If you’ve been anywhere near a Canadian newspaper or news website in the last week, then you’ll know that a scandal involving author and English professor David Gilmour has been dominating the headlines. The dustup is in response to remarks Gilmour made discounting Canadian, women and minority writers.
I asked some Canadian Jewish writers and literature professors for their takes on the controversy, which has not only taken up many column inches, but also led Gilmour’s fellow academics to distance themselves from him, and students to stage protests.
But before we get to the commentary, here is a summary of what led to the brouhaha.
It’s no surprise to voracious readers of female-authored fiction that the magical realism genre has flourished by the pens of the fairer sex. Readers with some enthusiasm for the genre may associate it with women of color in particular. For example, there’s Isabel Allende and Laura Esquivel, following in the Latin American tradition of Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Alice Walker and Toni Morrison incorporating folklore into African-American fiction.
It isn’t hard to think of Jewish men who weave mysticism and fantasy into their works, either — Isaac Bashevis Singer, Jonathan Safran Foer, Bernard Malamud and Franz Kafka. But the Jewish women of this genre are not as well known, though they are certainly present. Jewish studies and comparative literature students — you’ve got an enormous body of work to sift through from around the world to create compelling academic theses, and for everyone else, there’s a place on the couch waiting for us to curl up with one of these fabulous stories.
Here’s a list of eight female Jewish authors and their Jewish-themed magical realism novels, with just a bit about each book. This list is not comprehensive, of course, so please share your favorite authors in this deep and growing category.
Like many Americans, particularly those who share my gender, I’ve spent a good deal of my spring and summer immersed in new books by (and mostly for) women. But I want to take a break from buzzing about the erotic novel “Fifty Shades of Grey” and the creepy thriller “Gone Girl” to talk about two other notable books of the year. Because Cheryl Strayed’s memoir “Wild” and Caitlin Moran memoir-meets-manifesto “How to Be a Woman” are both gifts to literature and feminism.
These two tomes have become the literary equivalent of viral sensations. They’re passed from reader to reader, though now, of course, “Wild” has the added bonus of Oprah’s resurrected book club to give it serious commercial heft. They are both excellent reads — page-turners with substance, full of confessional detail and wondrous writing in divergent styles. Each book demonstrates the power of personal narrative as feminist testimony, and together they reveal two aspects of feminism that aren’t strictly political in nature: the deeply compassionate, soul-searching side and the powerfully saucy and defiant one.
“Wild” is the story of Strayed’s long summer hiking the Pacific Crest Trail — of her journey rebuilding her life literally one step at a time after wallowing in dangerous drug use and casual sex in the wake of her mother’s death. In my mind, Strayed’s memoir joins Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild” as a seminal contemporary account of human interactions with nature; it’s a female constructive yin to that book’s male nihilistic yang. Strayed’s descriptions of losing her toenails, being caked in dirt and dehydrated, and feeling her body transform during grueling hikes are all memorable for their vivid physicality. You feel what she feels. At the same time, she chronicles her grief and slow reintroduction to the pleasure and pain of life, and these moments are as deeply emotional and raw as it gets. Strayed, who for a period of time wrote the anonymous advice column “Dear Sugar” at The Rumpus, told Bitch magazine that everything she is and does is informed by her feminism, including promoting her book.
Female novelists might not be getting the respect they deserve, but they sure can get rich trying. This, in short, is novelist (and, disclaimer, my friend) Teddy Wayne’s response to Jennifer Weiner’s recent post about the New York Times’ persistent bias towards male novelists — an issue that The Sisterhood has been following.
Weiner found that while the Times showed some improvement in 2011, women still got only 41% of all reviews, and were far less likely to get profiled in addition to getting reviewed.
Wayne acknowledged the preference among critics for male authors, but points out that, apart from the “literary 1%,” it is much harder for male novelists to make a living than female ones.
For the majority of male literary authors — excluding the upper echelon of [Jonathan] Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides, Don DeLillo and their ilk, plus a few younger writers like Chad Harbach who have scored much-ballyhooed advances — it’s actually harder than it is for women to carve out a financially stable writing career.
Yona Zeldis McDonough is a Brooklyn-based award-winning children’s author who also has a successful career as a fiction writer for adults. Many know her by the picture books she has created together with her mother, the celebrated self-taught artist Malcah Zeldis. This month, her newest children’s chapter book, “The Cats In The Doll Shop” has been published. It is a sequel to “The Doll Shop Downstairs,” the fictional story of a Russian Jewish immigrant family with three young daughters living above their doll shop on the Lower East Side of Manhattan during WWI.
Zeldis McDonough spoke with The Sisterhood about writing for different audiences, her identity as a Jewish writer, and the new book and how it goes against the grain of current popular children’s literature.
Renee Ghert-Zand: Not many authors write for adults and children. How did you end up writing successfully for both audiences?
Not this again. After the success of “Bridesmaids” seemed to finally sound the death knell for the whole “women can’t be as funny as men” canard, we’re right back to hearing “women can’t write like men.” The culprit this time? Acclaimed novelist V.S. Naipaul, who dissed all women writers, and said none were his match. He even declared that his own editor churned out, in his words, “feminine tosh.”
