In Celebration of OSR 2014, A Conversation: Robin Becker & Amy Hoffman

In celebration of the release of our fourth annual issue, we’re delighted to publish online this conversation between two OSR contributors, Amy Hoffman and Robin Becker. Hoffman’s work was published in last year’s issue, when her memoir, Lies About My Family, was released, and Becker’s poems appear in this year’s publication; her collection Tiger Heron was published in early 2014 to great reviews.

We’re honored to include this conversation here, and offer thanks to Robin Becker and Amy Hoffman for generously sharing this with all of us.

We hope that you’ll also read this year’s Ocean State Review, which includes work by Melanie Rae Thon, Michael Martone, Charles Bernstein, Susan Bee, Annie Lanzillotto, and Tucker Hollingsworth, among many others, available for purchase here: OSR 2014.

Conversation: Robin Becker & Amy Hoffman

In 2013, Amy Hoffman, editor in chief of Women’s Review of Books, published her third memoir, Lies About My Family. As a longtime friend and colleague of Amy’s, I wanted to talk with her about family lore, Judaism, truth. We decided to conduct a conversation we could document and share. Hoffman’s two previous books—Hospital Time and An Army of Ex-Lovers: My Life at the “Gay Community News—concern the political and social movements that shaped the feminists of the second wave.The new book fascinated me with its focus on immigration, assimilation, and buried family stories. A creative nonfiction faculty member in the Solstice MFA Program at Pine Manor College, Hoffman teaches students how to shape personal narratives, how to interview and do research. The following conversation focuses on Hoffman’s craft, and her own strategies for getting at the meaning of the stories we tell.

—Robin Becker

The title Lies About My Family points toward the memoir as a complex, contested site for “truth.” Can you speak to that?

The title concerns the elusiveness of truth, the slipperiness of memory, and the difference between truth and facts—or what we think are facts. The past, in memory, is not fixed, like a picture or a videotape (and even those rip or fade; the colors alter; they can be photoshopped). According to neurobiologists, in the act of accessing a memory, we change it.  Having written the book, I can no longer remember the stories and experiences in it; I can remember only what I wrote.

My original notion was that the book would include three types of chapters: the family stories that are told over and over; the truths underneath these stories; and what I thought of as the facts: the immigration officer’s story. That’s not the way I ended up telling the book: it wasn’t really possible to keep those strands separate. And, the “immigration officer’s story” turned out to be less factual than I had thought.

I suppose another reason I titled the book as I did was to be somewhat shocking and challenging. But it would have been worse, wouldn’t it, if I’d called it “The Truth About My Family”?

Can you give an example of how the “immigration officer’s story” upended your expectations?

There’s this: the ship manifest I found on the Ellis Island website says my mother’s mother came to the US from what’s now Ukraine when she was sixteen. My mother, though, says my grandmother lied about her age, and that she was really fourteen. And sometimes my mother says my grandmother was thirteen. What we do know is that she was young and alone.

And this: My father’s mother tells a story of how her father, a town elder, was arrested. She claims she doesn’t know why—but it turns out he was arrested for using forms he had access to as a government official to forge passports for his relatives. Of course, on the ship manifest, where he’s asked whether he’s ever been arrested, he checks “no.” He also lists his profession as “farmer.”

The unknown and “impossible to know” accompany your efforts to certify and document. When your father shows you a photograph to make a point, you say, “But who can really tell one dressed-up blur of villagers, in their braids and kerchiefs, beards and hats, from another?” To what extent have you allowed uncertainty and family lore to be part of the story?

Uncertainty is what the book is about. If history is written by the victors, then family lore is, similarly, created by the teller. We tell the stories we do for our own purposes: to mitigate pain; to explain ourselves; to find meaning. When I started to do research, I thought it would tell me the truths underneath the stories. But of course it provided only a new set of stories—which themselves could be excavated.

American Judaism—religion and cultural history—takes many contradictory forms in this book. For example, you say your father is an “unbeliever,” yet he served as president of the temple. Your paternal grandparents are buried in the Temple Beth-El cemetery, but no one has ever visited their graves. How do you make sense of Judaism in the forms and traditions your family practices, and how do you (who knows and loves liturgical Hebrew) see yourself as a contemporary Jewish feminist?

