Turning her mother’s life into fiction: Anne Raeff talks with Barbara Ridley about her new Holocaust novel, WHEN IT’S OVER

  


I recently had the pleasure of reading this moving novel inspired by the experiences of the author’s mother during World War II. The protagonist is Lena Kulkova, a young Jewish woman who comes of age in Prague during the 1930s. There she is a member of a group of leftists and falls in love with a charismatic activist, Otto, a refugee from Nazi Germany. Before the war breaks out, she follows him to Paris and eventually joins him in England, where they spend the war years and where most of the book takes place. Although they are relatively safe in England, Lena is in a perpetual state of anxiety about the fate of her mother and sister who stayed behind in Czechoslovakia.

Barbara Ridley was raised in England but has lived in California for more than thirty years. After a successful career as a nurse practitioner, she is now focused on writing. Her work has appeared in literary journals such as The Writers Workshop Review, Still Crazy, Ars Medica, The Copperfield Review, and BLYNKT. This is her first novel. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her partner and dog. Find her online at http://www.barbararidley.com.

Anne Raeff is a novelist and short story writer. Her book of stories, The Jungle Around Us, won the 2015 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Her work has appeared in a variety of literary journals, including New England Review, ZYZZYVA, Antioch Review, and Guernica. Her novels are Clara Mondschein’s Melancholia (2001) and Winter Kept Us Warm, which will be published by Counterpoint Press in February 2018.

Raeff: My first question is about how you came to write this book. Is it a book that you have always wanted to write, have always been writing, or was there something that pushed you to take up your pen now after all these years?

Ridley: It didn’t occur to me to write this novel until the death of my mother in 2002. A friend of mine, a woman I had known for over 40 years, asked me how it was exactly that my mother had ended up in England, and when I started to tell her, she said: that is an amazing story! And I realized, yes it is. I had done very little creative writing before—just occasional poems or stories over the years—but I had published several academic articles, so I knew how to string words together on the page. So I thought: okay, maybe I could do this. But I didn’t start writing until three years later.

Raeff: I am wondering why and how you made the decision to tell your mother’s story as fiction. Did you consider writing it as memoir or biography or did you conceive of it as a novel from the start?

Ridley: I pretty much realized right from the start that I would write it as fiction. I had always known the outline of what had happened to my mother and her family during World War II, but there were a lot of gaps.  And the people who might have been able to fill in the gaps were either dead or memory-impaired. (I tried.) So, I thought, well, I love fiction, I’ll make up what I don’t know.

Raeff: What was the most unexpected detail or information that you came across while you were doing research for this book and how did this affect the shape that the book took?

Ridley: First: I came upon a book on my parents’ bookshelves—this was after they had both gone, but before we had cleared out the house and their hundreds of books. It was a small 1940’s style Penguin paperback called The Internment of Aliens. I was astonished to learn that thousands of Germans, both Nazi sympathizers and Jews or Communists who had fled for their lives, were interned in England in 1940, as “enemy aliens.” It was very controversial, and this book, written at the time, was a polemical critique of the policy. I knew nothing about all this, and I found it fascinating. It became an important element in Lena and Otto’s story.

Then later, I was given the opportunity to read the letters my father wrote during the war. Initially, I hoped they would contain more information about the early stages of my parents’ relationship. But in spite of the fact that they were written to one of his closest friends, they were almost entirely devoid of any personal information, and didn’t mention my mother at all!  Instead, they offered long, detailed, and fascinating insights into the political climate during the last two years of the war, leading up to the defeat of Churchill and the Labour landslide in the 1945 election.  I always knew Labour won this election, but how was it that Churchill, the great wartime leader, lost so badly? And how would it have affected my protagonist: the euphoria of this victory against the backdrop of the revelations about the fate of those sent to concentration camps? This was very interesting to me, and I incorporated it into the last section of the novel.

Raeff: Since the book is so rooted in your mother’s story, can you talk a little bit about how you learned her story? Did you grow up hearing the stories that would later become the core of this book, or were you the one who initiated discussions about her past?

Ridley: I grew up knowing the general outline of how she was a refugee during the war, and she told a few stories about the group living together in the tiny cottage in the village. But she didn’t talk about it often or in detail, and certainly she never dwelt on the emotional impact of her family’s past. When I was in my thirties, after I had already moved to California, I interviewed her, recording an oral history on a 90-minute cassette tape.  This was 20 years before she died, and the first and only time she told me a lot of the story that forms the core of the novel. She gave me a glimpse there of her hopes and her anguish about the fate of her family members left behind, but we rarely talked about it more after that.  Years later, I had that tape transcribed, and I referred to it a lot while writing. Unfortunately, the tape ran out just as she was talking about the man who formed the basis of the character of Otto in the novel—and I can’t remember if she told me more about him, but if she did I didn’t record it.

Raeff: Since the book is based on a true story, I am curious to what extent you used the facts and actual details of your mother’s life. I am especially interested in knowing whether the main characters surrounding her existed and whether their roles in her life and in politics are the same?

Ridley: Broadly speaking, yes. My mother was involved in the Socialist Youth movement in Prague in the 1930’s. The man whom I call Otto in the novel did exist, but I know very little about him or their relationship, so most of that is fictionalized. But it’s true that he was a spy for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, she did follow him to Paris, and he was instrumental in finally getting her an entry permit for England—after many failed attempts. The characters Muriel and Milton in the novel are based on my grandmother and father, and their politics are pretty accurately portrayed. My grandmother came from a very privileged background but developed an unorthodox lifestyle and liberal views.

