Hilary Zaid’s debut novel, Paper Is White, is about secrets and the longings they are meant to conceal. It’s also a novel about the past and the legacy of loss and trauma.
Set in dotcom-era San Francisco before marriage equality, Paper Is White follows two women—Ellen and Francine—as they plan their wedding. This thread of the novel is complicated by Ellen’s work with Holocaust survivors, especially as she gets close to one woman, a survivor of the Kovno ghetto in Lithuania, and learns her secrets. These two threads are beautifully and surprisingly intertwined.
In March 2018, Zaid and I exchanged emails about the need for rituals, owning labels such as Jewish writer or LGBTQ writer, and how she found herself writing a historical novel.
RH: In your novel Paper Is White, ritual or ceremony is important to the protagonist, Ellen Margolis. She wants her love for her partner Francine to be celebrated and blessed, despite the lack of legal support for their union. The women have to adapt traditional rituals for their purposes. Can you talk about the value of ritual and ceremony, maybe particularly to those who have been excluded from traditional rituals in some way?
HZ: Early in Paper Is White, Ellen’s best friend suggests that she and Francine elope. Ellen protests: “We couldn’t just do that. We couldn’t do that at all. We had to do all the other things. Or else, what was it?”
Marriage is, first and foremost, a social contract. Marriage equality has only been the law of the land since 2015. Until then, the conflict for couples like Ellen and Francine was how to create that contract when society did not offer up a legal option. But religion offers rituals that are both familiar and accessible. Rituals are powerful for a reason; their familiarity and their evocation of history gather participants and witnesses simultaneously into the space of timelessness and the space of tradition. The shattering of the glass, for example, connects a Jewish wedding with all the Jewish weddings that have come before it. When my spouse and I got married in 1999, the people in my family really had no idea what that meant when they showed up; but after seeing us under the chuppah, exchanging rings and smashing a glass, they understood very clearly just what it was they had witnessed.
Fortunately, though rabbis at the turn of the century were still pretzeling themselves to figure out how they could perform gay and lesbian unions without calling them weddings, Reform Judaism and most religions altogether have been way out ahead of the law in recognizing gay and lesbian unions as marriages. Being able to participate in rituals is very powerful for people who have been excluded from them. I still remember when my spouse and I were married legally and the county clerk concluded the ceremony with the phrase “And now, by the power vested in me by the State of California,” my hair rose up on end.
RH: Ellen belongs to two marginalized groups which respond to persecution in quite different ways. You share this background with your protagonist. Can you talk about the way identity informs and shapes your writing? I’ve noticed a number of writers backing away from or rejecting the label of Jewish writer or LGBTQ writer. What do you think about this? Is a label necessarily limiting?
HZ: This is such an important question. When writers reject labels, I think they’re saying “I am not *only* a Jewish writer” or “Don’t relegate my writing to second class status because I’m a queer writer.” It’s understandable that a writer who is aiming to speak to a wide audience would feel compelled to reject a label that might ghettoize or seem to belittle their work. But what’s behind that belittling or ghettoization? Homophobia or anti-Semitism.
So, when we take that perspective on — to assume that to be taken seriously as a writer means to repudiate a central part of one’s identity; really, to become as much like a white, non-Jewish, cis, heterosexual man as possible — we are turning some serious bullshit on ourselves. As an activist who marched through the streets with Queer Nation, I can tell you: pretending you’re just part of the mainstream and hoping nobody notices you’re different is not how you change the paradigm.
If straight readers overlook Paper Is White because they think it’s a “lesbian” novel, I can only reassure them that I’ve read many heterosexual novels and been moved by them. And to queer readers and Jewish readers, I want to say: I am proud to tell a story that reflects our lives.
RH: Paper Is White is set in 1997-1998 before the 2015 landmark ruling for marriage equality. As you were writing in 2005 to 2011, did you have concerns about how this central plot concern would fare after the victory of marriage equality? Do you consider this a historical novel? And are their particular responsibilities for the writer of historical fiction?
HZ: LGBTQ Americans had been tracking the fight for marriage equality well before it came onto the mainstream cultural radar. So, while I was writing Paper Is White, I felt very aware of writing about a subject that was shifting under my feet. At a certain point, I realized that I couldn’t write my story if I had to keep updating it, so I planted a flag in 1997 and wrote from there. The issue came up again, though, as I prepared to take the novel to market and the battle for marriage equality became more urgent. For a long period, I had a prologue to the novel in which I kept updating the status of the marriage equality debate, sometimes weekly, depending on the daily report from Lakshmi Singh.
I never considered that I was writing anything but a contemporary novel, but, after the Supreme Court decision in 2015, I realized that I had to revise it with the understanding that — given current events — it was now a historical novel and I had to revise it accordingly. For example, it became clear over time that readers had quickly forgotten that homophobia existed and that was something I now had to remind them of.
If you had told me I had to sit down and write a historical novel, I would have said No thanks. I’ve never had the desire, as a fiction writer, to stick to facts or be responsible for reportage. But, it turns out that in writing realistic, contemporary, fiction over a period of time in which my subject was changing very rapidly, I became an accidental historical fiction writer. I think a writer of historical fiction has an obligation to be accurate about events and, as a historical novel, I think Paper Is White is truthful.
RH: Ellen’s mother is an interesting character. I’m intrigued by her lace collection. In this way, she shares Ellen’s preoccupation with the past. Can you talk about the way the lace, this ultra-feminine object, functions in the novel and in the relationship between Ellen and her mother?
