Monday, November 27, 2023

The Essay in a Time of Genocide: An Invitation

Statistics on individuals killed and injured in Palestine and Israel
(Source Al Jazeera)

Around the globe, in real time, we are witnessing atrocities happening to the people of Gaza. Through our phones, our tablets, our televisions, we’re seeing the images that Palestinians are posting on social media. We’re hearing about their experiences directly from them. Never before have we, as a collective, witnessed such violence happening to a people as it is happening. 

And this violence has extended our collective awareness to other atrocities. Genocides in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Myanmar, and China, as well as the genocides of the indigenous people in what colonial settlers named the Americas and their connections to the history and ongoing legacies of chattel slavery.  

In such a moment, what is the purpose of the essay? What is the role of the essayist?   

Essay Daily invites essayists to respond to these questions for a feature that, given the exigencies of this moment, will begin as soon as possible.  

In a time of genocide, what insights might the essay afford us about language, about violence, about empire, empathy, and justice? What alternatives does the essay offer to the current op-eds and talking heads? What beneficial change, if any, can an essay make in a humanitarian crisis or a human heart? 

Contributors might look to essayists from the past, such as Hannah Arendt, Edward Said, Mahmoud Darwish, Audre Lorde, and Gloria Anzaldúa. They might also look to practitioners in the present, such as Gayatri Spivak, Jamaica Kincaid, Angela Davis, Trinh T. Minh-ha, and Noor Hindi, whose “Against Erasure” and “American Beings” offer powerful examples of what the essay can accomplish. 

This is an open invitation, a call to witness, a collective attempt to support—in whatever ways essays and essayists can—our fellow human beings. 

If you’re interested in contributing, contact Eric LeMay (


Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Andrea Flint, The Wisdom of Spear Grass


Andrea Flint


a cover of Sarah Minor's essay "A Log Cabin Square"


(click to expand, or click here to download a pdf)


I don’t have many vivid memories of my childhood. Mostly, I remember a sensation that used to follow me around like a needy puppy—that things were not what they seemed, that there was a disconnect between my perception of reality and reality itself. 

I also remember the relief I felt when, on hitting school-age, it began to dawn on me just how powerful the mind was. Soon I learnt to override my feelings. Unlike emotions, elusive and fickle like swallows flitting across the sky at springtime and gone by winter, the brain could always be relied upon to make and preserve meaning. 

But no matter how hard I tried to hold on, I felt as if something was terribly off—as if my perception of the world was, somehow, defective.

I have learnt that unacknowledged traumatic experiences can do that to a person. Dissociation is a powerful survival tool, one where flights of fancy can lord unchallenged over a cruel reality to protect ourselves. Only when the veil lifts, does the impact of this alienation become apparent. Suddenly we are hit with the realisation that our ability to listen to our body’s wishes has been impaired to an extent that is commensurate to the strength of our denial. It’s as if the superhighway that connects body and mind has been lost to an enemy that has been residing undetected inside us. 

There is no way to describe that time in my life other than I fell spectacularly apart. Though outwardly I was functioning by dint of a peculiar mix of willpower and habit, inside I was scrambling to gather the pieces of me that a nascent, frightening consciousness had ripped apart. 

"The Wisdom of Spear Grass" was born out of this grown child’s irrepressible desire to make meaning—to join the dots out of the muddle of memories that were emerging from deep freeze during the hazardous process of therapeutic recovery. 

It was around this time that I first came across Sarah Minor’s "Log Cabin Square". For the first time, home didn’t have to be something neat, monolithic to be called home. Home could be a collage, an amalgam of fragments whose meaning is revealed only when juxtaposed to other seemingly randomised tassels and enjoyed from the safety of distance. 

As I tried to process the tangle of feelings the image of “horses on fire circling back to their bright home” stirred inside me, it struck me that the power of Minor’s Log Cabin Square rested on its ability to summon complex feelings that couldn’t be expressed in any other way. It’s this connubium of form and text that creates meaning. The latter—her essay reminds us, doesn’t exist in isolation, but as part of a whole that stirs our senses and tugs at our soul—our personal and collective mythologies. It cannot but be fragmentary. And that’s all right. And plentiful. And beautiful. 

Though quilt-making has not infused the Italian psyche in the same way it has across the pond, from the outset this art & craft struck me as so intuitively right I didn’t hesitate to borrow its form. If cultural appropriation is a sin, then I hope to be forgiven. 

Soon I discovered there were myriads of patterns and combinations—one for each life event, special occasion, celebration, even political causes. But I kept returning to the log cabin. 

The idea of the hearth—of home inherent in its squares—spoke to me in ways other patterns couldn’t. Even though its nucleus—the central square around which all the others corral, kept eluding me, I knew I had found my container, one that was both physical and metaphysical. 

The idea that a lowly weed—one that is regarded as a pesky nuisance in my ancestral land, could function as its organising principle felt as fitting as it had felt serendipitous. Gramigna has threaded its way across three generations of women on the maternal side of my family. It carries within it the wisdom of sharecroppers of whom my grandmother had been one—a lithe six years old, who had to learn fast not to take love for granted. 

Suddenly a pixilated picture of me within my extended family—atomised but undeniably truthful, bobbed to the surface. For the first time, perhaps ever, I felt moored. I had found my quilted hearth, its faintly smouldering embers beneath the seams radiating just enough heat to keep me going. 


Born in Italy, Andrea Flint is an emerging writer based in London UK, working in Creative Non-Fiction as well as poetry and short stories. She is currently working on a hybrid memoir around the themes of identity, trauma, and heritage. 

"The Wisdom of Spear Grass" was written during her time on this year’s Spark Your Story Intensive programme. Andrea is especially grateful to Nicole Breit and Rowan McCandless for their wisdom and mentorship—and for showing her the way to creative non-fiction heaven. 

The Wisdom of Spear Grass is her first publication—something that makes it all the more special.


Essay Daily runs a series of cover essays (essays that "cover" another published essay, in the way of a cover song). Pitch us yours!

Monday, February 20, 2023

February 20, We Know Our Own Lives Expertly: a conversation with Hilary Plum

An account of care, labor, illness, friendship, professionalization, and political struggle, Hole Studies (Fonograf, 2022) explores radical possibilities. Over four essays, Hilary Plum describes resistance and reinvention in our social lives and our aesthetic practice. The work touches on, among many other subjects, Sinéad O’Connor’s 1992 destruction of the Pope’s image on SNL; the corrosive psychology of whiteness; precarity in academic and service work; the rejection of “necropolitics” in struggles for freedom and humanity; the work of teaching; and the author’s own experience of chronic neurological illness. Hole Studies is a gorgeous look at the possibilities of authentic encounter—in art, in protest, and relationships—and it’s one of the richest, most humane books you’ll read this year. Plum is a friend; we recorded this conversation via Zoom between meetings in October 2022, a few days before Hole Studies was published by Fonograf Editions.

Hilary Plum is the author of several books, including the essay collection Hole Studies (Fonograf Editions, 2022), the novel Strawberry Fields (Fence, 2018), and the work of nonfiction Watchfires (Rescue Press, 2016), which won the GLCA New Writers Award. A collection of poetry, Excisions, is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press in 2023. She teaches at Cleveland State University and is associate director of the CSU Poetry Center. With Zach Savich she edits the Open Prose Series at Rescue Press. Recent work has appeared in Astra, Granta, American Poetry Review, Fence, Cleveland Review of Books, and elsewhere.

