Earlier this week, Letty Cottin Pogrebinshared three passagesthat didn’t make it into her just-published novel Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate. She also explained why she chose to excise each scene — one because of a chronological error that affected the action,one involving tropical fishthat ultimately struck the author as implausible, and one because she felt it was morepolemical than literary. Today,she offers the fourth and final installment in her Jewish Book Council Visiting Scribe seriesthat pulls back the curtain on a writer’s self-editing process.
In this final installment of Stuff Left Out of my novel, I’ll share a scene that was cut simply to speed up the pace and tighten the narrative. Though ultimately dropped, I liked what it revealed about the relationship between Zach, the protagonist of Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate, and Cleo, the African-American woman he loves. This action takes place in the Eighties at Zach’s Harvard Law School reunion.
About half his classmates had come back to Cambridge for the weekend and Cleo got along well with all of them until Saturday night when, at the alumni dinner, she ended up at a long table seated between Archie Minton and Matt Bradley, Zach’s former schoolmates but not men he’d considered friends. He sat diagonally across from Cleo, close enough to hear Archie, obviously in his cups, propose a toast to Nelson Mandela.
Cleo gave the man a quizzical look but raised her glass. “Sure, Archie, I’ll drink to Madiba anytime,” she said, using Mandela’s clan name, a sign of respect.
They clinked glasses. “He’s your people’s last chance, wouldn’t you say?” Archie asked, slurring his consonants.
Cleo turned to stone. “What people would you be referring to?”
“Africans. Can’t handle independence, any of ‘em.”
“Excuse me?” Cleo shot Zach a fierce frown.
He shrugged, as if to say, what a jerk, though his first impulse was to jump in and defend her. However, remembering how annoyed she was after he intervened on her behalf during a dustup at a meeting of the Black-Jewish Coalition, he made himself hold back and just kept his eyes on her glaring face while Archie jabbered on about the abysmal failure of African leaders, the corruption and mass murders in Ethiopia, Sudan, Angola, Rwanda, and Burundi, and how much better off black people were under white colonial rule.
When she finally spoke, Cleo, didn’t so much increase the volume of her voice as whittle its round edges to a point. “Are you suggesting that corruption and genocide are African inventions? If so, I have two words for you: Hitler. Stalin.
Archie Minton, momentarily stifled, picked up his stirrer and started playing tic-tac-toe on the tablecloth. The other man, Matt Bradley, was quick to dive into the breach. “Yeah, but for every Hitler, we had a Roosevelt, for every Stalin a Churchill, for every dictator, a Lincoln. Who’s your Lincoln, Cleo?”
“Lincoln is my Lincoln, you asshole!”
“Don’t raise your voice at me, sister.” Matt shot his cuffs out of his sleeves as if raring for a fight. “I’ll have you know my people fought the Civil War to free your people. I have ancestors who gave their lives for the Union.”
Cleo threw her napkin at Matt. “I won’t be spoken to as if I’m an ungrateful slave!” Grabbing her purse, and without a backwards glance, she stormed out of the banquet hall. Zach ran after her but she wouldn’t let him touch her and he couldn’t get a word out of her until they reached their hotel room where she immediately began flinging her clothes into her suitcase.
“I can’t believe you let those racist boors humiliate me. How could you sit there like it wasn’t happening? Why didn’t you rescue me?”
“Wait a minute, Cleo. You were pissed when I intervened at the Black-Jewish Coalition. You’ve had far bigger boors on your talk show and you dispatched them like Wonder Woman. I thought you wanted to handle them yourself.”
“You have no idea what I want, Zach!”
She flew back to New York that night on the last shuttle. Zach, having committed to speak on a civil rights panel at lunch the next day, wasn’t able to leave until Sunday afternoon. In the cab to the city from LaGuardia, he had the driver make two stops on the East Side so he could buy a bunch of African daisies and a bottle of South African wine before continuing cross-town to Cleo’s place.
“I’ve heard your continent produces lousy leaders, but great chardonnay,” Zach teased, when she opened the door. He bowed deeply. “You were right about last night, Sweetheart. Please forgive me.” He ducked into her tiny kitchen and brought out a corkscrew and a couple of wine glasses.
“If I’d been the only Jew at a table full of black people and a couple of jerks started browbeating me about Israel, I’m sure you would have rescued me.”
Cleo arranged the daisies in a vase, accepted the glass of wine, and eked out a grin. “Really? What makes you so sure?”
All this week, I’ve pulled back the curtain on one writer’s process of pruning a work of fiction into shape. I hope you’ve been sufficiently intrigued by the scenes I left out of the novel to want to read the finished book and see what I left in.
Letty Cottin Pogrebin is a founding editor of Ms. magazine and the author of eleven books. Read more about her here. Or meet her at the CUNY Graduate Center, Fifth Avenue & 34th Street, NYC, Monday June 1st from 6:30 – 8:30 whenshe will be in conversation with Marcia Gillespie, thelegendary former editor-in-chief of Essence and Ms.Letty & Marcia will betalkingabout the power of legacy, race, gender, feminism, the impact of inherited trauma, and other issues that play out among the characters in Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate. RSVP for the event here.
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Letty Cottin Pogrebin is a writer, activist, and national lecturer with a special interest in women’s issues, Black-Jewish relations, and dialogue between Jews and Palestinians. A founding editor of Ms. magazine, and a columnist for 30 years for Moment magazine, Letty’s work has also been published in The New York Times, The Nation, Time, Huffington Post, The Forward and many other publications. A co-founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus, the Ms. Foundation for Women, and the International Center for Peace in the Middle East, Pogrebin has served on the boards of the Brandeis Women’s and Gender Studies Program, the Harvard Divinity School Women in Religion Program, and Ms. Foundation for Education and Communication. Winner of an Emmy Award for her work as Editorial Consultant on Marlo Thomas’ “Free to Be, You and Me,” Letty also been honored for her social justice activism by dozens of organizations and institutions. A graduate of Brandeis University, she and her husband, Bert Pogrebin, a labor and employment lawyer, have three children and six grandchildren.