Bat Mitzvahs, Birthmothers, Bombings
and other things on the minds of girls: Naomi Danis talks with 5 novelists you should know
How I Live Now, Meg Rosoff’s haunting debut novel, is narrated by Daisy, a 15-year-old New Yorker with an eating disorder who escapes to England to get away from her recently remarried dad and his pregnant wife. There she meets her aunt, the sister of her own mother who died in childbirth, and the eccentric cousins whom she quickly, to her surprise, comes to love. Indeed she falls passionately in love with her cousin Edmond. Shortly after Daisy arrives— while her aunt, a peace activist, is away from their country farmhouse on a mission to Oslo—a series of bombs goes off in London, and terrorists occupy the country.
Written before the July 2005 London bombings, and set in the near future, the novel tells the story of Daisy’s and her cousins’ survival and their relationships in a world absent of authority figures.
Rosoff s second novel, Just in Case, also set in an England and a world threatened by terrorism, tells about a teenage boy who, just in time, manages to rescue his baby brother from falling out of a window. He is then convinced he is doomed by fate and that something terrible will happen to him. With the same folk logic as the Jewish custom of changing the name of a seriously ill person in order to change his or her fate, he changes his name from David Case to Justin Case. When he goes to a thrift shop to buy clothes for his new identity, he meets Agnes—a slightly older, punk fashionista, camera-snapping artist—and falls in love. She adopts him as her project. David continues to feel hounded by fate, sees it lurking and threatening him everywhere, and runs away from home.
DANIS: How did you come to write How I Live Now and Just in Case?
ROSOFF: The idea for How I Live Now came first from books I’d read as a kid, where the city cousin comes to live with the country cousins, and is healed by nature and family warmth and all that old fashioned stuff. I didn’t start out to write a book about war, but I was writing during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, and there was a strong Zeitgeist of catastrophe.
The idea for Just in Case came from an emotional link I made when two of my sisters were in treatment for breast cancer, and my whole (rational, intellectual) family got drawn into a kind of web of magical thinking; for instance, we’d pick up pennies for good luck, and somehow hope they offered an hour, a day, a week’s protection. It made me realize that superstition and depression are closely linked, and the less control you have over a situation, the more you focus on external forces—like fate. Just In Case is the story of a boy in crisis, who can’t sort out what’s real and what’s not, what’s potentially fatal and what’s not. His realization that catastrophe is always two seconds away in life is (in my opinion) a thoroughly accurate evaluation of the world; the book is about his attempt to find the humor and love and reasons for living despite the underlying sense of doom.
How I Live Now seems to evoke the survivor experience of the Holocaust era. It also has a Garden of Eden motif, with its themes of innocence and experience. Just in Case evokes associations with Jonah in the belly of the whale—Justin, too, is trying to escape his fate. Were you aware of these parallels when you were writing?
Very much so. When you grow up in America there’s such a strong tendency to think of terrible events happening “over there,” to foreigners in far away places, even if some of those foreigners were your relatives.
When I moved to London [from the U.S.] in 1989, suddenly WWII was all around me in the landscape of London, neighborhoods still in rubble from bombing during the blitz, an elderly neighbor who remembered coming home to find her house gone. Germany occupied the English Channel Islands, sending English Jews to concentration camps, which made me feel that it could so easily have happened here with just a few tweaks to history.
Distressingly, racial hatred and violence around the world now make it easier than ever to imagine how the Holocaust happened, how it crept up slowly, developed gradually, in tiny increments to people who had, for decades or centuries, lived peacefully as neighbors.
Daisy refers both to what might come to be called World War III and to her falling in love with her own cousin as “the Decline of Western Civilization.” Do you see this differently yourself?
Daisy’s love affair with Edmond was never meant to be a sordid event, or a product of a decline in civilization, if that’s your question. I’ve been shocked by the amount of censure their relationship has evoked in the U.S.—especially given that first-cousin marriages among Jews have been common for about two thousand years.
Your first novel has a female protagonist, the second a male. What opportunities did this difference provide?
