Every journalist's nightmare is the interview with the subject who responds to questions with one-sentence (or even one-word) answers. Fortunately, the writer Nathan Englander — who was in Chicago recently as the inaugural Crown Speaker Series lecturer at Northwestern University's Crown Family Center for Jewish Studies — is apparently incapable of brevity. Ask him a question and he's off to the races, speaking quickly and comprehensively, each answer a complete essay in itself. A native of Long Island, N.Y., Englander grew up in an Orthodox Jewish community in Nassau County, and later lived for a time in Jerusalem. His Jewish background provides the setting for virtually all of his fiction, including the short-story collection "For the Relief of Unbearable Urges" (1999), the novel "The Ministry of Special Cases" (2007) and a second collection, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank," published this year. His play, "The Twenty-Seventh Man" — an adaptation of his own story about a group of Jewish writers imprisoned in Stalinist Russia — opened last month at the Public Theater in New York. Englander's translations have been published in "New American Haggadah" (2012), edited by Jonathan Safran Foer, and "Suddenly a Knock on the Door," a collection of short stories by Israeli writer Etgar Keret.
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In all of his work, Englander explores universal themes within the context of Jewish history and identity, but he doesn't consider himself a "Jewish writer," for reasons he explains — at length — in this edited transcript of our chat.
Q: Your lecture title at Northwestern is "The Ownership of Identity or How I Came to Write My New Book." How does one "own" identity, or not?
A: The last 10 or 15 years, I've been living as "a writer," but lately I've also been working in a lot of different forms — doing translations, for example, and my play (opened recently) at the Public. I do these things, but it's been a struggle to identify with the title that goes along with the act, because I've been working without reference points — in a vacuum, in a sense. I don't identify as a translator, but if I'm translating things, I must be one, right? I've written a play, but I haven't seen enough theater and read enough theater — and so what is it, again, to be utterly consumed enough by it to embrace an identity as a playwright?
It took me back to my beginnings as a writer. Writing is the easiest thing in the world, the act itself is always pure joy, at least for me. When people say it's hard work, that they're suffering, they're pulling out handfuls of hair, I think it's almost always based on the psychological — being able to connect the act with the identity associated with doing it. My point is, working in these new forms that I don't identify with reminded me of when I first started writing stories, and of that pure state of being alone in a room, just trying to tell a story, and how that formed my sense of self — my identity, if you will. And it also made me recognize that that's the theme that runs through most of the stories, in a way: identity, and its ownership — the question of who owns the Holocaust, who owns memory, who owns truth. And it has so many layers — religious identity, cultural identity, personal identity. They all run through this book ("What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank"), and through my life these last few years.
Q: Which brings us to the second part of the title, "How I Came to Write My New Book."
A: When you're swimming, you're a swimmer. When you're running, you're a runner. We put so much weight on "being" things, and make it so hard, when really it's pretty simple. Right now, for example, I'm an interviewee. Tonight I'll be a sleeper. And so, when I wrote the book, I was a writer.
But in earlier years, it wasn't so easy to feel that way. You know, people write about the Holocaust so often, it's so often dramatized. In my first collection, a dozen years ago, I'd written a story about the Holocaust, and there was a sense in which I didn't get to own my own material, in a way. Later, I was living at the American Academy in Berlin in 2009, living in a house that basically traces the whole history of Berlin — it was built by Hans Arnhold, a Jewish banker, on Lake Wannsee, across the lake from a house where (Adolf) Eichmann put the Final Solution into play, at the Wannsee Conference in 1942 — and thinking, "Can a lake be evil? No, a lake cannot contain evil within it — it's a beautiful place, that was as beautiful then as it is now." And I thought, can I write this story? Or has it already been written? And the answer was, I happen to be obsessed with moral questions, and if the Holocaust runs through them, as this never-ending model in my head of the nature of evil in this world, then that's the way it is, and I accept that. And I ended up thinking, "If this is what my head kicks around, if this idea engages me until my death, then I will engage with it till then." It's important to assume that kind of ownership as a writer. I mean, I don't know if anybody invited (Vladimir) Nabokov to babysit after he wrote "Lolita," but if this is what your brain is interested in right now, you have to go with it, without fear, and allow those themes to come rushing in, that were there all the time.
