Portrait by Caitlin Macbride
Sarah Schulman’s lifelong practice as an author, activist and educator has been rooted in eclecticism. With no formal training, Schulman has penned over 20 novels, plays, and works of nonfiction in the past 30 years. Her most recent book, Conflict is Not Abuse is a self described magnum opus that takes a challenging position on the social norms developed in the post-internet era: triggers, shunning, and callout culture. By doing the uncomfortable labor of engagement with grey areas in a world increasingly drawn to binaries, Schulman’s prose show how one can practice artistic ethics outside the rising tide of contemporary puritanism through radical self reflection and human engagement.
Can you describe the New York you grew up in?
It was the post-holocaust, post-war era. In 1944 Roosevelt had introduced the GI Bill, which enabled the government to put money in the hands of developers by giving veterans low-cost loans for buying into this new phenomenon called the suburbs. But the suburbs were racist, so really, only ethnic white people could take advantage of this. This produced a period known as white flight. A lot of white people left the city and went to the suburbs. As a result, there was a lot of cheap open housing in the city. Rent would be $60 a month. It was pretty much an open city, where radical ideas for politics and art were being developed. Of course, McCarthyism was an extremely repressive period, but there also was a lot of counterculture developed during that time. This led to the evolution of the Black Power movement and a little bit later in the decade, the women’s movement and gay liberation. I was born into the middle of that. When you’re a child, you don’t realize you’re living in a moment. It’s just the way it is.
You grew up in a Jewish Family. How would you describe it?
My family was not religious. but they were very, very Jewish. Secular Jews, a very strong cultural Judaism. My grandparents were all refugees and my parents grew up in Jewish ghettos. My grandmother, who lived with us, was a Yiddish speaker and took me to the Yiddish theater. They were not really comfortable with Christians, almost afraid, and didn’t really socialize with them. I went to school with a lot of people whose parents were holocaust survivors. That was very common in my year.
You went to Hunter, which was a kind of exceptional school.
It was a public school for students who scored well on the standardized testing of the era. The high school was all girls. Famously, Audre Lorde went there and so did Elena Kagan. So, I went to high school with a woman who’s now on the Supreme Court. I had a good education because girls were allowed to excel.
Was education important in your family?
Yes. My mother was in the first class of women who were accepted at City College in 1949. In those days, women had to have a higher GPA than men to attend and couldn’t choose their own courses.
How did you first got into protest culture?
My mother took us to antiwar demonstrations when we were kids. We used to go on the National Association of Social Workers buses to Washington. She had grown up with radical politics. Her parents were socialists. Her father had been imprisoned because he was a deserter in World War I and my father’s half-sister had been pogrom survivors. I was born 13 years after the end of the Holocaust and raised with very overt conversations about it. From the time I was born, I knew about oppression and suffering and genocide and mass murder. It formed a lot of my thinking.
What about going out to protests on your your own?
I was probably 12 or 13 when I got involved with the Grape Boycott people. I was part of the Students for Political Action and a member of the Women’s Union. During the women’s movement we had consciousness raising groups. Coming of age in the ‘60s in New York there was a lot going on. Then the mid-‘70s was like a renaissance period, everything from women studies to self-defense classes, to anti-rape stuff. There was just a lot of activity.
What did you end up studying in college?
I went to University of Chicago and after that Hunter College but dropped out of both. I ended up getting a BA in Cultural Studies at SUNY Empire State, the State University of New York. That was my only degree.
When did you start writing?
When I was 21, which was 1979, a pivotal year. In 1980 Reagan was elected and it was the end of the progressive era. That’s when I came back to New York and started writing for a bunch of political newspapers. At that time, the movement had many underground, subcultural or movement-oriented newspapers.
Who did you write for?
I wrote for Women News, Gay Community News. I wrote for the Guardian—not the british paper—a 100-year-old Marxist weekly. I worked for the New York Native, which was the gay male paper of New York. In general I was covering a lot of things for a community that were going to read about themselves. People were very engaged with what they read, would tell you what they thought about it. It was very interactive and you had to be accountable. So, I learned a certain kind of intimate, yet accurate representational style. That was my training.
This was a period when there were limited gay rights in New York.
