January 22, 2019

A Conversation with Novelist Josh Henkin

Josh Henkin will read from his new book, “Swimming Across the Hudson,” Mon., May 12, 7 p.m. at Dutton’s on San Vivente.Josh Henkin’s paternal grandfather was an Orthodox rabbi who lived in the United States for 50 years without ever learning to speak English. Still, the author was able to forge a strong connection with the old man, the kind of bond that transcended language and linked Henkin to a people and a past.

In “Swimming Across the Hudson,” Henkin’s deft and restrained debut novel, he examines such notions of connectedness and group identification through Ben, his protagonist. One of two adopted sons, Ben is raised in a bookish, upper-middle-class Jewish household, where secular liberalism and religious tradition both figure prominently. He is sent reeling into the muddy waters of identity confusion when he discovers that his biological mother — whom he had always assumed was also Jewish — isn’t.

To characterize this book as a “Who is a Jew?” novel would be crudely inaccurate. It’s more universal and emotionally layered than that. Still, as Henkin himself readily acknowledged in an interview by phone from somewhere in Kalamazoo, Mich. (one stop on a 35-city book tour), the identity questions sparked by Ben’s initial discovery seem particularly relevant in times such as ours, when the ironclad rules of destiny are at odds with a daunting array of modern choices.

What makes one a Jew? What makes one a mother or father? Or, as in the case of Ben’s brother Jonathan, a homosexual? Ben’s search for himself inevitably leads to the past, which exerts an emotional pull as strong and evocative as the Yiddish cadences of a beloved grandfather.

“The facts of this book are invented in the sense that I’m not adopted and I have two brothers, neither of whom are adopted or gay,” Henkin said. “But the feeling is true…. Adoption is a metaphor for not being able to entirely escape the past, for how we are tied to where we came from. It is also about how the communities we belong to are multiple and not always entirely by choice.”

The powerful way in which Jewish identity’s genetic component so preoccupies Henkin’s main character, the author said, partly has to do with Judaism’s uneasy position as neither a race or a faith.

“The tension between a Judaism about belief or a Judaism of descent is, I think, an uncomfortable topic for many of us, even though we often sort of accept the latter without really thinking about it,” Henkin said. “Race is essentialist. For example, it would be hard to conceive of someone discovering they were black.

“But we live with an extraordinary degree of choice that didn’t exist before…. I think that Jewish-American writers today — to the extent that they are writing fiction with Jewish content — are telling a different story than, let’s say, Roth or Bellow. This younger generation is somewhat ambivalent about assimilation.”

Much like his characters, Henkin grew up in a relatively observant home — a balance of his own father’s Orthodox upbringing and his mother’s more secular childhood.

“I still believe I’m fairly traditional,” he said. “I keep kosher. I observe Shabbat to a degree. I live in Ann Arbor, Mich., and am involved in the Michigan Hillel. My feelings about belief are complicated, and I don’t ally myself with any particular movement. For me, Judaism is largely about ritual and family. It’s not the only part of my life, but it’s an important part.”

Understandably, Henkin resists ghettoizing labels such as “Jewish fiction” or “women’s fiction,” which relegate work into artificially constructed genres and reduce writers to their ethnicity or gender. It’s a preoccupation that he regards as a sign of the times.

“Since writing this book, I have gotten a few hostile questions, although not many,” he said. “Mostly along the lines of, ‘Who are you to write about gay characters if you’re not gay?’ and ‘Who are you to write about adoption if you weren’t adopted?’ That’s unfortunate political correctness. I had one interesting experience when a gay reading group called my publicist because they were interested in reading my book. They asked her if I was gay. When she said no, they declined, which is this silliness taken to its extreme…. It negates the very idea of what literary fiction can do. You know, I still remember a line from this character in the film “Shadowlands” who said, “I read so that I’m not alone.” For me, that really sums it up.”

Henkin will sign and read from “Swimming Across the Hudson” at Dutton’s Books in Brentwood on May 12, at 7 p.m.