A “Love Letter to the Smart Single Woman”

With a voice simultaneously young and old, steeped in questions of faith and an encyclopedic knowledge of history, Courtney Sender hooks us with her singular magic.

Her brilliantly aching and haunting debut collection, In Other Lifetimes All I’ve Lost Comes Back to Me (WVU Press, $19.99) dials right into that proverbial sense of deja vu achieved by this conflation of past and present that is exemplary of a contemporary Jewish sensibility. Her stories are linked not only by character but by a persistent longing: for lost lovers and lost lives, for what might have been, for what never was, for what could be. Ghosts orbit. A young woman gets her period during a tour through a concentration camp with her German boyfriend. Lilith gets it on with Eve in the garden of Eden. In the title story, a woman awaits her old boyfriends’ return, only to discover them all on her doorstep. Elsewhere, stories literally come back, like when doomed lovers are granted their individual viewpoints in “For Somebody So Scared” and “From Somebody So Scared.” At her most radical, Sender imbues an intimate portrait of loneliness with the decimation of the Holocaust in a stirring, lyrical meditation on what it means to walk this earth with everything that’s ever come before you. When accompanied by the breadth of history, are we ever truly alone? Sender holds an MFA from the John Hopkins Writing Seminars and an MTS from Harvard Divinity School. It was a pleasure to speak with her about her affecting work, which she calls “a love letter to the smart single woman.”

True to its title, characters from earlier stories reappear in the latter half. There is a boomerang quality of return. Did you have the form in place from the outset?

I knew I wanted to write a collection that would be read as a single unit. It felt important to me to position that fulcrum in the middle of the book, where we start with longing and end with return. Having changed so much in the interim, is the longed-for return even possible?

But I also had in mind books that are refractions on pain. Alexander Chee’s Edinburgh is probably my number-one for this – that novel is so plotted and forward-moving, yet every line is a version of, what does it feel like to have lost the boy I loved?  I wanted my book’s structure to be mirrors on mirrors. To create those other lifetimes. So there are multiple versions of Lilith and Adam and Eve, multiple docents, multiple lost children, multiple lost fathers, multiple menstrual periods, multiple epistles and missives. The one constant is Nana Itta, who is the same character in everything I’ve written; she is all of my characters’ Nana, in this book and in any future book I will write.

As a latchkey kid of the 80s, I feared a second Holocaust. I even had the hiding place in my mother’s closet picked out for when the KKK would bust down my door. Many stories in your book wrestle with intergenerational trauma. Did you have a similar haunting?

Oh, absolutely. I’ve always had a roving sense of waiting for the disaster. When the pandemic struck in late 2019, I felt: of course the world can collapse around me. Of course the strictures of civility and society can buckle. And that comes directly from my family’s Holocaust history. “It can’t happen here” was always ahistorical nonsense to me; it happened in so many here’s before, in here’s we would consider highly educated and cultured, so why on earth should a particular place or time be the exception?

There is a ghostly quality, a shimmering around the edges to your writing. Repetition on the sentence level delivers a feeling of invocation, of summoning. Repetition of imagery feel like omnipresent ghosts. Stories are a ghost, the bible is a ghost, Lilith, of course, immortalized in literature as such, and then, Nana perhaps the most prominent. A dybbuk, an ibbur, or a third thing?

The most literal ghosts in these pages are the ghosts of Nana’s family, the souls that never got to be made because the people who were supposed to be their parents were instead killed in the camps. The Dinah character believes in this cosmology, and I think she struggles with whether these ghosts are ultimately benevolent or not. Dybbuk or ibbur. They are related to her but not her direct ancestors – they were cut off from the line of ancestry, they never got the chance to leave descendant behind. So this places them in the confusing third space of maybe guiding their descendant well, maybe focusing on themselves instead of her, jealous of her for this great gift that is life.

Nana is both the closest thing to these ghosts and their antithesis. She is alive in some stories and dead in others, but I don’t think of her as a ghost; she’s too corporeal to these characters, all of them knew her as a real living person. Of course, she is also a voice in their heads. The voice that cuts through the bullshit and gets at the core wisdom in the gut.

Your wonderful story, “Angel on Stilts,” nods to Malamud’s iconic and fraught “Angel Levine.” (I also have an Angel Levine story in my first collection.) Was Malamud an influence? Who are your influences?

I read that story in grad school, and that very day I really did encounter a man who told me he was an angel. I’m still not certain he actually existed. 

I would say Grace Paley was an influence when I started writing, though it’s also true that I was told I wrote like her before I’d ever read a word of her. Which is funny because she herself said the same thing about Isaac Babel: “People say I write like Isaac Babel, but it’s not that he has influenced me. I hadn’t read him before I wrote. It’s our common grandparents who have influenced us both . . . in terms of inflection and what one pays attention to. It’s not a literary influence so much as a social influence, a linguistic influence, a musical influence.”

The books I return to most are Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, Jorge Luis Borges’ Ficciones, more recently Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment and the Neapolitan series. I read most of them in English translation, but I’m obviously attracted to a certain non-English, non-American sensibility, a blurring of the boundary between reality and unreality.

