So, I got a book deal.

You wait – no, you work like crazy – for years, occasionally losing hope that it will ever come to anything, and then all the sudden, someone else believes in your book enough to make it happen. I have a book deal. I signed a contract, with a proper publisher. That Book I Wrote is going to be on bookstore shelves, and on Amazon, and people I don’t know are actually going to read it.

I’m not exaggerating when I say I have waited most of my life for this.

I’ve signed with Unbound, an imprint in London that’s affiliated with Penguin Random House. Unbound launched in 2011 when three industry veterans wanted to create a platform for books that were worth reading, but were probably not going to get picked up by the major houses because they’re unlikely to sell in tremendous quantities. With the publishing industry in a tough spot that’s only going to get tougher, it makes perfect sense. This profile is a concise snapshot of how they work, with a few differences nowadays (I’m not pitching an idea, they accepted my completed manuscript). They’re the ideal imprint for someone like me, a total unknown with a literary fiction debut. In fact – and here’s something I thought I would never in a million years be saying – I turned down an offer of representation from a literary agent because Unbound was the better choice for me.

To understand why, it’s helpful to know a bit about what the publishing industry is like now, so read on. I also want to tell you a bit more about how Unbound works. In traditional publishing, an agent signs an author, then pitches the book to editors at publishing houses. If editors want to buy the books, they make offers or go to auction, the agent gets 15-20% of the amount, and the author gets an advance (a chunk of money up front). The amount of the advance is based roughly on how big of a seller the publisher expects it to be. The book then goes into production, pre-orders get taken, and typically a year or so later (give or take – it can be a lot faster with topical nonfiction), the book appears in stores and online. The author must earn back the amount of the advance before they start earning royalties, which is a small percentage of the price of each book.

Unbound does production and distribution like a traditional house, but the business at the beginning is slightly different. They do buy some works off literary agents, but other projects, like mine, are sent by authors directly. And instead of predicting the number of copies that will sell and giving an advance from the start, they require the author to crowd-fund a certain number of pre-orders of the book before they start production.

Wait, what do you mean, crowdfunding?

Well, it’s not crowdfunding in the strictly Kickstarter meaning of the word, in that you pledge some money for something that hasn’t been done yet and you run the risk of getting nothing in the end. My book is already written, and these pledges are like how you’d pre-order a book that had already been printed and was waiting in the warehouse for its release date. When I hit the target Unbound has set for these pre-orders, that triggers production, and from that point forward, this operates like traditional publishing: editing, design, printing, and distribution. If I hit my target, you are guaranteed a book in your hand or on your e-reader, and I am guaranteed a book in shops and on Amazon. If I don’t, you get a refund or credit you can spend on another Unbound author’s book (and there are a lot of interesting ones on offer).

Click here to pledge – and if you’re in the US, make sure to select the option that says “US shipping” in the title, as it will cost you less.

This is a new way of doing things, and because I’m a researcher by profession, I carefully looked for any red flags in this model or in the contract. Specifically, I can assure you that Unbound is not:

  • A vanity press. You know those publishers that will take anything, no matter how ineptly-written, and print off hard copies if you pay them enough. Unbound maintains its standards and only accepts certain projects through an application process – I made sure to rummage around and find people’s comments on social media about being rejected. Crucially, I’m not paying Unbound to print. The initial run is funded by pre-orders and this passes the smell test because when you’re a small press, you need proof that there’s a market out there for what you’re going to create. Otherwise, you’re left with a warehouse of unsellable copies. (This aspect of the publishing business is part of what makes it so hard for an unknown debut author to get a foot in the door. A traditional publishing house is taking a massive risk on untested, unproven you compared to their celebrity clients who are guaranteed to sell a million, so even if you write wonderfully, if they can’t be relatively certain you’ll shift loads of copies, you’re a bad business risk. Unbound has essentially outsourced that risk to me, freeing them up to focus on the meat of the book. More about this below.) Products from vanity presses never see the bookstore shelf. They don’t sell at all unless you push them on friends and family who are too polite to say no, because they have no distribution channels are their prices are usually ludicrous in order to recoup what the author paid to the publisher. Quite frankly, anybody in publishing (whether an agent, editor, or publisher) who tells you that you must pay them before they give you a contract is a scammer or a vanity press looking for a sucker, and you should run a mile. Then catch your breath and run another mile.
  • A self-publishing service. There are no gatekeepers in self-publishing, which is why, quite frankly, so much of what is self-published is awful. There are no editors unless you pay for them out of your own pocket. There are no decent covers unless you pay for a designer out of your own pocket. There is no publicity unless you do it yourself, or pay a publicist out of your own pocket. You get the picture. Again, you’re highly unlikely to see a self-published book in an actual bookstore. You can buy them on Amazon, but chances are you’re looking at an amateurish cover and reading text that definitely could have used some tightening up. Self-publishing can work well for genre fiction (e.g. romance, sci-fi) where it doesn’t really matter if the prose is top-notch. But I write literary fiction. Unbound had an author longlisted for the Booker Prize – you don’t get that with a self-published work, because the people who matter in the literary fiction world do not give self-published books the time of day. Is that unfair? Probably, because there are certainly decent works of self-published literary fiction out there. But it’s not worth readers’ time to separate the wheat from the chaff because the ratio is so grim. To be harsh but honest, most self-published works are self-published because they aren’t good enough to be taken on by anybody who publishes books for a living. Again, that might not matter to you if you’re looking for a light romance, but that’s not what I write.

Unbound’s print distribution is through a division of Penguin Random House. Their books are on the shelf in Waterstones (Americans, that’s like the Barnes & Noble of the UK) and independent bookshops alike. You can judge a publisher by their covers, and Unbound’s are excellent. The CVs of their staff are impressive. And most importantly, another author I greatly respect who is currently working with Unbound had nothing but wonderful things to say about their editorial process and his interactions with the team. This author previously had his debut published by a traditional house, and he thought the Unbound team cared more about the quality of writing rather than the marketing. That mattered a lot to me!

 

So, why are you going about it this way?

In a nutshell: Unbound’s mission is aligned with what I want, their team is experienced and proven, they have high standards and legitimate practices, and they more than pass all the smell tests.

It helps to take a look at the state of the publishing industry. Ever since I interned at one of the major New York houses as a student, I’ve been learning about it. In college I thought it was what I might do for a living, and even though I ended up not pursuing that path, as a writer I knew I would need to be as familiar as possible with the business side of things.

Like any other business, publishers are looking to make a profit. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. But if you are hoping for quality over quantity, trying to get literary fiction published for an audience outside your immediate circle, the truth is that you’re facing an uphill battle.

Here’s what I am not:

  • A celebrity who can bring in tens of thousands of sales on name recognition alone, regardless of what’s written between the covers.
  • Someone who writes for a living (anyone from a serious journalist to a popular lifestyle blogger) and thus has a ready-made platform – again, something that can bring in thousands of sales on name and reputation.
  • Someone with an MFA, which, while certainly no guarantee of writing ability, at least gives some assurance that someone has the basics down, and which opens up doors through networking and name recognition. (I made the conscious choice to *not* get an MFA because, quite frankly, I didn’t want one. Writing was something I could practice and cultivate while pursuing my other interests as well, and without spending thousands more dollars and several more years in formal education for a degree that wouldn’t be a magic bullet anyway. The postgraduate qualifications I did get, in social policy, were things I absolutely needed to pursue my career. You don’t need an MFA to write, and it’s certainly no guarantee of publication. There’s also a debate about whether MFAs can lead to a kind of workshopped-to-death homogenous writing style, but that’s for another day.)
  • Someone who writes the kinds of books that sell like hotcakes to a very broad audience. Under this category you can file a lot of genre fiction (romance, sci-fi, fantasy, etc) and highly accessible commercial fiction. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that if that’s what you’re into. But I’m not into that, and I don’t write that. I like language for language’s sake. I like spending time deep in description, painting an atmosphere, wrestling inside my protagonist’s head. I write literary fiction.

All these things add up to make me a bad risk to the publishing industry: I’m a complete unknown writing in a genre that doesn’t necessarily have mass appeal.

But I’m a pretty good writer. I’ve got that going for myself on the other side of the balance.