Q: In a profile of you in Poets & Writers Magazine in 2007, you said, "I don't describe myself as a Jewish writer. I write my stories, and they're about people. And I think that whole idea that you have to think of yourself as other is totally artistically destructive." This seems a little surprising, given that your work is set entirely in a Jewish context.
A. Yes. I've never felt clearer about it, all these years later. All my characters are Jewish, all their concerns are Jewish, all the food is Jewish, and so on. That's fine. But this idea that I'm supposed to engage with my own work as if it's other — back to ownership of identity — is, to me, pretty strange. You're welcome to see me as other, but a lot of it is point-of-view stuff. If you're a lot taller than me, then I'm short. If you're shorter, then I'm tall. But my parents were born in this country, my grandparents were born in this country, a couple of my great-grandparents were born in this country. I have good, long American roots. This idea that because I'm Jewish, I'm supposed to see myself as some sort of qualified American — that's not the idea of this country. Who are our most legendary living writers? Toni Morrison, Philip Roth — why do they have to be an African-American writer, a Jewish-American writer? Why are we supposed to identify ourselves as a "kind" of writer?
I grew up in a world where there were only Jews, and only religious Jews. For adventure, I went to Jerusalem, which has no shortage of Jews, and then to New York, where we've got kind of a Jewish town going here. For me, if a man walks into a room, Jewish is the way to be, the universal way to be. That's my world. And in this collection, I'm writing about questions of history and memory and moral conundrum.
When I write a story like "Sister Hills (in "Anne Frank")," that's not a story about Jews. It's about the ideas of ownership of property and ancient contracts and what it means to live by the word of the Bible. "Free Fruit for Young Widows" is a story about history and borders and vengeance. Who cares if the characters are Jewish? I don't. It would literally limit my creativity if I had to see my characters as Jews. If we say of James Baldwin, "Black or gay?" we lose James Baldwin. The idea that he has to choose a team is self-limiting.
Q. This makes me think of certain writers from the South whom I've known, and who didn't want to be called "Southern writers," I think in some cases because they didn't want to be compared to certain other famous Southern writers, in particular Faulkner. Do you feel that way — the sense that you want to do your own thing, irrespective of what Isaac Bashevis Singer did, or Saul Bellow, or Roth?
A. Yes, or at least I don't want it imposed on me. I mean, no one refers to John Updike as the great Christian-American writer. People want to group us together, but we've all had such different experiences as individuals. Jonathan Lethem's mother is Jewish, so is he a Jewish writer? Or Michael Chabon, who writes more about his Judaism now but who used to not write about it at all? On the other hand, when you mention Singer, that's where it switches for me. When you line it up across time, and you talk about Yiddish writers, and how story forms, from (Bernard) Malamud and Singer — it makes more sense to me. Then I can see it stylistically, and as part of that cultural tradition, and I can understand that.
Q: Still, do you reserve the right, as it were, to write a novel, sometime in the future, in which there are no Jews?
A: My answer has to do with learning and writing through things. When I set out to write my Argentina book ("The Ministry of Special Cases"), I was going to write a Jew-free novel. But then as I was writing, the Jews, they just got in everywhere — they were coming up the sink and through the window — and that's when I understood that it was because of an outside judgment ... that I'd felt I'd better write a book without Jews, because people were saying my subject was Jews. And I realized that my subject was whatever it was — it was about human things, and it doesn't matter to me whether those humans are Jews. The point is, it took me a year of working through that novel to understand that Judaism is not my subject at all.
Q: Louise Erdrich told me recently that when she was in college, she had a strong impulse not to write about being Native American. She felt her writing needed to be "universal." She tried to write things that didn't have anything to do with her culture, her background, where she grew up, but it didn't feel "real" to her.
A: I'm so happy to hear that, because I had the same feeling at the Iowa Writers Workshop. There I was, writing literary short fiction about Hasidim, and feeling like a freak — not understanding that that's my voice. And after a while I came to understand that if a story is not universal, it's an utter failure to me. I always use Voltaire as an example. I'm not dead, I'm not a Frenchman, I'm not 400 years old, but I can read a translation of "Candide" and laugh out loud. That's what universal is.
Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer whose work appears in the Washington Post, USA Today, Poets & Writers Magazine and elsewhere.
'What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank'
By Nathan Englander, Knopf, 224 pages, $24.95Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun