When Hilary Zaid’s Paper Is White opens in 1997, Holocaust oral historian Ellen Margolis and her girlfriend decide to get married despite the fact that same-sex marriage was not yet legal in the United States. Ellen’s search for a blessing leads her into a complicated relationship with a wily survivor of the Kaunas Ghetto, a woman in search of a blessing of her own.
Amy Feltman’s Willa & Hesper also focuses on the relationship between two women — in this case, two MFA students who meet one night in Brooklyn. The two quickly fall in love — but when Willa starts to know Hesper too well, Hesper shuts her out. Escaping the relationship, she follows her fractured family back to her grandfather’s hometown of Tbilisi, Georgia. Meanwhile, heartbroken Willa joins a group trip for Jewish twenty-somethings to visit Holocaust sites in Germany and Poland. When this experience proves to be more fraught than home, she must come to terms with her past-the ancestral past, her romantic past, and the past that can lead her forward.
The two authors discuss each other’s books, writing about the Holocaust at a generational remove, faith and assimilation, and the emotional pull of the girl in the red coat in Schindler’s List.
Hilary Zaid: One might call Willa & Hesper an anti-romance, structured as it is on the aftermath of a relationship between two young women, who then go on to search for their individual histories. In certain ways, your protagonist Willa reminds me of the protagonist of Paper is White, Ellen Margolis, an oral historian of the Holocaust. In particular, both of these women grow up in emphatically assimilated Jewish homes. “It’s fine to be a Jew,” Ellen’s mother likes to tell her, “but you don’t have to make a career out of it.” Likewise, Willa remembers her mother’s warning: “We’re not those kind of Jews … You don’t need to be a fanatic about it.” Both Ellen and Willa have Jewish identities that develop in contrast to this assimilationist impulse. I think Willa’s journey in particular reflects a drive toward faith. Do you think that’s accurate and can you say more about where that comes from?
Amy Feltman: For a writer, it’s interesting to examine the generation once-removed from a genocide or similarly large-scale traumatic event. We assume that survivors of the Holocaust would have a complicated relationship with faith, and that their children would be raised with the impulse to “pass” and assimilate no matter what. Now, American Jews are sufficiently removed from that trauma to have to reckon with what’s lost in the process of assimilation as well as what their ancestors’ faith looked like, and whether it can be accessible in some form today.
I started this book with some of those issues rattling around in my subconscious, but mostly I wrote from a personal vantage point to start. Willa’s relationship to G‑d and to her Jewish identity are closely aligned with my own. There have definitely been points in my life where I felt less connected to faith and Jewishness, and the loss of that connection felt lonely and alienating. Even though Willa is in love in the beginning of my book, she’s also trying to jump-start the relationship she used to have with G‑d and the harder she tries, the more she doubts it. I wanted Willa’s journey to be about all of these different pieces of herself — personal trauma, inherited trauma, the beauty and heartache of a short-lived relationship — and laying them out into a mosaic, so to speak.
AF: How about you? When you began writing Ellen’s character, how did you form her relationship to faith and cultural identity? Were there any specific texts or experiences that you had in mind?
HZ: I think, in every generation, there is usually one person in a family who is interested in the past, who wants to understand the stories. Within her assimilated, twentieth-century Jewish family, Ellen Margolis is that person (to her mother’s consternation!), and a significant part of what draws her to the Jewish past is the silence that surrounds it. Her desire to plumb the unspoken leads her to her work with Holocaust survivors. We read a lot of historical novels that attempt to give us a picture of the past. I wanted to write a novel about what it means to live in the aftermath of history and to live with not knowing, which is the situation for most of us.
Ellen’s interest in her Jewish identity isn’t only about the past. She and her partner, Francine, are planning a wedding. The year is 1997, and in the absence of legal marriage, Ellen and Francine seek legitimacy in the rituals of the Jewish wedding. They both feel a solid connection to a Jewish identity, and they want to take part in a tradition that connects them to thousands of years of Jewish history. Ellen’s question is not one of faith, but of belonging.
HZ: What about Willa? Willa is a young woman who falls in love with another young woman, who imagines a wedding cake and children. But, when she sees an Orthodox couple on the subway, Willa is stricken with shame. She seems deeply conflicted about the relationship between her sexuality and her faith, even asking a rabbi whether it is possible to be both lesbian and Jewish. I admit, I found these passages both surprising and painful – painful because, like Willa’s willingness to be presumed heterosexual for the length of a Jewish young adult roots trip, they reminded me of a time not long ago when gay men and lesbians lived lives of fear in the closet, a time I lived through. And surprising, because, twenty years after the women of my generation were chanting in the streets and blazing a path toward marriage equality, Willa (and to a degree, Hesper as well) are still struggling to claim their place in the world. What’s happening for them?
