Tufts alum’s novels take on religion, sexual orientation
Published: Thursday, September 22, 2011
Updated: Thursday, September 22, 2011 08:09
Tufts University has produced more than a few successful writers over the years. The latest Tufts alumnus to produce a published work of fiction is Wayne Hoffman, a 1991 graduate from the School of Arts and Sciences. His novel, "Sweet Like Sugar," examines the tensions that exist in the life of a gay man who was raised as a Conservative Jew. Although the book is not strictly autobiographical, many elements of Hoffman's own life are present in the narrative thread, as he dealt with many of the same issues.
The inspiration for the story came when Hoffman was working as an editor at Forward, a Jewish newspaper. One day, a fellow editor asked if one of his workers, an elderly and observant Jewish man who worked in a neighboring office, could come in to rest on Hoffman's couch. The man was obviously sickly, and Hoffman began to wonder about the man's history and what their relationship could have been like. This thought sparked the impetus for the novel, which is about a friendship that forms between the twenty-something gay protagonist, Benji Steiner, and an elderly rabbi named Zuckerman.
What follows is a genuine story about the ways people from different generations and religious attitudes can connect through compassion and understanding. Though Benji was estranged from his Conservative Jewish upbringing because of his homosexuality, he finds himself quickly becoming friends with the rabbi and hiding his sexual orientation from him to preserve their relationship. When Benji's secret is ultimately divulged, the novel takes a dramatic turn.
Though Benji is an entirely different person from Hoffman, the author admits to the parallels between his own life and his protagonist's. The novel's text is interspersed with italicized passages that describe incidents from Benji's past.
"The closest things to autobiography are in the flashbacks. A few of those are really, really close to the truth. A few are broadly similar to issues that I've dealt with, but not so autobiographically," Hoffman told the Daily.
Like Benji, Hoffman was raised as a Conservative Jew. He said, "I grew up in suburban Maryland in a conservative household, went to synagogue every week, kept kosher and went to Jewish summer camp. I did all those things."
However, things began to change for Hoffman when he realized his sexual identity. As an adolescent, he moved away from Conservative Judaism when he realized that the religion hardly accepted homosexuals. "From the time I was 12 or 13, I already knew that I was gay. Anytime sexuality was brought up [in our synagogue] the rabbi came up as being anti-gay. And I got the hint that the Conservative movement of the '80s was not accommodating to gays at all," Hoffman said.
This realization is poignantly rendered in one of the novel's flashbacks, where a young Benji comes to the same realization. For both author and protagonist, this experience opens a rift between himself and the religion he was raised with.
"By the time I came out in high school and went away to college at Tufts, I didn't stay or argue with my rabbi; I said, ‘Message received, and I'll be leaving now,'" Hoffman said.
When Hoffman was well into his time as a student at Tufts, he found himself missing parts of the Jewish tradition that had enriched his youth. He told the Daily, "I missed certain things. I remembered certain traditions and holidays and realized they connected with me."
Around this same time, Hoffman began writing for the first time. He started out as a writer for the Tufts Daily when he was a sophomore. By the time he graduated from Tufts, Hoffman was writing music reviews for the Washington Blade.
Hoffman eventually became an active journalist. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Village Voice, The Advocate and a variety of other publications. He has also worked as an editor at Nextbook Press, Forward and other publishing outfits.
Hoffman's time at Forward began his full reconciliation with Judaism. While the Conservative Judaism of his youth was intolerant of homosexuality, his experiences at the Jewish newspaper showed him that the religion could be far more accommodating. Hoffman said, "That was the first time I became a full-time Jew, and that hadn't happened since I was a teenager. I didn't know it would be a comfortable job with me being gay, but it was."
Balancing work as a fiction writer with journalism and editing has not always been the easiest task for Hoffman, who has found the need to separate his creative writing from his other jobs. "[Fiction writing is] a different head space. Journalism works on a very fast turn-around when you have a story idea and you do the reporting. By the time [the article] comes out, you're already on the next one. Fiction is years of thinking about one thing, so you have to climb inside the world of your novel, and you have to live inside it," he said.
Separating creative ventures from journalistic work has been an essential strategy for Hoffman's novel writing, which he finds too demanding to be balanced with other forms of expression. "With fiction, if I don't have a week, I can't do anything. It's difficult, whether you're a student or a freelancer or a journalist. When I'm writing a novel, I turn down freelance assignments," he said.
Getting the necessary space from his other work has led to an interesting dynamic in Hoffman's life. Although Hoffman doesn't isolate himself while he's writing, he finds that compartmentalizing fiction writing from other intellectual demands is the only strategy that gives his novels the space they need to develop. "You need to take a chunk away from your life to get deep enough into [the novel] so that when you go back to the rest of your life, you have enough momentum to keep that going," he said.