Jay Aquinas Thompson (he/they) is a poet, essayist, and teacher; they're the author of The Resurrection Appearances: a Daybook, forthcoming from Gold Line, and they have recent or forthcoming work in Neon Door, Adroit, Guesthouse, and Poetry Northwest, where they're a contributing editor. A ’21-’22 Best of the Net nominee, they’ve also been awarded grants and fellowships from the Ragdale Foundation, the Community of Writers, and the Sustainable Arts Foundation. They live with their child in Washington state, where they teach creative writing to public school students and incarcerated women.


JT: I’ve been reading Fred Moten lately and I wrote down the sentence, “unrestricted sociality as an alternative to academic space.” I’m thinking about how Hole Studies attends to problems of work—the demoralizing, constant precarity; the ruthless, secretive, smiley competition in the academic world; and the sort of devaluation and adjunctification of all different kinds of labor. But the thing in the book that I wanted to begin from, that represents one alternative to that, is friendship. What role do certain conversations, or the kind of ongoing relational tug back and forth of care and ongoingness or abiding trust, play in your process as you write? Do you imagine a particular friend as a reader? Does a particular conversation or relationship persist as a goad when you’re working? Or is your writing something much more solitary than that?

HP: I definitely am always picturing friends when I’m writing. That’s who I’m writing for. I want you to read it, I want Caryl Pagel to read it; there’s always a small number of people who I am thinking about and writing toward, thinking about things that they’ve said and ideas they’ve had. And sometimes I give the piece to those people and respond to their critiques and comments and their further ideas. It’s just a handful of people, and who they are might change a little project by project depending.

And then there are future friends! It doesn’t have to be about whether you would have a personal connection with this thinker. It’s like, your work would be friends.

I love that thought from Moten. But also, sometimes when you’re looking at, I mean, the problems of academia—its restriction of sociality and friendship and its horrible competition and commitment to a really lethal idea of meritocracy, while meanwhile, it’s just being economically hollowed out—it’s funny, because when you step outside of it, you’re like, oh, this happens in other spaces too, small press spaces or poetry community spaces or among activists. All sorts of spaces have similar hierarchical problems. They aren’t formalized in the way that a workplace’s hierarchies are formalized or disciplined, but even in spaces that are more purely social, you can see those same dynamics, where people are competing with each other instead of feeling free or welcome to collaborate or feeling called into the generosity of collaboration. It’s an academia problem that is also a beyond-academia problem.

JT: Given the persistence of that sort of atomized, competitive, economically hollow, lethal asociality pervading so many kinds of communities and so many different forms of experience, can you say a little more about this future friend or a future reader you imagine? Is there something of the aspirational projection which you write about elsewhere in the book, around the experience of participating in a protest? Or is the aspiration more like, May, in the better world, this book find exactly the person it needs?

HP: Yeah. I mean, the best version of it is someone that you admire, whose work you admire, also might find your work useful or want to read it. So maybe that’s the future friend.

But also, even as all of this shit is happening in academia, the work of teaching remains very, very hopeful. Our students are looking for those future readers, and they’re being those readers for each other, and you can be that kind of reader for them, when you try to really be with them in whatever they’re working on, sometimes to a very deep degree. The belief in the future friend is also about feeling hopeful enough to believe in something, in some kind of relationship or possibility that you don’t know about yet. And when you’re teaching something like writing, you’re witnessing that hope in people who want to write. And you’re trying to sustain that hope, which is that their writing is going to be able to do something that they don’t know about yet, or to connect with people who might then become themselves in a new way.

So I think part of it—the part that’s maybe most like attending a protest—is that, like, writing something for your friends or writing something for the people who are immediately around you that you’re in some kind of community with, when it’s in the best sense, is also writing for that possibility, that future whatever, that unknown something. Our friends are the people who make you believe in that, or who make that seem possible. Right? So you’re never just writing for your friends. It’s more that writing for them allows you to together imagine something that’s beyond that, too—that’s larger than that.

JT: This makes me think of a subtle harmony I was aware of in the book: the comparison between the beloved community, unknowable but apprehended in the rebellious sociality of a protest, and the book’s description of a poem as “a past and future land.” You say that, as readers, “we’re not there, but we’re practicing being there.” The spiritual exercises that works of literature demand of us—Fady Joudah telling American readers to repeat the sentence, “the Arab is beautiful”; Peter Dimock urging his readers to “live in the present moment within a frame of redemptive, universal history”—are things that we rarely literally live out. But we still allow ourselves to be recognized by those demands, and perhaps altered in some way. Likewise at the protest, you write that “everyone’s trying to say what they could mean together,” even if it’s imperfect, even if it’s fragile, even if it’s constantly under threat and surveillance.

HP: The thing about protests is that they feel so powerful and important to be at, but they also feel so futile. And, like, you’ve gone to a million of them. The line you quote from the book—“everyone’s trying to say what they could mean together”—is trying to get at the hope that, in another context, or given a little more space, or having seized a little more space or freedom or possibility, we could figure out what the next thing to say was. Right now, everything the protest is saying is reactionary, right? It’s in response to whatever’s happening, to which our reply is a huge no, a sort of gut refusal.

So that means we can’t yet say how everyone would get to talk to each other and be together in this other possible future space. But, at the protest, you’re also practicing toward that right now, right? Like, you are together right now doing something, and listening to each other.

In the book I’m discussing a protest on behalf of Palestinian liberation and against the Israeli assault on Gaza in May 2021. I quote a line by Mahmoud Darwish, in translation, “the land of my poem is green and high.” Darwish’s work and its relationship to the Palestinian liberation struggle gives its own context, obviously, of the poem standing in for the land, but also not being the land: marking the land that’s not there, but also serving as a place for people to be together and for a memory that’s looking toward the future. And that’s something a lot of people have written about, who are not me and are better writers, readers, and scholars of Palestinian literature than I am. In terms of scholarship in English, there’s Jeffrey Sachs’s book called Iterations of Loss, about Darwish particularly and about poetry as the naming of loss. The poem is the land and the land is beautiful and it’s there, and he’s saying, this is where my poem came from and it’s where my poem is when you read it.

JT: The way that you’re threading together questions of glimpsed social possibilities and the aspirations of literature makes me want to come back to the way that you write about form, literary form, in the book. You talk about the dread of being taken as an expert in any content you include; you say something like, Everything I know about this is already in the book. Please don’t treat me as an expert in this topic. And instead, what you assert is that “form is a means to get at the possibilities of form.” So my question is, what possibilities of form, and hence content, did these essays open up for you, either in their own composition, or in the writing you’re doing now that Hole Studies is done?

HP: In US literature, we’re not in a moment that is paying a ton of attention to form. There’s not a lot of discussion or big fights about aesthetics, the kind of fights that have characterized other moments, nor the sense that aesthetics are ideology, nor that people are doing their politics in their aesthetics; it’s more like they’re doing their politics in their content. And in the book I talk about some of my concerns with this disregard for form, and these concerns are familiar critiques of social media, maybe the main place where form is made invisible and content is king: that fighting online is a distraction, and that there’s a kind of hypocrisy that’s easy to perform there, where people can say anything but it’s divorced from their own life. That mode is very performative, and there’s only certain kinds of thinking that you can do in its form, and a lot of kinds of thinking are left out of it, which you might fear are being degraded or excluded by the dominance of these types of media and interaction.

For a lot of literary writers, maybe especially in the essay form, that question of what we’re “expert” in feels really present all the time: you think, OK, I guess I’m an expert in my life, but is that interesting? Actually, I feel largely like I don’t know a lot about my life! What context do I put it in? What are the important features of it to include? Every time you make a choice in relation to that, you are having politics about it. And those are all basically formal questions.

