Live from the Lilith Blog 1 of 2
January 12, 2012 by Yona Zeldis McDonough
In the summer of 2009, Lilith excerpted a section of Jane Lazarre’s harrowing novel, Inheritance. The book was recently published and Lilith’s Fiction Editor, Yona Zeldis McDonough, interviewed Lazarre–author of ten books and creator of the undergraduate writing program at Eugene Lang College at the New School—about historical fiction, blacks and Jews, and her feelings about our first mixed-race president.
Your work is full of interracial relationships; what drew you to this subject?
The first reason is that in my early twenties, I married into an African American family, and in 1969, I gave birth to my first son, a few years later to my second son. Raising Black children, and learning about this nation’s history from the point of view of Black people in my family – a very different perspective than the one I was raised with, that most white people were/are raised with – was a transformational experience.
The theme of race, though secondary, is a central one in my first memoir, The Mother Knot, written in the midst of the feminist movement in the 70s, a movement that was beginning to produce a wealth of material and testimonials, both scholarly and literary, about race history, and by both African American and white writers. Soon after that, as a professor of writing and literature, first at City College in New York, then on the full-time faculty of Eugene Lang College at the New School, I had the opportunity to study and teach African American literature, with special attention to the rich tradition in autobiography. These years of study and teaching had a huge impact on me, on my sense of my own identity as an American, as a white Jewish mother of Black sons, I told some of this story autobiographically in a memoir called Beyond the Whiteness of Whiteness. But apart from the personal sources of my work, I am committed, as a writer and activist-teacher, to speak out against some of the mythologies, indeed, the lies and self-deceptions, of American race history and American racism. The theme of mixed racial identities, about which there is plenty of personal and philosophical disagreement, is also one that has been distorted and misrepresented in many ways since the early days of slavery and up to the present moment – in some of the ways, for example, in which we discuss, define and interpret the history and policies of President Obama.
How is it different handling this subject as fiction and as non-fiction?
When writing memoir, or any other form of non-fiction, the writer is bound by agreement and ethical contract, to the actual truth – in the sense that what is written actually happened, at least as far as the writer is aware. Or, as in some contemporary memoirs, the writer indicates she is now moving from literal truth into imagination. In fiction, of course, the writer is free to work solely from imagined experience, to tell a story out of long-ago history – as I do in several sections of my novel, Inheritance – to tell stories about characters who do not exist in actual life. For me, there was kind of freedom, a sense of transformation, involved in both genres. In my memoirs, three of which involve the theme of race, I felt liberated by the opportunity to form narratives and experiences into wholes that made sense to me, that revealed aspects of my experiences not before known. This is the magic I find in writing memoir, or even personal essay: I learn the meanings of what happened in a deeper sense than I knew before.
In fiction, I experience the freedom of the imagination to create stories and characters that have meaning to me in numbers of ways without the constraint of sticking to the literal truth. When writing about race in America, the truths and lies can become so entangled, and so misrepresented, that writing in fiction can be more liberating than sticking to my own limited experiences. Not the least part of this is that I am free to imagine myself into the points of view of Black characters, male characters, even Jewish women characters living in a different time and place.
Do you think the relationships Blacks have with Jews differs from their relationship to other whites?
First of all, there is no way to generalize. Jews can be as racist as other whites. There is also a specific tradition of progressive radicalism in Jewish history. Therefore, relationships vary from place to place, from generation to generation, from person to person. Some of the factors might include geography – there are places in this country where there are very few Jews, places where there are very few Blacks. In New York City, a very mixed but in many ways highly segregated city, there are many Black people who have never had a relationship with a Jewish person, and many Jews whose relationships with Blacks are limited to people who serve or work for them. A recent statistic said that NYC is the third most segregated city in the country, despite our diversity. This is a central factor in how people experience each other – personal relationships, intimate contact. Everything depends on the people you know, the knowledge an individual works to learn, the political or moral values one lives by. In Inheritance, the overall narrator, and a central character, is the daughter of a Jewish mother and a father who is Black and Italian. She must struggle with the confluences and contradictions of her identity in various ways. Her Jewish great-grandmother enters the story as an old woman with many of the “liberal” racial prejudices against Blacks, yet also as a young woman who was deeply attracted to a Black man, and in another way, to his wife, a Black woman. Her attitudes toward herself as a white woman were re/formed as a consequence of that attachment and loss. Eventually, when she is near death, they are re/formed again.
Inheritance is a heavily researched book, with its references to life in America a century ago. What was that research process like?
Research into African American history, which is to say American history, was a part of my writing and teaching life long before the writing of this novel. I reread many of the texts I had studied before, using them in different ways – as inspiration for some of the core stories of the people in the novel, especially the section that takes place during slavery. For instance, I was inspired by books about the history of the Underground Railroad, about the Grimke sisters and how they moved from being daughters of a slave holding family to abolitionist activists and writers.
