The Historical Me

(these blogs were first published in the Visiting Scribe series of the Jewish Book Council’s Prosen People.  bit.ly/1Kmyx0r and bit.ly/20f0Cjx)

 

Over the course of publication of four novels, I have become aware of a personal truth that eluded me in the previous thirty odd years of writing seven unpublished ones. Hold your breath. Here it comes.

I write historical fiction. That is, historical fiction is my métier. I am it and it is me.

When I look back on my writing career – battle-scarred veteran that I am – I can see that whenever I wrote novels of the present era or ventured into the more rarefied territory of allegory, there was something missing, at the very least from the marketing point of view. But there may have been deeper flaws than market. It may be that my sensibilities are most harmonious with cultural tropes gone by. It may be that my gut finds indigestible modernist poses, especially about things Jewish, the current antipathy towards all things Israeli, for example, or the general lack of respect for the pious life, one I fail at living but greatly admire. Or it may be something entirely different.

I have always been enchanted by the past. I grew up on a diet of music, books, and film from my parents and grandparents eras, their libraries and oral traditions. Long before I knew something of Rashi, my spiritual guides were Frank Capra, Verdi and Puccini, Dickens, the Brontes, Hugo, and Balzac. Enshrined in their work were icons of virtue, blessing, and tragedy: The Working Stiff, The Fallen Woman, The Mother, The Child, The Drunken Poet, The Kindly Grandfather, The Tortured One, and The Villain, who could take many forms including The Fat Cat, The Overseer, The Seducer, The Strong Arm. I also learned from the same sources that each of these icons could contain bits and pieces of its opposite, that nothing was as simple as it seemed in a manner very different from both melodrama and postmodern cynicism. There was always a universal humanity, classic set pieces of contradiction, in my childhood icons. They had resonance for me, even as a precocious child absorbing stories above her grade level. Sixty years later, I admit I still find them the truest models I know of real life.

But on whom were they modeled? One need look no further than the Tanakh to find the most glorious array of human archtypes ever gathered in one place. Take human frailty for example. Where in all of literature are there better examples than an angry Moses, a lustful David, a jealous Cain, a drunken Noah? I don’t think it’s an accident that before Dickens, before the Brontes, my first childhood books were picture books of Bible stories, stories and characters that consumed my imagination even then.

At present, we live in a world where the common wisdom has it that truth is elusive and personal, good is defined by political desires, evil judged nonexistent, at least in the traditional sense. No small wonder then that a writer of my proclivities needs to travel back in time to exercise her favored images of heroes and heroines, antagonists and forces of nature in which the Voice of God bellows warning into deaf, unwilling ears. Back then, I am home. My historical people can breathe, walk, love, sin, expiate, and sacrifice. In the present, they might only be objects of fun. But when they are set in the past, readers find resonance, recognition, and are moved.

Never Forget

In the cannon of Christian philosophy, it is clear that both Thomas Aquinas and Augustine described the Jews as “witnesses to history”. These men considered Jewish existence a vital part of God’s plan. They viewed Jews as eternal outliers, dispersed throughout the world, functioning as sacred historians, designed to suffer, digest, and report on the adventures and misadventures of both Christian and pagan narratives. As a Jew, a Jew who writes historical fiction, their thesis works for me. But there’s another, a more Jewish take on history and memory.

The public memory is exceedingly short. I’ve mentioned in the past on these very pages that it astonishes me that people are forgetful of history as recent as fifty years in the past, let alone one hundred. I’ve met Jewish and gentile individuals who are vigilant, intense on the issue of American racism who have never heard of the White Citizens Councils of the ‘50s. I’m talking about Southerners whose parents lived through the civil rights terror in ways Northerners could never imagine, even those brave souls who spent a few weeks of their summers as voter registration workers during their student years. Non-Jews especially are poorly informed of old world pogroms and of the pre-Nazi, millennia-long flight of stateless Jews murdered en masse or hounded from country to country by state sponsored anti-Semites.

In my most recent novel, An Undisturbed Peace, I emphasize a curious correspondence between the Jewish and Native American Experience, obvious to any who know and compare the history of both peoples. Unfortunately, the catalogue of events afflicting Native Americans before The Trail of Tears is as obscured in modern memory as the two thousand years of Jewish Exile and oppression before World War II. I’ve been told over and over by advance readers of the novel “I never knew about that” or “Surely, you made this part up” when all I’ve done is take fleshed out characters and plopped them into the seamy caldron of historical fact.

Many of my fellow authors have chosen the Holocaust as subject, in the honorable and necessary effort to make sure the world never forgets. I find I cannot go there. The idea intimidates. The Holocaust is a most holy literary ground and I fear I may be too profane an author to render it properly. I leave works on the Holocaust to those with a deep familial connection or some other hook embedded inside their souls that pulls them into that dark, horrific time. I respect any creative mind taking up the challenge.

