Writers Resist: Jenna Blum on the Impossibility of Getting the Pink Toothpaste Back in the Tube

This is the sixth in the Writers Resist/Power of the Pen series on how authors are coping in the Trump era.

I picked today’s author because her intimate knowledge of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust fuels the intensity of her activism. Oprah named Jenna Blum in her list of Top 30 Women Writers with good reason; her work conveys important messages for today’s world.

How did the election impact you?

I have not slept well since Nov. 8th. I wake every day with a sense of dread. Instead of having happy hopes of things going well professionally and personally, I know bad things are going to happen on a daily basis and they are going to get worse. My priorities have shifted from being a full-time writer to a full-time writer and part-time activist. I feel like Trump gave me a new job I didn’t want but that nonetheless is a great privilege to have: fighting to protect our democracy. I am considering going into politics. I feel as though most of what I love about and what’s good in my country has been hijacked by a minority who believed and believes in the gleeful and glib poison fed to them by Fox & Friends and, worse, the venal creatures who invent “fake news”—i.e. outright lies. I am aghast and outraged every day and all the more determined to raise my voice against the current administration every way I know how. I always knew I loved my country—I’ve always been politically aware and often vocal—but it surprised me how patriotic I am. I’m willing to die for my country, because I don’t want to live in the dystopia the Trump administration says America is and the one they will make it be.

I’ve always been a Democrat. The first President I voted for was Bill Clinton. I disliked George W. Bush intensely for what I perceived as his folksy populism not backed up by any real intelligence, and I thought Sarah Palin was the end of times. Little did I know. For this election, I launched a social media campaign for Hillary. I also spoke out very strongly against Trump, likening his behavior, statements and policies to those seen in pre-Nazi Germany. For my birthday in October 2016, I went to the Hillary HQ in Decorah, IA—I was living at a family home in rural MN where I often go to write without distraction. We had the lone Hillary sign in a sea of Trump signs, and I ordered our Hillary signs in bulk because they kept getting ripped up. No surprise, given Trump supporters’ hooliganism at his rallies, but disturbing. Equally disturbing: the huge Trump signs on every barn, fence, house in rural IA and MN. I hoped it was an anomaly. I thought there were still more people who would vote for the sane candidate over the insane one. On Election Day, I put on my pantsuit, bought special for the occasion. I really thought Hillary would win by a narrow margin, inspiring isolated violence among Trump supporters, and then democracy would continue apace, as I had known it to my whole life. I felt as if I were going to a party. I sat down to watch the election with my fiancé and some Hillary tacos, and by the end of the night, I felt like Carrie at the prom: as if I’d had these wonderful high expectations and was now standing in my finery doused with blood.

Speaking of blood, THOSE WHO SAVE US centers around the reality of survival within and escape from Nazi Germany.

Before writing it, you had the sacred privilege of interviewing holocaust survivors for the Survivors of the Shoah Foundation. How do you think remaining survivors are reacting to the threats of religious roundups mentioned during the campaign season?

Thank you for saying my interviewing survivors was a sacred privilege. That is absolutely right and a beautiful way to put it. I don’t have contact with many of my survivors, whom I interviewed in the late 1990s—and many of them were in their 80s then. But the parallels between the Trump administration and pre-Nazi Germany are so stark and striking that I fear survivors must be terrified. At the end of almost every interview, they said, “The world should know what we went through so it will never happen again.” It is happening again.

Given your Jewish ancestry, your extensive research, and the time you spent with these wounded individuals, how have you yourself reacted?

The election has re-awakened what I call my “Anne Frank fantasies.” Ever since I was a little girl and learned I am half-Jewish, and read books like Anne’s diary and When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, I feared the Nazis would come take me away. I had a hiding space in our house in Montclair, New Jersey, in case the Nazis came marching up the driveway. The ten+ years I spent researching the conditions that led to Nazi Germany and the Holocaust for my first novel, Those Who Save Us, which included interviewing survivors for the Shoah Foundation, have given me a historical perspective on our current state of affairs that is not comforting. America is in big trouble. I waver between thinking I will have to hide a Muslim family in my house or that Trump’s police will eventually come take me away because I have been so outspoken against him.

Your character Anna is a beautiful young woman faced with horrible decisions, in part due to that very beauty. Given Trump's record of violating women, what are your thoughts about life for women as the new administration takes shape?

Based on his own behavior and admissions, Trump has little respect for women, and his ultra-conservative VP and administration are similarly bent on returning us to pre-feminism, pre-Roe v Wade, The Handmaid’s Tale conditions. I have no respect for the people who voted to put this man in office who still say they support the women in their lives, and I find the women who support Trump particularly incomprehensible. He is not “just speaking his mind.” He and his administration are going to F you up, and your daughters and grand-daughters too.