My gender identity has always been fairly imprecise. I’ve never thought of myself as particularly girly, and would like to have been a boy at different parts of my life. If you think of gender as existing along a straight line, with very feminine characteristics at the far right and very masculine ones at the far left, I’m perhaps closer to the middle than many people—my mother was always begging me to be more “lady-like” when I was in my teens (twenties, thirties, forties!). That degree of androgyny seems totally unremarkable these days. As for changing gender as a storyteller, I barely noticed the difference. I identify as closely with Justin as with Daisy.
Other than mentioning Christmas as a gift-giving opportunity, you don’t explicitly discuss religion.
I’ve never believed in god [sic] from the time I was very very young, although I also consider myself thoroughly Jewish. My eight-year-old daughter recently decided she wanted to “turn Jewish,” and I’ve been taking her to a wonderful synagogue in London, set up after WWII by German Jewish refugees. It’s been a very moving experience.
A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life, a poignant, bittersweet first novel by Dana Reinhardt, is about 17-year-old Simone, who has grown up proud of her Christian-born, social activist parents, and with them collects signatures for petitions on issues like separation of church and state and reproductive rights. She always knew she was adopted, and now suddenly she is being contacted by her birth mother—who, she learns, was a Hasidic teenager when Simone was born. With self-deprecating humor and angst, Simone tells about real families, about not wanting to know—and yet longing to know—where she comes from, of feeling afraid and overwhelmed at discovering her own Jewish roots, of love and alienation and reconciliations between generations and cultures. Full of small surprises, perhaps this novel demonstrates that it is the meaning, the sense we make of things, that matters. It also shows how religion has the power to both be used oppressively and to uplift the spirit.
DANIS: Lilith has written both about Jewish women who gave their babies up for adoption [Winter 2000], and young women leaving the ultra- Orthodox world [Winter 2004]. So we were fascinated to see these difficult topics come together, with so much compassion, and so entertainingly. Can you share with us any stories behind the story of your novel?
REINHARDT: I wish I had a great story to insert here, but honestly, this is a work of fiction with very little autobiographical influence. I can tell you that my goal was to write a story about Jewish identity that wasn’t about the Holocaust or anti-Semitism. I wanted to tell the story about a normal, down-to-earth, modern kid who struggles with what it means to be a Jew. When I imagined Simone, I imagined that she didn’t know she was Jewish, that this is sprung on her, and that’s how I came to the adoption story.
Rivka leaving the ultra-Orthodox world provided a parallel story for Simone’s journey. As Simone is moving toward a certain kind of Judaism, Rivka has moved away from another.
If there is any “behind” to the story of the novel, or bit of autobiography to be found, it is probably that I was raised in a solidly atheist household, although I was also raised with a sense of my Jewish identity. When I grew up and met my husband, who is a rabbi-school drop out, and I agreed on our very first date that our children would be bat mitzvahed and that I would forsake my Christmas tree, I began the process of making Judaism a more meaningful part of my life. My experience can be described as one part Simone’s and one part Rivka’s.
Why did you make the adoptive family Christian?
If the adoptive family had been Jewish, I think this would have been a very different book. I wanted Judaism to be something foreign to Simone, not just something from which she felt disconnected. I wanted her Jewishness to be a surprise to her. This idea intrigued me because it happens to her when she’s i6 years old, an age at which we tend to think we know everything about ourselves. And then along comes Rivka…
For me it isn’t enough to tell a compelling story about high school angst or love or any of the number of typical topics without also giving readers something to argue with you about. I think if you reject the idea of God, you can still find all the things that God is supposed to stand for in the people around you, and what they mean to you, and in their kindest and most gracious acts.
In Julia’s Kitchen, Brenda A. Ferber’s debut novel, ii-year-old Cara narrates a story of loss, grief and survival after a house fire which kills her mother and younger sister. Cara recollects the last “normal” moments of her life, when she was staying over at a friend’s house, working on a family scrapbook before the terrible news arrived. She observes of her own feelings—from uncomprehending shock to the magical notion that she’ll never have to worry again, because the worst possible things have already come to pass. During the shiva and after, she takes in the often well-meant and sometimes hurtful things people say, and Ferber gracefully inserts a wealth of detail about Jewish mourning rituals. Devastated by his own grief, and by guilt that he wasn’t able to save his wife and daughter, her father refuses to speak to Cara about what happened, leaving her feeling that she has actually lost her father too. Her own determination, whether it is to grieve, to confront her father, to protect him, to give up on him, or just to live as well as she can, ultimately inspires him—and the reader as well.
DANIS: Would you say you’re a worrier?
FERBER: In childhood I worried about everything, just like Cara. I also thought God was listening to my worries and protecting me. Then, in 2001, a house fire in our neighborhood left a father and son dead. Tragically, the mother in this family had died two years earlier in a car accident, so now the two remaining brothers went to live with relatives. I didn’t know this family, only their story and their house. But every day as I drove around town running errands and such, I would pass their burnt-out house and think about the surviving boys. I wondered how they were coping. It didn’t take long for me to begin to imagine how I would have dealt with a tragedy like that. How would my faith and my world-view have changed if my worst nightmare had come true? This was also the same time as 9/11, and it seemed the whole country was walking around with the fear that life could be taken away from us at any moment. I wanted to write a story that examined these questions and fears.
If kids can experience grief (or any other number of life’s challenges) through fiction, they are better prepared to handle those feelings when they face them in real life. They become richer, more empathetic, and more mature, all from reading a book.
Do tragedies cause people to discover—in the heart of their newfound doubt—faiths or beliefs they didn’t know they had had?
That was definitely the case for me. I had led a very happy, successful life, and I’d believed that God was looking out for me, making sure nothing too bad ever happened to me. But when my husband and I tried to start a family, we struggled with infertility, and it threw me for a loop. I felt completely abandoned by God, and I was forced to look more deeply at my faith. I did a lot of soul searching and reading, and I eventually came to believe that God was still with me. I pictured God crying right alongside me, hoping for the best and giving me strength to get through a difficult time. When I sat down to write Julia’s Kitchen, I knew that Cara would have some of the same feelings about God that I had had.
Cara thinks if her mother had been the survivor, everything would be different for her. If the story continued, would her dad quickly find himself a new wife to stop the terrible feelings he is having? As in the saying, “women grieve, men replace”?
I have to say, I don’t think that Cara understands her dad’s behavior as gender based. I think it stems from their specific family dynamics. If the story were to continue, I would hope that rather than quickly find a new wife. Dad would focus his attention on Cara, and that eventually Cara and Dad would have the same kind of closeness that she and Mom shared before the fire.
Love and Other Four Letter Words is told by Sammie, whose parents separate at her father’s instigation. Relocated to New York City with her distraught mother, she has to make a new life for herself and feels like the designated grown-up in her family, very angry at her father and at her mother. The Earth, My Butt, and Other Large Round Things is narrated by the youngest child in a Manhattan family, with incomparably accomplished older siblings, a therapist mother and a lawyer father. Then the older brother, a Columbia student, is accused of date rape. Carolyn Madder’s third novel, Vegan Virgin Valentine is told through the straight-A college applicant daughter of a couple whose first daughter, I8 years older, can’t do anything right. The older sister’s out-of-wedlock daughter, V, comes to stay for a while, giving the narrator the liberating experience of not trying to be perfect anymore.
DANIS: All your novels are all about tension between ideal and real families. You come from a mixed Jewish/Christian family. Is there a connection?
MACKLER: While I haven’t written, intentionally at least, about my own family of origin, I’m sure it has influenced how 1 approach the subject of family. My mixed family had this blend of well-mannered WASP and hilariously outgoing Jewishness. I’m not saying it was a culture clash, but it did create some interesting dynamics. I don’t think I fully realized this until my parents divorced and both remarried people from their own respective backgrounds.