I knew, from my teaching, about many of the atrocities that took place in this country for 200 years, and I felt the need to add my voice to works that would reveal these atrocities for the evil they were. Then I read new works about race and race history, but also about the Chesapeake Bay and its history, which figures centrally in the novel.
For another section of the book, I researched the history and current cultures of Norwalk, Connecticut, a city in lower New England that was once a central stop on the Underground Railroad, and is also the place where my grandparents raised their children – so where my mother grew up. I went to Norwalk, interviewed the librarians at the Historical Museum, walked the streets and sat in the oyster bars I wanted my characters to walk and sit in. I found an old graveyard that was to figure in an important way into the story. I learned about skip jacks and watermen on the bays and sounds of the East Coast, and how that industry and experience was affected by race history. I found all this research to be exhilarating, inspiring. It changed many moments in the novel I was writing as I learned more. Once I had incorporated the new material I was learning, it kind of merged with the knowledge I had been working with as a writer, teacher, mother and wife for many years, and from that knowledge, the story itself often flowed easily.
In Inheritance the research feels fully and completely integrated into the story.
I am very glad you think this is the result. The history of American slavery and abolition, early 20th century life in Norwalk, certainly the history of Americans of mixed racial heritage as well as the history of sexual unions of various kinds between Black men and white women – all these are very close to my experience, both emotionally (personally) and intellectually (as a student, teacher and writer.) One central aspect of the African American tradition in literature, and in my view in most serious literature, is the understanding that our intimate, personal lives are embedded in the collective, historical story. As James Baldwin put it in his essay “Stranger in the Village,” “People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them.”
Samantha, one of the central characters in Inheritance, is a young woman of mixed race. How do you perceive her – Black? white? Or neither?
Samantha clearly perceives herself as a Black woman. She tells us this, or implies it, in the Prologue of the novel. During the novel itself, she is about 16 years old and is exploring her identity in many ways, but even at that age, she is clear that, like so many Americans of African heritage, her heritage is mixed, literally, yet she is a Black girl, then woman, in her own mind, and in the view of the world around her. In this view, she is in conflict with her beloved Italian grandmother, who feels somewhat differently, but not with her father, who is, strictly speaking, “half black” but who does not believe in such “halves” or partial divisions for himself or for his child. This is not to say either of them denies their other heritages – Italian, Jewish. However, the idea that is implicit in the novel, and that is central to my own view (derived from many other thinkers, both Black and white) is that Blackness and whiteness (note the different use of capital letter) are not symmetrical identities. Blackness is more like other cultural ethnicities, while whiteness is fundamentally a system of skin color privilege that has poisoned our politics and culture from the time of its beginnings. It is important to know that it did have a beginning, and anyone interested should read books such as, How the Jews Became White Folks, or How the Irish Became White, or any of the scholarly texts and anthologies by David R. Roediger, especially, Black on White, which collects many critical essays on whiteness by Black writers from the days of slavery to the present.
Another of your characters, Samuel, is a slave on a plantation in Maryland. Was it difficult to write from his perspective and to imagine his story?
I found the character of Samuel (the first Samuel chronologically) hard to write in some ways, not so much to imagine his perspective as to write convincingly in his language, the ways he would use English as a man who was formally uneducated, of course, but who had been taught to read and write at a young age. I don’t think imagining the life, including the interior life, of people very different from oneself is impossible at all. It is an essential part of the work of a fiction writer. I do think it is sometimes difficult, and takes work, and what the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe calls “imaginative identification.” In other words, as a reader, and as a writer, I have to be open to the inner life of people different from myself, but also to believe, as I do, that human beings have a great deal in common, especially when it comes to fundamental human needs and passions, such as the passion for freedom, or the need for love.
How did you feel when a man from a mixed racial background was elected President of the United States?
I felt completely exhilarated, excited, amazed and thrilled. Despite some differences of opinion about policies and appointments with President Obama, I still feel these things. However, it was not that he was mixed that caused me to feel this way, but that we elected a Black president. I hope everything I have said so far would make the reason for this clear. People have been “mixed” since the days of slavery. Frederick Douglass, the great writer and orator, was “mixed,” as were countless other enslaved Americans, mostly due to the institutionalization of the rape of Black woman over the course of two centuries. One only has to read the literature to understand how meaningless, historically and culturally, this idea is. It is not, however, meaningless psychologically, and I do not think it is meaningless personally to President Obama, who obviously was devoted to his white mother and was raised by his white grandparents. But he is a Black man, and that historical event, in addition to my agreement with many of his positions and views during the campaign, did thrill me, and continue to amaze me.
In Ralph Ellison’s classic American novel, Invisible Man, he says, famously, “blackness is, and blackness ain’t.” In my novel, Inheritance, I wanted to show, through stories, some of the complexities, ironies and impossibilities we have made out of the false, yet stubbornly real, notion of race by showing that race is, and yet in another way, race ain’t.