HZ: Marilyn Margolis represents a certain type of woman of the mid to late 20th century, in that she is full of interests and intelligence but is a little too old for the feminist revolution to have sent her off into the workplace—or maybe just too laden with different expectations. She identifies herself primarily in relation to her husband, who may very well have discouraged her from pursuing her own interests. So, instead, she collects antique lace in secret, essentially hiding the very fact that she has this intellect and desire.
But it’s there in the background, a reminder of frustrated desire and of the ways that Ellen and her mother can’t quite connect. Because Marilyn Margolis’s interest in lace and its history are very much like Ellen’s own fascination with the past. But, at the same time, as you point out, lace symbolizes a version of femininity Marilyn is so frustrated not to find in her daughter, and so represents the insurmountable gap between them. They have so much in common but just can’t quite connect. It’s tragic, really.
My sister-in-law Karen Augusta, who is an antique lace dealer and expert who has appeared on Antiques Roadshow, brought the idea of Marilyn Margolis’s avocation to me, and her story about her purchase and sale of the Hapsburg veil is much more intriguing than the version of the story as it appears in Paper Is White.
RH: Anya Kamenets, a Survivor, becomes very important to Ellen. Near the end of the novel, Ellen imagines Anya wearing a mother of a bride outfit to her wedding. She’s a kind of surrogate for Ellen’s beloved grandmother and maybe her mother, too.
HZ: If we’re lucky, we all have many mothers.
RH: Your writing career hasn’t followed the traditional path. You have a Ph.D. in literature but not an MFA. How does your scholarly work/education affect or inform your creative work?
HZ: I studied English at Harvard with a focus on poetry (particularly, lyric poetry from the Anglo Saxon “Dream of the Rood” through the later 20th century) and went on to get my Ph.D., writing about William Wordsworth’s Inscriptions. This course of study certainly gave me no preparation for writing a novel in the way that an MFA might have.
But studying lyric poetry has had a strong impact on my style in this novel, in that I tend to focus on the lyric moment of heightened attention. The problem is that a lyric is self-contained, and having chapters that end with closure are not what you want in a novel. Figuring out how to replace closure with tension and how to build in hooks was something I had to learn on my own, mostly by reading novels.
But this book is full of poetry and, at heart, I’m still a Romanticist. The things that preoccupied me in the study of Wordsworth’s poetry—the concept of “spots of time,” the recurrence of significant moments during the revisitation of place, the question of how we remain connected to the past—preoccupy Paper Is White and its narrator, too. Ellen’s experience of the death pits at Ponar, for example, reflect an entirely Wordsworthian sense of the inherence of memory in a specific place. And her relationship with Anya, you could say, is a version of the same thing.
RH: Ellen bakes her Grandma Sophie’s hamentaschen as a way of honoring her and bringing her back. I know that among your many other talents you’re also an expert baker of hamentaschen. It’s too late for Purim this year, but Ellen seems to eat them any time, so would you be willing to share your family recipe and any 21st century adaptations?
HZ: Recently, I was thinking about how Purim comes up in this novel, as opposed to, say, Chanukah, which never does, and realized that it was a gift of the unconscious to tie the novel to a Jewish holiday in which a hidden identity is central to the story.
But you want to eat! So I’m going to give you my grandmother’s hamentaschen recipe. I’ll add a few instructions, since she considered those unnecessary. When I make these, I often take liberties—in my most recent batch of dough, for example, I used a blood orange, which gave it a lovely pink tint. And, of course, the options for fillings (strawberry jam, raspberry jam, Nutella, dulce de leche, apricot jam) are endless. As you may already have guessed, I don’t like following rules, so I make things differently almost every time—subbing in butter for oil, or adding almond meal to the dough. Play with it. But don’t overload the centers!
3 eggs, well beaten
Add 1 cup oil
2 teaspoons vanilla (and/or almond extract)
Juice of ½ orange
1 ½ cup sugar
3 teaspoons baking powder
5–5 ½ cups flour
Refrigerate dough for a couple hours. Roll out dough to ¼ in. thickness, cut into circles, dollop with filling (not too much!), and pinch edges shut to form a triangle.
Bake at 375 for 20 minutes.
This explains why my cookies were so soft this year. I baked them at 325. I guess I’ll have to make another batch!
A 2017 Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Hilary Zaid is also an alumna of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers and the Tin House Writers’ Workshop. Her short fiction has appeared in print and online venues including Lilith Magazine, The Southwest Review, The Utne Reader, CALYX, The Santa Monica Review, and The Tahoma Literary Review and has been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize. An alumna of Harvard and Radcliffe, she holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of California, Berkeley, and works as a freelance editor. Paper Is White is her first novel.
Photo of Hilary Zaid by Mo Saito
Rachel Hall is the author of Heirlooms (BkMk Press), which was selected by Marge Piercy for the G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize. Winner of the Phillip McMath Post Publication Award, Heirlooms was also the runner-up for the Edward Wallant Award and a finalist for the Balcones Prize for Fiction, the Montaigne Medal, and the Eric Hofer Award. Rachel’s short stories and essays have appeared in several journals and anthologies, including Black Warrior Review, Crab Orchard Review, Gettysburg Review, Guernica, and New Letters, which awarded her the Alexander Cappon Prize for Fiction. Hall is a Professor of English in the creative writing program at the State University of New York at Geneseo.
[…] “If straight readers overlook Paper Is White because they think it’s a ‘lesbian’ novel, I can only reassure them that I’ve read many heterosexual novels and been moved by them. And to queer readers and Jewish readers, I want to say: I am proud to tell a story that reflects our lives.”—Hilary Zaid, interviewed by Rachel Hall for Read Her Like an Open Book. […]