About My Fiction
I love the process of writing fiction, the joy of putting words down, the quick first draft and the tumbling out of thoughts as I try to find the right form, and then the harder work, no less joyful, of the deeper revisions, sculpting the words to form a pattern and arranging the material to shape a vision. I have always been drawn to the concentrated form of the short story in which nothing is extraneous. If well written, it is never slight, for in its brevity and single focus, it has the ability in a few chosen moments to illuminate an entire life and to explore a character as completely as if the reader had read a novel. Some of my favorite short story writers include Nathaniel Hawthorne, Anton Chekhov, Isaac Babel, Bernard Malamud, Nadine Gordimer, I.B. Singer, and my late teacher, Gina Berriault, whose collection, Women In Their Beds, is a classic of the contemporary short story. Stories such as Tolstoy' s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Herman Melville's Bartleby the Scrivner, and Kafka's Metamorphosis have illuminated not only the human condition but also an entire age.
In my own short stories ideas may be generated by something I've read or heard, an incident in my own life, or someone else's, perhaps encountering a stranger who reminds me of someone I thought I had forgotten, the shadowy forms within a house as I've passed by in the darkness, a dream that stays with me, a phrase of music, a line of poetry, a provocative essay, or fiction by another writer that brings to mind a moment, or a time, that suddenly bursts forth from the past and is reclaimed. In short, anything human, from inhabiting the world and observing not only what is visible, but also what lies beneath the surface, or is simply palpably felt, but not seen, yet always transformed. Characters are complex. Something usually changes. I often don't know the ending. It is a little bit like skating on thin ice, but then it appears almost miraculously out of the character and the development of the narrative and finds its way to connect to the heart of what I truly want to say.
The Girls of Jerusalem
Translation by Benjamin J. Segal
Each of the short stories in my forthcoming collection, The Girls of Jerusalem, centers on the lives of women, encompassing such themes as the search for identity; female sexuality and power; the confrontation with fear, faith, and mortality; the difficulty of family relationships, but also the possibility of love, and women's lives as seen against the arc of history. The following excerpts are from stories in The Girls of Jerusalem, with the ideas and emotions that inspired them: “Deeds of Love and Rage;” “In The Time of Dreams;” “The Girls of Jerusalem,” “Sudargas: The Village;” “Why Are You Afraid?” and “Hysteria.”
Although "Deeds of Love and Rage" is not autobiographical, the events of my own life at the time were somehow transmuted by that mysterious process known as artistic creation into the mother and child of the story. It was written in a burst of passion one hot and difficult summer when I was torn by duty to a trying adolescent, the expectations of a traditional marriage, and my own needs. The story is certainly the most painful I have ever written, and in my effort to write as honestly as I could about the complex emotions of a mother toward her child, it represented a pivotal point in my own development as a writer. For the first time I realized that my experiences, as a woman and as a mother, were as valid as any of the more familiar themes of the male writers I knew. Eventually, it taught me an important lesson: to listen to my own heart and to trust my own instincts.
It must have struck a chord of recognition because it has proved to be one of my most enduring and popular works.
This morning when Cecilia asks if her father is coming for the Sabbath, which begins at sundown, I tell her that it is hopeless. "Your father is impossible," I blurt out in a weak moment, saying it passionately, throwing up my hands in a gesture of despair. I can hear my voice rising unpleasantly, and as soon as the words are out of my mouth, I am sorry. But it is already too late.
She turns on me. "Bitch," she says without a sound, mouthing the letters with her lips. At first I ignore her. It is far too hot to respond, to become embroiled in another one of these arguments. Anyhow, what would be the use? Let her vent her wrath on me. Let her get it out of her system, think that her father's absence is my fault. What harm can it do? But then she says it again, and this time she whispers it, but loudly enough for me to hear the ugly sound reverberate in the room.
"Bitch," she says a third time, growing bolder. The word explodes from her mouth, chilling me to the bone although the sun is seeping resolutely through the drapes and the room is sweltering with the heat.
"Bitch," she says again and again, unable to stop, her face contorted with rage. I feel my heart beating faster within the cage of my body, fluttering against the armor of my bones, and rising, I slap her face so hard that it stings my hand and leaves an ugly red mark on her skin.
She runs to her room and the door slams shut. I can hear the click of her lock snapping closed, then loud sobs as she gasps for breath. I imagine her flung sideways across her bed, her hair falling wildly over the edge, beating the pillow with her tight closed fists, and suddenly I am filled with pity for her and shame for myself.
