1156 A good deal of handwringing
INTERVIEW: Sarah Mintz with Nathaniel G. Moore
Sarah Mintz grew up in Greenwood (BC), Goose Bay, Victoria, Courtenay, Vancouver, Montreal, and Moose Jaw and now calls Victoria home. She’s worked at video stores, thrift stores, pet stores, managed buildings, shovelled snow, and answered the phone. As a recent graduate of the English M.A program at the University of Regina, her work has thus far appeared in Agnes and True, the University of Regina’s [space] journal, the Book*hug anthology, Write Across Canada, and a chapbook forthcoming from JackPine Press. Her debut, Handwringers, published in May 2021 by Regina’s Radiant Press, is a motley collection of short, short stories, whose characters are shaped by the daily barrage of media aimed at the general populace. Dramatic, and darkly funny, the stories revolve around Jewish identity. People cling to would-be wisdoms, memes, and TV tag-lines, while failing to locate their misplaced communities. A particularly apt book for our current world where chaos and anxiety reign — Nathaniel Moore
Nathaniel Moore: What inspired you to write this collection and why are you drawn to these stories? To what extent are they autobiographical?
Sarah Mintz: The majority of these stories began as the substance of my MA thesis at the University of Regina. I had written a portion of them prior to submitting my proposal, which was about “mediated Jewish identity” with an ongoing reference to the schlemiel. Once the proposal had been written, I began research for the project: schlemiel history and theory, Jewish folklore, Jewish stereotypes, and critical thought on short stories and flash fiction. The research sort of gave me parameters within which I could wait for inspiration, I suppose. I wrote about a hundred more stories that didn’t make the collection, so it was a productive period, if you consider making stuff up productive. Well, at least it had the illusion of productivity, so I guess I was engaged in regular human activity. No worse than telemarketing anyway.
I would say that the stories are largely not autobiographical, and I will defer to the painter Christopher Pratt who said something suitable in a documentary that I watched recently: “These things are always a combination between truth and fiction. It’s the fiction that makes the things work. Truth is never believed anyway…. You tell a lie with enough sparkle, you get it true, you get it done.”
In The Schlemiel as Metaphor Sanford Pinsker defines a schlemiel as one who “handles a situation in the worst possible manner or is dogged by an ill luck that is more or less due to his own ineptness.”
Nathaniel Moore: What is the significance of the title? How does it relate to the themes in the collection?
Sarah Mintz: The title was taken/inspired by the 2010 essay “Funny, You Don’t Look Jewish: Visual Stereotypes and the Making of Modern Jewish Identity,” by Susan A. Glenn. The Glenn essay explores collective Jewish identity and the role that appearances play in shaping that identity. She puts it nicely when she says that there is an unresolved tension in secular Jewish discourse over “attempts to erase and the compulsion to acknowledge Jewish physical difference.” I love irresolvable tension.
In the course of the essay she notes that in 1946 there were a series of experiments that seemed to demonstrate that people who held strong prejudices against “Jews, Blacks, and Catholics” tended to be most accurate in their selection of Jewish faces; however, Jewish participants proved to be what one study called “unexpectedly incompetent” in identifying Jewish faces, whereas in another experiment they demonstrated an “extreme tendency to see Jewish faces.” Glenn notes that a “good deal of hand-wringing ensued” over the contradictory and potentially inflammatory results.
I didn’t choose the title handwringers to give credence to the studies themselves, but the phrase and the context of the phrase, a “good deal of hand-wringing ensued,” made me laugh. Can’t you just imagine all of these very studious people engaged in very serious activity wringing their hands and tugging at their shirt collars?
I suppose the sort of lab-manufactured anxiety generated by the studies felt in-line with the generalized anxiety of the collection — an anxiety that circles the same material: Jewishness, assimilation, identity, irresolvable questions, and contradictory answers.
Nathaniel Moore: What role does humour play in your collection? What do your characters have most in common?
Sarah Mintz: This is a hard question. I started the project because I wanted to know more about Jewish comedy, the Wise Men of Chelm, schlemiels, schlimazels, schmegegges, etc.. But from Eastern Europe to Vaudeville to the Borscht Belt to New York and Hollywood, particular aspects of these things have been thoroughly exhausted. The schlemiel is a Jewish stereotype. And what’s more, it isn’t one that’s really available to me. I didn’t grow up hearing the folklore (maybe a bit about Hershel of Ostropol), and it all seemed to exist in the United States anyway. None of it is mine. I’m just a fan. But there is a weirdness in having what feels like a parasocial relationship with what is ostensibly my culture. More weirdness to consider is that hackneyed versions of the exploited folklore of my culture are somehow more appealing than fully intact religious practices. Sometimes I eat pig. And then piles of more dislocation when you consider that Philip Roth wrote about this 60 years ago and that the affectation of a Jewish tone is no surprise to anyone. So perhaps if there is comedy in the collection, it would be a kind of metacomedy, in that it reflects on or is enamoured with Jewish comedy and schlemiel-y schlemiels. Like being in love with a loser, in spite of yourself.
Nathaniel Moore: Who is your target audience? What do you most want your readers to get out of your stories?
Sarah Mintz: I suppose my target audience would be people that like the same sort of writings that I like so that we could eventually meet and start a cool and tough gang.
Nathaniel Moore: Why does the genre of flash fiction appeal to you? What is its greatest challenge for you as a writer?
Sarah Mintz: Flash fiction is my pet. I love it. I find it easier to write and easier to edit than longer fiction and in my mind it operates like comic books or graffiti, sitcoms or pop songs — little indulgent pieces of pop-culture, memes maybe. Also, you feel less guilty when you fail at flash fiction. If I pour over something for six months and it sucks, I have to contend with my ego and my own suckiness in a much more intense way than if I put weeks in and then decide that the thing is never going to work. That said, I’ve had a couple of stories that have driven me to depressing levels of self-doubt. I keep going back to them and they just keep rejecting me.
And just so I don’t sound utterly lazy, I will say that since writing this collection I’ve been putting time and effort into longer fiction — though it’s much less fun to write and leaves me adrift more often.
Interviewer Nathaniel G. Moore is the author of seven books including Jettison (Anvil Press, 2013) and Savage 1986-2011 (Anvil, 2013), winner of the 2014 Relit Award for Best Novel. His book reviews have appeared in the Georgia Straight, the Globe and Mail, and Canadian Literature, and he reviewed Scarred: The True Story of How I Escaped NXIVM, the Cult that Bound My Life, by Sarah Edmondson, for The Ormsby Review. Editor’s note: Nathaniel Moore has also interviewed Dallas Hunt, Tara Borin, Luke Inglis, Terence Young, Curtis LeBlanc, and Tom Wayman in The Ormsby Review. His new collection of essays, Honorarium, was released by Palimpsest Press (Windsor, ON) in Spring 2021. Formerly of Pender Harbour, Nathaniel now lives and works in in Fredericton, New Brunswick.
The Ormsby Review. More Books. More Reviews. More Often.
Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie
The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of B.C. books and authors. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018