Fresh Voices

LILITH interviews four exciting young first-time novelists

The first line of Rachel Kadish’s first novel was written to settle a score. A man in her writing workshop was putting gratuitous sex into everything he wrote and criticizing everyone else for not doing the same.

“I decided,” says an amused Kadish, 29, “that I was going to put sex in the first sentence and have it mean something.” Intending to get rid of it later, she tapped out: “Long after the war was over they made love in the sealed room, she on top of him and he with his hands pressed in the flesh of her hips, and no missiles hurtling through the night sky any longer.” Far from being expendable, that sentence turned out to hold the key—and the tide—of her first novel.

True to its first line, From a Sealed Room, due out from G. P. Putnam’s Sons in October, is the story of complex human contact in Israel, where love and sex become deeply entwined with violence and fear. The sealed room is the space in each household that is hermetically closed off against chemical or biological attack. It is a place where all of Kadish’s frightened characters feel safe, but also a place where they lock themselves in dangerous isolation. “What kind of love can you have in a sealed room?” asks one romantic character, alerting us to the central challenge of the book. “Feh. That would be no kind of love.”

At the core of this novel is Maya, an American student, who has fled her mother for a year in Israel and trapped herself in a relationship with a man who beats her. Every day Maya vows to explore the country but never leaves the sealed, scary space of her Jerusalem apartment, instead copping lines from tourist guide books to send to her mother. Surrounding her are equally isolated people, imprisoned in Holocaust memories, angry marriages, childhood grief, cancerous bodies, not daring to make contact with others.

The shadow of danger and death that hangs over Israel encourages this sense of personal isolation, she says. Kadish’s characters are silenced and sentenced by a stoical culture that would rather they keep their grief to themselves. “It’s no secret,” Kadish admits. “I’m pretty left-wing in terms of Israeli politics. . . . Violence in that loving relationship can be a metaphor for what goes on in Israel, where people can love every rock and tree and still commit violence.”

Kadish lived in Israel (after a year internship at Lilith) and has worked for public awareness of domestic abuse. But while she acknowledges the feminist and Zionist elements in her book, during the writing she hung a sign above her computer: “It’s a novel, not a statement.”

“I figured the politics would emerge through the characters’ actions, not the other way around. It’s a book about women’s silences, women trying to find their voices. They have to stop lying to themselves, they have to stop pretending to themselves that everything’s okay when it’s not, they have to start speaking to each other.” — Sarah Blustain

“I never wanted to write a best-seller or tempt my readers,” asserts Israeli writer Ronit Matalon, whose novel, The One Facing Us (translated by Marsha Weinstein, Metropolitan Books, $25), is as tempting and satisfying as a cool drink in the Negev desert.

True, this expertly translated novel “isn’t a nice story,” as Matalon puts it. It’s about Esther, a bright, willful 17-year-old Israeli girl sent to live with her uncle in Cameroon for a bit of straightening out. Its stinging prose, which leaps across time periods and far-flung locales at the flip of a paragraph, penetrates the skin and touches raw nerves.

Based loosely—she won’t say how loosely—on her own family history, Matalon, a 39-year-old photojournalist-turned-novelist, chronicles the traumatic dispersal of an Egyptian Jewish family whose sons and daughters search for a place to call home in Israel, Africa and New York during the 1950s.

Uncle Sicourelle has spent 30 years in Africa dodging coups and his own memories; Uncle Moise, a kibbutznik, orders the family not to sit shiva when the family matriarch dies; Edouard, the youngest sibling, terrorizes Arabs in his role as head of Israeli security; Marcelle traipses the world in search of . . . something; and Esther’s mother, Ines, continues to love and hate the husband who abandoned her many years before. Weaving through them all is Esther—a prickly, rebellious, walking contradiction, skeptical one minute and fiercely idealistic the next.

“I’m very interested in the 17-year-old girl because she is open to the world yet very judgemental,” says Matalon. “She is occupied with moral problems, problems with identity and who she is. Esther is arrogant yet fragile, and above all she’s full of curiosity. I like her a lot.”

A first-generation Israeli, Matalon says that her family’s immigrant experience compelled her to write her novel. “I had to do it. The generation of my parents doesn’t really have its own voice and I had to give it its own voice.”

Matalon’s first adult novel (she’s written two for children), which was warmly received in Israel, also gives voice to Matalon’s baby-boomer generation, a generation that is reexamining its Jewish and Zionist identities.

“Ten years ago the atmosphere in Israel wasn’t ready to receive this book,” she believes. Noting that only a small portion of the action takes place in Israel, she adds, “it’s a post-Zionist book where Israel isn’t the only solution for the Jews.” Israel, she adds, “is not the center of the book and it is not the center of the world.” — Michele Chabin

“I have Europe on the brain, unabashedly,” says novelist Martha Cooley, ordering nothing but tea in a hip Park Slope coffee shop near her Brooklyn home. For her childhood self, that meant dreaming of well-tended farms and castles in the clouds. From her grandparents she heard “all these marvelous tales about Europe, and I thought, as a child, that’s where I had to go and be.”

Later, “Europe on the brain” also meant an attraction to “something else that has its mythological components—and that’s Jewish intellectual life in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s,” the 41-year-old Cooley explains, recalling her “philosemitic phase.” “That’s not to say that there weren’t also exciting Catholic intellectuals or Protestant intellectuals, but the Jewish kind seemed kind of crazy and exciting, and there was a fervent quality to it that I, coming from this slightly held-in-check WASP family, really responded to.”

