Sunday, November 27, 2011

Anita Diamant talks about the body

Reeling from my fun, cousin-filled Thanksgiving holiday, I'm also still processing this fall's authors' readings. In literary terms November brought to Indianapolis an embarrassment of riches. Anita Diamant came to Indianapolis and gave two talks (as did Myla Goldberg a few days before). The first was sponsored by the Jewish Community Center's Book Festival, where she talked about the body as a way to connect her works.

For those unfamiliar with Diamant -- can there be anyone out there who is? -- she is the author of four novels and many more nonfiction titles. Her bestselling "The Red Tent," a historical novel based on the Old Testament's Dina, is a mainstay of book clubs. And her Jewishly-related how-to books have served as Jewish life-preservers, assisting non-Orthodox Jews (the vast majority of the Jewish population), in navigating and renegotiating Jewish life with a modern day sensibility.

Diamant began by noting how the subject of the body is so multi-faceted. "As a journalist I have written about food, AIDS, and infertility treatments," she said. During the past ten years Diamant has spent her time "underwater," involved in the creation of a new type of mikvah in Boston. Mikvah, a pool of water in which Jews ritually immerse -- sans clothes -- is inextricably tied to 'body.' Diamant shared that she has a cellular empathy for telling the stories of women, and that although her four novels are very different, each focuses on the common threads of women's friendships, the female body and the concept of resilience.

According to Diamant, the female body was historically problematic. When she comes up against the problem of telling a story in which the feminine and the divine are not mutually exclusive, she turns to the body -- "an unbroken continuity of flesh and bones."

Her recent novel, "Day After Night," takes place at the close of the Holocaust. Diamant noted that Holocaust stories weren't freely told until the early sixties, that it wasn't until the time of the Eichmann trials that the floodgates opened for the telling. She strives to get into the emotional and psychological landscape of the time she writes about, but said that out of all her novels, "Day After Night" was the most difficult to write; living in a female body during the Holocaust held a particular kind of risk.

That evening Diamant took part in a program sponsored by Indianapolis's Spirit and Place Festival. Here she was part of a panel whose task was to have a conversation about the body. Sharing the stage with Diamant were Thomas Lynch (essayist and undertaker, whose work inspired the creation of HBO's series "Six Feet Under), and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Thomas Lynch spoke about language: the words gravity, gravitas, gravid and grave are all on the same dictionary page, and Lynch pointed out that the body, just like language, plays tricks on us. Diamant spoke about childbirth being the crucible of womanhood, and that her experience of giving birth allowed her to write "The Red Tent."
Abdul-Jabbar remarked that athletes die twice -- the first death occurring when the body can no longer continue in professional sports. He disclosed that he was diagnosed with leukemia in 2008, and credited his otherwise good health to his long-standing yoga practice, that it provides his body with preventative maintenance.
Diamant, also a staunch believer in regular yoga practice, said that as a sixty-year-old, she is learning to accept the blessings of her body. Both Abdul-Jabbar and Diamant spoke out against plastic surgery, expressing the wish that society valued wisdom and experience over youth.

The panel spoke to a packed house, and the conversation was followed with opportunities to buy books penned by these three authors (Yes, Abdul-Jabbar is an author, too!), and have the books signed. I was anxious to shake Diamant's hand, as I was lucky enough to have had the opportunity to interview her for The Jewish Post & Opinion. (Thanks, Jennie!) I was worried there would be a long line at Diamant's table, but the only line that formed was at Abdul-Jabbar's table. That night I drove home happy, my signed copy of "Day After Night" resting on the passenger seat.

I guess I shouldn't cast stones at the star-struck basketball fans. Next to Diamant's table was Lynch, who despite his own impressive oeuvre, I never thought to visit.

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