I am honored to have the amazing Elana Dykewomon join me today to discuss her Lambda Literary Award winning novel “Beyond the Pale“. I am in love with this novel that follows the journey of a Russian Jewish woman as she immigrates to America and struggles to build a better life. It is harrowing, heartbreaking, joyous, and so relevant to the present debate in Congress about immigration.
She has just released audio and ebook versions of “Beyond the Pale“, and and ebook version of her latest novel, “Risk“.
One of my students (who was moved profoundly by the novel) provided thought-provoking questions to Elana – read on to hear her taking on the writing of the novel, culture, community, and the immigrant experience…
The Interview Begins
Thanks to Kim Taylor Blakemore for asking me to write this guest blog! It’s fashioned from the questions her student, Aaron, presented:
Part 1: Beyond the Pale, herself
When you wrote Beyond the Pale, did you base most of the characters off family members and positive female influences? Is the character Chava based on yourself? How much research do you do when you write historical fiction? Is fiction a lie? Maybe a white lie used to teach a lesson, entertain, or evoke emotion, but isn’t fiction, at its core, untrue?
Folks often ask if characters are based on writers’ own lives. If by “based” they mean, did you find them in your own mind or the flesh of your upper arms or a daydream you had at 17, hanging a basket on your ear to catch the language of ghosts, well, then, of course. How not?
But if they mean that by knowing the characters, they will know you, or what you would be like if you dressed in that character’s costume, then, almost always, no.
Even if someone read Riverfinger Women, the based-on-my-life-and-fantasies novel I published when I was 24, they would likely not have recognized me then, and certainly not now. Characters take on their own lives, as novels do; they walk around in the world, have adventures, break hearts, inspire fantasies. Once I met a woman in a Osento, the long-gone women’s bath house in S.F., who said after she read Riverfinger Women, she quit school and hopped boxcars for a couple years. I was shocked. Had I meant for anyone to do that? Could I have foreseen that what I wrote might promote recklessness? And even if I had, in my 20s, wouldn’t I have welcomed that?
So now we come to the question of a writer’s responsibilities. Telling the truth is not the same as reporting. Is fiction a lie? No more than carpentry is a lie – you hammer words together to create the best dwelling for the place, time and circumstances. Anyone can live in the house of fiction, though not every fictional home will shelter every person. Beyond the Pale is a living truth, the truth about those particular women’s lives as best as I could imagine them, and it makes those women true for readers. The delineation of “truth” from “fiction” is an age-old shell game, and certainly people use both the truth and fiction to lie (see the recent Supreme Court rulings on the Voting Rights Act, for example, of folks using statistics to shape the reality they want to see). I am someone who believes in honesty and knows that in poetry, fiction, in every kind of creativity, a person can discover their own honesty. Shared honesty can, and sometimes even does, change the world. No lies up my sleeve, at least, not intentionally.
The characters in Beyond the Pale did not come from my family, not directly, nor from women I knew. (Although, okay, I’ll admit that one of the ways a Russian Jew dies is a adapted from a fragment of a family story.) Beyond the Pale started as a song an immigrant woman was singing in my ear as I lay in a third-floor apartment over a bar in Northampton; a song I tried for a while not to hear. Eventually I wrote it down – it was about a woman traveling alone who could only own the stones in her shoes. Many years later, that same voice came to me with a poem about traveling west by train after her lover died. So I said, all right, I’ll find out who you are.
The character I “heard” and uncovered, Chava Meyer, was definitely not me. I discovered she came from Kishinev, Russia, had survived the Kishinev pogrom of 1903, so I created a family tree for her and the women with whom her life twines. I like to think I have a Hitchcock like walk-on cameo for five lines as the friend of the bathhouse owner, Pesah Kohn. In some ways, I used Chava and the other characters to explore personal issues of loss and grief, as well as to understand what it means to be living not just your own individual life, but to be positioned in history. I like to think she “came through me” at a time when I needed her, as she needed me to tell her story, as women needed to hear the story of lesbians who worked for social justice in another time.
Writing Beyond the Pale was unlike anything else I have ever done – I was compelled to do it, and the research absorbed my interest for years. I wrote a poem, “The Census Taker Interviews the 20th Century” (published in both Bridges magazine and my book of poems, Nothing Will Be As Sweet As The Taste), inspired by reading the responses to the Kishinev pogrom right after it happened – a bishop, maybe even the pope, who said: to think that such atrocities can happen in the 20th century. That was 1903 and the century’s atrocities were just beginning to bloom in sickening profusion.