What Unbound is doing through requiring crowdfunding of pre-orders is essentially outsourcing the risk to me. Doing so allows them to be able to take the risk of going with a writer like me in the first place, because they don’t have to worry that they’ll pay out thousands in an advance, spend even more on the production, and then potentially not come close to recouping that initial investment. You wouldn’t be in business very long if you kept doing that, no matter how skilled your authors – hence the Big Five’s focus on the celebrity clients and proven best-sellers over debut authors. I first prove that I can bring in an audience, and then they go ahead and invest their time and money in creating the physical book to be marketed and sold like any other. I don’t get an advance, but any books sold in shops or online after hitting the target net a very nice profit split.

Don’t get me wrong – you can get a traditional publishing deal for lit fic if you start in an agent’s slush pile. Many people do. But many, many more do not, despite boatloads of talent and perseverance. Your odds of doing it are extremely tiny, and even if you do get that deal, that brings me to my next point…

Traditional Publishing is Not (Necessarily) All It’s Cracked Up to Be

Even in the past decade, so much has changed, and absolutely nothing is certain, both for the houses and their clients.

You may sign with a literary agent, then part ways a year later when she hasn’t been able to sell your book to an editor at any publishing house. You may sign with a literary agent, then find out that she won’t even shop it around unless you make changes so massive that it’s no longer the book you wanted to write. You may get that book deal, but your advance is so tiny that when you calculate all the hours of work you put into the book, it works out to far below minimum wage. Then, because you are the unknown debut author and your publisher is busy promoting celebrity clients, you may never sell enough copies to earn out your advance, meaning you never see a penny of royalties. And those royalties could be as low as 8% on the net price (what your book is sold to the bookstore for, not the cover price). Or you may spend most of your advance on hiring your own publicist because, as previously mentioned, you are not a priority to your publisher – even though one reason you held out for a traditional deal is because you thought these houses would be publicity powerhouses. Or perhaps everything seems to go well, you sell that book, you get a lot of attention…but then, when it’s time for your next work, you’re tackling an unfashionable topic and suddenly the people who used to sing your praises don’t want to know anymore.

Sadly, these are not exaggerations. I’ve met authors, highly talented authors, who went through these things. And I’m hearing about more and more of them who get the deal and then have their enthusiasm shattered by reality. I don’t want to put myself through those emotional rollercoasters, becoming demoralized and seeing my work come to nothing, if there’s another legitimate option.

With very rare exceptions, the publishing business is not about finding and nurturing the most talented writers. If it was, Fifty Shades of Grey would have been laughed into oblivion a long time ago and that dreadful novel Morrissey wrote would have been subject to some very tough love. It’s a business like any other, and it’s stressed, and it’s about selling enough widgets to make a profit. Nothing more, nothing less. Both authors and readers must divest themselves of any illusion that there’s something special and noble about book publishing the way it has traditionally been done. At its core, it is no different than any other business, and writers should treat it that way.

I’m pretty sure that there is no industry other than publishing in which we hold onto our romantic dreams so tightly in the face of bitter reality, even though said reality is slapping us in the face and telling us to get a bloody grip. And I’m not immune to this, either. I dreamed of the big deal even though there was such a tiny chance of it happening.

But I’m also a highly practical person, and I’ve never been afraid to do my own thing. I’ve also seen talented people go their own way in indie music and film and produce extremely impressive work. Now I’m going to try to do the same thing, and I am confident I am working with a skilled team of people who actually care about the written word. I feel like I’m in control more than I would have been with a Big Five house, and for the first time, I feel like all the work I’ve put into this manuscript – years at this point – has been worth it. Writers shouldn’t be afraid to innovate. Of course, we should do our research and our due dilligence, because there are scammers born every minute, but when we find a quality thing out there that we believe in, and that the people involved clearly believe in, then I see no reason not to hop aboard. Full speed ahead. I’m so excited about this project and eager to help fuel innovation in the industry.

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In a strange land

This week marks the time when the United States goes back to being The Stupid Country after a blessed eight-year reprieve. Two other things are happening: my grandfather’s yahrzeit, and a trip to Berlin.

My grandfather died when I was 19, so it has been some time, but I’m not sure what he’d make of the state of the country right now. The USA was very good to him. The first generation in his family to break into the middle class, in later life – through government work, at that – he survived polio, became a homeowner, saw my father graduate law school, and became a zaydie to me, my brother, and my cousins. The American dream, cliché as it is, actually became real for him. I know I’m incredibly lucky to have even known my grandparents, because history could have treated the Jewish half of my family so much differently.

When I was sitting in the educational session for Ashkenazi genetic screening at Montefiore a year ago, the woman next to me said she had no idea whether there was a history of breast or ovarian cancer among the women in her family because all her grandmothers and great-aunts died in the Holocaust. But my grandparents were the lucky ones in the United States while so many others, stuck back in Poland or elsewhere, were herded off to their deaths. For the added WTF-factor, the non-Jewish side of my family comes from Oswiecim in Poland, a town just west of Krakow. You probably haven’t heard of Oswiecim and I don’t think you’ll have much luck pronouncing it in Polish on the first try, but I’m sure you know it by the German name of the death camp the Nazis built there: Auschwitz.

So, yeah, I admit to having had a certain wariness about Germany when I was younger. It was the country of Beethoven and Bach, whose works I diligently learned on piano; of Kant (who I skimmed through for school) and Max Weber (who I actually wanted to read); but it was also the country that seemed to have let all that wealth of talent and genius warp its collective mind into the most twisted of ideologies, culminating in an attempt to wipe from the face of the Earth both ethnic groups that went into creating me. History seemed straightforward: a nation of people who had an admirable past, who thought they were so great, failed to cope with a changing world that knocked them off their pedestal, and ended up nearly destroying the world as a result. In a very cracked nutshell, that’s how it always looked. (And it sounds awfully familiar now that it’s happening in my own backyard.)

Germany hangs a strange shadow over many Jews of my generation. Growing up, I associated the country with the wholesale, indiscriminate destruction of all that was good in humanity, and I figured I didn’t owe them anything, let alone sympathy. It’s hard to read about the wall and the supposed spirit of people in East Berlin yearning for freedom when the question rolling around the back of your mind is, Where the hell was that yearning a few decades earlier, when your Jewish neighbors were being persecuted, disenfranchised, gassed? You couldn’t be bothered standing up for the defenseless when they were people like me.

Of course, we know it’s not that straightforward. Many Germans, at tremendous personal risk to themselves, fought back against the Nazis and/or protected Jews. We know all about Schindler, all about Hans and Sophie Scholl and the White Rose. We also know that while time doesn’t necessarily heal, it also doesn’t confer guilt upon those who weren’t born, whose parents weren’t born, when the atrocities took place. Guilt is not a mutated gene; it doesn’t pass through generations. Of course I wouldn’t blame today’s Germans for what happened 70, 80 years ago any more than I would expect someone to blame me for the sins committed by white Americans generations before we left Eastern Europe…! Guilt is the most useless of emotions, and in an attempt to not waste any more of my life with it, I decided there’s no way in hell anybody is going to ever make me feel guilt for anything I haven’t personally done. It would be the height of hypocrisy to insist on a different standard for other people.

What time does afford is an opportunity for reflection and for atonement – and more amazingly, for renewal. I began reading a few years ago about the revival of Jewish life in Berlin (and of the bizarre case of how young Israelis now flock there to work in creative industries in a fun city with cheap rent, when in many cases their grandparents did everything they could to get the hell out). There are congregations gathering, sometimes without synagogues of their own but with enough people to form a minyan. All this is a testament to how cities are places of constant change and constant potential, belonging to nobody in particular, and such is their strength and allure. Berlin, cursed with a wealth of history, has built a Jewish Museum and a Holocaust memorial. They have shown they are at no risk of forgetting what was done in the name of their country, by a government that came to power through its citizens and democratic institutions, and that is all I could ever ask. Germany has, as much as it is possible to even do this, atoned for the twentieth century.

And now here we are, sitting in the United States, watching our country fail to remember everything we said we would never forget, poised to do everything we said we would never do because we were a different country, a different people, we had learned, we knew better, didn’t we? How easy it was, as a child reading history books, to think all those Germans should have known better, they should have seen it coming, they should have done something, and obviously they hadn’t, so they must have overwhelmingly agreed with the Nazis, right? How easy it was to think that the dissenters were so tiny a minority as to only be visible when their actions crossed into outright heroism. How simple it was to think that resistance in the face of an instant death penalty could be, well, simple. That if you believed something, it would be easy enough to turn it into action.

