Monday, November 15, 2010

Chicano Writer Explores the Holocaust

Essay by Daniel Olivas

Virtually every student of fiction has been admonished: “Write what you know!” This does not mean that every short story or novel should track the author’s life in exquisite detail, though certainly some successful writers have taken that road. What it does mean is that fiction can seem more “real” if the writer speaks with authority borne of experience.

Thus, it’s not much of a stretch for me to write a scene where my protagonist is an attorney who has to drive in rush hour traffic on the 101 from West Hills to downtown on a Tuesday to his office in the Ronald Reagan State Building on Spring Street in the Old Bank District.

On the other hand, I would have to do a lot of research to create a comparable scene taking place in Miami, Florida since I’ve never set foot there. It’s certainly not impossible and many talented writers do exactly that every day. But if I attempt this, how “real” will my writing feel to a resident of Miami? I promise you, if I fail, a reader from that city will track me down to explain in six different ways what a failure I am as a writer. It will not be pretty.

So, it’s not surprising that I have often drawn upon my life for material and inspiration. Thus, many of my characters are Chicano or Mexican who live in Los Angeles, either near downtown (where I grew up), or in the West Valley (where I now live with my family). I spent my childhood in a working class neighborhood and attended twelve years of Catholic school. After high school, I left L.A. for Stanford University where I majored in English, and then back to my hometown to attend law school at UCLA. By day, I’m a government lawyer. I have drawn upon all of these elements of my life to populate my fiction.

I also fell in love with my law school sweetheart, Sue, in 1981 and started my Jewish journey. The granddaughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants, she introduced me to wonderful books about Judaism which became part of my informal studies toward conversion. We married in 1986 in a Jewish ceremony; two years later I converted. Our son was born in 1990, attended a Jewish day school for eight years, and became a Bar Mitzvah at thirteen. We also suffered through that horrific hot August day ten years ago at the North Valley Jewish Community Center when Buford Furrow entered the campus where our son played in the back field with his friends.

All of these Jewish experiences have ended up in my fiction, not to mention becoming themes for my poetry, essays and book reviews. At first, I hesitated to draw from this part of my life because, as a convert, I have often felt a bit insecure about my Jewish identity. But I eventually got over that. Indeed, my children’s book, Benjamin and the Word / Benjamín y la palabra, is about a Chicano-Jewish boy who encounters bigotry on the schoolyard. The book received praise from various quarters including Abraham Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, who said that it “helps us understand the effect name-calling has on young people and how parents can effectively talk to their children about hate.” Foxman’s approval of this particular work of fiction meant more to me than any other praise.

But I have another test of authenticity and, so far, so good. My most recent short-story collection, Anywhere But L.A., includes my first attempt at Holocaust fiction. As a convert, how could I even think of tackling the subject? Well, I’m stubborn. I’d find a way.

The path I decided to take was as one of an observer. My story is entitled “The Jew of Dos Cuentos” and concerns a Mexican-born writer who squanders, through alcohol and womanizing, a promising literary career in New York during the Kennedy years. After his marriage disintegrates, he moves to a small Mexican town where he carves out a hermit’s life translating his books from English into Spanish. One day, a stranger visits stating that he has admired the writer’s books for many years. This stranger, who speaks Spanish with a slight accent, makes a request: Would the writer translate his late wife’s memoir from Spanish into English? The stranger explains that he has already translated the original German into Spanish, but it was an exhausting effort and he desires the help of the writer to do the next translation. Intrigued, the writer reads the manuscript which, as it turns out, is a Holocaust memoir.

I don’t want to give away any more of my story but I will say that its theme is that we can, through literature, make certain that we never forget the evil that was perpetrated by the Nazis and their sympathizers.

I hope that if you read my story, it will feel “authentic” to you. If not, I am willing to read your e-mails explaining how I missed the mark. But please, be gentle.

[This essay first appeared in the Jewish Journal under the titled, “Valley Chicano Writer Explores the Holocaust.”]


rashid1891 said...

You all have healthy looks and look natural without make-ups


Write what you know, AND always seek more knowledge.