AF: Willa is dividing the world into safe spaces and unsafe spaces throughout the whole book, hedging about whether people will accept her. In some cases, she worries about being accepted because of her queerness, and in others, she worries about her faith marking her as different. Nowadays, when you live in a generally accepting environment in a liberal city, sometimes you assume that everyone accepts you, and you can get snapped back into this reality when you remember that not everyone does. I wanted to explore that, because it’s such a recent phenomenon that a queer person might automatically be accepted by everyone. One of the people whom Willa fears rejection from the most is a religious figure, and I wanted that to be there because if you’re religious, that community is who you seek acceptance from the most. When a religious authority figure rejects you, it’s not just one person rejecting you. It feels like a whole community turning against you. For Hesper, the stakes are much lower because she sees herself as an individual, and doesn’t crave acceptance from a particular group.
AF: I found the setting of your book interesting. You mentioned your experiences in the ‘90s. Could you talk more about why you decided to set the book in that time and place?
HZ: I think you are so right about the assumptions people make about where we are in terms of acceptance, and that this is something that is still changing — not always in a forward direction. That’s something I needed to address in Paper is White as a novel about marriage equality set in the 1990s, but published in 2018, when that concept had shifted so radically. I would like to say that I “chose” to set the novel in 1997, but the time really presented itself, in part, if you can believe it, because I wrote the very first little pieces of the novel then. In retrospect, the ‘90s were such a hopeful time in American history, a time of a great paradigm shift in LGBTQ history, and the novel, for that reason, has become a historical novel about the grassroots of marriage equality. At the time I was writing, I was also thinking of the ‘90s as a fraught, transitional point in our understanding of the Holocaust because survivors were starting to become very old and that living history to feel so fragile. As a writer, I’m interested in what it means to be alive on this planet right now, and one of the interesting things about having written a novel set in the not-too-distant past is appreciating, through it, how much has changed so quickly,in something as seemingly fixed as the setting. The Bay Area of 1997 is worlds away, now, from the Bay Area of 2019, and I miss it!
HZ: This leads me to a question I had about the relationship between Willa and history. You’ve mentioned the importance of the distance Willa’s generation has from the traumas of her grandparents and parents. I was struck when Willa describes a traumatic moment from her own past: when she is a child, a Hebrew school teacher yells at her for wearing a red coat. Because the girl in the red coat in Schindler’s List died. It seems the little girl in the movie about the Holocaust has become a proxy for the Holocaust itself.
AF: That’s such an interesting way to view that memory. To be honest, I included that scene because it happened to me when I was in Hebrew school; I was about eight or nine, and I loved that red coat. I was completely unprepared for the teacher’s response when I came into that room. One reason I have Willa recall the incident in dialogue, rather than showing it in flashback, was that I don’t remember the details super clearly — only the refrain of her yelling, It will happen again.
Now, I think about what it must be like to feel such an intense burden of responsibility about teaching the past to generations who will grow up detached from it. What would drive a person to tell a room full of third- and fourth-graders that another genocide is right around the corner. She must have felt so strongly that she needed to warn us of that danger.
When I thought about Willa’s connection to the past, and how in some ways it leaves her spinning in this kind of liminal space between honoring those who came before her and masochistically retracing their steps, this memory seemed to fit really nicely. When Willa relates this traumatic memory, it’s to a group of strangers during an icebreaker. I wanted to choose a really squirmy moment for her to say this because it highlights her difference from the others in the group right away. She isn’t speaking the same language as the other participants in the Jewish young adult tour group. Later, Willa’s candor and vulnerability set the scene for her friendship with Bren, who ends up being a real source of emotional support for her. I loved writing their friendship, and I wanted to have someone in the narrative who views Willa’s faith as something admirable, if mysterious.
AF: What did you have in mind as you wrote the trauma in Paper is White? Ellen’s work as an oral historian allows for such candid conversations about the events of the 1930s and ‘40s. I was particularly struck by one observation by a Holocaust survivor early on in the book, who says: “These young people are very shy, very timid about the past.” I notice that in Ellen’s interviews, these events are often detailed in blunt, matter-of-fact tones. I wondered if that stylistic choice was influenced by that idea of confronting trauma? What sorts of things did you have in mind when developing the voice of this story?
