For years until her death in 2000, my mother and I would meet on Tuesdays at the same Japanese restaurant, before going to hear whoever was speaking that night at City Arts and Lectures. My mother always dressed to go downtown – and a cultural event counted as “downtown.” Her shoes were scuff-free, her purse an ample Mommy purse. I subsisted then on adjunct faculty and freelance proofreading pay, and while I would dress in my best teaching attire, I always felt a little like Cinderella next to her.
Not that she made me feel that way. Ever since I supposedly announced to her at age eight that “I’m not your little girl in a smocked dress anymore,” she’d stopped directing my wardrobe choices. She even, one year, gave me a framed lithograph of rose hips, during my then-obsession with Rose Hips Jeans, circa 1977.
Anyway, I digress. Funny, how writing about Mom – anything about Mom, even if by way of introducting the “real” topic – two days before Mother’s Day taps into the warmth, occasional tension, and pure acceptance of sitting at her side in Herbst Theatre.
One night, we met at a white-tablecloth seafood restaurant because my father (not a sushi fan) was joining us. We found ourselves at the table next to Tom Wolfe, he of the dapper white suits and energetic adjectives. An hour or so later, Mom and I heard Wolfe on stage, make the point I’d heard him make a few years later at the 92nd Street Y in New York: that novelists need to go outside of themselves, that their job is to capture the world in which they live, that anything less does a disservice to the genre. He praised Zola and, more recently, Richard Price. Wolfe criticized John Updike and others for focusing on mere style and character development.
I thought of a novel I’d begun writing, set against the backdrop of the United Farm Workers’ organizational efforts in the early 1970s I was excited by the rural setting and the prospect of doing research in stuffy old archives in Watsonville. I would talk to people who’d marched with Cesar Chavez! But I kept coming back to my main character, caught between her mother’s liberal support of the strikers and her need to fit in with the cool kids at school who are children of the anti-union ranchers. Something we can all relate to, but not exactly topical.
I loved Richard Price’s Clockers, and I’m sure the fact that Price rode around in the back of a cop car patrolling the projects contributed to the detail that mesmerized me. The novel is set amongst cops and crack dealers, and I had a brother whose addiction brought this painfully home. But what I remember most? A main character, a young runner for a local dealer, and his addiction to vanilla Yoo-Hoo.
I’ve been thinking about all this again since reading a New York Times article (Saturday, April 30) about Vladimur Sorokin, a Russian novelist – one of Russia’s most celebrated – and his growing feeling of social obligation. The article cited an anecdote that influenced Sorokin’s previous stance: as German troops marched into Paris, Picasso sat and drew an apple.”
Sorokin has since “come to life” with a fable about Putin’s Russia called Day of the Oprichnik. “I wrote down,” says Sorokin, “what was happening.”
Last August, at the Glen Workshop, those of us in Melissa Pritchard’s fiction class learned about the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, which link American and Afghan women writers. Pritchard talked about grappling with the role of a writer in a broken world and how her involvement had helped her find her task. She sits on the board of AWWP and she “writes the best I can.”
What is our job? I don’t have an answer. But it’s interesting question to grapple with.