The Wilds of Embarrassment: Q&A with ‘For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors’ author Laura Esther Wolfson

For Single Mothers WorkingLaura Esther Wolfson’s debut memoir is eye-catchingly titled For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors (176 pages; University of Iowa Press). Wolfson is a translator, not a train conductor, yet both professions lend themselves to traveling across borders while maintaining a certain distance—throughout the collection of short stories, Wolfson moves between countries, from the USA to France to Georgia; between languages, from Russian to French to Yiddish; and between her own story and the stories of others. Wolfson’s crossings are propelled and connected by a variety of forces, including her love for her two ex-husbands, her research into her previously unexplored Jewish heritage, and her suffering from lung disease.

Part of what makes For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors—which won the 2017 Iowa Prize for Literary Nonfiction—so unique is how Wolfson’s relationships with different languages affect her relatively commonplace experiences. In “The Husband Method,” for example, Wolfson remembers her and her Russian husband’s transition to America, and how Russian became their private language. On the other hand, Wolfson shares in “Proust at Rush Hour” how French provided her with a steady job. Yiddish, a language Wolfson is far less fluent in than Russian or French, mends her broken identity in “The Book of Disaster” in a way no other language is able to do. Wolfson recently spoke to us about the way she blurs fiction and non-fiction, the role of humiliation in writing, her literary influences, and more.

ZYZZYVA: In the beginning of “For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors,” the eponymous short story that gives insight into your first marriage, you write: “Reader, I married her son.” What’s the significance of your allusion to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre?

Laura Esther Wolfson: At first, the Jane Eyre allusion was nothing more than a joke. The reader thinks she knows what’s coming, because “Reader, I married him” is so familiar. But, approaching the end of that sentence, she cycles rapidly through a shifting series of expectations and dawning understandings: first, lulled by the initial familiar words into not following too closely; then, brought to attention by the initial twist: the female narrator’s “I married her,” so that, if she pauses on the penultimate word, ‘her,’ the reader may briefly imagine that the narrator married her, the mother-in-law–which, in a sense, she did. (Gay marriage was of course unimaginable at the time of the events recounted and remains so in today’s Russia.) Finally, she grasps that these words, followed by ‘son,’ in fact introduce the narrator’s husband.

After For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors came out this spring, a friend who has championed my work for decades pointed out that by addressing readers directly on the first page, I was flinging wide the door and welcoming them into the book in its entirety. Placed at the opening of the book, the Jane Eyre sentence takes on a larger significance than it possessed when that section was originally published on its own, in a magazine.

Z: Throughout many of the short stories, you discuss your efforts to connect with your Jewish heritage. For example, you devour the works of Jewish writers and study Yiddish. What made you hungry, as an adult, to explore your origins? As you note in “The Bagels in the Snowflake,” you did not grow up practicing Judaism, and the Snowflake Bakery was the “sole passageway” you had to your heritage. 

LEW: As a child, I was told that the descriptors “Jew” and “Jewish” applied to me, yet I knew nothing, but nothing, about the meaning of those words. They were a locked box. Imagine being told all your life that you are French, yet when you find yourself among French people, you cannot converse with them in what is supposed to be your common tongue. You don’t know what Paris is, or Bastille Day. Imagine a Jew who doesn’t know who Moses was, or the meaning of Yom Kippur—basic, basic things. That was me. Eventually, this unknowing struck me as peculiar.

The house where I grew up was home to a cornucopia of books on architecture, ballet, psychoanalysis, socialism, and innumerable other subjects, plus the classics of nineteenth- and twentieth-century European and American literature, the juvenilia and minor works of many great authors, the full 16-volume series of Oz books, all eight of the Little House series, other classics of children’s literature, a 22-volume encyclopedia, and, yes, the King James Bible.

The sole Jewish books were Isaac Bashevis Singer’s retellings of folk tales in editions for children (but none of the works for grownups that won him the Nobel), a tome about Abba Eban (a statesman, scholar and founder of the State of Israel) and a single copy of the Haggadah (the guide to the Passover ritual, or Seder, which commemorates the Exodus from Egypt). The latter is generally found in multiple copies in Jewish homes; at Passover, everyone present is handed a copy for the evening, so that all can follow along and participate. Haggadot (the plural of Haggadah) cannot and do not exist alone, yet here was one, all by itself—an anomaly. Clearly the last vestige of something, but what?

Quite a bit later, it occurred to me that there must be more books about Judaism, many more, and that it might in fact be possible to learn about this mysterious thing that had shaped me in ways I barely grasped. Surrounded by books my whole life, I should have known that there are books on every topic under the sun. But the realization came late, when I was nearly 30.

