South America’s Jewish Prostitutes (Sex Slaves, Really)
YZM: How did you get the information that informs the novel?
TC: There was a tremendous amount of information available through translated documents, books, and academic publications—as well as photos from that time and place. Armed with that material, it was a short leap for my imagination to paint the pictures that brought it all to life: to hear the sounds, smell the smells, feel the weather on my skin, and view entire scenes. Most importantly, once I sat in front of my computer, the emotions related to my character’s difficult situations flowed directly into the keyboard, seemingly without first sifting through my brain.
I had been to Buenos Aires three times, but I don’t know Spanish, and since the story had taken place in the late 1800s, I hired two freelance researchers in Argentina. For example, I worked with a map of Buenos Aires, and if my protagonist walked from point A to point B, I had my researchers verify the names of the streets 120 years ago and identify buildings in photos. For better texture I presented both—a man and a woman—with the same questions about clothes, food, and architecture since I could extrapolate more nuanced details when crossing both researchers’ answers.
For historical accuracy, I consulted the director of Jewish archives in Buenos Aires, who, thankfully, knew English. She also read the final manuscript.
Once the protagonist, Batya, started dancing tango, what choice did I have but to learn it myself? I needed to write with authenticity about tango—and the passion associated with this form of dance. For almost a year I took private tango lessons and occasionally spent an evening at a milonga in a close embrace with total strangers (also my reason to quit tango once my research was done).
YZM: Despite the terrible things that happen to her, Batya retains her faith in God’s goodness and mercy. Care to comment?
TC: Like many Jewish girls, Batya had no formal education, and had only basic knowledge of Jewish practices. But being Jewish was the prostitutes’ identity, deeply anchored in their Yiddish culture. Unlike many other enslaved girls, Batya had her spirit to prop her, and even though she believed that God had forgotten her, or punished her, or regarded her with contempt, this very world-view assumed an absolute faith in His existence. Batya’s lifeline was hope, and she clung to that flimsiest of threads. That hope to bring her family out of Russia was conditioned on God’s showing His benevolence. When events progressed in her life, she believed each was His mysterious ways, beyond human comprehension. For example, learning of Baron Maurice de Hirsch’s incredible initiative to free the Jews from the Czar, Batya thought of him as the second Moses, and that could only happen if God had planned this rescue of His people.
I’d like to mention the burial ritual that the prostitutes so cared about. Shunned by the Jewish Burial Society, they were obsessed with the need to purify themselves from the filth of their lives in order to be accepted unsullied into God’s other world. Both in Argentina and Brazil, the prostitutes established their own burial societies and cemeteries, which were the ultimate demonstration of their faith.
YZM: Sex trafficking and sexual enslavement are problems that persist even today; do you think The Third Daughter can have any bearing on that?
TC: Is the role of writing to entertain or to educate? To thrill or to motivate? The Third Daughter, combined with my speaking events, provides me with opportunities to educate audiences and to motivate them for action. If the novel becomes a platform for change initiated by readers, then I, as an author, will be very proud.
Yona Zeldis McDonough is the Fiction Editor at Lilith and the award-winning author of eight novels and twenty-eight books for children. She is also the editor of two essay collections and her short fiction, essays and articles have appeared in numerous national and literary magazines. Visit her at www.yonazeldismcdonough.com or www.facebook.com/yzmcdonough.