What I got really interested in was—and this is in the book in different places—how people live or experience their jobs, and what they’re able to say about what their job is to them, or what they think it is in the world, or why and how they do it. Which is the thing that you want to know about everyone’s job, but not the thing you can ever make them tell you. It’s a hard thing to find language for. In the book it appears as a fight I was having with law students who didn’t want to connect the legal work that they were learning to do with thoughts people might have about society and the world, which is understandable, but also, you know, seemed very alienating and as though professionalization was a training in alienation or training in not seeing what role your work is playing in society.

This is also something one thinks about as a teacher and editor and publisher: to ask, What am I reproducing? That question shows up in the book’s first essay, “Work, or the Swet Shop Boys,” thinking about the politics of English: what English am I reproducing? What am I enforcing when I become a professional in the language of English, a hegemonic language?

JT: How does this tie back to questions of expertise?

HP: What I was trying to think about in the book was, okay, what thoughts can I have about literature and experiences of literature and music and pop culture detritus that are not going to be expert thoughts, but will still be worth having? Even the book’s thoughts on literature—there’s an essay on the range of literature about the Iraq war, it’s mostly on work written in English, but the essay is not a scholarly project, you couldn’t publish it as scholarship, et cetera. It’s a different thing.

I also write about music that I was listening to, without being someone who really knows anything about music or is very good at listening to it. And there’s YouTube shit: watching without actually knowing a full context—you could take any YouTube clip and build out a context that you could study, so that you would understand better where it was coming from and you could read it better. But in fact, in our life, we’re not doing that. So that’s the kind of reception and thinking that I was interested in. Even for people who have a lot of expertise, and spend a lot of time really trying to think, a lot of your day is not that. You’re receiving all sorts of things and you’re synthesizing them and you’re having a thought about them and you’re living your life and you’re feeling feelings and you’re making connections between the things that you know a lot about and these other things that exist, or that people say to you, or that interrupted you, or surprised you, or whatever.

And so the book was trying to get at that realm of thinking, which I think literature is a good discipline for getting at. It’s the everyday being in the world, a feeling, thinking, responding, relating kind of existence. It can be theorized in a bunch of ways, but we’re not usually theorizing as we do it. You know what I mean? So that was what I was interested in. And the essay form, I think, is a good way of doing that, because you can braid, you can move among subjects, you can do more critical work and more emotional work and more storytelling work, all next to each other. Nothing can reproduce the stream of everyday thought, if that’s what anyone was trying to do, but this kind of essay is closer to that. It’s bringing your different modes of thinking and responding and observing in together rather than having a single, more established form that you’re doing it all in. So I like the essay as a form for that. I like how it can move between something personal and a claim that you’re making about something else, some kind of research you’re doing and also your reaction to it.

My arguments about form, I think, are in particular about the radical possibilities of form. If you can find a form that lets you think in a new way or make new connections, lets you synthesize things that had seemed disparate or at odds, or that can help people understand each other, then that isn’t just an illumination about whatever your subject was, right? It’s an illumination about how it’s possible to do that: to get somewhere new, understand something newly. And so you might be able to continue doing that, continue making discoveries. I think I say in the book, new possibilities of form are a way to get at new content. That is what I was arguing or feeling.

And also there’s something very dignifying and sustaining about thinking that a dumb obsession you had might become a real thought, and actually could connect to something larger—like, the first essay in that book is really just about a hip-hop group that I started listening to at a boring job. And so you think: okay, but could this stray interest in this thing mean something? Can you get it to say something to you? And can you then say something back to it and to the world? And that’s very life-affirming! Or to be like, God, I’ve really watched this one Sinéad O’Connor YouTube five times for no reason, and it’s long, 30 minutes long, why? And then you say, okay, why don’t you just try to say why? And then you’ll find out why, and you’ll also find out something else. If you give it more, it’ll give you more and you can make something together. So I think that a form that takes things seriously, but also tries to open a door with its subjects, is what I was looking for in that book.

Also, I was wanting to write about work, all the jobs that we have—which I think everyone should write about, but they’re probably too tired.

JT: What struck me when I was hearing your response is the way that you use words like dignity and sustenance, because one of the things I found so moving about Hole Studies is the way that it pursues, not authority in any of its subjects that it describes—not that that was anything but an illusion in the world of any essay—but rather a form where unexpected moral truths can break through, fellow feeling can break through, and then maybe we can refuse despair.

And I’m struck too by the way you talk also about certain ugly or racist thoughts. You said, It feels like when I think these thoughts, I’m reproducing something. I could see how I just thought a stereotype, a cultural or social virus, that exists in endless forms outside us and is constantly reproducing itself through us. And I see Hole Studies, perhaps in response to that, scrupulously weighing its conclusions or assertions, testing assumptions, rigorously examining them. So I wonder if you see a connection between the deliberateness and the sensitivity with which the book pursues its conclusions and the horrible infectiousness of certain kind of social contagions.

HP: Yes, the evil of memes! The memeing of evil! One project in my writing is to recognize that things can feel intimate without being in fact individual—to relieve us of the pressures of being an individual. And that means, in terms of thinking a horrible thought, it’s not your thought. You’re a vessel that’s vulnerable to thinking. And that, I think, helps you deal with those thoughts, because instead of shame and hiding, you can witness the thought more accurately and be responsible for it without being caught up. And, like, this isn’t a story about you. It’s a story about that thought and the harm it can do. That recognition seems useful to me and also more accurate.

And I come to this having benefited from the sort of gift that no one wants—having had both a mental illness and a neurological illness. Through those experiences you find that you really can’t actually trust your thoughts. Your thoughts aren’t really reliable. Even having something as common as anorexia, which I had when I was young, 13 to 15 or 16, you know, the thinking of that disorder is yours. Like, you are really, really thinking it; in fact, it’s all that you think about. But it’s also quite common. You’re really shockingly unoriginal; it’s a deeply derivative art. So that in itself was kind of humbling. And I think this is also common: I would never have labeled or understood what I was doing as anorexia; at the point at which I could understand it as anorexia, I was already well into recovering from it, because I hadn’t had that ability to identify it and give it language before that point. And then I was really shocked that something that felt so personal to me—like, it arose directly out of my life, and it was thoughts that I had, that I was thinking about myself and people around me, it was something I was doing day in and day out—was actually common. I was an adolescent. We have a lot of thoughts like that when we’re adolescent, where we’re like, What? Other people are people? But the insight remains with you. And it’s sort of a relief.

I also have a chronic neurological illness, and there’s whole sets of thoughts that come as part of that, as symptoms, and they’re not reliable; you can’t trust them. They’re bad. They’re just bad thoughts. I mean, they both feel bad, and they’re just shitty. You can’t, like, do anything with them. So I think that that’s helpful, because it means that you have a little skepticism toward yourself, and also you have a little mercy, you know what I mean? Someone thinking something isn’t really about them. It’s happening to them, but it’s not about them. It depends what you do with it. I think some of the skepticism and scrupulousness you see in my writing probably arises out of that experience of unreliability or feeling like, OK, if I have a thought, I’ve got to test it, take it for a ride. And also I would say that it feels like an ethical approach, because if you keep giving an account of your thought, and why you’re having it, and why you’re committing to it, and why you’re staying committed to it, that feels more truthful, and like a better basis for relationship with other people, rather than just asserting it.

I can also get into problems of ambivalence—sometimes I have felt like I didn’t say something as fully and crisply as I wish I had, because I was doing that more scrupulating work, you know, or making a lot of space for people who might be coming in a different place. And later I thought, Hilary, you should have just given your opinion, and maybe what you did was a little chickenshit even though you thought it was a good practice. So there are problems like that, too.

