I have a piece up on the LA Review of Books blog today about the current administrations heartless threats to the executive order called DACA that endeavors to give a pathway to citizenship children of people who came to this country illegally, yes, but desperately, just as many Jews did to escape anti-Semitism in Europe. Here is the link: http://blog.lareviewofbooks.org/essays/like-living-green-border-dreamers-deportation/#more-5153
The Taiwanese edition of A Reunion of Ghosts showed up on my doorstep today. Translated editions of one’s books can be very mysterious. As was the case with the Polish edition of AROG, I had zero contact with the press or the translator. Of course I knew it was forthcoming, but I didn’t know when and I didn’t know they’d begun, much less completed, production. And while my Polish publisher did seek my feedback with respect to changing the title (in Poland, the book is called “The Subtle Charm of Suicide”) and my opinion on the jacket art (which I loved–I’ve been very lucky in terms of cover choices), the Taiwan press just handled everything on their own.
Since I can’t read Chinese, I can’t comment at all on the translator’s choices. I do like the cover they came up with–the photograph is by me and accordingly blurry–though I do think the bats and haunted house may give the impression this is a far more typical ghost story than it is. And, speaking of the house, it looks more like a gothic mansion than a typical New York apartment building…but there definitely some NY apartment buildings that, while taller than this one, resemble gothic mansions. But the bare trees speak to a specific scene in the book when the most ghostlike character appears and the three silhouettes of the main characters were borrowed from the original U.S. hardcover and it’s nice to see them again. All in all, I like the cover. I like -the mood it creates and above all the allusion to the haunted house we all dwell in: the home to our memories, many of which are generated by those human and therefore imperfect people who constitute our families.
When I think about how hands-on I was when it came to the US version of the book–concerned about every word, every dot of punctuation, every line on the cover, even the font choice–and how laissez-faire I’ve been with respect to the foreign versions, it makes me think of parents with multiple children, how they fuss and freak out and obsess when it comes to their first child but become increasingly relaxed as the family grows. If the cover of the next foreign translation of AROG is covered with applesauce and chocolate stains, I’ll no doubt shrug and say, “Oh, well. As long as it’s not playing with knives.”
I’m working away on my third novel these days, trying to create a world on the page that, on occasion, strikes me as too small and unimportant to be worth the effort in light of the events taking place on the US political stage (and thus the entire globe) right now. In short, along with the many questions I have about how one is to live one’s life under a leader who doesn’t understand the fundamental principles on which his country is based, I also grapple with questions about my work including why I write about the things I do and whether they are worth exploring during such fraught times.
I’m not the kind of novelist whose work is meant to provide escapism or entertainment so I don’t have that to fall back on. I continue to want my work to provoke thought and even argument. At the same time, I do continue to think that can be accomplished without writing only about what in grade school we called current events. I do continue to see value–extraordinary value–in the small, quotidian things we do, whether as individuals, as friends, as partners, or as members of families. After all, isn’t it a desire to be our true selves (and to grant that same privilege to others) that motivates us to fight for liberty and strive to achieve and perfect our idealistic vision of how life should be?
I came across this blog post today that, interestingly, combines the damaged and cynical outlook expressed by Delph Alter, a character in A Reunion of Ghosts, with the blogger’s much more optimistic outlook about her own life. I found the post’s gentle chiding of Delph’s point of view uplifting and restorative. It’s always important to remember that a novelist does not necessarily share or endorse the world view of her characters, and in real life I, too, love long walks through parks with people who make me laugh. At the same time, I certainly do take comfort in dogs and cats and horses.
In fact, here’s my dog Josie (the little white one) in one of Dane County’s glorious dog parks, trotting along with a friend she made that day:
And here’s the blog post by Andi Diehn, which you can also find here at One Small Sentence. It begins with the quote from Reunion and then comes Andi’s observations:
A REUNION OF GHOSTS BY JUDITH CLAIRE MITCHELL
People are her third favorite species, she says. First cats. Then dogs. Or, no, wait–fourth favorite species. The Central Park horses are number three.
Last Sunday we went on a family hike, or “forced march into the woods,” as I like to call it.
The thing is, I’m probably the happiest person I know, but something about, I don’t know, the entire fucking world was kind of getting me down last weekend, and so when plans to go see a play fell through at the last minute (literally, the last minute. We were at the door but there were no more seats.), I took my friend up on her suggestion for a walk and forced the rest of the family to attend.
And I don’t think I’ve laughed that much since the inauguration. You know, the one attended by millions and millions of people. Yes it was. Was so! WAS SO! NO I’M NOT, YOU ARE!