There were no gay rights at all. You could be kicked out of a restaurant, kicked out of a house or denied a job. We were trying to get a New York City Gay Rights bill. There still today is no national anti-discrimination bill in the United States. It’s still city by city.
You were writing during the AIDS crisis too.
Yes, but It wasn’t called AIDS back then. It was called GRID: Gay Related Immune Deficiency. We now know that it has existed since the ‘40s, but at the time it was new. I ended up covering some very early stories related to the AIDS crisis. Everything was so crazy. Journalists were sick and dying. Nobody knew what the stories were. It was very chaotic.
You were also involved in ACT UP. What was it like coming to that movement after such a long period involved in protest?
I was suspicious of ACT UP but every everyone was. It was very typical of the lesbians who came to ACT UP. They were usually very politically experienced, much more so than the men. People had all kinds of complex feelings.
A lot of this can be seen in the ACT UP archives you and Jim Hubbard put together.
We interviewed 187 surviving members of ACT UP over the last 17 years. Our original idea was that other people would use this data to produce interpretations. However, to date, that has not occurred. I know what’s in there. I conducted all those interviews, know what the tropes that are revealed, and I have not seen anything that actually reflects what is in there. Jim and James Wentzy preserved over 1,000 hours of archival footage that we’ve also made that available. Some of it has been used very well, but some of it has been grotesquely misused, which we did not anticipate. It’s been a complex experience.
Novels by Sarah Schulman
When did you start writing novels?
My first novel, The Sophie Horowitz Story, came out in 1984. It was published by a very small lesbian press in Florida. That type of confident lesbian protagonist was simply not acceptable in mainstream publishing, just not allowed. I started in the margins of the margins.
Did you have mainstream ambitions as a writer?
You know, whenever I have a new book, I send it to out to all the publishers but they never take it. My first one was published by a lesbian press, the second a feminist press. My third novel was published by a corporate press and for 10 years and I published four books there. Then I went to Avon. Then I didn’t publish for like 10 years. Not because I didn’t want to, but it was because there was another sort of social turn and the things that I was writing were just too far ahead.
Were you ever aspiring to be a full time novelist as a career?
I’ve always had a job. I have a job right now. I’m a teacher, I’ve waitressed and had other jobs too.
And working jobs never got in the way of your writing?
I mean, I’m a natural writer. I started when I was six. I wrote down, “When I grow up, I will write books.” I knew it from the beginning and I’ve been writing ever since. It’s a calling. It only evolves the more you write, the more you understand how writing works and at this point, I understand a lot about it. That’s why I do so much teaching, not only as a job, but to give back to the community. I run workshops out of my apartment, have taught in the Lambda Emerging Writers Program, taught trans women a one-week writing workshop last summer. I have a lot of skill and I really want to share it.
You’ve also had a long career in theater.
I started writing plays when I was very young. I used to write Hanukah plays for my brother and sister to put on. In general, the theater in New York used to be very cheap. You could go to a matinee of For Colored Girls for $7. Normal people went to the theater. It was part of being a New Yorker. Our neighbors and people my parents knew were artists, actors. It was part of my environment.
How did you end up working in theater?
I worked on the stage crew for my high school theater company and the teacher exposed us to very interesting plays. Then I worked at Circle Repertory company run by Lanford Wilson and Marshall Mason. When I got to college, one of my jobs was a backstage technician. At the Women’s One World Theater Festival at the Ukrainian Hall I met this artist named Robin who I collaborated with for five years. We co-wrote plays that were performed in a lot of downtown venues. If you had lesbian content, you really couldn’t really go anywhere else. Once the neighborhood started gentrifying, the spaces became expensive, a lot of people died of AIDS and then there was the MFA invasion. My last downtown play with in a theater reflected the new trends.It was a “business” but there was no air conditioning, there were rats and the actors felt nauseous. So I decided to become an uptown playwright. That meant learning how to write in a whole different way. I had two productions at Playwrights Horizons in 2002 and 2004. Then I had a play at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia in 2005. Since then, I have not had a production, although I do write a play almost every year. I’m working on a collaboration with Marianne Faithful right now which I have high hopes for. We’ll see what happens.
