Interviewed by Tom Manoff
Jane Lazarre is the author of many critically acclaimed books— among them: The Mother Knot and Beyond the Whiteness of Whiteness.
THE SPANISH GOVERNMENT is seeking the name of an unknown volunteer killed during the Spanish Civil War (1936 – 1939), one of the first American volunteers to die in the conflict. (See his picture below.) They plan to present the picture to President Obama when he visits Spain. Author Jane Lazarre’s father (Bill Lazar, spelled differently) was also in that war and his participation became an important theme in her work. She talks here about him, her work in general, and the significance of Barrack Obama’s possible intersection with this part of her family history.
Recent events have renewed interest in the Spanish Civil War. I know that your father was in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Can you tell more about him?
My father, Bill Lazar, known in the Communist Party as Bill Lawrence, was a political commissar in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, responsible for all American soldiers of the war against Franco. He was always extremely proud of his time there and was one of the original organizers of VALB (Veterans of the Lincoln Brigade.) He kept his baret with its unique insignia, being held for now by one of the grandsons he never knew.
The Spanish Civil War became iconic for me, I wrote about it in a novel, The Powers of Charlotte, and in my memoir, Beyond the Whiteness of Whiteness, in which I quoted an old Caribbean song: “tell me who you love and I’ll tell you who you are.” I was drawing a parallel between Bill’s feeling that the fight against fascism a con-tinent away was his business as racism in the U.S. was mine. There is more to this story of course — I am moving toward a memoir or novel about Bill’s life.
Tell me more about the writing about your father.
I am writing a story about my father – and am not sure if it will fit into the genre of memoir or fiction, these two never seeming all that separate to me. It is a novel, as some of the facts are changed. It’s tentatively called “The Communist.” It is a memoir that moves between Bill’s story from his own point of view, clearly fiction then, and “the daughter’s voice,” all of which comes from the deepest part of myself. I read a poem by the Polish writer, Adam Zagajewsky, Try to Praise the Mutilated World. That poem may be the epigraph for the story I am writing. Bill loved “the mutilated world” and passionately wished to save and change it. I will take his story through his childhood and adolescence in Kishinev (then Russia, now Moldova) — his imprisonment in Pennsylvania, his life as a Communist Party organizer in NY.
I want to tell some of the stories of the women in his life, and his relationship with one of his daughters, me. Right now the form and structure are unclear. I move back and forth intuitively between Bill’s story and The Daughter’s Voice — not only mine,also some classic daughters of powerful fathers, such as Cassandra of Troy, as interpreted by Christa Wolf, Cordelia of King Lear, Electra, who slayed her mother to avenge her father, and Iphigenia, slain by her father so he could win a war with Troy. My novel, Some Place Quite Unknown, just published last January, and other former works, include pieces of my relationship with my father, who died in 1971, before I had published any work.
I hope to tell several intertwined stories: imagining my father’s life from his own point of view; the story of a daughter finding and re-finding her own voice as she searches for and researches the history of her father’s time; but also —perhaps the hardest part — to write the story of my generation’s radical feminism, struggles in which I participated, one of its primary tenets being the dethroning of patriarchy in all its complexity, in the state, but also in the family and in our hearts and minds.
Daughters of powerful, magnetic fathers are many in the world of women writers, from Virginia Woolf (who said of her writer/scholar father that if he had not died she would not have become a writer: “no writing, no books;” to more contemporary writers like Mary Gordon and an unpublished manuscript by Ruth Charney, whose father was a leading member of the Communist Party (until he quit around 1960) and who has just completed a novel about her life as a communist daughter.
I was enthralled by my father, in many ways, despite constant battling. I still miss him and love him deeply.
Having known your father, I can recount that he was deeply respected for his political life and loved for his warmth and solid presence. Being around him made one feel that things mattered in the world. When others tell you about how they remember your father, how does that affect you? Does it add anything to your current writing? Does it translate into anything tangible?