When I studied Yiddish—and language study necessarily encompasses study of culture—I learned that various habits and phrases that I had thought unique to my quirky family were in fact shards of the Ashkenazy (Eastern European Jewish) tradition and worldview. Discovering that I belonged to a larger culture was immensely comforting, and also a revelation.

Z: Oftentimes throughout your memoir, you admit to misremembering things you’ve read and doubting the accuracy of some memories. For example, in “The Book of Disaster,” you tell the reader, “I don’t vouch for the accuracy of my retelling,” when summarizing your acquaintance’s book about the last Lithuanian Yiddish poet. And in “The Bagels in the Snowflake,” you wonder if you made up a childhood memory of your sister telling you that the family is not Jewish, a memory that’s important to the short story. Does this lack of concern for certain details fit into any larger philosophy of yours about the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, truth and accuracy? 

LEW: This does not reflect a lack of concern for details. It is a way of taking ownership of the story, by saying: I’m telling this now, it’s mine, memory lapses and all, regardless of what others have written or said. It is also a frank recognition of the vagaries of memory. But whatever we call it, yes, it does fit into my approach to fiction and nonfiction. While I use elements of my life in my writing, the purpose is not reportage, but storytelling. Most of what I write cannot be fact-checked (even the stuff that I am certain happened as described), nor should it be.

An acknowledgement that I don’t remember is, at times, the closest I can come to accuracy. Often, I want to quote or allude to something I read long ago, but can’t locate the source. Since it is possible that I’m misquoting, at least a little bit, attribution may not in fact be so important (and perhaps by misquoting I have become the source!) and moreover, it’s not clear how tracking it down and getting the quotation exactly right would enrich the writing. Not to mention that hours spent fact-checking, often fruitlessly, are hours spent not writing.

I quote and cite as accurately as I can, acknowledging that it may all be somewhat off. I’m not going to leave out something that the writing needs just because I can’t provide a certificate of provenance. I cook with the ingredients I have, and I hope that everyone understands that nobody writes alone.

In the case of the memory involving my sister, she told me that she has no recollection of that exchange, so I thought it was only fair to suggest that my memory might be faulty.

Z: In “Losing the Nobel,” you describe your work as an interpreter for Svetlana Alexievich, the 2015 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, and how moved you were by the harrowing stories her subjects have shared with her. In your memoir, you include other people’s stories, such as that of Faina, who grew up in the former USSR during WW2, and whose father was arrested and put to death by the Soviet authorities as an “enemy of the people.” 

Another memorable story you share is about a Jewish woman who learns, years after the fact and to her great distress, that when the Christian family who hid her from the Germans sprinkled water on her, they were turning her into a Christian. Would you say that Alexievich influenced you to include the stories of others? Has she, or have any other writers, influenced your writing in other ways?

LEW: Alexievich is not a literary influence for me. As history, I find her accounts meaningful, but, given that she’s an oral historian whose books consist exclusively of the words of others, presumably quoted verbatim, I’m not sure that she should be termed a writer, and it’s not at all clear to me that she was an appropriate choice for the Nobel in Literature.

The story about the woman who was baptized unbeknownst to her is like a second-generation fax. As I wrote in FSMWATC, I was in the audience when a Yiddish scholar told that story as part of a lecture; he had heard it from her while doing research in the field. I retold the scholar’s retelling, increasing the likelihood that something got dropped or changed as it passed from hand to hand. That’s one reason I don’t give the woman’s name. (The other is because I don’t remember it.)

Faina’s story I heard directly from her. But decades had passed between the events and her account of them, and more years passed before I wrote about it (I won’t say “recorded it”), so no doubt we both introduced some changes. It’s always a game of “Whisper Down the Lane.”

I include others’ stories when they fascinate me, or if they formed me, as in “Other Incidents in the Precinct,” the final section of the book, which is about family legends.

When FSMWATC came out, my father, who looms large in “Other Incidents in the Precinct,” pointed out that I had misidentified a minor character as a quantum physicist, when the man in fact had a master’s degree in political science. Remarkably, my father had no other objections to the piece, not to my retelling his stories or to my portrayals of him and his first marriage. I got the quantum-physics-versus-political-science detail wrong even though he had told us the story countless times. Apparently, “countless” fell somewhat short of enough. Incidentally, that particular inaccuracy changes nothing.

I include others’ stories also because lives overlap; you cannot write self without writing others. Life is a palimpsest, with people the most important elements.

The late twentieth-century German writer W. G. Sebald is a crucial influence for me. His narrators recount stories heard during their travels, most notably in Austerlitz, his greatest work. Are the original tellers utter fictions, did they actually live and entrust their stories to a Sebaldian narrator, or are they some kind of hybrid? Sebald carried that mystery to the grave.