I hope you’ll take this as a compliment: Do you see your writing in the tradition of other Jewish female writers like Judy Blume (Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret?) and Paula Danziger (The Cat Ate My Gymsuit)?
I grew up reading and re-reading Judy Blume and Paula Danziger. I don’t say this lightly when I say that their stories—and novels by other wonderful authors from that time—are the reason I survived my teen years intact. These novels made me feel like there was a world bigger than the awkwardness I felt at school, than not filling out a bra, than being taller than everyone else in town, than playing violin when the cool kids play soccer.
How do Judaism and feminism express themselves in your writing?
I wasn’t brought up in a religious household, but my father—who is Jewish—loves to tell a good stoiy. When I was a child, he would tell me bedtime stories called “roots,” about his boyhood in Queens, his parents, his Yiddish-speaking grandparents. I loved these stories—they were animated and hilarious and full of suspense. I’ve always viewed this type of storytelling as being intrinsically Jewish.
Also, I grew up in a predominately Christian town and when I was in junior high I was teased mercilessly about being Jewish. It was horrendous, definitely the hardest years of my life. Some boys wore swastikas, they put harassing notes in my locker, they sang “Jewish” songs at me in the hallways. It’s hard to even talk about it today. Whatever damage it did, though, it’s also helped me be sympathetic to my main characters, who generally feel like outsiders.
My feminism has definitely influenced my novels. Sometimes it’s huge and thematic, like in The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things, where a plus-sized girl learns to feel good about herself and gets the guy in the end without losing weight or compromising her identity. Or in Vegan Virgin Valentine, where Mara Valentine allows her sexual self to emerge. But it also trickles into all aspects of my novels, from the way a female character expresses herself to putting women in roles of power, like doctors and school principals and primary breadwinners.
Lisa Ann Sandell
The Weight of the Sky, Lisa Ann Sandell’s debut novel in verse, begins with the alienation of a I6-year-old girl—the only Jew in her class in rural Pennsylvania, a marching band member treated by the cheerleaders as a dork—who leaves this experience behind for a summer volunteering on a kibbutz. In a spare and evocative text, Sandell captures Sarah’s budding attachment to Israel as a place that seems strangely home, and her awe and attraction to ubiquitous, handsome Israeli male soldiers. Her first happy experience of romantic love is with a young kibbutznik, and it provides Sarah with an eye-opening exposure to the conflicts and tragedies of the region and their impact on daily life in Israel.
DANIS: Does this novel reflect a life-changing journey of your own?
SANDELL: I was always very aware of my hyphenated identity, Jewish-American, and never felt I could be wholly one or the other. When I was 19 years old, a sophomore in college, the idea of spending the summer in a sunny country by the sea where everyone was Jewish sounded like Paradise. Like Sarah, I spent three months on a kibbutz, attending an ulpan and getting up at the crack of dawn to work in the fields. It was the first time I felt truly comfortable being a Jew. I thought I had finally come home. I went back to college, but continued to be preoccupied by Israel, eventually moving to Jerusalem after graduation and working as a journalist there.
The second time around, I had a chance to shed the teenager’s rosy shades. Life in Israel was more than fiery sunsets and exotic fruit. Like Sarah, I, too, quickly wised up to the tough realities of life in Israel. I was particularly overwhelmed by how dissimilar the life trajectories of young Israelis were to mine; serving in the army, living in constant mortal danger. This tension, I think, is at the heart of The Weight of the Sky.
What about Sarah’s fascination with Israeli soldiers?
Sarah, in her life in the United States, was a bit of what might be called a nerd; she didn’t have boyfriends, she didn’t have much experience with boys her age at all. And so for her, part of growing up and coming to terms with her identity as a fully formed young woman was learning how to be with boys, establishing rules and roles for herself Sarah’s identity was made up not only of big, weighty issues—Religion, Ethnicity, Nationality—but also of more intricate, personal questions like romance and relationships. I think the two are intertwined.
So… can we go home again?
So much of growing up is sorting out what makes us at ease, figuring out where we feel safe, contented and “at home.” Ultimately, home is seldom a concrete place.