Chinua Achebe says that the English language, when altered, can be used to bear the burden of his African experience. I extrapolate from that and try to put it into painting.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby
Home of the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company
A neuroradiologist and writer whose father is an Orthodox rabbi, Aryeh Lev Stollman grew up in a home surrounded by both religious and secular books. His own fiction has an allegorical, almost prophetic quality. It’s partly the mix of scientific and religious theory that he winds into his plots. Everything from medical and Kabbalistic research, biblical excerpts, historical operas and fables refracts the drama being told. The narrator of Stollman’s award-winning first novel,The Far Euphrates (1997), is a precocious Jewish boy living in an idyllic Canadian border town. His descriptions of what he sees and feels reveal the complex relationships of the other characters packing its pages. His intellectual rabbi father is researching the shape of the Godhead; his mother wants a second child but miscarries again and again; their best friend, a twin, survived the medical experiments at Auschwitz; and his German grandparents, Jewish exiles, returned to their homeland after WWII.
All of us, as individuals, as a people and as nations, have to navigate our past, the historical narrative we carry with us, in order to negotiate our future. And nowhere is this more apparent than in Stollman’s fiction. In his second novel, The Illuminated Soul (2002), the narrator has written a fable based upon an enchanting refugee named Eva who boarded with his family one summer during his childhood. Eva’s magical tales are tempered by what she carries with her: a composite of a culture in the form of a medieval illuminated manuscript she saved (along with herself) when she escaped Prague in the 1930s.
One of Stollman’s influences, Gershom Scholem, wrote on the symbolism of the Kabbalah, its origins and development within a dynamic and evolving history, that is to say within the context of a dialectical historical development. This best describes Stollman’s process as well. It’s a dialectic of becoming, a present that’s continuously aware of its dimensions. In the eponymous story of his latest work, a collection of short stories titled The Dialogues of Time and Entropy (2003), Stollman transposes the miracles of modern science—studies on time, entropy and chaos theory—with those of the Old Testament and the little miracles, and tragedies, of life. It’s a full, rich and vulnerable world. His character, Ahuvah, trying to save her daughter from autism, and herself from despair, has relocated, against her Canadian husband’s wishes, to a settlement in Israel. A physicist, she ends one of their overseas calls with the declaration, “The self-organization within chaos and islands of symmetrical time are not prophecies!” She would have the settlement be her island sanctuary in the desert, even as it’s being dismantled and returned to the Palestinians.
The Jewish people have collected and written some of the great ancient texts; they have experienced diasporas, assimilation, genocide and the rebirth of a nation. The prophecy inherent in Stollman’s writing rests upon the contradictions, the conflicts and the transformations inherent to this life. For it is life in its inclusive nature that Stollman writes about, and this is where we glimpse a better future. One that acknowledges all facets of history, the shifting nature of conflict and all of the peoples involved. It is this inclusive and creative life that Stollman, in his pivotal story “The Adornment of Days,” has the mythical Shekhinah call for: “Stay in life. / Stay. / For here is My dominion.”
Betsy Sussler In your first novel, The Far Euphrates, and in many of your stories, the narrator’s father is a rabbi, one who is working on a theological or philosophical treatise. Your father is a rabbi.
Aryeh Lev Stollman My father is an Orthodox Rabbi who had a congregation in Windsor, Ontario. He also obtained his PhD in English literature and taught at the University of Windsor. He was chairman of the English department and a congregational rabbi at the same time.
BS What was your relationship to his vocation while you were growing up?
ALS I was given a dual education because of the way my father believed. I went to Yeshiva. I studied the Bible in Hebrew and the Talmud in Aramaic …
BS In Aramaic?
ALS Yes. The Babylonian Talmud is written with Hebrew letters, but the language is Aramaic, the lingua franca of the Jews of Babylonia. Both Hebrew and Aramaic are also used in the commentaries and ancient stories of the midrash.
BS What is the midrash?