Raeff: In the book both Lena and the British man she ended up marrying were activists, socialists. Did your parents continue to be active in politics in England until late in life? Did their politics change? How did their activism affect the way you view the world and the choices you made?

Ridley: My father continued to be active in politics, and in the 1950’s ran twice (unsuccessfully) for Parliament as a Labour Party candidate. I grew up a “red diaper baby,” as it used to be called in the U.S.  At the age of two, I declared that “there are two kinds of parties: the Labour Party and birthday parties,” and soon I was taken to “Ban the Bomb” demonstrations.  Later, my father became disillusioned with Labour for moving too much to the center. I was constantly exposed to his running commentary on current affairs, which was very different from the narrative I heard at school or in the media.  So I learned to be skeptical and form my own opinions.

My mother became a 1950’s stay-at-home housewife, and was not directly involved in politics, but they both maintained a left-wing outlook throughout their lives, and my mother was an early supporter of the Green Party.  But they lived in a staunchly conservative upper-middle class area, where they were very different politically from their neighbors, and they took a conservative newspaper. In England, as you may know, the daily newspapers are all national, not regional, but distinguished from each other by their political bent.  So usually, if you see what kind of newspaper someone reads, you pretty much know all you need to know about their social class and political affiliation. But my parents read the Daily Telegraph, the most conservative of the quality papers. They preferred its news coverage, they said.  I found that odd.  I was eager to escape the conservative small-town environment in which I was raised, and head for the big city, and I have chosen to live most of my adult life in the politically-liberal San Francisco “bubble.”

Raeff: Because I am also the child of immigrants and refugees from World War II, I was particularly interested in Lena’s loyalty and feeling of connection to England, her adopted country. As the child of an immigrant, growing up English, what were your struggles?

Ridley: My mother was loyal and grateful to Britain, but as an immigrant, she also had an outsider’s perspective, and she often mocked English mannerisms and certainly English cooking, the way the vegetables were boiled into oblivion, for example. (This was back in the 50’s and 60’s; it’s vastly improved now.) So, I always felt different, and somewhat of an outsider myself. I had a mother with a foreign accent (which was uncommon), and then there were all the political differences I just mentioned, plus we didn’t go to church, which was a big deal. My parents were not religious, which was unusual back then, and in school—the equivalent of what we would call a public school in the U.S.— we had to begin every day with Christian prayers.  So I always felt odd, and that I didn’t completely belong. And then, in an interesting parallel, I ended up as an immigrant myself, moving to another continent, to find a place where I felt more at home.

Raeff: I am always interested in how a writer’s profession or work influences his/her writing. Can you talk a little bit about that, about how your years as a nurse practitioner shaped you as a person and a writer?

Ridley: That’s such an interesting question. I loved my work as a nurse and then a nurse practitioner and I spent most of my career in rehabilitation nursing, working with people with neurological disabilities, helping them adjust to life after devastating injury or disease.  As a person, this has made me always appreciative of my own good fortune and health. As a nurse, I felt privileged to witness the huge range of response to trauma and adversity.  I had to accept wherever my patients were coming from, and acknowledge their perspective, not impose my idea of what they should be feeling.  I was always inspired by their resilience.  Perhaps this informs the way in which I write about my characters facing trauma and my ability to get inside their heads, interpreting scenes from different points of view.

Raeff: Do you have any advice for other writers who are working on books that are so closely drawn from real historical events?

Ridley: I worked very hard to make sure that all the historical details were correct, and that I was not introducing any objects or language that would not have existed at the time. I think this is very important. You don’t want the reader to be thrown out of the story and not trust the authenticity of the world you are creating.  But working as I was from family history, I learned that you have to be able to view the narrative as a separate entity, with a life of its own. My protagonist is based on my mother, but Lena is not my mother. She became a character that I created. During the process of writing the novel, and workshopping chapters, I would sometimes receive feedback that this action or event was not “believable.” And I had to resist the urge to say, “But it really happened.” It is not enough that something really happened; it has to be believable within the arc of the story.

Raeff: What are you working on now or, if you haven’t started something new yet, what are you thinking of working on next?

Ridley: I am working on another novel—completely different, set in contemporary California, and very much based on my years of clinical experience. It’s about a young woman having to reinvent herself after a spinal cord injury.

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Aline Ohanesian: Turning the trans-generational grief of genocide into historical fiction

Raffi HadidianAline Ohanesian is the author of critically acclaimed novel, Orhan’s Inheritance, which was long listed for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize, a Summer 2015 Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” pick, an April 2014 Indie Next pick, and an Amazon Top 25 pick for 2015. The novel was also a finalist for the PEN Bellwether Award for Socially Engaged Fiction. 

Aline was born in Kuwait and immigrated to Southern California at the age of three. After earning an MA in History, she abandoned her PhD studies to conduct the research that led to her debut novel. She is an alumna of the Bread Loaf and Squaw Valley writers’ conferences. She lives and writes in San Juan Capistrano, California with her husband and two young sons.

The paperback edition of Orhan’s Inheritance was published by Algonquin Books in January 2016.

