Carol Zoref is the author of Barren Island, which was Longlisted for the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction. Earlier this week she wrote about collective responsibility in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting, and shared her favorite Jewish books and her #toberead list. She has been blogging here all week as part of Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe series.
The Nobel Laureate Isidor Rabi was once asked why he hadn’t become a doctor or a lawyer or a businessman. Rabi replied:
My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: ‘So? Did you learn anything today?’ But not my mother. She always asked me a different question. ‘Izzy,’ she would say, ‘did you ask a good question today?’ That difference — asking good questions — made me become a scientist!’
Fiction writers are not scientists. Fiction writers work in a realm that values most what might or could happen, rather than one that emphasizes what, in fact, does happen. Yet our work shares important features. Fiction writing, like the work of physics, is a process of exploration, not declaration. The fiction that I like best doesn’t offer answers or advice. Writers of my ilk, like the theoretical physicist, pose and explore questions, hoping to bring them into sharper relief in an effort to deepen our understanding. Perhaps we discover a definitive answer to a question or two, yet anything resembling an answer to anything large, anything important, anything of serious consequence, only serves to provoke new questions.
My novel Barren Island opens not with a question, but with a prompting for a question: “Ask about the smell,” advises Marta Eisenstein Lane, on the occasion of her eightieth birthday. This has always been the opening line, from the moment I started writing the book one Thanksgiving weekend to the day I finally handed it off to two author friends some seven years later.
I was, when I began Barren Island, a writer of short stories, of essays, of longform nonfiction, and of poems. But I, the author, had commenced writing with a question of my own that was different than Marta’s. My question: I wonder what that was like? was a question that I believed I could address in the space of a short story, albeit a long one. Instead, it took 400+ pages before I was confident that I had explicated the question.
The question — my question, not Marta’s question — came about after reading a newspaper article that featured a man who had grown up on the historic Barren Island in Jamaica Bay, New York. Barren Island was the site of glue processing plants, the last of which was closed by Robert Moses in the 1930s. Workers and their families lived on Barren Island from the time that these plants opened in the nineteenth century. Many of them lived their entire lives there, some without ever leaving. Imagine living within sight of Brooklyn or Manhattan yet never going there.
Though the Brooklyn and Manhattan of the 1850s were markedly different than they are today, they were already remarkable loci of aspiration, industry, and immigration. They were also the sites of expulsion, land theft, and indentured servitude. Then came World War I and with it a nation, and an island, inculcated by modernity. How, I wondered, did the residents of Barren Island navigate the changes that were the hallmarks of The Interregnum, the years between WWI and WWII? What about the Great Depression? What about the labor movements? What about a Europe that was unable to stabilize following the Armistice? One question led to another led to another.
There was no way for me to know for certain. I am neither a historian nor a scholar of urban life. I never saw a photo of Barren Island until long after the novel was completed and the New York Public Library and Brooklyn Public Library digitized their photo collections. But unlike theoretical physicists, who calculate provable theorems, I had to rely on what is referred to as ‘acquired knowledge,’ meaning the flotsam and jetsam of information that one absorbs as an avid reader, observer, and listener. I also knew that I wouldn’t want to tell an untrue story about real people, so I shifted my story to Barren Shoal, a place that resembles Barren Island but is an invention of my imagination. Unlike the physicist, I had no obligation to the facts about Barren Shoal because there were none. The place that I wrote about never did nor ever would exist, nor would the characters that I placed there.
Some of the novel’s events that take place off-island did indeed happen, and to those facts I stay true, whether it was Jesse Owens winning four gold medals at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin or the German-American Bund rally in 1939 at Madison Square Garden. And I titled the book Barren Island in order to honor the actual people who lived there, the very real people whose stories I do not tell, so that they, too, will be remembered. I made certain to honor the truth without hindering my imagination.
Carol Zoref is a fiction writer and essayist. Her novel Barren Island received the A.W.P. Award for the Novel (Association of Writer and Writing Programs). Her writing has also appeared in The New York Times The Christian Science Monitor and more. She is on the faculty of Sarah Lawrence College and also teaches undergraduate fiction writing at New York University.