But some of those stylistic choices are trying to practice giving an account of who you are, and as much as you can see about why, and how the world shapes your thinking. If you can try to witness your thinking as much as you can, you can at least give an account of it and say, I am thinking this, and I think it’s for reasons like this, I’m going to try to do this with it, for these reasons. The more you can give that meta-account as you’re doing something, maybe the more you can resist certain kinds of pressure and reproduction of rote connections or stereotypes or erasures that exist in the thinking around us. It’s not perfect, but to me, those are practices that would help you offer something.

JT: Yes. It would give you a ground from which a praxis could start, a way of self-understanding that could lead one to a certain kind of action in the world, or to ways of being together.

HP: Yeah. Well said. [laughs]

JT: There’s a Peter Dimock quote, in his novel George Anderson—I thought of this, too, when I was reading your book. He writes, Within structures of complicity, reciprocity must be improvised moment to moment each day. This is made difficult by the pleasures and rewards of benefiting from atrocity.

HP: Yeah! Exactly!

JT: In Dimock’s quote I saw a similar kind of intention to what I see in Hole Studies, to be both morally penetrating and scrupulously self-aware. I think of that refusal to gaslight ourselves that you talk about when you write about the sociology of people seeking abortions. You write, “We know our own lives expertly. We know the forces acting on us.” There is this desire in the book to scrupulously examine one’s own thoughts, but not undermine one’s own sense of authority about one’s own life or one’s own moral commitments, that I find really ennobling.

HP: That’s nice! You should be ennobled! I want people to feel that.

JT: Do you think you changed over the course of thinking through this book, over the course of drafting it, over the course of editing it? Who are you now that Hole Studies is done?

Yeah, I do think I changed. I feel more confident and more middle-aged. And I spent a lot of time walking around—this was last year when I was turning forty—saying, You’re a forty-year-old English teacher in Cleveland, and feeling OK about whatever romcom that was part of. And one thing that gave me confidence, of course, as I talk about in the book, is that I got a job that supported my work better, and that helps. But I also stopped feeling so insecure about, like, never knowing anything and not having gotten a Ph.D. You know, all of these types of expertise—we all have the thing where we say, well, I didn’t do that, and other people did that, and so other people know more about this than me, because of X or Y. And I did find myself letting go of some of that, and allowing for myself that sort of dignity. You just very nicely described that feeling as ennobling, of having one’s everyday thinking be acknowledged and respected. And then, as with a lot of things, you realize, Oh, that has to include me, because otherwise self-deprecation becomes a kind of self-aggrandizement in that way—if I’m hung up on my own shit, it means I’m treating myself differently.

So I had to just say OK, I need to see what my thinking is and try to do things with it and be responsible for what it is, and not be so caught up about what it isn’t, or what’s not happening, or who I’m not, because otherwise I think you can end up in a more entangled egoistical space.

JT: Throughout the book, the moments of angry and precise assertion are chosen with incredible care, and one that most stuck with me is in “Work,” when you just say, “Our labor isn’t ours. It bears within it others’ work, others’ time, their years of frustration, boredom, achievement, and our own work radiates through the living hours of those we in no other way know.” What I hear in what you just said is a refusal to minimize or eat away at our own intellectuality, or our own expertise in our lives, or our own ability to make connections between the seemingly disparate parts of our lives, as a way to then have something to give to others. If we don’t eat away our own foundations, then we have something to pass on. And if we don’t eat away our foundations, we’re honoring the gifts that we’ve gotten from others’ care, others’ labor, others’ frustration, others’ boredom.

HP: Yeah. In that case I was thinking about medical work particularly, but it’s true of everything, and the pandemic emphasized this, obviously, because we witnessed our connections to and our reliance on each other so starkly.

JT: What books are you reading right now? What’s feeding your brain?

HP: I always feel like I’m not reading anything, which is not accurate. Whenever anyone asks me, I’m like, I can’t read! But I just started rereading a Tana French novel. I’ve been in a real detective fiction hole; in a good way—well, in a bad way and a good way, in part because I read them when I’m not feeling well, and I’ve been not feeling well a lot. So I think I’ve read about thirty detective novels in the past year; I wrote them all down this year, and I thought, That’s pretty solid. But I just restarted a Tana French one that I love, called Broken Harbor. And I’ve been listening to this history of the crime novel. So I’ve been thinking a lot about that genre, and what’s so appealing about it, and what’s so appealing about it to me, and what I want to do with it.

I also just reread Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, which I helped to publish, and I’ve read it I don’t know how many times, but then I reread it and I thought, This is a real banger. Such a fucking good novel. Which I knew the whole time, but it was great to come back and think, It’s even better than I thought. I was an idiot, I thought it was really, really good, but it was really, really, really good.

And I just re-read Adania Shibli’s Minor Detail, which I feel very similarly about: it’s really a perfect novel.

Crime novels, detective novels, are a pretty heavy genre. When you’re reading one, it has a set of expectations, it has tones, it has a lot of history and traditions. It’s like a sonnet, as someone said to me recently; it brings a lot with it, but I love also thinking about what authors do in that space, and what makes them want to be in such a constrained space, where they get to express their artistic offerings through what frictions they have with the form and what they decide to do with those. And it’s a form about the criminal justice system, yet at its best it’s about the failures and the insufficiency of that system. Crime novels are often so much about a place and a time, and they’re about the political and systemic pressures of that place and time—the crime is chosen to express those, right?

I’ve also been reading a lot of students’ writing, and it’s interesting, there’s a trend or tendency at the moment toward a lot of speculative work in their fiction. And that’s not something I’ve done—I’ve done little smidges of speculative fiction, but never a whole book. And I’m realizing, in contrast, wow, I feel so committed to reality right now. So I’ve been trying to think about why that is, and what are the ways that fiction comments on history, or does the work of history and journalism for us, that are so meaningful to me.

You mentioned Peter Dimock, whose work I love and which is part of a vein of more documentary fiction that’s been happening steadily, although not quite exploded into the mainstream. That kind of work is very engaged with reality; it’s doing its fiction very much around archival material or things drawn directly from reportage or history, and it’s often interacting very directly with journalism, which is more like the fiction that I’ve written.

So I’ve been kind of coming back to that same set of ideas, thinking, Given others’ love of the speculative, what is my love of reality? And then enjoying thinking of crime fiction as an in-between. Its genre form means that it feels like a performance: it’s doing a genre. You couldn’t say that it’s exactly realistic, but of course it’s realism. It has to be believable, and it’s supposed to feel like a real time and place, and its violence has a real weight to it.

JT: What do you hope unifies Hole Studies?

HP: Some of the things we talked about: feeling dignified and empowered in the ways that we think, and decentering authority from some of its usual shit-hole fortresses, recognizing authority in the spaces where it’s happening, and cultivating receptivity instead, other modes of response. I think that is the theme throughout the book. The first essay ends in watching Riz Ahmed appear in different settings across mainstream media, and the kind of opportunities that he seems to generously create for people there, which they mostly don’t take him up on. But there’s still the invitation: if you can recognize when someone’s doing that, you can try to respond; there’s a lot of potentiality and potency in moments like that. And art is a space like that—I mean, when it’s good, someone is generously making a potential space for future togetherness. But you in the audience have to do the next thing, right?

So I think the theme of the book is about that: recognizing those moments of possibility or potential and then feeling empowered to receive them and respond to them, even though you might just be a person.

It’s a book that also helped me think more about teaching, and so maybe it can do that for other people, but I don’t know.