For now, I prefer to never forget, to witness the forces that shaped the world that allowed the Holocaust to happen. Why was America so slow to enter World War II? People knew or at the very least strongly suspected what was happening to the Jews of Europe, no matter how they covered their tracks or rationalized later on. Was it a hardness of national heart fostered by a history of slavery, racial oppression, rapacious settlers, Native American land grab and death march? These things are also matters we must never forget. As Aquinas and Augustine knew, there were Jewish witnesses all along the way. I plan to do my part in delivering their reports.

 

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6 thoughts on “The Historical Me

  1. You write: “in the honorable and necessary effort to make sure the world never forgets…” What continues to also amaze me is that many friends – some of them Jewish – didn’t know the press was reporting on the beginnings of the Holocaust in 1938 (eg The Telegraph newspaper, London). And recent satellite archaeology is exposing death camps across the Ukraine and Poland burned to the ground but who’s calcium composition (of the soil) is a measurable anomaly. So too, we must look to the past in America for the wrong we have done – if only to learn the lessons not to repeat.

  2. Hi Mary,

    I’ve just read and recommended to my book group your last novel, An Undisturbed Peace. What an amazing story you’ve told in such a captivating style. I can’t wait to read Journey to Zion.

    However, as i read Un Undisturbed Peace (UDP), I kept hearing a nagging voice repeating: the author paints a definite parallel between the expulsion of the Jews and the Cherokees from their land, but does she not see a parallel between these peoples and the expulsion and continued degradation of the Palestinians by the Israelis? Maybe you do see this. but have not commented or written about it. I do, however, feel that to be intellectually honest you might at least comment on it. (Perhaps you have and I have not come across it.)

    Barbara Mattingly
    bmattingly3838@gmail.com

    • Barbara,

      So glad you’ve enjoyed my novel and recommended it to your book club. I hope they appreciate it as much as you.
      As to your specific question on other parallels to the Native American Experience, I might ask why you single out the Palestinian question. There are many incidences of expulsion of populations throughout history, even recent history. The expulsion of Chechnians by Russia, Krainian Serbs by Croatia, Armenians by the Turks.

      My focus is the Jewish American Experience and how it has intersected with both the African American and the Native American Experience. I am an historical novelist and these are my current concerns. The variety and multitude of other suffering populations present a canvass broader than any one author or novel can address. Let other novelists speak to the concerns of other populations. . .

      As an aside, I find your characterization of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is at best lopsided. I do not share your understanding of same nor that I am intellectually dishonest for not making an allusion to it. For the record, I am a Zionist. The points of our disagreement are best suited for another forum. I make no apology for my views. Neither should you. I do hope, however, that you continue to enjoy my novels.

      • In your autobiographical sketch you said that you found it surprising that Americans were slow to enter World War II. You suggest that this might have been because of a hardness of national heart fostered by a history of slavery, racial oppression, rapacious settlers. I too have been extremely troubled by this lack of compassion; with the response of many of our fellow countrymen to today’s Syrian immigration crisis, my concern has taken new life. I have written many letters to newspapers and law makers reminding them of our shameful behavior in the 1940’s. I must confess that I have wondered if the hardness of the national heart in Israel is not because of the Holocaust and the pogroms. I have a very dear Jewish friend whose grandmother died at Ravensbrück. In response to my voicing concern about Israeli treatment of Palestians She has said: “Why should I care? Look what was done to us. Nobody helped us!” How common is this attitude?

        Dear Mary,

        Thanks for answering me so promptly and so thoughtfully. Your books are experiencing a god bit of success; this must be very satisfying. I applaud your decision to write historical novels for a couple of reasons. Mainly because selfishly, being a history buff, I enjoy a novel much more if I can learn the history of a new place or era while delving into human motivation. I am also concerned about a trend that I first witnessed way back when my own children were in school in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s: history is not taught either cohesively nor in depth. For instance, I saw my own children knowing a good deal about the history of Japan but very little about the history of Spain. Furthermore, what they learned was not connected to the history of the world in any sort of chronological or integrated way. Am I making sense? I could go and on, but I’lll spare you.

        You asked why I tend to be concerned about the Israel/Palestine conflict. Do I see a hint of the frequent charge of antisemitism when one is concerned about this situation. Far from it. My son is in a partnership with a Jewish woman whom I have welcomed with open arms. Furthermore, I (a former Roman Catholic) have from time to time toyed with the idea of converting to Judaism, but have not done so partially because of my disdain for organized religion and the havoc it has wrought in the world.

        My intense interest in the Middle East began in 1969 when my late husband and I moved to Turkey. We lived there for over two years, travelled widely, had many Turkish friends and came to love many aspects of Turkish culture. The longer we lived there the more I realized that I knew very little about the Middle East; therefore, I started to learn as much as I could. I read and read and the more I read the more I realized how the Western powers had made a mess of the area for their own enrichment. Included in my reading was a great deal about the history of Palestine, Iran, Lebanon and Iraq. I was shocked to read about how the early Zionist plans for a Jewish homeland peacefully living with the Palestinians morphed into what actually happened in the 1940’s.