My family, I suspect from my grandparents through my own generation, were both steeped in Judaism and unbelievers. To me, this is very Jewish! In Genesis, the patriarch Jacob struggles with an angel all night and in the morning is given a new identity and a new name: Yisrael, meaning “He who wrestles with God.” The story was always told to me as an parable of questioning, of not taking any assumptions for granted, of using all your strength to seek meaning and truth. So, we question everything—which also means living with the answers. Jacob/Israel is wounded in the course of the struggle.

Your reference to Jacob struggling with the angel nicely situates you and your family as Jews who search and contend, question and argue. I admire the way your book actualizes and embodies that struggle by showing how love coexists with difference—of opinion, religious and sexual persuasion, politics.

Despite my parents’ skepticism about religion, they identified with Jewish culture, which they experienced as an essential, non-negotiable part of their identities. To them (and to me) it meant valuing the human spirit, learning, and justice.

Do you observe any religious practices today, and if so, which ones? Have you any “official” ties to a Jewish community?

My Jewish practice is pretty diffuse. Some of it’s about family: we get together for a Passover seder and a family Hanukah party each year. My father always leads our seder in exactly the same way—for example, he reads a passage that says Pharaoh made the Jews work “with rigah”—in a nasal, pseudo-Boston accent that’s supposed to sound like John F. Kennedy, so you can see how long he’s been making that joke; and on Hanukah my mother tells the holiday story using hand puppets she made of canvas gardening gloves when I was about five (I’m now 61).

My “official” tie to the Jewish community, in that it involves paying dues, is the High Holiday observances at the Workmen’s Circle, a secular progressive Jewish organization that dates back to the turn of the century. The services there are unrecognizable, really, as services, with folk songs and Yiddish niggunim (tunes). Afterward I go home and bake a challah and make the traditional pot roast served with overcooked vegetables.

You say of one wonderful old great-uncle, “Sol may have been a communist, but he had certain capitalist talents and impulses.” In what ways do the tensions between socialism/communism and capitalism pervade our parents’ generation?

Sol and my other immigrant relatives did whatever they could think of to survive in their new country. I’m always amazed at their resourcefulness. Many were classic proletarians, working in factories, while others became business owners, managers, professionals. I love the paradox that those old lefties, as in the line you quote, were also such visionary, energetic entrepreneurs.

How did their politics inform their views about Israel?

Sol, the communist, argued with my grandparents, his in-laws, who were socialist-zionists, about the establishment state of Israel. He believed that a Jewish state would become just as oppressive as any other state. For my grandparents—and parents—Israel, especially the Israel of the kibbutzim (collective farming communities that have now almost completely disappeared), was the realization of a utopian dream. As a politically progressive person, this heritage is important to me—both Sol’s skepticism about the state and my grandparents’ idealism.

Secrecy often shrouds mental illness in families. The tragedy of your twin cousins Bobby and Betty’s sibling estrangement, ending in Bobby’s suicide, speaks potently to me as the sister of a suicide. In another section of the book you tell of the accidental death of your great-uncle, after which his wife took her own life and the lives of their two little daughters. What role do these narratives play in the larger narrative of your book?

The thread of mental illness in my mother’s family is not something that was much acknowledged—and I did not know the story of the wife’s suicide-infanticide until I started researching the book and asked my mother about some photos in an old album. All of it makes me very sad: there was so much suffering and so many distorted relationships because of the self-destructiveness of that wife, the psychosis of my mother’s aunt, the anxiety and paranoia of her father, the depression of her nephew (my cousin Bobby), the venality of her uncle Irving-the-gonif (thief). Maybe the lesson is compassion: everyone has their struggles and pain, even those like my family, whose story, we told ourselves, was one of love, happiness, progress, and success.

I love what you say about the story “we [tell] ourselves,” which often excludes illness or trouble or irregularity of any sort. In the 1925 novel Bread Givers, the author Anzia Yezierska addresses women’s increasing unhappiness with their roles in immigrant Jewish families. And Mary Felstiner, in her biography of the artist Charlotte Salomon (To Paint Her Life: Charlotte Salomon in the Nazi Era, 1994), reveals an “epidemic” of suicides in interwar Germany among educated Jewish women who had no outlet for their talents. Did gendered expectations shape the suffering you evoke?  

I’m sure they did, although I know this only from reading between the lines. The great-uncle’s wife, for example: she must have believed that she and her children could not survive without the man of the house, that she had reached a hopeless impasse. And would my mother’s mother have lived longer if her illness had been taken more seriously? If she had not been thoroughly exhausted by her difficult and perhaps lonely life?

But actually, the great story of gender expectations—and the breaking of them—is my mother’s: her father, she often told me, did not believe in educating girls, even though he had three daughters. Despite this, she excelled in high school and received a full scholarship to Cornell University. Going away to school was her heroic rebellion.

I admire your weaving of personal, familial, and pop cultural references into an exploration of given subject or theme. Rachel Maddow, for example, makes an appearance in your discussion of names related to your paternal grandmother’s family name, Madorsky. In another section, you tell of your grandmother, deep in Alzheimer’s disease, who still recalls songs from her childhood and of your friend Walta Borawski, who, in the late stages of AIDS dementia “could have been a contestant on Opera Quiz.” How did you come to this practice which, I think, enriches the book?

It occurs to me that I love discovering unlikely interconnections and overlapping circles among people in the real world, and I’m also delighted by this in the imaginative world—how words and images and ideas echo each other, reverberate, interconnect.

In the biography of E.M. Forster by P. N. Furbank (1994), he says that Forster was blocked and troubled in his writing until he learned to “trust the imagination.” This notion of trusting the imagination was so liberating to me. It’s a tremendous leap to take, and I can’t always do it. But my best writing, I think, is very associative and intuitive.

Early in the book, we learn that your mother, her parents and her two sisters lived in a one-bedroom apartment. As a child at your family’s summer cottage, you say “There was no escape and no privacy.” How do privacy and the need for disclosure co-exist for you? Shape you as a writer? As a member of your clan?

My “clan,” yes—great word. Maybe it’s just my character: I love being with people, but I also need quiet, private time. A lot of my favorite things to do are pretty solitary: reading, writing. Cooking—but not cooperatively. For exercise I walk, bike, do yoga—no team sports!

The self-disclosure part is harder to fathom. But for sure, writing memoir is about creating meaning, a narrative thread that ties together and shapes—or appears to—the random chaos around us. Writing memoir is also about sharing that meaning: otherwise, we’d keep it in our journals, right? “Only connect,” Forster said, and I take that to mean both “find order” and “make human contact.”

People have told me they feel that they know me, as they might a friend, after reading my books—but that’s an illusion.  A good writer, which I strive to become, is in control of what she discloses and why—it must all serve the creation of meaning. It’s embarrassing to read a book when you get the feeling you have more insight than the author does.

The writer must also figure out how, which involves the creation of a persona on the page, a voice—a character. I feel protected by the persona. It’s not identical with me as I live and act in the real world. It’s like the painting by the surrealist René Magritte, which is captioned, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” [This is not a pipe.] And it’s not a pipe—it’s a painting.

The immigration stories involved extensive research, as we see in the comprehensive family trees you provide at the book’s opening. Can you discuss how you went about this?

I must credit the family tree (at least the paternal, Madorsky side of it) to research by my Aunt Norma Salz. She put together the tree and collected many of the stories I use in the book. She gave me her files and was very generous with her time—I spent a weekend in Miami interviewing her. I also interviewed my parents and went through their photographs and papers with them—they lent me the photos that appear in the book.

I also used the great resources that are now on the internet for genealogical research, including the Ellis Island website (which enables you to look up your family not only by last name, but also by “sounds-like,” by village, by year—by any little scrap of information you may have), JewishGen.com, Ancestry.com, Google. And I’ve read a lot of history and fiction about turn of the century Jewish immigration, listened to the music, learned a bissele Yiddish (it was my language in graduate school, through the Jewish Studies Department at the University of Massachusetts).

You employed old-fashioned (family members) as well as technological resources. Your Aunt Norma’s impulse to recover and research stories served you well! What history and fiction and music come to mind as especially important or useful to you?

