Saturday, November 9, 2013

Jewish Novelist Speaks On Racism

Q & A with Author Mary Glickman

Media Connect, the book PR firm that I work for, is promoting the author of a new book, Marching to Zion, Mary Glickman, for her publisher, Open Road.  The novel is a fascinating look at interracial dating a century ago in America. Below is a candid interview with the award-winning author:

1.      What is your newest novel, Marching to Zion, about? Marching to Zion is the tragic love story of a beautiful, damaged Jewish refugee from a Ukranian pogrom and a charismatic African American man, a self-made, debonair son of the Mississippi, during the first decades of the 20th century. We watch these lovers experience mind-bending passion, betrayal, and redemption. They also suffer racism, the kind that’s vicious, brutal, and anonymous.

2.      How would you describe your writing style? It’s pretty unique! I don’t use quotation marks, the narrator sometimes jumps around in time and point of view. Some of my idioms violate all kinds of rules of grammar. You see, I wanted the text to sound like an oral narrative, as if someone were telling you a story while you sat in front of the fireplace, or on the back porch. Stories from the back porch are a very Southern phenomenon, so this kind of voice helped me ground the plot in its setting. To help me keep it real, I imagined the voice of Morgan Freeman telling me the story while I wrote. Now that man’s voice is gorgeous. I have to say that little trick has worked for me!

3.      Each of your novels explore race relations. Why does this topic fascinate you? Listen, I write about the South and you can’t write about the South and not write about race. I don’t think you can write about America and not write about race. Racism is America’s Original Sin. Our history is entangled so deeply in issues about race, there’s no getting away from it. Even today, with an African American president in his second term, daily, casual acts of racism persist. And I don’t just mean white-black racism, I mean black-white racism, anti-semitism, anti-whatever-else-you’ve-got. Look at the history of Native Americans in this country, of Asian immigrants. We think of racism as a black/white issue, but that’s only because it’s the most obvious example in our national narrative. It abounds.

4.      Why do you say that, that "America's original sin is racism"? Let’s face it. Racism is a sin that’s been embedded in our society from the very beginning. From colonial times until the industrial revolution, our economy was dependent on slave labor. Racism persisted not just in the South, but in all the states, in all regions. Even after Emancipation, we didn’t learn our lesson! Jim Crow Laws kept blacks in invisible chains in the South for a hundred years after the Civil War. When African American’s tried to escape those laws during the first half of the 20th century, they found themselves trapped in a struggle against Northern racism, which had all the earmarks of Southern racism except for the “Colored Only” signs. Now that’s just the tip of the iceberg as to how racism has shaped and molded the United States. We’re not talking the economic, psychological, social and cultural effects, which have been enormous. It’s something we’ve made great strides in over the 20th century, but the job ain’t done!

5.      As a New England Jew who first lived in the South 25 years ago, what have you noticed to be a difference in attitudes on race between the two regions? Look. I lived through the Boston busing riots in the ‘70s. The racism of the North is no secret to me!  All those years I was jumping back and forth between the North and South, I noticed a curious difference in race relations between the regions. In the New South, I saw a kind of warmth and relaxation in daily encounters between blacks and whites that I didn’t see up North, where I noticed a lot of racial anxiety. I thought this might be because in the South, the races always lived in close proximity; they shared the same culture, the same food, the same music, so they’re comfortable in each other’s presence. . .In the North, ethnic groups were ghettoized and ghettoization makes people more strongly identify only with their own. It encourages people to see everyone else as “other” as “not one of us”. Much of the nation has a Hollywood South in their minds and don’t see the New South’s complexity and growth. I wanted to address that.

6.      How about in terms of religion? From the get-go, Jews were accepted as white by the dominant culture in the South and this led to a far greater degree of early assimilation than in the ghettoized North. Of course, Jews were scapegoated from now and again during times of trouble, but for the most part, they were a valuable, integrated part of the South.  Then came the Civil Rights Era. During that time, up to 60% of the white Freedom Riders, 70% of the Civil Rights attorneys, and 65% of the volunteers during Freedom Summer were Northern Jews. They came South, did what they did, and went back North, leaving Southern Jews vulnerable to a fresh outbreak of anti-semitism as segregationists lumped all Jews together as enemies of the system. Whether that was true or not, synagogues were bombed, businesses destroyed, lived maimed. 