I’ve tried to avoid hyperbole since the shock of November 8th, because 1) Panic is never beneficial in an emergency, and 2) I still have confidence that American institutions are strong enough, and the resistance to Trump mainstream and widespread enough, that no, he is not going to become the next Hitler. If I’m naïve or wrong then I’ll eat my words at a later date, but in all honesty, I don’t think we’re in the final days of the Weimar Republic as I sit typing in Manhattan. But what I do know is that for the next four years, the United States will be represented in front of the entire world by a petty authoritarian who didn’t even win the popular vote – yet the world will stare back at my passport and silently think, you wanted this.

I decided to go to Berlin over the Inauguration weekend because I wanted to learn from the past. I wanted to see how a country came to terms with the horrific actions it committed, and how it made constructive lessons of the past. I hope I won’t someday see my children having to apply those lessons in the United States. I will stay away from the media on Friday. I will go someplace in the city far from any television that might be broadcasting the proceedings so that I won’t have to see someone who glorifies ignorance and stupidity ascending to lead the country that once let my grandfather prosper by merit, not blood. I will take a stone from New York City and leave it on one of the plinths of the Holocaust Memorial, as is our custom at gravesites, for those who have nobody to observe yahrzeit for them. And then I will live my life as I want it, because I am lucky that I can.

Flippin’ Flip

Funny that I should appear on a podcast called Biology of the Blog when, as you can see, this blog has been pretty dormant for two years, but here I am:

http://www.btrtoday.com/listen/biologyoftheblog/week-of-120816-4/

My phone connection unfortunately lets me down a bit on the voice front, but you can still hear me talk about writing and the masochism of trying to get published, cities, transportation, and the realization that a quarter of my life has been chronicled on Twitter. Enjoy, and big thanks to Taia Handlin for featuring me. True to my word, I am a tremendous nerd. And I promise I’ll get back to proper blogging…soon.

 

In other news, I’m going to be on Jeopardy on December 20th, so watch for me!

image1

Well hello

I haven’t blogged since moving back to New York, and this is a consequence of the strange type of inertia that takes over when everything is competing for your attention. I try to keep myself ridiculously busy to stay functional/calm/generally sane. Fortunately I’ve been productive when it comes to writing, as I’m part of a group called the Columbia Fiction Foundry where I get advice on how to mercilessly edit Novel #2. There’s a group of about a dozen of us who meet up monthly and mutually eviscerate in the best of ways and get people in the publishing industry to talk with us about what the hell is going on. And I need that.

Last night I did a reading as part of the Hearth Gods series in the East Village, and while I think my delivery could have been better, it reminded me just how much I love performing. And I want to do more of it. It’s the same rush I got onstage when I used to dance, only now I’m not hiding behind a massive costume, and if I mess it up, it’s all on me. It’s just me and my voice and pages and pages of large print. The way the paragraphs work on the page is so completely different from how they sound out loud, or in the internal-monologue voice of a silent reading to myself. It reminds me that above all else I must always keep writing. Even if a time traveler appeared right now in front of me and said, “Tough luck, Kite, I’ve seen the future and you never get that book deal,” I would still write, because I have to write. It’s. What. I. Do. And I can’t even remember an age when I wasn’t dreaming up stories. I can’t excise part of myself just because it hasn’t gotten me precisely where I hoped it would by this point in my life. The encouragement I’ve been getting from people who have been reading Novel #2 – and really, really liking it – keep me convinced it is worth sinking so much time and effort. I simply Have To. There’s no other explanation I can give, and no other explanation I should.

As for New York – I am still only just revisiting certain parts of the city for the first time since returning, and it’s a weird punch in the face through space and time whenever I find a reminder of my former life here. A street sign or a shop awning or a particular junction will catch me, and I’ll fall. With no bang and slight whimper I am back there, back then. I am 16, 18, 21. In my turquoise blazer and my turned-up jeans, a fake flower clamped at my skull and a chip on my shoulder and that swelling suspicion that there is a future that may indeed be very bright even if I have no idea what it will look like once the lights dim to a level my eyes can take. (After all, I have been short-sighted for as long as I can remember.) I always had a head full of fiction and fingers that went painfully, pathologically dead at the slightest brush of cold, and wouldn’t wake up until they were damn well ready to and there was nothing I could do about it, yet I was still always forgetting my gloves. Standing with a man I thought might love me or a boy I knew never would, but that was fine, because I was 16, 18, 21 years old, and those ages feel impossibly young – or, rather, what lies ahead of them seems so interminably long. Home is a place where you feel safe alone, and even happier alone, taking it for what it is and knowing it will do likewise for you. The open roof over your head when you walk down the street here may turn your lungs black from a lifetime of breathing it in, but I don’t want any other air. And good luck ever seeing the stars from down here where the lights are always blazing, but the hundreds of lit-up windows I can spot from looking out my own hold just as many worlds, and at least there’s a chance they are the kind I may someday get to explore.

I don’t want to ever live anywhere other than here or London ever again. I know this place, I trust this place, I feel like I own this place whenever I walk through Grand Central, and I certainly don’t feel as tiny and meaningless as so many people claim cities make you. And I’m becoming very interested in the aspects of it that have vanished or are in the process of doing so. I won’t romanticize the Bad Old Days of “Ford to City: Drop Dead” when riding the subway alone late at night as a small woman was a risk instead of the most commonplace action available, but history is there to be chronicled, and if I am a writer then I am a storyteller and there are rich seams to mine here. Above all, I think of my mother when she was my age – at 29, nearly 30, she was getting married and leaving this city for the first time.

ring

This is my mother’s ring from when she finished nursing school. It was one of the few sure shots you could take with your life when you came from where she did. She was 20 years old, and tiny: barely five feet tall and maybe 90 pounds soaking wet. Her Manhattan of the 1970s looked unrecognizable compared to what it is today: specifically, the East Village, Alphabet City, and the Lower East Side were drowning in drugs and violence, and she had to deal with every overdose, stabbing, and shooting that came through the emergency room doors. Nursing, too, looked a lot different in the 1970s: specifically, some idiot decided that wearing latex gloves got in the way of the nurturing role, so my mother spent most of her time with her hands soaked in stranger’s blood. And because she was so small and unintimidating in appearance, she got handed the toughest cases, the ones where patients were handcuffed to the beds with police at the doors. Every now and then she’d get followed home by somebody she’d been working on. Understandably, she quit after 10 years in order to have kids. She’d saved enough lives and wanted to make some for herself. I inherited her bony fingers and now I’m the only other person this ring fits. The metal’s not worth anything but it’s got a very satisfying weight to it. I walk the same New York streets she did, where now there’s absolutely nothing to fear, but I still like the feeling of curling up my fist with this big chunk of metal on my finger. She gave me my street smarts. I like to think that if she could be an angel of life in a place like hell, then I can take on just about anything here.

(She says don’t panic about the ebola case here. Trust her on that one.)

So, yes, I turn 30 next month. I was dreading it but then I figured I needed to do something special to acknowledge that the passing of time is not a detriment, not a failure, but just a part of who I am. The way I saw it, the best possible thing to do would be either go somewhere known and loved, or plop myself somewhere completely new and force myself to wander and figure it out. In the end I decided to do both. I’m jetting off to Copenhagen and then London. In the former, I have an old friend from the San Francisco days. In the latter, I have a trusted net of people and places. Plus, on a more practical level, I have a load of vacation time from work that I have to either use or lose by the end of the year, so why not…

I am always looking for a good story.

It Never Rains…

It’s official. I am moving back to New York City later this month. I will be starting work as a senior research executive in the health care division at Hall and Partners. I don’t think it’s really going to hit me until this weekend, when I go looking for an apartment, that this is actually happening – I’m going back to the private sector, I’m going back to New York City. This is a job where I can actually progress and I’m looking forward to it like you wouldn’t believe. I have enjoyed working at Harvard, but I think it’s time for me to cut ties with academia altogether. You can’t get anywhere in academia without a PhD, and we all know I’m not going back to that, so I really want to put my skills to use in private sector research again and make a career there. Not just a job, a career. I need a career now.

