Wednesday, February 11, 2009

PEN America West

As Paula S. Fass was growing up in Brooklyn, she only had one conversation with her mother about her parents’ murdered son. While they were sitting at the kitchen table one day, Fass worked up the courage to ask the name of her deceased brothers and sisters. Her mother paused, then asked her daughter why she needed the information. “For the future,” Fass replied.

Many decades later, after a lifetime of not knowing, Fass went on a search for the story of her siblings. (Her parents had both been married to other people before the war and had families who perished. They met after the war, had Fass, and came to the U.S). The fact that there was so much silence in her family about the Nazi genocide is a central theme in Fass’s new memoir, Inheriting the Holocaust: A Second Generation Memoir.

Many Holocaust survivors are now dead, but their children are finding that they, too, have been scarred by the genocide that took 6 million lives. Fass addresses how she has had to grapple with her “inherited memory.” While Fass did not suffer the deprivation and hardship of her parents, she grew up internalizing some of their pain. Their memories became her memories.

Paula Fass

I got a chance to meet Fass on Saturday Feb. 7 when she gave a presentation on her new book at a meeting of the Pen America Center West. Fass is a history professor at UC Berkeley and her main specialty is the Americas, particularly the history of childhood. For years Fass resisted writing the story of her parents, who each lost spouses and children in the Holocaust, but met in America and started anew. But the story haunted her, and she finally shifted gears to focus on her own history. The result is an evocative and moving memoir. Fass will be reading from her book at Black Oak Books in Berkeley on March 2.

I also got to read from Towers of Gold at the meeting of Pen America West. I have heard about this group for years and was pleased to finally attend a meeting. Pen America was founded in 1921 and defines itself as “an association of writers to advance literature, defend free expression, and foster international literary fellowship.” The presidents of the American chapter are among the most revered in literature: Arthur Miller, Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, and Salman Rushdie.The West Coast chapter was started in 1981 by the poet Robert Haas and ow holds about eight meetings a year.

The Northern California chapter is headed by Brenda Webster, a prolific author who has just come out with her 10th book, the novel Vienna Triangle. There were other well-known writers at the meeting, including the dynamic literary duo of Irving and Marilyn Yalom, the poet Dorothy Gilbert, the novelist and anthology editor Victoria Zackheim, Margret Schaefer, who translates the work of the Viennese author Arthur Schnitzler, and Maria Espinosa, whose new novel, Dying Unfinished, has just been released. There were also many emeritus professors from UC Berkeley in the room

The group appeared to be mostly in their 60s and 70s, reflecting writers who became active during the Cold War and Vietnam War era.

It’s not easy to become a member of Pen. You must have published two or more books, or one book which is of “exceptional literary merit,” which they define as having won a major national prize. No Johnny-come-lately flash in the pan authors here; just those who clearly are dedicating their lives to writing and scholarship.

But one can become an associate member, which garners many of the same privileges as a regular member, particularly for people who live on the West Coast. Recent writers who have read from their work include Sue Miller and Page Stegner.

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