We asked Judith Frank, professor of English and author of the new book Crybaby Butch (Firebrand Books, 2004), what she’s been reading lately. Here’s what she told us.
Since I’ve switched from writing criticism to writing fiction, my reading has changed character a little. I’m reading more nonfiction (especially ethnography, which exposes me to sensibilities I’ve never encountered before), because it has the effect of giving me the confidence—authorizing me—to be inventive with my characters. As for fiction, while I can still get lost at times in its sensory and emotional pleasures, I read it with a greedier, more acquisitive mind than I used to. What about me and my novel?How does she do that? Can I do that? (And, Is she better than I am?) That, for better or for worse, is what my mind is busy clamoring as I read these days.
I’m working now on my second novel, the first half of which takes place in Jerusalem, and whose protagonists are a gay male American couple. It’s a novel that tries to wrestle with the moral question of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and the relation between American Jews and Israel. So I’ve been reading Israeli writing on the occupation. The journalist and novelist David Grossman’s Sleeping on a Wire: Conversations with Palestinians in Israel, which he wrote between intifadahs, tells the stories of the Palestinians who stayed in Israel after 1948 and their ghostly, alienated status as citizens without many basic rights. He talked to them about their ambivalence toward their more radicalized families in the occupied territories and about how they imagine the form their equality might take in the Jewish state. Grossman’s primary, urgent question: “How long can a relatively large minority be assumed by the majority to be an enemy without in the end actually turning into one?” Currently, I’m in the middle of Meron Benvenisti’s Sacred Landscape: The Buried History of the Holy Land Since 1948. Benvenisti is a former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, and his father, a geographer and mapmaker, was part of the committee that replaced the Arab place names on the British Mandatory maps with Hebrew ones. Benvenisti has a strong sense of birthright to Israel, and at the same time is painfully aware that these maps were not merely symbolic, but paved the way for the eradication of an entire cultural heritage. I’m attracted to the honesty with which he tackles that difficult moral problem.
Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness is an astonishing book about a boy growing up in a community of Russian Jews in pre-independence Jerusalem. Oz describes these characters in a bold and fanciful way I’m trying to learn from. Quixotic, visionary, full of petty vanities, intensely literary, they worship the Jewish pioneers and farmers working the countryside, perceiving them as stoic, silent, manly. The book is dense, sometimes tantalizingly repetitive and sometimes infuriatingly so, with something of the Eastern European fairy tale about it. It describes these people’s relation to Europe, which, despite its murderousness, has a strong nostalgic hold on them, living as they do in a Jerusalem that feels claustrophobic and barbaric in comparison. (My favorite character is the grandmother, who tries to combat the teeming germs of “the Levant” with an obsessive daily cleaning ritual.)
I’ve been reading novels with gay male characters in them, too, to bolster my confidence in writing about gay men. I was very impressed by Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt, an erotic and dreamy novel that imagines the life of the gay Vietnamese chef who worked for Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in 1930s Paris. It broods about food and exile. I just finished Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, which is about rich people, cocaine and AIDS between the two Thatcher elections. There are many stunning portrayals of big parties in spectacular houses: social maneuverings, furtive gropes with servants, snubs and faux pas, brilliant and high-spirited emergences from the bathroom. Hollinghurst is great at rendering those tiny, fleeting feelings between an utterance and its reception. I also admire the way he sustained quite a long novel with an unsympathetic protagonist and how his writing avoided a smarty-pants sensibility, despite containing a lot of scathing satire. The novel has a heart, as well—an essential element for fiction I care about.