[This interview was originally published on January 18, 2016.]

Photo by Raffi Hadidian


What led to your fascination with the Armenian genocide? Was it a story that seems to have been passed down with your mother’s milk, as it were?

I had an emotional connection to this history because my grandparents on both sides were survivors. I felt I had to tell this story not only for them but for the 1.5 million who lost their lives. Writing this novel was my way of coping with and exploring trans-generational grief.

What aspect of this cultural history spoke most powerfully to you in terms of storytelling?

I’m always amazed at the resilience of the human spirit. When people suffer the worst of fates and still manage not only to survive but be kind and loving.

Tell me about the research you did for Orhan’s Inheritance.

In some parts of the world, the history in this book is contested, so it was very important to me to be as historically accurate as possible. It took me seven years to write this novel. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I probably read every history book ever written on the subject, including a few books from denialists. I have a masters in History from UCI [University of California at Irvine] and whenever possible I referenced primary sources, things like diaries, letters, ledgers, etc. I also took a trip to the interior of Turkey, where the book takes place, and spent time in a small village where they still burn cow dung for fuel. It was like walking into a time warp. Great for my research.

How long did you work on the book?

It took me seven years to write it and another year to find an agent. She sold it on the first round within a week of signing me.

orhans-inheritance-paperback

What is the key to blending the history and politics of something like the Armenian genocide with a story so that the two are in balance?

Writing a book like this, with two time periods and several characters whose story spans eighty years, is like weaving a tapestry. What matters most is the characters and their story. I only included history that impacted my main characters in a direct and personal way.

I love the fact that Orhan is a photographer who has experienced a form of photographer’s block but learns how to see again — but differently — from his encounters with Seda and Ani. It has stayed with me as one of the central “images” of the novel. Can you explain the genesis of this idea and how you wove it into his character development?

I have an affinity toward people who make art in whatever medium. They are my tribe. Making him a photographer reduced the psychic distance between us. I tend to place a high value on people who choose art over everything else in their lives. With Orhan, I got to experience what it felt like to turn one’s back on one’s art. It wasn’t just a block, but a voluntary distancing of himself from his art. I wanted to explore the personal consequences of that, not just to him but to his family and community. Making art is hard, but the alternative can be devastating too, if one has the ability, sight, calling, whatever you want to call it.

I was particularly intrigued by the question that arises late in the book when Orhan is forced to confront the issue of identity. Is he a Turk of the past or the present, or a global citizen of the present and future? How is he supposed to live his life in light of these questions? I imagine that is a question that has been (and is still) faced by Germans and the new generation of Serbians and some Rwandans, etc. How do you view the issue of collective guilt?

It’s so true, and this book was #1 in Serbia I think precisely because that society is still dealing with those questions. As a novelist, I don’t propose any answers to the question of collective guilt. Instead, I ask the question and let my characters answer it for themselves. There have been major shifts in identity formation as a result of our global connectedness, via the internet, speed and ease of travel, etc., but in some ways, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Our world is still suffering from violence born of nationalism, racism and sexism. Collective guilt is different from personal, individual guilt and has to be acknowledged by the nation-state. In the case of Turkey, that state has a deep history of denial and oppression of basic human rights.

I was also moved by Ani’s sentiment that “Remembering is all we have in the face of denial. Silence is the enemy of justice.” What role does fiction have in this “remembering”?

I think great art can also bear witness. Here I’m thinking of the work of Arundhati Roy, Louise Erdrich, Edward P. Jones and others. Those are the writers I admire the most, the ones who can tell you a heart-wrenching story and inadvertently teach you about history and its power structures. There’s a great quote by Toni Morison that goes, “All of that art-for-art’s-sake stuff is BS,” she declares. “What are these people talking about? Are you really telling me that Shakespeare and Aeschylus weren’t writing about kings? All good art is political! There is none that isn’t. And the ones that try hard not to be political are political by saying, ‘We love the status quo.’”

I’m curious about whether Orhan’s Inheritance has been well received by the Jewish community (if you know). I would imagine the concept of “transgenerational grief” would resonate among those who are descendants of the Holocaust, both literally and figuratively. Your description of Armenian loss having existed for generations “like something precious, in every syllable of language taught in Saturday schools, and in the smell of dishes, and in the lament of songs” rings very true for me. It’s universal.

I haven’t heard from any Jewish organizations, but I will say that I have been a student of the Holocaust and its literature, and I feel an affinity toward that community both in my personal life and my professional one.

What do you make of recent research that suggests the trauma of events like genocide can be passed down genetically? (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/descendants-of-holocaust-survivors-have-altered-stress-hormones/)

My community and I always knew it to be true and I’m glad that science now supports that wisdom.

What was your area of study when you earned your MA in History? What were you working on in your Ph.D. program?

I was studying American history, partly to try to figure out what it means to be an American. My dissertation was on the intersection of citizenship and consumerism in American culture. I had an incredible group of professors and I owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude.

For those who want to learn more about the subject, which books do you recommend, both fiction and nonfiction?

For non-fiction I would recommend Dawn MacKeen’s The Hundred Year Walk, which just came out to raving reviews. It’s a lovely story of her grandfather’s survival and it explains the past but also points to what’s happening now in the Middle East. There are some great novels about the topic. My three favorites are Micheline Marcom’s Three Apples Fell From Heaven, Nancy Kricorian’s Zabelle and Antonia Aslan’s Skylark Farm. There are dozens more including one from Chris Bohjalian called Sandcastle Girls.