ALS A midrash is a type of research on the text. It’s the process, but it’s also the product. A text or a verse is taken and expounded upon, and connections are made to other texts. A verse in the Bible may be compared to another verse in the Bible or a story will be elaborated on—
BS That’s actually how you write—you have texts within texts. Your characters write books and essays that interweave with the narration—fables, medical treatises, are commented upon.
ALS There’s an influence there.
BS Your writing is also rife with mythical and biblical quotations. While the juxtapositions are complex, the writing has an almost casual lucidity about it. Like musical notation, it builds layer upon layer of information into the narration. It does build like notation.
ALS You think so?
BS At the time I didn’t know that you live with a composer. What sort of influence does Tobias’s [Picker] music have on you?
ALS Some modern music can be hard for me. But Tobias’s music is very soulful and melodic. I listen to a lot of his music. And living with a composer, I hear a lot of other music as well. Tobias plays Brahms all the time on the piano. I was listening to Poulenc a lot during the period of writing The Far Euphrates. Language and music are on the same continuum.
I’m also influenced by the Hebrew Bible, which is like poetry—these short intense stories. Biblical Hebrew is rhythmic, with a very condensed syntax. Long sentences are said in short words; two multi-syllabic words become five or six English words in translation.
BS Aryeh, you’re a writer and a doctor. Can you describe what you do, medically?
ALS I’m a neuroradiologist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. I interpret computerized tomography and magnetic resonance images of the brain and central nervous system. It’s really a visual field; I’m looking at images all day long, interpreting images of the brain and the spinal cord.
BS In your short story “The Seat of Higher Consciousness,” Zahava’s mother is left immobilized, almost catatonic, from a car accident. In the hospital, Zahava’s father is certain that he saw her neshamah, “a peculiar electricity in the air … nervous and frightened.” Neshamah, the soul. Do you think of the soul when you look at the brain?
ALS I’m very aware when looking at the brain—it’s my personal belief—that our thinking and our consciousness arise within its physical structure. People invoke the word soul to understand something that is almost incomprehensible—that a material thing is thinking and breathing and falling in love and writing books. And not to get theological, but I don’t think it’s any less miraculous or, if one wants to believe in God, any less divine that consciousness comes out of the material world. The soul is maybe even less comprehensible than God. When I’m looking at the images, of course, I usually try to concentrate on the disease (laughter). I have to write diagnostic reports. But I’m very aware of these mysteries.
BS What made you start writing? Was it your experience with your dad?
ALS Well, in our home, there was nothing more important than the text, the holy text. And since my father was an English professor, we had all sorts of secular books and novels in the house as well. His specialty was Milton’s view of Judaism—
BS Milton as in Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, the Milton who believed in the Puritan’s cause as a chosen people?
ALS My father was more interested in Milton’s attitude toward the Law of Moses. Milton, like other Christians, had very negative ideas about Jewish Law. They believed the law had been superseded by Christ. This is most striking in Samson Agonistes.
BS Your narrator in The Far Euphrates is a young boy named Aryeh, which is also your name. Many of the narrators in the short stories that comprise The Dialogues of Time and Entropyhave names that begin with the letter A: Adar, Alexander, Amir, Anat … . Why the letter A?
ALS I’m not sure it’s a conscious decision in most of the stories; maybe in The Far Euphrates, though the character doesn’t seem like me. It’s partly because language has so much to do with the story, or language as the way we create and understand our world. We construct our world with language, I think I have the narrator say that.
BS I have it here. “Like God we create and destroy our own worlds with words.” In the Old Testament, God creates the world with letters and words. First there was the word. How do you interpret that?
ALS God says, “Let there be light.” He speaks words and the world is created. In later midrashic and Kabbalistic texts you get the notion that God actually used the letters to create the world. But getting back to your question—the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet is Aleph, so I wanted to begin the character’s name with an Aleph. And as my name starts with an Aleph, I figured I’d use it. It was a combination of things. Since it was my first novel, in first person … there’s a certain autobiographical underpinning. But I would argue that it’s not really me anymore.
