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Angela Yin

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.

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Making Anguish Luminous: ‘Crux: A Cross-Border Memoir’ by Jean Guerrero

CruxJean Guerrero’s first memory is of her father opening the window of a plane and running his hand through a cloud, while giving her courage to do the same. She vividly remembers how airy and empty the cloud felt.

In Crux: A Cross-Border Memoir (320 pages; One World), Guerrero reveals there are still many things she doesn’t know about her father. She doesn’t know when, exactly, he began showing symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia. She doesn’t know if his conviction that the CIA was stalking him was entirely delusional, rooted in truth, or indicative of shamanic powers. “What I do know is this,” Guerrero writes with equal parts wonder and grimness, “in my first memory, Papi is making me hallucinate.”

Much like Guerrero’s lingering recollection of touching a cloud, Crux has a surreal, hallucinatory edge to it. Marco Antonio becomes to Guerrero what many emotionally (and oftentimes physically) absent and traumatized immigrant parents become to their children: abstract, mythologized, fundamentally unknowable. Throughout Guerrero’s life, Marco Antonio crossed borders between Mexico and America, between derangement and lucidity, between the mystical and the physical. In her search to understand—and perhaps secretly be more like—her charismatic and capable, yet crack-addicted, father, Guerrero crosses those borders with him. She must, for this compulsion is part of the damage he has done to her. Guerrero explains: “The daughter sees her single mother slaving away, weighed down by love and duties…The absent father’s magnetism lies, in part, in the contrast he represents. He is not tied down by anything.”

As a pimply faced, frizzy haired kid, Guerrero cast spells. (Once she successfully, though temporarily, made a classmate take interest in her.) As a beautiful and much more emotionally unstable student at the University of Southern California, she was so transformed by one Ecstasy-fueled night of raving she wrote a twenty-page manifesto on the drug’s potential to create empathy and peace on a macro and micro level. During her time at college, she also began research on covert CIA and Air Force projects, such as MKUltra and Active Denial System, drawing similarities between their remotely transmitted millimeter waves that inflict unbearable pain on civilians and her father’s “delusions.”

But it is in Mexico, to where Guerrero moves for a job with the Wall Street Journal, that she becomes most entangled with her father’s story. There, she nearly drowns at a beach, an incident rife with metaphorical resonances –– Guerrero frequently compares her father to the tumultuous ocean. One day the dam inside of her breaks: “The more I wept, the more I felt alive again. I was exorcising myself of the sea.” The sea and, finally, after three decades, her father.

Occasionally, Guerrero veers from the engagingly hallucinatory to the hysteric. Two years after her near drowning, Guerrero describes herself as a “ghost unaware of having died,” and her hands as “white, rotting appendages”; every dream she has is starkly recalled; she enters “Hell” on several occasions. When minute details are so charged, described with such intensity and drama, it becomes difficult to locate the “crux” of Crux—indeed, the title is used differently each time it appears.

It is easy, however, to forgive Guerrero—digging into our resilient immigrant parents’ and grandparents’ pasts is a tricky, nasty business. It can be difficult, shameful even, to look directly at their humiliations and failures, yet Guerrero bares it all. She describes a time in her father’s youth when his mother left him alone at home, crying, to go to the theatre with some family. Claustrophobic and still sobbing, Marco Antonio broke a window and sat on a bench outside of his house. Despite having always been uncommonly sensitive and expressive, “Marco stopped crying after that. He started sleepwalking. He remains a sleepwalker as I write this.” Later in Crux, Guerrero reveals how this episode (relatively harmless compared to the physical abuses her father suffered) may have contributed to his illness, citing an expert: “Laing argues that ‘schizoid’ symptoms develop in individuals who seek to eliminate in themselves natural impulses, such as a desire to be touched.” Though such a connection between trauma and repression is tenuous, many children of immigrants have seen how inescapable the past can be.

If Marco Antonio shows Guerrero the power of the past, her mother, Jeannette, shows her the power of re-interpreting it. The past is not static, and the present less so. One moment shines in her childhood, amid her father’s deterioration and reclusiveness: once Guerrero’s mother took her and her sister Michelle to buy ladybugs. When the ladybugs escaped in the car, the sisters were at first frightened then dissolved into laugher inside the storm of ladybugs. “From Mami and Michelle, I was learning the alchemy of interpretation. We could make our anguish luminous.”

Guerrero knows she has a choice in how she interprets her father, concluding, “I prefer to believe in shamans than in lunatics. It is the great gift of my Hispanic heritage.” Just as the constellation Crux has guided countless sailors, at the end of her memoir, Jean Guerrero chooses the option that, however improbably, guides her safely to shore.

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Victims and Perpetrators: ‘History of Violence’ by Édouard Louis

History of Violence“I am hidden on the other side of the door, I listen, and she says that several hours after what the copy of the report I keep twice-folded in my drawer calls the attempted homicide, and which I call the same thing for lack of a better word, since no other term is more appropriate for what happened, which means I always have the anxious nagging feeling that my story, whether told by me or whomever else, begins with a falsehood, I left my apartment and went downstairs.”