JT: The way you describe the hope of the writing workshop as a “nice space” is another sounding of the moral theme of the book. You write, “I, too, am someone. This is how I tried it. This is how it worked out, in case that is useful to know,” and then, “Please use what I’m trying to say to say something you want to say.” I think that’s another sounding of that theme of shared labor and the dignity of our knowledge, or the dignity that we can give to our experience by taking it seriously.

HP: I hope so! I do like to use that phrase (and I write about this in the book), when teaching a workshop for example, to say that I am just trying to make a nice space—that’s the sentence that bubbles up in me and I’ve decided to stick with it. That phrase, “make a nice space,” seems kind of humble, pathetic, maybe misguided, next to academic course objectives and, like, aesthetic aims. But I like that about it, I like using a phrase that’s a little embarrassing and declines some forms of expert status, as we’ve talked about. I like that it doesn’t make an argument about what good writing is and who might be doing it and who will be the judge—it makes an argument instead about good experiences and good processes. So it’s not about what I, the teacher, will deliver as an authority, it’s about what we all will need to offer each other. It is very hard to make a space that feels nice to everyone in it, since people are very different and they are often in that same space for different reasons, looking for different outcomes. Ideally, niceness doesn’t deny or suppress difference, it makes space for it, while refusing hierarchies. So you have to keep observing, asking, checking in, calibrating, turning agency over to others but also guiding when it is useful, always attending.

I’m not saying other people need to use this phrase—to make a nice space—especially since it is kind of banal, but I think teachers can find tools or guidelines that work for them and help them counter the tendencies toward hierarchy that swell up inside us or that roam any room, making these insidious dynamics that are exclusionary and unjust, not open. So that phrase (whatever anyone’s phrase is and feel free to use mine if you like it) is meant to be a kind of touchstone to help you recognize when hierarchy is getting going and think, that’s not so nice. So you’ll get in there and tend that space.

Part of that approach, and this is what the quotes you mention are getting that, is that I as the teacher can try to offer my own experience to the room, and maybe it’s useful to think of that as experience not expertise. You can say, I did it like this, it went like that, in case that’s useful to know. But that mode of teaching or talking is more participatory—it means you’re doing less of the teaching thing where you impart knowledge and perform authority, and more of the teaching thing where you help students identify their questions, build a methodology and mode of approach—this is true of creative writing, too—and then reflect on their own processes and the work that resulted and the feedback they got. This is harder for everyone, especially because students often want clear definitive answers to their questions, not more questions, or an invitation to answer their question themselves—we all want to just receive sometimes and not be made responsible, especially if we’re not sure yet if we have the skills we need. And teachers also like to answer questions because it feels good and we want structure so that we’re not wandering too vaguely or idiosyncratically, or falling into the trap Dimock outlines, where an improvisatory practice that’s meant to build reciprocity—like conversation, like workshop—slides into complicity instead. But I think this is still the right less/more balance to try for. And after some years in teaching, I feel I still have a lot to learn and want to keep learning—and it’s hard even to want to keep learning! This is what is so admirable about the work of people being students—but I can say that the feeling of a nice space and good process is something I know students value, I’ve seen them value it and use it and try to offer it to each other.

Monday, January 16, 2023

Mordecai Martin, The Writer Goes To School: A Translation and Overidentification Between Translator and Translated in 54 Footnotes

Original Yiddish by Lamed Shapiro1 , Translation and notes by Mordecai Martin2

Toward the end of 1896, when I was almost still a child, I came to Warsaw3 with the explicit intention of conquering the city.

What were my qualifications for this aggressive move? Nothing; except, maybe, for the fact that I had started to write at all—and with such fervor—from the age of 8 years old.4

In my childhood and early adolescence, I was exceedingly pious. My ideal was the Tzaddik, “The Rebbe.” How did I pair this with my taste for writing? I don’t know. An uncle of mine, seeing my piety, was sufficiently farsighted to say, “When the boy grows up, he’ll be a heretic.”5 Around Bar Mitzvah age, I began to struggle with my God, and for a few years, a devastating waste grew in my heart. I was in despair and went so far as to author my own prayer, in the nusach of: Please, Lord, give me a sign! But God continued sitting on Mt. Sinai, veiled in His clouds, and I did not even merit seeing His back. This was my first heartbreak, and perhaps, considering my age, the hardest.6

At that time, I was already writing poems and stories in Hebrew. Later, in Russian, but the entire time, I was also writing in Yiddish, in a natural style, without a theoretical “stamp of rabbinic approval”7, for the simple reason that I did not think of Yiddish as a language.8 The “rabbinic approval” I received much later, in a crooked way, if you can believe it, from Pisarev.9 He changed my focus from “The Morningstars Sing in the Choir”* (Job 38:7) to the world around me, the surrounding reality. From there, my journey to Yiddish literature is clear; most likely the road was such, or similar, for many other Jewish writers of my generation.10

Arriving in Warsaw, in my hotel room I put on a morning coat—a garment that probably came about from the marriage of an overcoat and a dress coat- and a hat with a shiny visor, like the ones students from the Yiddish secular high schools wore.11 In this very garb, I called on Number One Tsegliane Street12, at the door where a brass plate read in Hebrew, “Y. L. Peretz receives at 4 PM”. Peretz himself opened the door. As large as Peretz’s eyes were, they grew even larger when he saw my attire.

I can only imagine those eyes, if he knew what was in front of him: a Genghis Khan.13

Peretz took me into his study and we chatted about Yiddish literature, which at that time, might as well have not existed. It was after Sholem-Aleichem’s “Folks-Bibliothek”14, after Spektor’s “Hoyz-fraynd”15. The first era of Peretz’s “Yiddishe Bibliothek” and his “Yontef-Blaatlech” were in the past. No books were being published. There weren’t even the three-kopek little folded books from Munk’s publishing house16 anymore. From this talk, the only thing that lingers in my memory was my question, “How can that be? It was so vibrant a few years ago!” And his clipped response, “Among the writers. Not among the readers.”17

They were twilight years, and for me, they were years of near-despair at the possibility of a literature in Yiddish. Mendele was in Odessa, managing the local Talmud-Torah; Sholem-Aleichem was in Kiev, Menachem-Mendling18, and in Warsaw, both were practically unknown, outside of those few writers. In Warsaw itself, there was Peretz and Spektor, but I doubt that the Warsaw public knew they were writers. Dovid Pinski19 was studying in Berlin—or so Avraham Kotik20 tells me. There was some young man or other “who had a spark within him”, Avrom Reyzen21, who was off somewhere, serving in the Tsar’s army; he was in the musician’s battalion, and probably had the intention of being “the third bar.”22 And—That’s it! That was the entirety of Yiddish literature.23 No journalism in Yiddish was allowed. The Hebrew paper in Warsaw, “HaTsefira”, took money to print articles by certain writers, and in Petersburg, “HaMelits”24 printed reports from the provinces about a burnt down bathhouse or about arguments over a ritual slaughterer or a rabbi.25

As an aside, a detail about Peretz around that time. We, a group of young people, had a plan of publishing a journal, and had wanted Peretz as our editor. We had a meeting with him, and when his turn came to speak, he begged our pardon: About “such matters” it was difficult for him to express himself in Yiddish, and since we “Litvaks”26 didn’t understand Polish, he would speak Russian!27

After two years in Warsaw, I returned to my home town, in Ukraine, for some personal concerns. I had not “conquered the city”; the citadel of Warsaw remained untouched.28 I traveled with the intention of returning soon—and ended up staying in my home for 5 years. Before this time, I was primarily interested in Russian literature, and the approaching first Revolution.29 Only at home I wrote Yiddish.