BS No. Your narrators are characters. In the novels, and in the first of the short stories, the narrator is a precocious young boy. Who is he?
ALS I guess he is an alter ego. A doppelgänger of some sort.
BS And why a young boy as a narrator? Does it have to do with innocence?
ALS That’s the time when you start to understand and encounter your world, and question it, and try to figure it out, to see if it really aligns with what your parents tell you and what is taught in school. It can be a very shocking time, because it’s when you start seeing, and you discover what’s under the surface, as children do.
BS As the stories in The Dialogues of Time and Entropy progress, the young boys disappear. They become young or middle-aged men, researchers, doctors, composers… . What happened to the little boy?
ALS Well, the process of writing starts in childhood, or at least for me it did. So I was dealing with that time of my life. As you get older, you still wonder what’s going on, and how to make sense of this—
BS But from a different point of view.
ALS Yes, you grow up when you write. It helps you grow up.
BS We talked about the midrash. Many of your characters also write books, and these texts are integral to the story. It struck me that this is a very clever literary device that allows you to weave all sorts of historical, mythical, religious and scientific texts into the narrative in a rather overt way. But I don’t think you are just using it as a literary device.
ALS It does provide that opportunity, but I do that because in my life texts have been so important in determining how I was supposed to live. They also tell you the stories that are your reference points, the biblical stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs. All touchstones come from texts, whether religious or novels.
BS Storytelling is so primal and so basic; it’s how we tell our history. Certain stories are referred to again and again in your work, for example, the pillar of clouds in the desert. Why this legend, and what part of that legend is prophecy?
ALS The clouds protected the Children of Israel when they wandered in the desert. This is from the Book of Numbers, chapter 9:15–17. “On the day that the Tabernacle was set up, the cloud covered the Tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting; and in the evening it rested over the Tabernacle in the likeness of fire until morning … . And whenever the cloud lifted from the Tent, the Children of Israel would set out accordingly, and in the place where the cloud abode, there the Children of Israel encamped.” In The Illuminated Soul, Eva is reminded of that, when she comes to Windsor. She sees a circle of clouds high overhead and thinks that perhaps in Windsor she can find a new home.
BS Eva escapes from Prague just before World War II with an illuminated manuscript that she carries with her wherever she goes. This manuscript had been in her father’s family for generations. Does it tell the creation story?
ALS Well, that manuscript, like many of the great manuscripts of the Middle Ages, was commissioned by a rich person or a community. Such a manuscript might contain prayers, science texts, treatises on animals, even children’s stories. The culture was preserved in these illuminated manuscripts.
BS Eva lived with her Japanese husband in his country during World War II. One of Eva’s first references when she meets Adele and her sons Joseph and Asa is to The Tale of Genji, the text her husband used to read to her to teach her Japanese. And she in turn taught him English from the Bible. Why Genji?
ALS There are a few reasons. Genji is the archetypal text for Japanese language, the great text of the early 11th century.
BS The first novel.
ALS Yes. To some extent, it helped codify the language.
BS It contains oral history, fairy tales, court practices… .
ALS Yes. And Genji is, like Eva, a wandering figure. When I was working on the novel, I got interested in the whole concept of the Wandering Jew. It’s actually a Christian story, traced to the 12th or 13th century. There are different versions, but this is one: When Jesus was being taken to the Cross, he wanted to lean against a house, and the man who lived there said, “No, go on your way and get what you deserve.” And Jesus said, “I will go but you shall tarry until I return.” Jesus puts a curse on him. The Wandering Jew has to live until the Second Coming. It’s a terrible punishment: the Wandering Jew can’t stay in one place, he’s got to wander for thousands of years. But in the process, he also becomes the only person living who actually saw Christ, so when Christ comes back, he’s the only one who will be able to identify him. He becomes a saintly figure. And because he travels eternally, he knows all languages, all the knowledge of the world. Eva is a scientist who knows seven languages.