It’s a great feeling to be so motivated, to want to dive into things full-on. I’m going to be TurboKite. Powered by tea in the same Spurs 5 – Arsenal 1 mug that has followed me through every workplace since, well, the last time we beat Arsenal 5-1. Look it up. (Please don’t, it hurts. Hurts bad.)

And perhaps this finally marks the last summer in a long time when I’ll have to pack up everything and move. I have done that nearly every summer of the past decade, and it’s getting old. California was completely new to me, Boston was completely new to me – and every time you move someplace new, you’re at an automatic disadvantage when it comes to making a name for yourself. Again and again, having to introduce myself, give my life story, find new places to go and things to do and deal with so many unknown quantities…it just wears me out. I am 29. Enough. This nomadic jumping around, this repetitive uprooting…I am so tired of it. It’s also not the greatest for my personal life. I want roots to grow deep already. If I move again, it’ll only be back to London. Otherwise, I’m staying in New York and having an actual life in a familiar place where I can plan ahead in years instead of tentative months.

With the express aim of seizing as much of life as I can while I’m still young, I’m hoping to live in Manhattan. (You don’t have to tell me that it’s the most ridiculously expensive real estate in America, or that it might make more sense to live in the empty half of my family’s two-family house in south Brooklyn and save money. Now is not the time for sensibility.) Apparently there really are decent places on the Upper West Side in my price range. Not many, yeah, but still: THEY EXIST and somebody has to snag one and this weekend it might as well be me. I want to go for wanders again, the wanders I haven’t had since London because for years I haven’t lived places where it felt right. I want that kind of address again, I want to look at an envelope with my name on it and do that nod of recognition. You know, that one. I don’t need anything fancy. I need a securely-lockable door for when I’m between wanders. And a window for Oscar the parrot.

This feels like rejoining the land of the living. Oh lord, I’m going to cry right here. I should probably go to sleep.

…On the downside, not all is fine and dandy in the world of my writing, as the agent I mentioned working with in the last post doesn’t feel he can get behind my book. So, I’m back to square one there. Back on the unsolicited query letter treadmill. To say it’s gutting would be a massive understatement. All these years of trying, two novels completed and nothing signed, building up and then crashing down again…it would drive anybody bonkers. Then again, knowing that Simon and Schuster just gave a girl a six-figure deal for One Direction fan fiction (I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP) riddled with poor grammar and completely derivative of Fifty Shades of Grey, and somebody has already discovered plagiarism from the film “You’ve Got Mail” in it…well, you start to think it might be a badge of honor to not have a big publisher want your work.

Eh, no, who am I kidding, I still want that book deal. I want it bad.

Did a lot of editing over the past few weeks. Over 90,000 words now. And I have absolutely no idea what is going to become of it.

As naive as this may sound, I think by simply being back in New York, better things will happen. When your surroundings are exactly how you want them, you have the impetus to Get Things Done. When you live someplace that feels like an ally, then it feels like the world has got your back. I can only live.

88,931 and Done

Today I finished the largest writing project of my life when I sewed up the final hole in my second novel. The manuscript comes in at 88,931 words, which is roughly 300 pages of A4 double-spaced. Any way you slice it, it’s a serious chunk of writing, and it took me over a year to complete. Like most of my projects, finished and otherwise, it was in the piecemeal planning stages long before I sat down and began to commit everything into one document. Of course, it’s not really complete – it will undoubtedly be subject to untold hours of editing – but the biggest hurdle is behind me. Spellchecked (How does Microsoft Word not know tikka masala?), saved, and sent to the UK agent I’ve been casually working with for about a year and a half. Now comes the waiting. No first draft is ever anything remotely near publisher-ready, and I know the constructive criticism is coming. And I need it. But still – you invest so much time and effort into work that it’s never fun seeing all its flaws pointed out! 

Writing is both a comfort and a source of anxiety. No matter what life throws at me, no matter how disappointed I may be with certain circumstances, I know I have this dream and this hope. But at the same time, there’s always the nagging worry that nothing will ever come of it. After all, millions and millions of people want to be writers. I’m 29 years old now, and I laugh when I remember wanting to have a book published before age 20. A few years ago, when I polished my first novel manuscript, I wrote to probably 100 literary agents before one showed real interest – and this was with a pitch that won a competition at San Francisco’s annual literary festival, beating out dozens of others. Most of the agents never replied. Some gave outright form-letter or one-line rejections, which is totally reasonable when you consider they get hundreds of submissions a day, many from people who don’t follow their guidelines for formatting or who are utterly deluded about their ability. Four other agents asked for my full manuscript of my first novel, but never replied after that. It is frustrating (and skin-thickening) to the extreme. With the state of publishing being what it is, there’s a high likelihood of never getting a book deal even with an agent. But, eh, I definitely won’t get a book deal if I don’t start with the first step of getting the manuscript completed. And all you need is one bite. That’s it. You can get rejected a million times, but if you get one person to say yes, that’s all that matters.

(“Second novel, Kite? But you don’t have a first one published.” If that’s what you’re thinking, good point. With the state of publishing right now, if you’re a total unknown, you can be pitched to a publisher much easier if you have more than one possible book ready to go. That’s the agent’s plan, and I’m hoping that if this is good enough, the ball can start rolling. Publishing is a business, and doing business takes marketing skills. The idea of myself as a brand is foreign to me, but also kind of intriguing. Becoming a product and making yourself sell – that is the epitome of editing. Nobody cares about the little things. You find your tag line, your unique selling point, and you try to convince people within five seconds that you’re worth their time and money. It’s frightening and exciting and if I ever get that far I’ll be grateful.)

The book is a love letter to West London, with a protagonist consumed by fear of a mediocre and unremarkable existence as she tries to come to terms with her partner’s sudden disappearance. Certain scenes are based on real events, certain characters have shades of actual people, but it is truly a work of fiction. I love writing fiction for the power of creation – to form people I have never and will never know, but who can do just about anything so long as there’s a believable logic to it. All the what-ifs of real life, all the half-formed ideas and ambiguous situations, can play out fully just fine on paper.

I hope I can give you a follow-up to this. I hope this isn’t the end of the story, and that the work I’ve spent so much time on this past year doesn’t disappear into the ether. Here we go…

Working title is The Hope and Anchor.

By Julia Kite.

Bits and Bobs for the Week – April 21st

So, I decided to watch the marathon after all. It didn’t make sense not to, seeing how I live just down the street from the final part of it. I got lucky and snagged a spot against the fence just before the banner announcing runners were one kilometer from the finish line. It’s rather humbling to see so many people doing something you know you have no chance of ever achieving. Big respect to the man who looked about 80 years old but is probably healthier than I will ever be.

Highlights included:

  • The man running in a Celtic FC top. I hope somebody buys him a munchy box or two as soon as he gets back home. After running 26.2 miles, you’ve earned a few thousand calories of indulgence.
  • Some people write their names on their bibs or tops, and some people write them on their arms with a Sharpie. That way, the crowd can cheer you on. One true Masshole decided that instead of his name, he wanted to hear the crowd shouting YANKEES SUCK, so he wrote that on his skin.
  • A leg amputee did the course on forearm crutches. WHAT ARE YOUR WRISTS MADE OF AND WHERE CAN I GET SOME OF IT?
  • I got to chill out next to two whippets, who are perfect dogs because they’re just greyhounds in a more manageable size without all the hyperactivity of those tiny Italian greyhounds. Also, they look like marathon runners.

Anyway, without getting all mushy, it really was a beautiful day. The world came to Boston; the four winners were a South African, an American adopted from a Russian orphanage when she was 6, a Kenyan, and an American who emigrated from Eritrea as a child. Tatyana McFadden took home the women’s wheelchair title on her 25th birthday, and immediately handed her gold olive wreath to Carlos Arredondo, hero of last year’s disaster who has seen more than enough pain in his lifetime. McFadden’s story is fascinating – she was born with spina bifida and somehow survived her first three weeks of life with a gaping hole in her back before a surgeon could operate. Then, given up by her birth mother, she was left in a St. Petersburg orphanage that didn’t even have the money for a wheelchair, so she walked on her hands for her first six years. She was adopted by an American government commissioner for disabilities. She’s a summer and winter Paralympian – she won a skiing medal in Sochi, then won the London Marathon a month later, setting a record in the process. What a wonderful 25th birthday present for somebody who was lucky to have survived her first month considering she was so neglected by everybody around her. A few days ago, she met with the family of Martin Richard, the 8-year-old boy who died in the bombing. Martin’s sister Jane survived, but had her leg amputated. With a prosthesis, she is now getting involved in basketball, running, dance, and swimming. She has probably the greatest role model imaginable. 

