A Conversation With Jane Lazarre

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.