Wednesday, August 16, 2006

In Memoriam

Dorothy Uhnak died last month, by her own hand, at the age of seventy-six. Never heard of her, Blogospheroids? Uhnak was one of the first women police officers in New York, and one of the first crime novelists to create a strong woman hero, police officer Christie Opara. The Bait won the 1968 Edgar for best first novel. She was one of the writers who opened the door that Muller, Grafton and I walked through more than a decade later.
When The Godfather was a runaway bestseller, Michael Korda approached Uhnak to write a competing blockbuster from the police perspective. She succeeded admirably with Law and Order in 1973. She wrote slowly; her last published book came out in 1997.
Two years ago, Carolyn Heilbrun, another door opener for women, also committed suicide. She was close to eighty, in good health, with many friends and admirers, who are still trying to puzzle out her death.
I didn’t know Professor Heilbrun well, but well enough to know how much I owed her for supporting my career. I know she was deeply concerned about the invisibility of older women, a topic she explored in Writing a Woman’s Life. She resigned her named chair at Columbia University because she was frustrated at the impossibility of her male colleagues attending to her views. But I still can’t make sense of her death.
I never met Dorothy Uhnak. I don’t know if she, too, felt invisible, unattended to, as she got older. I don’t know if she felt a dwindling of her powers, or if the market had left her behind.
I’ll be sixty next year. I struggle constantly with depression, with a sense of being out of step with the times, the market, with my own voice. When my literary godmothers give up the struggle, I’m terrified about what lies ahead.

41 comments:

Barbara D'Amato said...

So true, Sara.

D.A. Davenport said...

Very sad. I remember liking her books when I was much younger. In High School, I read her for the first time in a Reader's Digest Condensed Book and after that I read as many of her's as I could find in the Library. Come to think of it, I read her before I ever read any other mysteries written by women. That is awful news.

ab said...

I ordered one of DU:s books at the library yesterday. I never heard of her before, but now I want to know this pioneer. I also put her in my blog.

I read that DU suffered from illness and pain, that could have been a reason for her suicide. But if women lose their courage at an age where they have collected a wide knowledge of the world and of people, lost the foolish part of their respect of men and gained financial and mental independence, and when their abilities are still strong, that would indeed be a tragedy. I think we are needed. Obviously throughout times it has turned out that healthy, older infertile women are necessary for society. 50+ might be our political age. Some men DO listen. But we have to form our own networks, we need to run banks and magazines and TV networks and newpaper in order to make sure women are listened to and their unique experience being used.

I don't want every woman or black person to feel the constant burden of always being a representative of their group, of always having to do right and useful things. But as writers we are free to talk with our own voices about the things in private and official life that are the closest to our hearts and minds. Like you are doing, Sara.

PD James is 89 and still going strong and she keeps her voice. Thousands of ordinary people are listening. Encouraging, I think! I am looking forward to the next 20 years.

Richard said...

Sara,
As the boomers are aging, I think *listening* to our "elders" will be become more and more common. Your not getting older, baby, you're getting better!

Nienke said...

Sara:
It's a new world today. I think many people - including and especially writers have a huge support system via the internet (blogs, myspace, etc.). What's even more special about this electronic world is that, for the most part, no-one really knows how old you are or what you look like. People just like to exchange ideas.
I know, as a beginning fiction writer, I look up to all published (and unpublished) writers who are willing to share their insight.

Anonymous said...

Hey Sara,

Great post - and I know we all get melancholic from time to time, and most often when we fear that we are no longer immortal [as we felt when we were young].

Age comes to us all, but through your work you have a achieved something that age can not erode, and your work speaks for you, and I loved Firesale as well as Blacklist et. al. as your work speaks to me also.

Ali
www.shotsmag.co.uk

Dee said...

Sara,
Like you, I am goose-stepping to the big 60 this year...as a matter of fact, I stepped right over the line on August 12th. Ironically, I spent the day with an ailing 81 year old mother!

so, I know what you mean...
inside I don't feel different
inside I do feel different.

I keep going back and forth, but over all, hope my optimistic attitude will get me back on track.
Of course, I've always believed that all optimists are ultimately depressed people who fight it, but it's a good fight.

So, hang in there...we'll age gracefully, and keep writing. (I certainly want to read more of your stuff, trust me.)

And, in honor of DU, I will be going to the library today to check out one or two of her books, and I will read them with pleasure.

Maryann said...

Hi Sara
Well said. As an almost sixty and yet unpublished writer, I wonder about my own voice and whether it will ever be heard. I have a great support system though,friends and family,and my godmothers are those female writers who write strong characters (women or men)as well as craft great stories. I have to agree with others that the electronic age (while scary to some)makes it easier to keep up with the times and the market. And a good story is a good story.

PS. Just lucked out on a copy of The Bait. Read it a long time ago, but your memoriam made me want to go back and read it again. Thanks.

ab said...

I just checked out a Dorothy Uhnak mystery too - the Swedish title is The Keeler Case. (Fallet Keeler). Looking forward to making her aquiantaince.

ab said...

Currently reading Uhnak. Pleasantly surprised: Great writing.

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