S. Bear Bergman, author of Blood, Marriage Wine, & Glitter and a participant in this year’s International Festival of Authors, answered our five questions.
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IFOA: Your work has been called many things—provocative, insightful, humorous. What do you hope readers will say about your most recent collection of stories?
(c) Zoe Gemelli
S. Bear Bergman: There’s a Yiddish word, heymish, that typically gets translated into English as cozy or homey. In Yiddish, it’s used almost as the incantation for a sense memory of home—a noisy table, your Bubbie’s stuffed cabbage, Uncle Marvin’s pipe smoke, being brusquely preened by your mother—that’s mostly comforting but also a little challenging, sometimes the nicest possible fit and sometimes just hilarious and sometimes you’d rather scream than spend another second with these people and their opinions. Honestly, that’s what I hope for. I really value that sense of push and pull, and I often write towards it. I dream of readers gritting their teeth but choosing to read a piece about a topic that challenges them or pushes their buttons because there’s been some other part of the book that felt so welcoming. And I try to keep the jokes coming, just in case.
IFOA: You’re both a writer and theatre artist. Which do you find easier: expressing yourself on paper or on stage?
Bergman: Really, what I am is a storyteller—writing things for paper and writing things for a stage are just that same one skill wearing different hats. I usually think whichever I’m not doing at the moment is easier. Writing for performance is easier in some ways, because I am in the room with the audience. If they don’t get the joke or the concept, I can give them more explanation or more tone or more facial expression until they get it (or if they get it immediately, I can skip ahead). I can make that choice afresh for every audience, rather than averaging the difference and hoping it works out, as I have to do on paper.
But a page is more patient. Because there’s so much less for a reader to take in, in the absence of the tone and face and gestures and so on, I can do more intricate things with language. I can sustain a metaphor longer, or return to a previous piece of imagery and mine it again, or use the very best word instead of a more familiar one, knowing that the reader can re-read if necessary.
If you were to compare two versions of a piece like “Gathering Light Out Of Darkness,” the one used for performance in my show Machatunim and the one as printed in Blood, Marriage, Wine, & Glitter, you’d see a whole array of places where I have thinned or tightened the text for performance. I feel good about both versions. The text probably gives readers a slightly fuller, more nuanced argument. But the performance has the potential to send a shiver up the back of someone’s neck.
IFOA: What’s been the most important lesson you’ve learned in your life?
Bergman: I can’t remember anymore where I read about this. Somewhere I came across the concept that if each of two people—whether in disagreement or in collaboration or whatever—are only willing to go halfway, they can’t succeed. Their halves won’t quite mesh. The solution is that someone needs to go 51 percent of the way, as a matter of commitment to making solutions. We generally imagine that there’s value attached to this, that one person/organization/entity or the other ought to go further, that going further demonstrates culpability or virtue or guilt or something else.
Jews are very big on the concept of tikkun olam—mending the world as an ongoing task. After reading about 51 percent, I made a commitment that I would just resolve to always go a little more than halfway. The extra one percent is my commitment to mending. I find it tremendously helpful and strangely freeing. No more guilt-calculus, no more obsessive Virgo tallying of responsibility and value. Just rough out half and shoot a little past it, for good measure and the repayment of past generosity and in honour of mending.
IFOA: How do you hope to be remembered?
Bergman: As someone who showed up. In good times, in tough times, for meals and games and shows and recitals and demonstrations and prom photos and hard talks and graduations and weddings and funerals and every other thing that still wants actual three-dimensional, warm good-smelling people to be there in person, I would like to be remembered as someone who could be counted upon to find his pants and his good cheer and show up. Probably I’ll be remembered as the guy who showed up… 15 minutes early because he hates to be late and doesn’t much enjoy feeling rushed, either.
IFOA: Finish this sentence: Family is…
Bergman: …an evolving concept, a source of comfort and a lot of work.
S. Bear Bergman is an acclaimed author, performer and gender-jammer. He will be discussing writing about the queer experience and the changing face of the Canadian family with author Alison Wearing on November 2 at 11am.