Amherst Magazine

My Life: Judith Frank, Professor of English

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An open book

Interview by Katherine Duke '05

Judith Frank earned a B.A. from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, followed by a Ph.D. in English literature and an M.F.A. in creative writing from Cornell, before joining the Amherst faculty in 1988. In recent semesters, she has taught courses in fiction writing and the historical novel. Frank is the author of Common Ground: Eighteenth-Century English Satiric Fiction and the Poor. Her first novel, Crybaby Butch, is based in part on her brief experience as an adult literacy tutor. She is now at work on her second novel, Noah’s Ark.

On Israel

I grew up in the Chicago area, and then my family moved to Israel when I was 17. I lived in Israel for six years and went to college there. The defining experience of Israeli young adulthood is the army, not university. I didn’t have a liberal arts education, and I’m very jealous of my Amherst students. If I had the time, there are a lot of courses I would be taking at this college.

There was something about not speaking the language that made me feel almost numb, as though I didn’t have anything to say. I didn’t have my sense of humor. I didn’t have myself to present to people. (You can imagine that for an English professor, your facility with language is an important part of your personality.) Fighting my way out of that, becoming really good at Hebrew, was one of the hardest experiences of my life.

So my relationship with Israel was ambivalent from the start. My twin sister, Paula, stayed and married an Israeli man. She has two kids, and her older daughter is about to go into the army. I’m really close to my sister and her family, but over the years, I’ve come to believe that the occupation is terrible for both the Palestinians and the Israelis. I do feel a connection to that country, and at the same time, I feel strong opposition to its policies.

On Noah’s Ark

My novel-in-progress is about a gay American couple named Daniel and Matt. As the novel opens, Daniel’s brother and sister-in-law, who live in Jerusalem, are killed in a suicide bombing in a café during the second Palestinian uprising, in 2002. They have designated in their will that Daniel and Matt be the guardians of their two young children. This causes a huge firestorm in the families, because a.) they’re gay men, and b.) it means they will take the children out of the country—and for Israel to lose Israeli children is a terrible thing.

The novel is partly about the complicatedness of Daniel’s grief. As a man who is against the Israeli occupation, he sees the conflict differently [than many other Americans and Jewish people do]. So it’s partly about how you mourn a death from terror if you don’t buy into the cultural scripts that dictate how you should mourn. It’s about raising bereaved children. It’s about gay men entering a culture of parenthood that they always made fun of. There’s a comic element to the second half of the book, because the family comes to Northampton. All the lesbian moms are into them, everybody’s reaching out to them, the churches and the synagogues, and they’re the toast of this town. Above all, I wanted it to be a love story, but on a certain geopolitical stage.

On “Fiction 1”

There are two main things, especially in “Fiction 1,” that I try to encourage students to do: One is to  come to understand their own processes and to learn how to live in them and use them to their advantage. For example, I have basically a half-hour concentration span; that’s it for me. I used to feel like I was not a good writer and not a serious writer because I don’t have a longer concentration span. I’d try to extend it: No looking at e-mail, no standing up, no snacking until an hour has passed. But that didn’t work for me. Now I’ll write for half an hour, then get up for half an hour and then sit back down.  I’ve learned to use my actual process to my best advantage.

The other thing is to get students to write about what matters to them. I want students to reach for the stuff that they’re scared to write, the stuff that has really shaped their lives—and that’s harder than you would think. I would rather get a story that’s a mess and is clearly about something that matters than a story that’s polished and playful but not really about much.

On fragile egos

You would think Amherst students have the biggest egos in the world, but actually, their egos can be very fragile. Students have good ideas that they don’t know are good ideas. When I’m teaching students how to be close readers, a lot of it is trusting your instincts—trusting a feeling you have, when you’re reading a passage, to understand its tone. It’s similar with adults [who are learning basic literacy]: they always feel like they’re going to be wrong. It’s about saying to them, “See? You knew the right answer. You know how to do this.” I think, actually, all learning is like that, except for the most ultra-confident people in the universe. Even for me, as a writer and a literary critic, it takes a long time to trust that what I’m thinking or feeling is right.

On her biggest pet peeve

My biggest pet peeve is that nobody survives cancer in the movies. Some of my students will get breast cancer in their lives—it’s clear that they will, statistically. And for them to have known a professor who had breast cancer three times [in 1990, 1991 and 2002], and is still alive, is good. My prognosis is excellent: I’ve never had lymph node involvement, and it’s never spread.

When you have cancer, you feel close to death; you feel the incredible urgency of life, and that can be amazing. You start saying no to things. Your loved ones become so much more important to you; you shed the people who aren’t important. I think the hardest thing for me [now] is to strike a balance: get close enough to that sense of urgency to live my life well, but not so close that I’m panic-stricken.

On an act of bravado

My partner, Liz [Garland ’90], gave birth to Abigail and Claire in August. Having children after having cancer three times feels like an act of bravado that I really like: assuming that I’m going to live long enough to see them grow up. They’re gorgeous and charming babies, if I do say so. Once they started smiling and sleeping, I totally fell in love with them.

It means a lot to me that I live in the great Commonwealth of Massachusetts, where my partner and I can be married. After they were born, the hospital registrar came into the room and gave us this incredibly sweet and dignified speech about how, for all their lives, Abigail and Claire will be able to find their birth certificates, and my name is on them. I was also able to adopt them, which protects [my parental rights] in the other states [where same-sex couples cannot adopt].

On twins

They’re fraternal twins; I’m an identical twin. When you’re in high school, it’s very hard—being known as “the Frank twins.” You want people to notice you for who you are. It’s probably no accident that my sister and I now live on two different continents, even though we love each other very much. With identical twins, you’re always trying to differentiate: Paula was “the talkative one” and I was “the quiet one” (my friends all think this is hilarious). I’m conscious of not wanting to do that with our daughters—not wanting to think of them in terms of binary oppositions, but to just observe who they are as it comes to express itself.

 

Read excerpts from Judith Frank's first novel, Crybaby Butch, and her novel-in-progress, Noah's Ark.

 

Duke, the college’s Ives Washburn Fellow, is a writer and editor at Amherst magazine.

Photo by Samuel Masinter '04