On our walk I laughed at all of us (well, most of us) shimmying down hills on bellies and bums atop that frozen crust that’s passing for snow this winter. And I laughed at my boys, unable to keep their legs under themselves. I laughed at my dear husband’s expression as he watched this family he’d managed to assemble, all of us limbs akimbo in the forest, the incredulousness that this was how we were behaving.
I even laughed as my youngest slid over the edge of a ravine and barreled toward the rushing river below. Aw, relax, it was a short ravine. The river was more of a stream. He was fine. He survived.
Thing is, I laughed. It felt weird. And good. It’s easy, it’s always easy, to get caught up in how hard life can be. The disagreements, the worry, the bills, the weirdness, and not good weirdness, the bad weirdness. It can be so hard.
And then comes a day. The sky brightish, the woods welcomingish. We say yes to a walk. We find comfort in the cold, the ice, the endless gray and brown that marks a woods in winter.
And we laugh. And we are better for it.
Fun news: I’m the guest fiction editor of the next issue of The Ilanot Review, an Israeli literary journal publishing stories, essays, and poetry in English. The theme is letters. We’re looking for epistolary work in the broadest sense: not only classic letters, but also emails, texts, chats, posts, tweets, Instagrams, etc. . Click here for the call for submissions. I’m hoping to see a lot of great stories in epistolary form.
If you’d like to read an epistolary story to get the feel for what we have in mind, here is my favorite–“Bright Winter” by Anna Keesey. It originally appeared in Granta and was reprinted in a volume of the Best American Short Stories. frequently teach it in my workshops. Based on a true historical event, it breaks my heart anew every time I read it.
The Capitol Times’ reporter Lindsay Christians attended the January 15, 2017 Writers Resist event, where Madison authors read in support of democracy, compassion, fairness, decency, inclusion, freedom–all the things we hold dear–and writes about it in the article attached below. First, some photos from the event:
This one was taken by James Lee Phetteplace:
And another shot taken from the balcony by the Cap Times photographer, where you can see the entire space and the beautiful bima of the Gates of Heaven synagogue:
And a shot by the Cap Times photographer of Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing poetry fellow Derrick Austin with a blurry-faced me in front of him.
And finally, the article:
MADISON WRITERS RESIST GIVES BILLBOARDS TO THE POETS
by LINDSAY CHRISTIANS | The Capital Times
PHOTOS BY MICHELLE STOCKER
19 writers read poetry, short essays and fiction at the Gates of Heaven during the Madison Writers Resist event.
Before Madison Writers Resist on Sunday night, poet Marilyn Annucci unearthed a few poems from a notebook and made some changes. As she did, she was struck by how that process of revising things from the past is much like the work of citizenship itself.
“Writing is really a form of democracy,” Annucci said. “It takes love and attention. It’s a process.”
Madison Writers Resist, a lively, well-attended reading in the Gates of Heaven synagogue, joined 90-some events taking place around the country and the world on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday.
The stated purpose of these gatherings was “to resist the Trump administration.” But in Madison’s two-hour-plus event, 19 featured writers dropped the new president elect’s name less than a handful of times.
Many of the writers had ties to the university. Author/educator Kara Candito and artist Victor Castro organized Madison Writers Resist with Rita Mae Reese of Arts + Literature Laboratory and Ron Czerwein of Avol’s Books.
Sean Bishop from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s creative writing department opened with a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.:
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
The five-minute time limit made a good fit for poets like Derrick Austin, Natalie Eilbert and Jamel Brinkley. Brinkley read Ada Limón’s “A New National Anthem,” and Eilbert read an excerpt from a longer work of her own called “The Lake.” She read some of what she’d written after the election, “in the age of the autocrats.”
“The tyrant glides along, orange dander colliding with the brutality of naming us what we are,” she read. “Rust sprinkles in the long grass and I loop its belt around and around my waist.
“I have nothing to say to you, America. Wear your safety pins. Register. Safety. We have failed us.”
The assembled crowd heard from Madison’s poets laureate past and current, Fabu (a Capital Times opinion columnist) and Oscar Mireles, editor of three volumes of “I Didn’t Know There Were Latinos in Wisconsin.”
Mireles read a poem that recalled his mother, his aunt and two of their friends picketing outside trains in Minneapolis that meant to deport Mexican immigrants.
“They were afraid to hold up the picket signs, yet were more afraid worse things would happen if they did not.”
Some writers read work not their own. Timothy Yu read Allen Ginsberg. Sarah Fuchs choked up during an excerpt of James Baldwin’s 1984 essay “On Being White … and Other Lies.” Marcela Fuentes read Albert Rios’ “The Border: A Double Sonnet.”