BS She’s a container—
ALS —of culture and of history, just like the Wandering Jew. There are also many wandering figures in the Bible: Cain, Abraham and the Jews in the wilderness. So wandering is a very strong theme throughout The Illuminated Soul. And Genji is a Japanese version. There is a wonderful section in Genji, where he comes to the house. This is the Seidensticker translation: “He felt a little sorry for the occupants of such a place—and then asked himself, Who in this world has more than a temporary shelter? A hut, a jeweled pavilion, they were all the same.”
BS Eva has a fairy-tale aspect about her, notwithstanding or perhaps because of the fact that she escaped the worst terrors in Prague. Why did you decide to portray her in that way?
ALS I tried to give her that aspect. To the children and their mother she is so exotic and does have a magical quality. She is very beautiful and she comes from somewhere else, and she has so much knowledge that they don’t have. I think that’s how a sophisticated refugee would appear to children. But I also tried to ground her in little details; she is a bit of a pain in the ass. She has them running around. And they love doing it.
BS Yes, they’re charmed.
ALS She’s a bit of a nudnik. She is never condescending, but she is kind of spoiled.
BS Hannah Arendt has written some of the most lucid texts on Jewish and European history. She places anti-Semitism in not only a historical but a social and cultural context. You bring Arendt into The Illuminated Soul. Why bring this incredible force, who isn’t a fictional character, to converse with one who is?
ALS Again, to give it more grounding in reality. Hannah Arendt is an esteemed figure, but she was also controversial because of Eichmann in Jerusalem.
BS And she wasn’t wrong, just ahead of her time. Now “the banality of evil” is part of our lexicon.
ALS Yes, it’s no longer as controversial. But putting that aside, I was fascinated that Arendt was the head of the Commission on European Jewish Cultural Reconstruction. She gave up time from her own work to travel, to find and restore these cultural treasures confiscated by the Nazis. I thought it was natural for her to be involved in the recovery of this illuminated manuscript.
BS The character Hannah Arendt is surprised by Eva’s innocence. She tells Eva about the Nazi who offered to save her father’s life in exchange for the manuscript. Eva’s father couldn’t give it to him, even if he’d wanted to, because Eva had taken the manuscript with her. It’s a very interesting juxtaposition, to have this charmed, magical creature and then at the end to have Hannah Arendt come in and say, “How can you be so naive?”
ALS I think people are very complicated. Even the most educated and brilliant people don’t want to see things that they don’t want to know about. I don’t think that once you’re educated you don’t have very big flaws, or ways to protect your feelings. We all have these defense mechanisms. And Eva has them too, things she doesn’t think about. People want the character to be totally consistent throughout, but I’m not consistent throughout my life, so I don’t see why characters have to be. People do suppress traumas: they have to, to survive. Eva had to go on with her life.
BS In The Far Euphrates, Aryeh’s father is a Rabbi whose own parents, assimilated German Jews, return to live in Germany after the war. They claim that it was their son’s marriage to Sarah—they objected to it, because Sarah’s brother was mentally disturbed—that brought this about. There is a threat of madness and suicide in the books and the short stories. Why?
ALS Under the surface of even the most well-adjusted people there is always that threat of madness or terrible depression, an inability to function—it’s part of the human condition. It varies from person to person—not everybody’s running around suicidal—but perhaps I see it more, being a physician. Also, growing up in a Rabbi’s house, where people always came to my parents with terrible problems, I would eavesdrop. I remember certain suicides when I grew up. It was shocking to know that this was part of life.
BS The Rabbi’s parents in The Far Euphrates would have us believe that their life in Germany after the war is an assimilated and somewhat insulated life. But Sarah knows better. She says, “They have granted forgiveness on behalf of the dead.” Why do you think they really returned to Germany?
