I’m not entirely sure where I happened upon Adrienne Celt’s beautiful first novel, The Daughters (272 pages; Norton/Liveright), which is out in paperback in early June, but entering its world was like entering a beautiful fever dream: ornate, occasionally frightening and sad. Celt’s world, peopled by four generations of Polish and Polish American women, tells the story of Lulu, a famed opera singer who loses her voice and sifts through her family’s stories to locate a way forward for herself and her newborn daughter. Celt’s work has appeared in Esquire, the Kenyon Review, and her story “Big Boss Bitch,” a tale of a future political situation that seems almost too real to be fantasy, is slated for the Fall issue of Zyzzyva. Celt holds an MFA from Arizona State University and lives in Tucson.
Esmé Weijun Wang’s first novel, the recently published The Border of Paradise, (292 pages; Unnamed Press), came to my attention via an essay she wrote for LitHub titled, “Why My Novel Uses Untranslated Chinese.” This alone—the idea that an American novelist might pepper her book with traditional Chinese characters rather than pinyin (although Wang uses both)—is fascinating. But The Border of Paradise is also a stunning novel, terrifying and wonderful in turns, with a sense of dread creeping across every page. Wang has openly discussed her ongoing struggle with late stage Lyme disease and with schizoaffective disorder. Her work has appeared in Salon, Buzzfeed, Catapult, and The Believer. She holds an MFA from the University of Michigan and lives in San Francisco. I had an online conversation with Wang and Celt about their work.
ZYZZYVA: I was immediately struck by the strange similarities between your books, not the least of which being they both deal, in part, with Polish culture. I wondered where that interest stemmed from and how it might have informed your writing in general.
Adrienne Celt: I have a great deal of Polish ancestry, and initially I wanted to explore Polish mythology and history for that reason—my paternal grandfather played a part in organizing the Warsaw Uprising as a paratrooper and courier for the Polish government in exile during World War II, and so I grew up hearing incredible stories about my family and their place in Polish national history. But because my paternal grandparents lived in Munich (after WWII, Poland was occupied by the USSR, so many loyal nationalists chose to leave, and my grandparents went to Munich to work for Radio Free Europe), I didn’t know them well, and the stories about them always felt distant to me—I wanted to know more.
EWW: I’ve been sitting over here gnawing on my fingers because I don’t have a good answer as to why Polish Americans—I can’t remember how I decided that would be the case, which doesn’t make for very good storytelling on my part as an author. But yes, [the protagonist] David Nowak’s parents were both born in the States. It’s his grandfather who carries the mythology of the penniless immigrant making good. David’s family still exists in a very Polish American circle, though, which I was interested in. I’m interested in communities that remain insular. I suppose most of my book is about insularity and isolation in some way. I was also interested in who was making pianos at the time, because I knew I wanted to write about a family that owned a piano manufactory.
AC: I think you did a good job painting a vivid portrait of the Polish immigrant community, for what it’s worth. And really, there is a strain of pride-in-heritage among Poles (which I myself feel!) that can, when it becomes extreme, border on a sort of short-sighted nationalism. To me, that tracked very well with the pressures on David to fit in and excel—be the Polish Best Boy, as it were.
Z: Both your books seemed well researched, but not in an ostentatious way. How did you go about that process?
AC: In terms of piano factory research, I’d say that fit into the basic, everyday concept of research: I read up on the major houses, and the background of design, preparation and selection of wood, etc. But I gave myself some leeway there because those scenes occur in a past that is, to Lulu necessarily fuzzy: she only ever visits second-hand.
Z: You mean in Lulu’s great-grandmother, Greta?
AC: I mean the Greta and Saul scenes, yes. The piano factory is in Poland, and Lulu is never in Poland herself during its lifetime.
Z: Did you travel to Poland specifically to research this book?
AC: Yeah, I did, which was a gift, I’d never been before; I’d been to Russia, but as any proper Pole will tell you, that is not the same. I was lucky to get a grant during grad school that allowed me to travel to Krakow and Warsaw under the auspices of the Jewish Studies program at ASU, which informed my ideas about the schism & tension between Jewish and non-Jewish Poles. And to go back to research more generally, my musical research was probably the most rigorous thing I undertook: first a lot of listening to operas and arias on YouTube or CD, etc. But then I did take voice lessons for a month or so, which was immensely helpful in terms of describing and using the physical experience of singing metaphorically.
