Newman, Lesléa

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NEWMAN, Lesléa

Born 5 November 1955, Brooklyn, New York

Daughter of Edward and Florence Levin Newman

In "Passover Poem" (in the collection Love Me Like You Mean It, 1987), Lesléa Newman links the two major literary themes that inform much of her writing: "Three years ago I came out as a lesbian / and came home / to my Jewishness." Lesbianism and Judaism, irreconcilable by Jewish law, become conjoined in Newman's writing, the one a mirror and counterpart of the other. Both lesbianism and Judaism, made reconcilable in her prose and poetry, become vehicles by which Newman defines herself as well as her identity as a writer. And while she does not limit her settings or characters to issues related exclusively to Judaism, the voice in her writing is unmistakably inflected with Yiddish, with the implied mannerisms and gesticulations, with the oral qualities so inherent to Yiddish, to a language of urgency and intimacy.

Jewish identity and lesbian sexuality, for Newman, fundamental consequences of circumstance and history, preoccupy her writing, and their intersection provides the lens through which her characters, narrators, and personae navigate the tensions and contradictions of contemporary American life, all within the frame of historical conditions of persecution, specifically homophobia and anti-Semitism. As Newman herself puts it: "I don't know what would have happened to my writing if there hadn't been raging anti-Semitism."

A poet, novelist, essayist, and short story writer, Newman's writing might be said to be largely political, in that issues and concerns—such as homophobia, anti-Semitism, feminism, eating disorders, AIDS, sexual abuse, identity politics, generational conflict, bearing witness to suffering and the transgressions of silence—permeate her work. The political is always linked with the personal in Newman's writing, an alliance that brings to her work its characteristic depth and ironic and deeply felt sensibilities.

In "A Letter for Harvey Milk" (in A Letter to Harvey Milk and Other Stories, 1988), Newman recreates the 1978 murder of Harvey Milk, the gay and much beloved San Francisco city councilman, gunned down by Dan White, prosecuted in the infamous "twinkie trial." But she does so through personal narrative, through letters written by the story's first person protagonist, Harry Weinberg, an elderly Jew who, despite his conviction that "what's past is past…suffering and more suffering…I ain't got no stories," relates a devastating event that took place in a concentration camp, more than 30 years before the immediate time frame of the story, so "the world shouldn't forget."

In this multilayered and complex narrative, Harry's story is told to the frame-story's competing protagonist, a young lesbian teacher who has been rejected by her parents because of her professed sexual identity and whose grandparents refuse to talk to her about their lives as Jews in the shtetlach (remotely located Jewish villages, places of isolation and pogroms) of pre-World War II Europe. The one story of persecution and suffering, the murder of Harvey Milk, gives way to other stories of suffering and oppression, both personal and collective, stories whose personal expression of pain and alienation are part of an ongoing history of communal trauma. "A Letter to Harvey Milk" is a paradigmatic piece in the lengthy and variegated compilation of Newman's collected works. In a characteristically personal and personalized voice, the political is realized through stories of individual suffering, and the quotidian and seemingly insignificant lives of ordinary people become the motive and catalyst for change.

Newman, the recipient of numerous literary awards, including the James Baldwin Award for Cultural Achievement, a Pushcart Prize Nomination, and a Poetry Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, is also a playwright, a children's author, has written a film version of the short story "A Letter to Harvey Milk" (1990), and has written and edited a number of works of nonfiction. She holds a certificate in poetics from the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado (1980). Additionally, her stories and poems have appeared in a number of periodicals and anthologies.

Other Works:

Just Looking for My Shoes (1980). Good Enough to Eat (1986). After All We've Been Through (1989). Bubbe Meisehs by Shayneh Maidelehs: An Anthology of Poetry by Jewish Granddaughters About Our Grandmothers (1989). Heather Has Two Mommies (1990). Secrets (1990). Belinda's Bouquet (1991). Gloria Goes to Gay Pride (1991). Rage (1991). Some Body to Love: A Guide to Loving the Body You Have (1991). Sweet Dark Places (1991). In Every Laugh a Tear (1992). Saturday Is Pattyday (1993). Writing from the Heart: Inspirations and Exercises for Women Who Want to Write (1993). My Lover Is a Woman: Contemporary Lesbian Love Poems (1996). Pillow Talk: Lesbian Stories Between the Covers (1998). Too Far Away to Touch (1998).


Reference works:

CA 126. Jewish American Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical and Critical Source-book (1994).

Other references:

Bay Area Reporter (11 Oct. 1990, Aug. 1991). Newsweek (7 Jan. 1991). NYTBR (27 Aug. 1995, 28 July 1996). PW (20 May 1988). Sojourner (Aug. 1989, Aug. 1990). Small Press Book Review (July/Aug. 1988). TLS (13-19 Nov. 1987).