When I returned, in 1903, Warsaw was unrecognizable. The whole Jewish world was unrecognizable. In the borderlands between the two centuries, the two great Jewish political movements were born and grew to maturity: modern Zionism and the Bund.30 In Petersburg, Der Fraynd, the first Yiddish daily newspaper, exploded onto the scene. Those who remember that time and know the role that “Der Fraynd'' played in our political and cultural life will understand why I used the expression “explode”. In Warsaw itself, the weekly “Folks-tzeitung” was published, first under the direction of Dr. Joseph Lurie31, later under Spektor. Peretz became maybe the most brilliant orator in Yiddish that I had ever heard, a powerful fount of dazzling thoughts and colorful speech; Sholem-Aleichem was the most popular, most read writer, even in Poland. Bialik32, Berdyczewski33 and Judah Steinberg34 wrote both in Hebrew and in Yiddish, and even Shimen Frug35, recalled his youthful sins, and with an uncertain tread, approached the language “of Vilna’s market and Dvinsk’s butcher shops.”

One started to hear from America—Morris Rosenfeld36, Kobrin37, Libin38, Jacob Gordin39, Avrom Liessen40. From there, indeed, we were also saddled with translated cheap novels and “adaptations” from foreign literatures. These good people even so patched up Shakespeare that he came out as good as new.41 And in Warsaw! Warsaw Alone! Frischmann42, Dinezon43, Setzer44, Bal-Makhshoves45, Reizen, Nomberg46, Asch47, Weissenberg48, Z. Shneour49, Jacob Steinberg50, I. D. Berkowitz51 . . . Aha! Out with the dream of conquering worlds! You will be content, friend, to be capable of managing your own affairs.52 From far-flung hick towns, from small-town mud, the boys and girls came running to Warsaw,—What possessed them? What sort of force expelled them from the deepest recesses of the People and sent them on a mission? GO AND CREATE LITERATURE IN YIDDISH!53 And this at a time, when an individual who held any personal ambition was able to go to Russian, to Polish, to German. And they did indeed go! However, the ones who left for the other languages—with the exception of those who left for German—were our weakest. Bless their heads, let them live and be well.

Ah, truly, the song of Yiddish literature in the beginning of the 20th century has not yet been sung! The person who saw the new Yiddish literature as a trickling stream, now was standing on the banks of a river, which was destined to overflow all countries where Jews lived.54

1 Levi Yehoshua Shapiro, (1878-1948) born in Rzhyshchiv, Ukraine, died in Los Angeles, California. One of my favorite writers on violence and antisemitism, author of the tense psychological thriller short stories “The Cross” and “White Challah.” What is presented here is the autobiographical sketch that begins his long essay, “Der Shrayber Geyt In Heyder” “The Writer Goes To School,” published in 1945 in a slim collection of literary criticism. The rest of the essay is a meandering exploration of Shapiro’s opinions on writing craft and art. I discovered it by asking a facebook group of Yiddish writers and scholars for Yiddish Writing on Writing. I have been translating it since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when I filled the holes in my Yiddish grammatical education and the long days of lockdown with an obsession with Yiddish Duolingo. I still have much to learn, but can translate with a dictionary and some patience.

2 I came to Yiddish for the ghosts. I have been convinced from a young age that I will one day encounter my great grandparents, dead decades before my birth. What will I say to them? What language to greet them in, to show I have spent my time honoring them and their memories? The problem with ghosts is that they’re people. The more I learn about my great grandparents, both specifically from family lore and in general conclusions about their generation, I wonder if they WOULD be proud if I spoke to them in Yiddish. Possibly more bemused than proud. Why did I waste time not being a nice American boy, like they had hoped for, like they had been so proud to see my father and his brothers becoming? Then again, my father and mother have so little insight into their own grandparents’ interiority. It was not a time for showing children what made your heart bleed. Bubbe sold sweaters in a little shopping cart around Brownsville. Zayde was a waiter in Crown Heights, though all he ever cooked was cucumber salad. Wispy little ghosts, remembered for wispy little gestures. Better, now that my Yiddish is coming along, to study literature.

3 Here the city makes an appearance as the center of the Yiddish literary world, a position it held in no small part due to its prominent Yiddish literary citizen, Yitzhok Leybush Peretz, (1852-1915), who was a tireless mentor to younger generations of Yiddish writers, including Lamed Shapiro. And so we see “that a man in himself is a city” Is the author seeking to conquer the city, the literary scene, or his mentor’s mind?

4 When I was eight I authored and illustrated my first book, whose title escapes me, but whose subject was a species of aliens that could mimic toilets, attacking a human population hopelessly enslaved to their bowel movements. The attack is fought off by a brave little Jewish authorial stand-in character, who saves the world on Hanukkah. Already my work’s preoccupation with explicit Jewish content, the body, and the alien are present. Some of these preoccupations are shared with Shapiro and other Yiddish writers.

5 The nature of Shapiro’s heresy is vague. Perhaps he denied the very existence of the God of Israel. Or perhaps having witnessed pogrom after pogrom and keenly observed their devastating psychological effects, he denied that there is a Judge and Justice. My own heretical leanings are even more difficult for me to understand. I no longer trust God, and I believe God must answer for all suffering, including my own. I would like to know why, if God demanded that I learn Torah and obey the Law, why God has made it so difficult for me to do so without resulting in a deep melancholy and anxiety that does not allow me to function at all, let alone as an observant Jew. I am perhaps more of a believer than Shapiro. It is unclear.

6 When leaving God behind, all that is left are Jews. When you stop speaking Hebrew, the language that “crossed over”, all that is left is Yiddish, the language that is Jew-ish.

7 The word in Yiddish is the Hebrew word “הכשר,” meaning both generally a Rabbi’s declaration that a food stuff or religious article is “kosher” and the symbols used by a variety of Rabbinic organizations to show that they have supervised and approved the production of a food stuff or article for use by observant Jews. Shapiro uses it colloquially here, but there was a time I sought rabbinic approval for my whole life, desperate to please a cadre of musty historical figures whose writings and decisions in the framework of Jewish law I considered sacrosanct. I still love and value the writings of these rabbis, I still long for their embrace. But my madness, my pain, prevents me from keeping the law. What can I do? The rabbis in their wisdom might declare me a “שוטה”, a man too mentally unfit to keep the law. That is the best case scenario. They might condemn me as a simple sinner, too obstinate and boorish to know how to be Jewish correctly.

8 This contempt for Yiddish as a “jargon” is deeply felt to this day. My ancestors had almost no interest in passing the language to my parents’ generation of Americans, who they would whisper over, holding their secret parental and grandparental conversations in the old language. My father often chuckles indulgently when I tell him what I learn in my Yiddish classes, cracks old borscht belt jokes, wonders what I am doing on my phone all the time. I am telling a cartoon owl how many eggs he has in Yiddish. I am telling a cartoon bear that he forgot to close the store. I am playing my heritage as a game.

9 Dmitry Ivanovich Pisarev (1840-1868), a literary critic and one of the foremost thinkers of Russian Nihilism. An influence on Lenin, his effect on Shapiro is humbler: the adoption of the language of himself and his neighbors for literature.

10 This humility, this flippancy, this certainty that a detailed autobiography of his reading and writing life could shed no light that has not already been shed, where does it come from? Is there a vast literature of Yiddish writers on writing? Do we know this story already? Why don’t I know how to read as a Jew? What literature makes a Jewish writer? What makes me a Jewish writer?

11 Shapiro describes a bizarre outfit, half formal wear, half costume of youth and immaturity, in which he goes to meet Peretz. In my bar mitzvah suit, with its crazy patterned tie to satisfy my still childish tastes, I receive check after check, and every now and then a book. Was it here that I first held a copy of Peretz’ stories in translation in my hand?

