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Conversation with… Judith Frank

Amherst professor’s new book explores hot button issues
By Judy Polan

AMHERST – Amherst College English professor and writer Judith Frank’s just-published novel, All I Love and Know, tells the story of Daniel Rosen, whose twin brother and sister-in-law are killed in a bombing at a Jerusalem café. He takes on the raising of his traumatized young niece and nephew, with his partner Matt, at their once quiet home in Northampton, Mass. The book explores numerous hot button issues – gay rights, the Israel/Palestine conflict, child custody and Jewish identity – yet retains a surprising degree of humor and good will, making it an excellent and gripping read.
Frank, who joined the Amherst faculty in 1988, grew up in Chicago and moved to Israel with her mother, 14-year old brother, and twin sister when she was 17. She earned her B.A. from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, followed by an MFA and Ph.D. in English literature and creative writing from Cornell University. Her first novel, Crybaby Butch, won the Astraea Foundation’s Emerging Lesbian Writers Fund Prize in Fiction in 2000, and a Lambda Literary Award in 2005. In 2008, she landed a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Literature Fellowship in creative writing; she says that receiving this honor “reawakened my pride in being a writer.”
Frank lives in Amherst, MA with her partner and twin daughters. She recently spoke to the Jewish Ledger about All I Love and Know.

Judith Frank

Judith Frank

Q: How and when did you first discover your love of language, and your gift for it?
A: Apparently in fourth grade. My mother recently passed away, and I now have in my keeping a scrapbook of letters we all wrote to my grandparents when my father was stationed in Germany in the army. There’s a stapled-together story in slanted cursive called, “Peter Visits Fairyland,” where I am clearly learning the conventions of storytelling. Like: “Little did they know that the dogcatcher was waiting around the corner.” (The dogcatcher must have appeared in every Dennis the Menace or Andy Griffith Show I’d ever seen.) And lots of dialogue tags with adverbs: “Wow!” he yapped excitedly.” (The quotation marks are little circles with a curlicue.) I find the story to be an exercise in conventionality, but my six-year-old daughters think it’s hilarious, and torture me from time to time by making me read it to them.
Q: What led your family to move to Israel when you were seventeen? Did you experience an intensified level of culture shock, because you were a teenager?
A: My father had died five years earlier, and my mother was looking to start a new life. My sister and I had gotten into college here in the States, but deferred, because we weren’t really ready to be so far away from her. I experienced culture shock that expressed itself as intense depression. I didn’t speak Hebrew yet, so it felt as though a big part of my personality had disappeared – as though I didn’t have anything to say. I think it was the combination of cultural dislocation, mourning my father, sexual identity issues, and being a teenager. I threw myself into learning Hebrew – I’m very vain about my Hebrew – and managed to forge a life in Israel before my return to the U.S. six years later.

Q: How would you characterize your personal relationship to Judaism?
A: I am a secular Jew; my family and extended family observe the high holidays and Passover. My partner is not Jewish and my kids call themselves “half-Jewish.” How to bring ritual into our lives is a work in progress. When my mother died in February, two Jewish communities – her shul and the Jewish high school my brother works at – came together to help us hold shiva and mourn. I found that very meaningful. I’ve also gravitated toward the work of a few progressive rabbis, who, in the name of Jewish values, are activists in the cause of Palestinian autonomy and dignity.

Q: With public attitudes toward gay marriage shifting so rapidly, do you think that the sense of “otherness” about being gay will soon disappear?
A: While it’s true that attitudes toward gay marriage have shifted in the U.S., I don’t think that’s the only pertinent arena of gay rights. We’re seeing groups seeking exemptions from anti-discrimination laws, and I worry that the success of gay marriage will lead to a backlash akin to the roll-backs of laws protecting voters’ rights and women’s reproductive health. In some parts of the country one can live as a queer person and feel quite at home, but in others it’s still a dispiriting and even dangerous proposition.
But it’s also true that many gay and Jewish people cherish our otherness, and don’t yearn for a time when we will just blend in with everyone else. There’s a scene in the novel where Matt is reading the book Gay Dads, and hearing the dads say things like “We’re just a boring normal family,” makes him die a little inside.

Q: I love the way you’ve made Northampton a somewhat comedic “character” in your book. Was it Northampton’s quirky and gay-friendly nature that brought you to the Valley?
A: I’m glad Northampton felt like a character to you! I’m an academic, and the job at Amherst College was the only one I got. I had come out only six months before, so getting a job in the town adjacent to what the National Enquirer once called “Lesbianville USA” felt like a tremendous stroke of luck.

Q: How do you balance your life as a college professor with your writing life?
A: This is a big struggle! I love teaching, and a day in which I can write in solitude in the morning and then have a really interesting conversation with a group of smart young people – what could be better than that? The administrative burdens, though, can be time-consuming, and my writing can languish untouched for months at a time. I should note that this is a problem for all academics.

Q: Do you have any rituals around writing?
A: I’m a peripatetic writer; I write in my office at Amherst, the library, cafes, my own living room. I prefer an easy chair to sitting at a desk or table. Last year we moved into a new house and I quickly, and sheepishly, realized that I’d rather have a master bathroom than a study. I used to be at work, with coffee, by 7:30 every morning, and get started before checking email or doing anything else. Now that I have kids, I can’t do that anymore, and am forced to be more versatile. Once, at a reading, I heard the author Paul Harding say that he wrote Tinkers in the car, which he had to drive around and around to soothe his colicky baby. He’d stop for a few minutes and write. He promptly became my idol!
Judy Polan (www.judypolan.com; madformodblog.com) is a musician and freelance arts and culture writer.

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