On the flip side, I was privileged to join the great protest of the Women’s March On Washington—I was the one in the pink hat, ha ha. I saw on TV the marches happening around the world on every continent. I was so heartened and moved by the legions of women and the men who support them, all working together and peacefully, to protest this administration. I believe in the strength of women, and guess what, guys, you might not be able to put this particular pink toothpaste back in the tube. #WeWillFight #StrongerTogether

Also, this is something Nazi Germany did not have: protests.

Your novella The Lucky One which appears in the book GRAND CENTRAL features a concentration camp survivor.

It was inspired by the true story of a chef who came to America and worked as a busboy, but was fired because his tattoo disturbed the diners. While murmurs about registering Muslims have died down in recent weeks, what are your thoughts about how Muslim Americans (or others) might be required to be branded, even if less literally?

When I went to the Women’s March on Washington, I was hosted the night before the March by a dear friend who is Muslim. I stayed in his home and talked writing and politics with him and his lovely wife. They have two gorgeous and creative teenage daughters. I fear for them. I fear for anyone who ”looks” Muslim to the benighted eyes of a Trump supporter. I fear Muslims will be persecuted in ways we can’t imagine, because this is the gold Jude star for a new era, so I can only wonder what the brand and persecution will look like. And I fear it will be as Jonathan M. Katz quipped on Twitter on 1/25: “First they came for the Latinos, Muslims, women, gays, poor people, intellectuals and scientists, and then it was Wednesday.”

Add the free press to this list and you’ve got an accurate picture of what I fear happening beneath this administration. We must be vigilant and #resist.

What are you working on now?

I am putting the finishing touches on Book 3, currently titled The Lost Family, which follows German-Jewish Holocaust survivor and refugee Peter Rashkin as he tries to make a life for himself in America—and the problems his past and lost family pose for the new family he creates here. The Lost Family is an emigration story, an assimilation story, and, I hope, a reflective story, mirroring much of what’s happening around us now.

Is the resulting turmoil and fear that many Americans are experiencing feeding or forming your work?

Since I was already working on a book about a refugee from Hitler’s Europe, I felt there were similarities between Peter’s experience and some of the problems refugees are facing today, so I went back and looked carefully at those sections to make sure they were expressing the full horror of what it’s like to live under an authoritarian regime and what the consequences are—immediately and across an ocean thirty years later. I hope this story resonates with readers—that they find it both compelling and uncomfortably familiar.

What are you doing to try to make a difference?

Every day on social media, on Facebook and Twitter, I post a #1MinuteActivism that my friends can do if they want to, usually consisting of calling representatives on that day’s pressing issue. (I get updates from apps like www.DailyAction.org and Countable, which sends text updates directly to your Smartphone). I marched in Washington and in Boston against the Muslim ban, and for Washington I wore a shirt with the names of over 600 people written on it who couldn’t come to the March but wanted to be there. That was an honor. I am trying to organize and maintain an online community for daily action, and I am looking into ways to concretize in-person engagement. I want to host weekly meetings at my home to create a political community that acts, whether going to the MA State House, writing postcards, or calling reps. I’m looking into ways to run for office and to use my writing voice and community to help those, like Senator Elizabeth Warren, who are already fighting back. I’m also a public speaker, so I’m changing my topics from pure writing and books to political content, if my hosts approve. For instance, I’m speaking for the Women’s National Booksellers Association, Boston chapter, here in Boston on 2/9, and I was thrilled they invited me to talk about the importance of women’s literary voices in this political climate. Hell yes. Please give me a mic and a megaphone and I will speak for you!

If you’re interested in my social media #1MInuteActivism: I’m Jenna Blum on Faceboook (as in other media) and @Jenna_Blum on Twitter. Please come say hi and yell with me, “THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE!”

What do you hope other authors will do?

I hope they will do whatever they feel called to do. Political engagement can be very personal and it’s up to each person to decide how best he or she can engage, whether by speaking out publicly in person and on social media, as one of my favorite authors, Pam Houston, does every single day—and novelists Anna Solomon, Jane Green, and Randy Susan Meyers as well. I do hope that writers WILL engage in this struggle to preserve our democracy. I don’t want to be judge-y, but I think it’s very important not to turn away. We have voices for a reason, and: “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” ~ Dr .Elie Wiesel (with whom I had the sacred privilege to study at Boston University).

Any other thoughts or comments?

Please do something every day, whatever small thing you can. #Resistance Thank you!

Jenna Blum is the New York Times and international bestselling author of novels Those Who Save Us and The Stormchasers and novella "The Lucky One" in Grand Central. Jenna is also one of Oprah's Top 30 Women Writers. Jenna divides her time between Minnesota, where she writes in a family home, and Boston, where she has taught fiction and novel workshops for Grub Street Writers since 1997. Please visit Jenna at www.jennablum.com and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Read more entries in the Writers Resist series here.

Suzanne DeWitt Hall is the author of Rumplepimple, a hilarious illustrated story book featuring a misunderstood doggy hero and his two moms. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter, or check out her website.

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