Some of what was important and useful, I should say, wasn’t research; it was simply what I grew up with. I heard my grandparents’ and my parents’ stories and songs and the rhythms of their speech. As an adolescent I read some of the classic Yiddish writers in translation: Sholom Aleichem, Y. L. Peretz, I. B Singer (My grandmother had no use for Singer—when she saw me reading a collection of his stories she said, “Feh! Superstition! Bubbe-mayses and dybbuks! [old wives’ tales and demons]); Martin Buber’s two volume Tales of the Hasidim (1948); a big fat book from my parents’ shelf called A Treasury of Jewish Folklore (1948). Later I read some of the books you refer to above, such as Bread Givers, also the stories of Grace Paley and Tillie Olsen. Philip Roth, Henry Roth. Histories such as World of Our Fathers, by Irving Howe (1976) and even more importantly, World of Our Mothers, by Sidney Stahl Weinberg (1987).

In what ways did the writing of this book deepen your relationship with your parents? What challenges did you experience in writing about (and in collaboration with ) other living family members?

My Aunt Norma and other relatives have told me how much they enjoyed the book. My relationship with my parents has grown and deepened over the past ten years—both because of the discussions about their lives that we had for this book and because of other factors.

When I wrote my first book, Hospital Time (1997) I sent my parents the manuscript before it was published—but only afterward did my father talk to me about my portrayal of him, which he thought depicted him as overly materialistic (I disagree!). He had not mentioned it earlier, he said, because he didn’t think I should change the book according to his feelings. So, his is an amazingly generous, forgiving attitude. He hasn’t talked to me much about this book, and I suspect there are things in it, too, that he doesn’t like—but I also know that he is proud that I am a writer, and he enjoyed seeing the photos of his parents and other family members in the book.

My mother is very proud and supportive of my writing. Whenever we talk, she asks me about it. She reads Women’s Review of Books cover to cover. She loves this book and has passed it around to friends.  She thinks my previous book, An Army of Ex-Lovers: My Life at the Gay Community News (2007), should become a TV series, “Like Friends,” she says.

My youngest brother feels that I have misrepresented and humiliated both him and my parents, and he is very hurt and angry at me. I was so shocked and upset and horrified by his reaction that I seriously considered withdrawing the book from publication. My spouse Roberta Stone, my writing group, and my publisher persuaded me instead to postpone publication in order to review the manuscript once more.

How did you feel about your family when you were writing the book?

It gave me a lot of pleasure to gather the memories and tell the stories in the book. And indeed, my friend Richard Burns, who read several versions of the manuscript, told me, “Aim, this is a love letter to your parents.”  My mother says, “Everyone in a family has their own experience, and this is your experience.”

With what other memoirists do you see yourself in conversation? 

Maxine Hong Kingston, because of her way of combining facts, history, folktales, and family lore. Emma Goldman, because of her energy, radical politics, eloquence, charisma. Dorothy Gallagher, who wrote a charming Jewish family memoir called How I Came into My Inheritance and Other True Stories (2001). Alison Bechdel, not only because of her family memoirs but also because of her years-long serial, collected in The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For (2008), a pitch-perfect chronicle of the ideals and foibles of my generation of out, political lesbians.

Your book is full of wit and irony, the self-mockery of Jewish comedians (Lenny Bruce, Gilda Radner, Woody Allen, Sarah Silverman) who have great timing. You say “The men in my family don’t tell war stories, they tell draft-evasion stories.” From whom did you get your gift for pacing? For the incisive, double-edged observation?

AH: I know the jokes of the old guys—Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Marx brothers—second hand, because my parents, especially my father, a great storyteller himself, love repeating them—applying them to new situations and putting their own twists on them. That kind of telling and retelling, or rather, interpreting and reinterpreting, questioning and answering—wait, no, questioning and answering the question with another question—is talmudic, almost, in its intellectual rhythms, and has contributed to the rich heritage of Jewish humor, which wrestles with the absurdities of the world and ends up bursting into laughter (instead of tears).

Liberal Arts Research Professor of English and Women’s Studies at Penn State, Robin Becker has published four books in the Pitt Poetry Series. Her next, Tiger Heron, was published in January 2014. She writes the poetry column “Field Notes” for the Women’s Review of Books where she serves as Contributing and Poetry Editor.