My great grandmother Stephania Pocztarska grew up in Julianowo, in Russian dominated Poland, and left the port of Bremen on the SS Cassel on Nov 22, 1902. She arrived at Ellis Island on December 8, totally alone, at the age of 16 and with $4 to her name. Since she didn’t speak any English she was detained until her sister arrived from New Jersey to accept her. Eventually she met and married Michael Sledz, a saloon and soda shop owner in the Warszawa neighborhood of Slavic Village in Cleveland. After he died she became a shrewd landlord and savvy business woman, while somehow raising five children on her own. Michael’s parents immigrated in 1881, during a time when Poland was part of Prussia, and they helped establish Slavic Village, with Joseph Sledz operating successful businesses. Joseph was also the first elected councilman of the Warszawa neighborhood, and helped construct St. Stanislaus Church in 1886, which still stands today. My father’s side of the family fled Russian and German domination, to send clothes and money back to Poland during more periods of Russian or German domination. They took great risk to be here, and could not return to Poland to visit until living in the United States for 30 years and thus achieving naturalization. Knowing your roots encourages empathy. All land is borrowed or stolen. Families who built something didn’t build the last thing. There are more innovations to be mined by unfamiliar faces. If your gut reaction to refugees from struggling nations seeking new opportunities in Europe or the US is to tell them to go home, consider your own ancestry carefully, and whether your world would even exist if sanctuary had been denied.
I cannot read white guys for awhile. It’s not that I dislike white guy writing; some of my favorite writers are fellows of the pasty persuasion. George Orwell. John Milton. That other dead guy; that one who lives forever. Doesn’t mean I haven’t had my fill of hard drinking, working class men with surly dispositions, fretting over the women who’ve done them wrong…written by tender guys living off trust funds in Brooklyn brownstones. Had enough of five o’clock shadows and fifty-yard stares, emotional detachment and simmering resentment, unions that unraveled and road trips to nowhere — nobody consults a map, unless there’s a woman in the car, in which case that’s exactly what she’s doing. I’ve had enough of cops on the other side of the law and misunderstood criminals, corporate executives ducking out of afternoon meetings and into bars, marriages forever tense and inscrutable with no notion of tenderness beyond thank you, goodnight. These white men don’t recover from the backslap of romance, don’t enter into the soothing space of just knowing someone and relaxing. They are too busy drinking, divorcing, finding themselves, which usually means another woman, in a bar, in an office, in a car opening a map while he’s driving.
And speaking of this particular sort of writer, I’ve had my fill of female characters that place phone calls about child support payments and scream across the street about when he’s coming back, and never have ambitions beyond Lady Macbeth. This type of male writer never writes women thinking like they do, wondering like they do, plotting like they do. No, this white male writer makes women thin and demanding or fat and sorry, hunting for a hero or fulfilling childhood fantasies of sparkling eyes and inspired statements released as riddles. He will meet her in the park, he will meet her in the bar, he will meet her in the office when she comes in late and dressed inappropriately and unwilling to file anything alphabetically. Women described as “used up” and worn down by life, permanent mothers flanked by angry children that spit at each other across the dinner table, wild women whose only rebellion involves sexual promiscuity and growing their hair long and white and tangled.
In their interviews they will wear beards and soft sad eyes and tucked in flannel shirts and talk about the loneliness of writing. They will talk about adopting children from foreign countries as the long drunken route towards empathy. They will talk about their mothers, the abortion their girlfriend once had, their trip to Africa/Malaysia/Thailand that was totally different from the other white guys who were there for worse reasons. They will talk about the disappointment of their fathers, how they will never receive tenure; they will not talk about their trust funds. They will rattle off lists of other white male writers writing about divorce and murder and dogs and strippers and guns and rivers, and talk about their next book that will cover more of the same. In six weeks the black cover will promise a something-something “tour de force” and I will wonder if that’s a bicycle tour in France.
Too small, too drunk, too troubled, too on-to-something, too lost. This is too small, when a world of other worlds lies waiting.