Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Simone Zelitch

Simone Zelitch's novels include Louisa, which won the Goldberg Prize for Emerging Jewish Fiction. Her work has been featured on NPR and recent honors include a National Endowment for the Arts grant.

Zelitch's new novel is Judenstaat.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
A few weeks ago, I picked up a book that had been on my shelf for a while, Rasheeda Phillips’s Recurrence Plot and Other Time Travel Tales. Rasheeda took a fiction class with me years ago, and she’s a housing attorney with with Community Legal Services, as well as the creator of The Afrofuturist Affair. When is the last time a book gave me actual nightmares? This one did.

Recurrence Plot begins the day a woman turns twenty-one. She gave birth at the age of fourteen—like her mother before her—a path that feels inevitable; she takes her own life on her twenty-first birthday—like her mother before her. Her daughter grows up remembering the future, and the power tamped down by medication. A home-made time-machine creates connections between her past and future selves, with ambiguous consequences. She investigates a research institute at the fictional, sinister Parallel University which experiments on young black teens who are “at risk” for criminal behavior, assuming that their lives lead in one direction: they emerge hardened and changed.

The book interpolates expository passages about how the brain and body process time, as well as allusions to quantum physics, and segments that feel like a “choose your own adventure story” or are intended to be read backwards. Does time only flow forward? Is its direction inevitable? These questions are played out in poor African-American communities in my hometown of Philadelphia. Recurrence Plot is a challenging, weird, and wild read. As a teacher at Community College of Philadelphia, I found myself considering the lives of my my primarily African-American students; almost all of them are trying to spring a trap. That’s why they’re in my classroom.

In fact, Rasheeda Phillips responds to issues of violence and displacement as an Afro-futurist, a movement exemplified by artists such as the author Octavia Butler and the musician Sun Ra. She believes in the power of individual consciousness, rooted in tradition and community. Most recently, “redevelopment” of her Sharwood neighborhood led her to create a Community Futures Lab, including a “quantum time capsule, exploring oral histories/futures, preservation, displacement, and alternative temporalities within the North Philadelphia community known as Sharwood/Blumberg.” Alternative temporalities? Why not? As Phillips makes clear, time is a complicated business.

Then, yesterday, I finished another book about traps, and how to spring them, nonfiction by Jerome Gold: In the Spider’s Web. Gold spent fifteen years as a case-worker at a juvenile prison, and with extraordinary honesty, he considers his complex and contradictory role: a counselor and confidant, a guard who wrestles teenagers to the ground, a quasi-parent enforcing rules that are both essential to the teenagers’ well-being, and the very definition of imprisonment. When Jerry locks a kid into her room, it’s not punitive. It’s protective. It’s about giving her a chance to punch the door—just once—to cry without shame, not to have anything to prove. But that door still has a lock.

Gold was with the U.S. Special Forces in Vietnam. He is particularly good with “gang-kids” because he understands violence—feels it in his body as he puts it, “the taste of it in my mouth, its rippling on the skin of my arms, the lightness of it in my hands.” He knows all this. His body—in itself—is a kind of time machine, ranging between his past, present and future. His awareness gives him the power to guide the kids in an alternative direction. The process is messy, particularly because Gold can only do his job effectively if he is really attached to the kids on his caseload. He believes in making promises and keeping them. Of course, that’s at cross-purposes with the arbitrary nature of prison life.

Although Gold’s book is set in Washington State, it’s easy enough to consider the way the young people in Gold’s caseload are like Rasheeda Phillips’s characters, in a narrow world and on a narrow path. Is the best response re-wiring them with methods like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, commonly known as CBT? Jerome Gold hates that stuff— at one point a kid’s parent calls it “DDT”. He has no tolerance for jargon or slogans. He would say that they crowd out real connections, and they crowd out love.

Both books raise these questions: Can awareness of the past, and open speculation about where the past can take you, lead to alternative temporalities? Can our actual bodies be time machines, integrating our individual and collective memories into a complicated present, and a rich, real future? The books could hardly be considered hopeful, yet they gave me hope. Our consciousness is more than a series of wires and circuits that someone else controls. If we fight against everything that pulls us in that direction, if we spring the trap, our paths are neither narrow nor inevitable.
Visit Simone Zelitch's website.

The Page 69 Test: Judenstaat.

My Book, The Movie: Judenstaat.

--Marshal Zeringue