Etruscan Press Author Bonnie Friedman Interview
Bonnie Friedman, a Bronx native and University of North Texas creative writing professor, reflects on her life through a series of deeply contemplative, sometimes heart-rending essays in her latest book, Surrendering Oz. This collection of essays, while largely intended as a means to share Friedman’s introspective thoughts on poignant moments in her life, is also something of a coming of age story. In Surrendering Oz, the reader witnesses Friedman’s growth as a person through the acceptance of the validity of her own life experiences.
The book’s title essay “Surrendering Oz” is enough to pique one’s interest. In this essay, which was included in The Best American Movie Writing, Friedman dissects the popular classic film, The Wizard of Oz, and explores the cultural messages the film holds for young women in Western society. Friedman explains that she was drawn to examine the movie because she wanted to understand the subliminal messages about freedom and success she feels girls receive. Specifically, she didn’t understand why, when she received her first professional writing contract, a significant achievement, she was afflicted with an unexplainable inability to write. It wasn’t until she re-watched the iconic Judy Garland masterpiece that she understood her feelings.
“I was amazed the first time she [Dorothy] gets sent home by the carnie man who tells her that Auntie Em is collapsing on the bed.” Friedman began to understand the lesson of this story: Dorothy should not leave home. She is given the message that if she leaves, those she loves will suffer. This is in direct contrast to stories with male protagonists, which causes Friedman to ponder. “Boys are not told the people you love will die if you leave home. If anything, boys are guilt-tripped into leaving home, to go out into the world.”
Using Shakespeare’s Hamlet as an example, Friedman explains that it is a play about a man who causes tragedy because he does not choose to right what is wrong in the world, as men are supposed to do, or as she puts it, “take responsibility for the woes of the world.” By that logic, it is Hamlet’s blundering inaction that is at fault for the myriad deaths at the end of the play.
The obvious counter to that, for Friedman, is the story of The Wizard of Oz: Dorothy is told that her leaving home has imperiled the life of Aunt Em. The young man must take action in the world or the world sickens. Girls are taught the opposite: their leaving home threatens the wellbeing of those they love.
What Friedman is trying to imply is not just that women are discouraged from venturing out into the world, but that the stories we ingest culturally shape us as individuals. Using her teaching experience as an example Friedman explains, “When you teach long enough, you realize an individual feels so idiosyncratic, so sui-generis, but we are all affected by our class, our particular family histories, and myriad other factors we don’t notice if we’re not looking for a pattern. And then people blame themselves!”
Her observation is a significant one: although we are responsible for our behaviors, we are also members of a society that helps shape the way we think. Friedman says, “I feel strongly that when individuals can understand that their idiosyncratic-feeling problems are often the result of larger social systems in which they’re enmeshed — it’s freeing.”
So, what real world application does the phrase “Surrendering Oz” carry? Friedman says that, for her, it means “surrendering the fantasy” of how life is supposed to be so that one can have authority in one’s real life. In short, to “surrender Oz” is to delineate between fiction and fantasy, to acknowledge the hard but real truths of the world so that one can make real-world changes.
While there is no doubt that Surrendering Oz contains intelligent, insightful observations about our society, the personal reflections of Friedman are just as powerful. In fact, while reading Surrendering Oz, one cannot help but feel as if the author has had quite some time to reflect on the significance of the events in her book. Friedman explains that the essays in it were indeed composed over a considerable amount of time:
“I wrote them over many years and I didn’t visualize them coming together until quite late in writing them. When writing separate essays I felt like I did need to come to some sort of conclusion in each. I wanted to press each of the events that I was writing about to yield something of significance. I write in order to make sense of my life. I don’t know what things mean until I write about them. For each essay, I did want to wring from those experiences something I and others could grow from. In the act of writing you can glean something from daily life that you can carry with you. I wanted my experiences to add up to something. Only later did I have the pleasure of putting the different essays together…”
Friedman agreed that distance has contributed greatly to the emotional depth of her work. “I was a very different person over the course of writing those essays because it took me so many years. I was in a different frame of mind by the end. The act of pulling these essays together into a cogent narrative allowed me an expanded perspective.”
When she set out to write each one, she used the writing as her personal exploration of events. “I want to know something by the end of an essay that I didn’t know at the beginning. What is the understanding that I didn’t have words for at the beginning?”
It is obvious that Surrendering Oz has been expertly and even lovingly developed. Friedman’s words speak with a sense of wisdom that implies a great deal of reflection on the events she writes about. “When I read the essays through, I remember where I was sitting when I wrote them. I remember sitting at a little desk in a window in Brooklyn,” Friedman says. She selects each word with the meticulousness of language as that of a poet. “I wrote them slowly, and my way of writing is more akin to a poet’s way of writing than a novelist’s. I did want to saturate them with significance the way that a poet does.”
Friedman currently spends her time in Brooklyn, NY, or teaching in Texas. She talks of her students lovingly, as excited about their potential as a proud parent. Friedman travels back and forth between the two locations while caring for her two—one potentially oversized—cats. She is always writing and sharing her knowledge of the writing craft. Friedman continues to lecture on how to create a book out of a series of disparate essays—a topic she is more than qualified to speak on. Her labor of love, Surrendering Oz, was released in November 2014.
Hillary Transue is a graduate assistant for Wilkes University’s Creative Writing Department and Etruscan Press. She graduated from Franklin Pierce University with a B.A. in English Literature. She lives in Ashley, PA with her fiancé and their wily two-year-old daughter, a pitbull named Spacey.