Why Hasn’t This Aspect of the Holocaust Been Explored in Fiction?
YZM: But why this lesser-known part of the bigger Holocaust narrative?
KB: I would actually challenge that question a little bit. I don’t believe there is a “bigger Holocaust narrative.” You can’t talk about the annihilation of Jews without giving a thought to the Roma, the homosexuals, the mentally ill, the Filipinos, the political prisoners, the Koreans, or any of the other groups who suffered incalculably. There’s this tendency to hitch our understanding of what happened during this time to a few monolithic facts, but I think it’s important to try to remember that this was an event that was made of thousands of millions of smaller threads, from the individual to the collective to the continental. I think literature should be invested in the stories not just of the victims but also of the victimizers, the accomplices, the bystanders, that when we ignore these roles we’re distorting the story itself.
I’m also interested in the inverse of this question—why hasn’t this aspect of the Holocaust—the Jewish American experience of it, been explored more in fiction? Before I began this project, I assumed that most Americans at the time knew extremely little about what was happening in Europe. But browsing The Times’ archives from the late thirties, I saw headlines like “Hitler vows to rid the world of Jews.” And if a person read the Yiddish papers, he’d know more—certainly not the detail that became available later, but much more than I assumed. I found that unbearably eerie, to think of someone in Miami or New York or Cincinnati reading in the late 1930s about Hitler’s desire to rid the world of Jews—eerie and also so interesting, that Americans have done so little literary exploration of our own passive role in what unfolded.
YZM: Can you talk about the differences between Ana and Judith, two of the central female characters?
KB: Ana’s background is somewhat mysterious, and I don’t want to give too much away, but I can say that the main difference between them seems to me that Judith and Irene have a lower tolerance for chaos. Each of them, in her own way, is invested in maintaining status, in ensuring security and contentment and slow and steady rising of social standing. Ana is not at all interested in these things. She is at home in chaos, hungry for new experience, reckless in her own life and in the lives of others.
YZM: Why Utica?
KB: My father and both his parents were born and raised in Utica, a town that could not be more different from the one where I grew up—a suburb of Richmond, Virginia, the heart of the Sun Belt, the sort of city that sucked the economic life from places like Utica. Once or twice each year, I’d visit my grandmother there. We’d visit the zoo, take a tour of the old brewery where kids could get root beer floats, visit the various parks. These are fond memories, but I think I was struck, even as a child, of how haunted and abandoned the place felt. Like so many Rust Belt cities, Utica seemed not so much a living, breathing place as a remnant of the city it had once been as a turn-of-the-century textile boomtown. I suppose this ghostly quality penetrated my subconscious and made it seem like the correct place to begin a story that is largely about what it means to hold onto or let go of the past, to abandon and to be abandoned.
YZM: You’re also the essays editor at Salon; can you talk about how your role as an editor informs your work as a fiction writer?
KB: Writing fiction, in my experience, is often a lonely, punishing, solitary and depressing process. I mean, it’s also the thing I love most in the world, but it’s not exactly like going to a party. There are hours upon hours and years upon years of sitting alone in a room in front of a computer—stalling, second-guessing, wondering if any other person will ever read what you’ve written.
Editing personal essays, by contrast, gives me the chance to connect with so many other established and aspiring writers, to read their stories, and sometimes to help them tell these stories better and share them with the world. It makes me feel connected to others in an immediate and concrete way. In this sense it’s been a wonderful companion to my life as a writer.
YZM: What question do you wish I’d asked?
KB: Wasn’t it sort of, you know, disheartening to write about such an existentially gloomy subject?
You bet. Wed have enough reminders of the ambient brutality of the world right in front of our noses. To go back and look at another case, a genuine worst-case scenario, was a real multiplier of bad feeling. It was definitely grist for a lot of long talks with my therapist. And yet I will not deny being an orthodox believer in Literature. It is a redeeming, fighting, questing act. Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech includes the (justifiably) widely quoted line that man will not only endure but will prevail. But what precedes that idea is quite grim. Just a few paragraphs earlier he writes: “There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up?” This was in 1957, when fear of atomic annihilation was inescapable. But the same sort of global anxiety exists today as well. I’ll let the reader swap in the catastrophe of her own choosing in place of nuclear war (or use that one, if it works for you). There are plenty to choose from. Ours is a frightened moment.
And yet. When Faulkner writes that humanity has “a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance,” he says that it is the writer’s duty to record this: “It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart.” So despite confronting a world of darkness when writing this book, I remain buoyed by the promise of literature. There are acts of consuming selflessness in The Houseguest. There are depictions of the solace of home, the profound comforts of family. Literature reminds, warns, defies, bolsters; it can give warmth to the lonely, uplift the fallen. Even when it moves into the harshest of territories, writing is an inherently optimistic act. It wants to be remembered. It wants to endure.