The ProsenPeople

On Waiting

Friday, November 11, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Leah Kaminsky considered the power of inanimate objects and speaking to ghosts in contemporary literature—as in her own novel, The Waiting Room. Leah has been guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

I hate waiting. I’m that person at checkout in the supermarket who hops from line to line impatiently, emerging at the other end eventually, having taken twice as long to get through. If my dentist is running more than fifteen minutes late, I pace around glowering at the poor receptionist, silently furious that no one called me to say he was behind schedule. I get annoyed if my flight has been delayed, resorting to Twitter to vent my frustration against the airline. I can never understand how the people around me appear so calm, lounging around on chairs, deeply engrossed in reading a book, or phlegmatically playing Candy Crush on their phone. If the postponement of gratification is a sign of maturity, then when it comes to waiting I am that toddler in the aisle having a meltdown. Not only do I hate having my time sucked from me, but the demoralizing uncertainty of not knowing how long I will need to wait has me on shpilkes.

How ironic then that someone as impatient as I should take ten (make that thirty) years to write her debut novel. I have imbued my main character, Dina, with my own traits of waiting-angst. She is an ex-pat who visits Israel on a whim: “As soon as she set foot in Ben Gurion airport for the first time, she felt oddly enfolded in familiarity… the line inside passport control reminded her of a crowd of Melbourne Jews waiting for bagels at Glicks Bakery on Carlisle Street every Sunday morning; not really a line, more a schmear of generic impatience.” She fantasizes about having “plastic strap-on elbows to push her way through the strangely endearing organized chaos.” She falls in love, and ends up staying.

The Waiting Room resisted being corralled inside the confines of a book jacket for a very long time. The idea for the novel came to me soon after my mother died. I wanted to write about her extraordinary experiences as a survivor of Bergen-Belsen. She was twenty-one years old when she was liberated, the sole survivor of her entire family. Arriving in Australia as a refugee, she went on to rebuild her life, working, marrying, and raising a family, wrapping us all in a protective shield of love. Yet when I started writing about her after her death, much to my shame, I could only remember snippets of her stories. I had been a reluctant listener as a teenager, running from her haunted past.

It took almost twenty years before I had the courage to tackle the book again. I was already a doctor; I had met my husband and moved to Israel, where we were bringing up three young children. As I struggled to adjust to my new home, a new language, and the demands of day-to-day life, the only writing I managed was scribbling notes in a journal. Many of these observations would become the bedrock from which my novel sprouted—still inspired by my mother’s story, but also by my new experiences as an immigrant.

After a few years I had a pile of scenes, but no overarching narrative or structure to pin them on. Being such an impatient person, I began to feel very frustrated. I met the wonderful author David Grossman after reading his powerful novel See Under: Love. I shared my angst about the book with him. He explained that when he sets out to write a novel he knows almost nothing about it and it is only in the final stages that the story starts to congeal. “I need the story to surprise me, betray me, take me to places I’m afraid to go usually,” he said. In his experience, a novel-in-progress often behaves like a cunning carpet-merchant: “It unrolls and unfolds dozens of colorful carpets, and I’m tempted very easily.”

Grossman’s process intrigued me. At the time, though, I did not realize that I am also the sort of writer who needs to write in order to find out what I am writing, so The Waiting Room limped along at a painstakingly slow pace.

“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way,” E.L. Doctorow once wrote. I persevered in my writing, trying out various structures, but was still totally lost in the narrative woods. The story spanned three continents, three eras, and had a dozen characters. Just as I was ready to give up, a friend encouraged me to apply for an MFA at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. I was paired with an advisor in the second half of the program, Clint McCown, who was a brilliant, softly spoken Southern writer. He accurately diagnosed me of a “fear of finishing”—this novel had been with me for so many years that I almost didn’t want to let go of it. McCown soon became the perfect antidote to my angst-ridden, impatient inner critic, and I started to find my writing mojo again. He encouraged me to develop the ghostly presence of my protagonist’s mother, who eventually grew into a major character in the novel. From there, it didn’t take long then to tame the manuscript into the shape of a novel. After another year of careful editing, under the guidance of my American agent Todd Shuster, I finally felt ready to show it to publishers. Then, within a couple of weeks, after all those years as a work-in-progress, The Waiting Room finally found a home. The wait was finally over.

Leah Kaminsky is a physician and author, whose books include We’re All Going to Die, Writer MD, and Cracking the Code. She is the poetry editor for the Medical Journal of Australia.

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The Tears in Things

Wednesday, November 09, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Leah Kaminsky considered the role and of ghosts in contemporary literature—including her own novel, The Waiting Room. Leah is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

I am a collector, a lover of junk shops, where I can spend hours sifting through old photographs and tchotchkes. Our house looks like the movie set for The Addams Family.

My mother came to Australia as a refugee after World War II, with one small suitcase in her hand. Her only treasure, a tiny marcasite butterfly brooch she had been given after liberation from Bergen-Belsen, when she worked as the secretary of the Jewish Police in the Hohne DP camp. After she died, I wore the brooch all the time. Somehow, transferring her memory by embedding it into this piece of jewelry helped in some small way to make up for the deep loss I felt.

And then one day, our house was burgled. Along with the laptops and gadgetry stolen, my mother’s brooch disappeared. I was bereft, grieving as though she had died a second time.

Lacrimae rerum, Virgil wrote in his epic poem Aeneid. “There are tears in things.” Inanimate objects hold a power to move us; we invest them with such deep emotion that they become symbolic and tangible mementos of what we have lost. Their very physicality seems to bring the dead palpably closer to us through memory, tattooed onto teacups, onto paintings and toys.

A baby innately wants her mother, or primary caregiver, to be close by at all times—but place a teddy bear in the crib and the infant will quickly learn to cling to the soft toy for comfort, a substitute for the mother’s warmth. This transition object becomes a projection of the mother’s attributes, perhaps the primal need for comfort redirected onto the toy. These kind of objects continue to play an important role for us throughout our lives. We imbue them with memory and meaning.

My teddy-bear, Tichy, was able to do headstands as well as the splits. And of course, he could talk, although it was always in the faintest of whispers only I could hear. Bun, my daughter’s rabbit, has his bottom rubbed smooth, a furless ring worn around his tail. His face is squashed to one side, his long ears shriveled, black eyes filled with years of love. He has been her companion since she was born, running laps around her cot, then falling out of the side of her bed, getting lost on escalators at the airport, skydiving out open bedroom windows, dunked in swimming pools and pegged by his ears to the washing line to dry. Those same ears listened to my daughter sing herself to sleep at night, wake in the morning laughing, shifting from one language to another as we migrated across the globe. She suffused him with a huge personality for a tiny stuffed toy. They have stuck together through summer camps, hidden at the bottom of her bag so her bunkmates wouldn’t know. Bun lay there in the dark, silently guarding her childhood from drifting away. Back home, sitting on her bed, propped up against a pillow, he watched her grow from baby into child, from girl into woman. Quietly waiting for her to leave him behind, old ragged Bun lets her go now, knowing she will return even though she doesn’t need him anymore. Sometimes, when she’s out, I tiptoe into her room and hold Bun close to my heart, breathing in his faded smell as I greedily try to hoard the past.

Love lies hidden in the memory of objects that people we have loved once held dear, or which have taken on a special significance since their death. Maybe this is why I can’t let go of the spectacles my father wore when he used to read me bedtime stories, or my mother’s old flour sifter with which she prepared her delicious apricot cakes.

Forgetting, or letting go of the presence of the dead can sometimes be more painful than holding on to their memory through transference onto an object. “I remember phone numbers of the dead,” says my 94-year-old painter friend, Yosl Bergner. He can’t cross his friends out in his little black phone book. “It’s as if they have died twice if I do; only the second time, I’ve killed them by erasing their memory.”

My novel The Waiting Room is crowded with objects: uncaptioned photographs, old shoes, a glass eyewash cup, letters in Yiddish hidden away and discovered in an old tin. Like me, its protagonist, Dina, hoards her dead parents’ indecipherable relics, hoping that one day they will reveal the stories she never wanted to listen to as a young girl. As Ray Bradbury’s grandfather once told him, “Everyone must leave something behind when he dies… Something your hand touched some waysoyoursoulhas somewhere to go... a legacy is etched into the minds of others and the stories they share about you.” In this way, the dead can still be felt amongst the living.