Araceli Esparza gleefully reported before reading that she’d just followed her poem’s author, January Gill O’Neill, on Twitter. O’Neill’s “Old South Meeting House” sounded like a powerful call to action, especially apt in Gates of Heaven: “We draw breath from brick. Ignite the fire in us. Speak to us: the language is hope.”
Novelist Dale Kushner read a bit of Walt Whitman, but opened with a story about her father. Kushner came to college in the 1960s, “when cities and campuses were battle zones,” and before she left her father took her aside and said, “don’t sign anything.”
“He was worried that I would be signing radical petitions,” she said, “assuming that I was a lot more daring than I was. But he was also coming from a lineage of persecution and exile.
“He knew well the power of the state to crush opposition, and the charisma of demagogues to lead the naïve into danger.”
Some poets, like SP Mulroy and Andy Gricevich, read their own work, exploring difficult compassion and shared vulnerability. Judith Claire Mitchell read an excerpt from her first novel, “The Last Day of the War.”
Especially powerful were two poems by Rubén Medina, a professor of Latin American literature at the UW.
“Applying for Citizenship” explored Medina’s relationship to “this, my nation of others,” the adopted country he has called home for four decades.
The poem took the form of a series of “conditions,” some humorous — TV commercials should be limited to one minute per hour — and others more serious.
“The White House should be moved to Puerto Rico, the Congress to Harlem, the United Nations to Wounded Knee,” Medina read. “Half of the billboards in this country should be given to poets or anyone who wants to imagine the nation, the other half to children.”
Medina followed that with a first reading of a poem called “Homeland” with the repeated refrain, “This country has never been mine.”
“Countries don’t have owners,” Medina read.
A short open mic section followed the main event, though most folks cleared out before that began. James Lee Phetteplace got in several pertinent zingers to the president-elect: “They may like the cut of your jib now, but when the winds shift they’ll cut that jib.”
Readers and listeners at Madison Writers Resist raised more than $2,000 for the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin. Another similar event, not associated with Writers Resist but in the same vein, is set for March 18. Nasty Women Reading is taking submissions through Feb. 3 and will be a benefit for Planned Parenthood.
“Giving writers something to do, to look forward to, is really important,” said ALL’s Rita Mae Reese. “But also I think people need to hear the voices in their community.”
When Dale Kushner got up to speak, she put it another way.
“This inspiration is what feeds us, is what we need,” Kushner said. “I’m happy to be here today to encourage all of us to imagine together how we can create public spaces that feel safe for controversial discourse.”
I know I often write about how honored I’ve been to have received this award or that nomination, to have been invited to this reading or that lecture, to have my name mentioned alongside the names of other writers I admire. I never use the word casually. I mean it sincerely every single time. I always wanted to be a writer, but I began writing seriously later in life, and I’m still amazed that my work has been published at all and that I’m a member of a creative writing program, much less one as respected as the University of Wisconsin’s. Both those things–being a published writer and teaching–were beyond my wildest dreams, so when someone acknowledges my work when there are so many better and more prominent writers around–well, that’s even farther beyond those dreams, and I’m not kidding around; I am truly, deeply honored.
But having used the word honored in all those other contexts means that I’m now in need of a word that means “honored and then some.” Honored-plus? Super-honored? Full-fat honored? HONORED in all caps? Because that’s how I feel about having been invited to be a featured reader at the Madison Writers Resist event on Sunday, January 15: extra honored with a cherry on top. If you want the time and place, you can jump to it by clicking here.
But in this post, I wanted to say a little something more about this reading.
As a great many American citizens are aware, Writers Resist is an international movement that was conceived after the US election by the poet and activist Erin Belieu. The idea is elegant and powerful: on January 15, 2017, the date of Martin Luther King’s birthday, writers, readers and citizens seeking solidarity and inspiration will gather in their cities and towns to hold what is described as “a ‘reinauguration’ of our shared commitment to the spirit of compassion, equality, free speech, and the fundamental ideals of democracy.” To date readings are being held in about 75 locations, from New York and Boston to Seattle and San Francisco to Zurich and Hong Kong.
The Madison event, which is a fundraiser for the Wisconsin ACLU, takes place from 6 to 9pm. It was organized by Sean Bishop, Kara Candito, Ron Czerwien, and Rita Mae Reese, four formidable poets who live here in Madison. The readers have been asked to read briefly from relevant passages of either their own work or the work of other writers who inspire them. After these readings there will be an open mic.