My father was a complicated man. It is important to get that complexity into my current work about him. There is the Communist leader and teacher, the warm and solid man whose immigrant Russian Jewish presence was beloved by many. And there was also the deeply insecure and anxious man whose life was filled with trauma between about 1949 and
1955. During that period he had profound conflict with the leadership of the Communist Party – to which he had given his whole life and heart since his early adolescence in Russia and his young manhood in the U.S; his beloved brother and comrade, Isaac, known as Buck to us, died suddenly; and his wife suffered through a painful and slow death from breast cancer leaving him as a single father of two young daughters, broken in both body and spirit.
Here was a man who had come through early poverty, survived a brutal father – from what he told us, immigration with all its difficulties, imprisonment for “sedition” as a young man in Philadelphia, long years of organizing and teaching in the U.S. — and had come through very much a survivor. He was a man who, despite all the disputes and treacheries on the left, held on to his core beliefs, held his family together, found work in a small cleaning store and later in a small fabrics factory when he could no longer work for the Party. But those years of loss and grief broke him too in a way. I cannot claim to know the interior story of his intimate life with himself, but it is what I seek to imagine, from materials and research into the world he lived in, and from my own knowledge of him as a father, a grandfather to my first child, a father-in-law to my husband, and in the last few years, as a real friend.
I know that form is very important in your writing process. Can you tell me how?
For me, the form of a work is what gets me started, and what moves me forward. I often read poetry, or someone like Woolf whose prose is poetry, before I begin, because there is something about language itself that draws me into the process of writing.
I often envy writer friends who can write rough drafts just for content, then worry about form and language later. I use the word form, but it includes the idea of shape.
Shape and shapelessness are very charged ideas for me. I think I have a fear, since childhood, of shapelessness, a sort of chaos, or spilling over. It is hard to describe. When I find a form for something, it carries me through. So, for instance, I get down a scene or a feeling that is clearly memoir, writing from my own most personal feelings and memories, and I begin to shape the integral parts — a kind of outline, but with suggestive language so it will trigger my associations and tone of voice when I return to it. Or, I get the idea of someone I want to write about who is not a one-to-one match for someone in my life, or myself. She, or sometimes he, is, I know, a part of myself, but also different. I am extremely wary of how fiction writers often mystify the creation of character, or even story — statements like – “the characters told me what to do” — or — “I did not choose the subject, the subject chose me,” — horrify me. They seem so false and pretentious.
Sometimes I think I have a healthy commitment to understanding creativity as an ordinary part of life. Sometimes I think I am just fearful about the forces within me, or anyone, I cannot name or control. In my novel, Some Place Quite Unknown, I came as close as I have yet come to describing this process as Celia, the main character, writes about herself in third person, records her dreams, and creates stories that are and are not about herself and her own experience.
You have taught writing for many years. Has teaching and the writing from your students affected your writing?
My work with students has had a huge influence on me as a writer. In order to teach them I had to make conscious and communicable many of the aspects of my process that were previously intuitive. I used to tell them, you have to fall in love with form, and I knew I had done this too.
Many many young students want to write, but really they only want to write out their inner lives, or their difficult experiences, as one would in a journal. A few are “real” writers — you can tell, because they are the ones who get intrigued by form, even when they are describing pretty traumatic experiences.
Once, one of my best students ever, was presenting a “map” for a novel about two generations of an Irish American family. As he wrote all his ideas and connections on the board, he was clearly fascinated with what would come first, what would connect with what. Someone else in the class asked, how come you always write about alcoholics? He looked confused and said, Everyone in my family is an alcoholic. I knew he was a writer in his soul then — because the question did not disturb him — it only seemed odd and obvious to him, so obvious he had never asked it of himself.
I learned with my students how to read each sentence so closely until every word felt chosen, or right. I tried to get them to do this by example. It was exhausting, but some of them learned to do it, and when they worked with me in more advanced classes it was exhilarating.
