Donna Minkowitz: Growing Up and Writing It All Down
Author: Sarah Burghauser
December 15, 2013
This past October, former Village Voice contributor and activist journalist Donna Minkowitz released her hot-blooded new memoir, Growing Up Golem (Magnus), about her struggle with the inhibitive physical condition RSI, her injurious family history, and the intimacy of abuse.
In an email exchange with the Lambda Literary award winner, Donna discussed the roles of fantasy, identity, and writing sex in Growing Up Golem.
I’d like to start with a quote from your book: “I have never felt particularly Jewish or lesbian. I identify much more, I say, as a sort of sexy, holy kid on a motorcycle. The kid may be male. He’s an effeminate boy with long hair. I think he has pork remnants on his fingers.”
When I read these lines I began to wonder if you consider your book to be more of a queer memoir? A Jewish memoir? A disability memoir? Or something else entirely? In other words, is there a particular part of your story that you see as the northern star? A theme more naturally fertile or interesting to you as a writer?
The reader should bear in mind that I’m saying these words at a very particular moment in the book; this is not always how I feel. (In the book, I’m saying those words as a member of a panel on “Jewish Lesbian Writers,” and of course I immediately feel the ways I don’t fit in that box.) Actually, I find I’m feeling both more “Jewish” (in terms of culture, not religion) and more “lesbian” as I get older. As to the rest of your question, the book is all of them and more! It’s also a memoir mixed with Tolkien-style fantasy. It’s impossible to separate the different aspects of it, just as it would be impossible to separate me into the queer Donna, the working-class Donna, the fantasy geek Donna and so on. Which is appropriate, because it’s a book about becoming whole.
When you read your book now, do you still see the Donna Minkowitz in the book as yourself or as a character? How much distance do you have now, or did you have during the writing process, from the “protagonist”?
Someone said about memoir, the writer must know more than the narrator, and the narrator must know more than the character. So there are really three Donnas here, the writer, the narrator (the voice telling the story), and the character (the person described as going through the events in the story).
I needed to have a great deal of distance during the writing process, because I think the whole point of doing a memoir is to really observe yourself and attempt to write about yourself with some insight. That’s only possible if you try to step away and really look at the things you do.
But of course, it’s also me. The Donna in the book does all the things I did, and goes through the same travails.
The sex scenes in the book are very powerful–the writing really stands out in these scenes. Can you talk a little bit about the experience of writing sex, specifically with this character?
I like writing about sex, and in particular, writing about real sexual and sensual experiences. Partly because I think the reality of sexual experiences is often elided in writing into something less ambiguous or ambivalent than sexual experiences often feel. All of the emotions and sensations you may feel at a particular time of having sex – fear, discomfort, and annoyance or anger, as well as excitement, ecstasy, connection and fullness – need to be written about. The other piece of it for me is that I just really like to convey sensual experiences of all kinds through words. I think descriptions of touch and smell can be some of the most lyrical writing there is, and I think they can give memoir more of a concrete base; a base in the physical world.
In reading, it seemed as though a lot of your healing and processing through your abuse happened during the actual writing process. As a reader I felt like I was watching your thoughts unfold before me. In the moment. Did it feel raw writing it? Does it still feel raw now? Or was this the effect of a highly calculated and arranged tone/approach to give readers that illusion?
I would say it’s almost entirely an illusion. I’m glad you felt like you were watching my thoughts unfold before you in real time, but that was definitely an illusion! I worked on the book for eight years, and almost all the events in the book had been over for a long time before I wrote about them. I mean for the book to feel raw – that was my goal. It is almost a book about feeling raw, as though you don’t have a protective outer layer. The main character doesn’t, or at least she starts out that way. One of the many meanings for “golem” in Hebrew is embryo… one of the newest, rawest and most vulnerable things there is. “Golem” also means fool, and it is partly a book about starting out not knowing how to run your own life, and then perhaps gradually learning how.
Throughout the book, you use direct address – particularly in the form of pet names for readers. Some of these names include: doll, best beloved, gentle reader, sweet little reader, baby doll, honey buns, little one, and sweet pea. At first I thought that maybe this familiar (and perhaps a bit flamboyant) language was meant to invoke an oral tradition of storytelling. But as I read on, these direct addresses began to hit my ear as diminutions. Why are readers your “best beloveds”?
The book is fundamentally about relationships. The main character is anxious about them, wants them badly, and doesn’t really know how to have them. So I decided to configure the relationship between the narrator and the reader as an important relationship in its own right. The narrator is telling a very intimate story, so it makes sense in a way that she addresses readers as her intimates. Perhaps it’s a way to tell an intimate story without too much embarrassment or shame – the narrator makes clear to the reader that the reader isn’t a voyeur, but one person listening to another.
On another level, the series of peculiar endearments is supposed to be odd, and yes, there’s a reason that the narrator is using diminutives. Golems are created as slaves, so they are very conscious of power imbalances, and very frightened of them. The reader necessarily has more power than the writer – she can read the book however she wants. So the frightened narrator is trying to redress that imbalance by attempting to “make the reader smaller.” It’s a way of revealing the narrator’s character, and her fears. Also, the narrator is intended to be a bit of an annoying sort, especially in the beginning. As we go on through the book, the endearments to the reader become more tongue in cheek as the actual connection to the reader grows.
Finally, could you talk a little bit about the publication process? How did you end up working with Magnus?
There’s no question that this is a challenging time in publishing, probably for all players. But I’m just thrilled that Don Weise of Magnus got behind the book so strongly. He “got” the book immediately, which won my heart.