A passage in To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf inspired one part of the first (eponymous) section of the book.

Sometime after “Climbing Montmartre” was first published as a standalone about ten years ago, I reread it and found the ending dismayingly similar to the end of Swann’s Way. I thought I must have inadvertently memorized and then reproduced it. I was glad for once to be published in an obscure venue, where no representative of Proust’s estate was likely to come across it.

But I have just pulled Swann’s Way and my book off a high shelf to reread both paragraphs, his and mine, and in fact the resemblance now seems vague. Maybe the pilfered paragraph does not exist, or maybe it’s buried so deep in the middle of Swann’s Way that there’s no hope of my ever finding it again, unless I read the whole damn book for a fourth time, which would actually—oh, dear!—increase the likelihood of my inadvertently lifting more passages from it.

Consider this an after-the-fact, slapdash sourcing of the final paragraph of the “Climbing Montmartre” section. Or maybe an indication that even stories that are written down can change.

“Envy, or Yiddish in America,” a novella by Cynthia Ozick, is about a Yiddish author persuaded that if he can convince a certain young Yiddish-speaking American to translate his work into English, he’ll achieve the literary success that has eluded him thus far. My story about the author who pursued the translator actually happened, while Ozick’s is fiction. Late into writing the “Book of Disaster,” section, I remembered “Envy,” and it then stayed in my mind as I finished up that part.

For style, I look to Nabokov, though not, I hope, to his soullessness, nor to his distaste for music and psychoanalysis.

Z: What made you transition from translation to original writing? Was original writing something you’d always wanted to do, or did your passion for it grow out of translation? 

My desire to write arose soon after I learned to read, predating by many years my interest in language work. I had no longstanding desire to be a translator (someone who renders the written word across languages) or an interpreter (who does the same for the spoken word), but once I began doing the work, I discovered that, given the right setting and source material, it can be a delightful livelihood, even, at times, riveting. (Sadly, though, literary translation, the least remunerative branch of language work, is no livelihood.) Although my literary debut comes relatively late (I’m in my fifties), I’ve been writing since long before I became a translator and interpreter—and I started doing professional language work when I was in my early twenties.

I majored in Russian language and literature out of a love of great books, and that was of course closely tied to the writing bug. My graduation from college in the late 1980s was felicitously timed; the USSR was opening up and then collapsing, resulting in a surge in demand for people skilled in Russian. Becoming a translator and interpreter was not part of any grand plan, but language work ended up serving my writing: as a mode of procrastination, as an apprenticeship, and as a vein to mine, or, as translators say, a source document.

Of course, literary translation is in itself a form of writing, and an important one that is only now starting to receive its due in our country. I hope that through my writing, people may gain a greater appreciation of translation.

Z: In many ways, you are very intimate with the Russian language. As you beautifully put it: “In Russian I had fallen in love, and out . . . Russian had in this way become almost native to me, as a close friend may become family, absent any tie of blood or marriage.” Yet you are not Russian. Was this unique relationship at times alienating or painful? How is your relationship with Russian similar to and/or different from your relationship to Yiddish?  

LEW: I am a novice where Yiddish is concerned. I cannot claim fluency. I took a few intensive courses, none longer than six weeks. I have rarely spoken Yiddish outside a classroom. I love what I know of it, but I know very little. Contact with Yiddish salves my fractured Jewish identity, restoring it to wholeness for as long as that contact lasts—I wrote about this in the section entitled “The Book of Disaster”—but when I hear Yiddish or attempt to read it, there is much that I just plain don’t understand. My vocabulary is limited, my grammar shaky.

I studied and was then in daily contact with Russian for decades, and have conducted many professional and personal relationships exclusively in Russian. I’ve translated books from Russian and served as a simultaneous and consecutive interpreter in all sorts of settings, including for professional conferences, public lectures, judicial proceedings and diplomatic parleys, all work that requires a mastery of nuance, concepts and terminology in a range of subject areas.

Russian-speakers generally treat me as one of their own. I do sometimes have a feeling of displacement nonetheless, because despite my prolonged exposure, it’s just not my culture, and it never will be. In Russian, I have routinely heard racist, homophobic and misogynistic remarks noxious to a degree beyond anything I’d ever heard in English, until two years ago.

Z: In your memoir, you explore failure and regret, two universal inevitabilities that can still be taboo. Specifically, you discuss your divorces and decision not to translate Alexievich’s writing. Was it difficult to become that vulnerable? Or satisfyingly cathartic? (I’ve always wondered this about memoirists . . . ) 

LEW: It’s not cathartic—that could make for bad writing—but it is redemptive. Writing about those experiences doesn’t free me of them, but when I fashion something out of them, they are no longer a total loss.