The research and writing took me ten years. That’s not to say I was constantly researching or writing – during that time I had a day job, was an editor of the international lesbian-feminist journal, Sinister Wisdom, and had a life. I was fortunate to be able to go to several writing retreats during those ten years, and that’s when most of the writing was done. The research was done in many spare and odd moments, and much material came to me serendipitously, or through friends who knew what I was working on. I learned how many dedicated women contributed to making working conditions livable for most people in the U.S. and the world – how much of “history” happens because of women’s work, the ocean of thought and labor that allows the yachts of men to be called “president.”
Part 2: The Social Matrix Around the Book and Our Current Moment
What are some things men can do to help in the fight for social equality?
Allies of any group of people, or any cause, help by not getting in the way of those who are organizing, and by working with members of their own cohorts (men, white people, the able-bodied) to understand how oppressions poison all of us, all the water in the well. So be curious, explore, learn, but stay out of the way; never demand that the energy of those in an oppressed group be directed toward you. Deal with other men, other white people, other class-privileged people, other able-bodied people, other young, straight or thin people around their attitudes, with a clear analysis of power structures and how institutional structures keep the mechanisms of oppression in place. Realize that oppression is deep, insidious, powerful, and that your role as an ally will never be over, that you will never get a plaque that says: friend of the people to hang on your wall or list in your resume.
Should we have pride in our cultures or faiths? Can we do that without being divisive? Absolutely and, also, no. One part of being an ally is knowing and owning your own culture and heritage. Every culture contributes music, art, story – allies don’t suck up others’ cultures; they bring their own cultures to the table. It’s important to learn the ways the English colonized the Irish and hear Egyptian folk stories.
But most cultures also have foundational moral structures that are designed to elevate one group at the expense of others (men having dominion over women, animals, all the plants of the earth; any group chosen by any god to steal the labor of another) and those should always be questioned and exposed.
As, for instance, the gender roles expressed by mainstream media to our children – a form of social control that polices even play as “appropriate” to a particular gender.
Do you think gender roles expressed by mainstream media to our children add to social inequality?
The women’s movement of the 70s promoted the idea of gender-free childhoods: any child could play with Tonka trucks, dolls, glitter or marbles. Too bad we never got to see what a generation who had those childhoods would look like. As long as we live within hierarchic structures, gender roles will be weapons of social terrorism aimed directly at children’s heads.
How about the mainstream media’s vilifying of criminals(mainly non-white) and immigrants?
Are we far from Beyond the Pale? Maybe not. After all, those women were immigrants, and the press hated them.
But first, putting “immigrants” in the same category as “criminals” makes it seem as if immigrants are, by definition, criminal. Stop that. The media has always, by the way, vilified immigrants – the Irish, the Italians, the Jews, the Chinese, the Japanese and now Latinos. Check out any newspaper of the 19th century. What that’s about is the subject of a book-length treatment; my short answer is nationalism thrives on fear of “the other,” without which, how could it bolster its claims to exceptionalism? (Our country is the best but it’s being ruined by those outsiders.) Nationalism is a plague, a completely wrong turn in the course of human development. And, on another hand, the history of immigration can also be read as a history of colonialization, of the exploitation of Native, enslaved and indentured laborers. Who is the criminal, then? “Criminals” also needs at least a book’s worth of explication (and Angela Davis has – read her). One might think the newspapers had stock in for-profit prison corporations.
I tried to address this in Beyond the Pale by making one of the brothers a policeman, once he passes through the first migrant gauntlets. At one point, his partner arrests his sister, Rose, on a picket line. After Chava bails her out, Rose tells her story, the story of all the women who did, who do, what the moment requires, the ordinary women who created rent strikes and worker protection, not for recognition, but out of necessity; out of the ability to see herself in others. We live with the complicated histories of our ancestors inside us. In Beyond the Pale I tried to light up some of those forgotten rooms, full of love and courage.
Elana Dykewomon has published seven award-winning books foregrounding lesbian heroism, including the classics Riverfinger Women, Beyond the Pale and 2009’s Risk. She’s excited that both Risk and Beyond the Pale are now available as Ebooks (and Beyond the Pale will be available from Audible.com in the fall). A former editor of Sinister Wisdom, she’s also a long-time cultural worker and social justice activist. In 2009 she received the Duggins Outstanding Mid-Career Novelists’ Prize. She lives happily in Oakland among friends, with her partner, Susan, stirring up trouble whenever she can. She offers classes in writing from life experience and private editing on her website. See: www.dykewomon.org