Oct. 15, 2013 By Sean Brosnan
Accomplished writer Jonathan Lethem made his first Queens appearance on Saturday afternoon in order to promote his new novel, Dissident Gardens, with a chat and a book signing at a packed Sunnyside Community Services Center.
The book, described as a multigenerational saga of revolutionaries and activists from the 1930’s to the 2010’s, centers around two women, Rose and Miriam, and is largely set in Queen’s Sunnyside Gardens. It is Lethem’s ninth novel overall and his first set in Queens.
The celebrated author, a winner of the 1999 National Book Critics Circle Award and a 2005 MacArthur Fellowship, was joined by friend and fellow writer Franklin Bruno, who questioned Lethem about the genesis of his new novel, in particular the reasoning behind it taking place in Sunnyside Gardens.
“My entry into this material really comes from my own wonderments and imagination,” said Brooklyn-born Lethem. “My Grandmother lived on 40th Street on the boulevard here in Sunnyside when she first came to America from Germany and it was partly where my mother grew up. Then, very briefly, they both lived down in Sunnyside Gardens. My Grandmother’s political and personal life has been covered in darkness. My Grandfather abandoned her when my mother was three and I was intrigued to try and gain a sense of what it was like back then so this novel kind of came about through osmosis because Sunnyside Gardens has always been a place of lore for me.”
Lethem stated that there were many difficulties that approached him when researching and writing this novel, and that he had to rely a lot on his own imagination when shaping the story.
“I don’t think there has ever been a good book about Sunnyside Gardens,” continued Lethem. “Maybe people will disagree with me when I say that but I just found when I was researching for this novel that I could not consistently rely on any one source when getting a feel of Sunnyside Gardens. My mother and grandmother are no longer around so I couldn’t ask them. I just took pieces of evidence here and there but Sunnyside Gardens was largely just glanced at throughout history so I had to just make stuff up to create an image of the place I grew up wondering about. I would never claim to be a present day expert on the Gardens or anything. I’m sure there are many more of those around Queens.”
Despite that statement, Lethem’s research was lauded when the audience had a chance to participate, with many Sunnyside residents claiming that Dissident Gardens got a close feel of what the gardens would have been like post World War Two. City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer was also among those singing Lethem’s praises and stated that he got his book signed not once but twice by Lethem.
The event was capped off with a book signing by Lethem for the many people in attendance that had purchased the book.