Hey there! I thought I would describe to you what I’ve been working on since late fall of 2019. It’s a new book called DONNAVILLE, and it takes place in a city that is, yes… the city of my mind. You know how the poet Delmore Schwartz once wrote, “The mind is a city like London/Smoky and populous: it is a capital/Like Rome, ruined and eternal,/Marked by the monuments which no one/Now remembers”? This book imagines that city, er, my city — the little citystate of my mind.
You know how Sylvia Plath once wrote, “Is there no way out of the mind?” (Look it up, it’s a terrifying poem.) Well, sometimes Donnaville feels a little bit like that, because its central location is a prison, and one of the two main characters is the Jailer, who is also a janitor and torturer.
You know how Denise Levertov once wrote to a lover, “You invaded my country by accident/not knowing you had crossed the border./Vines that grew there touched you”? And then she tells him, “I invaded your country with all my/’passionate intensity,’/pontoons and parachutes of my blindness./But living now in the suburbs of the capital/incognito, my will to take the heart/ of the city has dwindled. I love its unsuspecting life,/its adolescents who come to tell me their dreams in the dusty park…”? Well, Donnaville is also about that, what happens when people approach the “countries” of other people’s minds, and try to have relationships with them. When different countries (or citystates), in other words, try to get together.
So, I have finished preliminary edits. It will be a long while before this book is out, but if you want to read some short excerpts, you can read them here, here, here , here, and here. Hope you like! 🙂
I’m really pleased that the following piece about how to write about “unbearable experience” has just been published in The Bellingham Review. It’s also about why I chose to use fantastical elements in writing Growing Up Golem.
When I set out to write a memoir about my parents 16 years ago, one of the things that stymied me was early feedback from my peers that the content was “too unbearable” to read about.
It was indeed difficult to be my parents’ daughter. My father hit me a lot. He was also remote and didn’t often speak, and my mother encouraged my sisters and me to make fun of him and call him names, which often resulted in him hitting me more. Despite this ugly bit of manipulation, my mother was nurturing in some other ways – she always fostered my love of learning and books, and continually stimulated my mind. Yet she also would parade naked in front of me, or in flimsy panties and bras, and force me to tell her she was sexy and that I loved and adored her more than anyone.
I didn’t think my parents were too unbearable to read about, but would my readers? An even more compelling issue for me was that I wanted to capture the “uncanny” feeling I had always had of being my mother’s puppet, or her creature (like a magician’s familiar, or something she had created in a laboratory, to experiment on with different stimuli or provocations). How could I write about this when, in the strictest sense, it wasn’t “true”? That is to say, it was truly my feeling, it was indeed what it had subjectively felt like, but my mother wasn’t actually a magician, and I wasn’t actually her homunculus.
Without the magic, however, there was no understanding the frozen way I had lived my life, as if completely separated from my own will and desires, or the fact that I’d never had a long-term relationship till after she died — as though forbidden or prevented by a mysterious spell that destined me for her alone.
Then I remembered that my mother had actually told us she could do magic – a mixture of Jewish magic from the Kabbalah and pagan European magic from Romania, which she claimed she had learned as a child from her grandparents. In fact, up till early adulthood, at least one sister and I had believed that she could actually practice this magic (not to the extent of making golems, but we believed that she could, as she said, foretell the future and interpret dreams).
I decided to use this factoid, with a twist, as the controlling metaphor for the memoir. The twist would be that I would write the book as though my mother really WERE a powerful Kabbalistic magician. And I would combine memoir with fantasy and write the thing as though, instead of giving birth to me, my mother had created me by magic as her own personal golem, an animated clay servant out of Jewish legend. Every statement in the memoir would be true, except those involving magic or other fantastic activities.
This way, I wouldn’t have to let fiction writers have all the fun, but could actually make use of all the richness of myth and archetype in telling my life story. How could I turn myself from a magic puppet under a lifelong spell, into a human being? That would be the question of the book.
It might also be a way to make my father’s physical abuse, my mother’s (nonphysical) sexual and emotional abuse, more bearable for the reader to come on an extended journey with me through it. The light coat of fantasy would be one way of “tell [ing] it slant.”
Do you ever wonder why there are so many stories about things that want to be human (or real), but aren’t? Pinocchio, the Velveteen Rabbit, Data on Star Trek? Caliban in The Tempest, who to my mind IS human, but has been told so often he’s a monster that he believes it?
African-American slaves were told they weren’t persons, and Jews in the Nazi camps were told that they were “vermin.” My recent book, Growing Up Golem, is very much about this dynamic, and I spoke about this curious confluence of fantasy, bigotry, and the psychology of survivors of exploitation and abuse in a recent talk at the New York Society for Ethical Culture.
Ever wonder what golems and physical abuse have to do with Hegel, Marx, robots and racism? I lay it all out here! 🙂 Hope you enjoy.
[POST UPDATED August 17, 2013 : The book title is Growing Up Golem: Learning to Survive My Mother, Brooklyn, and Some Really Bad Dates.]
Hi lovely people who read my blog,
I just wanted to let you know that my new memoir will be published in September by Magnus Books!
I am very excited about this 🙂 🙂
The book, whose first chapter you can read here, is a magical realist memoir that uses the conceit that my mother created me as a golem, the magical servant-creature out of Jewish legend. (In real life, my mother actually did tell us that she could do magic she had learned from her Romanian Jewish grandparents, and my sisters and I believed her. My mother was an extraordinarily– at times revoltingly — creative person, so it was no great stretch to believe she had made me by hand like a golem or a living toy.)
In the book, I try to pass for human, becoming a golem who does queer activist reporting for the Village Voice, etc., trying to have relationships with real human women, but I remain, inescapably, an obviously fake imitation of a person programmed to obey commands, not have feelings or take pleasure. Matters come to a head when I turn 36 and all the false trappings of my life – career, friendships, fake sex life, even my body – suddenly flare into crisis.
So what, you’re probably wondering, is the title?
IT IS STILL UP IN THE AIR!
I feel like Bilbo Baggins In Lord of the Rings, feverishly writing and crossing out MY DIARY. MY UNEXPECTED JOURNEY. THERE AND BACK AGAIN. AND WHAT HAPPENS AFTER. ADVENTURES OF FIVE HOBBITS. THE TALE OF THE GREAT RING, COMPILED BY BILBO BAGGINS FROM HIS OWN OBSERVATIONS AND THE ACCOUNTS OF HIS FRIENDS. WHAT WE DID IN THE WAR OF THE RING.
What am I going to call this mashup of memoir and myth?
If you want me to keep you posted on further developments, just write “keep me posted” in the comments section!