EWW: I did think about that a lot while reading The Daughters: how the visceral experience of singing is described so well. And with research, I find there’s only a short distance between using research well and info-dumping. Your research felt very natural to me.
AC: Oh thank you! A lot of it, honestly, was done after the first draft was done. (A draft which doesn’t resemble the finished book almost at all, but still.)
Always get the last word.
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Z: I’d guess that’s not uncommon. Doing a lot of specific kinds of research once you know what you need to know.
AC: Yeah, I was buoyed by having heard of other writers doing the same; you don’t even know what you’ll need until you see where the research serves the story. In my case, it was very true. Though some important thematic stuff came out of the research. Esmé, did you do the same?
EWW: I did enough research to allow myself to get going, and then filled in the blank spots—which was true of both the piano research and the research about the fictional town of Polk Valley, which is an amalgam of Nevada City and Grass Valley. With the pianos—there used to be a lot more stuff about pianos in the book. Not just about the making of pianos, but about playing them.
Z: I’m going to shift gears here. Earlier, Adrienne mentioned a feeling of distance in her narrative. To me, that feeling tracks against a kind of “fairy tale” tone that shows up in both books. I wondered if that tone was conscious or something that came organically from the narrative. Do you look upon your books as contemporary fairy tales? (I do!)
AC: I definitely do view The Daughters that way. I think fairy tales often cover up (sometimes not as deeply as they intend) a great deal of very dark material, either culturally or familially, and the stories in The Daughters absolutely serve that purpose: for Ada (the grandmother), they create a lighter world that can eclipse her survivor’s guilt and her grief.
When I spoke about distance earlier, though, I was actually talking about my own sense of distance from my family’s stories. But it still applies, since, in a sense, those also felt like fairy tales to me: I often thought I misremembered them as more outlandish than they were (I didn’t! They were usually more outlandish than I remembered!), and that sense of mutability, of the story still happening behind the scenes of what you know, is something I wanted to be palpable in the stories Lulu hears.
Z: The female characters in the book—great-grandmother, grandmother, mother, daughter—all act as bridges too. Ada, Lulu’s grandmother, is the bridge between great-grandmother Greta’s world and Lulu’s, in some ways. She’s the one delivering the narrative to Lulu and Lulu has to do something with it.
AC: Yeah, Ada is the bridge, but she’s only one bridge. Sara, Lulu’s mother, is another, and she is darker in one way, but more real in another.
AC: And how no one bridge is quite complete, or sufficient.
EWW: I don’t think of my book so much as having a fairy-tale tone as being steeped in Gothic influences, which is a bit odd, because I don’t know how that happened. And I didn’t talk about it in those terms when I was working on it. I’ve been really pleased by reviewers/critics calling it Gothic, though, because I used to off-handedly call it “immigrant Gothic” while I was writing it.
Z: Is Gothic lit something you gravitate toward as a reader?
EWW: Classic Southern Gothic, yeah. I love, love, love Wise Blood. I love The Sound and the Fury.
AC: It lends itself to that very naturally; the way it pushes the narrative into darkness comes to feel like an aesthetic choice as well as a thematic one, though you do a great job not letting that be at the expense of rich characterization. It’s more that you acknowledge and lean into the darkness. The Gothic tone is like a hint to the readers of how dark shit can be.
EWW: I think both our books deal with the inheritance of trauma, too.
AC: Yes, absolutely! When you were writing did you already know about the studies (which have been coming out lately) that trauma is genetically inheritable? Because I didn’t, and when I heard about that, I thought: yes, exactly. We’re affected by family history through story but not just. I mean, the most obvious way this trauma is passed down is through direct contact (stories, seeing someone’s pain, etc.), but it is a palpable part of your life even if you never hear about the trauma directly. It affects the way you’re raised, it’s part of your culture. It’s inextricable from your world, even in ghostly ways. And so it made intuitive sense to me that it would have genetic reverberations as well.
