After the recent attempted car bombing by a Pakistani-born American citizen in New York’s Times Square, Pearl Abraham’s fictional exploration of the radicalized mind in “American Taliban” (Random House) is especially pertinent. The book is loosely based on on the story of John Walker Lindh — the young American who joined the Taliban, returning to America in 2001 to face prosecution. The subject matter is a departure for Abraham, whose 1995 “The Romance Reader” established her as a powerful voice in Jewish-American literature. Like her protagonist Rachel Benjamin, Abraham was a prodigious and often stealth reader of secular literature at an early age who also left behind her Hasidic family. She went on to study literature at Hunter College and writing at New York University. She currently teaches writing at Western New England College.
The Sisterhood: In your first novel, “The Romance Reader,” Rachel Benjamin is claustrophobic in her parents’ Hasidic world. In “American Taliban,” John Jude Parish, is the only child of generous, perhaps over-indulgent, parents. Are these characters more alike than they seem on the surface?
Pearl Abraham: Yes, in some ways Rachel and John Jude are similar: They’re both readers, both precocious 18-year-olds, both have a spirited intellectual curiosity that drives them toward new experiences and adventures. On the surface it might seem that they’re moving in dialectically opposing directions: Rachel away from organized religion and John Jude toward it, but I think this would be a limited reading. They both move toward more experience, toward an expansion of the self, toward self-knowing, toward Gnosis, which is to say toward the most sacred journey an individual can make.
“American Taliban” is a departure from your previous novels in that your protagonists were Jewish. What led you to create John Jude?
In 2001, when John Walker Lindh emerged as the “American Taliban,” I was still at work on “The Seventh Beggar,” a novel about another young man whose spiritual curiosity gets him in trouble. Immersed as I was in this story, I had a very particular point of view on Lindh’s adventure and was appalled by the facile condemnation of his journey, which showed itself deaf to foundational American ideas about self-discovery and self-knowledge. The story and image of Lindh on the stretcher haunted me. It was crystal clear to me that in another era, say the ’60s and ’70s, Lindh would have been one of the many who traveled to India, studied Buddhism, joined an Ashram, and, at some point, he would have returned home safely. So it was really a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
On a more personal note, what do you attribute your break from your Hasidic upbringing?
I think it was first and foremost about the freedom to go forth and learn and know and become. I didn’t come to understand the particular repressions I experienced as traditionally misogynist until I was at Hunter College studying with Audre Lorde and [Louise de Salvo,] (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louise_DeSalvo) learning about feminism and Ms. magazine. Since I attended a non-Hasidic high school that allowed women to study the texts, I knew that my dad’s interpretations were often self-serving and not quite scholarly. My sister and I became full-blown critics of male scholarship in our teens. But of course Hasidism doesn’t only repress its women. Everyone in religious life is under the thumb, one way or another.
Several years back, Wendy Shalit cautioned that writers who were once ultra-Orthodox insiders might be misleading readers about traditional Jewish life. When you write a book do you worry about traditional Judaism being misinterpreted?
No, I don’t worry about misinterpretations. And why would Judaism suffer more than any other fictionalized culture or religion or people? Fiction imagines, exaggerates, composes; it’s a subjective art and gets at truth differently than fact–I could easily argue, given what we know about history and journalism, that fact doesn’t begin to have the monopoly on truth it tries to claim for itself. Fiction goes beyond the factual journalistic report of what happened. Fiction explores why it happened. And readers of fiction are more sophisticated than Wendy Shalit gives them credit for. Really, way too much has been made of that essay, which merely fulfilled Shalit’s need to create controversy with a shocking and entertaining headline, in other words to make herself viable as journalist. Her thesis had very little to do with serving up fact or truth. It was totally self-serving and it clearly worked, as controversy unfortunately does.