What has been the highlight of being a debut novelist? 

One highlight is receiving letters and emails from readers who’ve been impacted by the novel. I never imagined the lovely things people would say about my words. It is a surreal and wonderful experience and it’s been happening at least once a week since the book came out last April. I’m incredibly grateful for the reception the book has had, but to be honest, the very best part of this journey has been and remains the hours I spend writing. That is my prayer, my religion and my privilege. It’s not always easy but it’s always rewarding. (Even on bad days when I want to throw my laptop into a ditch, I’m still grateful I get to write. To try.)

What are you working on now?

It’s a secret. No, just kidding. I am working on two things at once. I have no idea which of the two will take fire, but it’s exciting. I don’t want to repeat myself, so I’m stepping way outside my comfort zone. I don’t know how readers will react, but I’ll worry about that after I’ve finished writing.

How has social media changed the landscape for writers, especially those early in their career?

Social media is a great way to create community and converse with other writers and readers. It’s only a problem if it gets in the way of your writing. I’m sure some people can tweet and work on their novels at the same time, but I’m not one of them. I have to limit social media so I don’t have any of those apps on my phone or my laptop. I have them on an iPad that I use in my leisure time. Like a lot of other things, it can be a double-edged sword.

Which writers have had the greatest influence on you as a reader and a writer? What have you read recently that has impressed you?

I mentioned some of them earlier. I re-read one of the Russians at least once a year. Having said that, I’m always reading so I’m always discovering new favorites. I’m on a Lidia Yuknavitch kick lately. I loved The Small Backs of Children. And Josh Weil’s The Great Glass Sea blew me away. Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life and Smith Henderson’s Fourth of July Creek. I could go on and on.

Are there any books you especially like that you think have been unfairly overlooked?

Oh, so many. I don’t understand why some books get the attention they do, while others are ignored. I do believe there’s a benefit to living in Brooklyn and/or having an MFA. Like in any business, connections matter when it comes to coverage and who gets reviewed, etc. I do think gatekeepers like agents and editors are important. But the writer can’t worry about anything beyond the page. I worry about the words and let the rest take care of itself, or not.

Do you have any recommendations for standout fiction by women for the readers of this blog?

Many of the writers I’ve mentioned here are women and women of color. Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women is an excellent short story collection. I love Susan Straight both as a person and a writer. I thought the structure of Naomi Williams’s Landfalls was very interesting. Again, I can go on for pages.

Roxana Robinson: The Two Worlds of the Writer’s Life

Roxana-ROBINSON-2-C-David-Ignaszewski-koboy

Roxana Robinson is the author of nine books: five novels, including Sparta and Cost; three collections of short stories; and the biography Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life, which was short-listed for the National Book Critics Circle Award and was named one of The New York Times Most Notable Books of the Year. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s MagazineThe New York Times, The Washington PostBookForum, Best American Short Stories, Tin House and elsewhere. She teaches in the Hunter MFA Program and divides her time among New York, Connecticut, and Maine. She has received fellowships from the NEA and the Guggenheim Foundation and is the President of the Authors Guild.

This essay is reprinted from the Winter 2016 issue of the Authors Guild Bulletin.


 

While you’re working on a book, you’re living in two worlds.

There is the world that you inhabit with everyone you know—your husband, your children, your friends, your colleagues. This is the tangible world, and you inhabit it easily. You don’t have to try. You can e-mail people, or call them or talk to them at dinner. The things you share with them are immediate. But your presence there becomes increasingly insubstantial: you realize that it doesn’t really matter if you’re there or not. This world will go on without you.

The other world you’re living in, the world of the book, is just as vivid. You’re living with people you’ve never seen, though you know them as well as you know everyone else in your life. But it’s not always easy to connect with them. Sometimes it seems as though a translucent scrim separates you, and whenever you’re not writing, you’re worried that you won’t be able to get past the scrim.

In the novel Time and Again, the protagonist is asked to live in circumstances that exactly mimic those of a century earlier, in hopes that he’ll be able to slip through a portal into another era. He does, of course. I think about this when I’m trying to move into the world of my novel. I’m never quite sure if I’ll be able to get there. “This novel” is the place that I inhabit while I’m working. In this world, I’m necessary. It won’t go on without me.

When I began writing fiction, the rule for young writers was, “Write what you know.” It’s a good rule, meant to avoid the inauthentic use of places, people, and feelings. The idea was that the writer should know herself first, examine her own world before she begins to examine others. It’s still a good rule for young writers. But it needn’t hold true throughout a whole career. It is beginning to seem that contemporary novelists have used up what they know. The present seems over-explored, so why not write about the past and the future?

Futuristic and historical novels are becoming all the rage. There are lots of distinguished ones: Frankenstein, The Handmaid’s TaleNever Let Me Go and The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five. And of course Wolf HallMary Reilly and The Blue Flower. (I know, I know, I’m naming mostly works by women, and I’m sorry. It’s just that there are so many more good books by women than there are by men! If I could think of more by men, I’d name them, of course.)

