Lawrence author Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg discusses her new book ‘Miriam’s Well,’ a modern retelling of Exodus
Lawrence author and former Kansas Poet Laureate Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg will kick off her national book tour this weekend in her adopted hometown. On Saturday, for her newest novel, “Miriam’s Well,” Mirriam-Goldberg will host readings, a workshop and other activities at the Lawrence Public Library and the Lawrence Jewish Community Congregation.
In “Miriam’s Well,” Mirriam-Goldberg draws from the story of her Hebrew namesake, the biblical character Miriam, whose magical “well” is said to have provided water to the Israelites during their 40-year trek to the Holy Land. In Mirriam-Goldberg’s novel, released last month, Miriam is reimagined as a modern woman “torn between her roots as the Jewish daughter of a black father and white mother” who seeks her own version of the promised land.
It’s the biblical Exodus, reinterpreted as a cross-country American road trip through the eyes of Mirriam-Goldberg’s thoroughly modern Miriam.
Here, in a condensed and edited version of her chat with the Journal-World, the author discusses her roots, her inspiration and her mission to share “Miriam’s Well” with America.
“Miriam’s Well” is a modern retelling of Exodus, drawing from the biblical story of Miriam. Why take on this story of literally biblical proportions now? Or have you been thinking about this for a while?
Well, when I started this, I had no idea what the world would be going to right now, because I’d been working on this novel 14 years. But I’d always been drawn to mythology and in the Jewish tradition what we call midrash, which is close readings and new interpretations of sacred texts to find how they speak to our lives now. My first book of poems is called “Lot’s Wife,” and I think that came out in about 2000. That’s a retelling of all these biblical stories and Greek and Roman myths and folktales and so on, from other points of view — usually voices we don’t hear, which usually means women. I’ve also always been fascinated by Miriam in the Bible in the story of Exodus, because (after) reading between the lines, which is what midrash is about, and reading many commentaries over the years, I really get the sense that she was one of the real organizers of the Exodus in that myth, in that story. And there are several things in the Bible itself that point directly to her. One is that she led the women’s singing and dancing for many years, and my Miriam is someone who sings and leads people in finding their voice and ways to come together as a community. And there’s also this very intriguing biblical magic story of Miriam’s well. In the Bible, she has a rock that she does some cosmic magic trick with that makes a well appear wherever the wandering Jews land during their 40 years of wandering the desert. And once they have a well, they can then water their animals, feed themselves, grow food. So, it basically feeds people, which is why my Miriam cooks and bakes.
I was drawn to those stories, but then, I’m also drawn to questions of, ‘What does it mean to live now?’ and ‘How do we do live?’ And Miriam is somebody who’s so guided by her purpose in life. She knows very strongly where she has to be and what she has to do, although she rarely knows exactly why. But she struggles quite a bit to find her people and her place, and for most of us, we have quite a journey in trying to figure out “what’s my purpose in life? Where do I belong? Who are my people? How am I to live?” And those are the questions the novel grapples with through Miriam’s life and through the lives of many other characters, too.
The book documents Miriam’s road trip across America and the people she meets along the way. I think you’ve referred to this plot as “Forrest Gump” meets “The Red Tent.” Did you draw from any experiences or road trips you’ve taken?
I tried very hard to only have her go places I’ve been, or have her go places that I could then go to, so I could get a deeper sense of those places. I think it’s hard to write authentically about a place just by reading about it. There are some places I particularly love. We went on our honeymoon to extreme west Texas, Big Bend, all those places way out there. We went back 30 years later and I fell in love with the town of Alpine. So, I originally had Miriam living in another town out in that area, and I came back and I thought, “You know, she would be in Alpine.” So by going there, I kind of found where she would be.
For the most part, she (Miriam) went places where I’ve been, but I also spent several years researching history and researching stories that are tied to these places — myths as well as realities, such as when the (Florida) Keys seceded from the U.S. in kind of a whimsical way. You know, in Key West, pelting a federal official with stale Cuban bread, and then five minutes later applying for foreign aid. So, I integrated some of those things into the book as well as the Whittier (Narrows) earthquake and the AIDS crisis and 9/11 and other such places. I helped a friend move to Laramie (Wyoming) and visited her a few times, and that kind of brought me to that part of Wyoming.
I didn’t have her (Miriam) go to Lawrence, but she thought about it. I tried very hard to have her go to places that felt representational as to what our country has been through in the last 50, 60 years. And there are big gaps where she didn’t travel and I didn’t travel. But I also had her go to many places that are off the map — places where she and other characters would joke that they had just left America by arriving there. Such as Key West and what feels like the end of the country, or an island off Maine, or the (Native American) reservation where she spent some time, or even the eco-village in North Carolina where she lived for awhile. Places that put forth alternative views of how we might live, because she is somebody who finds herself in the margins a lot.
You were born and raised in New York–
And New Jersey.
Right, and New Jersey. And you probably grew up in an environment where you were around a lot more people who shared your faith than there are here in Kansas, I’m guessing. When you moved here from that East Coast, Jewish upbringing, did you ever feel like a stranger in a strange land? Are there times when you still feel that way?
It’s kind of yes and no. I have been so blessed to be part of one of the most wonderful Jewish communities in this town, in Lawrence, Kansas. And we have a very inclusive, eclectic and extremely diverse (Jewish) community. If you can imagine a church where Baptists are together with Unitarians (laughs), you get a sense of how diverse it is. And it has been a fabulous place to be part of. You know, our children were raised in this community, and when they’re off in other parts of the country, they just say there’s nothing like it.