From this initial winding sentence, the reader is plunged into, then relentlessly yet smoothly propelled through Édouard Louis’s autobiographical novel History of Violence (translated by Lorin Stein; 212 pages; FSG). The entire experience of reading the book is of baited breath, entrancing.

On Christmas Eve night, 2012, Louis meets a man, Reda, and invites him into his apartment. After some consensual sex, Reda becomes violent, attempts to strangle Louis, and rapes him at gunpoint. In the days that follow, Louis develops irrational obsessions and is choked by anger and violent urges, all while navigating a maze of unending legal and medical processes that threaten to finish the job Reda started.

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Breaking the Cycle: ‘Fight No More: Stories’ by Lydia Millet

Fight No More: StoriesIn “Libertines,” the opening story of Lydia Millet’s Fight No More: Stories (211 pages; W. W. Norton), the reader is introduced to a paranoid real estate agent, who becomes convinced that a prospective buyer is an African dictator. At one point, this supposed dictator (who is, in fact, a musician) randomly attempts to commit suicide by falling into the property’s pool.

So yes—it’s an intriguing, albeit slightly discombobulating start for Millet’s first story collection since Love in Infant Monkeys, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize

This sense of the bizarre and frequently surreal pervades the entire book: in “The Men,” a variation on the traditional Snow White tale, Delia’s husband leaves her, and in his wake, seven dwarves move in, ostensibly to take care of her. The same real estate agent from “Libertines,” Nina, must contend with a vampire client who stores human blood and dead animals in the refrigerator in “I Knew You in This Dark.” Elsewhere, “I Can’t Go On”––arguably the most shocking and satirical story of the collection––propels the reader into the mind of a pedophile who blackmails his step-daughter into sleeping with him.

Unlike many books, the strangeness consistent throughout Fight No More also seeps into the reader. I felt slightly off-kilter while reading, as though the dream-like air, smothering heat, and irrationalities of orderly suburban L.A. (where the collection is set) were warping the stories into mirages.

What grounds these works of fiction and gives them momentum is the diverse cast of recurring characters. Jeremy, the son of a depressed mother and of a re-married father who stingily provides for him, initially comes across as the familiar Rebellious Teen in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” from his passion for Sid Vicious to his explosive acne. Throughout the stories, however, his apathetic persona falls away to reveal someone capable of profoundly caring about others. In a moving attempt to humor Lexie, who asks Jeremy to accompany her and her mother in buying an urn for her recently deceased and sexually abusive step-father, Jeremy jokes, “Sure. I’m solid on urns. Done a lot of urn shopping. I can tell a premium urn from a piece-of-shit urn. It’s all in the seams. Gotta hold them up to the light. You ladies need my expertise.”

Even Paul and Lora, though they never transcend their stereotypes as Jeremy’s uninvolved dad and vacant step-mother, are described with evocative accuracy. Aleska, Paul’s Holocaust scholar mother, ruefully regards her son as someone who “set great store by appearances . . . He’d been embarrassed by the sight of human weakness since he was a teenager.” Lora, on the other hand, “was warm, so nice you felt guilty, and full of just about nothing. For her it wasn’t that history had faded but that it had never existed to begin with.”

Millet allows her characters their small neuroses and gives permission for their thoughts to meander: Jeremy compulsively reaches for Latin phrases (my favorite: Cadavera vero innumera, or “truly countless bodies”), while Nina sees a monk smoking and considers for the duration of a page how someone who has achieved enlightenment could financially support themselves.  Millet continually presents a contrast between her realistically drawn characters and the odd, almost absurd situations they are entangled in.

By the end of the last story in the collection, “Oh Child of Earth,” the reader is left with a sense of the absurd and often meaninglessly cyclical nature of life. In it, Aleska goes for a walk, passing “each house in turn, each gate, each privacy hedge or showy rock garden, but as she passed them she also passed nothing at all. They were different and the same: she moved and did not move. What was ahead was past.” Nina, too, feels the noose of the past tightening after her fiancée dies in a freak accident: “Before Lynn, it was true, she’d had only the vaguest sense of her future, but then the future had arrived. Now it was past.” Indeed, in “Those Are Pearls,” Nina is reminded of how she and Lynn met (over the unconscious body of Lynn’s bandmate who attempted to drown himself) when she stumbles upon an officer who is wounded in an alley. For Nina, a crucial event in her life has literally cycled back.

But Fight No More does not inspire a sense of hopelessness or disgust. Despite life’s cyclical nature—or perhaps because of it—we can, and absolutely must, try to do better next time. (Remember, we are in L.A., where everything from the perpetual sunshine to Hollywood’s Dream Factory encourages self-creation and, more importantly, self-re-creation.) When Aleska, whose entire family perished in the Holocaust, and who has devoted her life to studying and raising awareness of its atrocities, reads a study that “54% of Russians now believe he [Stalin] was a wise leader who led the nation to prosperity . . . She sat there for a minute. Helpless. Then picked up her cell, called Lora to come back.”Aleska’s heartbreak catalyzes into a request that her daughter-in-law, Lora, partially pay for the family’s caregiver Lexie’s college tuition. Aleska also leaves a portion of her own money to Lexie in her will. While Aleska’s trail of essays and research has probably accomplished little in breaking the historical and international cycle of genocide and faulty collective memory, she can at least help break the cycle of poverty and violence Lexie is trapped in.