When you are writing a contemporary novel, you’re already living a covert life. You talk to your family as though you’re all occupying the same place—the kitchen. And you are in the kitchen, but you’re also in that other place, the place where the novel lives, with its great rolling landscape of emotions and conversations and characters on their way to the unknown destination at the end of the narrative. Those people in that other place are all around, constantly swimming through your consciousness.

But when you’re writing about another time, you are in even more trouble: you’re doubly removed from the tangible world. The words and sentiments from the people of that other time become more and more real. You’re fascinated by them. You’re bemused by people who talk in today’s language, the one you’ve stopped speaking. You’re deep in another era. You can hardly believe that your husband wants to discuss this year’s politics, when he could be talking about those of that other year, which are so much more vivid, those candidates so much more astonishing in their declarations, their dastardliness, their ambitions, their facial hair.

And all the time you feel as though that other world, the one where you’re writing, is elusive. It is slipping through your hands like water. You can’t quite close your fingers on it, yet that’s the place you’re living. You can’t quite close your fingers on it, yet you’re swimming through it. It’s become your medium. It’s all around you, but you can’t quite breathe.

One afternoon, when I was writing my biography of Georgia O’Keeffe, I was driving down the street in the small town where I then lived. A man was driving toward me, and I recognized him. He was handsome, with a square face, a dark, serious gaze, metal-rimmed glasses and a mustache. I knew I knew him, but couldn’t think of who he was in time to wave. After he’d driven past, I realized it was Alfred Stieglitz. The funny thing was that Stieglitz never learned to drive.

Once you’ve finished the book, you stop living in that world. It’s lost to you. People ask me afterwards if I’m thinking of writing a sequel. Don’t I want to know what happens next, they ask? But I can no longer find the portal. Sometimes I’ll hear from a reader, years later, reminding me of that place, telling me how it felt while she was reading it.

Then I remember what it was like when I lived there.

Missing the Turn: Debut novelist Ashley Sweeney on the hike that led her to ELIZA WAITE

Ashley Sweeney

We missed the turn.

Bracken fern and wild salal must have covered a weathered sign marking the trail route along the seldom-used path to Eagle Cliff. My husband, Michael, and I were hiking the three-mile loop to the top of the cliff on remote Cypress Island in the Washington San Juan Islands on one of those rare and beautiful October days that we get here in the Pacific Northwest—with peppered sun, light breeze, and balmy fall temperatures.

We had anchored the night before in secluded Eagle Cove on the eastern side of the island with a half-dozen other late fall boaters and sailors. The morning chill disappeared after scrambled eggs and coffee—and when the sun finally peeked over the Cascade Mountains. Sometime in the late morning we rowed the dinghy to shore to explore the island.

Without a map, we ventured into the deep woods of the largely uninhabited island and relied on trail markers to guide us to our destination: Eagle Cliff, a 700-foot basalt outcropping overlooking the whole of the San Juan archipelago and Vancouver Island beyond. Eagle Cliff is a recognizable landmark for boaters and sailors for miles away, located at the northernmost tip of Cypress Island in Washington State’s Northern Puget Sound. From that vantage point, we would see for nearly 100 miles in almost every direction.

About halfway through the loop, we came upon a marsh buzzing with activity—frogs, dragonflies, and armies of insects skirting the pond’s surface of scum and debris.

“I think we might have missed the turnoff,” Michael said.

We sat by the pond’s edge for a half-hour as Michael offered his biologist’s observations about the marsh flora: its pond grasses, lily pads, and duckweed. The birds. The frogs. The constant hum of activity.

We swatted mosquitoes. Swigged bottled water. Sat for as long as our conversation meandered.

“Shall we go back and try to find the trailhead?” I asked. “Or should we follow this path and see where it takes us?”

We decided to follow the trail to see where it would lead, knowing we could easily retrace our steps back to Eagle Cove. Where the trail eventually led was to Smuggler’s Cove, a sheltered cove on the island’s north side at the foot of the massive cliff face we had aimed to climb. Picking our way down to the beach through brambles and errant twigs, we looked up to the top of Eagle Cliff, our missed endpoint.

Before us lay Rosario Strait, the major north-south waterway running through the center of the San Juan Islands. Several powerboats motored into view, with popular Orcas Island in the backdrop beyond.

As our eyes adjusted to the filtered light at the edge of the forest, we spied a structure almost completely hidden perched just above the cove.

Curious, and never one to shy away from intrigue, Michael tromped up to the dilapidated cabin and disappeared inside.

“Come and see this!” he hollered down to the beach.

I picked my way to up through the dense underbrush to the cabin and peered inside.

Barely 15 x 15, the cabin’s single room housed stood completely empty except for the memories of any former occupants and copious wildlife droppings.

Who had lived here? When? And why?

A small plaque near the cabin recounts the story of a Mrs. Zoe Hardy who lived as a hermit at the cabin in the 1930s. She farmed the area, eschewed strangers, and lived self sufficiently. Her story ends abruptly and mysteriously a decade later. After a terminal medical diagnosis she refused all supplies and visitors and eventually died, although her body was never found.

The find fascinated us.

“I can just envision it, a woman, alone on Cypress Island. What led her here, and why?”

That night, the seed for Eliza Waite was born. We stayed awake deep into the night discussing the plot arc and character development. Although completely fictitious, Eliza inhabits the same cabin that Mrs. Hardy once occupied. On the island, both Mrs. Hardy and the fictional Eliza scramble to feed themselves, stay warm, and remain sane in a remote and lonely place.