ALS Some people returned to Germany after the war to remake their lives, because they could not adjust to a new and different culture. I’ve met a few people like that over the years and it’s always puzzling to me, but I understand it happens. That was their language and their culture. And on some level, they repressed what happened. But they are able to live there and restart their lives. I always try in my books not to judge which is the right way or not, I just try to understand what people do.
BS I’m thinking of the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig and his wife, who got out of Vienna just before World War II.
ALS He committed suicide in 1942.
BS He and his wife, Elizabeth Charlotte Zweig, both did. I was thinking, Why? And then I read his suicide letter, which is quite simple and beautiful. He thanks the people of Brazil for their hospitality: “Nowhere else would I have preferred to build up a new existence, the world of my own language having disappeared for me and my spiritual home, Europe, having destroyed itself. But after one’s 60th year unusual powers are needed in order to make a wholly new beginning.”
ALS And these are intelligent people who could have met other compatriots, and had a full, rich life.
BS Your main characters embrace who they are and where they are from, their being Jewish. It is in the previous generation, in their parents, that we see a schism. The ones who lived through World War II seem to wish to assimilate, and this manifests as anger with their offspring for turning back to religion. Or is this something you think is generational?
ALS I’ve seen it both ways, where children become less religious than their parents and the parents are terrified, but also where the children become more religious than their parents. I went to Yeshiva day schools, very Orthodox, but when I was 15 I wanted to go to an even more Orthodox school. What we call a “black hat” Yeshiva. I ended up going to one in Cleveland, a Lithuanian Yeshiva that was transplanted to America after World War II. I wanted to go there and become very learned, and holy. I had terrible fights with my parents because they thought I wouldn’t go to college, that I would get married, have 20 kids, be poor. My father came from a different milieu, where the philosophy is that you combine religion and the secular world. So when I wanted to become more religious they were terrified … mortified. But I got my way. And now I’m not religious, and it’s just the opposite! Go figure! (laughter)
BS Have you read Martin Buber’s Collected Tales from the Hasidim?
ALS Some of them—I heard many Hasidic tales when I grew up.
BS Buber says in the introduction, I didn’t do what the Brothers Grimm did, “to expand the tales or render them more colorful and diverse.” And I thought, I love the Brothers Grimm!
ALS Oh, those I love!
BS You seem more inclined to the Brothers Grimm in your writing than to Martin Buber’s sort of archaeological dig.
ALS I’ve studied the Grimms’ tales. I like to listen to them in German on tape, it’s one of the ways I practice my German. I listen to German opera, and novels in German.
BS In your short story “The Adornment of Days,” a musician, Alexander, is writing, like Wagner, both the libretto and the music for an opera on what his earthly patron calls “The false messiah and a woman god.” The false messiah is Shabbatai Sevi. Who is the Shekhinah?
ALS The Shekhinah is developed in Kabbalistic theory, but there are also references in Talmud. God’s feminine aspect as manifest in this world. And there are often erotic overtones: the Shekhinah’s love for the people of Israel—they are bride and groom—or the Shekhinah waiting for redemption, for the messiah to come. What happens in “The Adornment of Days” is that Shabbatai Sevi, this false messiah who lived in the middle of the 17th century, convinced many Jews that he was the messiah. Sevi went to Palestine to claim the land of Israel. People throughout Europe sold their property to join him, they assumed he was going to get—
BS The keys to the city.
ALS He went to the Sultan in Adrianople to demand the keys. The Sultan simply said, “Convert or you are going to be killed.” And Sevi converted. That caused a great trauma and crisis. There were a lot of strange reverberations in Jewish history from that psychologically cataclysmic event. Because not only did Sevi turn out not to be the messiah, but he converted! He didn’t choose to be a martyr. But in “The Adornment of Days,” where he is the hero of Alexander’s opera, I wanted to make a love interest for him. And so I added the character, his love interest, the Shekhinah. The twist in my story is that the Shekhinah tells Sevi to stay in this world, because if he’s not in this world, she can’t have him.
BS Yes, “Stay in life, stay. For here is my Dominion. Oh my beloved we must never be separated.” That’s so beautiful.
ALS Thank you.
BS Your character, Alexander, is very concerned over the fact that he has such an unheroic hero, and wonders how to resolve this dilemma. He goes to the Wailing Wall where crowds are gathering to commemorate the destruction of the first and second temples, and he has a near-death experience. When he returns to his grandfather’s study, now his study, where he’s writing this opera, the Shekhinah actually appears to Alexander, and he understands that what she says to him, “Stay in life, stay,” is also what she said to—
ALS Shabbatai Sevi.
BS Why does Alexander choose to have an unheroic hero?
ALS Gershom Scholem wrote this magisterial book on Shabbatai Sevi. Sevi has a very important place in Jewish history. Very weird sects developed after he converted, which have died out over the last 200 years.
BS He never converts back, he just goes on, right?
ALS Right. And dies ten years later. He was probably manic-depressive.
BS Ah, delusions of grandeur. A messiah complex!
ALS Very bipolar, from the descriptions. He is fascinating to scholars and other people, and yet, what’s the story? It’s weird. That’s the problem that Alexander has with him, so he comes up with the idea that maybe the Shekhinah wants him to live. And that to die for your faith is a silly thing. It is a somewhat subversive opera from a religious point of view.
BS How do you talk about the soul, neshamah, as a doctor? Have you answered that question yet?
ALS The human brain, by estimates, has a hundred billion brain cells and each one can have thousands upon thousands of connections. I don’t think we can actually comprehend such huge numbers. There’s an infinity contained within our skull. An infinite structure, with infinite possibilities, which we are not aware of. But Paul, in “The Dialogues of Time and Entropy,” is aware of this. Joseph, in The Illuminated Soul, a neuro-anatomist, is also aware of this: that the soul may be embodied in the brain. Its energy is there.
BS And Paul’s wife, Ahuva, says, “The Kabbalists knew that we are all interchangeable with energy.”
In the same story illness is rampant. Paul is desperately searching for a cure to a viral dementia, and Nona, his daughter, is autistic. Ahuva says, “Nona inherited the gene from you. You are so focused on detail, on the infinitesimal, and you can’t stop.”
ALS Autism used to be blamed on the parents, which was terrible because it’s not true. It’s a neurological disorder, an inability to relate to the other, to comprehend another mind.
BS Ahuva is a physicist; it’s interesting that she would choose to blame it on her husband.
ALS Two infinities exist in “The Dialogues of Time and Entropy.” Ahuva looks at the universe to figure out the origins of time. And there’s an infinity enclosed in the human mind and brain, and Paul looks into that infinity.
BS Ahuva is famous for “a slim fairy tale of a book,” a parable also called “The Dialogues of Time and Entropy.” This is the story within the story. It is a dialogue between Time, an elusive, beautiful woman, and Entropy, a besotted, persistent man, that you intersperse throughout the narrative between Paul and Ahuva. Entropy has several meanings. How do you define it?
ALS I think of it in a basic way, as going from a higher energy level to a lesser energy level, or from a more organized state to a less organized state. If you drop a glass and it shatters into pieces, it’s going from its higher, more organized state to a disordered state. Entropy is based on the second law of thermodynamics, which states that heat can only go from a hotter source to a cooler source; it’s always going to dissipate.
BS And this is an absolute truth?
&ALS% Across the entire universe, with one exception. And it’s the way we know time. If I showed you a movie of a broken glass coming together into a whole glass, you’d know the movie is going backwards. Time only goes in the direction of increasing entropy. Entropy is a function of time. So in my story, when Time and Entropy are finally having an affair, by the time she gets around to accepting him, he’s gone—he’s dissipating.
BS For some reason when I started reading the story, I thought that Time would be the one to disappear, but of course it’s Entropy—he says, “Don’t worry, I’m everywhere.”
