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.

Relat­ed Content:

  • Michelle Adel­man: Do Jew­ish Ghosts Exist?
  • Leigh Stein: The Ghost
  • Julia Dahl: The Pre­vi­ous Tenant