Fight No More is about many things: the ways parents intentionally and unintentionally hurt their children; the anger and hurt from being abandoned by loved ones; how history, both private and public, can become repetitive and inescapable. These issues could have easily overwhelmed and burdened the collection. But because her characters are so distinct, almost startling in their richness, Millet is able to explore such grand questions organically and humorously, all while not taking life too seriously –– and reminding the reader to do the same.

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Heart Pangs: ‘Night Beast and Other Stories’ by Ruth Joffre

Night Beast“I think part of me has always believed love should be like this — painful and hidden, only making itself known when you least expect it and are unprepared for the damage it can do,” confesses Gemma in the titular story of Ruth Joffre’s Night Beast and Other Stories (190 pages; Grove Press). Many of the characters in this collection share Gemma’s belief, which is perhaps why they ultimately resign themselves to finding comfort in a lack of fulfillment, to being abandoned, to having their affections go unreciprocated — after all, love not only must be, but should be like this, shouldn’t it?

Fiona, the protagonist of the collection’s opener, “Nitrate Nocturnes,” seems to believe so. Like everyone else in her world, Fiona has a timer embedded in her wrist that ticks down the seconds until she meets her “soul mate.” When her clock hits zero, however, the timer of her supposed soul mate Marianne is still running. Rather than express heartbreak or even confusion, Fiona knows she will wait for Marianne. She “accepted this future like she accepted the premise of a film with no color and no audio,” Joffre writes.

“Safekeeping” explores similar themes by examining a scientist who lives in a war-time shelter built by her lover as she yearns for his return. By the story’s conclusion, she has almost numbly come to terms with her fate: “She understood now that she would die in this safe house. If not of old age, then of the ceiling caving in or the pipes bursting or a gas leak or some other fault of technology or mechanics. This apartment would keep her alive for as long as it could . . . And when that happens she will know that she was loved.”

Despite the collection’s exploration of various genres—from magical realism to science-fiction—and varied points-of-view (including that of an immigrant Chinese boy and a homeless girl), the book instills a single feeling of cold, detached melancholy as we repeatedly glimpse the many shapes and terrible costs of these characters’ “painful and hidden” love. And it is indeed a glimpse Joffre oftentimes provides, depriving us of insight into her characters’ interiority at what seems like crucial moments.

Though romantic relationships are only one part of our lives, Night Beast and Other Stories shows how they can overwhelm our existence in a way few other things can. Fiona considers the length of her wait for her soul mate “the single most essential thing about her,” and when she admits her obsession to her temporary boyfriend, Marcus, he tells her, “This is unhealthy. You have to keep living your life.” Marcus, however, has not gorged on the media’s depictions of love in the way women like Fiona have, so he is spared from developing that insatiable, crippling hunger for love. Indeed, Fiona studies film in university and when viewing a movie with Marianne thinks to herself, “she should’ve known this already, should’ve known that desire was a spectacle and that she would spend all her time with Marianne contorting herself into the woman she thought her soul mate wanted.”

This subtle theme of consumption and performance is weaved into many of the stories, most notably the collection’s penultimate piece, “Weekend,” in which a pair of avant-garde actors who have been working together for fifteen years confuse their married characters’ identities with their own. Intriguingly, “Weekend” reveals a strange truth about an earlier piece in the collection, as the television director in the story describes a new project in the works: “a gripping character study of a woman locked in a futuristic safe house while the rest of the world destroys itself (the lead actress had been left in an old bomb shelter for three weeks to prepare for the part).”

With this revelation in mind, “Safekeeping” becomes a study on the confusion between sincerity and performance, reality and fantasy. I realized I read “Safekeeping” the way I’ve consumed countless actual television shows — knowing full well it is a fictitious story, yet still feeling shocked at the realization that the tragedy of the protagonist’s life is manufactured. Joffre seems to argue that it is television shows such as the one the protagonist prepares for in “Safekeeping” that encourage viewers to accept such a “painful and hidden” love.

Ironically, it is in “Safekeeping” that our sometimes harmful, sometimes redemptive relationship with film and other forms of art is most movingly captured. At times, glitches appear in the narrator’s monitors , causing holograms, including one of her lover, to haunt the safe house. Whenever he appears, “she was so grateful for this small kindness that she crawled inside the projection’s ghostly outline and slept there, heart to heart.”

And isn’t that what we do when we read books and watch movies? Make ourselves humble and raw and vulnerable so we can crawl inside the art and sleep “heart to heart” with it? If so, Night Beast and Other Stories serves as a reminder that we must carefully choose what art we fall in love with.

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