A more recent and different example. I now have several individual adult students. They are all psychoanalysts who want to write outside the form of clinical essay. One is a poet. I had never taught poetry, though I have written one book of poems. For her sake, I began to study poetry, poetic forms, as if I were taking a course, and I learned so much. I even wrote a villanelle, a complicated and strict form I had been afraid to try before — but learning what it was for her sake, I found I could do it.
This issue of what constitutes memoir as different from fiction —how have you approached this in your various books?
Memoir and fiction, the differences and overlaps, — a question that has pretty much obsessed me. Partly this is because when I was young – in the 60s – my favorite writers were writing novels clearly based squarely on their lives — the English women, Lessing, Drabble, Atwood (Canada) — and I had been raised, in college, on Joyce, Lawrence, Woolf, even Kafka — none of them concerned with what was actual experience, what was imagined, never assuming imagination and experience were opposites.
“There is, for me, a very powerful relationship between language and truth. This is a good thing and at times a bad thing. I can’t get to the truth of things until I find the right words.” — Jane Lazarre
By the time I began publishing my work (this has lots to do with the women’s movement, its own politics and its contexts) the line between the two genres was solidifying. The Mother Knot, my first book, was published as a memoir, but writing it I only wanted to tell a story. I changed the names. I felt I was writing a novel — and some people who wrote about it called it a novel, others a memoir. I wrote a novel about fathers and daughters and was asked to turn it into a memoir for commercial reasons (On Loving Men) which I did, because I was naive and did not care what it was called.
By the time I wrote Worlds Beyond my Control , many writers, including myself, were writing about the blurred lines between genres, and in that novel I felt liberated, working in both genres at once, and knowing that, for me, I was writing a story, fiction. But the word fiction came to mean “making things up” — even making things up out of whole cloth — and along with this rigidifying of genre, a hierarchy was put in place: the more “made up” a story, the better a work, the more autobiographical, the less literary.
This is nonsense of course — some memoirs are literary – i.e. serious, with attention to form and language, and some are not, and the same with fiction. But I found that my students were really literally unable to process the idea that fiction could be about their own lives, that fiction did not mean “making things up.” Much fiction that is now critically acclaimed reads very false to me, the machinations behind the story are so obvious, there are so many sparkling pyrotechnics and so little soul. Not always — sometimes a novel that is based on historical research, or experiences far from the writer’s life, is wonderful. But when that happens I always feel the writer has somehow put her self and her life at the center of the story.
“Memoir has a great obligation not to distort facts purposely. In fiction, you can distort all you want. In fiction, people you know who see themselves in your work will get just as angry at you, however, as they will when they see themselves in your memoir.” — Jane Lazarre
One thing is clearly different. Memoir has a great obligation not to distort facts purposely. In fiction, you can distort all you want. In fiction, people you know who see themselves in your work will get just as angry at you, however, as they will when they see themselves in your memoir.
Also, because the publishing industry is so corporate and commercial, I got “known” as a writer of memoir, especially the Mother Knot , which is told in the voice of a young woman, the young woman I was when I wrote it, raw and even righteous. I had to grow out of that voice somewhat, but that is what publishers wanted from me.
Many of my rejections from publishers for subsequent books said — “she can’t write fiction,” meaning — we want that raw, young, uncompromising voice.
When I read your work, I read twice. First, I read just for the sounds and rhythms and whatever meaning I sense, I just let it sort of float. On the second read, often some time later, I read for content (not that content can be divorced from such things as sound, style and rhythm). But how do you approach the interplay of craft and meaning, or what might be mysterious in your process, which is — for a lack of a better word—deliberate?