Thus began an eight-year journey to bring Eliza Waite into the world. Eliza Waite follows the story of a disenfranchised woman who faces tragedy and loss, first as the daughter of Victorian parents and later as the young bride of an arrogant minister. When her son dies in a smallpox epidemic, her grief knows no bounds. Although all but a few misfits leave the island after the tragedy, Eliza cannot abandon the only child she thought she would ever have, even though he was dead. She remains on the island for three years. As her grief wanes, she glimpses a brighter future and joins the throng of humanity traveling north to the Klondike in the spring of 1898 in search of gold.

When she arrives in Skagway, Alaska, Eliza has less than fifty dollars to her name and not a friend in the world. With a backdrop of historical events and historical characters, including the infamous Soapy Smith, who died in a gunfight on Skagway’s lawless streets, Eliza borrows money and opens a successful bakery on Broadway and grows into a confident and enterprising businesswoman.

Her story is full of surprises and yes, what could be perceived as wrong turns. Where Eliza ends up is a far cry from where she started.

And, just like our missed turn on a day hike on Cypress Island, it goes to show that making a wrong turn, missing the signs, or taking the road less traveled—whether by choice or by chance—can lead to another story, and even a fascinating life-changing adventure.

ORHAN’S INHERITANCE: debut novel’s love story set during the Armenian genocide explores the past to help us understand the present

Orhan's Inheritance paperback    Raffi Hadidian

Orhan’s Inheritance

By Aline Ohanesian

Algonquin Books: Jan. 19, 2016

368 pages, $15.95

The publication of Orhan’s Inheritance comes as pressure on Turkey to acknowledge its role in the Armenian genocide of 1915 appears to be reaching critical mass. A century is a long time; perhaps this will be the year when progress can be made toward healing this open wound.

Set in 1990 and 1915, Aline Ohanesian’s debut novel serves as both an introduction to the history and current issues and a compelling story of physical and cultural survival.

Orhan Turkoglu, a young businessman living in Istanbul is called home to a tiny village on the outskirts of Sivas, in Central Anatolia, known as “the other Turkey,” when his 93-year-old grandfather Kemal is found dead. Orhan learns that he is to inherit the family’s business, to his father’s dismay. But even more disconcerting to Orhan, his father, and his Auntie Fatma is the fact that his grandfather has bequeathed the small home in which he and Fatma have lived for 70 years to someone named Seda Melkonian, a woman no one has heard of.

The will contains her address in Los Angeles, so Orhan sets off to meet with her in hopes of having her sign over to Orhan and his father the rights to the family home. Ms. Melkonian lives in the Ararat Home for the Aging, an Armenian retirement home. Her niece, Ani, her only living relative, had arranged for Seda to live there, but she is deeply unhappy about it. “It is a museum for the living, breathing relics of an unburied past, built by a community for whom everything, from the church picnic to the baker’s son passing the bar exam, is a testament to survival. ”

Seda is similarly disillusioned with the recent renewed interest in the Armenian past. “Everyone is an amateur historian,” she thinks. “They use words like witness and genocide, trying to bridge the gap between her past and their own present with words. She wants nothing to do with it. But the other residents have fallen under a confessional spell. They’re like ancient tea bags steeping in the murky waters of the past, repeating their stories over and over again to anyone who will listen.” Seda refuses to think of her past, telling those who ask that she can’t remember.

Ironically, Ani is curating a photographic exhibit about the genocide that is being presented at the Ararat Home. “This exhibit is just another venue for what Ani and her generation like to call baykar, the struggle.” Seda is uninterested but admits she can hardly avoid it, since it is just down the hall from her room. “‘Why would you want to avoid it?’ Ani asks. ‘Aman, I’m tired of the past. I was there, remember? Once was enough.’”

This is the formidable woman Orhan must confront with his grandfather’s will. He wants only to know what her connection to Kemal is and to obtain her signature. But Seda is stubbornly close-lipped, refusing to tell Orhan anything, afraid to revisit a past she is convinced will destroy her. Needless to say, there is far more to the story than Orhan could ever imagine.

Before long, we are taken back to 1915, when Kemal was an 18-year-old Turk living in the village of Karod during the last days of the Ottoman Empire and working for a wealthy ethnic Armenian family, as did many Turks in Sivas.

With World War I and the empire’s alliance with Germany came the scapegoating of the Armenians in Turkey and what today we would call ethnic cleansing. The men are taken away to places and fates unknown, and the women and children are marched across central Turkey into what is now Syria. Those familiar with other genocides and ethnic cleansings in the past 100 years know the story well; it is virtually the same every time.

The bulk of Orhan’s Inheritance tells the story of Kemal Turkoglu, who is drafted into the Ottoman army, and the experiences of Turkish soldiers and Armenian civilians during the war. Ohanesian provides readers with a close-up view of both sides of the conflict through the eyes of young Kemal and the Armenians we met earlier in Sivas.

Although survival against all odds during war is a familiar story, the details of this particular exodus and suffering are unfamiliar to most people. It is a story of callous disregard for the humanity of fellow citizens now deemed “the enemy,” nearly inconceivable sacrifice and suffering, and an indomitable will to live.