The featured readers in Madison include Masood Akhtar, Marilyn Annucci, Moisés Villavicencio Barras, Araceli Esparza, Fabu, Dale Kushner, Lissa McClaughlin, Rubén Medina, Oscar Miralis, SP Mulroy, Timothy Yu, and me, as well as all 6 of this year’s Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing fellows, Derrick Austin, Jamel Brinkley, Natalie Dawn Eilbert, Sarah Fuchs, Marcela Fuentes, and Barrett Swanson. I know many of these writers and am genuinely excited to hear them read, one after another.
Making it all just a little more special is the location of the reading, the beautiful Gates of Heaven, a former synagogue adjacent to James Madison Park. It helps make this feel like an almost spiritual event. I believe it will be a consoling event, a healing event.
My teacher Marilynne Robinson (talk about honors–not much beats having Marilynne Robinson as your teacher) once told us that the English who colonized this country did not celebrate Thanksgiving once a year as we do today or as suggested by the traditional Thanksgiving stories we were told as children. Rather, she said, whenever the religious leaders believed something had occurred that gave them particular reason to express gratitude to their god, the colonists would gather together in church and as a community give thanks. These were known as days of thanks-giving and they occurred frequently throughout the year.
We have had many days of coming together in fear and despair of late. I see the Writers Resist readings as a worldwide day of thanksgiving. We give thanks for our voices, our convictions, our ferocity, our freedoms, our intellects, our imaginations, our power. That we in Madison will be gathering in the once-sacred Gates of Heaven to read to one another on this day of thanks-giving makes our event all the more moving.
And so, once more, the details: Sunday, Jan. 15, 6 – 9pm, the Gates of Heaven Synagogue, 302 E. Gorham St. Featured readers will begin at 6pm and an open mic will follow.
Three novels with Jewish themes were nominated for the 2016 Harold U. Ribalow Prize: Jessamyn Hope’s Safekeeping, Jim Shepard’s The Book of Aron, and my A Reunion of Ghosts. This week it was made official: The Book of Aron took the prize. I have to say that having my work considered along with work by Jim Shepard, one of my favorite authors, a writer whose work I frequently teach to my students, made me feel as though I’d stepped into an alternate universe. I’m truly overjoyed to be in this company and to end the year knowing that this book has had some nice pats on its paper back. I’m about to begin a sabbatical; the plan is to make some serious headway on book number 3. So here we go–
I’m happy to share the news that Beijing White Horse, a publisher of literary fiction in China, has acquired A Reunion of Ghosts. I’m so grateful to my hard-working team at William Morris Endeavor for making this happen. The photo below is of White Horse Temple in China, where the founding members of the publishing firm originally met to solidify their commitment to culture and literature.
The Dublin Literary Award has the longest long list of all the major prizes: this year libraries around the world nominated 147 books for the prize. As my Harper/Harper Perennial editor wrote when she passed the news along, “What’s so wonderful about this is that nominations come from librarians, not publishers, and so it reflects the passion of the literary community.” In my case, two libraries nominated Reunion: the Seattle Public Library and New Hampshire State Library. My deep thanks to the librarians there.
The judges will now begin the formidable process of winnowing the list over the next few months. In April a more typical short list of ten books will be announced. But until then, I am basking in the glow of being among the honored 147.
I have to say that coming across a lovely review such as this during a week when I have been questioning everything including the worth of the work I do was very affirming. It reminded me that it is, indeed, important to put literature out into the world.
When I write, I try to live up to the exhortation of my professor, the late James Alan McPherson, who one day interrupted class to urge us to “consider writing about something important.” Those words changed me and my work. Ever since, I’ve tried to take risks and tackle the hard stuff. Thus, a first novel about genocide, a second that I consider to be a biography of the 20th century narrated by three suicidal (if wisecracking) sisters.
Jim also used to characterize all his work as failures, even his Pulitzer Prize winning work, even the work that won him a MacArthur genius award. He meant it, I think, in the sense that all art falls short, fails to achieve perfection, fails to live up to the vision we had for it when we began. Certainly, in that sense, my own work fails too, and it fails far more than Jim’s ever did. So it means a lot to know, imperfect though it may be, it touched someone.
Anyway, the review:
A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell is an absolutely astounding novel and I urge anyone and everyone to go and read it. I bought this book simply because of its pretty front cover, but it is so much more than that: a novel beautifully written – startlingly so in fact – and drew from me both tears of sadness and laughter on more than one occasion. The novel is written as a joint suicide note by three sisters whose great grandfather invented poison gas for the Germans during World War One. It is evocative and chilling, hilarious and devastating, and brutally questions the difference between truth and fiction, between meaning and coincidence. READ IT. Please.