Our Jewish Feminist Gumshoe: The Author Behind V. I. Warshawski

Sara Paretsky, author of 14 mysteries featuring V.I. Warshawski, is credited for transforming the genre of hardboiled detective fiction with her feminist heroine. In her fiction, Paretsky has tackled such topics as Holocaust reparations payments, domestic violence, turmoil in the lives of blue-collar Chicagoans, the government’s abuse of power. “The questions of who gets to speak, and who listens, are central to how I view the world,” she writes. She tells why in her powerful and moving memoir, Writing in an Age of Silence (Verso Books).

I grew up in a tangled nest of outsideness. As the only girl in my family, I was constrained from the age of nine to give up my own childhood in becoming the caretaker of my young brothers. My family was one of the few Jewish families in the town of Lawrence [Kansas] — our arrival brought the number of Jewish men to ten so that the community could start holding services. We were like giraffes, an oddity that invited staring. I knew that if I revealed any of the ugliness of our home life to the larger world, and it was ugly in ways that are still hard for me to think about, I would be bringing shame to the Jews, who were beleaguered enough without my adding to their woes. The shadow of the Holocaust, in which my European family was obliterated down to the last infant cousin, lay heavy over my childhood: one did not make one’s private woes a mocking point for gleeful Gentiles.

When my father gave my dolls and stuffed animals to my young brother, telling me that at nine I was too old for toys, my mother told me not to cry, because there were children in Harlem and Johannesburg, or dead children in the Vilna ghetto, who’d never even had toys.

My needs and desires were insignificant in the grand scheme of neediness — it was my job to serve, to help undo bonds of wickedness, share my bread with the hungry, and in general, let the oppressed go free. My life wasn’t supposed to hold pleasure: my parents forbade art or music classes, any after-school groups, or outings with friends. Once, when I took part in a school play, my parents condemned my selfishness in language so scalding that they effectively kept me from any other leisure activities. Even today, if I sit in my attic writing my novels, I feel guilty for not being out on the streets, immolating myself on the altar of social neediness. I should be tutoring, working for abortion rights, saving Darfur, undoing the Patriot Act — in short, saying yes to every appeal that crosses my desk. Only a selfish person would stay in her attic spinning stories.

I was a person raised to serve, who came of age in a time of passion for justice. My character dovetailed neatly with the times. My own sense of voicelessness also let me to see and feel the anguish of the powerless.