Ernst Van Dyk, men’s wheelchair winner, just secured his 10th Boston title. Yes, tenth. Rita Jeptoo made history by being the first woman to win the foot race three times and breaking the record while she was at it. Considering she took a few years off to have a baby (which isn’t particularly easy to do when you’re built like a distance runner) it’s all the more impressive. And as for Meb Keflezighi, he’s now Boston’s fourth sports team even though he lives in California. I hadn’t heard of him until I saw all the ads on bus shelters that said GO MEB GO starting a few weeks ago, but he was the highest-placing American marathoner in the London Olympics. Again, not to get all mushy, but along with McFadden he is the American dream in action. His father walked from war-torn Eritrea to Sudan, then moved to Italy where he worked multiple jobs for five years until he had enough money to send for the rest of his family. They later immigrated to the United States, where Meb excelled academically and athletically, eventually getting into UCLA. A naturalized citizen, he was the first American man to win the marathon since 1983, and, at 38 years old, the oldest winner since the 1930s. And he is every bit as American as anybody else here. He planned to run last year, but got injured, so he watched from near the finish line on Boylston Street. And he left to go do commentary at a Copley Square hotel only minutes before the bombs went off. He too has become close to the Richard family, and raised ten grand for the foundation named after their son.

So, yes, yesterday was a great day for Boston to show off the best of America and welcome the rest of the world. I think this city did them proud. Hopefully now the marathon can be known more for the resilience of the people who ran in it, rather than for what was forced upon it last year.

Bits and Bobs for the Week – April 14th

Right, so, it’s April 14th. Tomorrow is a big anniversary in Boston, so I am planning to avoid all news media outlets. In fact, I think I’d better do that until next Tuesday, because the marathon is taking place a week from today. 

I can’t do it. Sorry. Maybe it’s callous of me to say so, but I really don’t want to be a part of any of the memorializing, the eulogizing, the endless re-evoking of memory that’s going to be happening nonstop for the next week. Of course, I feel very sorry for the families and friends of the three people who lost their lives, and I can’t even imagine what the people who suffered life-changing injuries last April are going through. But being part of the constant displays of memory that have been going on since this time last year will not bring back lives or limbs, and at a certain point, repeatedly revisiting trauma stops being helpful and only causes more pain. I didn’t even live here this time last year, but hearing about the bombing and seeing the reminders again and again – it wears you down. For the sake of my own mental health I do not want to get drawn into it, so the only thing I can do is avoid all the various ceremonies and tributes and news articles that are going to come at everybody in Boston full-on for the next week.

Don’t get me wrong – public outpourings of grief and mourning can be very useful: they show people who were personally affected that they are not alone and not forgotten, and that there is a network of people around them who want to show that they care. And a one-year anniversary is extremely important for commemoration of any major event. The problem is, there is another group of people affected by the bombing – a rather sizeable one, I suspect – who are feeling very alone and overlooked precisely because of all the public displays of “Boston Strong,” the memorials, the news pieces. They’re people who were traumatized by what they witnessed, and for whom every recollection of the day’s events re-ignites that horror. They would like to walk down Boylston Street and not be constantly reminded of the bombing, the blood, the suffering. They would like to one day hang out in their city without seeing everything from shoe shops to schoolkids displaying “Boston Strong” on signs and shirts. They can’t heal so long as the bombing is constantly being thrust in their face – and let’s be honest, there hasn’t been one day since last April 15th that the bombing wasn’t in the news in Boston. Things are only going to get worse once Dzokhar Tsarnaev’s trial gets underway. So perhaps the right thing to do – and I know I’m treading some very delicate ground here, so don’t get me wrong – is for, after this year’s marathon, Bostonians to agree to grieve more privately. Acknowledge that there has been a year of public mourning, and that the next step is perhaps to step back a bit and begin to bury the bombing. This does not mean forgetting what happened or forgetting the people who died, or that people should quit giving to the One Fund. Not at all. It’s simply an acknowledgment that, while we all feel very sad about it, there is a time when you have to move the pain indoors. Take down the banners. Newspapers, radio, and TV outlets should only report on the bombing when there’s real news about it. It doesn’t mean you care any less about the victims. In fact, it acknowledges that if you weren’t directly affected, you realize your pain is distinctly different from that of the people who were injured, who lost a friend or relative, or who were on the front lines of providing help. You have done your bit of grieving in public, and that’s enough, and now it is time for you to move on.

I may very well be giving an opinion where I’m not at all welcome, seeing how I only moved here last June, but this is my rationale and this is why I’ll be avoiding Boylston Street until next Tuesday. It is the same rationale for why I treat September 11th and July 7th like any other days even though they are both significant dates to the two places I call home. At a certain point, for my own sanity, I had to say enough. The grief of the people who lost loved ones is not my grief, and sometimes the most supportive thing you can do is return to normalcy.

 
It is also worth noting – and thanks to Blackstonian.com for this stat – that 35 people have died from gun violence in Boston since the 2013 marathon. A further 200 have been shot and survived. Those 35 people were no less loved than the three who died at the Marathon, and those 200 people are dealing with many of the same post-traumatic issues as the 260 wounded in the blasts. Though, chances are that unless you knew any of the victims personally or it happened in your neighborhood, you don’t know the names of the people killed by guns. The idea of “One Boston” rings somewhat hollow for many people living in areas of the city struggling with gun violence and general lack of resources, where killings don’t make the news. Whether it happens on Boylston Street or in Roxbury or Dorchester, death is final, life is precious, and all those people were somebody’s children. End of.

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I’ll admit it: I really like Kathy Griffin. She cracks me up, and I suspect that a huge part of her appeal is in knowing that even when she’s at her rudest and crudest, and we’re all thinking, “Oh no, you did NOT just say that,” there’s secretly a part of us that agrees with what she’s saying. We just don’t have the balls to say it ourselves, because we know it’s wrong to poke fun at other people, even if they are famous and living in the public eye. 

Now, turn that kind of criticism on yourself. Feels a bit awkward, yeah? Of course, you shouldn’t give out what you can’t take – but when you can be deeply self-critical, and lace that criticism with self-deprecating wit, you might find that, indeed, plenty of people agree with what you’re thinking. And that leads me to this next bit…

I want to plug a project. I love giggling over Your Kickstarter Sucks as much as anybody, but when I find a Kickstarter that doesn’t suck, I feel like promoting it. This has happened precisely three times. Here’s the third: You should give some money to Peter James Field for his book of illustrations from the past decade of his visual diaries.

Field works as a freelance illustrator in Brighton (the one in England, not the one in west Boston). Columbia people, you may have seen some of his portraits in the university magazine. Or if you’ve flown United and paged through their magazine, you’ve seen three portraits of his in every issue, capturing people who have something to say about that month’s destination of choice. On my last trip back to London, Virgin Atlantic gave us copies of the Independent before we boarded, and I opened up my copy straight onto an illustration I immediately knew was his. Something about the government, or banking, or government and banking policy. Field’s freelance work goes all over, but this book he’s putting out there on Kickstarter is an altogether more personal project – it’s 10 years of his visual diary. Every month, Field posts a half-dozen drawings to his website. Several pictures capture what he sees out and about in Brighton. Sometimes he’ll turn the pencil on himself – if not on his face, then on exactly what he’s seeing as he draws, complete with his hands in the frame. The result is a deeply touching chronicle of a life in moments.