HZ: There are so many ways to respond to what happens to us, including silence, including telling our stories. I wanted, above all, through this novel to explore the question about the impact of staying silent about our experience and not to answer that question in any definitive way, but to see the ways in which silence can be a tool of survival for some — like Elizabeth Landau, the character you just mentioned — and a very destructive force, as it was for Ellen’s dissertation advisor, Annie Talbot. Elizabeth Landau is a survivor who has come to a point in her life in which she decides it is time to tell her story,and from that point on, there’s no holding her back. That’s true of the real person who inspired that character, a Holocaust survivor named Lucille Eichengreen who spoke to an undergraduate English class I taught at UC Berkeley, and who wrote her own memoir about her experiences. I think that bluntness is a tool of survival. At the same time, we learn that Elizabeth and her husband (not based on Lucille’s life), also a survivor, never spoke to each other about their experiences during the war. And Elizabeth’s sister, like Lucille’s real sister, fainted when she saw commercials for Schindler’s List.
HZ: Speaking of the intergenerational transmission of trauma … Your novel is about two young women who have a familiar history of genocide. Hesper, Willa’s ex-girlfriend, discovers on a family roots trip to the former Soviet Republic of Georgia that her grandfather escaped as a child from a genocide in northern Europe and that what everyone thought was his birth family in fact were the people who rescued him. One of the novel’s threads is the discovery of Hesper’s family history. Given that the novel has sent these two women on separate paths, what was your plan in giving them these parallel histories, and are they a reflections of or foils for each other? Also, I have encountered readers who complain that stories about the Holocaust elevate it above other tragedies, or somehow give the upper hand on loss to the Jews.Did you feel like it was important to reflect that there are other genocides in the world?
AF: Hesper’s family history was something that came along later in the game as I was working on the novel. I knew that I wanted her grandfather to be from a former Soviet country, and that he’d escaped when the rest of his family had not, but the details of their family history came together relatively late in her character development. For Willa, growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust was very out in the open, although shrouded in silence. Since Willa was very young, it’s been known that this atrocity happened, and if she had been born a few decades earlier in a different part of the world, she would’ve died in the Holocaust. At least, that’s how she’s thought of it– that her survival is purely by chance. For Hesper, the revelation that her grandfather escaped from a genocide is a complete surprise. Hesper hasn’t ever considered her life as a stroke of luck, or had to think about fighting for survival being a part of her family history. The end of the book finds Hesper grappling with the past and starting to tackle this darkness, but not really having an idea how to go about it. The last words of Hesper’s story are “in a language that wasn’t mine.” I meant that literally — she’s piecing together words in Georgian through Google Translate — but also figuratively, that Hesper is learning to see history through a lens that she never had to access before, and she’ll have to reckon with that past and what it means to her and to her family.
To answer the last part of your question, yes, it was important to me to reflect the other genocides that have happened in the world besides the Holocaust. I’ve also heard that opinion discussed and I find it compelling. I tried to inject moments of that awareness in Willa’s narrative, too.
AF: I would love to hear about what influenced Paper is White. What were you reading (or watching/listening to/thinking about) while you worked on this project? Were there any voices in particular that shaped Ellen’s world?
HZ: Most directly, this novel project was influenced by the death of my grandmother. I was very close to her growing up, and she was the person in my family who held the history. She was a Hadassah Woman of the Year and the only person in my family who still went to Shabbat services. I wanted to write a novel that memorialized my love for her and was about something I thought would be meaningful to her, which is Jewish survival. At the time these seeds began to germinate, I was a graduate student studying English Romantic poetry. My undergraduate education, too, focused on poetry, and, formally, the rhythms of lyric poetry are strong influences for my work. Milton’s Paradise Lost is an influence here and, above all, the Wordsworthian conception of time, which was also the topic of my doctoral dissertation. For the last few years, I’ve been thinking about surveillance capitalism, and my current novel project takes that as its plot.
HZ: What about you? What are you working on next?
AF: I’ve been working on a new novel for a few years now and it’s been a messy, chaotic process so far, very unlike how Willa & Hesper was in the early stages. The new novel is a family drama about addiction, redemption, trauma, and Internet friendships. The novel begins (at least right now) with one of the protagonists being led from their high school after a classmate brings a gun in his backpack, but it’s confiscated. So right from the start, there’s this tension escalating between what almost happened and how to move past that jolt of thwarted danger, and whether that ever leaves you. I’m interested in exploring issues of gender and class in this book, too. After writing such a personal book, I’m trying to get away from myself a bit with this one, though you can only run so far!
Amy Feltman graduated with an M.F.A. in Fiction from Columbia University in 2016, and now works at Poets & Writers Magazine. Her writing has appeared in The Believer logger, The Toast, The Millions, The Rumpus, Lilith Magazine, Slice Magazine, and elsewhere. Her short story, “Speculoos,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2016 and was long-listed for Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers.