The Curious Case of Walter Mosley

Nov 30, 2011
2010 September-October, Culture

Mosley’s fictional worlds are also filled with Jewish characters who, like their black brethren, are also sympathetically portrayed outsiders. In his 11 Easy Rawlins novels, Easy gets help from a Jewish detective, Saul Lynx, who is married to a black woman. Lynx even takes a bullet for Easy in Black Betty. To some readers, Ben Dibbuk, the protagonist in Mosley’s 2007 book of erotica, Diablerie, recalls dybbuks, the wandering spirits of the dead that invade the living in Jewish folklore. In A Red Death, set during the 1950s witch hunts, an FBI agent asks Rawlins to spy on the Polish-Jewish community in Los Angeles, which the agent believes to be a hotbed of godless socialist activism. And in Fearless Jones, also set in 1950s Los Angeles, Paris Minton—a black bookstore owner in Watts who sells public library cast-offs—is questioned by police about the death of Holocaust survivor Fanny Tannenbaum. Noting the derision in the cop’s voice when he describes Fanny and her husband Sol as Jews, Paris observes, “Jew turned to nigger in my ears, and I started to dislike the cop.”

In recent months, there has been a resurgence of interest in Mosley as a Jewish writer, sparked largely by Harold Heft, a former literature professor who contributed to a 1997 compendium on contemporary Jewish American novelists and noticed that Mosley had been excluded. In “Easy Call,” an article for the Jewish online magazine Tablet published in April, Heft made the case for Mosley’s inclusion in the Jewish-American literary canon, arguing that there is “a profoundly Jewish dimension” in his work. “What is a Jewish writer, and what is a Jewish theme?” Heft asked. “If a writer is unambiguously Jewish, doesn’t it follow that any story he or she commits to paper contains, by definition, Jewish themes, whether that story involves bubbe telling shtetl folktales over a steaming pot of chicken soup, or a black detective in Los Angeles living in the 1950s?”

The first Mosley book Heft read was The Man in My Basement, a 2004 novel about an unemployed, often-drunk African-American man living in the family’s 200-year-old home in Sag Harbor, New York. Charles Blakey is on the verge of losing his house when a white man, Anniston Bennet, offers to rent out the basement so he can imprison himself to atone for his sins. Downstairs, Blakey becomes a warden eliciting gruesome tales of Bennet’s record of child murder while upstairs he trolls through the Blakey family archives, discovering the richness of his heritage. The book is “a hidden little gem” that would have gotten a lot more attention if it had been written by an Ishmael Reed rather than someone known for mystery novels, says Derek Maus, an associate professor of English at the State University of New York at Potsdam, co-editor of Finding a Way Home: A Critical Assessment of Walter Mosley’s Fiction. “Mosley was a victim of his own success in what is often perceived as an unserious genre,” explains Maus. For Heft, the book was an eye-opening introduction, but it was years before he learned that Mosley was Jewish. He wondered if it was a coincidence, or whether “there was something all along that was speaking to me as a Jew?”

To Mosley, the debate over whether he is or is not a Jewish author comes as no surprise. “It doesn’t bother me because I understand,” he told Heft last year. “You have Jewish thinkers who wouldn’t include me, because they see Jews in America as white people.” For his own part, he is comfortable with the identities he inherited from his parents. Even in the kitchen, the two cultures merged. “Every kind of ethnicity is great with me,” he says. “If it’s soul food or kreplach, I’m going to be eating it.” In interviews, he talks openly about his Jewish roots. “My mother’s a Jew and that makes me a Jew. That means they would take me in Israel,” he told Heft.

12 thoughts on “The Curious Case of Walter Mosley

  1. pat says:

    Walter Mosely has bddn a long time favorite of mine. It’s good hearing how he got started.

  2. Grantman says:

    Looking forward to reading the article but your multiple pages format to gain ad impressions for your advertisers is a PIA. You should have a print friendly button. There are those of us who like to print out the articles and read them at our leisure and not online all the time.

  3. Dee Riley says:

    I loved this article about Walter Mosley. Although I have not read much of his work I love his idea and philosophy about writing. I read some pages from a book he wrote on the subject of writing and it is from that I feel motivated to continue writing in my own words and in my own style. For his wisdom and generous sharing of knowledge, ideas and encouragement I feel eternally grateful to him. I thank you for this article and for your interest in Walter Mosley as a man, a novelist and an artist.

  4. MonaLisa MackLamore says:

    On November 20, 2015 I was in the Library and saw the book “Debbie Doesn’t Do It Anymore” checked it out and was hooked! When I returned the book 2 days later. .. I check out three (3) more books on the 20th and completed them on the 25th at 11pm. I just could not put them down. I understand the people you write about as I am from L.A and from the same time. When will you have a reading in or around the area.

  5. Richard Ray Salazar says:

    I really appreciated this article about Walter Mosely.I also have a Jewish mother and Black father. I was adopted along with my sister by a black family.Coincedentally both psrents have Jewish parents.Growing up Yiddish names and phrases had become part of my casual conversation.At university I was to learn that I was not only Black, but Jewish, according to the Talmud Tradition.Since thst time I have studied both the Black and Jewish history and Cultures.The idea that one drop of Black blood makes you Black is aligned with the racist concept of race. I am very proud and celebrate my Black label,but I also appreciate and totally accept being Jewish.After all we are each a complex mixture of our parent’s biology and culture. Shalom!

  6. Mackie JV Blanton says:

    If it is indisputable that the origin of human beings arose in Africa, it is then also reasonable to assume that we all are at least ‘One Drop’ Black. So everyone is Black plus. Nonetheless, it’s our humanity that is significant.

  7. JN says:

    Shame on Walter Mosely! How dare he make a derogatory statement about the Congo and being a Congolese woman! Has he even ever been there? I doubt it. He’s simply bought into the stereotypes about Sub-Saharan Africa. Qiuite frankly, he seems narrow minded.

    1. Nat says:

      I don’t think he met that as an insult to Congolese women. He meant it as an insult to the imaginary person he was referring to.

  8. BFP says:

    I have never been to the Congo. But reading about this particular history of the Congo, I have read what many Congolese women have stated about their treatment. The Congolese (international?) organization “Women for Women” are valiantly and courageously fighting against the prevalance of ongoing “sexual violence and gender inequality” … maybe Mr Mosley was not making a derogatory statement but implying about the difficulties inflicted on the women.

  9. Mark Phillips says:

    Was a student of his when he taught at the Stone Coast Writer’s Seminar in Portland Maine. I very much enjoyed his writing advice.

  10. Mark Williams says:

    Every writer starts by experiencing life and language. The best can share their experience. Walter Mosley is among the best of the best.

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