Schulman, Sarah 1958–
Schulman, Sarah 1958–
Schulman, Sarah 1958–
Born July 28, 1958, in New York, NY. Education: Empire State College, B.A. Religion: Jewish.
Home—New York, NY.
Writer, journalist, playwright, and educator. College of Staten Island, City University of New York, Staten Island, professor of English. MIX: NY Lesbian and Gay Experimental Film Festival, cofounder with Jim Hubbard, 1986—. Worked as a waitress, stagehand, secretary, and messenger. Active in movements for social change, including the peace movement, the reproductive rights movement, the gay liberation movement, and the movement for tenants' rights, with organizations, including The AIDS Activist Movement and ACT UP Oral History Project.
Lesbian Avengers (cofounder).
Video grant from Kitchen Media Bureau, 1982; Fulbright fellow, 1984; Guggenheim fellow for playwrighting; Fulbright Scholarship for Judaic Studies; New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowships in Fiction (two), New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Playwrighting; Stonewall Award for Improv- ing the Lives of Gays and Lesbians in the United States; residencies at MacDowell (six); residencies at Yaddo (three); Revson Fellow for the Future of New York City at Columbia University; Institute for the Humanities at New York University fellow; American Library Association Book Awards (two), for both fiction and nonfiction; Finalist, Prix de Rome in Fiction.
The Sophie Horowitz Story, Naiad Press (Tallahassee, FL), 1984.
Girls, Visions, and Everything, Seal Press (Seattle, WA), 1986.
After Delores, Dutton (New York, NY), 1988.
People in Trouble, Dutton (New York, NY), 1990.
Empathy, Dutton (New York, NY), 1992.
Rat Bohemia, Dutton (New York, NY), 1995.
Shimmer, Bard (New York, NY), 1998.
The Child: A Novel, Carroll & Graf Publishers (New York, NY), 2007.
(With Robin Epstein) Art Failures, produced in New York City, 1983.
(With Robin Epstein) Whining and Dining, produced in New York City, 1984.
(And coproducer) When We Were Very Young: Radical Jewish Women on the Lower East Side, produced in New York City, 1984.
(And coproducer) The Swashbuckler (based on the story by Lee Lynch), produced in New York City, 1985.
(With Robin Epstein) Epstein on the Beach (three-act), produced in New York City, 1985.
Hootenanny Night, produced in New York City, 1986.
The Burning Deck, produced by the Page-to-Stage program of the La Jolla Playhouse, 2003.
Carson McCullers: (Historically Inaccurate): A Drama, Playscripts (New York, NY), 2006.
Manic Flight Reaction, produced at Playwrights Horizons in New York City, 2006.
(Adapter) Enemies, A Love Story (based on the novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer), produced at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia, PA, 2007.
(Contributor) Melanie Kaye Kantrowitz and Irena Klepfisz, editors, The Tribe of Dinah: Writings by Jewish Women, Sinister Wisdom Press (Berkeley, CA), 1985.
(Contributor) Faith Conlon, Rachel Da Silva, and Barbara Wilson, editors, Things That Divide Us, Seal Press (Seattle, WA), 1985.
My American History: Lesbian and Gay Life during the Reagan/Bush Years, Routledge (New York, NY), 1994.
Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America, Duke University Press (Durham, NC), 1998.
Sarah Schulman's work, which includes novels, plays, and a collection of nonfiction articles, is perhaps most notable for the manner in which she gives her readers perspective into the everyday lives of gay and lesbian individuals. Holly Metz gave an introduction to Schulman's style in her article for Progressive: "When I called to arrange an interview, Schulman suggested we meet in a cafe in her neighborhood … [that] had been established by waitresses who'd defected from the area's omnipresent Polish/Ukrainian coffee shops and then banded together to start a place of their own. It was the kind of intriguing, class-conscious, real-life detail one finds in a Sarah Schulman novel." Schulman's typical fictional protagonists are "out" lesbians, but, "unlike some gay characters crafted by straight authors or by self-policing gay writers, Schulman's protagonist expresses the full range of human emotion, including rage and jealousy," Metz pointed out. Kinky Friedman commented in the New York Times Book Review that Schulman's 1988 novel After Delores "is as raw as fresh-shucked oysters and redolent with ragged charm. The plight of the protagonist is poignantly set out." Friedman added: "Ms. Schulman writes with a stumbling grace, and she looks at the world from a fragile, refreshingly jaded angle. It is surprising how long the characters … stay with you after you put down the book."
