Cynthia Ozick was born in 1928 on the Upper East Side of New York City. Her parents came to America as part of a mass exodus of Russian Jews escaping brutal state-sponsored attacks, or pogroms. Ozick's mother was nine when her family arrived; Ozick's father did not immigrate until he was twenty-one. Facing conscription into the Tsar's army, he fled Russia and used the skills he had acquired through a formal education to open his own pharmacy in New York.
By the time Ozick turned two, her father had moved the business and his family to the Pelham Bay area of the Bronx. At five and a half, she entered heder, small classes for religious instruction, but was turned away by a rabbi who did not believe in educating girls. Her maternal grandmother took her back the next day, insisting that the rabbi allow her to study.
Though Pelham Bay was a diverse community of immigrants, Ozick was ostracized because of her Judaism. When she attended public grade school, classmates taunted her with religious slurs because she would not sing Christmas carols. She read books from the traveling library that arrived on Friday afternoons. Each child was allowed two books and a magazine. Usually by sunset, Ozick—who knew from early childhood that she would be a writer—had devoured her quota for the week.
Acceptance to Hunter College High School in New York City, at the time an all-girls school for intellectually gifted students, bolstered her academic self-confidence. She attended New York University, then headed to Ohio State for her master's degree. She married Bernard Hallote in 1952 and, after graduation, moved back to New York.
Ozick did not publish her first novel, Trust, until 14 years later. She has since written acclaimed novels, short stories, essays, and literary criticism. Four of her stories have won the coveted O. Henry Prize. The recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, she was honored by the American Academy of Arts and Letters with the Mildred and Harold Strauss Living Award and was the first writer to be granted the Rea Award for the Short Story, given ever since to an author whose writing has made a significant contribution in promoting the short story as an art form.
On August 9, 2007, Dana Gioia, former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, interviewed Cynthia Ozick in Washington, DC. Excerpts from their conversation follow.
Dana Gioia: What were the most important books of your childhood?
Cynthia Ozick: My mother would often tease me, "Is it Little Women again?" The fairy books were indispensable. I've never gotten over the fairy tales—never. I remember an engraving in one of the fairy books of a long avenue with cypress trees. It was so melancholy that it stayed with me forever, so that, whenever today I see a tall angular tree, that same feeling of strange melancholy returns from the fairy tales.
DG: Did you always want to be a writer?
CO: Always. It was a destiny that I never had any alternative to; or wished for any alternative. I simply knew it, always. But I never even thought of myself as a writer until I had published a certain basic body of work because it seemed to me that it was hubris. Who would take me seriously? So if someone asked, "What do you do?" it took me a long time before I could say, "I'm a writer."
DG: What is the difference for you between writing fiction and writing criticism?
CO: If you're going to write an essay, let's say, about Henry James, you have a subject, and you know something. If you're going to write fiction, you have nothing. You begin in chaos. You may have a smell, a scene, a word, an idea, an emotion. It seems to me that ideas and emotions are inseparable. Emotions may not always be ideas, but ideas are always emotions. In fiction you can come up with something that you never knew you knew.
DG: In The Shawl your main character, Rosa, is Jewish, but she is also very proud of being Polish. What can you tell us about her background?
CO: Rosa is a very deeply assimilated Polish Jew. She is so assimilated that her family has had an estrangement from their origins. When I was writing this, I can't say that I consciously knew what I was doing. But from my perspective now, perhaps unwittingly, I was making a point—from the Nazi point of view, it didn't matter how Jewish or Polish you were. There was no way out. You couldn't point out who was a Jew. If you were completely assimilated, how would anyone know? So a badge had to be manufactured—hence the yellow star—which would point you out so that you could become a victim. What this demonstrates to us is that there were no loopholes.
DG: The most brilliantly unexpected thing in The Shawl is Mr. Persky. What would you tell us about this almost comic figure?
CO: Mr. Persky as opposed to Rosa gives us an important difference: the differences between immigration and refugee status. An immigrant never wants to go back. He doesn't want to go back. He's come to America for the future, for opportunity, for life, for health, for children, for everything positive. He has left the negative behind. A refugee is full of longing. A refugee wants to go back to the good times. A refugee has never left home.
DG: The shawl itself is more than an image. It is the novel's central symbol. How do you see its significance in the book?
CO: The shawl is a symbol, and it has many meanings. It suggests terrible danger. It means you will be murdered if you are deprived of it, as Magda was. It also means infinite shelter. It represents the violence of rape, because we are given to understand that Magda is the result of something like an SS brothel. It represents degradation. At the same time—it's so contradictory—it represents life. But actually, what is it? It's an old rag. And so it seems that in despair, we can take an old rag and turn it through imagination into a living child. That's what Rosa does.