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Book Cover of the Week: Tomorrow There Will be Apricots

Tuesday, July 01, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Chava Lansky

In Tomorrow There Will be Apricots Jessica Soffer tells the story of two women adrift in New York City: one an almost orphan and the second a widowed Iraqi Jewish immigrant, who together find solace and direction through the cooking of cardamom pistachio cookies, baklava, kubba, and more. The title is based on the Arabic adage which goes, "tomorrow, apricots may bloom," and Melissa Lofty's simple cover design juxtaposed with a colorfully patterned spine evokes the same sense of hope and serenity.

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Interview: Jessica Soffer

Monday, April 29, 2013 | Permalink

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.

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The Nuts and Bolts of Writing

Friday, March 29, 2013 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Jessica Soffer wrote about learning to breathe and a precious treat from the Passover seder plate. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Quite recently, someone asked me about my “process.” This someone wasn’t asking about the creative parts—the meandering through the dark, schlepping a bag full of puzzle pieces and seeking out the elusive slots where they might fit—but quite literally about what I do during my waking hours, which hours those might be, and when and if I stop for snacks. She was asking about the nuts and bolts.

What I wanted to say is that I know nothing (and that of course I stop for snacks). I’m just winging it. I’m still waiting to be found out. Still, I wrote 336 pages that will be printed and bound and on (some) shelves in just a few weeks, which is something one teensy bit better than nothing.

1. Get dressed every day (except when you feel like the very heart of what you’re writing is delicately wound into the fiber of your socks and robe)

2. Stop and move for food (except when you must, just must, have your fingers centimeters from your computer at all times)

3. Exercise in any form: stand up, walk, run, go to a yoga class (except when all the jostling around risks dispersing your very precious thoughts, and then stay put, very very put)

4. Get by with a little help from your friends (except when talking to anyone at all about anything at all will sully everything, make you forget or derailed or soft or sleepy)

5. Find inspiration in art, music, literature (except when they might be toxic to your work and undo all your efforts to find voice)

There you have it. Fool’s gold.

In the end, I think, anything you can do is my actual answer.

Also: do the best you can, however you can, every day that you can. Take care of your body, your wrists, knees and eyes. Take care of your computer, and back up what matters. Take care of your bills because Verizon doesn’t care that you’re writing the Next Great American Novel. Take care of the people that love you. They will be there when you pick your head up, but only if you play your cards right.

The process is long, there is no end to it—at least, not really—so don’t be dramatic and pull eight all-nighters just to show us that you can. Or do, if you can. Do.

Win a signed copy of Jessica Soffer's debut novel, Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots, here.

Related: Iraqi Jews Reading List

Learning to Breathe

Thursday, March 28, 2013 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Jessica Soffer wrote about a precious treat from the Passover seder plate. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I needed something. Everyone was dying. Or at least a lot of people were dying and it felt like everyone might, including me, die at the drop of a hat. I was having panic attacks on the subway. I was avoiding elevators and scaffolding and spinach and caffeine and planes and hospitals and graveyards.

I couldn’t breathe.

My parents are not religious. Someone told me to try yoga.

I was a gymnast for the great majority of my childhood. Yoga came easily. I breezed through the ranks.

I ended up in an Ashtanga class in Amagansett and had no idea what I was in for.

Ashtanga doesn’t bill itself as the “yoga of forced breathing,” but it might as well. It’s the same series, “system” of movements done (or supposed to be done) every morning, every day. It is strenuous and sequential and smart. At the core of it is the notion of synchronizing breath with movement. For every movement, a breath, which sounds nice enough but is challenging. Very. Because of the intensity of the poses, most people sweat. A lot. It’s different from Bikram in that the heat you create is from the inside out. It’s all you. Ujjayi breathing, or “victorious breath,” consists of steady inhales and exhales through the nose, equal in duration, accompanied by the “ocean sound” made by constricting the throat as one does to whisper. Ujjayi’s purpose: improve endurance, decrease distractions, release tension, warm the blood, which improves circulation and cleanses toxins and regulates heat. Too, and most importantly to me, Ujjayi calms the mind. Breath becomes a rhythm, a lullaby. In and out and in and out and in and out.