What I love about Field’s diary sketches is that they take something intensely personal – a diary – and present scenes and situations in a manner that makes you acutely aware of shared experiences. You watch Field’s technique evolve, see him move from Dorset to Brighton, go through difficult months and happier ones, all with wry and self-deprecating commentary. All the while you take various glimpses at somebody else’s life – somebody who is clearly very interested in pop culture, watching shows like Big Brother, while simultaneously we watch him through his diary sketches. Amidst the anonymity of the internet, Field does not know who his own “Big Brother” is – he simply puts his life on display, warts and all, and lets himself be watched. He has selected which images he wants to present to the world, but these pictures do not seem at all staged. Rather, they come across as candid and honest, free of the artifice that characterizes the “front stage” performances we so often present to the world on social media, choosing to show only our best sides and tailoring our public faces to exactly how we wish other people would see us. Viewing Field’s work, you feel like you’re peering “backstage” without being intrusive. You’ve been let into a life that is surprisingly like your own – but the difference is, he’s showing a side of himself that you wouldn’t be brave enough to show of yourself. Peter James Field’s diary book is like a reality show, minus all the cynicism you feel when the lens of television is involved.


(August 2007, peterjamesfield.co.uk)
We all feel sad and lonely, but we’re not willing to admit it. When Peter James Field self-deprecatingly sketches his TV or his empty can of lager and admits feeling unfulfilled, we’re secretly nodding our heads in recognition and relief. Somebody said it! Somebody said what we’re all secretly feeling – we just didn’t have the courage to say it ourselves.


(December 2007, peterjamesfield.co.uk)

It’s also a time capsule – in September 2008, at the start of the financial crisis (that was the month Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy), Field captures a billboard for the Bradford & Bingley bank offering 6.7% fixed-rate mortgages. That same month, Bradford & Bingley’s share price dropped to a record low and the bank announced hundreds of jobs would be lost – a scene that would be repeated again and again over Britain. The bank was part-nationalized, part-sold off. Field’s innocuous-looking nighttime scene doesn’t come with any more commentary than its location: Sackville Road Railway Bridge, Hove. A mundane advertisement like this is not a political statement. It’s not something unusual or shocking. Nor is it tinged with anger or resentment at a world gone wrong. In his diary, the billboard is simply what is present before him, displayed without commentary, something ordinary that gains meaning only when time passes. And maybe life doesn’t have to be extraordinary in order to merit being remembered, etched in ink, put into a book – a rather sacrilegious suggestion in an age of celebrity and narcissism.

Also: can we all just take a moment and recognize that this is a pencil drawing. It is not a photograph put through Photoshop. It is a pencil drawing. Considering I can’t draw for toffee (evidence available upon request), I’m in awe. You should pledge. You really should. Art books are not cheap to print – from my [brief] experience in publishing, I know that anything heavily illustrated is incredibly difficult to get printed, and if you think it’s hard getting a book deal as an new fiction writer, it’s probably 100 times harder for an artist when you remember that publishing houses are looking to make a profit and books from living artists generally don’t, no matter how wonderful the content. Self-publishing makes a lot of sense. Pledge. Pledge pledge pledge.

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Happy Passover. Oscar ate my chometz.
chometz

I’ve been in New York City quite a bit recently. Something might happen, something might not, but I’d be quite happy if something did, and no, I can’t be any less cryptic. What I can say is that New York always feels right, the way London always feels right. I’m essentially a nobody, like 99.999% of the population, but when you walk down a wide avenue and feel like you own the place, you know you’re in your element, you know something has gone terribly right and you’d better do all you can to keep it that way.
timessquare1
This is an old picture, but there’s a bit of me that will always want to be photographed under the bright lights no matter what. Eh, who am I kidding. There’s all of me still there.

My mother’s got this saying that it is fine to be a janitor so long as you own the building. After moving around so much throughout my 20s, I think I understand that a bit more now.

On (Ethnic) Beauty

Despite all the gains women have made in education and careers, there is still the perception that smart women can’t be very beautiful and beautiful women are not that smart. Furthermore, smart women aren’t supposed to worry about how they look. We’re supposed to be above such silly insecurities. We should not obsess about our physical flaws. We should be confident enough to shrug off criticism about our appearance. Well, no, it doesn’t work like that, because cerebral women are still human. We are not different creatures. We just so happen to have the same insecurities as everybody else.

Mine? Mine deal with my hair. I have long hated my hair. When you think of the typical Jewish woman, chances are your mental image includes the blessing of plenty of thick, dark hair. My grandmother on my Jewish side got it. My brother got loads of thick straight hair, and he doesn’t appreciate it AT ALL. But me? Nah, I got my hair from the non-Jewish Polish side. It’s thin, it’s lank, it’s so greasy that there is no way I can go without washing it every day. And, inexplicably, so many Jewish women I know with typical “Jewish” hair hate it! I don’t understand. What’s not to like? Volume, texture, everything I don’t have and never will without dropping a few grand on extensions, which I never will because that’s an entire other ethical can of worms. I see other Jewish women, and I think: IF YOU HATE IT SO MUCH, GIVE ME HALF YOUR HAIR. I will put it to good use. When I was younger, it felt unfair to me, in a way: I’m as Jewish as all those other girls (well, if you go by blood I’m not, but that’s the tricky thing about “Jewish” being both an ethnicity and a religion, and I have a big problem with people who hold fast to the definition of Jewish as being solely through matrilineal descent; specifically, they can tell it to my product-of-intermarriage tuchas), so why can’t I have a yard of glossy tresses like they do? Big upset in that battle in the gene pool, bro.

Eventually, I had to learn how to make my hair work for me. When I was 14 I got my first pixie cut, and with the exception of a few hopeful but ultimately fruitless experiments since then, I haven’t looked back. I’ve learned to embrace having hair short enough to ruffle up, spike, and spray into anti-gravity loveliness. In San Francisco, a Polish man who knew what to do with the little I have on my head cut my hair in ways that made it look as big as possible. So I’ll never have that long, luxurious hair that magazines tell us men prefer – and yes, like every other woman, I have days when I feel ugly and unfeminine, and there are people out there who do think my hair looks ugly and unfeminine – but over the years, I’ve become more and more comfortable like that, because I made the choice to keep it short. Yes, as a teenager it did bother me when I would be referred to as “her with the lesbian haircut,” but quite frankly I don’t care about that anymore. Anybody who thinks they know anything about my sexual orientation because of what I do with some dead cells atop my head is too stupid to be worthy of my time – that’s all there is to it. Funny enough, having lived in both countries, I have found there to be a huge divide between the US and the UK with regard to women having short hair; specifically, more women in the latter embrace it and love it and are confident enough to make it theirs. In America, it’s strange that when Jennifer Lawrence or Lena Dunham chop their hair short, it’s cute and stylish, but when a regular girl does it, it’s butch. Now, I’m never going to be a movie or TV star, but I am happy with hair that’s a little different. I can do so much more with my hair when it’s short, and it’s simply more flattering than long hair on me. Seriously, if it grows down my shoulders, my ears poke through and it hangs in strings. Why would I deliberately look worse than I do now just because women are “supposed” to have long hair? Get out of here. 

Hair is relatively easy. Specifically, it grows. If you hate one cut, you wait a few months so that you have something to work with and then you change it up. But your bone structure doesn’t change unless you take more drastic action. And that’s where we get to my nose. It definitely comes from my Jewish side. It’s big. I know it’s big. You don’t need to tell me it’s big – but for some reason, people do. I guess they think I don’t own a mirror, and that I have somehow gone through nearly three decades of life without noticing that I’m probably close to two standard deviations above the mean in that department. How very kind of them to inform me.

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Yes, there’s a solution plenty of Jewish women have turned to: cosmetic surgery. And the thought of it turns my stomach, not just because I’ve seen how it is done and the idea of someone going up through my nostrils to shave away bone makes me want to never, ever stand within ten feet of a scalpel ever again. The way I see it, if I got a nose job, it would be a betrayal. It would be a total denial of my background, of my ancestry. It would be an acknowledgement that all the people who say that ethnic is ugly are somehow right. My nose functions perfectly well the way it is. I mean, I can breathe through it. That’s its purpose. And if it works fine, if there’s nothing wrong with it, then why would it need surgery? It doesn’t.