Naipaul, prodigiously talented as he is, has not only earned my wrath with these blanket generalizations he shot off in an interview, as reported in the Guardian, but also for his singling out of Jane Austen for criticism, thereby raising both my feminist and Janeite hackles (and these are, essentially, my two main sets of hackles):
In an interview at the Royal Geographic Society on Tuesday about his career, Naipaul, who has been described as the “greatest living writer of English prose,” was asked if he considered any woman writer his literary match. He replied: “I don’t think so.” Of Austen he said he “couldn’t possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world”.
He felt that women writers were “quite different”. He said: “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me.”
Haley Tanner’s debut novel, “Vaclav & Lena” (Dial Press), is about love without questions, hesitation or limits. This love flourishes between two Russian-Jewish immigrant children in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn: Vaclav dreams of becoming a magician, like Houdini, and casting the fragile Lena as his assistant. Tragedy temporarily unhinges this plan, and when the two children become teenagers, they are forced to reconcile their pasts and decide how they’ll embark on a future together. Tanner intimately knows the love and struggle that Vaclav and Lena share: She wrote this book while living with the man who would become her husband and, soon after, die of melanoma. Tanner says that the loveliness and lightness in the novel is his. She spoke recently with the Forward.
Allison Gaudet Yarrow: What was your Jewish upbringing like?
Haley Tanner: We had a terrible time in the Conservative synagogue that we belonged to, where we were products of intermarriage, which didn’t make sense to us, because we were a Jewish family. Rosh Hashanah was the first holiday that we ditched synagogue. We went camping in the woods, [with] silver candlesticks, a white tablecloth, brisket and apples and honey. It became the most meaningful holiday.
As a devoted fan of BBC period dramas and a rabid consumer of British literary culture, the period between January and May when PBS airs “Masterpiece” classic is my favorite TV season. Just last week PBS finished broadcasting the brand-new relaunch of the beloved series “Upstairs Downstairs.” The new series was basically a long pilot — only three episodes long — but it was jam-packed the requisite secrets, lies, intrigue and blatant sentimentality. It also provided an unwavering look at the attraction of the British aristocracy to Nazi ideals as well as the tension in the streets during the brief rise of fascist demagogue Oswald Mosley.
As royal wedding mania descended upon us, I was happy to see the BBC acknowledging that beneath the glamour and glitz that we love about the British gentry, there are some very unpleasant strains of racism and xenophobia (and I never forget that British literary culture gave us Shylock, Fagin and Melmotte as well as Hamlet, David Copperfield and Lizzy Bennet.
“Upstairs Downstairs” also had a Jewish character, named Rachel, a beautiful and kind woman who fled Hitler’s Germany and her formerly comfortable life to go “into service” in England; there, she may be degraded, but at least she’s free.
Meg Wolitzer writes in spaces where women’s emotions run high: She has tackled wives overshadowed by their husbands, as well as career woman who became stay-at-home moms. In her new novel, “The Uncoupling” (Riverhead), she investigates sex by creating characters who stop having it altogether when a spell enchants their suburb. The magic begins — or ends, depending on how you see it — when a drama teacher produces the Aristophanes comedy “Lysistrata,” in which women withhold sex from men to protest war. Wolitzer spoke recently with The Sisterhood about mobile devices as sex objects, loud, Second Wave feminist Jewesses and not writing chick lit.
Allison Gaudet Yarrow: When you were writing the novel, did you see it as a commentary about how American women are sexualized?
Meg Wolitzer: I think everybody is completely weird about sex. We are marinating in sexual imagery constantly. It’s almost a radical position to say there are vicissitudes.
The post-Freudian idea that sex means you are filled with vigor and therefore if you are not sexual for some period of your life, you are weak — that isn’t true.
As I prepared for the beginning of the perennial Purim question of “Esther vs. Vashti” at the same time as I delved into Jane Eyre-mania, I began to think about how women are always pushed into dichotomies. I wondered cynically how soon someone would write about the new Brontë films by declaring Jane Austen passé. I didn’t have to wait long. This article about the “Battle of the Bonnets” in the Washington Post is a witty and sharp look at women’s cultural obsessions and it contains some great literary observations. But the headline, and the “battle” premise, rankles.
It always seems to me that when it comes to women who take different paths there’s a meme out there that there’s only room for one. Virgin or whore, Esther or Vashti, Austen or Brontë. Yes, the two most famous Brontë sisters, Charlotte and Emily, and Jane Austen took divergent approaches to writing about the “woman question.” Austen was sort of an Esther, using her brilliant wit to dazzle readers but containing steely critique of the system under her perfect prose, while the Brontës, Vashti-like , seethe with rage at women’s unfortunate lot and churn with a desperate desire for escape.
These women were writing in different styles, and in completely different cultural eras. Why not just appreciate the fact that both of those approaches worked so well that readers can’t get enough of them even today?