Documenting a Sweatshop Cinderella: Q&A with Suzanne Wasserman

By Tahneer Oksman

Published May 05, 2010.
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The short new documentary, “Sweatshop Cinderella,” captures the fascinating life story of the writer Anzia Yezierska. Best known for her 1925 novel, “Bread Givers,” Yezierska’s incredible life story involved a romance with philosopher John Dewey, as well as a brief stint in Hollywood. The documentary reveals fragments of the only known voice recording of Yezierska, as well as clips from “Hungry Hearts,” the 1922 silent Hollywood film that was based on her short stories. Tahneer Oksman sat down with award-winning filmmaker and historian Suzanne Wasserman to talk about her motivation behind making the film and why she thinks people are still so riveted by this early 20th-century immigrant writer.

Tahneer Oksman: What first drew you to the works of Anzia Yezierska?

Suzanne Wasserman: Well, I’ve been thinking and writing about Anzia for about 25 years. I first started reading her in graduate school. I was very interested in the neighborhood of the Lower East Side and what happened to it after the height of immigration. I was specifically interested in people’s connection to the Lower East Side, especially Jewish people. I wanted to understand about a people having an attachment to a place of poverty that’s often remembered quite horribly, remembered with a lot of pain and discomfort.

I remember reading a story of Yezierska’s called “The Fat of the Land.” The story blew me away because it’s about a woman, Hannah Breineh, who is miserable on the Lower East Side. She has all these children and she’s just impoverished. And the children grow up and become successful and move away. Then they move their mother to an apartment on Riverside Drive and all she wants to do is go back to the Lower East Side and wallow “in the good old days of poverty.” That was the starting point for my dissertation. My advisors were a little annoyed with me because I’m a historian, I’m not in English, so they were like, why are you using a fictional character? But I thought that it spoke to the theme that I wanted to develop. So I decided to use the fictional character of Hannah Breineh to start my dissertation, and her line became the title of my dissertation, “the good old days of poverty.”

What finally made you decide to make this film about Anzia Yezierska?

There was always something that drew me to Yezierska, but I didn’t really learn about her personal life until much, much later. A few years ago, I was asked to do a reader evaluation for a book that was being reissued by a friend and colleague of mine, Joyce Mendelsohn, called The Lower East Side Remembered and Revisited. I read one line in it about Yezierska, and I thought, oh my goodness, this is an unbelievable story. The line said something like, Yezierska had a romance with John Dewey and they fell madly in love and the relationship was never consummated and then Samuel Goldwyn wooed her to California with ten thousand dollars. I had already made two documentaries and I was searching around for another topic and I just knew that this was a good story because the narrative was so strong. The real challenge was putting it together as a film because there was no footage of her.

Throughout the film, you talk about Yezierska’s obsession with the past and how you identified with that. Do you think she was stuck in the past her whole life?

I think that she was always stuck in certain ways, certainly in her personal life. She was married and divorced twice, she had this romance in her head with John Dewey that went on forever and he was a character in a lot of her novels and short stories. Even in 1950, when she was writing her memoir, “Red Ribbon on a White Horse,” and she was already in her 60s, he appears again. In the biography, Yezierska’s daughter says people had to convince her mother not to actually state his real name, so she gave him a pseudonym.

I think that in her personal life she was always stuck, but she was a model for me in the sense that she molded this obsession with the past into her writing. And at the end of the film, I try and show that when I say, I have learned a lot from Anzia Yezierska. She was able to make her inability to move forward into an art.

Do you think that being an immigrant played into her obsession with the past?

I think so. Anzia named one of her collections, “The Children of Loneliness.” She says she was a child of loneliness, that she never felt that she fit into America, nor did she fit into her past. She got pulled in both directions. I think that’s a very typical immigrant feeling and maybe a Jewish feeling as well, since Jews are so often immigrants. My parents weren’t immigrants, but my grandparents were. There’s something about that that might be passed on. And even if it’s not feelings of melancholy or nostalgia that are passed on, somehow the next generation gets fascinated by the past. Like you or me. I often find that the third and fourth generation wants to look back and figure out what happened, but maybe we look back more critically.

What do you think gets people so excited about her, even today?

Even though she started writing so long ago—her first story, “The Free Vacation House,” was published in 1915—she still seems so contemporary. I taught her from 1990 to 2000, when I was teaching part-time at NYU. Every semester that I taught this course on women and the urban environment, I would include either “Bread Givers” or a short story of Yezierska’s or both. My students always loved her. “Bread Givers” still feels very contemporary and I think it speaks to a lot of students who are either immigrants themselves, young women, or the children of immigrants. It has a kind of resonance which has really persisted through the ages. The funny thing is, she’s not that well known as a writer. But she’s taught everywhere. I have colleagues who teach her at Harvard, at Hofstra, at John Jay, at Brown, at Lehman College. Every single place you can imagine. People are always coming up to me when they find out about the film and telling me, oh I teach her! I think that she still hits people like a thunderbolt even today.

What do you think is so compelling about Yezierska?

She’s so interesting to me because she’s so ambivalent about everything. She’s ambivalent about love, about men, about parenting. Yet, she wasn’t ambivalent about writing. I think that’s the only thing. She was very ambivalent about success. Her relationship to success is fascinating. In one part in the film where Vivian Gornick says Yezierska was relieved to fail. She had this guilt about being successful, which I think is not just about money but also about being a woman, about being a successful woman. Especially in light of what her father thought about women.

Her work was always compelling to her until the day she died. And that to me is very inspiring. I love her line on the reel-to-reel tape, “what murderous things I have done to become a writer.” She sacrificed a lot and she knew it.

Freud says the two things you need to have a happy life are work that compels you and a person to love, who will love you. And she had the former, but not the latter.

Tahneer Oksman is a Writing Fellow at Brooklyn College and a PhD candidate in English Literature at CUNY’s Graduate Center.

Click here to read The Forward’s review of “Sweatshop Cinderella”

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