        In your autobiographical sketch you said that you found it surprising that Americans were slow to enter World War II. You suggest that this might have been because of a hardness of national heart fostered by a history of slavery, racial oppression, rapacious settlers. I too have been extremely troubled by this lack of compassion; with the response of many of our fellow countrymen to today’s Syrian immigration crisis, my concern has taken new life. I have written a number of letters to newspapers and law makers reminding them of our shameful behavior in the 1940’s. I must confess that I have wondered if the hardness of the national heart in Israel is not because of the Holocaust and the pogroms. I have a very dear Jewish friend whose grandmother died at Ravensbrück. In response to my voicing concern about Israeli treatment of Palestinians she has said: “Why should I care? Look what was done to us. Nobody helped us!” How common is this attitude?

        I have for many years been a believer in the Jeffersonian principle “that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.” I believe this principle to be upheld worldwide – in both the USA and Israel. And yes, in the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq as well.

        Having read your biography, I know that you were a Roman Catholic of Irish and Polish descent. I too am a second generation American of Eastern European descent. Of course, you realize that neither of our families would have been able to immigrate to the US if our Constitution included a state supported religion as is permitted under Zionism.

        Finally, I must assure you that I am particularly interested in the Palestine/Israeli conflict because my government supports Israel financially (using my tax dollars) and
        politically and I, therefore, should have a voice. I feel that I can make a difference. You asked why I was not concerned about the Armenian genocide, the Turkish treatment of the Kurds or the various religious/territorial disputes in the Balkans. Actually, Mary, you do not know that I am not concerned and involved in these atrocities. I have many Turkish friends who are quite fatigued from hearing my thoughts on the Turkish treatment of the Armenians and the Kurds. Back in the 90’s I wrote many letters to President Clinton about the Balkan civil war. I have not done anything to protest the Ukrainian mess, nor do I participate in Native American protests because there are none that I am aware of. I do keep up with J Street and various other peace initiatives in Israel, attend lectures at the Jewish Studies program at Duke University (I live in Durham, NC) and at the Jewish Community Center. I have recently heard both Ari Shavit and Sayed Kashua speak at Duke. Have you read the books of either of these writers? If so, I’d be interested in hearing your opinion.

        You may wonder why I have written such a lengthy reply to your response. I am a very passionate person who takes her convictions seriously. I am retired and spend my days taking courses with Duke’s extension programs, gardening, doing ceramics and watercolor painting. My children are grown, my husband has died, and I, therefore, have few demands on my time. So I am able to devote as much time as I like on my passions. Currently, I’m lobbying our North Carolina senators to allow President Obama to nominate our next supreme court judge. I’m telling you this because I wish you to know that I am not some uneducated, anti-semite who strikes out at Israel. I know my history very well both that of the Middle East and that of the mistreatment of Jews in Europe over the centuries.
        I understand the need of Jews to have a safe homeland. I attended school in France where one of my most interesting papers was about the Dreyfus affair. I want you to know that thinking, knowledgeable people, who are not anti-semites oppose Zionism and what it has led to in Israel today.

        As I said before, I do enjoy your books and I appreciated your answer. Your argument for writing about the subjects you have chosen is well-taken. Of course, you can not choose to write about all of the injustices in the world – just as I must choose my concerns.

        Barbara Mattingly

  3. Barbara,

    While I appreciate that you are a sincere and caring citizen of the world, I must point out that I earlier specifically said this is not the appropriate forum for long and detailed discussions about Zionism, especially as our views are so extremely disparate.

    For just one example – I have no idea what you believe “actually” happened in the 1940s that can be laid exclusively at the doorstep of the Jews. What happened was that the Moslem world could not tolerate a 17% land mass of the British Mandate for Palestine being given to the Jews to establish a Jewish state. War ensued, with all its attendant ugliness. 800,000 Jewish refugees were contemporaneously expelled from Arab countries, their bank accounts frozen. Most fled to Israel. I will leave you to draw parallels to the current refugee crisis.

    By the way, I reject entirely your characterization of the “hardness of the national heart in Israel” as well as your questioning of the right of Israel to conduct itself as a religious state. That last is particularly curious as Israel is a state in which freedom of religion is a iron-clad precept. Throw into the mix a tradition of gay rights, women’s rights, etc. and you have a radically different society than all others in the region.

    But again, for us to discuss back and forth the whys of this and that would take volumes and again, this is not the forum for such discussions. Already you have devoted more words to the topic than my typical blog. This is not a political site. It is one devoted to my fiction. When there are so many places you can voice your opinions, why knock so hard at my door? In future, I will likely delete your messages and perhaps answer them in private, if I have time.

    Oh, and since you have recommended reading to me, I might recommend some to you. One is Phyllis Chesler’s The New Anti-Semitism. Ms Chesler is a psychotherapist and a feminist who has written many other books, including the memoir An American Bride in Kabul, which you might also find interesting. If fiction is more your cup of tea, I might recommend Nora Gold’s Fields of Exile which is on-topic here and which won the 2015 Canadian Jewish Literary Award.

    Be well, Barbara.

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