7.      The Civil Rights Movement was not all that long ago, yet it seems the newer generation doesn't realize the role Jews played in helping blacks gain new freedoms. Why is that? Don’t get me started on the failures of American education! I don’t know the whys of it, but travelling with my books around the country has taught me that people seem to know about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King and very little about Jim Crowe and the near nationwide race riots of 1917. They know about the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel, but they know little to nothing of European pogroms, of the forced displacement of Jews from country to country over thousands of years. One of the reasons I write my books is to provide people context out of the history that’s been forgotten, context for the larger events, like the March on Washington or the Holocaust. In terms of the Civil Rights Era, there naturally came a point at which the Black Power movement developed and its emphasis was on ethnic independence and self-determination so a rift occurred between Jewish activists and Black Power groups. That rift has deepened over the decades. My books also seek to remind people how closely our cultural narratives mirror each other – slavery, exile, discrimination – and maybe, hopefully heal that rift a little.

8.      Your new book focuses on a tragic love story involving an interracial couple in the shadows of the 1917 race riots. What was going on in the country around that time that would impact their fate? Tons! The race riots came about because of World War I. There was an industrial expansion in order to supply the war just as labor unions were striking for workers’ rights. Factory recruiters went South to put African Americans on trains North as strikebreakers, telling them how much freedom there was, how much money they could make. What they found was something different: crowded tenements, de facto segregation, black man’s wages for white man’s work.  Anyway, tensions between striking workers and strike-breaking blacks fueled the race riots that  first puts our lovers in danger in Marching to Zion. They move to Memphis for a fresh start. That’s when they first acknowledge their feelings for each other, but their union is highly dangerous, It’s illegal for one thing. It represents certain death for one or both of them.  How the lovers react, how they suffer through betrayal and separation and reunion and redemption forms the meat of the novel.

9.      If even 50 years ago a black man and a white woman dating each other was viewed as taboo, have we come  a long way now that a majority of polled Americans say they accept gay marriage? Yes! And the distance is clear! Until 1967, when the Supreme Court ruled in Loving v Virginia that bans against interracial marriage violated the 14th Amendment, such marriages were illegal in fifteen states.  During the years Marching to Zion takes place, interracial marriage was an invitation to a lynching. Today, interracial marriage across racial lines is common. 14% of all marriages are interracial. It is common also among my contemporaries at least to have mixed race grandchildren running around. Seems to me that’s the only way we’ll ever completely get over racial bias or any kind of bias in America – to blend families.

10.  Your book is about race and culture and history, but it is also about love. Can the         power of love exceed all other concerns? Marching to Zion is a love story but it’s also a tragedy.  I wouldn’t say love conquers all. But I would say love is what - even under the worst circumstances - makes life worth living, it gives you strength and hope. And for the characters in my book, for the readers who pick it up, I think the power of love will shine through and uplift.

11.  Are you surprised that your writing career first got started at the age of 61 and now, three books later, you have received critical acclaim and literary recognition? Surprise isn’t exactly the word I’d use, but it comes close. Maybe gratified, grateful, thrilled are better. Cynthia Ozick once said that being published for the first time at the age of 38 is a little death. For me being published for the first time at 61, was a resurrection! I was writing novels from my 20s on.  My first book, Home in the Morning, sold well and landed a film option. And my next novel, One More River, was a National Jewish Book Award Finalist. I have to say, I think I was more excited about the finalist award than the film option. Is that my age showing?

12.  What type of research goes into the creation of your novels? All kinds. My Southern sensibility comes from a twenty-five year love affair with the South.  You really have to live in the South to comprehend it. I’ve read many of the seminal texts on Southern Jews and the Civil Rights Era also. One of the most vital resources I’ve found is the Oral Archives of  the Jewish Heritage Collection at the College of Charleston. They recorded on tape and text interviews with Southern Jews over most of the 20th century.  I don’t like to over-research, though. I like to give enough detail to convey an atmosphere, a zeitgeist, of the era without bogging the story down.  I believe all great stories are character driven, and so I strive to create characters that live and breathe and get under your skin and into your heart. I think of my novels as novels about people against an historical backdrop, not historical novels in the conventional sense.

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Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer, Media Connect, the nation’s largest book promoter. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2013

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