Leah Kaminsky is a physician and author, whose books include We’re All Going to Die, Writer MD, and Cracking the Code. She is the poetry editor for the Medical Journal of Australia.

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Talking to the Dead: The Eternal Jewish Mother

Monday, November 07, 2016 | Permalink

Leah Kaminsky is the author of the novel The Waiting Room. She will be guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Ah, the dead, the unended, endlessly ending dead: how long, how rich is their story. We, the living, must find what space we can alongside them…

– Salman Rushdie, The Moor’s Last Sigh

There has been a long line of literary specters. Ghosts have appeared in fiction throughout the ages, embodying a diversity of roles and haunting a variety of characters. Some take on the form of bold and terrifying poltergeists, corybantic cadavers who rattle around demanding moral justice and vindication; others appear as mere wisps of foggy miasma, canvassing subsequent generations to bear witness to past events with little more than a whisper.

Ghosts in literary fiction are usually revealed by way of a protagonist intent on preserving their memory. By listening to and confronting the ghosts that haunt them, they are able to integrate both personal and collective pasts into their present lives, and as a result actively choose the trajectory of their own future.

Dina, the protagonist of my debut novel, The Waiting Room, is an expat Australian doctor living in Haifa during the Intifada who is haunted by her Jewish mother, a Holocaust survivor who took her own life when her daughter was only eighteen. Dina’s mother cannot rest in her grave until her daughter, a reluctant listener as a teenager, finally bears witness to her extraordinary life story. Dina is followed around by this “eternal albatross of a Jewish mother,” who kibitzes and kvetches from the wings—a bit like Samantha’s mother in the ‘60s TV series Bewitched. When the alte zachen truck comes to collect household junk, her mother nags, “The stupid dog died years ago…that rotting kennel has been sitting shiva in the corner of the stairwell ever since. Isn’t it time you stopped mourning? What are you waiting for, the dog to come back from the dead?” Theirs is a complex mother-daughter relationship, but the mother’s spectral presence ironically ends up saving her daughter’s life.

In her 2011 Boyer lectures, the wonderful Geraldine Brooks reminds readers of the dictionary definitions of the word haunt: “to be continually present in; pervade, disturb or distress.” Linguistically, it is derived from the Old Norse word heimta, “to lead home.”

Being ‘haunted’ by her mother is what eventually leads Dina to find her own psychological sense of integration, or ‘coming home.’ The moral duty of honouring the past is often fulfilled by simply passing on the story so that it will not be buried along with the dead.

In the Bible, Samuel’s ghost—conjured up by the Witch of Endor—appears before Saul to predict his demise. In Virgil’s Aenied, ghosts engage in philosophical discussion, and take a keen interest in love affairs, often rebuking their descendants for sexual shenanigans. In more contemporary literary fiction, ghosts as a representation of a protagonist’s inner, unresolved conflicts, become more prominent, such as in Anne Enright’s The Gathering, or Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution. In novels, we are able to have control over things that are uncontrollable. Within the pages of a book, the very spooks that terrify us may also be the ones that bring us an odd feeling of comfort and familiarity, as well as a sense of serenity.

When someone close to us dies there is a ghost image of that person within us, imprinted in memory. Convincing the reader that ghosts exist, by their existence in the story, is one of the magical powers of literature. Freed from the limitations of flesh, ghosts that appear in literary texts are like reflections on the other side of a mirror, telling protagonists things about themselves they did not know. Many characters embody ghosts in order to preserve the presence of those they held dear, in part so they are able to hold them close again, by denying the fact that they are truly dead. The annoying Jewish mother my protagonist Dina ran from as a young girl is the very person she is searching for as an adult. In this way, ghosts are a device or a kind of mechanism for characters to confront and deal with death and their own mortality. Margaret Atwood sums it up well: “The ghost[…] is a way of examining the self, coming to terms with the self.”

Leah Kaminsky is a physician and author, whose books include We’re All Going to Die, Writer MD, and Cracking the Code. She is the poetry editor for the Medical Journal of Australia.

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