Author Interview: Helen Epstein on THE LONG HALF-LIVES OF LOVE AND TRAUMA: A MEMOIR

Born in Prague in 1947, Helen Epstein grew up in the Czech community of New York City. She attended Hunter College High School, then studied at City College of New York for two years before transferring to and graduating from Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1970. She became an instant published journalist during the summer of 1968 while a 20-year-old college student caught in the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Her personal account of the invasion was published in the Jerusalem Post, where she received her journalistic training while an undergraduate studying musicology and literature.

In 1971, she graduated from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and began to freelance for diverse publications including McCall’sVivaMs.Midstream, the National Jewish Monthly, the Soho Weekly News, and MORE: A Journalism Review, whose editors talked her into posing for a spoof on a typical advertisement of the time for Cosmopolitan magazine, shot by a Cosmo photographer.

Epstein went on to specialize in long-form journalism about classical musicians. Working for women’s magazines allowed her to interview pioneering women journalists. Over four decades, Epstein has continued to pursue her interest in cultural reporting. She currently reviews for the New England online arts magazine The Arts Fuse.

Q: THE LONG HALF-LIVES OF LOVE AND TRAUMA is an unflinching memoir that takes the reader into the author’s intimate life from early childhood to middle-age. You were the first journalist to write about inter-generational transmission of trauma back in 1977. Why did you decide to return to this subject?

A: I feel that book ideas choose me rather than the other way around. Most of my books, including this one, came out of my preoccupation with a subject that turned out to be relevant to many other people. Publishers were leery of Children of the Holocaust in the 1970s. Few thought that a book about the effect of the Holocaust on the offspring of survivors could be important. But in the four decades since it first appeared, not a week goes by that someone doesn’t tell me or email me how important it was to them — not only descendants of Holocaust survivors, but of American POW families, Nazi families, survivors of the Armenian, Cambodian, and Rwandan genocides, children of alcoholics, mothers who were sexually abused, and therapists. Children has been translated into six languages and has never been out of print. I think Love and Trauma may be like that.

Q: After a distinguished career as a journalist, what made you write such a candid, revealing memoir?

A: Two assertions I came across by chance piqued my interest and made me decide to write personal testimony. The first, from Virginia Woolf in 1931: “Killing the angel in the house I think I solved. She died. But telling the truth about my own experience as a body, I do not think I solved. I doubt that any woman has solved it yet…she still has many ghosts to fight, many prejudices to overcome.” I found the second on the internet, a claim that no one in all of literature has ever forgotten and, subsequently, documented a “recovered memory” of trauma. I wanted to write a first-hand response to both statements. I see myself as a witness giving testimony.

Q: Where and how did you grow up?

A: I grew up on the Upper West Side in the 1950s and 60s. It was a very interesting place and time in which to grow up. All kinds of refugees lived there: refugees from Hitler, from Stalin, from Mao and Castro; Latin American immigrants; families of blacklisted American Communists. I attended P.S. 87 and Hunter High — both excellent public schools with extraordinary teachers. I had friends of various races and backgrounds and was for a very long time unaware of class. The Holocaust and emigration had scrambled social hierarchy. My father — whose family owned a factory in Czechoslovakia — worked in a garment factory. My mother was a dressmaker whose clients included Vivian Vance of “I Love Lucy,” Edward Albee’s mother, and many wives of famous New Yorkers, including Ivana Trump. I knew people who were rich and poor, famous and obscure.

Q: What was the genesis of THE LONG HALF-LIVES OF LOVE AND TRAUMA?

A: I had moved out of the city for the first time in my life and was feeling disoriented. I heard the voice of my first love over the radio while driving down a still-unfamiliar street and decided to reconnect with him. We’d met at my piano teacher’s studio in 1963, when he was regarded as a brilliant and promising young musician. He was the son of blacklisted American Communists, while I was the daughter of anti-Communist Czech refugees. We had a complicated off and on relationship but, over 50 years, never lost touch. I asked him to help me excavate our adolescence — I initially called my memoir First Love — but, in addition to exploring our adolescence, I fell down a rabbit hole into my forgotten early childhood.

Q: How did you feel writing about such details of your sexual development as having an autoscopic experience when you had your first orgasm with him? Or how you learned to masturbate from an alternative newspaper in your journalism school library?

A: It was difficult. But “telling the truth about my own experience as a body” has become easier since Virginia Woolf’s time — largely due to feminism and because our American cultural context has become so much more open about sexuality. I found it harder to write about the persistent shame and uncertainty I felt about having been molested. It happened in another language — Czech. I was dogged by doubt. I had no proof. Everybody involved at the time was long dead. The molester was a family friend, a war hero, and called himself my adopted grandfather. He was also, for a long time, my mother’s lover. I wasn’t in touch with most of that when I began this memoir.

Q: Did you write composite characters or change anything?

A: I don’t write composite characters. I come out of a rigorous journalistic background: I went to Columbia J-school, was an NYU journalism professor for 12 years, and did most of my arts reporting for The New York Times. I believe that if you write nonfiction, you should stick to the facts as you know them. Otherwise, you should tell the reader what you’ve changed. In LOVE AND TRAUMA, I changed a few names and locations.

Q: Has writing the book allowed you to put the experience of being abused as a child behind you?

A: I don’t think people can put life-changing experiences “behind” them. If you are fortunate, you enjoy a stable loving relationship that allows you to look back at traumatic events and — with the help of witnesses — friends, psycho-therapists — understand what happened. I was very lucky. Very few people made it difficult for me to proceed. Most, including my former journalism students, as well as utter strangers, were helpful. I worked on this book for 15 years, and eight in psychotherapy. The major issue was getting straight and believing what I think actually happened. That was grueling. It’s a little scary to go public, but I think I’ve arrived at a place of calm.

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THE BOOK OF UNKNOWN AMERICANS gives powerful voice to a silent minority

The Book of Unknown Americans  Cristina Henriquez

The Book of Unknown Americans

By Cristina Henriquez

Knopf — June 3, 2014

286 pages, $24.95

Some books are published at just the right time. While immigration has long been an important and contentious issue in the United States, the current situation with Central American child refugees playing out at our border makes Cristina Henriquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans even more timely and relevant than it would have been if it had been published in the last few years. The broader immigration issues remain, and this riveting novel provides some context for moving forward.

Fifteen-year-old Maribel Rivera has sustained a serious head injury and needs special treatment and schooling that are not available in her home state of Michoacan, Mexico. Her parents, Arturo and Alma Rivera have brought her to Wilmington, Delaware — of all places — after waiting a year for Arturo to receive a work visa. They have left most of their belongings behind and come to the U.S. with little more than hope and prayers for their formerly feisty daughter’s recovery. They share a run-down apartment building with neighbors from across Latin America, including the Toro family from Panama. We get to know Celia and Rafa Toro through the eyes of their sensitive teenage son, Mayor (“my-yor”), who is smitten with Maribel from the moment he sees the beautiful but shy new girl at the store.

The Riveras have their hands full trying to adapt to the strange world of the United States, not the least of which is learning English. Arturo works punishing hours in the dark at a mushroom “factory” across the state line in Pennsylvania (it seems he is always crossing a border). Alma has to overcome a few obstacles for Maribel to gain admission to the Evers School for students with special needs. Loneliness and homesickness are her frequent companions.

But the open hearts of a few people keep Alma afloat. She is befriended by Celia Toro, who serves as something of a guide to this perplexing new world — or at least to the neighborhood and Wilmington. Mayor soon realizes that Maribel is not a “normal” girl, but he finds that he likes her nonetheless, and they develop a special friendship as well. The two families become increasingly interconnected, for good and ill.

In addition to trying to make their way in the U.S., the characters deal with problems that are not just limited to immigrants. Alma is punished by her guilt over the accident that led to Maribel’s head injury. Alma and Arturo worry constantly about Maribel’s physical health and emotional well-being, including her friendship with Mayor. Celia wants to work, but Rafa is adamant that it is his job as the man to take care of his family.

A teenage bully with a surly manner and an omnipresent skateboard harasses Alma, Maribel, and Mayor (whom he also bothers at school). A snooty neighbor turns from a friend into a jealous gossip and passive-aggressive backbiter. Everyone is strapped for money during the difficult years of the recent Great Recession. And the relationships among the building’s other residents display the universal characteristics of such relationships anywhere.

Consistent with the novel’s title, the chapters alternate between the first-person narratives of Alma Rivera and Mayor Toro. Short narratives from their neighbors are interwoven to create a tapestry of perspectives through which we experience the dreams and ambitions of these immigrants from Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Paraguay, and Mexico. While the details (and the language) may be different from past waves of immigrants, their daily lives in most ways constitute the universal immigrant experience that exists in virtually every American’s family history.

The feeling of being an immigrant, or the American-born child of immigrants, is captured brilliantly in The Book of Unknown Americans. Mayor describes the feeling of being caught between two cultures when he says, “The truth was that I didn’t know which I was [Panamanian or American]. I wasn’t allowed to claim the thing I felt [being American] and I didn’t feel the thing I was supposed to claim [being Panamanian].” When the Riveras go out to an inexpensive pizza parlor, Alma observes, “[A]round us American couples and families ate slices of pizza and drank bottles of beer. I had the feeling that they disapproved of us being there, drinking only water, taking up space. But when I glanced at the people around us, no one was even looking in our direction, and I felt the way I often felt in this country — simultaneously conspicuous and invisible, like an oddity whom everyone noticed but chose to ignore.”

As a lifelong California resident, I was particularly impressed by the accuracy of the short narrative of Micho Alvarez. “I came from Mexico,” he begins. “But there’s a lot of people here who, when they hear that, they think I crawled out of hell. They hear ‘Mexico,’ and they think: bad, devil, I don’t know. They got some crazy ideas. Any of them ever been to Mexico? And if they say, yeah, I went to Acapulco back in the day or I been to Cancun, papi, then that shit don’t count. You went to a resort? Congratulations. But you didn’t go to Mexico.”

He then addresses the broader, more problematic issue. “And that’s the problem, you know? These people are listening to the media, and the media, let me tell you, has some fucked-up ideas about us. About all the brown-skinned people, but especially about the Mexicans. You listen to the media, you’ll learn that we’re all gangbangers, we’re all drug dealers, we’re tossing bodies in vats of acid, we want to destroy America, we still think Texas belongs to us, we all have swine flu, we carry machine guns under our coats, we don’t pay any taxes, we’re lazy, we’re stupid, we’re all wetbacks who crossed the border illegally. I swear to God, I’m so tired of being called a spic, a nethead, a cholo, all this stuff. Happens to me all the time.”

When he is watched closely in stores, he says, “I have enough money to be in any store and even if I didn’t, I have the right to be in any store. I feel like telling them sometimes, You don’t know me, man. I’m a citizen here! But I shouldn’t have to tell anyone that. I want to be given the benefit of the doubt….I wish just one of these people, just one, would actually talk to me, talk to my friends, man. And yes, you can talk to us in English. I know English better than you, I bet. But none of them even want to try. We’re the unknown Americans, the ones no one even wants to know, because they’ve been told they’re supposed to be scared of us and because maybe if they did take the time to get to know us, they might realize that we’re not that bad, maybe even that we’re a lot like them. And who would they hate then? It’s fucked up. The whole thing is very, very complicated.”

Cristina Henriquez has produced a powerful and moving portrayal of the lives of people we rarely hear from, the “unknown Americans” (all of the characters are legal immigrants). Her decision to use multiple first-person narrators adds an immediacy to the reading experience that makes this a very fast read. The various voices are idiosyncratic and credible and provide a quick glimpse into the range of life experiences possessed by immigrants. The narratives of Alma and Mayor, which make up the bulk of the book, are especially thoughtful and revealing.

Henriquez has smoothly handled the fact that the characters are obviously speaking Spanish to each other most of the time. In that sense, their narratives have been “translated.” Some speak English well, but others do not (depending on how long they have been in the U.S.). But when it’s clear they are speaking English (either to each other or to English speakers), they make second language errors and use bits of Spanish when they don’t know the word in English, adding credibility to the characterization.

The Book of Unknown Americans is not a polemic dressed up as a novel. It’s a compelling story of sympathetic characters in challenging circumstances, both personal and socio-cultural. They are people you will care about and whom you will miss when you close the book. And they might even make you think about the “very, very complicated” times in which we live

WE ARE CALLED TO RISE captures life in the real Las Vegas, inspires with humanity

We Are Called to Rise

We Are Called to Rise

By Laura McBride

Simon & Schuster, June 3, 2014

320 pages, $25.00

Laura McBride’s debut novel captures the times in which we live with a story that skillfully weaves four narrative strands into a compelling and unforgettable tapestry. Set in the neighborhoods of Las Vegas, We Are Called to Rise tells the stories of a middle-aged woman whose marriage has suddenly collapsed, an eight-year-old Albanian immigrant boy whose family is struggling culturally and economically, and a recently returned Iraq War vet with a head injury and PTSD. The fourth narrator, who appears occasionally, is a social worker who becomes a Court-Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for the boy.

The first half of the book introduces us to the lives of the main characters in alternating chapters. Avis is forced to cope with her hotel executive husband’s surprising request for a divorce when she should be overjoyed with the return of her son Nate from Iraq. He has completed police academy training and is about to join the Las Vegas Police Department. Nate’s young wife, Lauren, is even more thrilled to have him home. But something about Nate seems off. He’s impatient, prone to angry outbursts, and abusive to Lauren. So while Avis tries to determine where her marriage went wrong and what she should do next, she tries to save Nate and his marriage.

Bashkim is a sweet-natured, bright boy who is thriving in school and keeping a watchful eye on his little sister, Tirana. His parents own an ice-cream truck, a seemingly failsafe source of income in the Nevada desert; yet the Ahmeti family is in financial trouble. But his father was a political prisoner in Albania and remains hostile and even paranoid. He has isolated the family from everyone, including the local Albanian immigrants. Bashkim’s mother attempts to hold the family together and serve as a buffer between her husband and the children but bears the brunt of her husband’s discontent.

Army Specialist Luis Rodriguez is being treated at Walter Reed Hospital for a head injury and PTSD after two traumatic incidents in Iraq, which have left him wracked with guilt. He hopes to return home to Las Vegas to live with his abuela (grandmother), who raised him, until he can figure out what his options are.

The lives of these characters intersect in a moment of violence that is shocking and yet seemingly inevitable. The second half of the book explores the aftermath of an event that has left Bashkim’s future in limbo. The conclusion, while perhaps stretching the boundaries of plausibility somewhat, is emotionally fulfilling.

McBride’s ability to fully inhabit each of these characters is an act of supreme authorial empathy. The four narrative voices are distinct, idiosyncratic and, most importantly, instantly credible. You will love some of these people and respect others, but you will care about all of them. They are as real as your friends and neighbors.

Another strength of We Are Called to Rise is the pacing. Although alternating narrators can sap the momentum from a novel when not done well, McBride keeps the chapters to a manageable length and never keeps a character offstage for long. As a result, the story moves at a steady, increasingly tense pace.

There is a paradoxical sense of foreboding and hope in these pages; one feels the plot strands coming together inexorably, but McBride’s tone and the reader’s inherent optimism combine to maintain a feeling of hopefulness. These characters have such big hearts and good intentions that one roots for them despite knowing that circumstances rarely turn out as one would like; life so often chews up and spits out people that it can seem as if that is its purpose. But when we doubt the presence of God or an overarching purpose, we can find it if we look for the people who are trying to help. Readers will find those helpers in We Are Called to Rise.

My only quibble with the book is the overuse of names in dialogue. People simply do not use each other’s names this often when they’re talking. It occasionally detracted from the otherwise believable and mostly natural-sounding dialogue.

McBride has used the setting of suburban Las Vegas effectively. A longtime resident, she shows us the real Las Vegas, where working people live, love, go to school, marry, and raise children. Its neighborhoods are both Middle America and sui generis.

“Most Las Vegas children don’t grow up quickly. They aren’t fast like their coastal counterparts. In Vegas, children pass through their novel environment unconsciously, lacing up their cleats or humming to the radio while a parent maneuvers through the traffic on the Strip; while bare-chested men thrust pornographic magazines at open car windows, while women wearing a few feathers leer seductively from billboards, while millions of neon bulbs flash “Loosest Slots in Town” and “Babes Galore.” And still the children don’t notice. They’ve been taught not to notice, and it’s only the transplanted ones – the children who arrive from Boston when they are nine – who think to tell their friends back home about the naked billboards, the “Live Nude” signs, the doggy-sex flyers.”

“The families just off the Strip – the ones occupying mile after mile of nearly identical stucco houses – live conservative lives at home. Dad might be a dealer, mixing with high rollers at Caesar’s five nights a week, Mom might be a waitress, wearing a butt-skimming skirt at forty-seven, but home is for another life….It can be cloying, it can be surprising, but after a while, it simply becomes the way it is. And the good in it, the old-fashioned neighborly niceness of it all, is one of the reasons people stay in Vegas, stay even if they can’t explain quite why, even if they tell their friends they hate it, that the place is a dump, that off the Strip there is nothing to do, even if they worry about schools and bemoan the lack of art and feel stranded in the stark vastness of the Mojave Desert.”

As a lifelong Californian with two family members who’ve lived in Las Vegas for 15-20 years, I can vouch for the fact that this is as accurate a description of the real place as you will ever read.

Roberta, who provides the closest thing to an objective viewpoint, describes how these children go off to war, having been raised in a city with a large military presence.

“In Las Vegas, armed forces recruiting centers dot the landscape like Starbucks shops, across from every high school, near every major intersection. Everyone knows someone in the military. Thousands of people live on the base at Nellis; many thousands owe their livelihoods to it. Schoolchildren thrill to the roar of Thunderbird air shows, commuters estimate their chances of making it to work on time when they see four jets return to base in formation each morning.

“We send our children off, knowing that they will grow up, thinking the military will give them security, hoping they won’t be hurt, praying they won’t die, believing that ours is a patriotic choice. And our children come back with that war deep within them: a war fought with powerful weapons and homemade ones, a war fought by trained fighters and twelve-year-old boys, a war fought to preserve democracy, to extract revenge, to safeguard oil, to establish dominance, to change the world, to keep the world exactly the same. Yes, Vegas children fight America’s wars. These most American, least American of children, these children of the nation’s brightest hidden city: the city that is an embarrassing tic, a secret shame, a giddy relief, a knowing wink.”

McBride can write up a storm and, like the gods of old, she can throw down one perfectly aimed lightning bolt after another. At one point, Nate attempts to describe to Avis what it was like serving in Iraq. His explanation is the most comprehensive fictional depiction I have yet encountered of what it is like to fight in that complicated conflict and how it feels to come home to a completely clueless civilian population with the war still going on in your head.

“You can’t imagine, Mom. What it was like there. What we had to do. I thought I would die every day. Every hour…. You’re afraid of the kids. You’re afraid of the old ladies. You’re scared as hell of any rock you can’t see around, any building with a hole up high, where a gun might come through. You’re looking for it all the time. You’re seeing it even when it isn’t there…. And then you get back. And you’re home…It’s like a dream. Only you’re still so damn jittery. And I’m still looking for that hole in the wall up high, and the rock, and the kid with the bomb. I’m looking for it all the time. I can’t stop. If I hadn’t been looking when I was there, I’d be dead. I wouldn’t be here, Mom.”

Ultimately, though, McBride presents us with a vision of a world in which good people step forward and try to make someone’s life better, in which a “new normal” can come out of a tragedy. In which little things matter immensely.

“It all matters. That someone turns out the lamp, picks up the windblown wrapper, says hello to the invalid, pays at the unattended lot, listens to the repeated tale, folds the abandoned laundry, plays the game fairly, tells the story honestly, acknowledges help, gives credit, says good night, resists temptation, wipes the counter, waits at the yellow, makes the bed, tips the maid, remembers the illness, congratulates the victor, accepts the consequences, takes a stand, steps up, offers a hand, goes first, goes last, chooses the small portion, teaches the child, tends to the dying, comforts the grieving, removes the splinter, wipes the tear, directs the lost, touches the lonely, is the whole thing. What is most beautiful is least acknowledged. What is worth dying for is barely noticed.”

We Are Called to Rise will carry you away for a few hours, break your heart, and then put it back together tentatively, the fragile pieces held together by hope and love and the little things that matter.

THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI casts a magical spell

Golem and Jinni Helene Wecker

The Golem and the Jinni

By Helene Wecker

HarperCollins, 2013

484 pages, $26.99

Trade paperback $15.99 (available 12/31/13)

There are some books you struggle with but respect and even admire for the challenge and rewards they present. Some books you simply enjoy because they’re fast, fun reads. And then there are the books you love, both while you’re reading them and when you’re finished. They cast a spell on you, transport you to another time and place, and introduce you to characters and situations you would otherwise never experience. Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni is just that sort of book. I loved every minute of it and didn’t want it to end. I wish I were reading it right now, rather than writing about it. It was a completely satisfying read.

The Golem and the Jinni tells the story of the two supernatural creatures of the title who find themselves not in Danzig, Germany and the Syrian desert where they were created but in 1899 New York City. Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay by an elderly and mysterious man who lives in the forest; her master is a single man heading to a new life in America. The jinni ends up in New York City when he is accidentally released after spending what seems like an eternity in an old copper flask, where he was imprisoned by a rival Bedouin wizard.

This description makes the book sound like more of a pure fantasy than it is. It is actually a compelling drama about the universal immigrant experience; who, after all, could better fulfill the role of “the Other” than these two creatures from the Old World who find themselves in a place they have never heard of and could never have imagined? The Golem and the Jinni has a palpable sense of place, capturing fin-de-siecle Manhattan in all its sordid glory, from the tenements, shops, and dance halls of the immigrant neighborhoods of the Bowery in Lower Manhattan to Central Park and the gaslamp-lit streets and mansions of the Upper East Side. The Golem and the Jinni combines well-researched and vividly portrayed historical fiction with a mystery-suspense plot and even something of a love story. Instead of becoming a meal with too many ingredients, it results in a surprisingly delightful dish.

In the early going, Chava and Ahmad are unaware of each other’s existence in the city. Chava is living with recently retired Rabbi Meyer, while Ahmad works for a Syrian tinsmith in their respective ethnic communities. Their days are taken up with adapting to their new lives in this unfamiliar and inexplicable place, while ensuring that their true natures remain a secret. Only the rabbi and tinsmith know the truth.

Of course, as the title makes obvious, they meet through a surprising but plausible series of events. Is it love at first sight? Far from it. This is not that kind of simplistic novel. They are different types of creatures from different places, cultures, and times. The golem is made of earth, while the jinni is made of fire. They are opposites thrown together into a circumstance beyond their comprehension who sense that they must cooperate in order to survive. One of the sublime pleasures of reading The Golem and the Jinni is watching these two wary forces of nature-turned-living beings develop a relationship born of necessity. They will be forced to combine their opposing natures in order to defeat an unexpected and supremely malevolent threat to their lives and the lives of those around them.

The other particularly satisfying aspect of The Golem and the Jinni is how richly peopled it is with subplots and supporting characters. There is a lot going on in the nearly 500 pages of well-crafted story. Will the rabbi’s atheist nephew Michael Levy, who runs the Sheltering House for newly arrived  Jewish immigrants, find his way back to God and the faith of his fathers? Will his love for a young immigrant woman be requited? Will Saleh, “the ice cream man” of Little Syria, be cured of his tragic and seemingly incurable vision problem? Will Maryam Faddoul, the beloved but shrewd owner of the neighborhood coffeehouse, be able to help Saleh, as well as the Syrian Catholic tinsmith, Boutrous Arbeely, and his new assistant Ahmad overcome various obstacles? Will wealthy socialite Sophie Winston marry to maintain her social status rather than follow her heart into truly uncharted territory? Who is Joseph Schall and who or what is he searching for so desperately? And what do all these people and problems have to do with the golem and the jinni?

Helene Wecker weaves her cleverly plotted tapestry with a sure and steady hand, just as Chava flawlessly prepares pastries at Radzin’s Bakery and Ahmad masterfully works with metals in the back of Arbeely’s tiny shop. What stands out in reading The Golem and the Jinni is how confident and competent a storyteller Wecker is in her debut novel. She spent several years writing and rewriting the novel (see accompanying interview), and her dedication to getting this magical story just right has paid off in a wonderful novel.

The Golem and the Jinni will make you consider what it means to be human, how one becomes an American while retaining the core of one’s heritage, and how interconnected people’s lives are. You will become so fond of Chava and Ahmad that you will be reluctant to bid them farewell when you reach the last page of The Golem and the Jinni.