There are some people who think a perfectly healthy nose is wrong. Those people have put countless children of plastic surgeons through very expensive educations. For some reason, plenty of otherwise intelligent women think that beauty has to involve pain, and, as if they’re saints suffering righteously for a higher cause, voluntarily put themselves into situations where they are cut and stitched and left bruised and bloody. This is madness. Anything involving anesthesia is A Big Deal. Any procedure where you have permanent alterations made to the one body you have should be done for a hell of a good reason, and I don’t consider “I don’t like my ethnic-looking facial features” to be a good reason. Every Jewish girl who gets rhinoplasty is playing right into the idea that we’re not good-looking just the way we are, and that we need to spend big money being “fixed” because we are somehow wrong by default. I refuse to play into that way of thinking. I will not be a pawn for people who think Jewish women are a target market for permanent alteration and that we need such alteration to be truly comfortable in our own skins.

Perhaps it makes me a horrible traitor to the current definition of feminism, but I am anti-boob job (and trust me, I’ve had plenty of people make fun of my small chest by insinuating there’s something deeply unfeminine about it) for the same reason I’m anti-most-cosmetic-surgery: performing major surgery on a perfectly healthy body makes no sense to me. I don’t think you’re a bad person if you get implants, and if your nose is stressing you out so badly that your mental health truly suffers then you have every right to do what you want with your body. But there is something very, very sinister to me about how perfectly normal body parts get pathologized, especially when there are ethnic implications to your nose or eyes or body type. At Columbia, I took a sociology of gender course that just so happened to be held at the all-women college counterpart, Barnard. That course was a barrel of laughs for a variety of reasons, but one particular episode I remember involved how the professor seemed to think that state-sponsored rhinoplasty for North African girls in the Netherlands (I think it was the Netherlands, don’t quote me on that) who were upset about their noses looking too “ethnic” was a wonderful thing. Yeah, forgive me for killing the new empowerment buzz, but how about focusing on racism being the problem, not the ethnic facial features themselves? Isn’t there a huge societal problem if these girls feel their noses are so wrong in European society that permanently altering them is the only way forward? I am not drinking the Kool-Aid if it means believing that woman are empowered because we can pay thousands of dollars to have somebody permanently alter perfectly healthy body parts. (None of this applies to plastic surgery to restore what your appearance used to be – like reconstructive surgery after cancer or an accident.)

I won’t criticise her for it, because I don’t have to live in the public eye the way she does, but I was disappointed to hear that Rebecca Adlington, double gold medalist and arguably the greatest British swimmer of all time (but not Jewish, I should mention), may have had a nose job. It means that people bothered her about her nose so much that she couldn’t shrug it off anymore. And now, of course, the press has to talk about her cosmetic surgery, making her nose into an issue again. Shame on Matthew Norman, who, in commenting, “Good for her” for having “the sense to buy a little artifice,” reinforces the idea that the problem is what’s on Becky’s face and not how people treat her. He asks, “Who wouldn’t do the same if they could?” Stupid question, Matthew. Barbra Streisand, that’s who. She’s got a big nose and she can afford the best plastic surgery money can buy, but she hasn’t gotten a nose job because it could change her singing voice. And that voice is her livelihood. She lives on camera, but without her voice, she has no career.

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“When I was young, everyone would say, “You gonna have your nose done?” It was like a fad, all the Jewish girls having their noses done every week at Erasmus Hall High School, taking perfectly good noses and whittling them down to nothing. The first thing someone would have done would be to cut my bump off. But I love my bump, I wouldn’t cut my bump off.”

And you can add me to the list of people who wouldn’t do it, either. I don’t care if I won the lottery and pretty much had a guarantee that nothing would go wrong in the process – I would not do it. I’d feel fake. Who the hell would I be trying to impress? Anybody who’d judge me on nothing but my nose isn’t worth my time anyway. Love me, love how nature made me. Apparently it’s not enough that Becky Adlington is one of the world’s fastest women in the water – she has to look like a supermodel as well in order to get a little peace. The problem is not with her nose, it’s with what people expect of her. And while I understand wanting all that constant criticism to just go away already, I think the only way those people are going to shut up is if we love what we look like and OWN what we look like. And step one of owning it is refusing to hand it over to a surgeon to shave part of it off. So if Becky is happy with a new nose, that’s her prerogative, but I wish people hadn’t bullied her so much so that her nose even attracted that much attention in the first place. I wish it could have been a non-issue. When we own our big noses, when we kick away criticism, we push that issue toward the trash bin where it belongs.

 
My idea of a real, unapologetic Jewish beauty, at least until she wrecked herself on drugs and alcohol, is Amy Winehouse.
Amy
She wasn’t ever going to be the gorgeous pin-up blonde English rose, and she knew it, so she made what she had work for her. And while she was undeniably English, a daughter of North London, she was also distinctively Jewish. According to her dad, she loved going to the East End as a child and visiting all the places her grandparents and great-grandparents had lived and worked. Even as a famous adult, she went to her extended family’s Shabbat dinners. Her natural hair was thick, black, and frizzy – so she strapped a massive fake beehive to it and played into that sixties style. She transformed the stereotype of the loud, overbearing Jewish woman into a full-on personality with a soulful voice to back it up. If you’re going to be Amy freakin’ Winehouse, if you’re going to be one of the most outspoken and brutally honest singer-songwriters to come out of your generation, why not wing your thick black eyeliner all the way out? Amy wasn’t conventionally “pretty,” but she was unforgettable, she was unique. And she kicked ass in the long tradition of Jewish women doing what they have to do to make it in the world. In her lyrics, I hear echoes of a long Jewish tradition of blatantly confronting your sorrows and misfortunes and stating them in public, even the ones that are entirely of your own shameful making, because if you don’t, you might as well curl up and give up. Jewish women know they don’t make history being quiet. Can you think of a louder, more in-your-face British Jewish woman than Amy Winehouse? She’s dead, but you won’t forget her voice, or what she looked like, or the life she lived. (By the way, back in college, I had an internship at a magazine that shall remain nameless, and one of my first tasks was to transcribe an interview with Amy Winehouse. The staff in New York couldn’t understand her accent on the low-quality recording, but I could, and so I got to work on the tape. One sentence that ended up on the cutting-room floor was – I’m not joking – “Jewish girls, we’re hairy!” Yes, Amy. Yes, we are. But I don’t think you had to remind us.)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ExwsAGiP-8A

Ditto Justine Frischmann, of 90s band Elastica. Expensively-educated daughter of a Holocaust survivor responsible for Centre Point, she could have all-too-easily been painted as a stereotypical pampered Jewish girl – and, let’s face it, we’ve done pretty well as an ethnic group, so nasty depictions of shallow, airheaded “Jewish Princesses” are still alive and well (most recently bolstered by the most revolting piece of television trash I have ever had the misfortune of watching). Instead, she darted to the opposite side of the spectrum, camped out there, and made it home.
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She wrote punkish, throwaway rock songs about topics that “nice Jewish girls” aren’t supposed to broach. I remember that when I read about her in the music press as a teenager, half the time there were snide jibes about her looking like a man, and hidden within them, insinuations that her musician boyfriends were perhaps using her as a stand-in for the men they would rather be with. Been there, had that – but without the fame, of course. I’ve heard the stinging comments about how, because my body more closely resembles a 14-year-old boy’s than the average adult woman’s nowadays, any man who wants it must be covering his desire for the real thing. Justine Frischmann is probably a big reason why, when I was younger, I wasn’t really bothered by such comments. Why? Because Justine was effortlessly cool and comfortable in her own skin. She projected the persona that if you crossed her, she either wouldn’t care at all, or she’d make you regret it. You couldn’t ever say she was “just a pretty face” because she wasn’t a pretty face, she was a bad-ass face, as she was happy being like that. You could call her mannish, you could point out her short hair and leather jacket, but at the end of the day, she was the famous one, and she was the one going home with the men that thousands of girls had pinned up on their bedroom walls. Perhaps she wasn’t the most skilful musician out there, but she made her mark, she captured the mid-nineties, that’s not bad for a nice Jewish girl.

Justine Frischman
So there. Thanks, Justine.