It is directly out of the dialogue between Jewish passion and Christian coolness that Cooley’s sophisticated new first novel, The Archivist (Little Brown & Company, $22.95) was born. In the book—which is also to be published in Brazil, the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Germany—a reserved archivist named Matt comes head-to-head with a frenzied graduate student, Roberta, who has just discovered that her parents are Jewish and survived the Nazis hidden in a church. Roberta is trying to understand her parents’ conversion to Christianity by prying into a closed archives of letters that records T.S. Eliot’s conversion to Catholicism, his institutionalization of his wife, his frigid love of another woman, his overriding sense of shame. Joining in this battle of wills are the ghosts of a host of characters whose stories have paralleled Eliot’s in many ways, and whose internal tug-of-wars pulled them between comfortable Christianity and a Jewish affiliation that inevitably threatened to—and sometimes succeeded in—driving them over the edge.

Though Cooley remains fairly aloof as she speaks, the mantle of the blue-blood WASP does not sit comfortably on her shoulders. She scorns the “wealthy horse country” where she grew up, the “scions of American capitalism—all WASPS” who surrounded her, and the whispers in which they used to say, “that person is Jewish.” She left her mother’s church at 16—”I just turned about and never turned back.” She admires the “Old Testament God, who is a lover who screams and yells and acts kind of like an asshole sometimes. It’s a very believeable, very humanized God, and that to me is the only God worth talking about.” (This she says in a humor so dry she will not betray it with a smile.) And yet at the same time, like so many of her conflicted characters, she finds she runs up emotionally against a wall of difference when she tries to dive in to Jewish culture and practice.

“I’m a WASP; I can’t do that,” she explains, treading, as she says, “dangerously close to cultural stereotypes.” Tread, however, she does. “What would feel to my Jewish friends or to my ex-husband comforting would feel somewhat ensnaring to me. I would feel like, ‘Can I go out and breathe now?'” — Sarah Blustain

“I’m not interested in writing my own story,” 25-year-old writer Marissa Kantor Stark says bluntly on the eve of the publication of her first novel, told entirely in the voice of a 92-year-old Holocaust survivor. It is also nearly the eve of Stark’s marriage and she’s sitting calmly in the lobby of her new residence on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, waiting for mattresses and chairs to be delivered. Her mother—taking over personal matters—minds the parking meter and manages the movers, and it is clear that Stark isn’t interested in telling her personal story any more than she is in writing it.

Stark’s short book, Bring Us the Old People (Coffee House Press, $22.95), is based loosely on the story of an elderly woman whom Stark began visiting while an undergraduate at Princeton University. Though the woman was then confined to a nursing home, her mental life revolved around her war-time experience in rural Poland of delivering her parents, the “old people” of Stark’s title, to the Nazis. Stark’s book, with utter grace, limns the deterioration of the narrator’s connection to the present even as this historic event becomes more real.

“The first thing she told me almost after she told me her name was, ‘My parents were killed by the Hitlers’— she called them the Hitlers—’and I had to bring them to be killed.’ That was basically sentence number two out of her mouth,” Stark explains about her first encounter with the woman whose story would suggest this novel. “[It was] such a powerful thing to me that somebody would try to relieve that burden of guilt to a perfect stranger the minute they met them, that that would be the thing to say. Not, ‘What’s your name? Where do you go to school?’ but ‘I killed my parents.'”

The precocious Stark began her writing career as a high school student in her modern Orthodox community when a play she wrote about a child traveling through a dictionary was produced at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and on National Public Radio. At Princeton, writer Russell Banks immediately seized on this novel—her dissertation project—as prime for publication. Stark’s second book, the subject of which she will not disclose, is based on a young woman whom the writer knew and whom “I feel I have access to.”

“I see myself as going through life and meeting so many different people and once in a while just really clicking with somebody and becoming almost a vessel for telling that person’s story in my own way,” says Stark about her creative method of choice. “That’s what makes me write, I think. If I were trapped inside myself all the time, I wouldn’t have much to say.” — Sarah Blustain


More Newcomers of Note:

Bubbeh (Latin American Literary Review Press, $12.95): with which Mexican screenwriter and director Sabina Berman makes her English-language debut. Set in Mexico City of the 1960s, her novella peers into the interwoven, neurotic lives of three generations of Jewish women. Includes a terrifically funny child’s-eye view of psychotherapy.

Love Ruins Everything: A Novel (Press Gang Publishers, $14.95): in which Karen X. Tulchinsky, editor of Hot and Bothered: Short Short Fiction of Lesbian Desire, walks a rocky road with her very butch lesbian character Nomi and Nomi’s very Queens Jewish family. Features a full array of passionate crushes, an unlikely Washington-created-AIDS plot twist, and Nomi’s well-meaning “Ma,” who just can’t help hoping her daughter will someday “You know, . . . ” make matzoh balls for a man.

Our Sometime Sister (Coffee House Press, $22.95): in which Minneapolis writer Norah Labiner spices her coming-of-age novel with a hefty helping of Hamlet and a wonderfully wry, wordy protagonist, Pearl, who just happens to be a writer too. Pearl’s strategic wrangling with her pipe-dreaming Jewish mother and self-help guru step-father is interwoven with a novel she wrote, creating a book that is at once stunningly literary and personally engaging. A suburban fairy tale, Elsinore castle and all. (Prince Charming not included.)

by Sarah Blustain