I was struck by your radical retellings of Lilith, especially as I’m co-editing an anthology with Seth Rogoff, Smashing the Tablets, on this topic. Why are we drawn to stories that are thousands of years old? How are they vital to our current moment? 

I think any story with a strong pulse is going to inspire revisitations, especially when social and cultural mores change over time and a printed story necessarily stays static; we want to grapple with what’s so alive in there but also update it. The writer has more room to play when the reader already has expectations for one type of character or narrative. If I’m working with biblical characters, I don’t have to build up expectations that I then subvert; I can go in and immediately start subverting.

As for Lilith, I just love that the mystics found a way to resolve the irresolvable tensions between the creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2. They said, these contradictory stories are both true, damnit, and we will invent a character that makes them both true. So because Lilith is an off-the-page invention to start with, she’s especially appealing to me as a character to inhabit and keep inventing. She is the original scorned lover, which so many of my characters are, too. How much worse to be scorned when that shouldn’t even have been an option, when the terms of the world changed on you and suddenly there’s competition introduced for your partner’s love but not for yours. The unfairness of that! I’m very drawn to her predicament.

Not only is the Holocaust a throughline, a drumbeat, but you boldly confront it in “The Docent.” Your narrator, a former heralded art critic, is imprisoned in a concentration camp, “favored” by an SS guard for her expertise. It is an unforgettable story, layered darkly with irony, a story that feels in dialectic subversion of Adorno’s famous statement: “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” 

I’m grateful to my Divinity School advisor Kevin Madigan for pointing out to me that Adorno later, and much less famously, revisited and revised that statement to: “Suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems.” 

In order to respect the experience of being in the camps, I had to base the fiction in as much fact as possible. So I started thinking about what facts had crevices in them for more story. Where does history leave room for imaginative internality? Edward Murrow famously broadcast from Buchenwald after liberation, which of course meant that someone had to have shown him around. This thought was stunning to me, and I knew immediately that I wanted a woman character to do this docenting. (In reality, it would have been a man; Caroline Heller’s beautiful memoir Reading Claudius describes the life of her father, who did this in real life.) But for my fiction, I was interested in how a woman might turn her own hell into an object, maybe even an art object, to display to a journalist. That’s a version of what I’m doing as a writer. 

So yes, my book wavers on the edge of this level of darkness in the first half, but always pulls back out. The middle point, I thought, had to go in, which is where this story appears, and then the rest of the book is a steady moving forward again, toward the “comes back to me.”

At one point, there is a conflation between the loneliness and grief of lost love, and the total abandonment of the Jews in the Holocaust. In “To Lose Everything I’ve Ever Loved,” our narrator speaks to her dead Nana about heartbreak: “‘He’s never coming back.’ I want her to say something I’m unable to invent for her, something ancient and wise. But she doesn’t say anything. The unmade ghosts start whispering in my ear. No one is coming for you, they say. It can happen, you know. Nobody came for us.” Again, we have the enmeshment of past and present. And yet, is this a dangerous analogy?

I understand the almost sacrilege of putting these two things together, the problem of scale—the smallness and insignificance of not finding love against a loss as big as the Holocaust. That scale is what I’m trying to work with artistically. Because in some ways, not finding love or making a family means the end of the line, too. Much less violently, but there’s a finality and an ending involved. That’s why the pressure of reproduction is so heavy in a population that still hasn’t recovered to pre-Holocaust numbers. And in our daily lives, I think we so often encounter this problem of scale: there are immense sociopolitical tragedies that we genuinely care about, and it’s also true that our own personal tragedies receive at least an equal share of our attention and concern.

In Elie Wiesel’s Day, the small-scale problem of love and sex really does live right up against the huge-scale problem of population-level genocide. And then there’s Esther Perel, maybe the most famous sex and relationship therapist right now, whose parents were Holocaust survivors, and she also draws a link between sex and this great trauma. But her take is the opposite of Wiesel’s. She says that “Those who came back to life were those who understood eroticism as an antidote to death.”

In my book, ghosts show up between the legs of modern women trying to have sex, longing to have lived but not understanding the realities of what that would look like. Imagine a ghost from the camps hovering over the shoulder of a young woman swiping on Tinder. It’s darkly comic, it’s absurd—and it’s what the victims would have seen had they survived. To me, it’s a way of granting them life.

All to say, I think they’re both tragedy. 

Last, I want to ask you about faith. Many characters encounter a crisis of faith, tested by horrors of death, loss, heartbreak; however, your book ends on an affirmative incantation, “Believe, believe, believe.” 

I always knew that incantation would be the last three words of the book, which I wrote in large part as a love letter to smart single women. Certainly not all women or people feel this way about singleness, but I’ve been intimately familiar with the sadness, the being-left-behind, the loneliness, coupled with the feeling of being too smart for this. I intend the final incantation as some consolation and hope. 

Believe, believe, believe. The need to say it three times contains the desire to do it and the difficulty of it.