And as a “ethnic” woman, I try my best to make what I have work for me. If I’m going to say that I’m not ashamed of who I am, and that I’ve proud of what my ancestors had to survive to get me to where I am today, then I have to own the physical manifestations of my background – or at least show that there’s nothing undesirable about them. I have a big nose, so I wear it. It sticks out and so do I, because I don’t fancy hiding away from the world, I feel like confronting it head-on and sticking that nose everywhere I think it belongs. If you end up remembering me as Her With The Big Nose, at least you’re remembering me, at least I’m not anonymous. In my opinion, if my facial features are big and sharp and noticeable, then I have carte blanche to make the rest of my face follow suit – so if I want to wear bright eyeshadow or lipstick, that’s my prerogative. I’m never going to be a blonde bombshell, and I don’t want to be blonde. I think dark hair can be striking, and furthermore, it’s me. Blonde looks great on people who are naturally that way, or who can pull it off, but seriously, how ridiculous would I look with these thick black eyebrows and a bleached-out scalp? To me, looking like you’re trying way too hard is far worse than looking ethnic. My lank hair doesn’t work in a conventionally feminine long style, so I cut it off and make it look big with assorted pastes and hairspray, because it’s fun to try different things that I can wash away with simple shampoo and water if they don’t flatter me. It’s not that easy to change your nose, but hair grows back, hair is made for fun and experimentation. Ain’t it great to be a mammal? Sound.
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It works for me, and if other people don’t like it, they can move on to the next woman – and part of shifting from girl to woman is learning that not everybody is going to like you, not everybody has to think you’re fantastic, and it doesn’t matter. Getting the world to like you shouldn’t be your life goal, because it’s utterly unattainable. That’s life.
Drop out or get over it.

By the way, speaking of Rebecca Adlington, a few months ago she participated in a celebrity episode of UK quiz show The Chase. Guess who was a contestant in the new US version of the same show? That’s right, THIS LADY.

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…And yes, I can say it, WE WON! We split the winnings equally three ways. The episode aired at the end of January, but we filmed in August of last year, so I had to keep my big mouth shut about the result for quite some time. It was my first time on TV and I had a blast. I’ve always loved trivia and doing pub quizzes – I read everything in sight and so I ended up with loads of useless knowledge floating around; how else do you think I know how nose jobs are done? – and now I finally have something to show for it. I auditioned on a whim shortly after I moved to Boston, and I didn’t expect to make it to the second round…but then I did, and got called back for a third time…and then, OH MY DAYS, THEY’RE FLYING ME TO LOS ANGELES. I didn’t expect to be back in California so soon. My teammates were fantastic guys I got to know while we were waiting in the green room for a few hours beforehand – Louis is hilarious and Miguel is a brilliant lawyer who went to Berkeley for law school, so we had something to talk about. Winning that money feels like it kind of makes up for the earnings I forfeited by going back to grad school for three years. Most of it has gone into savings, because let’s face it, my very own shed-sized flat in far North London won’t come for free.

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It was strange seeing myself on television, because – to be completely honest – I didn’t really like how I looked. Cue plenty of moments of, “Holy crap, my nose looks huge, my jaw looks saggy, WHAT.” During every break, the makeup dude had to spray my hair to stop it looking completely flat. Plus, I wasn’t wearing my own clothes, the ones I had brought along because I feel attractive and confident in them – the cameramen said they looked distorted on screen (one was fuschia, one was orange, both had layers of ruffle-y fabric), so the wardrobe department had to rustle up something quick. So if you’re thinking, “Kite, really, that low neck on the dress and that cut of the waistline don’t do you any favors,” yes, I KNOW. And isn’t this the ridiculously silly part of it? That when I’m supposed to be proud of myself for finally being able to cash in on a skill, my attention gets occupied by my physical flaws? Why am I paying more attention to my less-than-perfect appearance and not to the fact that I just did well for myself? It’s natural to think like this, but it’s also ridiculous, it’s such a waste of time, and it’s an example of how we women play in to our own insecurity and hold ourselves back. And if I want to get a move on in life, I have to quit doing that. I have to think far, far more about what I can do than fixate on how I look doing it. That’s what matters. If anybody else has a problem with how I looked, they’re free to make jokes about it on the platform of their choice. And I’m free to enjoy my winnings.

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Bignose out.

 

 

Things Not to Be Bothered About, Part 3

The Winter Olympics! Controversy! Politics! Human rights, or lack thereof! Snow, or lack thereof! Happy Scandinavians! And more politics! And more controversy! CURLING!

While it pales in comparison to, say, just about everything controversial about the Sochi games, today the BBC brought up the question of whether Russian figure skater Julia Lipnitskaia’s routine to the score from “Schindler’s List” was in poor taste. My verdict? No. Not really. Leave the girl alone. BBC turned to Twitter, that repository of great human opinion distilled down to quickly-digested bites, to quote somebody asking if routines based on Anne Frank’s diary are next. I’m here in Super Jewish Lady mode to say: calm down.

Okay, I admit I did a little mental “uh oh…” when Lipnitskaia entered the ice and the announcer said she was skating to the theme from “Schindler’s List,” but that’s mainly because I don’t like having emotional reactions to sport other than hysterical glee when Tottenham Hotspur win. I definitely took notice of the red costume and immediately thought of the little girl in the red coat. But, you know what? It’s not a big deal. In the great big net of fish we Jews have to fry, this isn’t even a barnacle on the rope. Not bothered. I sat back and watched her land some jumps.

Fact: I was eight or nine years old when “Schindler’s List” was released, but I never watched it until well into my twenties. I suppose my reasoning is the same of that of a lot of Jewish people in my generation: Holocaust Overload. While undoubtedly the biggest tragedy and the most pivotal time in our history, it can sometimes feel like it’s our only history, and so we acknowledge that we can commemorate and remember our genocide but need to draw the line before we are completely consumed by grief. As an avid reader from a young age, I knew all about the Holocaust and had read plenty of accounts of the horror by 1993. I didn’t feel like I needed to see a film, even one as highly acclaimed as “Schindler’s List,” in order to know even more. For children, everything in moderation, including recollections of deportations, gas chambers, and shootings-on-sight.

But eventually I did watch it, and I was glad I did. It’s a work of art. Neeson’s portrayal of Schindler is brilliant. The cinematography could not possibly be improved. It’s a hard-hitting movie that never lets up and it should never let up. It’s a film that resonates with people of all backgrounds, not just my own Jewish-Polish one. And so “Schindler’s List,” as a Hollywood movie, pretty much belongs to everyone. You can’t draw comparisons to Anne Frank’s diary, which to me is far more “Jewish” than a film, even one from arguably the most famous Jewish director of all time. It’s the story, first and foremost, about the work of a German man, played by an Irish actor. The screenplay was adapted from the Booker Prize-winning Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally, an Australian Catholic. The music Lipnitskaia skated to was composed by John Williams, and I have no idea if he is Jewish, but that doesn’t matter – it’s a beautiful, mournful, moving score. Of course, the great Itzakh Perlman is the violinist on that track. The film tells a story of Jewish life and death, but it is not our exclusive property. It’s a story shared with the world, and for that it earned seven Academy Awards and a rightful place in the history of film. I find it actually quite heartening that a Russian non-Jewish girl who wasn’t even alive when the film was made had such an emotional connection with it. That only proves it’s a great work of art. 

Now, as for the costume, my main criticism is that it’s a bit too literal. Everybody knows the character of the little girl in the red coat. Figure skating costumes by necessity are made of skimpy Spandex and there’s nothing “coat”-like about that to me. But this is purely a criticism on the basis of fashion, not taste. Figure skaters are first and foremost athletes, not models, and she had to wear a short skirt with a leotard bottom just like everybody else. If she hadn’t worn red, then critics would have wondered why the hell not, considering how iconic that color is in the film. Something to get upset about? This isn’t it.

To Lipnitskaia and other skaters who sacrifice their youth to training for this sport, it’s an art as much as a physical activity. Skaters are taught to create that emotional connection with their audiences the same way a dancer (or hey, maybe even an actor) would. If this 15-year-old girl and her coach and choreographer thought she could do a great job of capturing the emotion evoked by the film score, then more power to her. It’s a lot to ask of a teenager, and I thought she did it well. So did the judges (although I have to admit I have no clue how the new scoring system works but so long as a pair of friendly Canadians don’t get ripped off again I’m happy to let them do their thing). It should also be emphasized that Lipnitskaia is not the first female figure skater to perform to this music – that honor goes to Katarina Witt, who happens to be German. And was a willing accomplice to the Stasi. Welp.

There’s a lot to be upset about in these Olympics. Julia Lipnitskaia’s routine really isn’t one of them. Carry on skating.