The story Orhan hears forces him to consider the history of his family and his country in a different light. Early in the story, we are told that “Orhan fixates on the word genocide. Massacres abound in his country’s history, as they do in any nation’s history. But genocide is a different accusation altogether. Why do they insist on using this word?”

But as Ani explains to Orhan, “‘Remembering is all we have in the face of denial. Silence is the enemy of justice,’ she says in a mocking voice. ‘That was my father’s motto, anyway. The baykar, or the cause, with a capital C, is a sacred thing to an Armenian.’”

His inheritance is not the family business or home, but the truth about his family, the war, and the nature of the relationship among Turks and Armenians then and now.

Late in the novel, Orhan thinks, “And if he is Turkish, what does that mean? Is he the prodigal son of a democratic republic or a descendant of genocide perpetrators? Maybe he is all of those things and none of them.”

Ohanesian deserves credit for keeping the focus on her heart-wrenching story and avoiding turning her novel into a polemic against the Turks. Few are completely innocent, and some of the guilty remain recognizably human. Nearly all are caught up in forces beyond their understanding or control, and survival is the only objective. The characters have positive and negative things to say about both the Turks and the Armenians.

Orhan’s Inheritance is a moving portrayal of people at their best and worst. It’s a history lesson we all need to be reminded of from time to time and, in this case, a chapter most have never read in the first place. The hundredth anniversary of the Armenian genocide is a good time to learn about this particular example of suffering and survival. As always, stories can and will save us.

Author photo by Raffi Hadidian

ORHAN’S INHERITANCE reveals a past that helps us understand the present

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Raffi Hadidian
Raffi Hadidian

Orhan’s Inheritance

By Aline Ohanesian

Algonquin Books: April 7, 2015

337 pages, $25.95

The publication of Orhan’s Inheritance comes as pressure on Turkey to acknowledge its role in the Armenian genocide of 1915 appears to be reaching critical mass. A century is a long time; perhaps this will be the year when progress can be made toward healing this open wound.

Set in 1990 and 1915, Aline Ohanesian’s debut novel serves as both an introduction to the history and current issues and a compelling story of physical and cultural survival.

Orhan Turkoglu, a young businessman living in Istanbul is called home to a tiny village on the outskirts of Sivas, in Central Anatolia, known as “the other Turkey,” when his 93-year-old grandfather Kemal is found dead. Orhan learns that he is to inherit the family’s business, to his father’s dismay. But even more disconcerting to Orhan, his father, and his Auntie Fatma is the fact that his grandfather has bequeathed the small home in which he and Fatma have lived for 70 years to someone named Seda Melkonian, a woman no one has heard of.

The will contains her address in Los Angeles, so Orhan sets off to meet with her in hopes of having her sign over to Orhan and his father the rights to the family home. Ms. Melkonian lives in the Ararat Home for the Aging, an Armenian retirement home. Her niece, Ani, her only living relative, had arranged for Seda to live there, but she is deeply unhappy about it. “It is a museum for the living, breathing relics of an unburied past, built by a community for whom everything, from the church picnic to the baker’s son passing the bar exam, is a testament to survival. ”

Seda is similarly disillusioned with the recent renewed interest in the Armenian past. “Everyone is an amateur historian,” she thinks. “They use words like witness and genocide, trying to bridge the gap between her past and their own present with words. She wants nothing to do with it. But the other residents have fallen under a confessional spell. They’re like ancient tea bags steeping in the murky waters of the past, repeating their stories over and over again to anyone who will listen.” Seda refuses to think of her past, telling those who ask that she can’t remember.

Ironically, Ani is curating a photographic exhibit about the genocide that is being presented at the Ararat Home. “This exhibit is just another venue for what Ani and her generation like to call baykar, the struggle.” Seda is uninterested but admits she can hardly avoid it, since it is just down the hall from her room. “‘Why would you want to avoid it?’ Ani asks. ‘Aman, I’m tired of the past. I was there, remember? Once was enough.'”

This is the formidable woman Orhan must confront with his grandfather’s will. He wants only to know what her connection to Kemal is and to obtain her signature. But Seda is stubbornly close-lipped, refusing to tell Orhan anything, afraid to revisit a past she is convinced will destroy her. Needless to say, there is far more to the story than Orhan could ever imagine.

Before long, we are taken back to 1915, when Kemal was an 18-year-old Turk living in the village of Karod during the last days of the Ottoman Empire and working for a wealthy ethnic Armenian family, as did many Turks in Sivas.

With World War I and the empire’s alliance with Germany came the scapegoating of the Armenians in Turkey and what today we would call ethnic cleansing. The men are taken away to places and fates unknown, and the women and children are marched across central Turkey into what is now Syria. Those familiar with other genocides and ethnic cleansings in the past 100 years know the story well; it is virtually the same every time.

The bulk of Orhan’s Inheritance tells the story of Kemal Turkoglu, who is drafted into the Ottoman army, and the experiences of Turkish soldiers and Armenian civilians during the war. Ohanesian provides readers with a close-up view of both sides of the conflict through the eyes of young Kemal and the Armenians we met earlier in Sivas.

Although survival against all odds during war is a familiar story, the details of this particular exodus and suffering are unfamiliar to most people. It is a story of callous disregard for the humanity of fellow citizens now deemed “the enemy,” nearly inconceivable sacrifice and suffering, and an indomitable will to live.

