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Oates: Haunted by denial of Jewish roots

May 19, 2019

Joyce Carol Oates poses for a photo in Jerusalem on May 12, 2019. (AP Photo)

By Isabel Debre

JERUSALEM: American author Joyce Carol Oates says her family’s denial of its Jewish roots haunted her for decades and has shaped her into the famously prolific writer she is today.

Oates, who traveled to Israel for the first time to receive the prestigious Jerusalem Prize, said her Jewish grandmother fled persecution in her native Germany to rural upstate New York in the late 19th century. But she repressed her trauma and Jewish heritage for the rest of her life.

Oates, who was raised nominally Catholic yet disconnected from religion, said she learned of her grandmother’s secret only after her death in 1970, when a biographer began digging into her ancestry.

“I felt an immense loss and sympathy because I never really knew that my grandmother was Jewish, so my whole cultural inheritance was lost,” Oates told The Associated Press in an interview at the Jerusalem International Book Fair on May 12. “But it’s the Jewish respect for culture and art that I inherited from my grandmother… so that’s actually beautiful.”

Oates said her grandmother played an instrumental role in her career choice, giving her a copy of Alice in Wonderland, a library card and a typewriter when she was a teenager, inspiring her to pursue writing.

“No one else in my Hungarian and Irish family had any interest in books,” she said. “There’s a tragedy at the loss of my grandmother’s history, but then [there is also] a joy in this connection.”

At 80, Oates is still writing novels, expanding a vast and varied oeuvre that has brought her wide acclaim.

Her political thriller Hazards of Time Travel, published last winter, represented her first real foray into dystopia, imagining America’s grim future as a totalitarian surveillance state. Reviewers called it reflective of the Trump presidency, but Oates said it was more about how the “future looks like global control through enormously wealthy corporations.”

Her upcoming novel, My Life as a Rat, which comes out next month, grapples with the personal repercussions of a racist hate crime. Oates described the new book as familiar territory for her, dealing with her trademark theme of painful family dynamics and set in rural New York, where she grew up in a working-class family with a severely autistic sister.

Oates said her writing was “motivated by social justice,” and she often tackled timely topics, such as the abortion debate and sexual violence, in addition to criticizing US President Donald Trump’s policies on Twitter. But she rejects the label of political writer.

“I’m not writing political novels. I’m writing about people,” she said. “You can be concerned with a society in which you live without being aware of a larger political structure.”

Oates also steered clear of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying Jerusalem was “obviously a city of great diversity,” but that she “can’t make any judgment.”

She said being in Jerusalem would likely influence her next project.

“I’m excited to be here, listening to the Hebrew language,” the novelist said. “I’m very interested in that culture and identity… and trying to see how I could write about it.”

The most recent upheaval in her life was the death of her second husband, professor of neuroscience Charles Gross, last month. She said it was too soon to discuss her grief.

The death of her first husband, editor and literary publisher Raymond Smith, motivated her to memorialize him in her celebrated 2011 memoir, A Widow’s Story.

Oates has written nearly 60 novels, won the National Book Award and received five Pulitzer nominations, among other honors. But she called the Jerusalem Prize “the high point” in her career.

The prize is awarded every two years to an author who expresses the ideal of human freedom in society. It has gone to some of the world’s most revered writers, including Bertrand Russell, Octavio Paz, V. S. Naipaul, Susan Sontag and J. M. Coetzee.

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