Confessing my decision not to translate Alexievich’s books was not at all difficult. For reasons enumerated in the section entitled “Losing the Nobel,” that decision appeared to be the right one when I made it. When I wrote the piece, (soon after she won the Nobel), it appeared in some ways to be the wrong one. It will be clear to discerning readers, though, that in the end, I am far better off as the author of that confession than I would have been as her translator, although that only became apparent with time, after “Losing the Nobel” was finished and making its way in the world.

Exploring certain other failures and regrets is more difficult. I have to remind myself over and over that everyone is ashamed of something, usually something that to other people is no big deal, and that most readers will identify with my shames. “Only connect,” as Kafka writes somewhere, I think. (I don’t remember where, and Google isn’t helping.)

I would be less exposed if I invented things out of whole cloth, but for reasons that are obscure to me, that’s not what I do. So I face a stark choice: write out of my own experience, which can be awkward, or don’t write at all. Reluctantly, I choose the former. Certainly, writing about embarrassing things is less embarrassing than talking about them.

There’s always something to be ashamed of. Autobiography was in vogue in the 1970s when I was in elementary school; I was assigned to write one in third grade, and again in fourth grade. (I added a chapter.) One important episode (a freak accident that landed me in the emergency room at age six) involved the boy down the street, who was my playmate. How embarrassing to have a friend who was male—cooties. I transgendered my character and slapped on a girl’s name that was similar to that of the real boy (Hey, Proust did this too–see Albertine and Gilberte–though I didn’t know it then). My mother, who typed up the autobiography to show family and friends, kept re-transgendering her back to a boy. I tried to explain, but she just didn’t get why the story should stand as written. Changing a fact (the child’s gender) blended into that story a deeper truth about childhood, and about the character of me as a child, even as it obscured a circumstance of the original event.

In my forties, I was embarrassed to write about being in possession of birth control (in the title story of For Single Mothers), because it meant outing myself as a sexual being. Then I thought, wait! Most of us humans are sexual beings. And what’s more, as a young married woman at the time of the events described, I was taking precautions. What on earth could be wrong with that?

I continue blazing new trails into ever more embarrassing territory. And the sky does not fall. Other authors are more fearless than I am, by far. In Inside/Out, Joseph Osmundson writes about the role of anal douching and excrement in his relationship with his then-boyfriend. The Kiss is about an affair between author Kathryn Harrison and her long-lost father that took place when she re-met him as a young adult.

My next book, now in progress, pushes still deeper into the wilds of embarrassment (by my own lame standards), but is still vanilla compared to those. I’ve promised my brother that I’ll prepare a specially redacted or bowdlerized gift copy for him when it comes out, as we agree that he shouldn’t read the uncut version. (I hope he’ll share his special copy with my nephews.)

Z: Do you think you will ever write a novel?

LEW: Oh, this is my first time being asked the “novel” question! I wonder if Jorge Luis Borges ever got the “novel” question. Somewhere I read—you’re wondering where? ha!—that his longest story was 14 pages, so he must have. Grace Paley, esteemed and beloved for her short stories, certainly got the “novel” question frequently. Ditto Lee K. Abbott, also esteemed, if less well known. So I’m in good company. I cannot resist answering the question with a rhetorical one of my own:

Must every writer be a novelist (or future novelist)?

Moving on now:

It’s difficult to locate the dividing line between nonfiction and fiction, and that boundary is drawn differently in different epochs and cultures. There are ancient, sophisticated literary cultures that make little to no distinction between fiction and nonfiction.

There are certain contemporary “novelists” who would be termed memoirists if they were writing in English, in the United States. I’m thinking in particular of Amélie Nothomb, a francophone Belgian, and Emmanuel Carrère, who is French, with Russian and Georgian ancestry. (It is because of writers like these that the French have given the world the expression roman à clef, whose keyword, remember, means “novel.”)

In the early and mid-twentieth century, there were American novelists who told stories that were so close to the lives that they and their friends, acquaintances and family lived that if they were working now they would certainly be considered memoirists: Jack Kerouac, Agnes Smedley, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Thomas Wolfe. Wolfe’s final (posthumous) novel, called You Can’t Go Home Again, is about a young author who, in a kind of literary infinite regression, receives menacing letters and death threats from residents of his hometown who recognize themselves in his books. Wolfe, who knew whereof he spoke, was considered a novelist in his lifetime. The label has stuck. (It’s worth noting that IRL, those same townspeople got upset all over again when Wolfe’s second novel omitted all mention of them.)

It may well be that in a different time, place, or language, my output would be called fiction. Indeed, in these very interview questions, the sections of For Single Mothers are referred to as “short stories” (a term usually reserved for works of fiction). That may in itself be indication that the boundaries are not so clear.

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