ALS Maybe it’s the end of time. I didn’t think of that, where everything is at equilibrium. There’s another thing that always interests me. Within entropy, or chaos, there are these islands of order. We live within those islands of order. For a while, within the chaos of the universe, we’re being born and growing up, eventually we, too, fall apart. But for awhile we flourish.
BS Ahuva needs to find miracles, particularly a cure for her daughter’s autism. Her return to Israel is an attempt to find this miracle. She says, “The self organization within chaos and islands of symmetrical time are not prophecies!”
ALS She is trying to reorder her world in whatever way she can to find order.
BS But she’s going to an Israeli settlement that’s just been created from occupied territory; it’s hardly stable. Prefabricated homes, and trees that have been transported into the desert, and it’s taken apart almost as quickly. The settlement is being dismantled because it’s on land that will go back to the Palestinians. That made me so sad. Why not leave it for the Palestinians?
ALS Well, that’s a good question, but—
BS But that image, of trucks carrying the trees away. Trees have such symbolic significance for you.
ALS Yes, well they are part of that continuum of life. The narrator in The Illuminated Soulsays, we are all variations on a theme, and whatever it is that gives us spirit is shared by all the other creatures. These are living things that should be recognized as entities, and respected and cared for. By the way, I did not mean this to be a political story.
BS I didn’t think you did. But Israel does have symbolic significance for Jews, and I was wondering what sort of symbolic value it has for you.
ALS Well, as I’m a Jew, Israel is part of my history, and the texts that are part of my history came out of its milieu, from thousands of years ago, in the cradle of the Jewish culture. The texts have changed and metamorphosed over the millennia, but that’s where they start.
BS Which contemporary writer is a major influence for you?
ALS S. Y. Agnon. He wrote in Hebrew and won the Nobel Prize in 1966. He shared it with another wonderful writer whom I love, a German poet, Nelly Sachs. She is amazing, breathtaking. Agnon lived in Palestine and then Israel. He wrote a lot of beautiful short stories, “Tehila,” “Forevermore,” and some novels, such as Only Yesterday. He uses Modern Hebrew, but all the Biblical language is in there too. That rhythm is in his stories, and his work has been a great illumination for me.
BS Why so many absent fathers, lost to research or premature deaths? Widows and young sons, children lost to disease or miscarriage, fathers whose wives have abandoned them?
ALS Well, that’s a good question, as my parents were happily married and I have three siblings. But on some level, I always felt a little lonely or isolated, even within the family. I had a reasonably happy childhood. Maybe there’s always that fear that you’ll end up being alone, even when you are surrounded by people who love you.
BS Why that fear?
ALS Maybe because of feeling different from everybody in the family. On some level I’d broken away from the way I grew up, from my traditional upbringing, and the expectations of me. Let’s say you want to break away from religious practice, and yet you want to keep contact with your family and still be part of the family. There’s always a fear that by being different, you’ll be abandoned. It hasn’t happened, but it was always a great fear. I don’t know if that’s the whole answer. In the end you need to maintain your independence and break away if you must.
—Betsy Sussler cofounded BOMB in 1981. She has been its editor-in-cheif and publisher ever since. Before BOMB, she acted and directed with the ensemble theater group Nightshift. Awarded a 1991 NYFA Fellowship in playwrighting for her screenplay Cane River, Sussler also wrote the screenplay Nod’s End and a novel, Parish, and is currently working on her second novel, Here There and Everywhere.
Originally published in
Featuring interviews with Marina Abramovic and Laurie Anderson, Paul McCarthy, Christian Marclay and Ben Neill, Jesse Reiser & Nanako Umemoto and Andrew Benjamin, Jimmy Santiago Baca and Adam Fuss, Aryeh Lev Stollman, Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulciniby and Bette Gordon, and Elliott Sharp.
Chinua Achebe says that the English language, when altered, can be used to bear the burden of his African experience. I extrapolate from that and try to put it into painting.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby