Master’s thesis spins into 70 stories of Jewishness

Project turned into outpouring of stories for Sarah Mintz

“I love flash fiction!” says author Sarah Mintz about the genre of her debut short fiction collection, handwringers. “In my mind, flash fiction operates like comic books or graffiti, sitcoms or pop songs – little indulgent pieces of pop culture, memes maybe.”

Accordingly, the book consists of over 70 very short stories, the shortest one a mere few sentences, the longest less than five pages.

A self-described “Canadian nomad,” Mintz lived in Moose Jaw for five years before moving to Regina where she recently completed her master of arts degree. She now resides in Victoria, British Columbia.

Most of the stories in her collection began as the substance of her MA thesis. The subject was “mediated Jewish identity,” that is, aspects of her culture as depicted in popular media, such as TV and film. The focus of the project also encompassed “an ongoing reference to the schlemiel,” a pejorative Yiddish word that means “a loser.”

In fact, the epigraph in Mintz’s collection includes a line uttered by the well-known TV character George Costanza, who is a prime example of a schlemiel.

Initially, Mintz’s thesis project involved a lot of investigation. “Once my proposal was written, I began research for the project: schlemiel history and theory, Jewish folklore, Jewish stereotypes, and critical thought on short stories and flash fiction,” she says. “The research gave me parameters within which I could wait for inspiration.”

The result was an outpouring of stories. “I wrote a hundred that didn’t make the collection, so it was a productive period,” she says.

Sarah Mintz
Sarah Mintz

The research also provided the title for her collection, which comes from an essay by Susan A. Glenn about Jewish appearances. Within the essay, Glenn referred to a 1946 study based on three groups of people asked to identify Jewish faces in visuals. However, the results did not turn out as expected; in Glenn’s words, “a good deal of hand-wringing ensued.”

Mintz explains, “I suppose the sort of anxiety generated by the study felt in line with the generalized anxiety of the collection – an anxiety that circles the same material: Jewishness, assimilation, identity, irresolvable questions, and contradictory answers.” Hence the title handwringers.

Replete with nervous characters, who span multiple generations from children to the elderly, the stories capture the crescendo of tension in the rhythms of the narrators’ voices. “In fact,” states Mintz, “the stories weave in and out through time, beginning with a grandmother and ending with Internet technology.”

Everything is fair game as a source of inspiration. “Skinning the Cat” is a retelling of the birth of Isaac. “Whatever Larry’s Looking For” is based on a Hebrew National hot dog commercial. Other tales revolve around Jewish holidays and the synagogue.

Readers who like the comedic styles of Jerry Seinfeld, Woody Allen, and Larry David are likely to enjoy the humour and quirkiness of these stories.

Mintz claims that the stories are largely not autobiographical, but are something between truth and fiction.

“It’s the fiction that makes things true,” she says. “Truth is never believed anyway. You lie with enough sparkle, you get it true.”