Chabon’s Fiction Finds Homelands in Exile

“I write from the place I live: exile,” Michael Chabon said, opening the 20th annual Robert Salomon Morton Lecture at Northeastern University on Wednesday. The University’s Humanities Center and Holocaust Awareness Committee welcomed Chabon as part of Northeastern’s Holocaust Awareness Week, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author delivered a lecture titled “Imaginary Homelands” in which he explored the interconnections between his Jewish heritage and his love for genre fiction.

Chabon continued to discuss the overarching themes in his writing in relation to what he labeled as Jews’ exiled condition, their lack of a permanent home to call their own. He described his Jewish identity and his passionate interest in genre fiction—work that falls into clear, popular categories like crime or sci-fi—as the two ongoing investigations of his writing. But, he said at the outset of his talk, “There was really only one investigation all along, one search with a sole objective—a home, a world to call my own.”

He first outlined his spiritual search for “home,” which had ended in an existential cul-de-sac. For him and the post-Holocaust Jewish people, he said, home was neither America, which he described as a fabricated planetarium show, nor distant Israel, which he said seemed at once a summer house and a fallout shelter.

He then described an enlightening moment in a chain store, when he happened upon “Say It in Yiddish,” Uriel and Beatrice Weinreich’s Yiddish phrase book. “The first thing that really struck me about it was, paradoxically, its unremarkableness, the conventional terms with which ‘Say It in Yiddish’ advertises itself on its cover,” he said. “‘No other phrase book for travelers,’ it claims, ‘contains all these essential features,’ boasting ‘over 1,600 practical and up-to-date entries.’” He paused, squinting at his audience. “Up-to-date?” he said. He interspersed quotations from the phrase book throughout the remainder of his speech, which had the audience both erupting in laughter and falling into somber silence.

The book inspired Chabon’s novel “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” he said, which imagines an alternative post-Holocaust settlement for Jewish refugees in Sitka, Alaska, where Yiddish is indeed widely spoken. The phrase book was also the subject of an essay of Chabon’s originally titled “Guidebook to a Land of Ghosts,” which, he explained, caused considerable controversy on Mendele, a listserv for enthusiasts of Yiddish language and culture.

In his conclusion, Chabon tied together the strands he presented at the beginning of the talk, his Jewish identity and his literary leanings. He described how he thought that as a Jewish writer he had transgressed literary boundaries with his use of genre fiction, and, while he said he at times felt like the transgender cousin at the dinner table, the Mendele listserv had gotten him thinking. He concluded by considering a provocative question: “If I could piss off so many people with one little essay, how many could I piss off with an entire novel?” he said.

Following the lecture, Chabon fielded questions from the audience before joining them at a reception and book signing.

Northeastern’s Ruderman Professor and Director of Jewish Studies Dr. Lori H. Lefkovitz, who serves on the Holocaust Awareness Committee, described Chabon as an obvious choice for the lecture. “He is an eloquent spokesperson of his generation, a self-identifying Jewish writer, and he directly speaks to the Holocaust legacy in a contemporary idiom,” Lefkovitz said.

The Robert Salomon Morton Lectures are themselves a product of exile—their namesake, Robert S. Morton, was born in Germany in 1906 and endured years of Nazi persecution before deciding to apply to emigrate to the U.S. in 1934. Bill C. Giessen, a close friend of Morton’s who grew up in Nazi Germany and taught at Northeastern for over 40 years, founded the lecture series in Morton’s honor. Erika Koss, assistant dean for research and program development in Northeastern’s College of Social Sciences and Humanities, who helped organize the event, described Chabon as a speaker who furthered the objectives of the Morton Lectures and of the Holocaust Awareness Week. “To have Michael Chabon here as somebody who brings people together as a fiction writer, who helps us enter into imaginative worlds—that is, I think, really important in remembering, so that these sorts of things don’t happen again,” she said.

One entry in the Weinreichs’ phrase book proves emblematic of Chabon’s speech as a whole and of his literary work: “Can I go by boat/ferry to ________?” Chabon described the blank in the phrase as tantalizing, impossible to fill. “Whither could I sail on that boat/ferry in the solicitous company of Uriel and Beatrice Weinreich?” he said. He has personally chosen to fill in the blank with his writing, he said—he creates imaginary homelands in his fiction, which helps him to think more broadly about the post-Holocaust Jewish experience. For lack of a concrete homeland, according to Chabon, Jews must find one in invented literary worlds or imagined concepts of home—the range of possibilities for that blank is endless.