Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt  2013

 

What makes a family? Where do we find our sustenance? Jessica Soffer examines the often debated questions with artful storytelling. She calls on all of our senses to consider the age old issue of nature vs. nurture. But food, laden with history and culture, the legendary path to the heart, is the medium. Mix in a very needy cast of characters and the recipe for a good tale is perfected.

Enter Lorca, a troubled teen; her single mom, a chef, angry and inattentive; Victoria and Joseph, Iraqi Jews, determined immigrants with a long-kept painful secret; an imposing neighbor, and a sensitive, caring young man. All share an intense yearning for love, acceptance, and forgiveness. While it is predictable they would become connected, living in the melting pot of the world, just a few Manhattan subway stops apart, the plot never succumbs into the most obvious small world story of the century!

Instead, we are witness to serious and poignant back stories. At the center is Lorca, a self-mutilator, ironically named for poet Garcia Lorca, whose themes addressed love and tragedy. We bleed with her through every cut and self-inflicted pain. It is sadly understandable when she tells us, “there were good years and bad years. My mother was warm in flickers and then very cold. All the while, I waited. Hope was lit and hope was extinguished incessantly. On and off. On and off.” Lorca steadfastly seeks her mother’s affection through the one thing they share: an appreciation of excellent food. Her quest for the miracle leads to all the others and hope is lit up again.

With every measure of wonderful, aromatic food, prepared with essential ingredients, and a lifetime of memories, we await the return of family and love withheld or lost. Then we begin to understand the Arabic saying “tomorrow there will be apricots.”

Related: Iraqi Jews Reading List

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A Conversation with Jessica Soffer

by Penny Metsch

Jessica Soffer's debut novel, Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots, was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in April 2013.

Penny Metsch: Every aspect of your story is so timely, yet so enduring. Issues of immigration, parenting, teenage angst, and food, wonderful, beautifully prepared food, are with us every day. Yet, you have given us a fresh view of it all. The characters are each compelling in his or her own right, but also inter-woven like a precious rug. How did it all come together?

Jessica Soffer: That’s a really generous way of describing the book. Thank you so much. I didn’t think too terribly much about those con­cepts while writing. For the most part, I am inspired by characters and by images. The story was born from Lorca (a teenage pain addict, whom I’d written a story about while I was in graduate school) and an image that suddenly came to me and persisted: two people—an old woman and a young girl—cooking together in a kitchen. What grew out of that, around that, was a way of situating those elements.

PGM: Victoria and Joseph are Iraqi Jews. Their immigration journey has a very personal connection to your family’s history. Would you elaborate?

JS: My father was an Iraqi Jew who came to the United States at roughly the same time that Victoria and Joseph (two characters in Apricots) did. At one time, and for a very long time, the Jews in Baghdad flourished. They were the sophisticates, the intellectuals, a huge and important part of the political and cultural landscape. But after the Brits left Iraq in 1942, there was turmoil and instability—and the Nazis took advan­tage of that. Everything changed. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, 120,000 out of 135,000 Jews fled. First, before 1947, legally and safely. After, they were given the option to leave everything—their passports, belongings, everything—and be airlifted to Israel. Most did. My father didn’t. He went through Iran, into hiding, and eventually was given false papers, which enabled him to travel to Ellis Island.

PGM: I think I will remember Lorca for as long as I read. Her yearning for love and her self-mutilating response at rejection is heart wrench­ing. Did you ever know anyone like her?

JS: What a lovely thing to say. Thank you again. I knew some cutters growing up, but no one intimately. I was never present when they cut, nor was I ever in a position to intervene, which I am grateful for. But self-harm is an epidemic and one that has always interested me. In a lot of ways it’s the opposite of escapism. It’s an attempt to feel, to inhabit one’s body, the world, more. And feeling more is at the heart of what good writing should do, force us to inhabit another person’s life, another world.

PGM: As the characters orbit around each other, near, but not yet connecting, food is the magnet that brings them together. Has food, particularly Middle Eastern flavors, always been an integral part of your awareness?

JS: In a way, yes. We spent the High Holy Days at my father’s sister’s house, eating the food of my father’s childhood. Those memories feel very close to me. But I didn’t want food to simply be a positive, nostalgic force in the novel. Lorca, the teenage pain addict, is desper­ate for her mother’s attention—and her mother is a chef. It’s with food that she tries to win her over and it’s with food that she fails, again and again, to do just that. Food, in Apricots, is as much magnet, as you say, as it is a tool: a way of engaging with the world, of coping, of surviving. And that’s what interests me: the unique ways that we find to live—to cut, to cook, to cry.

PGM: Has the role of Judaism in your life influenced the story in any way?

JS: Where food is concerned: yes. I grew up with two very distinct versions of Jewish cooking. On my father’s side, there are the heavily-spiced, warm, orange flavors. Lots of stews, lots of cardamom, lots of nurturing the body through what one puts in it. On my mother’s side, there’s the Brooklyn version of Jewish cuisine: smoked fish, bagels, mat­zah brei, horseradish. My mother’s father used to love nothing more than Katz’s, which appalled my father. We didn’t go to temple, and I wasn’t bat mitzvahed. So, for now, food is how I access my Jewishness, how I comprehend it, reference it, honor it in my writing and otherwise.

PGM: A first novel is such an exciting event. Have you always written and seen this on the horizon?

JS: I keep having to remind myself to be excited. I’m mostly just nervous and itchy and distracted. It seems idiotic, but I really didn’t think about this part: the part where people would have opinions about it. Or at least, I forgot about it for some time. I think you have to in order to write freely. The kind of anxiety I’m feeling at the moment would have done nothing good for the writing.

PGM: And, finally, the title, Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots, refers to an Arabic saying. Does it give away too much of the story to tell why you chose this?

JS: Apricot season is typically short and fickle. The idiom suggests that things will turn up as much as the opposite. What’s at the heart of Apri­cots is the hope for joy, the reality of sadness, and the delicate balance between the two: how we must learn to live there.

Penny Metsch, MLS, formerly a school librarian on Long Island and in New York City, now focuses on early literacy programs in Hoboken, NJ.



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