There is, for me, a very powerful relationship between language and truth. This is a good thing and at times a bad thing. I can’t get to the truth of things until I find the right words. When I find the right words, I feel this huge relief, as if the language has enabled me to understand what I had to understand. When that happens, when language and the truth of something converge, I feel solid and happy, even if the truth is sad. I am an obsessive journal writer for this reason. I feel very unsteady when I do not record my experiences. I know this has served me well as a writer, journal writing being a place to practice and think about lots of things. But sometimes, I count too much on this “defense” — for it began as a defense against the many lies and chaos of my childhood — and it makes me timid — fearful of letting myself feel things that are beneath or outside of language.
There is so much to this idea in my life and in my work — this is only a beginning. Again, it is in Some Place Quite Unknown that I have, so far, gotten closest to what I think about this.
President Obama, it seems, may receive some special honor in Spain as the first African American President through the picture of this unknown soldier. As someone now in an African American family, and the daughter of a Lincoln Brigade Vet, will this have some broader meaning for you?
It is impossible to exaggerate the emotional impact of Obama’s presidency for my family and for me.
My mother-in-law is 86 years old. She is the granddaughter of an American slave. My husband, who is 67, grew up in total segregation in the Jim Crow south of North Carolina. The first time he went to school with white people was in 1968 when he was at Yale Law School. My sons were raised, in part, within a close and involved Black American family.
Both sons, Adam, who is an actor, a teacher and a writer, and Khary, who is a lawyer, an activist and teacher, are deeply imbued with the realities, achievements and horrific oppression of African American history and life. Both write about and teach that history. In addition, they know about their Jewish heritage, in our case a part of the history of the American left.
On election day, 2008, my mother-in-law was up at five A.M. so she could be first on line to vote for then candidate Obama. The powerful symbolism of his presidency, including the images of his family, is iconic for many, as it is for us, notwithstanding political and policy differences that may and do arise. His capacities as a leader of integrity and an intellectual, as much when he travels the world as when he speaks to Americans directly, never cease to bring tears to our eyes and, even now, astonishment that he is actually the President of the United States. In this context, along with my lifelong involvement in the Spanish Civil War as both history and powerful metaphor, it will be extremely meaningful for me if President Obama in a visit to Spain acknowledges the history of Black Americans in the war against Franco.
The Communists, like all other white Americans, made many mistakes in their analysis of and responses to American racism, but their commitment to anti-racist philosophy and policy is also undeniable. Reading Langston Hughes and others, it is clear that for all the white ignorance and naivite – the phenomenon I called “the whiteness of whiteness” in my own memoir – there were individuals as well as collective perspectives that struggled against the racism of the day.
I know that you’ve just finished a new novel. Can you tell something your ideas at its inception and what these became in the story ?
Some years ago I began a novel about race in America. I wanted to write a very American story – one that showed not only the “whiteness of whiteness” in different historical periods, but also the way love between white and black individuals has found its way, sometimes twisted, sometimes transcendent, into our lives as Americans.
The novel includes the struggle of a young girl of mixed heritage – Black, Italian and Jewish American – for a sense of identity through her complex heritage. In the course of her story, sections of the novel go into the past, first to 1919 in Norwalk, Connecticut, where a young Jewish woman falls in deep but unexpressed love with a Black man, the son of a slave, then further back into slavery times, on a plantation on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay where a young white girl, daughter of a slaveholder, falls in love with and bears the child of one of her father’s slaves.
After he is killed, brutally and ruthlessly, she is left to create a relationship with his mother – the black woman, enslaved to her father, who raised her, and who now is her only hope for saving her child and herself. In all the parts of the novel, from historical to contemporary life, the story does not flinch from the brutal history of American racism, but it also tells of the human capacity to learn, change and even transform.
[Jane Lazarre's website is found here. Portions of her new novel have been published in online literary journals - Persimmon Tree, Hamilton Stone Journal, Salt River Review - and in the Summer, 09 issue of Lilith Magazine. It is currently being submitted for publication by Wendy Weil Literary Agency. You can reach Jane Lazarre at her website. ]