In the New York Times Book Review, Edmund White described Schulman's Rat Bohemia, a novel "about a lesbian who is chronicling a community plagued by AIDS," as containing "gimlet-eyed accuracy," "zero-degree honesty," and "charnelhouse humor. AIDS burnout has at last found its bard in Sarah Schulman." White added: "There are few other works of fiction that I could compare with Rat Bohemia. … Even her own earlier books, like People in Trouble and Empathy, despite the fact that they, too, take place in the East Village and deal with AIDS, carry none of the emotional punch of Rat Bohemia. The force of her indignation is savage and has blown the traditional novel off its hinges. If she were contributing to the quilt project, her quilt would be on fire."
Rat Bohemia is a novel that, unusually, is written in four distinct sections. A Publishers Weekly contributor found the construction disconcerting, remarking that, "other than the presence of the principal characters and a theme of resentment of parents," the story is "a meandering tale of a city so befouled that it leaves the reader wishing for a bath." Vivian Gornick of the Women's Review of Books criticized the novel for unsuccessfully employing the technique of repetition; she writes: "The whole book is a street-smart lament—for these characters the missing parents are an endless devastation—and its problem is the universal problem of the literature of lament. A sense of loss is announced repeatedly, without change and without development." However, Gornick also found Rat Bohemia "oddly moving: It has the power to haunt long after the last page is turned. One feels the melancholy and the grit behind the collective speaking voice."
In a review of Schulman's My American History: Lesbian and Gay Life during the Reagan/Bush Years for Nation, Jan Clausen noted: "The direct, assertive style and the provocative conclusion … are classic Schulman, risking distortion in order to make a valuable point." Another reflection of Schulman's risk-taking as a way to enact change could be seen in 1992, when she and her "major mentor" Maxine Wolfe founded the Lesbian Avengers, a political-action group whose "actions are distinguished by their boldness," according to Metz. Using her book tours to distribute Lesbian Avenger materials, Schulman's organization has spread to several chapters. As Schulman told Metz, "the major goal of the Lesbian Avengers is to transform the lives of the Lesbian Avengers. It's not a vanguardist organization, it's a mass organization…. The people who are in it are the people who do not have rights, who are trying to win rights for themselves. For them to build community, to learn political skills, to participate in political rebellion, to be a part of a national network, is transforming their own quality of life."
In her 1998 nonfiction book, Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America, Schulman ruminates on the similarities between the characters in her novel People in Trouble and the New York hit play Rent. The author combines a behind-the-scenes look at New York theater culture with a personal account of how mainstream artists co-opt the work of fringe or marginal artists to obtain authenticity and diversity. She goes on to develop another theme focusing on how AIDS and the gay experience are represented in American art and commerce, presenting her case that they are rapidly becoming a demographic made palatable for niche marketing. Closely recounting her discovery of the ways in which Rent took materials from People in Trouble, the author also describes her follow-up efforts to seek legal restitution. "To believe Schulman's argument that AIDS and homosexuality have been dressed up for mass dissemination and maximum profit, one need look no further than the corridors of Washington or the nearest magazine rack," commented Mark J. Huisman in a review for the Nation. Writing for Salon.com, Ted Gideonse noted that in Stagestruck the author "combines her bizarre Kafkaesque tale and an utterly damning analysis of the popular cultural depictions of AIDS and homosexuality."
Also published in 1998 was Schulman's novel Shimmer. The story focuses on three New Yorkers whose lives collide in 1948 as they face the Red Scare and try to embark on successful careers. Sylvia Golubowsky is an aspiring reporter while Austin Van Cleeve is a notorious gossip columnist. A Columbia University graduate seeking to start a Negro theater on Broadway rounds out the main characters. Maxine Chernoff, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, commented that the author "introduces three distinctive characters making their way in the small, clubby world of New York newspapers and theater." In a review for the Advocate, Robert Plunket noted that he "started reading out of duty but soon found myself eager to return to" the novel. Plunket added: "It's like a wonderful old '40s movie come to life, only this time with all the sex, racism, etc., right on the surface. It's beautifully written, prodigiously researched."
Schulman's 2007 book, The Child: A Novel, "examines the dynamic of cause and effect between sanctioned manifestations of homophobia and the consequential alienation and madness (low-flame or combusted) still suffered by many gays and lesbians," according to LA Weekly contributor Ernest Hardy. The novel, based on a real case, focuses on Stew, a fifteen-year-old whose newfound, online boyfriend is arrested for pedophilia. In the process, Stew's secret life is revealed, leading Stew to panic and murder his nephew. Looking at how the series of events affects all those around Stew, including his parents and the wider the community, the author nevertheless focuses primarily on the young teenager, whose natural feelings are denied an outlet during a critical time in his life.
"I based the book on the structure of John Grisham novels," Schulman told Carol Guess in an interview for the Lambda Book Report. "There is the case, and there is the story of the lawyer who handles the case. And eventually the case has consequences on the lawyer's life. It's a classic crime novel structure, with unclassic characters and events. Since each section is from the interior point of view of different characters, each POV shift has a stylistic change and many moments have rhythmic changes that express formally the emotion at the core of the event."
Several reviewers had strong praise for The Child. "This is a book to be discussed in part because of its empathetic depiction of queer characters and its condemnation of familial and societal homophobia," wrote Carol Guess in a review in the Lambda Book Report. "But this is also a deeply engaging story about believable characters at work and play in this queer country." A Publishers Weekly contributor commented that the author "crafts a piercing investigation into desire, mores and the law."
Schulman has also adapted for the stage the novel Enemies, A Love Story by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Following the novel closely, the play takes place in 1949 and focuses on Herman, a Jewish Holocaust survivor who weds a German woman who saved his life, then discovers that his first wife also survived the Holocaust, and ultimately marries a third woman. Noting that she first became aware of the work via the 1989 movie adaptation of the novel, the author commented to Theatermania contributor Dan Bacalzo that the story "spoke to me because my grandmother had two sisters who were killed in the Holocaust. Even though I had no direct survivors in my immediate group, my family was very impacted." The author went on to say: "There were a lot of things in the movie that were familiar to me, such as the way people were yelling at each other, and angry at each other, even though they weren't hurting each other. The pain was caused by somebody else. It's about the emotional consequences of trauma."
"My goal is to write books with an assumption of lesbianism," Schulman told CA, "so that women who work all week in boring jobs where they have to be in the closet can come home, kick off their shoes, and have something to read that speaks to them. I also see myself in the tradition of populist writing, because my characters are the people who inhabit the urban scenery of New York City but who are rarely recorded in fiction or theater. My audience is composed of the same kind of people who are my characters, and that makes for a very exciting dynamic. My writing has to be emotionally authentic."
When asked what first got her interested in writing, Schulman replied: "I was read to as a child, which was crucial. At an early age I was handed The Diary of Anne Frank. This was intended to teach me about the Holocaust, but it also let me know that girls could be writers. At the age of six I started a diary. I wrote, ‘When I grow up, I will write books.’"
When asked about her influences, Schulman responded: "Grace Paley told me that writers choose their themes when they are very young and deepen their understanding of the same issues as they grow. For me, the key subject that I am grappling with, while being funny, is the consequence of oppression on people's emotional lives."
Describing her writing process, Schulman told CA: "I work regularly and have since I was a child. I would say that writing is a way of life and takes place in different times and ways over the course of each day."
Schulman added that the most surprising thing she had learned as a writer was the "investment of the dominant culture in false representations."
When asked which of her own books was her favorite and why, Schulman replied: "Today my favorite moment is the scene in Shimmer where Calvin Byfield, a black playwright trying to get his plays produced in New York City after World War II, is sitting on a bench reading a newspaper about the blacklist. He sees that the exclusion of white males from power is news, whereas his own exclusion is just the way things are, and that some people on the blacklist are still able to get their work done through fronts or pseudonyms. He realizes that he can't get enough power to get blacklisted, because he's simply black."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Advocate, December 1, 1992, review of Empathy, p. 113; September 29, 1998, Robert Plunket, review of Shimmer, p. 69.
