Susan Faludi Talks In the Darkroom
Cambridge’s Susan Faludi, who will take the stage as the Boston Book Festival’s memoir keynote speaker in October, has earned the distinction of being one of the nation’s premier writers on gender issues. She made her name with two landmark books, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women and Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man.
With her latest work, Faludi finds herself examining gender in a way that hits closer to home than those previous journalistic endeavors: In the Darkroom ($32, Metropolitan Books) follows her efforts to get to know her semi-estranged father after he emailed her in 2004 to say he’d undergone a sex-change operation.
After their initial email communication, she spent years flying back and forth to Budapest, Hungary. Her father was born there and spent some harrowing years there evading the Nazis during World War II before eventually making her way to the U.S., but she’d moved back years later, a decision Faludi strives to understand in the book. Doing so meant investigating Faludi’s own sense of herself as a Jew, as well as what it means to be Hungarian, particularly in light of that country’s recent tilt towards the hard right, politically.
“There is a certain melancholy and folkiness to the Hungarian temperament that I recognized in myself and I thought: Well, that’s interesting, I wonder if I am more Hungarian that I understood,” she says. “I felt more Jewish, being in Hungary particularly, as time went on and the anti-Semitism in the country became more and more overt, which was an intensification of the reason I felt Jewish in the first place, growing up in a neighborhood with a fair number of anti-Semites.”
It wasn’t the easiest journalistic process, however. “My father was definitely my most challenging reportorial find,” admits Faludi with a laugh. “Over the years, I realized that my father and I were in a kind of almost tai chi form of journalism, where just as soon as I leaned toward my father would lean away, and so I learned to mask my intentness in finding certain bits of information.”
Despite the hours and hours of interviews, Faludi doesn’t feel she totally captured her subject, saying “I don’t feel that I nailed my father down entirely. She remained elusive to the end.”
Faludi’s father never read the book, despite her offering the opportunity. “I think my father most of all wanted to be perceived. It didn’t matter so much how—well, I think it mattered—but I think she wanted to be seen, to be seen whole.”
And she’s aware of the irony of a writer known for writing about gender issues having to confront it on such a personal level.
“I always looked at gender from a bit of a distance,” Faludi says. Examining it in her family was a departure for her. “I couldn’t really move forward in writing about gender issues without admitting to my own experience and grappling honestly with it.”
October 15, Copley Square, 857-259-6999, bostonbookfest.org.