Each finely crafted chapter in “When History Is Personal,” a new volume of essays by Mimi Schwartz of Princeton, reads like a short story. Published earlier this year by the University of Nebraska Press, the book offers a deep sense of place, whether that place is a chicken farm on Long Island, an historic home in Princeton, or the German village where the author’s father spent his boyhood before World War II.
The characters that people the stories have full personalities. Consider Schwartz’s observation of Sophie Marx, an immigrant from that same German village: “I was struck by how upbeat she was. If I walked past Sophie outside, on the cement sidewalks dotted with overflowing garbage cans, I would have seen an old, thin, hunched woman in a baggy dress, taking painfully small steps from a once-broken pelvis (she had once been mugged), and thought how miserable she must be. And yet she was ‘full of beans,’ as my grandmother Omi loved to say; it was her favorite compliment.”
We learn so much from this short introduction to Sophie, beyond the way her outward appearance belies her approach to life. As this brief description hints, the language and structure of Schwartz’s essays hew more closely to those of literature than of nonfiction.
It is the outset of the works that often draws the reader in. “A Trunk of Surprises” starts this way: “The day after we moved onto Evelyn Place, we found an old steamer trunk in the attic, made for ocean voyages and big enough to hide in.”
It’s hard not to want to keep reading to find out more — more about the narrator who sees the trunk as a mystery, more about the attic with all the history secreted there, and more about where the essay’s narrative will lead.
And consider “Echo Across the Road,” which challenges nonfiction in its own way: “I like the way small decencies bump against the larger narratives of history, challenging certainties. So of course, I like Aron’s story of Salach: how he kept coming to milk the ‘Jewish’ cows during the Six-Day War in Israel in 1967.”
The reader, recognizing instantly that this story will offer a tale of friendship between an Arab and a Jew, wants to keep reading, especially after the mention of “Jewish” cows, which hints at the underlying randomness and absurdity to all the region’s hatred.
The essays revolve around common themes, each with a slippery truth at its core. Stories multiply about why a women’s college closed. That solid, sturdy front lawn of the historic home one day reveals a cavernous emptiness beneath it. Photographs of two sisters growing up depict a closeness that jars with the lived reality. And a cherished memory, stored and recalled over a lifetime, turns out to be factually impossible.
The book also offers a view into how Schwartz’s Jewish identity is woven seamlessly into her largely secular, assimilated life — except when it isn’t. She teaches in a university, embraces the history of her hometown of Princeton, worries about death and dying with friends in some of the essays. But in some she interacts with other immigrants from her father’s hometown who still keep kosher, finds unexpected meaning in hosting a Passover seder, and reacts not only to 500 anti-Semitic flyers posted one morning on a kiosk at the university, but also to the response of her friends, who view the resulting “harmony rally” as a fraud and believe that in taking the posters down, the administration has sided with Israel as the “oppressor.”
It’s the way many Jews live, integrated into society, except when their Jewishness suddenly takes center stage or provides a specific context for current events.
For Schwartz, writing creative nonfiction — the term used to describe this genre — is all about capturing what she calls the “emotional truth.” As she put it in a recent phone conversation with NJJN, “It’s nonfiction in a personal voice.”
That can be tricky sometimes, especially when it comes to the characters, because they are real people who may react to what they read, and she said she feels a great responsibility to the people she doesn’t know well.
“People I do know can get mad at me and tell me outright” how they feel or remember something differently, she said. “But I felt a huge responsibility to people like Sophie, who just thinks I’m writing about her life and not creating a person on the page.”
Schwartz happens to be an expert in the genre, having taught it from 1980 until 2005 in the writing program at Stockton University in Galloway, where she is now professor emerita. She is the author of four books, including “Good Neighbors, Bad Times: Echoes of My Father’s German Village” (2008), “Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed” (2002), and “Writing True: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction,” which she coauthored with Sondra Perl, as well as numerous other essays that have appeared in such journals as Tikkun, CALYX, and The Missouri Review, and in The New York Times. She is a recipient of the ForeWord magazine Book of the Year Award in Memoir, The Florida Review Editor’s Prize, and the New Hampshire Outstanding Literary Nonfiction Award. She currently leads writing workshops nationwide and abroad and is part of OnStage Seniors, a documentary theater experience at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton.
When she gets a character right — when she paints someone the way other people see them — it’s “validation,” she said. That’s what happened with a piece she wrote about her father and his village. “My cousin called and said, “‘You know, that’s just how he was,’ and here I was operating by voices in my head, because I didn’t have a recorder going when I was 13 years old,” Schwartz said.
Schwartz will read from “When History Is Personal” at Labyrinth Bookstore in Princeton on Wednesday, May 16, at 6 p.m.