On Writing “Evil Tongue,” by Dani Shapiro

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Over the quiet Christmas week, a few of the contributors to our Fall 2012 issue, guest edited by Patricia Hampl, will look back and reflect on their work in the magazine. Today, Dani Shapiro discusses her essay “Evil Tongue.” —Andrew Ladd, Blog Editor

A number of years ago, I received an email from a man I didn’t know.  He wanted to tell me a story about my grandfather.  I was interested, of course.  I’m always interested in anything that can provide missing pieces to the puzzle of my family’s history—and though this was a painful story to hear, I was grateful for it.  But in the years that followed, I found myself turning it over and over in my mind.  I wanted to dig deeper, to explore it further, on the page, but kept coming up against ethical and moral questions.  What right did I have to repeat a story that reflected poorly on my grandfather?  He had died when I was an infant.  I had hardly known him.  He had also been a very respected man in his community, and it felt discomfiting to me, wrong, perhaps, for me to have the last word about him.  I’ve found this, time and again, in my writing life: the responsibility involved in having the last word.  I find it harder to write about those who are gone than those who are still here—after all, they still have their own voices.  But then, one day, it came to me that I could write about writing about it.  I could write an essay about the very question of literary betrayal.  As I began to think about literary betrayal, I was reminded of the phrase “Lashon Hara”, which is considered one of the most serious sins in the Jewish religion; it means gossip, or tale-bearing, but translates literally into “evil tongue”.