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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Novelists make the political personal

English Department hosts discussion about historical fiction

Published: April 16, 2010
Section: Arts, Etc.

Book group: Novelist Jennifer Gilmore talked about her novel “Something Red,” which takes place at Brandeis.
PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot

The Creative Writing Department hosted the first of a three part series on Tuesday, April 13, with a discussion titled “The Personal and the Political: Historical Novels and the Jewish Experience.” During the hour-and-a-half talk, novelists Anita Diamant and Jennifer Gilmore spoke to an audience of Brandeis students and community members about their most recently published novels, Diamant’s “Day After Tomorrow” and Gilmore’s “Something Red.”

The event began with a brief introduction by Professor Stephen McCauley (ENG). He described the central theme of the dialogue as “why write historical fiction?”

Diamant is perhaps best known for her first historical novel “The Red Tent,” which follows the biblical story of Dinah, the daughter of Jacob who was attacked by a Canaanite prince. In addition, Diamant has written several guides to Jewish living along with a few other novels.

Gilmore graduated from Brandeis in 1992 and now teaches at Eugene Lang College at The New School. In 2006, she published “Golden Country,” a historical novel about Jewish immigrants set between the 1920s and the 1960s.

Gilmore’s novel, “Something Red,” takes place in 1979 and follows the story of a family whose members have a history of joining different radical movements—the grandfather, for example, fought for better conditions in tenements. Gilmore read a segment of the novel that takes place at Brandeis, which one of the characters attends.

In addition to reading from her novel, Gilmore explained the nature of historical writing. She described all novels as somewhat historical because they capture the moment in which they were written. In her novels, she approaches history from the perspective of the characters because “inner life is timeless.”

Diamant’s speech followed a similar format to Gilmore’s, as she began with a reading from her most recent novel and followed it with a discussion about how she views writing historical fiction. She said that, rather than planning to write within the genre, she “fell into historical writing.”

On the topic of her most recent novel, “The Day After Tomorrow,” she described how she had to be very careful about how she approached the Holocaust and the founding of Israel, both of which are very sensitive topics. In order to circumvent controversy, she, like Gilmore, wrote history from the perspective of the characters.

Once the two authors finished their speeches, Professor John Plotz (ENG), led a panel discussion. Plotz asked the authors various questions about the writing process and specifically about the process of writing historical fiction.

Diamant explained that she tries to be “true to a historical moment” rather than merely writing narratives of survivors. Similarly, Gilmore explained that she tried to write about how history “sits with us at all times” and therefore how it influences her characters.

Diamant also spoke about her inspiration for “The Day After Tomorrow.” When she went to Israel, she visited the prison Atlit. At Atlit, Britain imprisoned illegal Jewish immigrants who came to Palestine after the defeat of the Nazis. The prisoners were dramatically rescued on October 10, 1945, an event that Diamant decided was too perfect to ignore despite its controversial nature. She admitted that her own parents’ status as Holocaust survivors made it easier to approach as she grew up around the topic.

In addition to questions from Professor Plotz, the two authors answered questions from the audience. In response to a question about dealing with historical facts in their novels, Diamant explained that incorrectly using facts, even small ones, can discredit an entire book. As an author, however, one must balance accuracy with restraint, making sure not to simply regurgitate information for the sake of showing off one’s knowledge.

As an English major who has written a few, unimpressive short stories myself and as a voracious novel reader, I found the discussion very informative, especially because I have a particular soft spot for historical fiction. Hearing first-hand how the authors discovered their inspiration and how they went about the process of writing was very inspiring. Diamant and Gilmore somewhat demystified the process of writing by explaining their own thought processes.

I also particularly enjoyed hearing Gilmore’s description of Brandeis in the 1970s, because I have never read a fictional account of the school. Gilmore explained her decision to specifically name Brandeis rather than keeping the university anonymous, by saying that other schools, such as Harvard, are frequently mentioned, but Brandeis seldom is.

Other students with whom I spoke also found the event engaging. “It is cool to hear about historical perspective from a Jewish experience. And the authors weren’t didactic, despite being Jewish authors,” said Emma Needleman ’10. Another student, Noa Albaum ’12, said that she “appreciated how candid they were and that they talked about the process of historical fiction, and what it means to be accurate.”

All in all, I thought that the event was a great success, as it proved both interesting and illuminating. Others also seemed drawn to the event—turn-out was high, and though the event took place in the International Lounge, which is not exactly the largest room at Brandeis, the room was filled. I certainly enjoyed myself enough that I will be attending the second event organized by the Creative Arts Department, which will feature Louise Glück reading her poetry.

NOTE: Due to an editing error, one instance of Anita Diamant’s name was misspelled in some editions of The Brandeis Hoot. We regret the error.