THE WHOLENESS OF A BROKEN HEART
By Charlotte Green Honigman-Smith
MAYDELEH is "a new, literary, political, angry (or at least irritable), unbearably hip Jewish grrl zine." In the first issue, (February, 2001), the magazine's editor, Charlotte Green Honigman-Smith, interviewed Katie. The interview is reprinted here in its entirety.
MAYDELEH: Can you give me a little background about yourself, who you are and where you live and all of that?
KATIE: I was Writer in Residence at South Boston High in the 1980s. That's the school that became famous in the 70s around busing and desegregation. I had a fabulous time teaching there, and then I realized that I wanted to give all my attention to my own writing. I also realized I didn't have much money. A voice in my head said, "Well, you could give your attention to that, or you could give your attention to writing. Take your pick." So, I took my pick. I sold most of my belongings, gave up my rent-controlled apartment, and started driving west. About four months later, I landed in a small village in northern New Mexico, about 75 miles north of Santa Fe. I got a housesitting job in an old farmhouse. I had to carry in my drinking water, and chop wood for heat. That gave me a great perspective on my earlier characters' lives. And then they just started telling me stories.
M: You describe suddenly realizing that you wanted to write a novel--did you realize immediately that this was the novel you wanted to write?
K: I worked on the book for eight years, and it took me several years before I figured out what it was about. (I'm working on a new novel now--I've been with it two years, and I don't think I know what it's about yet.) The characters came to me slowly. The ancestral women came first, and Hannah (one of the major characters in THE WHOLENESS OF A BROKEN HEART) didn't come until I was at least three or four years into the book. And she ended up getting more space than anyone.
M: These modern girls talk a lot?
K: They do. The structure took several years to put together; the alternation between Hannah and everyone else.
M: One thing that stands out for me about the book is the layers of language that run through it--from Yiddish to English--and from women speaking other languages when Hannah begins teaching. Did you grow up with Yiddish? What was the process of making the language ring right for you and your characters?
K: I'm not a Yiddish speaker--I grew up with two or three expressions in my house. We didn't have a lot. I learned the Yiddish in New Mexico. My characters speak Yiddish, of course, and use it and need it. I would meet with people who were raised in Yiddish and tell them about the characters and what I needed them to say, and I started to learn more about Jewish culture in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
M: I was fascinated with the way the cast of characters fills out, rather than progressing chronologically, so that characters who are dead remain part of the ongoing dialogue. Of course, that seems very Jewish to me--Talmud is studied in exactly the same way, so that different generations find themselves arguing on the same page. How did you find yourself writing parts for the dead, and how do you think that affects the book?
K: One of the things the book is about for me is regeneration after the Holocaust. One of the tragedies that we're contending with in this post-Holocaust era is that so many people died who we have a personal connection to--and they didn't receive a proper burial. My understanding of Jewish life is that there's a great honoring of the dead. This respect is there--we come from their seeds. We come from them. There's appreciation of continuity. And the dead continue to have a voice in the events in my day. People I've loved who've died--I still feel as though I'm in conversation with many of them. It's not voodoo, it's just that I feel their presence, and imagine their response to things. The women's voices are on center stage here. In all their craziness, controllingness, stubbornness, humor, their nonconformity. And yet there's something universal about the way they speak--that empathic quality. There's an expression that you could hide what you looked like in a fancy suit, but you couldn't hide your Yiddish, you could't assimilate your accent. And that's the way they speak. From the heart.
M: In your novel, Hannah's mother, Celia, refuses to speak to her for a decade. The theme of silence between parent and child is used as well in Chaim Potok's novel, THE CHOSEN. Is there a connection?
K: The father's use of silence in THE CHOSEN was really intentional. He was using it as an educational tool, which Celia is not. People often get angry at Celia. She's judged a bad mother. I really don't think she is, personally. But like the son in THE CHOSEN, Hannah is given this incredible opportunity to invent herself independently while she's still in a matrilineal embrace.
M: What do you see as the important issues facing Jewish writers in your generation?
K: Getting the rent paid! And publishing is just so mysterious at this point. It's changing so rapidly, no one can really get a handle on it. In the end, I stick to a line of Toni Morrison's. She said, "I write the books that I want to read." And basically, that's what I'm doing, too.
To subscribe to MAYDELEH, send a check for $18 to Charlotte Smith c/o Reyna's Press, PNM #816, 298 4th Av., San Francisco, CA 94118-2468. She's also welcoming nonfiction prose, discussions of Jewish identity, political commentary, and book and music reviews--and sketches, photos, cartoons, and doodles. You can email Charlotte at firstname.lastname@example.org.