12 So the great man enters our story. My own reading of Peretz started around the age that Shapiro met him in person. I gobbled up translations of his work, finding his slightly austere style more to my liking than the schmaltzy folkiness of Sholem-Aleichem (1859-1916) or Mendele Moykher Sforim (1835-1917) the other great pillars of Yiddish Literature. He was for a while, most of what I knew of Yiddish literature, besides the Isaac Bashevis Singer (1903-1991) children’s stories that I had grown up with, and the little Aleichem and Mendele I had read. I saw parallels between him and my adolescent favorite, Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986). They both mixed magic and philosophy freely. Peretz tells stories of miracles and mud with a detached wondrousness. I was enchanted by his words as a young adult. I haven’t read him for ten years. Life gets in the way. To encounter him here, as a human being, a hero to Shapiro but still fallible, is to rediscover and reinvent my image of him, no longer a wizard behind an untouchable great book, but a writer. A great writer, but still, a writer, as Shapiro is a writer, as I am a writer. What separates me from YL Peretz? A language, a continent, an ocean, some words.

13 Remember, Shapiro still intends to take the world by storm, by way of Yiddish literary greatness. Can a Jewish writer in a Jewish language conquer the world? If a Jewish writer in a non-Jewish language conquers the world, has he done anything for the Jewish people? What does all my writing in English amount to?

14 One of the first literary periodicals in Yiddish, started by Sholem-Aleichem in 1888, but forced to close by Aleichem’s bankruptcy in 1890.

15 A Warsaw-based publication run by the author Mordkhe Spektor (1858-1925), but whose last edition appeared sometime before 1896, the year of Shapiro’s arrival in Warsaw.

16 Y. G. Munk, Warsaw based bookseller and publisher. I am still endeavoring to find precise dates for Munk’s birth and death and the operation of the press and shop, but there are extant Munk editions of Hebrew works dating from at least the 1870s.

17 The earliest question my writing had to answer, literally written in the margins by friends and teachers serving as editors, was “Who is this for?” Spending my entire 20s without a bachelor’s degree, my tone was too academic. Trying to hand my work in at the schools I kept dropping in and out of, I was told I was too lyrical, too glancing in my analysis. As I turned to fiction and creative writing, the question persisted. Who is this for? Who is your audience? Where are the readers?

Isaac Bashevis Singer, when he received the Nobel prize for Literature, said that he continued to write in Yiddish after the Holocaust, because he is a believer in מחיה המתים, the Resurrection of the Dead. “I am sure that millions of Yiddish speaking corpses will rise from their graves one day and their first question will be: ‘Is there any new Yiddish book to read?’” In much the same way, I hope to write Jewish stories to continue conversations with the long dead rabbis who torment me, with the Jewish writers who delight me. When I read Grace Paley and Isaac Babel for the first time in 2019, I realized, this is my audience, this is who I write for. I do not write for readers. I write to be in conversation with other writers, many of them dead and gone.

18 An allusion to Aleichem’s character, Menachem Mendl, notorious for his unending faith in his disastrous financial speculations, and Aleichem’s own attempts to remake the fortune he had lost in 1890 on the stock market.

19 Yiddish writer Dovid Pinski (1872-1959), another mentee and collaborator of Peretz’. His move to Berlin in 1896 was the beginning of the end of his time in Europe. He moved to America in 1899, and then moved to the state of Israel in 1949.

20 Avraham Hirsch Kotik (1867 -1933) son of the Yiddish memoirist Yekhezkl Kotick (1847 -1921), and a socialist activist and translator into Yiddish in his own right.

21 Avrom Reyzen (1876-1953), another protegé of Peretz, and a prodigy, published his first poem in Peretz’s Yiddishe Bibliotek in 1891, at the age of 15.

22 What is meant by Shapiro’s comment about the Third Bar is unclear to me. The original term is די דרײ טאַקטן, and is definitely a reference to musical notation.

23 The terrain is surveyed and found wanting. I am less despairing than Shapiro; perhaps we might say, less arrogant. I do not believe myself to be a lone voice crying in a wilderness. There are others here too, some of whom tower above me, their names regularly appearing in both the Jewish and the wider press: Chabon, Krauss, Englander, Safran Foer. I have dozens of contemporaries I can turn to, talk with. But I read them all in English. Even those who write in Hebrew, which I speak, I read in English. Is there an intimacy we are denied? Has a Jewish writer ever reached out to me to speak, Jew to Jew, just us, no one watching. Then again, who would watch us? Who cares what a Jew has to say to a Jew but another Jew?

24 A depressing decline from the golden days of the paper’s Yiddish supplement Kol Mevaser, the first Yiddish paper in Russia, published between 1862 and 1872. Under editor-in-chief and publisher Aleksander Zederbaum (1816-1893) the paper saw the publication of Mendele Moykher Sforim and Avrom Goldfadn, among other Yiddish luminaries. My own sense of the Jewish press is of decline. The Forward is consumed by listicles, Tablet by neo-conservatives. Jewish Currents and Haaretz have little to no interest in fiction or creative non-fiction. The Jewish Book Review champions Jewish writers . . . once they have books. Where can my stories go to find their cousins? In what anthology could I be beside other Jewish writers of my generation? Can I only talk to ghosts, or do I have a message for the living?

25 These arguments persist, and I don’t see why Shapiro should complain about them. They are the foundation of all Jewish fiction, these clashes between Jews, these petty, quiet events in the midst of history.

26 Shapiro was Ukrainian, not Lithuanian, but the term had expanded to all non-Polish Jews who were rushing into Warsaw in the 1890s.

27 Peretz fell in esteem in the eyes of his student, for the simple crime of speaking the wrong language at a crucial moment. One can picture a young Shapiro tearing his hair out. How can there be hope for Yiddish Literature when one of its greatest practitioners can’t even conduct business in the language! This youthful purism was, in me, turned inwards. In my 20s, I berated myself for failing to keep kosher, failing to keep Shabbos, failing to keep up with my talmudic studies. Entering Jewish literature as a writer in my 30s, is there an equivalent? Who am I disappointed in?

So much of the Jewish world is swinging right, to keep in lock step with the state of Israel. I arrived in Israel in 2005, the year the state removed settlements from Gaza. How proud I was of the morality of that decision, the liberalism of it! Surely this was the beginning of a Jewish-led peace. But as I watched the slow imprisonment and pulverizing of Gaza over the next decades, and as my own mental health crisis inclined my sympathies to all who were trapped, hurt, wounded, I became disenchanted with Zionism and Israel. I left in 2008, a nervous wreck, heart broken by the “only Jewish country in the world.” Now I no longer believe in states and their promises, much as I no longer believe in sanity. The world is too thin for that, the mind too unpredictable. We must let go of purism, and embrace what emerges next.

28 Jewish literary greatness eluded Shapiro in his first sally. No meteoric rise, no weeping at the edge of the sea for having nothing left to conquer. Like Don Quixote he comes home beaten, finding the world both larger and smaller than he had hoped. And me? I am dipping my toe in. I am satisfied with my early publications, and am exploring a writers life. Readings, submissions, queries, working on sustained pieces. Is this failure? Is it success? It’s mostly just words, some printed, most online. A bigger and smaller world than I had hoped

29 Behind all this Jewish writing, political upheaval. Empires rise and fall, tsars are conspired against, assassinated, appointed, Presidents are elected, Jewish states come into being, Holocausts happen. What is a Jewish writer’s responsibility to all this? What language should he write his political screeds in? What role should she take in history?

When there was a brief rhetorical struggle over whether it was appropriate to label the conditions of US detention facilities for immigrants “concentration camps” I felt it my responsibility to get arrested protesting a July 4th parade with a group of Jewish activists. We were of the opinion that the detention facilities were indeed concentration camps, and that we as Jews must shout never again. These activists, who I perhaps over excitedly labeled “my comrades,” have become a Jewish community for me. I write about their Messianic pretensions, their artistic sensitivities, their cries for mutual aid (which I try to answer when possible). I conspire with them to make art. Some of them are Jewish writers too.

30 Like Shapiro, I have been alive for the turn of the century. I wonder if I’ve also lived to see a revival of a uniquely Jewish political consciousness. Conversations long thought dead and dying suddenly have new life. Twitter profiles of US 20 somethings earnestly declaring themselves Neo-Bundists spring up like mushrooms after the rain, and Zionism chugs along, a state ideology, with its free vacations for Americans and its mandatory army service for Israelis. Yiddish has taken on a new significance in this struggle, there are respectable amounts of revivalists in the summer programs and classes and even an app that teaches you the language, taught me the language. But has Jewish literature taken a role yet in the century to come?

31 Dr. Joseph Lurie, (1871-1937) a delegate to the First Zionist Congress, founder of the weekly Der Yud, and the literary editor of Der Fraynd until 1906.

32 Hayyim Nachman Bialik (1873-1934), perhaps the first great modern Hebrew poet

33 Mikhah Yosef Berdyczewski (1865-1921), an ardent defender of Hebrew belles lettres.

34 Judah Steinberg (1863-1908), a romantic writer of Hasidic stories.

35 Shimen Shmuel Frug (1860-1916) polyglot, misanthrope, Russian literary darling and author of a screed, in 1899, dismissing the possibility of a great Yiddish literature.

36 Morris Rosenfeld (born Moshe Jacob Alter 1862, died 1923), prolific poet of the lives of immigrant tailors.

37 Leon Kobrin (1873-1946) playwright, poet, translator, whose passion for Yiddish only began upon his immigration to Philadelphia in 1892. Beginning as a disciple of Jacob Gordin (See note 35), his career spanned two golden ages of the Yiddish stage.

38 Z. Libin, born Yisroel Zalmen Hurvits, (1872-1955), a socialist playwright and author, and brother to Khayim Dov Hurvits (1865-1927), a contributor to Der Fraynd.

39 Jacob Mikhailovitch Gordin, (1853-1909), playwright and the father of Naturalism and Realism in Yiddish theater.

40 Abraham Liessen (1872-1938) Socialist revolutionary, poet and playwright. He came to New York in 1897, fleeing the secret police.

41 What is my responsibility as a Jewish writer in English? Shapiro complains of cheap translations and interpretations as shoddy patchwork on the dignity of Shakespeare. When I use my duolingo Yiddish to translate the greats of Yiddish literature into my mooncalfish English, whose dignity am I imperiling? On the other hand, reading Cynthia Ozick’s novella “Envy, or Yiddish in America”, I come across her creation the poet Edelshtein, wandering the wintry New York streets, feverishly hoping to find a translator for his poems. Is Yiddish a language of beggars who cannot be choosers? Is it so insulting to patch up the coat of a language dressed in rags? Or is it an insult to point out the rags in the first place?

42 David Frischmann (1859-1922) Modernist in Hebrew and Yiddish, translator of, among other authors, Tagore, Goethe, and the Brothers Grimm.

43 Jacob “Yankev” Dinezon, (1851-1919), an author and early champion of Peretz, whose novel Yosele exposed abuses in the Jewish religious education system and led to major educational reforms.

44 Samuel H. Setzer, (1876-1962), energetic translator and writer in Hebrew and Yiddish.

45 Pen name of Dr. Isidor Eliashev (1873-1924), the “Master of Thoughts” didn’t enter into the world of serious Yiddish literary criticism until Dr. Joseph Lurie (see note 27) urged him to in 1899. His enthusiasm for Yiddish literature took a distinct pessimistic turn in 1910, with the collapse of his marriage. Things seemed to look up after WWI, but then his depression and physical ailments took a turn for the worst, and he died in his native Kovno.

46 Hersh Dovid Nomberg, (1876-1927), a Yiddish bohemian whose stories of love, lust and loss I have encountered in translation in the delightful “A Cheerful Soul and other stories” (2021, Snuggly Books) trans. Daniel Kennedy

47 Sholem Asch (1880-1957), whose copious translated novels surrounded me in my youth, though I never picked them up.

48 Isaac Meir Weissenberg (1878-1938), tireless and occasionally cantankerous champion of Polish Yiddish, as opposed to the Lithuanian dialect or the Ukrainian.

49 Zalman Shneour, born Shneur Zalkind (1887-1959) writer in Hebrew and Yiddish, nominated in 1951 by the Hebrew PEN club for the Nobel prize.

50 Jacob Steinberg, (1887-1947), who wrote Yiddish in Peretz’ circles, but swore off it and on to Hebrew when moving to Mandate Palestine in 1914. Still, he never adjusted his Hebrew accent, writing in an Ashkenazi Hebrew until his death.

51 Isaac Dov Berkowitz (1885-1967) a translator of Sholem Aleichem, his father-in-law, into Hebrew, and a writer in his own right.

52 Eventually ambition leaves us, and we can get down to writing. Shapiro is no longer a Genghis Khan, and I can no longer continue to over identify with Shapiro, whose greatness and essentialness to the world of Jewish letters surpasses my own abilities. I must now admit the gulf between us, me, unproven and trying in English, and him, a master of Yiddish. I’ll visit him at his grave in Los Angeles one of these days, and thank him for the advice.

53 Every Jewish writer post the Shoah has heard this call, and has had to answer in their own language, in their own way. Hebrew is the future, some of us say. I do not speak Yiddish, we say. I am not even Ashkenazi, others reply. Still, the voice is sharp and clear. Why does it keep calling? Why can’t it be satisfied with the short spurt of the river that Shapiro describes?

I am not a Yiddish writer, but I am creating a Jewish literature for here, for now. And part of that literature by necessity is about and for and in Yiddish. Yiddish is the present and the future. Yiddish is as alive as the pulse in my thumb, as it presses the iPhone screen and answers the cartoon owl’s questions in Yiddish.

54 I end here, on Shapiro’s bitter optimism. Writing in 1945, it is unclear to me how much he knows about the devastation of his world and audience. But surely he knows something has shifted, that there is a dying at hand. He transitions from here to several sections of craft thoughts and writing advice. He covers what there is to learn from other arts, how to learn what not to do from others failures, whether Yiddish will ever be free from comparisons to German. In the following pages he declares “The Yiddish language has worked a spell on me. She is, after all is said and done, my most beautiful love, and I hope to die at her feet.”

That spell is being worked on me by Jewish literature more broadly. I have my answer now of what to read. Shapiro’s listing above is curriculum enough, and more gets written every day. I am a Jew awash in books, as Jews always have been. One day Jews will swim in my words too.


Mordecai Martin is an Ashkenazi Jewish writer from New York with ties to Mexico City and Philadelphia. His creative non-fiction has appeared in Catapult Magazine, Longleaf Review, Peach Magazine, Autofocus Lit, Anti-Heroin Chic Magazine, and The Hypocrite Reader. His fiction has been featured in Identity Theory, Timber Journal, X-Ray Lit, Gone Lawn, Knight’s Library Magazine, Funicular, and Sortes. He is obtaining an MFA in creative writing at Randolph College in Virginia. He tweets and instagrams @mordecaipmartin and blogs at