d real­ly had to — because what you learned from immi­grant-sur­vivor par­ents like his was that it was bet­ter to be qui­et, bet­ter not to give crazy peo­ple any rea­son to get any crazier.

Many oppo­nents to the changes to Twain’s work have argued that the word sub­sti­tu­tions dis­tort the his­tor­i­cal record. As a ner­vous debut author in an era when using cer­tain words can destroy a career, I draw encour­age­ment from that stance. Because, despite the fact that fic­tion writ­ers are often instruct­ed not to counter crit­i­cisms of their work with the protest that it real­ly hap­pened that way!”, I will say this about the fic­tion­al inci­dent in Mish­pocha“: It real­ly hap­pened that way.

Not to David Kauf­mann, of course. To me. And not in the 1880s. Dur­ing the 21st cen­tu­ry. And it hap­pened in one of the most polit­i­cal­ly pro­gres­sive com­mu­ni­ties in the Unit­ed States: Cam­bridge, Massachusetts.

Recall, from yesterday’s post, that I am a grand­daugh­ter of Ger­man Jews who immi­grat­ed to the Unit­ed States in the late 1930s. There’s lit­tle doubt that just as this fam­i­ly back­ground has per­me­at­ed my writ­ing, it has influ­enced my per­son­al­i­ty and world­view. Which helps explain why, when those teenagers strode up beside me, and their ring­leader recit­ed that awful litany, I, an edu­cat­ed grown-up in her thir­ties, said noth­ing. Not one word.

Short­ly there­after (but still about two years before I began writ­ing Mish­pocha“), I received a schol­ar­ship and trav­eled to Prague for a writ­ing work­shop. At some point — I no longer recall what prompt­ed the dis­cus­sion — I men­tioned this deeply dis­turb­ing inci­dent in class. My class­mates, whose back­grounds reflect­ed at least two and quite pos­si­bly all three of the groups tar­get­ed in the list of epi­thets, were out­raged. But some of them seemed almost as upset with me — for hav­ing remained silent — as they were with the per­son who had uttered the words in the first place.

Abso­lu­tion came from our remark­able work­shop leader: Arnošt Lustig. He lis­tened to me, and he lis­tened to my class­mates. And then, this man — who sur­vived There­sien­stadt, Auschwitz, and Buchen­wald — said that yes, one must fight back. But, he said, one must also live. (I can­not men­tion Arnošt Lustig with­out rec­om­mend­ing his extra­or­di­nary nov­el, trans­lat­ed as Love­ly Green Eyes, which I read in Prague that sum­mer. I trea­sure my auto­graphed copy.)

Six of my collection’s sev­en sto­ries have been pub­lished pre­vi­ous­ly. Only Mish­pocha” is appear­ing for the first time, which means that no mag­a­zine or jour­nal edi­tors (or pay­ing read­ers) have yet both­ered to take issue with my choice to repeat the same ter­ri­ble words on the page that I heard on the street. My pub­lish­er raised no objec­tions, so to some extent, I had stopped wor­ry­ing about how this ele­ment of the sto­ry might be received, and how I might respond to any crit­i­cisms it might evoke.

Until now. I har­bor no illu­sions: I’m no Mark Twain, pro­tect­ed par­tial­ly by virtue of my his­tor­i­cal rep­u­ta­tion. I’m just a debut author with a book of short sto­ries pub­lished by a brand-new press hard­ly any­one has heard of. But I hope that the sup­port that Twain is receiv­ing now from those who, for a vari­ety or rea­sons, don’t want to see his writ­ing expur­gat­ed will extend to my work, and to me.

Eri­ka Drei­fus’s lat­est book, Birthright: Poems, was pub­lished by Kel­say Books in Novem­ber 2019. Her short-sto­ry col­lec­tion Qui­et Amer­i­cans was named an Amer­i­can Library Association/​Sophie Brody Medal Hon­or Title for out­stand­ing achieve­ment in Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture. An Adjunct Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at Baruch Col­lege of The City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York, Eri­ka is deeply engaged with and con­ver­sant in con­tem­po­rary lit­er­a­ture, pub­lish­ing, and Jew­ish writ­ing. She is also the edi­tor and pub­lish­er of The Prac­tic­ing Writer, a free (and pop­u­lar) e‑newsletter that fea­tures oppor­tu­ni­ties and resources for fic­tion­ists, poets, and writ­ers of cre­ative nonfiction.