Categories: Interviews

Lambda Literary Review: Judith Katz on the 21st-century lesbian

by Hilary Zaid

Judith Katz is the author of two published novels, The Escape Artist and Running Fiercely Toward a High Thin Sound, which won the 1992 Lambda Literary Award for Best Lesbian Fiction and reissued in its 25th-anniversary edition.

Judith, your novel first arrived on the literary scene 25 years ago. Say something about what your literary influences were at that time, and how you wrote your way into that literary landscape?
In the 80s when I was deep into Running Fiercely, I was writing to make a place for lesbian characters who were Jewish daughters that didn’t stay home. In other words, I was writing to create images of Jewish women who were like people I knew and me, but also (I hoped) against stereotypes.

At the same time, one of the most vilified characters in Jewish American literature in the late 1960s was Sophie Portnoy, Philip Roth’s stereotype to end all stereotypes of Jewish mothers in Portnoy’s Complaint.

A whole genre of feminist literary criticism began with the vilification of this character and the man who created her, and halfway through the first solid draft of Running Fiercely… here I was building Fay Morningstar, Nadine and Jane’s monstrous mother — not nurturing and overbearing as Sophie Portnoy, but overbearing and enraged.

Fay, acts out her Jewishness ferociously and unconsciously, and while a climax of Running Fiercely takes place during a Jewish wedding, it’s never spoken of as such.

Nadine and Jane live in a mythical town where both Jewishness and lesbianism are part of the fabric of their everyday lives.

In Far From the Tree, Andrew Solomon writes about the difference between vertical and horizontal identities, which is the difference between identities we share with our parents and those we don’t. LGBTQ+ identities are perfect examples of horizontal identities, because we typically come from straight families, and they have the potential to put us into conflict with our other, vertical identity.

So, how did the question of belonging shape your characters and their story? It seems that in Jane and Nadine you’re tackling this question from two different angles.
Jane reacts to the worlds around her by at least trying to behave and doing what she’s asked (e.g., she wears a fancy gown and actively participates in her oldest sister’s wedding) which puts her relationship to her lesbian lover at risk. She’s the family member who is always juggling family duty and community responsibility.

Nadine on the other hand just acts — sets her hair on fire, hides in the holy ark, disappears into some mythical Jewish history (by the way, this part of the book delights some readers and drives others to distraction), then returns to her family then asked to leave.

A scene in a silent Yiddish film of the 1970s, based on the Shalom Aleichem stories, Tevye and His Daughters (that evolved into the musical Fiddler on the Roof), where the daughter who marries a gentile is locked out of the family home and forced to watch her ailing mother die through a rain-drenched window, influenced me. It was a starting image I brought with me as I made this story. Nadine is that daughter, but in many ways, Jane is too.

For much of 20th century gay and lesbian literature, the big plot problem was the risk of coming out of the closet. Running Fiercely is not a coming out novel.

Yes — not coming out of the closet doesn’t mean we haven’t inherited the question of the closet as a literary trope. I wonder if a paper on which no words are written isn’t in some ways like a “high, thin sound.” Tell me more about your title?
I had some working titles for Running Fiercely… over the years it took me to make this book: The Monster in My Mother’s House; The 41 Laments; and my favorite, The Vildachia Of New Chelm (which my publisher, Nancy K. Bereano rejected immediately).

A few days following my first Escape Artist research trip to Buenos Aires, I sat alone in my favorite Chinese restaurant when it appeared to me: Running Fiercely Toward a High Thin Sound because that is what Nadine is doing.

The high thin sound is God I think… isn’t that how God spoke to Moses, via the burning bush? So even though Nadine is running away, she is also running toward — maybe not God as we understand or don’t understand God (or believe in God) but something like God? A Jewish God? Not sure.

The characters in my book live in an entirely Jewish world but remember, Jane, Rose, and Nadine live in a spiritual world guided by Tarot cards, dreams, and magic — God back in those olden lesbian days was a Goddess or Goddesses. Nadine finds her Jewish life through ritual and genetic memory, which she likely inherited (much like the violin) from her mother’s side of the family. Nadine is swimming through her past to understand where she belongs.

Greater representation in our voices — that’s the high, thin sound toward which I’m running! What about you? What’s next for you? What are you working on now?
Well, for some years I was working on a more realistic somewhat contemporary novel which has been in a drawer for about five years …and I have begun in earnest continuations of both Nadine’s story and the stories of Hankus and Sofia from The Escape Artist. And then I learned I had non-Hodgkins lymphoma — two kinds within three years, and while I’m recovered (for now), I’m working on getting my reading and writing chops back.

I’ve been doing short little pieces which my publicist, Michele Karlsberg, has been placing in online journals, and those are like going to the gym — my writing muscles are coming back. But they aren’t fiction, they are a whole other kind of writing, and while I enjoy the exercise of being a smarty-pants lesbian elder, I am looking forward to diving back into characters and mythos, i.e., I want to continue writing us (Jewish dykes) into literary history. Jewish women composers and resistors of World War II interest me. Some of them had women lovers.

What’s on the boards for you?
I was at work for quite some time on a project that updated Patience & Sarah, a classic of lesbian literature that was avant-garde when published in 1969 and which I was entirely taken with when I first discovered it in the children’s section of my local library a few years ago. I was soldiering away at a revision of my Patience project this fall and then the election happened and brought with it this sense of tremendous futility; but I couldn’t move forward with the project, which felt meaningless in the face of historical realities, and I thought it was Trump.

Finally, though, I realized that the novel was missing a key plot mechanism and it just didn’t have enough momentum to move forward. It turns out that it’s tough to “update” some of the old, queer classics because being queer — and the dangers associated with coming out — was a plot and now it mostly isn’t. (Some of our most interesting lesbian writing is from writers like Chinelo Okparanta, Nicole Dennis-Benn, and Lesley Nneka Arimah, who are setting stories in countries where homophobia can still work as a major plot element — which is to say that the locus of that plot has had to shift.)

Ultimately, I put that novel in the proverbial drawer for the sake of something completely different: a book about the power of the written letter in a digital age and the problems of anonymity and privacy in the world of surveillance capitalism. Writing about the present, I discovered with Paper Is White, is always fraught, because the present is ever becoming the past and — as it turns out — the future can start looking a lot like the past, too!

Yes, especially in this fraught political time.
But it’s a place to start.

A 2017 Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Hilary Zaid is the author of numerous works of short fiction, including My Triple X Valentine’s at the Far Point Senior Villas (Day One) and the Pushcart-nominated For Non-Speakers of the Mother Tongue. Zaid’s debut novel, Paper is White, on bookshelves now.

This is a condensed version of the interview at editorial discretion. To read the entire unedited interview visit www.lambdaliterary.org

PHOTO | Judith Katz

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