“In The Time of Dreams,” grew out of contemplating photographs of Birodbidzhan, the colloquial name for the area in Russia that was officially called the Jewish Autonomous Region, which was to be that country's answer to the “Jewish Question,” through Jewish resettlement and colonization. Many Jews saw it as an ideological alternative to Zionism and as an opportunity for autonomous statehood. I dreamed my way into Anna, a young woman, who travels there with high hopes, money stolen from her abusive stepfather, and 600 rubles promised if she went to settle the land. She finds a lover, a husband, and a quite different life than she had imagined.
One thing was certain. It was not a land of milk and honey, but a country of densely wooded forests, of green firs and birch trees, and above the town, softly graded hills overlooking the river, soil that was good for almost nothing, unless you dug deeper for coal, copper, and gold. The first time Anna saw it, in the middle of April 1932, snow had come fiercely down those hills and covered the trees with a sheen that turned luminescent in the dim light. "Can you beat that?" she said to no one in particular. "Snow in April." A few passengers were left who remained silent. They had barely spoken, even though they had been on the train almost as long as she. The train ride was tedious, and she had spent the night sitting up, her head nodding off to one side, trying to stay awake; for what, she was not certain. Looking out, all she could see was her own reflection, a face as round as the moon that hung like a stage decoration in the sky, a long, pale nose and forehead and shadowed eyes that stared into the dense black darkness that closed in on her, desolate and unfriendly, and she hoped it was not an augur of what was to come.
She was wearing a shirtwaist and a long coat that had belonged to one of her older sisters, boots and warm undergarments, but she was still cold as ice when she arrived, and the conductor unloaded her suitcase and possessions at the station. Some of her fellow passengers were getting off too; a few men, but no other women except herself. Someone was there to meet her. A Miss Sonya Becker, who wore thick glasses, and who held out a gloved hand after she asked, "Are you the new girl, Anna ?"
"The Girls of Jerusalem," is the title story in my collection, The Girls of Jerusalem. The story took shape in my mind many years ago in another place and time, but the writing proved difficult and I finally put it away. Now and then I would work on it, but I was never satisfied. In fact, so many years passed that I had almost given up hope of ever really finding my way into the story. Then, one day, it simply came together, unbidden and almost perfect. I write "almost perfect" because some element still seemed to be missing. Then by chance, I happened to re-read the biblical text of Shir HaShirim, The Song of Songs. In its passionate and mystical poetry of a young woman's sexual awakening, I found the parallel theme of my story. I decided to use two of the verses and they fit like the final piece of a puzzle that is, at last, complete, linking Shulamith, the young seductress of the Song of Songs and Sora, the young woman filled with yearning in "The Girls of Jerusalem."
She thought of him while she served her husband his supper and put the children to sleep in their little beds, and then she looked into the black night and thought of her soul, a flame growing brighter and brighter. Why had she not met him before she had married? Why did everything come too late to do anything about it? This is what she was thinking when her husband took her into his arms. She was thinking of another man, and it pained her that she was being unfaithful to Leonard in her heart. Sometimes she thought he knew. Perhaps he guessed. He questioned her endlessly. "Where have you been?" he asked. Who did you see?" When she went out in the evening to get a breath of fresh air after being with the children all day, he waited impatiently for her to come home. Yes, surely he must have felt it. An absence at the center. An inattention. At times she thought that he was going to shake her, as though she was only their daughter's rag doll.
"Where are you?" he asked once after they made love, so sharply that it frightened her. "Who are you now?"
She was weary, she answered, the children, after all. . . And so he did not press her again
* * *
Gradually, in the weeks that followed, she revealed the unhappiness of her marriage, pouring out her grief to him. He reached over and put his hand over hers. She took it as an omen, and in her heart she began to hope that he would love her too. On Sunday mornings she stayed longer and longer, reluctant to leave him. Yet it didn't happen the way she thought it would, and at that moment when he began to caress her she did not think about Leonard or the children or even the risk she was taking. She did not even care after a while that he belonged to someone else. It was only important that he belong to her. It was not only his touch. It was what he said. He made love to her mind. His words, his ideas, the sound of his voice ravished her. The world grew larger. Time slowed down. Everything became more intense. She could see to the depths of the earth, below the sea, and beyond the heavens, and yet there was only this, here and now, with him.