The craft of your writing is fantastic, the lucid simplicity that comes through without erasing yourself. How did you arrive at this style?
It’s probably because I’m completely untrained. It’s very rare now that there are writers being published who have never been in a writing class, but that used to be the norm. I represent a kind of old-school way of producing an aesthetic, which is to have eclectic influences. When you go to writing class, you start to have collective influences. You have a teacher, they tell you their theories, you read the same things together, you read each other’s work. That’s not what I consider to be a healthy creative environment.
Nonfiction by Sarah Schulman
What would you see as a healthier creative process?
You enter as an individual. You move through different kinds of environments, get exposed to different things. Different people hand you books, you wander in on certain readings, you meet certain people and you’re a product of that process. I write in a lot of different genres, have a lot of different styles and they’re all eclectic.
The avoidance of eclecticism is one of the issues that you tackle in Gentrification of The Mind. What do you feel has prevented a generation of young people from speaking to their neighbors?
White Supremacy. They don’t talk to their Jamaican neighbors because they don’t feel like they have to. They don’t say, “Hi,” because they know that they’re destroying those people’s lives. These people don’t matter in their social currency. They’re paying four times as much as their neighbors and if they wait long enough, they’ll all be displaced. That’s why white people who move into people of color neighborhoods don’t join the local community groups, don’t teach people how to read, don’t teach people how to swim, don’t work at food pantries. Instead, they go to the $5 cappuccino places.
This avoidance of looking at displacement is covered in your book on Israel / Palestine. How did that book come about?
I had been to Israel when I was 38, to see if I was the only gay person in my family. That was my first exposure to Israel and I did not relate to it. I also didn’t take any responsibility to face and deal with the issues of the occupation. I avoided it until very late. When I finally dealt with it I realized I had a responsibility. So my book about Israel / Palestine is really about being wrong. It’s about the process of deciding that you’re going to figure out what is actually true, despite all of the comfort of the beliefs that you’ve held and inherited that bond you to other people. That process involves making a lot of mistakes. Being wrong isn’t devastating, it’s necessary. A lot of these ideas led to to writing Conflict Is Not Abuse.
You’ve described Conflict Is Not Abuse as a new idea.
Conflict Is Not Abuse was so hard to write that my brain hurt. I was not jumping in on an already-existing conversation. I had to think through so much stuff. It was just a lot of intellectual and emotional soul searching. I don’t remember how I wrote it. It was so hard to write.
You also said that the book was having issues finding a publisher. What was it you felt the editors were struggling with?
I know what they said and I know what it really was. People who had published me before said “Sarah, you don’t have credentials in any of these academic fields.” But I never had them before and they published me anyways, so that didn’t make sense. I went to mainstream presses and young people really wanted to publish it, but they couldn’t get it past the old people. Verso jerked me around for a year and lied to me. It was just a terrible experience. Then I realized that it was because Palestine and AIDS are subjects of such anxiety in the United States… the fact that I was using them as examples for a larger construction was just too anxiety provoking. I don’t think people were self-critical enough to be aware that that was the problem. So, I went to Canada, where they have government funding and publishing is subsidized. I had a very good relationship with Arsenal, had published a number of things with them before, including The Child, which was so controversial. They went for it, and we’re all happy they did because we’re in our fifth printing now. It’s only been a year.
The book has become viral. How would you explain it’s appeal?
It was all unforeseen zeitgeist. People in their 20s and 30s are sick of callout culture. It’s very destructive. I only mentioned it once in the whole book, but people could extrapolate to it very easily. The second thing is that it came out two weeks before Trump was elected. This whole thing about the bully who says that he’s a victim telling us to blame the wrong person is our daily life right now. It was extremely relevant.
What would you like to encourage people to do to be able to have stronger relationships with the people around them?
The solution is in the group relationship. Right now, we mistakenly define loyalty, whether it’s in a family or clique, a community, a religion or a national identity as helping each other hurt other people. That is a negative group bond. If we want to have positive group relationships, then we should be expecting each other to negotiate our conflicts, helping each other identify how we are participating in creating the problem, how we contribute to escalation- not punish or abandon each other when we tell the truth.