Monday, March 17, 2014

My First Time: Tova Mirvis

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is Tova Mirvis, the author of Visible City, The Outside World and The Ladies Auxiliary, which was a national bestseller.  Her essays have appeared in various anthologies and newspapers including The New York Times, The Boston Globe Magazine, and Poets and Writers, and her fiction has been broadcast on National Public Radio.  She has been a Visiting Scholar at The Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center and is a recipient of a Massachusetts Cultural Council Fiction Fellowship.  She lives in Newton, Massachusetts with her three children. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.  Click here to visit her website.

My First Hometown Reading

My first reading for my first novel was in Memphis, Tennessee, the first stop on what was scheduled to be a long book tour.  Though it was the city where I’d grown up and where my family still lived, this was no easy hometown crowd.  The book I’d written, The Ladies Auxiliary, was about the tightly knit Orthodox Jewish community there, and much of the audience was made up of members of that community–my family, my parents’ friends, my former teachers–and they had come to hear what I had to say for myself.

In the months before my novel came out, there had been much talk.  “Is the book nice or not nice?” people asked.  The word on the street was that it was decidedly not nice.  Before people had read it, the allegations were lined up: I had aired the dirty laundry, I had ensured that no one would move to this community, I had dished people’s lives.  People were both afraid they were in the book and afraid that they weren’t.  One of my grandmother’s friends called her and said, “I heard I’m in Tova’s novel.”  “No,” my grandmother was quick to reply.  “You’re not in it.  But I am in it.”

All this, I heard in the months and then days leading up to the book’s release, from my parents who still lived in Memphis.  At the time, I was in New York, living far from the epicenter of the talk.  I tried to shrug it off but I had imbibed all too well the lessons of my upbringing, a good-girl politeness that was the lovechild of Orthodox Jewish laws and Southern gentility.  I had lived by the edicts to please others, to squelch what you really thought.

But to be a writer, you have to be willing to say not what you were supposed to think but what you actually did think.  For me, the release of this book was my first time giving voice to the suffocation I felt growing up in this tight-knit community where everyone knew you and knew everything about you.  For the years in which I wrote the book, coming home to Memphis was like being able to visit the movie set of the novel which lived only inside my own head.  But with the book’s publication, coming to Memphis felt far more fraught.  The book was no longer in my private domain.

In the local TCBY that my mother and I went to on the day before my first reading, we ran into a woman who looked at me coolly over the top of her chocolate and vanilla swirl.  “Well if it isn’t Little Miss Famous,” she said.  Another woman in the grocery store pursed her lips into something that was supposed to resemble a smile.  “Heard you wrote a book,” she drawled in a voice dripping with a cocktail of Southern charm and venom.

By the night of my first bookstore event, I was anxious, my hands shaking as I started reading from the book.  I tried to gauge what people were thinking.  Could you stand by what you’d written, face down not an imaginary crowd of naysayers but actual people that you knew and say I think this, I wrote this?  I felt like I was on trial–was fiction an admissible defense in this court?  Before I stopped for questions, I made a pre-emptive strike and launched into a monologue about what fiction was, about how life gets translated and reinvented.  There is no one to one relationship between fiction and life; it’s not about expose but recreation.  Yes we are sitting in this place I described, yes, you think it’s you, or him or her, but can we depart here for one moment and enter a fictional universe?

This was what fiction was for me, a chance to reshape and recreate.  The world I’d grown up felt too small; on the page, it stretched, expanded.  I grew up feeling fenced in by the restraining words of who you were supposed to be, what you were supposed to think.  I’d lived with the tight knot that comes from reshaping the inner self to match the outer expectations.  Here on the page, I was starting to see how you could break free.

At the end of the reading, a family friend whom I’d heard was angry at the book came up to me and patted me on the arm.  “You acquitted yourself beautifully,” she said.

I appreciated her words though I knew not everyone agreed with her, though I knew that this so-called acquittal mattered less than the knowledge that I could be accused of trespassing upon communal norms and still stand by my words.  I could face the wagging tongues and angry feeling, I could stand there and say, this is what I have said.  This is what I think.

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