"In Sudargas: The Village"
A family photo enlarged to cover one wall of a room haunted me to such an extent that I began to live in the photograph, as though I could walk inside that hay-strewn photographer's studio in the early part of the twentieth century and live out lives not my own. I could think of nothing else for weeks. At last I had to give in and write their lives as though they were, in fact, my own. And in a way they were. One individual stood out amongst those shtetl faces: a woman of extraordinary beauty. I could think of nothing else except that woman, who was a delicate flower in contrast to those plain, ordinary faces. The photograph reflects a society far beyond the confines of that room, the pain and poverty of exile in a small Lithuanian town, and the desire for escape to a larger world. I decided that the photograph must have been taken because the young man of the family was leaving; one of his brothers and a sister had already done so. Soon they would all go to America or elsewhere, for one of the children was my husband's father. Only the beautiful daughter remained and perished in the Shoah with her children. Why did she alone stay? Perhaps it was out of a sense of duty - to take care of her parents; perhaps it was a contentment with life the way it was and no desire to escape. This family, with the proud parents, the mother's work-weary hands, and the father's cheerful countenance radiate a sense of fulfillment despite their hardships and implore me - and others - to remember their lives.
Enter the photograph and you are there. A village - no, not even a village. A townlet, perhaps, between Vilna, that great city, the Jerusalem of Lithuania to the east, and the Baltic sea, a treacherous sea, to the west. The train comes even here, or at least nearby, and you have to take a wagon and a driver for the rest or walk 20 kilometers to the street of the Jews where there is a wooden synagogue with a balcony for the women; a dance hall for weddings; a study house where the old men and beggars gather and children learn their Aleph-Bet; a mikvah, a ritual bath for purification; a marketplace; a cemetery outside the town where lovers tryst and seek their beloved amongst the silent, sunken stones with occupants who will not tell tales.
A small town, in other words, but almost every town has a photographer now, or else an itinerant one who travels from village to village. A large black box on top of a bellows that resembles a pleated accordion placed on a three-cornered stand. A black fabric to keep out the light. A simple studio with a printed backdrop for the family who are waiting silently for their picture, boots firmly resting on a wooden floor where hay lies scattered over the surface. Morning or afternoon? Winter or summer? Enclosed in this room, we will never know, but let it be late spring then, a morning when the air is fresh and fragrant, the scent of honeysuckle carried in the breeze, and in the rustling leaves of the newly fringed trees, the sound of birdsong; the nightingales have returned. Ice has melted the rivers, remnants of retreating glaciers millions of years ago, where pagan gods still dwell; even the ground is warming. In the woods wildflowers and mushrooms flourish and populate beneath the fir forests, and bushes grow ripe with berries. The cold winter is over, the heavy outer clothes discarded at last. The sky is soft, a pale blue; the sun plays tag with the clouds and finally wins, growing bolder, and radiates outward to shine for a short time before the gloomy skies return again. The snow has taken flight, pulling back, and all that remains of the bitter nights and frigid days while the village slept are the muddy streets pocked by horses and carriages.
Stand behind the photographer before he presses the shutter. Look into their eyes and you will know everything about them, Mongolian eyes from somewhere north of the steppes; faces that carry within them a glint of the galut - exile. You will never see them except here; in this photograph they are still alive.
"Why Are You Afraid?"
This story was written many years after a trip that suddenly turned ominous as international tensions escalated. It was a time when borders had changed, and I ended up in Egypt instead of the southernmost tip of Israel. After I left, bombings and attacks occurred against innocent people not far from where I had stayed. I thought back to the feeling of fear that had overcome me there, despite the beauty of the place and the friendliness of the people. For the first time I realized the way in which evil can suddenly explode in the most ordinary ways, especially in our volatile age, and how fortunate I was not to have encountered it. The real incident was a catalyst, but the story as it turned into fiction became much more: the story of a marriage, of relationships between different peoples, and the way that fear can paralyze and deaden the spirit. In this excerpt, a couple is exploring a nearly deserted hotel where they have unexpectedly begun their holiday and feel amidst the splendor, a palpable sense of unease.
