Roaming the Metaphorical ‘Jungle Around Us’ : Q&A with Anne Raeff

Anne Raeff (photo by Dennis Hearne)

Anne Raeff (photo by Dennis Hearne)

In Anne Raeff’s story collection, The Jungle Around Us (140 pages, University of Georgia Press), nine stories span decades, covering numerous lives and multiple “jungles”; urban, Amazonian, and metaphorical, to name a few. In these “jungles,” Raeff’s characters face a Russian nesting-doll of isolation. Here, the land itself is alien to those displaced far from their homes. Language barriers and internal turmoil prevent communicating fully with those around you. But Raeff also shows how these same places can be a shelter, a refuge for embracing or experimenting with aspects of oneself that may have otherwise been ignored or hidden. Some experience magic moments of connection, and a few even find love.

Raeff, whose essay “Lorca in the Afternoon” was published in Issue No. 98, is not afraid to cause discomfort with her stories. Sometimes they end in an unsettling manner, with our last view of a character being one of he or she committing a confusing but all too human action. Occasionally, though, protagonists re-appear in later stories, adding to the intrigue of the collection. I am still pondering some of the book’s strangeness now, imagining how the lives of Raeff’s characters might pan out past the pages of her collection. We talked to Anne Raeff via email about The Jungle Around Us, which won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction.

ZYZZYVA: Throughout your book, there is an ongoing theme of translation, of characters teaching and learning other languages. In “The Buchovskys on Their Own,” Katja Ladijinskaya will only let Simone and Juliet speak French at the dinner table. In “Maximiliano,” Simone must read Maximiliano’s expressions to communicate with him. In “Carlito on Pink,” Kenard can only understand certain parts in the Spanish conversations between his host mother and her new boyfriend. What is it about languages and its barriers that interest you?

Anne Raeff: I grew up in a multilingual environment. My mother is from Vienna and my father was Russian, but he grew up in Germany (until Hitler came to power in 1933) and then in France. German was my first language, and I only learned English when I started school. My father taught my sister and me French through dreaded Wednesday lessons, for which I am now grateful. When my mother’s family escaped from Vienna in 1938, they moved to Bolivia where they spent the war years, so my mother spoke Spanish as well. When I was twenty-three I moved to Madrid to figure out who I was and how I was going to write, and to learn Spanish. When I arrived in Madrid, I was still socially awkward and introverted, but in Spain one must engage with the world. One must drink and talk all night long. One must run through the streets at dawn and claim one’s place in line at the market. Madrid forced me to look without. The process of learning a new language and navigating a new culture pushed me out into the world. As for Russian, my sister and I didn’t learn Russian since my parents didn’t have that language in common and my father thought that French would be a more useful language to learn. But we both do a really good Russian accent. Finally, I am a high school teacher, and I have spent most of my teaching career teaching English to recently arrived immigrant students and Spanish to both Spanish-learners and Spanish speakers. Thus, I continue to live in a multilingual world, and I am reminded every day of the beauty as well as the limitations of language.

Z: A few of my favorite characters in The Jungle Around Us echo each other’s roles within their respective stories, though their personal surroundings and circumstances are vastly different. In “The Doctors’ Daughter,” Pepe becomes a sort of caregiver for her family; cooking, cleaning, and generally running the household, while her doctor parents treat yellow-fever sufferers in the Amazon. And in “Keeping an Eye on Jacobson,” Juliet and Simone are put in a position where they briefly have to watch over their father’s drunk and disheartened friend, which proves to be a disturbing responsibility. All three are young women looking after people who are older than them. What interests you about their situations?

AR: I am interested in the moments in the lives of children when they begin to understand the pain and weaknesses of adults, and when they begin to understand that we all experience the world differently and from our own unique perspectives. With this discovery comes tremendous responsibility. It is this responsibility to imagine lives beyond our own that I am interested in exploring.

The Jungle Around Us Z: Some of the characters (like Ester in “The Boys of El Tambor” or Rick in “Sonya’s Mood”) are directly referred to as gay, while other characters’ sexualities are discussed in a much more hidden or secretive way. Why is that? Were you looking to portray a spectrum of queerness?

AR: I don’t know that I was looking to portray a spectrum of queerness. I like to think that my stories explore human connections, which are so rarely black and white, gay or straight, good or bad. I am interested in the unusual connections that are made during times of great upheaval, and I am interested in exploring the many manifestations of love. In “After the War” there is definitely a homoerotic element in the friendship between the Jewish doctor and the priest. They are two people who would never have even met had it not been for the displacement created by war, yet they find solace and hope in each other. This is a form of sexuality, I suppose—and love.

Z: I love the missive form of “The Boys of El Tambor.” Why did you choose to write that story as a letter?

AR: I didn’t set out to write this story as a letter. Actually, I had just read Aura by Carlos Fuentes, which is written in the second person, so the story started unfolding in the second person, which then led naturally to the letter. I had also just broken up with my first girlfriend, who had left me for a man. If I had run away to wallow in a sleazy town in Mexico, this is the letter I would have written.

Z: There are several scenes in these stories that impart the eerie feeling of being watched or spied on. In “The Buchovsky’s on Their Own,” almost every night Isaac gets a mysterious phone call to his hotel room in Leningrad. In “Carlito in Pink,, Kenard and Carlito sneakily take pictures of Dona Beatriz and the boyfriend making out in the living room. Maximiliano tiptoes into his father’s bedroom to watch him sleep. Why did you want to capture this feeling of being surveilled?

AR: I think that this relates to my previous answer that dealt with the moments when young people start to imagine the thoughts and feelings of others. Maximiliano is afraid of his father, yet when his father is asleep he is vulnerable, more human. Perhaps Maximiliano is trying to find his father’s humanity.

The spying in the story that takes place in the Soviet Union, is connected to my experiences as a child, imagining my father’s life when he was away doing research, sometimes for as long as three months at a time, in the Soviet Union. In those days (the 1960s and ’70s) in order to call the Soviet Union one had to make an appointment with the operator. It was complicated and terribly expensive, so the only contact we had with him was through his daily letters and postcards, all of which I still have. Since he was one of the first westerners given permission to use the archives, they watched him very closely. I am sure that his hotel room was bugged. I wanted to imagine my father there on his own in his hotel room, writing us letters, being watched. I imagine that his being watched made him miss us, and his life with us, even more

Z: War crops up in several of the stories. In some, war feels distant in location, but emotionally immediate (like in “Keeping an Eye on Jacobson”). In others, characters neglect to acknowledge how intimate the trauma of war can feel, even if it is not fought on the home front (like the priest in “After the War”). What intrigues you about the emotions tied to wars being fought far from us?

AR: My parents were refugees from the war in Europe. Their youths were consumed by the upheavals of war and revolution, and though I grew up in the New Jersey suburbs, the echo of war was always there just beneath the surface, beneath the sound of lawnmowers on Saturday mornings, beneath the call of crickets on hot summer nights. The title, The Jungle Around Us, is taken from one of the stories and refers to an actual jungle. But the jungle in the title is meant to be a metaphorical jungle, the jungle that we both fear and are drawn to, the jungle that threatens yet also protects us. Thus, the book is an exploration of the jungles that surround us whether we are lying awake listening to the cars going by in a New Jersey suburb, wandering through the streets of Leningrad on a cold, winter night, or drinking with a priest who believes in nothing while listening to the insects calling to one another in a town on the edge of the Amazon.

ZYZZYVA: The characters in your collection really stayed with me. Do you plan on returning to any of them in future stories?

AR: Funny that you should ask. The Buchovskys and the biological parents of Simone and Juliet—Ulli and Leo—are also the protagonists of my second and still unpublished novel, Winter Kept Us Warm. In the book, Isaac and Leo meet Ulli, a young woman squatting in an empty apartment that she chances upon, and who is scraping together a living acting as an interpreter between GIs stationed in Berlin after the war and the wide-eyed local girls eager to meet them. Though it is Isaac who is in love with Ulli, Leo is the one who ends up marrying her. They all move to New York and Leo and Ulli have two children, Simone and Juliet. Yet it is Isaac, and Isaac alone, who becomes their parent. At the core of this novel is the mystery of how this came to be. Thus, the Buchovskys in The Jungle Around Us were first conceived when I started thinking about this novel. I began with the story “The Buchovskys on Their Own.” Once I had a sense of who they were as a family, I began work on the novel. The other stories that feature them in the collection were originally part of the novel but didn’t quite fit in with the flow of the narrative, so I turned them into stories.

I am currently working on a novel that is set largely in Nicaragua. It is based on the first story in the collection, “The Doctors’ Daughter.” In the story, two doctors, refugees from Vienna, move with their children to a small town on the edge of the jungle in Bolivia. For the novel I changed the setting to Nicaragua because I have never been to Bolivia but have spent quite a bit of time in Nicaragua. The story was originally set in Bolivia because of my mother’s time there, so it seemed natural. But for a longer work I found my lack of knowledge about Bolivia was holding me back. Also, I am interested in the moral issues surrounding revolution and communism, so Nicaragua was more appropriate. The book takes place largely in El Castillo, a town on the Rio San Juan that runs along Nicaragua’s southern border. As in the short story, the doctors’ daughter, Pepa, falls in love with a boy from the village. The book begins with their story.

Anne Raeff will be in conversation with Anthony Marra about The Jungle Around Us at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, October 5, at Green Apple Books on the Park in San Francisco.

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