My first Ashtanga class nearly killed me—and got me completely hooked. My first Ashtanga teacher has been my only one really, or at least the only one that’s really mattered. She’s a die-hard. If she cannot hear your “ocean sound,” she says so. If she sees your mouth open, she says so. And if you cannot breathe, in and out and in and out and in and out, you cannot. You just cannot. It took me many months to get a place where I was comfortable with the poses, and then even longer to a place where the breath was as crucial as the positions. But eventually it was. So much so. In and out and in and out and in and out.

At first, I stopped thinking about dying because I was focused on the movements, on not messing up. After a while, I stopped thinking about dying because I was trying to do the movements better. When I became halfway decent, I stopped thinking because I was focused on the breath. On better breath.

I am aware that I said “better,” regarding yoga. Kill me. I am no longer afraid. On a plane, in turbulent moments, I practice Ujjayi. Elevators don’t paralyze me. Bring on the spinach. I am better.

In Ashtanga, I didn’t find God. I did, however, learn to breathe. I breathed like I meant it and then I breathed because I had to. You have to. In and out and in and out and in and out. And by breathing I realized that I wasn’t dead yet. Just the opposite. I was all breath.

Win a signed copy of Jessica Soffer's debut novel, Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots, here.

Related: Iraqi Jews Reading List

Precious Haroset

Monday, March 25, 2013 | Permalink

Jessica Soffer's debut novel, Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots, will be published on April 16th. Win a signed copy here. She will be blogging here for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all week.

I am bored to death, dying of starvation and on the brink of losing my mind at Passover dinner at my father’s sister’s house on Long Island. I’m four, maybe five. My mother has refilled my grape juice many more than four times but it’s not cutting it. She has a look on her face like she would have made a PB&J if she’d known what she was in for—what we were both in for—but she didn’t. There are many more relatives visiting from Israel than usual, which means, apparently, that there is no goofing around and no snacking. Who knew? We didn’t. I will die of starvation, I think to myself. They will find me in a puddle of grape juice with the yarmulke I’ve demanded to wear over my face, dead.

But I don’t die. Instead, I put my head into my mother’s lap and quickly fall into a deep sleep. Eventually, she nudges me awake. I sit up. Why am I awake? Same stuff, different blessing. But then I see. From across the table, my father is giving me the eye. I look around, everyone is engrossed in the text and so I slink under the table, lift up a bit of tablecloth to let in light. There are twenty sets of adult shoes and I have the urge to untie every one. But I’ve got bigger fish to fry. My father’s got a handful of romaine lettuce from who knows where and I snatch it up, scarf it down, barely chewing. I’m a rabbit on speed. I yank on his pant leg for more. What else you got? He lifts his index finger. One second. He can do better, I’m thinking. I know he can do better. I pray like they do in the movies. It’s Passover, after all. Moments later, the whitecap curl of a hardboiled egg has arrived. I’ve willed it here, I think. I should pray more often. I nearly skin my father’s fingers with my teeth. I wonder why I don’t eat eggs at every moment of every day. They are heaven. Nothing better. But I’m still hungry. I’m dying again. I wait. Is that it? I start untying my father’s shoes. He catches my drift. Another egg. Untying. Then another. Now, I’m over eggs. I never want to see an egg again.

Still, I wait.

Just before I lose hope, die not of starvation but egg overdose, my father’s palm is open and flat in front of me, as if revealing the tiniest baby bird. But it’s better than that. It’s a raft of matzo, a cluster of haroset balancing on top, shimmering and precious like something stolen from the Hall of Minerals and Gems at the Museum of Natural History. I treat it as he did, lift it from his hand into mine with care. Ever so gently. Little tiny nibbles. The sweetest. The most amazing. This is the best thing I’ve ever eaten. Why don’t I eat this every moment of every day? I savor it.

My father claps his hands without making a sound. Show’s over, folks, and just in time. I make my way back to my seat, my mother brushing a crumb off my bottom lip, the parsley is being passed around and I’m up. “No,” I say but my mother ignores me, puts a pile of it on my plate. “I’m full,” I begin to say but she covers my mouth with her hand, and smiles graciously at the crowd. “She’s starving,” she says and I know to nod.

Read more about Jessica Soffer here.

Related: Iraqi Jews Reading List