I feel like I have my people here, not just in the Lawrence Jewish community, but in the Lawrence community. And the first time I ever arrived in Lawrence, when I was just passing through in 1982, I was spending the night at somebody’s house and I was walking up the steps to a bungalow in East Lawrence, and let’s just say I had an experience where I felt this voice over my shoulder that just said, ‘This is your home the rest of your life.’ And the next day, I met the man I married. So, I really feel like I have my place and my people here, and I’m very, very lucky to have that.
But I’ve also traveled with the (Kansas) Humanities Council and as Poet Laureate all over the state, and I’ve gone to many places where I’m the first Jew that they’ve met. I’ve presented books of Jewish content through the Humanities Council, and very quickly through those discussions it turns to questions about being Jewish. At first it was a little surprising, but then I came to embrace it, because I feel like it’s a way to have very deep and meaningful dialogue with people. And writing a book about the Holocaust, “Needle in the Bone,” which I wrote about two Lawrence residents, Jarek Piekalkewicz and Lou Frydman. And talking to people about that, I further connected with communities that were really different from where I was raised. But all along, I have felt like part of my work is to help be part of those dialogues wherever it’s possible.
As you mentioned earlier, the book takes Miriam to the scenes of so many tragedies in American history — Hurricane Katrina, the AIDs crisis, 9/11. And one of the themes running through the book is this American ideal of coming together in tragedy, of the resilience of the human spirit and our ability to rebuild and move forward. Do you worry that some of that has been lost in recent years as our country has become so polarized and divided?
You land on a very good question, because the more divided we are, the less resilient we are. And we live in Lawrence, Kansas, so people would say we’re in a little bit of a bubble. But I think it’s really important to find ways to both take care of ourselves and do what our work in the world is and reach out to people who are very different from us, and kind of get to know where they’re coming from and who they are. And one of the ways I think about that in this book and in my own life is, you know, we all have a huge amount to learn about healing some of the racial divides in our country. Miriam is somebody who grew up with a black father, but passes so much as white, and she was raised in such a white community that she’s been immune, at least growing up, to some of those issues. But she bumps against them in the book. And I find in my own life that I’ll read an article or speak to somebody and feel an inch more woken up each day, hopefully.
You know, we all have so much to learn. How do we really understand experiences that are very different from those that are often portrayed in the mainstream, of the more privileged positions in our culture that are given the most attention? So, one thing that motivated me in this book was trying to get deeply into narratives of people we don’t hear about. Miriam works with homeless people, and of course she has connections to a Native American community, and she’s hanging out with drag queens in Key West and people living off the grid in North Carolina. And she’s kind of getting to know there are people who are differently abled, there are people with very diverse ethnic backgrounds, and she’s trying to find a way to make a community wherever she lands.
You set up a GoFundMe page to raise money toward a national book tour. Why is it so important to you to take this book on the road and discuss it on a national level?
Yeah, I do have book readings in 16 or more different states. One reason is simply that I think this is a book that speaks to where we’ve been moving toward in the last few decades. You know, how do you find your people, your place, your purpose when people do move around so much? When a lot of us are kind of migrating here or there in different ways, how do you develop and hold onto a sense of community? One of the great questions in literature is often conveyed as individual versus community — people who strike out on their own and then they’re shunned by the community, or people who suppress all and they’re part of a community. I’ve been thinking a lot about what this novel has to say about belonging and what it can mean to belong to yourself, and from there, to find your people but also find ways to connect with people who are very different from you. And Miriam, even within her own family, her brothers Aaron and Moses are on extremely different life paths from her. I feel like it can be of value to people to read a story that speaks to that, and a story that I hope encourages people to build their own resilience and their own courage so that they can follow what life is calling them to do.
The other reason I wanted to get this out there is simply because I’ve worked on it so long. It’s one of my big life works. And I find doing readings is such a great way to have conversations with people. You know, as you’re reading, you can kind of feel people listening — or, in some cases, not listening — and find ways to just feel that kind of connection that lifts you up. So, I get a lot out of doing that. I get a lot out of leading writing workshops where people write about their own lives and myths and histories that speak to those lives.
What’s next for you?
For years, I’ve been envisioning a book set in Lawrence that covers about 30, 40 years of a group of women friends, told from different perspectives. I seem to really like grappling with history. My first degree was actually in history — American history — so I’ve come back to that. And I also have a book of poems I’ve been working on a long time about time and how time moves. And I have a collection of essays about living in place. I tend to work on books for 10 to 15 years quite often, but I work on three or four books at once. I find that works really well for me as a writer. I don’t believe in writer’s block. I think if we hit a wall, we just go where the energy is, and we wait for our writing to catch up with us, or for us to catch up with our writing.
I’m really excited to do the book launch in Lawrence because Lawrence is such a vibrant community where we do come together, to some extent, from many diverse places, and at our best, we’re able to hear one another and listen deeply.
If you go
What: To celebrate the release of her newest book, “Miriam’s Well,” Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg will host a workshop based on midrash, the Hebrew tradition of “reinterpreting and re-visioning our guiding myths and messages to foster greater meaning, freedom, and authenticity.” Activities include writing prompts, discussion and plenty of humor.
When: 4 to 6 p.m. Saturday
Where: Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vermont St.
How much: The event is free, but registration is required beforehand. For more information, visit www.lawrence.bibliocommons.com/events.
What: The Lawrence Jewish Community Congregation invites the public to attend a reading of “Miriam’s Well,” accompanied by a short Havdalah service to welcome the new week. The event will also celebrate “Miriam’s Well” and the novel’s culinary motifs with pies from Ladybird Diner and appetizers and desserts from some of the recipes featured in the book.
When: 7:30 to 9 p.m. Saturday
Where: Lawrence Community Jewish Congregation, 917 Highland Drive.
How much: The event itself is free. Staff from The Raven Book Store will be on hand selling copies of “Miriam’s Well” for those interested in purchasing the book.