The story Orhan hears forces him to consider the history of his family and his country in a different light. Early in the story, we are told that “Orhan fixates on the word genocide. Massacres abound in his country’s history, as they do in any nation’s history. But genocide is a different accusation altogether. Why do they insist on using this word?”

But as Ani explains to Orhan, “‘Remembering is all we have in the face of denial. Silence is the enemy of justice,’ she says in a mocking voice. ‘That was my father’s motto, anyway. The baykar, or the cause, with a capital C, is a sacred thing to an Armenian.'”

His inheritance is not the family business or home, but the truth about his family, the war, and the nature of the relationship among Turks and Armenians then and now.

Late in the novel, Orhan thinks, “And if he is Turkish, what does that mean? Is he the prodigal son of a democratic republic or a descendant of genocide perpetrators? Maybe he is all of those things and none of them.”

Ohanesian deserves credit for keeping the focus on her heart-wrenching story and avoiding turning her novel into a polemic against the Turks. Few are completely innocent, and some of the guilty remain recognizably human. Nearly all are caught up in forces beyond their understanding or control, and survival is the only objective. The characters have positive and negative things to say about both the Turks and the Armenians.

Orhan’s Inheritance is a moving portrayal of people at their best and worst. It’s a history lesson we all need to be reminded of from time to time and, in this case, a chapter most have never read in the first place. The hundredth anniversary of the Armenian genocide is a good time to learn about this particular example of suffering and survival. As always, stories can and will save us.

MARY COIN imagines the lives behind Lange’s “Migrant Mother” photo

Mary Coin paperback

MARY COIN

By Marisa Silver

Plume 

Published March 2013; paperback published Feb. 25, 2014

336 pages, $16.00

It is one of the most familiar photos of the 20th century: a haggard woman seated in front of a tent and surrounded by her small children looks off into the distance, seemingly pondering her circumstances. Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” is the iconic image of the Great Depression. We’ve all stared at it, almost willing it to come to life so we can see beyond the lens, talk to the mother, check on the children.

Novelist Marisa Silver followed that impulse and has brought Lange’s photo to fictional life in MARY COIN. In her latest novel, the award-winning author of BABE IN PARADISE and THE GOD OF WAR answers the questions viewers of this photo have asked for the past 75 years: Who is this woman? How did she end up in a tent by the roadside? What is she thinking about? What will happen to her? Will her children be OK?

MARY COIN features three protagonists: Mary Coin (the woman in the photo), Vera Dare (a fictionalized Lange), and Walker Dodge (“a present-day professor of cultural history” at a California university). Alternating their stories, Silver provides an explanation for how Lange and Coin came to meet that day in 1936, as Florence Owens Thompson sat by the road in Nipomo, California.

Silver keeps the narratives separate, adding to the tension as we wait to see how the characters’ lives intersect. Each character is facing struggles both internal and external. Coin has been buffeted by the dusty winds of change in Oklahoma, a difficult home life, and a series of encounters with men that have left her heartbroken and burdened with children and dreams. Dare overcomes a disability caused by childhood polio to discover her passion in photography. Her romantic and marital experiences are a counter-weight to those of Mary Coin.

Despite their wildly different cultural milieus, they have some experiences in common. Both are underestimated by the men and women around them. What Dare lacks in leg strength she makes up for with a spine of steel. What Coin lacks in domestic stability she makes up for with a steely gaze that captures her determination. And through Coin, we experience anew the daily battle to maintain family unity amidst the ongoing effort to find work and feed the children. Coin is likely to join Steinbeck’s Joad family as representatives of the Okie migrant experience that is indelibly etched in our minds. (I have recommended to the chair of my high school English department that MARY COIN be added to the 11th grade American Literature curriculum as a supplemental reading to the required GRAPES OF WRATH.)

Walker Dodge is our time machine back to the 1920s and 1930s. In the present, he is caught up in a common family situation, trying to maintain balance among his ex-wife, children, and work life. His father has recently passed away, forcing Dodge to return to his home in the San Joaquin Valley, California’s agricultural heartland, to attend to his father’s personal business. They were never close, and Dodge yearns to know more about his father’s childhood and the life of his grandfather before him. The family has always been tight-lipped about their history.

In his scholarly capacity, Dodge studies photographs in an effort to explore the universal experience through particular lives. When he returns home and sorts through the mundane belongings of his father, he finds his way, ever so methodically, to Dare’s photo of Mary Coin. Rather than having Dodge tell us the story of Coin and Dare, however, Silver’s narrator fulfills that task, leaving Dodge to serve as a proxy of sorts for the reader, connecting the characters and their lives into a unifying whole. Just as Dodge’s work involves piecing together the zeitgeist of an era through the lives of ordinary people and the artifacts they left behind, the reader pieces together the lives of these three characters to create a satisfying and enlightening story.

The quality of Silver’s writing was a revelation to me. Her prose is elegant and, at times, poetic. Readers will be hard-pressed to find a single clunky sentence in the entire book. While the pace of the narrative is measured, the sentences themselves are seamless and a pleasure to read. MARY COIN is not a fast read; instead, it is as intense and thoughtful as the expression on the face of the Migrant Mother in Dorothea Lange’s legendary photo.

Marisa Silver is an insightful student of human nature and an impressive prose stylist who knows how to tell a compelling story that resonates far beyond the lives of the characters.