With Gateway to the Moon, writer Mary Morris casts a new spell drawing water from some of her favorite wells. Her new novel is publishing today.
The Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winner for The Jazz Palace returns to Jewish history, this time spinning a family story across centuries. She puts it in motion in 1492, the year Spain expelled its Muslim and Jewish citizens and Christopher Columbus journeyed to the New World.
In Gateway to the Moon, Morris places on that voyage an interpreter she calls Luis de Torres, a Jew who has disguised himself as a Christian in order to escape the Spanish Inquisition. His descendants travel too, some settling in a little town called Entrada de la Luna in what will eventually be New Mexico. The legacy of Crypto-Judaism, secret adherence to Judaism amid an outward appearance of religious conformity, settles in too.
In her acknowledgments, Morris writes that the new work is “a story I began thinking about more than twenty-five years ago when we lived in Santa Fe and had a babysitter who believed he was a crypto-Jew. I don’t remember his name, but I remember his face and the myriad of questions he asked about Jews and Jewish rituals.” Prodded by her agent, Ellen Levine, Morris dug out her old journals from Santa Fe, which helped germinate the new novel. She dedicates it to Levine, and to her Doubleday editor, Nan A. Talese.
She also dedicates Gateway to the Moon to her husband, Larry O’Connor. Their meeting, charmingly recounted in Morris’ 2015 column for the New York Times Modern Love feature, is as soulful as the cover of her new book.
Morris, a professor of creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College, quotes the French novelist Andre Malraux in her epigraph: “The great mystery is not that we have been flung at random among the profusion of the earth and the galaxy of the stars, but that in this prison we can fashion images of ourselves sufficiently powerful to deny our nothingness.”
Mary Morris spent close to two decades crafting her jazz-soaked Chicago novel, The Jazz Palace, winner of this year’s Anisfield-Wolf award for fiction. “It is almost impossible for me to imagine that a book I began in 1997 is being recognized in that way, almost 20 years later,” she told the Playhouse Square crowd at this year’s ceremony. “Just for a cultural reference, Clinton was president and there were no cell phones.”
As is our tradition, we sat down with each of our winners during their Cleveland itinerary for a quick interview on what this recognition meant to them. Here is Morris’ turn in front of the camera:
Mary Morris, 2016 winner for fiction from Anisfield Wolf on Vimeo.
Following in our tradition, each of our winners will speak at the awards ceremony, and each will talk and read separately in a second, more intimate setting in Northeast Ohio. Mark your calendars and make plans to join us in September for a string of these illuminating events, designed to bring readers and winners into each other’s orbits.
Orlando Patterson, Lifetime Achievement
“What Have We learned About Culture, Disadvantage and Black Youth?”
Wednesday, September 14
Mary Morris, The Jazz Palace
South Euclid-Lyndhurst Branch, along with jazz pianist Jackie Warren and jazz trumpeter Kenny Davis
Cuyahoga County Public Library
Wednesday, September 14
Lillian Faderman, The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle
“A Very Long and (Almost) Victorious Battle: The Struggle for Gay Civil Rights”
The City Club of Cleveland
Friday, September 16, noon
Rowan Ricardo Phillips, Heaven
Cleveland Museum of Natural History Planetarium
Friday, September 16
Brian Seibert, What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing
Beck Center for the Arts
Friday, September 16
Five winners of the Anisfield-Wolf Book award in fiction are standing up to publicly, “as a matter of conscience, oppose, unequivocally, the candidacy of Donald J. Trump for the Presidency of the United States.”
They join Anisfield-Wolf juror Rita Dove and more than 400 writers who list eight reasons to decry Trump’s candidacy, published as an open letter on LitHub.
The novelists include this year’s winner Mary Morris (The Jazz Palace), as well as Junot Diaz (The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao), Maxine Hong Kingston (The Woman Warrior), Nicole Krauss (Great House) and Anthony Marra (A Constellation of Vital Phenomena).
“Because American history, despite periods of nativism and bigotry, has from the first been a grand experiment in bringing people of different backgrounds together, not pitting them against one another,” states the open letter as grounds for resisting Trump’s candidacy.
Those signing include the classicist Daniel Mendelsohn, the “Dear Sugar” advice columnist Cheryl Strayed and Cleveland poet Philip Metres.
The letter’s final justification states “Because the rise of a political candidate who deliberately appeals to the basest and most violent elements in society, who encourages aggression among his followers, shouts down opponents, intimidates dissenters, and denigrates women and minorities, demands, from each of us, an immediate and forceful response.”
Lyz Lenz, an Iowa blogger about parenting and pregnancy, contributed an essay, posted on Lithub alongside the open letter, suggesting that William Faulkner was prescient in creating the corrupt character Flem Snopes. Her essay is subtitled “On William Faulkner, White Trash, and 400 Years of Class War.”
“America is burning,” she writes. “You might not see the flames, but you can smell the smoke. And we’ve been set on fire by one man – Donald Trump, a Flem Snopes of our modern-era.”