That Chana Landau and a group of gay teenagers appear in the same novel would have been unthinkable to the Orthodox Brooklyn woman before she started teaching at Harvey Milk High School in Manhattan. She’s not sure her religion allows her to be in the same room as these wild street urchins, child prostitutes and largely unloved kids who have been down and out for most of their young lives. The alternative school is “as close to Sodom” as the 28- year-old thought she’d ever be. But, as she recounts, “there’s no telling where or how you’ll find paradise.”
Flamboyánt (Picador), the new novel by author, composer and director Elizabeth Swados is told through the alternating journals of Chana and one student, Flamboyánt, who, before meeting Chana thought that “Payess was Latino for country. A yarmulke could only be an exotic Tibetan mountain goat.” Their unlikely friendship evolves and deepens through a series of encounters and events and twists that won’t be revealed here, to allow readers the full experience of Swados’ big-hearted novel.
Among the pleasures of reading “Flamboyánt” are Swados’ straightforward style, her perfectly-pitched rendering of the two voices, her humor and the urban realism of her prose. When the crew of colorfully, sometimes cross-dressed, multi-pierced students break out into a spontaneous congo line around the classroom, the reader feels the pulsating beat. And, back in Chana’s neighborhood, it is easy to imagine Chana’s perfectly-manicured future mother-in-law as “the Martha Stewart of Brooklyn.”
“Flamboyánt” may remind readers of “Runaways,” Swados’ hit 1980 musical —nominated for four Tony awards — in which cast members were children who had run away from home. Her latest play, “The Hating Pot,” about racism and anti-Semitism, which was performed Off-Broadway, in city schools and broadcast on PBS, also involved a cast of city kids. In fact, for more than 25 years, Swados has been collaborating with “kids on the borders, those at risk,” as she tells The Jewish Week in an interview. Her first experience was in Africa, when she was 20 and touring with Peter Brook’s theater troupe. Her job was to go into the villages with her 12-string guitar before the actors arrived and engage the children; she’d exchange noises with them and teach them songs. Once the children were interested, their parents would come outside, and the troupe would have an audience for the performance.
Now, every few years, Swados makes time to do a show with a group of urban New York kids she recruits anew. “It’s a central part of my life. I love their energy. I love being on the edge with them.” Swados, who is 47 and was born in Buffalo, N.Y., says she identifies with the kids. “I had a lot of struggle when I was young. I love to see people who don’t have a chance work their way out — to see that they can do something.”
In writing “Flamboyánt,” she called on her memories of kids — all with whom she is still in touch. Writing the novel was a joy, she says, “particularly because the two main characters are wildly confused and open for unexpected changes at any moment. They both are intensely loving people. This gets them into all types of trouble.” Exploring themes of gender and identity, religious views of homosexuality and unlikely love, the novel teases out questions about “otherness” in our society and the humanity of religion. Throughout, Swados offers Yiddish proverbs. While Chana’s journal entries often begin with biblical lines, excerpted from the text she is studying, Flamboyánt’s begin with very different markers of time.
The prolific Swados, who has been honored by the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, is the author of two novels, a memoir about her family and four children’s books; the newest, “Dreamtective” was just released. Her massive creativity runs in several directions; her theater work includes “Missionaries,” an opera about four American church women killed in El Salvador; “Alice in Concert,” a musical version of “Alice in Wonderland”; and “Rap Master Ronnie,” a rap musical satire of the Reagan years. She has also staged her interpretations of “The Story of Job,” a biblical musical depicted by clowns; “Jerusalem,” a multi-language musical; and “The Hagaddah,” combining mime, ritual dance, puppetry, Jewish music, jazz, rock and choral singing. In addition, she has scored many musicals, written screenplays as well as the music for several ballets. She continues to perform in many of her works, including the musical “Bible Women.”
“Runaways” is the “most Jewish piece I’ve ever done,” she offers. “My version of being an observant Jew is to try to bring good to other people and to work hard and to argue over justice … to go for a better world.” She says she’s very connected to prayer, language and music. “I believe that’s deep in my soul.” Then she laughs, recalling that when she was doing several shows at The Public Theater, the late Joseph Papp and his wife would tell her that there was a “Jewish song” in every one of her productions, even her rock opera about Vietnam.
Swados, who lives downtown, is now writing a new novel. She’s also working on a musical about the Wright Brothers, doing the music for a production of “The Merchant of Venice,” hoping to do “Bible Women II” and planning a new theater project with city kids dealing with violence: kids harming kids. She explains that she has always worked on several projects at once. “My communication’s not complete unless it’s in several areas.”
In this age when synergy — between novels, movies, plays, new media — is the buzz word, Swados sticks to one medium for each work. For each project, she chooses the format that “the subject requires.” She doesn’t see “Flamboyánt” as a play, nor her telling of the Wright Brothers’ story as a book. “Things present themselves as what they’re supposed to be. There’s never a cross-over.”
In her musical works, she hears the characters, the stories, the conflicts as music. In writing novels though, she says: “My characters talk. They don’t sing. These characters [in ‘Flamboyánt’] have urgent things to say to me.” At a reading a few weeks ago at Barnes & Noble on Astor Place, Swados brought Chana and Flamboyánt to life, reading their lines, accents and all — Flamboyánt has a decided emphasis on the last syllable — with great energy and love.
“Meet the Writers,” a series of evening programs tied to the publication of Jill Krementz’s new photographic book, The Jewish Writer begins on Oct. 20. The first event, “Three Writers in Conversation: Character and Impersonations” features authors Louis Begley and Norman Manea, with Cynthia Ozick as moderator.
An exhibition of Krementz’s photography from the book is on view at the Jewish Community Center of the Upper West Side, where the programs will be held. A light reception will follow, with an opportunity to purchase and have books autographed.
The free program begins promptly at 6:30 p.m. at The Jewish Community Center of the Upper West Side, at 15 W. 65th St., between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue.