The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 14-JAN 15

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DEC 14-JAN 15 Issue
Books In Conversation

LEORA SKOLKIN-SMITH with Andrea Scrima

In the drizzling rain, the Jordanian hills seemed closer than when I tried to see them from the bedroom upstairs. They lay to the east, though named “The West Bank.” The boundary between the Arab and Jewish regions was drawn by a fountain pen years ago when some British engineers came to canvass the rough land in the 1930s. The ink they had used was green, and so the border was called “the green line,” my aunt told me. The border had remained vague and uncertain, she said, subject to weather and other forces. No one ever seemed to know where it started or ended, the barbed wire often arbitrarily strewn to make up for the absence of clearness. A little more than a hazy outline still in the distance, there were thick layers of barbed wire on both sides of the border.

Leora Skolkin-Smith
(Re-released by The Story Plant, 2014)

It’s nearly impossible to imagine from today’s perspective of heavily guarded checkpoints and border controls and ugly, towering walls, but Israel was a very different world in the mid-1960s, when 14-year-old Liana Bialik and her sister accompany their mother Ada to her native Jerusalem to take part in “The Ceremony of the Graves.” Syrian dams are under construction; snipers and terrorists dot the border to Jordan in a campaign to cut Israel off from its water supply, but Ada has retained the freedom and defiance of her earlier days—and it is this fierce and fiery side, hidden beneath the Westchester housewife persona known to her daughters, that suddenly emerges when they arrive in her home country. The remains of Jewish fighters in the War of Independence against Great Britain are to be excavated from their resting place in the Jordanian cemetery in the old city and moved to a new gravesite on the Israeli side of the border. Ada’s brother Elizar is among the dead; as she and her sister Esther reminisce about earlier days of smuggling ammunition in their girdles and brassieres past British soldiers too proper to even dream of stopping them, and look forward to celebrating the repatriation with the other members of the old division of Jerusalem’s underground group, the Haganah, in a grand ballroom of the King David Hotel, Liana has a difficult time absorbing the scorched landscape of her mother’s homeland: the inscrutable, vigilant faces of the people living there; the lizards darting in and out of rusted, sprawling barbed wire and then slithering into the dust; the battered warning signs and discarded gun shells scattered everywhere.

Leora Skolkin-Smith’s book Edges, originally published by Grace Paley’s Glad Day Books in 2005 and subsequently selected as part of the Princeton University/Rutgers University series The Fertile Crescent: Gender, Art, and Society, is a study of boundaries, but it’s not merely the heavily militarized national borders between Jordan, Syria, and Israel that are explored here, or the mine-filled, debris-strewn grey areas that once marked an ever-shifting cartography of conflict and uprising. In sensitive, at times eerily prescient prose, Skolkin-Smith treads delicately into the fraught and ever-shifting emotional zones between young Liana and her larger-than-life mother, who has been restored to her former self with a youthful ferocity that shocks her daughters. Liana has always regarded her mother as a force of nature, but returned to the homeland, Ada—loud, perspiring, messily affectionate, passionate, and prone to fits of rage—is even more mysterious, forbidding, and alluring than before. As Liana tries to establish boundaries between herself and a mother whose physical presence overwhelms her, odors and scents, flesh and skin, love and need are described in haunting passages that alternate between the sexually alluring and the repulsive. When Ada meets her former compatriots at the party in the King David Hotel, Liana gazes on from a distance:

I watched my mother on the dance floor with the stranger. A fierce and upbeat rendition of “Hava Negilah” began on the shiny ivory-keyed accordion. The electric guitar players picked it up, and then the drummer. There were others clapping on the shiny dance floor, singing and dancing. The drums pounded, and a tambourine clanked. I pulled my hand out of my pocket and lifted up my cocktail napkin, staring at the emblem on it, a transposed photograph of the Israeli national flag, a tiny, dark blue and white cloth. It had a slight aroma, like walnuts. Putting it to my lips, I took a taste of it, licking the edges. Then the lights went on over the platform stage where the gaudily dressed band members now stationed themselves at their instruments—ready to play a set with electric guitars, accordions, and drums under some makeshift floodlights from a kibbutz. Soon, the waiters were clearing out the center of the ballroom, taking off vases and fold-up tables and chairs, exposing the bare shiny dance floor.

“Hava Neh Ranna…” my mother shouted from the dance floor a few minutes later, the short man’s arms around her waist. She clapped her hands, held them high over her head. Clapped them twice more. The chandelier lights were bright as stars over her head, and my mother tossed her flats off and unlatched her stockings from their garters, rolling them all the way down to her ankles, and yanking them off.

Andrea Scrima (Rail): Leora, the title Edges seems to embody shades of meaning that extend beyond national and historical borders to personal identity and the tenuous, shifting zones inside the heart and mind. When Liana runs away to hide with a fugitive diplomat’s son and surrenders herself to the unknown, there is an almost somnambulant accuracy of purpose to the way she sets about transgressing her own inner boundaries. As she distances herself from her mother’s devotion to old Palestine, her sexual awakening also becomes a quest to find a new Jewish identity in a country that envelops her in its rough embrace, but is still largely incomprehensible to her. Your own mother was born in old Jerusalem, during a time, now vanished, when Jews and Arabs still lived door to door. In many ways, the mother and daughter in Edges seem to stand for Israel itself, for a national identity that has evolved radically throughout its comparatively brief history. What were these first encounters with a young Israel like for you as a young woman, as opposed to how it feels to you now?

Leora Skolkin-Smith: When I went to Israel as a young girl in the early ’60s, it looked like a third-world country. Its landscape was parched with stones and shrub, there were limitations on the amount of water you could use, and the limestone house of my mother was an octagonal maze of sorts. My grandfather had hired his Muslim friends from Amman to build it. It was, in short, the real Middle East—stray cats, scorched earth, limestone, and stores that reminded one of Europe in the 1930s. Donkeys and carts were seen often on the crude streets. The Palestinian shop owners offered luscious foods: Turkish delights, pepitas, fresh oil from the olive tree groves, fresh honey, Jaffa oranges. It was a sensuous, alluring, strange place. The prominent feelings I remember were of fascination (I lived in Westchester, so scorpions and wadis were compelling and odd) and not a little fear. The borders were heavily guarded by the Jordanians, who held what we know as Palestine today—that is, ancient Jerusalem and its environs, including the Wailing Wall and the Tower of David, which the Jews were forbidden to enter at that time, before the Six-Day War. So I was always frightened in some very visceral way, staring at these Arab guards with their guns slung over their shoulders, forbidding me entry to the old city where my mother and grandmother were born and my maternal family had lived for over six generations. My sister and I were told never to walk in certain places, there was always a threatening vat of air above and beyond us. But it was too exciting to be oppressive—as a kid this was all a thrill, including watching the scattered nomadic tribes such as the Bedouin, who bathe in the wadis and wash their clothes there, as well. It was considered a violation to approach or disturb them, so people were always whispering to me, “Don’t go there, or there, respect their superstitions and mysteries.”

I don’t think anyone traveling to Israel today can imagine what early Israel and Palestine were really like. After the Six-Day War in 1967, the Israelis occupied the places the Jordanians once held, and the country westernized very rapidly. My mother was born in British Mandate Palestine in the 1920s and grew up there, as I mentioned earlier, and so I have also identified with the Palestinians in that I felt that my mother’s history had slowly been eradicated by the waves of immigration from the West, her identity as a Jewish Palestinian gradually obliterated, or at best dislocated.

Rail: In Edges, 14-year-old Liana is trying to understand how she fits in to all this. In one sense, it’s a coming-of-age story, but beneath it all there’s an almost mystical sense of merging with the landscape, with the spirits of the dead, with a deeply mysterious past whose presence remains immediate and palpable.

Skolkin-Smith: Yes, the landscape became a storyteller all unto itself. The language of the body and of nature has always been an important part of my writing. To Liana, it began to feel that this young Israel and Palestine were coming of age at the same time she was. The geography, the canvas of Jerusalem became a silent guide to how each was experiencing their growth, reflecting one another in interesting ways—the turbulent changes, the wars, the buried history of early British Mandate Palestine as it was repeatedly held hostage by the border hostilities between Arab and Jew. In a sense, with the formation of the state of Israel and all that came after, the mother and the Jewish Palestinians became stateless. And so for both mother and daughter, identity had to be an internal one. I wanted to ask questions about nationality, identity, history, and of course, love—because the sexual identity of the daughter is also confused by the lack of borders between her mother and herself and by new boundaries that arise and shift, just like the land itself.

Rail: There is a political dimension to Edges that has less to do with the policies of Israel as they are generally debated today, i.e. in terms of the Palestinian minority, than with the very basic question of what happens when literature approaches history. Set 20 years after the end of the Second World War, in a time that was politically, socially, geographically, and demographically very different to the Israel of today, Edges bears witness to a way of being and thinking in the world that has since vanished, a set of historical circumstances an understanding of which is essential to properly interpret the state of affairs today. Yet while you conjure the immediate reality of this world in highly evocative scenes, your true concerns nonetheless seem to lie elsewhere. Let me try to explain what I mean.

I’m thinking of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the way the history of the events of 1989 and the years that followed has been written. As it happens, I’ve been living in Berlin for exactly 30 years this month, and of course the place I moved to as a very young woman was a completely different city than the one I live in today. When I meet people younger than myself, for the most part newcomers to Berlin, I’m always very interested to learn what they think about all these momentous changes that happened here. I’m talking about what still feels like recent memory in my case, whereas in theirs, it’s a matter of historical events that took place in their childhoods. They’ve absorbed history second-hand—as we all absorb the histories that have gone before us—and then they come to live here and their experience of the city is colored by what they’ve learned, which is how this history has in the meantime been passed down.

When I see Potsdamer Platz, for instance, I see a layering in time: the Wall and the former death strip beyond it in an area that had been flattened by Allied bombs; and then the sprawling illegal Polish market that sprang up there during the months after the Wall came down, when people took advantage of the newly open borders between East and West Germany and hopped in their tiny cars and came to sell homemade kielbasa and vodka and whatever else they had on hand in the hopes of earning some Western currency; and then, soon after, a Legoland of excavators and cranes and workers in yellow hardhats in what became for many years the largest construction site in Europe—whereas a younger generation sees a new city center with high-rises and a mall and a few cinemas that roll out the red carpet every two years for the Berlinale. There’s a challenge in going back in time and making a vanished reality emotionally intelligible to a younger generation.

Skolkin-Smith: Challenging the official version of history is one of literature’s most important, most vital functions. To contemporary politics, this land of early Israel and Palestine, which I watched becoming vanquished in a larger sense, is an inconvenient history. Jews and Arabs once working and living peacefully in British Mandate Palestine? That fact interferes with the rigid absolutes people hold as truths. The need to be “right” on both sides about the current political situation has completely distorted those early images I saw as a child. Political ideologues today depend on the bitter hatred they wrongly assume existed once between Jew and Arab. But this wasn’t true—at one time the Jews and Arabs were neighbors and in business together. My grandfather’s business partner was Turkish, a Muslim. My uncles went to the University of Beirut. But it was all on the horizon, you could feel it in a palpable way as the pressure of the extensive European, Russian, and American immigrations increased and coffee shops and restaurants slowly began appearing in the ancient places and European-style boutiques cropped up on Ben Yehuda. At the same time, I wanted Jerusalem to be a sanctuary for the Holocaust victims—these were the people my mother and her family had fought for in the Jewish underground. It was all quite different after the immigration waves arrived and the State of Israel was declared. A lot of money poured in and land was appropriated—not for victims of the Holocaust, but for a more affluent population.

Rail: Edges focuses on a very particular period of history that cannot easily be described or explained, except, perhaps, in a work of fiction—and this reminds us what fiction can accomplish that other forms of writing cannot. The past is being rewritten all the time. And it’s especially when tumultuous changes have taken place—when it comes to the battle over who retains hegemony over their interpretation—that the stakes can be very high. At its core, fiction can be truer to fact than recorded history, which is subject to any number of interests and agendas. It’s crucial to get these things straight, and ironic that storytelling can be far more objective than so-called objective fact.

In a similar way, your earlier novel Hystera draws a historical line between mental illness and madness. Set in 1974, before the pharmacological revolution in psychiatry, this powerful book charts a young woman’s voyage into despair, mental breakdown, and eventual recovery. In an age where deviance from the norm is medicated rather than explored, and an alarming number of people are convinced that a “chemical imbalance of the brain” requires that they remain on prescription medicine for the rest of their lives, despondency, alienation, and emotional conflict—formerly part of the essential, ineffable experience of being human—are seen as medical symptoms rather than the struggles of a soul grappling with the aporias of existence.

Throughout the history of literature, madness has been viewed as a rite of passage, a necessary exploration of the mind’s deepest conflicts, a quest to more fully understand what is truly human—whereas today, an individual’s troubled relationship to the universal dilemma underlying the human condition is pathologized. Anything less, or different, than happiness, efficiency, and productivity is regarded as illness. And so Hystera—in taking us back to a time not that long ago, when pharmaceuticals had not yet begun to dominate the psychiatric profession—resonates in unsettling and shocking ways. Can you talk about what motivated you to write this book, and what you think fiction can achieve in a larger sense?

Skolkin-Smith: As a writer, I feel compelled to assign my subjective experience to invented characters; the themes I take on are things I myself lived through, in my own way. In this regard, though it is fiction, Hystera is also a personal, authentic story. I wanted to go back to a place where suffering and chaos were less circumscribed, to break through the familiar medical models and popular narratives about illness and recovery. Woolf, Genet, Joyce, Kafka, and so many other modernists tackled “mental illness” in their work, but they created less of a distinction between what was human and tragic, and what was “depressed,” “psychotic,” or “abnormal.” “Complexes” and “hallucinatory delusions” were presented in haunted parables of human yearning and experience. Hystera was framed by the textures and nuances of the ’70s, and it’s this atmosphere, these ideologies and principal ideas that are threaded into the prose. For instance, the Patty Hearst kidnapping is woven in to play off this ordinary young woman’s own breakdown, but the book also draws on historical references to hysteria and mental illness going back as far as Hippocrates and his concept of hysteria as a “wandering uterus.” The dichotomy of fiction/nonfiction isn’t always useful when it comes to analyzing how a novel tells an individual, fictional story that is simultaneously filled with nonfiction events that actually happened and that inform the personal story. Both of my novels are works of fiction, but they are grounded in their times, in the history of their times.

It’s an extension, really, of modernist ideas. I think the writers who most impacted me wrote a kind of non-fiction fiction. Grace Paley once said that when a book takes on a “political” dimension, where the story is also drawn from history and/or supposed facts, we enter into a place where there is actually a dissolving of boundaries between fiction and non-fiction. She found these categories as applied to novels and short stories too limiting. Doris Lessing, Nadine Gordimer, Grace Paley, and many other writers from that period took on the outside world—war, changing cityscapes, politics—to create their fictional work. In reading Doris Lessing, for instance, you get the entire history of the world, a vision of our political discontents—and these are as essential as story and character. I have always been most moved by that kind of novel—works that do not invent history, but explore how we, as ordinary citizens, are often pulled into a maelstrom of historical events not of our own making. Ulysses contains Dublin and the entire history of the 20th century. The historical perspective is very real, it consists of facts, and therefore it’s a kind of non-fiction. This “background” becomes a character, and the extraordinary times we live in become as much a “story” as any other element in a novel.

Rail: These distinctions between fiction, non-fiction, and memoir are also commercial categories. But when you think of memoir, the psychological limitations of crafting an official version of one’s personal history are fairly obvious. We all want to present our struggles and achievements in the best possible light, we all seek to make sense of who we are, to find a narrative to explain ourselves somehow, but when we present this in such a naked way—I believe we lie. Fiction offers so much more room for telling the truth. We can hide parts of ourselves—the uglier parts, the greedy, envious, self-serving parts—in the characters we invent, and then we are free to explore them and to examine the interactions they cause in a far more accurate way.

Skolkin-Smith: Virginia Woolf was one of the first to incorporate the authentic psychological realities of her characters, their intrapsychic interiority, into her fiction—elements she called “truth” and “beauty,” clichés now, but not at the time she was writing. Grace Paley was very big on telling us to tell the truth above all and to make that truth authentic as it filters through our imaginations, but also the memory banks of our real lives. This, I feel, is the fiction that is urgent, intense, and necessary today. It expands on original concepts of literary modernism, primarily that one works through a personal center, that interior life can be depicted as vividly as external events, and these various strands often merge into a fiction that is boldly truthful. Even with Kafka, it’s not the fact that Gregor Samsa turned into a cockroach—it’s about his personal, internal reality.

I regret that so much fiction has moved away from these ideas. We seem to have many writers today writing about places they don’t, perhaps, know as an authentic participant, and the writing emerges as conjecture on their part. Writers feel perhaps too confident writing about a history they do not have a first-hand connection to. Perhaps, too, privilege enters into this. We have access in our education to so much historical information, but these accounts provide a sense of knowing that is often spurious. It is a hindsight that distorts more than illuminates. One doesn’t have to have lived the facts, but I think an authentic personal truth is necessary for the invention of characters that actually live in the imaginary circumstances novelists create. Writers like Philip Roth and Norman Mailer have also used this fiction/non-fiction fusion to great effect. I regret that modernism is looked down upon these days as too complex to be “entertaining.” When I read Woolf, I am drawn to how she talks about different “selves.” I miss that in contemporary work. It’s a real loss. I recently read the volumes of “My Struggle” by Karl Ove Knausgaard, and it felt like a return to Proust and to ideas I’ve always been very inspired by, for instance modernism’s investment in subjectivity, the self in history. I hope to contribute to these sensibilities.

Rail: I wonder if you could say a word or two about the book you’re currently working on?

Skolkin-Smith: Yes, I’m happy to say I am almost finished with a new novel, called Stealing Faith. The book explores the literary ’80s, during the time of Reagan’s policies of deinstitutionalization. Though the characters are invented, they’re based on some very famous writers I knew back then. Basically, it’s a story of a young woman who returns to the outside world after several episodes of psychiatric hospitalization. She is lost, of course—and this felt like the perfect avatar for exploring the cult of celebrity that arose around that time. I found this quote from Reagan in an interview in the New York Times from 1988: responding to the undeniable fact that over 100,000 people, mostly battered women and mental patients, had been tossed out onto the streets, he insisted that his policies had caused few economic hardships, suggesting instead that “jobless workers are unemployed by their own choice.” His denial that this was happening was truly shocking. It haunted me enough to want to write a novel about one woman dissolving in that maelstrom at the same time that writing and publishing were beginning to change into the celebrity society we see today.

Edges was nominated for the 2006 PEN/Faulkner Award and The PEN/Ernest Hemingway Award by Grace Paley; it was a National Women’s Studies Association Conference Selection, a Bloomsbury Review Pick, and a Jewish Book Council Selection; and it won the 2008 Earphones Award for an original audio production narrated by Tovah Feldshuh. Hystera was selected by Princeton University for their series The Fertile Crescent: Gender, Art, and Society. It was also the winner of the 2012 USA Book Award and the 2012 Global E-Books Award, as well as a finalist in the International Book Awards and the National Indie Excellence Awards.


Andrea Scrima

Andrea Scrima is the author of A Lesser Day (Spuyten Duyvil, 2nd ed. 2018); the German edition (Wie viele Tage) was published by Literaturverlag Droschl, Graz, Austria in 2018. The German edition of her second book, Like Lips, Like Skins, will also be published by Droschl in the fall of 2021. Scrima has works in several anthologies, including Wreckage of Reason (Spuyten Duyvil) and Strange Attractors (University of Massachusetts Press). She is the recipient of a writer's fellowship from the Berlin Senate for Cultural Affairs and writes a monthly column for 3 Quarks Daily. She is editor-in-chief of the online literary magazine StatORec.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 14-JAN 15

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