Mary, Mary, quite contrary

Mary Gordon on duality created by her dad's conversion to Catholicism.

Mary Gordon 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Mary Gordon 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Mary Gordon's work has been hailed as a prism that refracts Irish-American life, offering the reader a complex, multicolored look at this group, but the author herself is difficult to situate on the spectrum of writers. While she has been praised as a resounding voice for the inner world of Roman Catholics, and her writing is born of an abiding spirituality that is bound to the Church, she has resisted the term "Catholic writer." James Carroll, in his New York Times review of Gordon's Joan of Arc, called her a "quintessentially American writer." But in a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post, Gordon shied away from this label, as well. "American literature really links women with suffocation, strangulation and death," she says. She cites bastions of the American literary guard - Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn and "even The Great Gatsby which seemed sympathetic to women" - as examples. "These male writers offered models for writing about women that were no use to me, that I knew to be wrong," she explains. Like shifting rays of light, Gordon's identity as an author seems impossible to capture definitively. This is reflective, perhaps, of her childhood, where she dwelled within and without conflicting spheres. Her stories of living contradictions as well as her attempts as a writer to "turn duality into dialectic" and "to bridge gaps, putting them in conversation with one another," are linked, in part, to her father, who was both a Jew and an anti-Semite. She wrestled with his conflicting feelings and her own while researching The Shadow Man. The memoir chronicles Gordon's quest to both resurrect and reinter her father who died in 1957, when she was only seven years old. "I thought for a while that if I were a person who believes in justice, I would have to reject my father," recalls Gordon, here last week for the Jerusalem International Book Fair. "But I went farther and saw that he was a victim of anti-Semitism - his had been generated by a culture that had made him hate himself, made him want to distance himself from Judaism." But her father never detached completely from his Jewish roots, which ran to his birthplace of Vilna, and Gordon always had a sense of herself as a Jew. "He blessed me every night in Hebrew," she says. She remembers only the beginning of the prayer he said at her bedside, "Baruch ata Adonai," she echoes. She also recalls her father telling her, "'If Hitler is alive and in South America, you and I will have to go to a concentration camp and Mommy won't.'" Clearly he was aware of the fact that, despite his conversion to Catholicism, he remained different from those around him. He imparted this feeling to Gordon, as did her surroundings. She says that she and her father were the only people of Jewish descent in their neighborhood in Queens. "I looked like him, I read books... I knew I was weird." Upon her father's death, she and her mother moved in with her mother's family, who made Gordon feel like even more of an outsider. Whatever qualities they saw in the young Mary that they viewed as less than desirable, they referred to as "Jewish." "They felt free to be anti-Semitic in front of me," Gordon says, "in part because I was a child." Gordon reflects upon the two worlds she inhabited simultaneously: "There's always been a sense of being an insider and outsider - of feeling at home with Jews, feeling that my rhythm was very Jewish, but having a religious life that was very Catholic. All the things you pick up in your skin as a kid [for me] were Catholic." In turn, she engaged most deeply with her Jewish heritage when she and her husband, Arthur Cash, were raising their two children. She wanted her son and daughter to be in touch with the thread that ran through her father's life, her life and their own. "I took them to Jewish services and I thought deeply of converting," she says. "A lot of the things I dislike about the Catholic Church aren't attached to Judaism... I also thought it would be a way to my father." Despite this exploration of her place in Judaism, Gordon eventually came "to terms with the fact that Jesus and the Gospels were central in my religious imagination" as were "the community of saints and their stories, including a lot of women who were very powerful." Gordon's dual identities have clearly left a mark on her writing. Of her constant status as an outsider, she says, "I guess that's very good for a writer - I'm never an insider, wherever I stand." This perpetual lingering on the edges is, perhaps, what has enabled Gordon to offer the keen observations her work is renowned for. While she cites Bernard Malamud as a Jewish writer she feels connected to and identifies with, she acknowledges that "a lot of the images, traditions and rhythms have sources in liturgical experiences that were mine from a very young age." Despite her religious upbringing and the fact that she "didn't know any Jews" when she was a child, Gordon "felt very Jewish" and thus "was determined to go to Columbia rather than a Catholic school" for her post-secondary education. After receiving her BA from Barnard College in 1971, she continued her studies at Syracuse University, completing a MA in 1973. Final Payments, Gordon's critically acclaimed novel, was published in 1978. She was only 29 years old. Since her first book, Gordon has published six novels, three memoirs, two collections of short stories, a collection of essays, a book of novellas, a biography of Joan of Arc and numerous poems and short stories. Gordon has been the recipient of the O. Henry Award, the Pushcart Prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship, among other honors. She currently lives with her husband in New York City and teaches at her alma mater, Barnard College. Amid so much success, Gordon finds herself in both the interior and exterior of yet another realm. At the 24th annual Jerusalem International Book Fair, as she and Israeli author Michal Govrin began their discussion of "Literature in Inspiration of Religion and Faith," Gordon said, "Being women who write within religious sensibility makes us outsiders in the literary world." Gordon continued with a short reading from her memoir, Seeing Through Places. It was a sensuous passage and it was revealing of Gordon's spirituality and approach to writing: "The nun knelt, showing me all I needed to know of perfect form. Her hands, white, were symmetrically folded. She was her function, a prayer, one who prayed - a model for the artist and the work of art... I think of that nun, nameless, faceless, kneeling in a pool of light." As she has been engaging with the Gospels for her forthcoming non-fiction book, Reading Jesus, she has noted that "the narratives end in a way that I've mirrored in my own work" and that Catholic imagery has seeped into her work by way of "lightness and luminosity." Not only do the content and form of her writing reflect her religious upbringing, so does Gordon's artistic process. When asked if writing, for her, is an act of prayer, she doesn't hesitate to agree. She eagerly points out the parallels between the two, "both involve focused concentration and self-forgetfulness, and [when you're writing and praying] you're connected to something that's not you, but larger. I think with both unless you have self-forgetfulness, you're corrupting the form."