I was a Hasidic woman, from age fifteen to forty-five. You’ve seen them, the Jewish ultra-orthodox, the men in beards and hats and black clothes, the women in long modest covered, even covering their hair. I had an arranged marriage to a Hasidic man while still a teen and bore seven children, birth control forbidden.
Not too far into this story, I realized that I am a lesbian. Maybe it was all those erotic lesbian dreams.
What followed, besides endless work and astounding loneliness, was years of questioning, and timid steps into the secular world. By the time I entered graduate school in creative writing, a clear act of rebellion, my mind was more open, although I still wore the garb and lived among the faithful. University helped me to sample life with no censorship, in the heady dizzying air of free speech. I learned to think.
But studying in a top-rated graduate school meant I would innocently accepted the comfortable elitist misapprehensions also in the air, particularly that I would graduate and find top-rated agents and major publication waiting at the door. What did I know? I was like a new immigrant, still learning the world. When a respected New York agent came scouting and chose me along with a handful of other students, I figured it was normal to line up your agent before graduation. All I had to do now was write the book.
My memoir, Uncovered: How I Left Hasidic Life and Finally Came Home, became my agent’s pet project. She held my hand, read many drafts, gave me her cell number. When she sent my manuscript to senior editors at places like Knopf, Little Brown, and Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, it rose magically to the top of the pile. Within two weeks I received long thoughtful reviews, praise, suggestions. But every letter, every time, ended with, “sorry, this is not for us.”
The agent made submissions over next six years. Each time that round ended, I took all the editors’ responses and overhauled the manuscript. The book grew, deepened, tightened. Then we’d try again.
I still believed. Surely Uncovered was good enough for national attention, major distribution, maybe even awards.
Then one day, an editor at Seal Press called me at home—the first, years into the process, to offer full disclosure. That’s how I became Dorothy watching Toto pull aside the curtain—loss of innocence in the Land of Oz.
She explained that editors choose manuscripts based on both quality and marketability. Then they go before a marketing board to convince them that the book will appeal to a broad base and make money. To decide if it’s viable, the board identifies the minimum market, which they define through literal assumptions based on the book’s subject matter. For example, if the story is about fishing, then it will sell to people who fish.
My book is about a covered woman in a Jewish fundamentalist society who is secretly gay. Needless to say, my minimum market was a niche market—both gay, eliminating all of heterosexual America as potential readers, and orthodox Jewish, eliminating almost everybody else. They labeled my book “double niche.” Kiss of death. Major publishers do not do niche.
Then I did something I should have done long before. I got online and read the lists of books put out by all the fine presses that had considered my manuscript. I found each list seemed as homogenized as network television—overwhelmingly white, predominantly male, heterosexual, adulating famous people, and circling around just a few universal themes.
None of the major publishers do gay memoir, unless it’s someone who transcends their perception of that minimum market. Meaning, they’d do Ellen’s memoir. Not mine.
I guess my agent had thought she could break that barrier.
Uncovered: How I Left Hasidic Life and Finally Came Home is coming out in August of this year with She Writes Press, a small hybrid press. A hybrid press is one that shares printing and distribution expenses with the author, who must also pay a hundred percent of marketing and travel. Costs were staggering. I turned to family, friends, crowd funding sites, accumulated serious debt, and still had to refuse many invitations to read and speak that offer no travel stipend. That is the reality of authoring today.
Gay people who had to hide themselves are only beginning to tell their stories. Plus, Uncovered is one of the only memoirs by any covered woman from a fundamentalist world. My book generates real conversation, and those conversations are what writing a book is all about.
Plus, you have to be a little bit nuts.
My vindication is that grass roots response to Uncovered has been broad based across many markets. Reviews have been gratifying. Major writers gave me blurbs. Booklist gave it a rare starred review and listed it in “Top Ten in LGBT.” For all the unknowns I face right now, I know I will never forget this period of birthing Uncovered. Everywhere I turn, I find interest, fascination, even excitement. I’m starting to get letters from strangers, and to attract whispered conversations from gay people who are still hiding.
Writing has escorted me out of a black and white world into one of infinite variety and color, given me purpose, and passion, and marvelous experiences.
Besides, when it’s not infinitely frustrating, or exhausting, or a sign of strange insanity, writing is incredible fun!
Leah Lax was raised in a Jewish family in Dallas, Texas, close to a generation of immigrants, so that, growing up, she learned both to crochet and ride a horse. Then she joined the Lubavitcher Hassidim and spent thirty years among them attempting to reclaim the roots her family had left behind. Now on the other side of all that and grateful for second chances, she has published award-winning fiction, nonfiction and prose poetry. Her work for stage includes an opera libretto for the Houston Grand Opera and the script for a major production with the Houston Symphony, actress Audre Woodard, and rapper Bun B.
Leah lives in Houston with her partner, Susan and their overgrown puppy, Gracie.
Find out more about her on her website http://www.leahlaxauthor.com/