Rough Cut

Here’s a little something I wrote for fun today as a timed exercise:

The King Edward Hotel was not specifically fitted out for aliens, especially water breathing aliens, but fortunately, the Gnasticollas were used to the terrestriocentrism of many provincial planets, and arrived with their water helmets on and other necessary equipment in conveniently packed transportable cases.

There were screams, of course. The only time the documentary team for “Obscure Nature” had ever received a different reception was the time the chronosmeter malfunctioned, and they arrived on a planet shortly after it had been hit by a major asteroid. In fact, Zynko thought, it might have been this planet, which had been reputed to have gorgeously enormous creatures of an admirable variety, and his show had entirely missed them. Instead, he’d have to make do with these latecomer bipedal apes.

Just prior to the aliens’ arrival, Susan Abbott was self-consciously adjusting her new hat, wondering if it was a little too much. It seemed to be larger than the hats worn by the other women in the Purple Hat Society. It seemed to be purpler. It seemed to be cheaper. This was her first meeting, and everyone greeted her with friendly enough smiles and hellos. She smiled back. She didn’t know what to say other than to introduce herself by name, which was already obvious from her name tag. Newly single, newly jobless, newly pathetic just didn’t seem an apt response to “And what do you do?”

“I’m a grandmother,” she said.

“You look too young!” the president of the Purple Hat Society said. Her name was Cordelia Peppercorn. She was also president of her own company, which sold high end jewelry made by women’s collectives in India.

Susan privately agreed that she was too young. The mother of her grandchild was still in her teens. The father of her grandchild, her own offspring, had enrolled in the military to escape the baby’s mother, who was currently residing with Susan because her mother was a missionary.

So, although Susan was astonished by the aliens’ arrival, just as much as the next Purple Hat Society lady, her scream could be said to be one of relief, rather than dismay.

Thoughts on the Moon

Many years ago, I decided to write a story that deliberately incorporated archetypes. It was called, “Woman Menstruating on the Moon,” and it was my first story to be accepted into a literary magazine…in fact, to my shock, it was accepted at two. The experiment worked, and here I am many years later, thinking about the power of archetypes and symbols.

The ancient world built its calendar around the moon–the Romans, the Chinese, and the Hebrews all had lunar calendars. But these were given up in favour of the more work friendly solar calendar, connected with harvest rather than the moon, as devised by Julius Caesar, emperor of Ancient Rome. (No coincidence, it seems to me, that Luna was relinquished by the empire that revered the male soldier.)

In many cultures, the moon has an association with female energy, and so I chose it to symbolize my character’s fertility. As a woman in an abusive marriage, she couldn’t express herself directly, not without damage, physically and emotionally. Her PMS (which, interestingly, the male editor of the magazine took literally) gave voice to the pain and anger she couldn’t. Her situation worsened until her rage expressed itself in the only way it could, taking control of her fertility and destroying it by demanding a hysterectomy to “cure” her PMS. The barrenness of the moon represented her pyrrhic victory as she dreamed of being on the moon, menstruating onto the sterile rock.

In many cultures, the full moon is associated with “lunacy” and danger, like in the myth of the werewolf who takes his rabid form at the full moon. I can’t help but think that this is related to the way that women’s power has been seen as dangerous, and the ways that women’s authority and agency are suppressed directly by law or domestic violence, or indirectly by attitudes about women’s voices (studies show that women who talk as much as men are perceived to be dominating the conversation), about appearance (that how an anchorwoman is dressed matters, but not an anchorman), and through visibility (next time you’re watching TV, check how often experts are women; not to mention the notorious stats on book reviews and reviewers).

So as I think about the full moon just past, I realize that we need that lunar power, even a touch of lunacy, in our work as writers and in our lives as feminists, male and female, still working toward full equality.

Russian Letters

After ten years of research, and doing back and forth translations using google translate while scrutinizing its Russian/English dictionary, I am learning Cyrillic letters. I have to hope that this is keeping my brain agile! And for another meaning of Russian letters, I’m reading a wonderful collection of short stories edited by Robert Chandler, the translator and champion of the Soviet Jewish writer Vasily Grossman: Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida. I can’t believe I’ve never read Gogol’s The Greatcoat before! But, then, if I’d read every intrepid piece of writing already, what would I have to look forward to?

Two Jews

J and The Betrayers are both novels about antisemitism and social violence, both powerful. And yet who would talk about them in the same breath, one a dystopia, the other hyper-realism?

The authors, Howard Jacobson (J) and David Bezmozgis, are a generation and an ocean apart though united by their Queen, Jacobson being British and Bezmozgis Canadian. Jacobson was born in the early 40s, Bezmozgis is in his early 40s. Jacobson was born in the shadow of the holocaust and his writing is haunted by it, Bezmozgis by Soviet antisemitism and the dissidence of the 1970s. Both books are, really, about the experiences of their fathers, though J is set in a near future dystopia, and The Betrayers in the prescient present.

J is brilliant in the first half, Jacobson at his darkest, most hilarious, sardonic, cutting, echoing holocaust deniers in his reference to (all caps) “What happened if it happened.” In Britain an unnamed country, another holocaust an unnamed social terror has resulted in an outwardly pleasant and free society, which is in reality highly controlled yet constantly erupting in casual extreme personal violence. The best of this novel is the brilliant portrayal of what is said and unsaid, the surface and secrets, the repetition of history. The thesis about antisemitism’s necessary social function as a channel for aggression dominates the second half. I wasn’t persuaded by that (if it was even meant seriously), but the responses of the main characters did: I had the same reaction when I visited Auschwitz.

I was walking around the tarry smelling field where the crematoria used to be, possessed by two conflicting thoughts: that I wanted to make many Jewish babies; that I wanted to disappear along with all Jews and end this for once and for all.

In The Betrayers, an Israeli politician on the cusp between middle and old age arrives in the Crimea with his much younger lover. There he encounters his past as a Soviet dissident and the elderly Russian Jew who denounced him, leading to his imprisonment in the gulag 40 years earlier. The main character, Baruch Kotler, has political views antithetical to mine, but that didn’t stop me from weeping at the novel’s end. This is Bezmozgis’ second novel, and he is a fine writer, competent in the best sense, digging deep into human complexity, frailty, and need with compassion and beautiful language.

The Betrayers was written before the recent crisis in the Crimea, but anticipates it: Ukrainian, Russian, Jew, Tatar, the region is rife with alliances and conflicts that go back centuries. Betrayal, personal and political, is the titular theme, but there is so much more to the story: it’s about love, survival, principle, the past haunting the present, and in that shares a common territory with J. Specifically and richly, it’s about the Soviet Union cum Russia, while J is about Britain, but the books are so penetrating because the stories are also universal.

These are both books I need to own in paper.

I’ve periodically wrestled with my identity as a writer: am I a Jewish writer, or just a writer, or do my other life experiences dominate? As an abuse survivor, as an urban Canadian, as a vegetarian (yes, I do eat granola), as mother in a multi-racial family, someone who doesn’t go to synagogue anymore but talks to God, as a shamanic healer with reiki hands?

I don’t know. But there is this: if I can stand alongside these two writers, then I am in good company.

refusenik poster