There was nothing to do after dinner but to walk around the hotel and to peer into the disco. There were so few people it was beginning to feel uncomfortable, reminding Elizabeth and Paul of a stunning art museum that was devoid of pictures. No one would come, they found out, after the borders changed. Except for the other American couple, with whom they had only exchanged glances, smiles, and a few words of greeting, none of the other guests spoke English. The disco room - for there was music blaring mindlessly from the sound system, and a disco ball that spun dazzling lights around the floor--was deserted, with the exception of the noisy family that had been at dinner, whose children had tried to catch the elusive beams. The honeymoon couple strolled by, looked in, and continued on their way without speaking. The young woman had tucked a flower behind her ear, perhaps the same flower that Husani had given her with the same compliment. If he had, then he was right. She was beautiful, wearing an elegant sundress that set off her tan, her long, dark hair cascading down her back instead of the twisted bun she usually wore for swimming. Elizabeth felt a twinge of envy for this couple who were just starting out when everything was fresh and new, without the inevitable differences that had invaded a longer marriage like her own.
Next to the disco, on the balcony facing the sea, they could see the lights from the nearby shore, a land like this one with a name, filled with thousands, no, millions, of people Elizabeth and Paul did not know, and to whom their lives meant nothing.
"How far away?" she asked, hoping her husband would know.
"I heard someone say twelve miles."
"Twelve! You could almost swim there."
They walked the length of the terrace to the side overlooking the pool. At night, the bright sunlight gone, even the water looked sinister, with dark fronds that swept their shadows over it as if it held the seeds of evil and might explode at any moment, a black beast ready to spring into the darkness and devour them. Something shifted in the night air. Above them, the moon shone brightly in the sky, revealing the sitting figures.
"They're still there," Elizabeth said, as if they should be gone just because she wanted them to be.
"But what on earth are they doing," she asked next, and then before Paul could reply, she said, "They seem to be waiting for something."
Even when they made love, she would involuntarily look up through the slits in the blinds to see if they were there. Then, before she went to sleep, she would throw open the shutters to determine if they had finally left, a kind of game she played. She thought of Paul's intrepid but unpleasant aunt. How dismissive she would be of Elizabeth if she found out that she was frightened of such a harmless, silent presence.
" Hysteria" is the story of Anna O., a young woman from a prosperous family living in Vienna, the pseudonym for Bertha Pappenheim, who was a patient of Dr. Josef Breuer who published her case study in his book, Studies in Hysteria, written in collaboration with Sigmund Freud. Anna O. was not only the first patient to undergo psychoanalysis, but also was the woman who helped to create it with Dr. Breuer. The more I read about her, the more fascinated I became with her life and the lives of women in the last twenty years of the nineteenth century. Following the death of her father, Bertha Pappenheim was nearly incapacitated by physical and emotional problems, diagnosed as Hysteria, a term that was often applied to young women at that time. Although she is never mentioned by name, the story is an imaginative rendering based on some known facts of the months she spent in a famous sanatorium in Kreuzlingen from July of 1882 until the end of October. I decided to cast it in an epistolary form that worked very well for the period and the material.
I arrived in the town of Kreuzlingen some days ago. It feels as though I have been here a very long time and yet I just realized that it has only been a little more than two weeks. It is hard to know what the day or time is, or even the month. The days drift by endlessly and every day feels the same. It is cool in the morning, but grows hot and still at midday, and from the curtain at my window, the lake is a glassy mirror, without even a ripple to mar its surface. From early morning until dark, which comes later and later as the summer wears on, there are boats on the water and people waving gaily to those who are walking on the shore and enjoying the view in carriages as they pass by. When I wake up in the morning and look out there is still a mist that gradually lifts as the sun begins to rise higher in the sky. At noon there is hardly a cloud, and the crystal blue of the water is magnificent to behold. By dusk there are amber and rose-colored streaks in the sky as night settles over the lake, another breathtaking sight.
But first, a glimpse about my new life here. Frau G. brings in my morning tea or coffee. She is probably in her mid or late fifties, but looks older. She has a stern, unyielding face that reminds me of a knotted fist. Her hair is tied back securely with pins and almost gray and her dress is gray as well, with a white apron tied over it. Her expression is one of distaste for her station in life. Although she makes an effort to be pleasant, the tone of her voice is harsh and edged with anger,
"And how is Fraulein this morning?" she says, putting down the tray. This morning for a change she brought hot chocolate, with toast, strawberry preserves, and stewed fruit.
She only speaks German to me, whether or not I answer her. At night I lapse into English, unable to speak my own language, although I am not sure why, making the night nurse, Frau H. angry as well. I am sure she has complained about this to Frau G. Although they are forbidden to discuss the patients, it is apparent that they do so, even though I have objected to Dr. L. Otherwise, it is very comfortable here, although no one, myself included, would choose to come of her own accord.