My column is a little late this month because I just got back from a trip to New York City where I had a chance to do some foot-to-the-pavement research for my historical novel. I ended my day of exploration at the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side at 97 Orchard Street. It's a fascinating place. Built in 1863, this building of cramped three-room apartments, averaging six inhabitants each, was home to thousands of immigrants until it was shuttered in the 1930s due to the expense of conforming to new safety standards. The storefront, however, could still be rented out, so the building remained standing as a time capsule until discovered by Ruth Abram and Anita Jacobson in the late 1980s. These historians had been searching for a way to honor the experience of America’s immigrants, who of course, had suffered short shrift from traditional historians with their focus on society’s elite.
The museum tours take you first through an unrestored apartment, with crumbling ceilings and peeling wallpaper, to give you a sense of what the museum founders confronted. Next you enter a restored apartment (there are several representing different eras) and learn about the lives of the family who lived there. I was scribbling notes the whole time and soaking in the ambiance like a cold drink on a hot day. I can certainly understand why later generations craved material goods and houses of their own in the suburbs.
Of course the last stop at any historical museum is the bookstore, and the Tenement Museum had a rich offering of historical references. I also noticed several tables of historical novels, all quality paperbacks from big New York houses, all sporting blurbs from known writers proclaiming the wonderfulness of the story within. And I’ll admit my mood sank.
Or maybe I should call it a touch of panic. I’d been enjoying the research and writing process so much, I’d been able to put that nasty publication torture aspect of this out of my mind for the most part. But here they were, taunting me, the authors who had not only finished their historical novels and got them prestigiously published, they’d been chosen by this museum as representative of the immigrant experience. And I knew because of the focus on sex in my novel, it would never have a chance at this kind of placement. I’d been through that with Amorous Woman, the sneers and coldness toward an admittedly pulpy-looking novel with “for adults only” printed on the cover in accordance with British law. If it was wonderful inside, none of these arbiters of literary worth ever cared to find out.
Yes, I was depressed, but I forced myself to undertake my go-to form of therapy. I picked up several of the novels and read some random passages, paying particular attention to anything that looked like an erotic scene. To make a longish story short, I discovered what I usually do when studying sex scenes in “pure” literature. Fear. Fear of going all the way, by which I mean really getting inside the intensity, the pleasure of a sexual encounter. Fear of turning on the reader, fear of being banned from the table in this museum of the immigrant experience as too low-class. (Not that I blame the museum in any way, we all know how it is).
And I suddenly felt much better about my project. Because I—and all of us here at ERWA—are not afraid to go all the way, to explore and revel in the joyful truth of sensuality, as well as its darker sides. Not everyone has the courage to do this in our eroto-phobic culture. But we do. It’s a gift and although we may not get the fancy blurbs or the table space in respectable venues, exploring and celebrating this oppressed, silenced part of the human experience is a worthy endeavor.
This “mission” of mine definitely helps me through hard times in a bookstore. I hope it works the same magic for you.
As ever, keep writing!
Donna George Storey is the author of Amorous Woman and a collection of short stories, Mammoth Presents the Best of Donna George Storey. Learn more about her work at www.DonnaGeorgeStorey.com or http://www.facebook.com/DGSauthor