Booklist, September 15, 1998, Jack Helbig, review of Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America, p. 185.
Entertainment Weekly, January 29, 1993, Margot Mifflin, review of Empathy, p. 53.
Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, November-December, 2007, "‘What Ever Happened to Complexity?’ David Bergman Chats with the Author of The Child."
Lambda Book Report, September, 1998, Bertha Harris, review of Shimmer, p. 23; December, 1998, Carolyn Gage, review of Stagestruck, p. 17; summer, 2007, Carol Guess, review of The Child: A Novel, p. 17; June 22, 2007, "Sarah Schulman," p. 16.
Library Journal, January, 1985, review of The Sophie Horowitz Story, p. 89; August, 1995, review of Rat Bohemia, p. 120; August, 1998, Howard E. Miller, review of Stagestruck, p. 93, and Lisa S. Nussbaum, review of Shimmer, p. 134; June 15, 2007, Caroline Mann, review of The Child, p. 57.
Nation, May 21, 1990, Dan Bellm, review of People in Trouble, p. 715; November 14, 1994, Jan Clausen, review of My American History: Lesbian and Gay Life during the Reagan/Bush Years; March 8, 1999, Mark J. Huisman, review of Stagestruck, p. 28.
New York Times Book Review, May 15, 1988, Kinky Friedman, review of After Delores, p. 14; July 8, 1990, review of People in Trouble, p. 16; January 28, 1996, Edmund White, review of Rat Bohemia, p. 31.
Progressive, October, 1994, Holly Metz, "Sarah Schulman," interview with author, p. 37.
Publishers Weekly, October 12, 1984, review of The Sophie Horowitz Story, p. 47; September 19, 1986, review of Girls, Visions, and Everything, p. 139; October 5, 1992, review of Empathy, p. 52; September 25, 1995, review of Rat Bohemia, p. 44.
San Francisco Chronicle, August 30, 1998, Maxine Chernoff, "McCarthyism's Private Side," review of Shimmer.
Times Literary Supplement, March 8, 1991, review of People in Trouble, p. 18; December 20, 1991, Mary Ritter Beard, review of Girls, Visions, and Everything, p. 25; May 14, 1993, Jean Hanff Korelitz, review of Empathy, p. 24; July 27, 1998, review of Shimmer, p. 55; April 16, 2007, review of The Child, p. 30.
Village Voice, August 30, 1988, review of After Delores, p. 51; April 17, 1990, review of People in Trouble, p. 79.
Women's Review of Books, March, 1985, review of The Sophie Horowitz Story, p. 14; November, 1994, Irene Elizabeth Stroud, review of My American History, p. 5; November, 1998, Ann Pellegrini, review of Stagestruck, p. 16.
ACT UP New York Web site,http://www.actupny.org/ (June 12, 2008), "Interview with Jim Hubbard and Sarah Schulman."
City Pages,http://citypages.com/ (June 11, 1997), Kate Sullivan, "Queering Rent," profile of author.
LA Weekly,http://www.laweekly.com/ (July 11, 2007), Ernest Hardy, "Sarah Schulman's The Child: The Toxic Machine."
New Internationalist,http://www.newint.org/ (June 12, 2008), Vanessa Baird, "Sarah Schulman," profile of author.
Salon.com,http://www.salon.com/ (June 12, 2008), Ted Gideonse, review of Stagestruck.
Slate,http://www.slate.com/ (November 23, 2005), June Thomas, "Sarah Schulman: The Lesbian Writer Rent Ripped Off."
Theatermania,http://www.theatermania.com/ (February 8, 2007), Dan Bacalzo, "Behind Enemies' Lines; Sarah Schulman discusses her adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer's Enemies, A Love Story."
Weekly Wire,http://weeklywire.com/ (January 4, 1999), Jon Garelick, "Sarah Schulman's Brilliant Critique of the Mainstreaming of Gay Culture," review of Stagestruck.