To be an American writer in the 21st century is to seek a balance between paying perhaps obsessive attention to life within our always interesting yet often parochial national culture, and remaining actively engaged with the larger world.
In my own work, the challenge is frequently locating and dramatizing the intersections of one set of assumptions -- cultural, religious, linguistic -- and another. Thanks to the generous support of the NEA, I will be able to research one such intersection for my next novel, which tells the story of an American in China in the 1970s, just after the end of the Cultural Revolution.
In all my work, fiction and non-, I'm interested in the moments at which old gods die and new gods are born; I'm particularly curious to see how that story might play out in a place where -- officially, at least -- there were no gods at all. The unfolding personal relationships within the novel will, I hope, set a mirror before the changing political relationships that will determine what sort of world we all soon will live in. By supporting the work of creative writers, the NEA affirms that literature has the power not only to reflect the changing role of the United States on the global stage, but to shape it.
Excerpt from Songs for the Butcher's Daughter
Chaim Glatt was a gaunt, gangly adolescent, with pimples glowing red beneath the fuzz of his beard. He said little but kept his nose always tucked in an enormous volume of Talmud. For a boy who seemed to study without ceasing, he had not advanced very far though the yeshiva's ranks. I was amazed he still sat in the room's cold back corner and so I puzzled over him whenever the teacher looked away. He passed the days smoothing a finger over his wisp of a mustache, staring with empty eyes and slackened jaw at the book before him. Occasionally a line of spittle would drip from his gaping lips to the rough surface of the desk below, which often held not just his books but both of his elbows and much of the twigs that were his upper arms.
The boy was a mystery! Was he unable to learn? Was he destined to be an old man with a child's brain? If so, Der Lerer would have thrown him out, as he had several other boys that year.
"Kishinev needs cobblers as well as scholars," the teacher would say as he sent the expelled boys to his cousin the shoemaker. "Soon we will all leave here and without proper soles beneath us where will the Torah be?"
Once or twice each week Der Lerer took note of Chaim's failure to pay attention to his lessons and, assuming the boy had been dozing behind his book, he would try to catch him out. Yet that's when Chaim proved he indeed had his wits about him. Always he provided an answer that was not only correct but carefully chosen so as to require no further elaboration.
When Der Lerer called out to Chaim one day, "Glatt, are you listening? Would you be please be so kind as to lower that volume you are hiding behind and tell the class one of the five ways a shoykhet might make a kosher animal treyf?"
The rest of us had spent the better part of the previous week memorizing these arcane terms from the Shulchan Arukh. Through endless repetition of the terms Hebrew terms sh'hiyah, chaldah, darsah, hagramah, and iqur we would struggle to remember that the forbidden knife techniques in kosher slaughter were also known aspressing, pausing, piercing, tearing, and covering. For an hour each day that week we had repeated a tuneless jingle:
Pressing, pausing, piercing, tearing,
Is the way unclean to make
Pausing, piercing, tearing, covering
cut the cow and make her treyf
Each time through, the song left out one of the five phrases and so attention had to be paid to include the correct terms. It was meant to keep us from mindless repetition, but in fact it guaranteed it.
When called upon to answer Der Lerer's question any other boy would have jumped to his feet and recalled the rhyme, though he likely would not have known the meaning of the words.
"Glatt, are you listening to me?" Der Lerer asked again. "Lower that volume and recite! Or are you embarrassed that you have not been paying attention? Are you unable to memorize a simple list? Can't you name even one way a shoykhet might defile a beast during slaughter?"
Without so much as a glance above his book, Chaim said, "Der Lerer, before you ask again let me remind you that pressing me to explain the obvious might lead to me pausing my reading, which would cause me to look upon you with such piercing eyes that you would soon be tearing your beard out by its roots for fear of what I would do to you if you uttered another word. Considering this, don't you agree that it would be best for my covering to remain where it is?"
It was clear to the rest of the class that any additional interrogation of Chaim would have forced Der Lerer to betray his own ignorance. The sad eyes our teacher displayed at such moments gave the impression that his most indifferent student was training him like a dog.
Peter Manseau is the author of the memoir Vows (Free Press, 2006), the novel Songs for the Butcher's Daughter (Free Press, 2009), and the nonfiction book Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World's Holy Dead (Griffin, 2010). He has won the National Jewish Book Award, the Sophie Brody Medal for Outstanding Achievement in Jewish Literature, the Ribalow Prize for Fiction, and was shortlisted for the Mercantile Library First Novel Award and France's Prix Medicis Etranger. A founding editor of KillingTheBuddha.com and coauthor of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible (Free Press, 2004), he is a doctoral candidate in religion and lecturer in journalism at Georgetown University. As a journalist, he has written for such publications as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, and National Public Radio. He lives in Maryland, where he serves as the Patrick Henry Writing Fellow at Washington College's C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience.
Photo by Jason Varsoke