EWW: Yes! I took a grad school class in trauma studies while I was writing the book. The class was about trauma and Asia, specifically; we spent a lot of time talking about Japanese internment camps, comfort women, and so forth. But there was also a big component to it regarding the transmission of trauma, which I thought was so interesting. And I had my antenna up the whole time because I was beginning to have a sense that immigration was, in and of itself, a form of trauma, which is a bit of a running thesis of mine.
AC: Oh yes, I can absolutely see that. And it almost necessarily casts generational shockwaves.
Because the children of immigrants are so colored by their parent’s experience (my dad, for example), but don’t share it directly.
Z: Esmé, you’ve been very public about your illness(es). How much has your physical/mental well-being affected your use of trauma in the book?
EWW: I wasn’t physically sick with Lyme until after I wrote the book. I did experience psychiatric problems during the writing of the book—but I’d kind of accepted it as an ongoing, albeit unpleasant, fact of life. I used it to feed a lot of my descriptions of David’s so-called “neuroses.” I was interested in how a person could describe mental illness in a more visceral way than I commonly see, and I was also interested in how mental illness in a person can affect those closest to them. “Knifeless” is one of my favorite chapters. That one pretty much entirely deals with one character’s fear that another character will kill himself.
AC: Esmé, I think you accomplish that, absolutely. I also felt like you do an incredible job striking a balance between the sympathy you show (or provide to a reader) for David, and also allowing his experience—and his choices—to be quite harrowing for a reader and David’s family.
Z: A few book titles of stuff you’ve enjoyed or recommend?
AC: I recently read Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea for the first time, and was quite wild about it. And I loved Pamela Erens’s new book, Eleven Hours, and Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being.
EWW: I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle for the first time recently, speaking of Gothic. Ah, I also love Wide Sargasso Sea—that book actually was a strong aesthetic influence on me for much of the writing of Border. And this is nonfiction, but I just finished Charlotte Shane’s Prostitute Laundry, which shattered me. She writes about love and sex in ways that I want to learn from.
Z: What about the influences on your writing of these particular novels?
AC: In terms of books that influenced me while writing, I’d say the ones I most re-read were not particularly related to The Daughters, but fed something in me that needed feeding in that time. One was David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress and one was Helen Humphrey’s Wild Dogs. I think I’ve read Wittgenstein’s Mistress like four or five times. Oh, and Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang.
EWW: Influences for me while writing the book: Lolita, anything by Flannery O’Connor, a little bit of Salinger, Moby-Dick. Oh, and Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. I sound horribly fuddy-duddy with this list, I realize. Movies were also a strong influence, particularly foreign films. Nobody Knows might’ve been my main aesthetic influence while writing. Oldboy. The movies Dogtooth and The Wolfpack helped me think about what it really means to grow up in an extremely isolated environment.
Z: I’m interested in the idea of some readers (perhaps even many readers) needing a book to end on some kind of redemptive note. One might argue your novels end ambiguously. Did you think about that at all while writing them?
AC: I did think about it while writing The Daughters, although I don’t think I was writing toward or against it. I think that inherent in the fact that Lulu has a baby of her own is the possibility—or even the inevitability—of some manner of fuckedness being passed down to that baby. But there is a balance to that, in the sense that Lulu and John are happier, a storm has passed.
EWW: Which is a threat throughout the book—the anxiety about her baby.
AC: Yeah, there is danger in the pipeline, in that you cannot predict or control a life, which seems relevant to your book, too.
Z: Lulu’s holding her arms out to catch/protect her child at the end, though, which seems redemptive or counter to the pipeline of trauma.
AC: Yes, I think Lulu is trying to do better. But none of the mothers had bad intentions. I wonder if you thought about that while writing, too, Esmé. I mean the question of how many of our problems burst out of our best intentions to contain them? And how much that can exacerbate them?
EWW: I think at the heart of my book is the idea that people do things for love, and out of love, with good intentions, and that those intentions often go awry. As for Lulu, we won’t know about her baby until the baby grows up, which is outside the realm of the book.
AC: Exactly. Still, I get a lot of “What do you think happens to Lulu and John?” emails.
EWW: Same with me—a lot of emails and face-to-face interactions that run along the lines of, “What happens to so-and-so at the end?”
Z: Yes. That’s something I learned from Tim O’Brien: It’s our job to show the magic, not the trick.
Christian Kiefer is a contributing editor to ZYZZYVA.