My Mother-in Law, Myself


Riva Leviten and daughter Priscilla Warner
Riva Leviten and daughter Priscilla Warner



All Providence-native Priscilla Warner ever wanted was a mother “in a black sheath dress and a single strand of pearls, who could discuss the Vietnam War intelligently at cocktail parties.”

What she got was “A whacked-out artist in army fatigues, blouses made of flour sacks, and black patent leather earth shoes.”

New York Times best-selling author Priscilla Warner (my sister-in-law) will be speaking about the challenges of writing about her mother (my mother-in-law), the renowned Providence artist, 80-year old Riva Leviten at the Ocean State Writing Conference to be held at the University of Rhode Island Thursday June 18 through Saturday June 20. An excerpt from her upcoming memoir ran recently in More magazine.

Warner spoke on a panel I moderated titled Writing and the Family, at 10:30 a.m., Saturday, June 20. She is the co-author of the New York Times best-seller, The Faith Club, in which she grappled with writing about her father’s often confusing attitude towards his family’s religion. A religious Jew, he first sent her to Providence Hebrew Day School, then, abruptly, the Quaker Lincoln School, where she was made to sing Christian hymns.

Now out in paperback, The Faith Club garnered Warner and her co-authors a spot on The Today Show, write ups in USA Today and a world publicity tour.

Warner was joined in talking about the challenges of writing about while  continuing to honor, our families by North Kingstown resident Padma Venkatraman,  author of Climbing the Stairs. The much-acclaimed novel is based on her parents’ experience in World War II era colonial India, and was named winner of the 2009 Julia Ward Howe Boston Authors Club award. The literary society is the oldest author’s club in the nation.

Says Venkatraman, “Most other novels about Indian Hindus tend to confuse the issue by describing customs and ignoring the spiritual truths that the religion is actually about.”

A research scientist with the Oceanography Center at URI, Venkatraman first considered writing the story as a memoir. “I felt that fiction would liberate my story to highlight its three most important threads – Hindu spirituality and philosophy, the debate between nonviolence and violence which took place in my family, and providing the colonial perspective on World War II. I felt that a memoir would tie me down –  as a scientist, I have a nonfiction reporting voice  I wanted to break away from, cleanly and completely.”

Says Venkatraman, “The novel’s central question is of violence versus nonviolence. I want people who read it to see its relevance in America today, rather than merely reading the story as historical fiction set in India.”
PEN-award winning writer and Providence-native Patrick Tracey, author of Stalking Irish Madness: Searching for the Roots of My Family’s Schizophrenia, agonized over writing the story of his two sisters who “dropped down the elevator shaft” of schizophrenia in early adult hood.  He feared exposing their personal struggles, but was compelled on a quest to find a cause for the illness that plagued his family for generations. He ultimately found it in Ireland’s history of oppression and starvation at the hands of the British.

The haunting yet uplifting memoir was chosen – among thousands – as one of the Best Books of 2008 by Slate magazine, and was recognized by the National Alliance on Mental Illness as the book most helpful to families dealing with mental illness. Tracey’s memoir received national publicity, including write-ups in USA Today and a lengthy NPR interview.  Tracey moved the audience to tears and sold out his supply of books.