David Naimon: Care about the climate? Know a writer who does? Submissions just opened for Grist Magazine’s free annual climate-fiction contest Imagine 2200: Climate Fiction for Future Ancestors. Grist is looking for short stories that envision the next 180 years of climate progress, imagining worlds of abundance, adaptation, reform and hope. The Imagine contest emphasizes hope, justice, and solutions. It’s an invitation to imagine a future in which solutions to the climate crisis flourish and help bring about radical improvements. It is a call to craft stories that challenge the status quo of extraction, oppression, and violence. Winners will be published on Grist’s site in an immersive climate fiction collection and receive a cash prize, plus there’s no submission fee. The deadline to submit your story is June 13th. For all the details, go to grist.org/imagine. Again, check it out at grist.org/imagine. Today’s episode is also brought to you by Charif Shanahan’s Trace Evidence, a collection of poems that Ocean Vuong calls, “A truly magical achievement and a powerful, and urgent follow-up to his award-winning debut. Shanahan’s Trace Evidence explores the complexities of mixed-race identity, the tension of queer longing, time and mortality, and the brutal legacy of anti-Blackness in the United States and abroad.” Says Ada Limon, “Revelatory and pulsating with truth, Trace Evidence is a dangerously wise book of poems. Each poem is full of muscular music and meticulously carved out of longing as they ask, not just why we live, but how we live, and for whom. Wholly human and deeply rooted in attention, this book is for anyone who has ever questioned where they belonged.” Trace Evidence is out on March 21st from Tin House and available for pre-order now. There have been many conversations lately on the show that have been many years in the making and this is another one of them. A longtime fan of Sabrina’s work, I’ve been dreaming together with her toward this day since before the pandemic. Today’s conversation about her first book of essays Happily is strangely, and I think appropriately, one that refuses to be a non-fiction conversation, one that insists on being feral, like the fairy tales these essays are about. As some readers have noted, these essays become fairy tales themselves and with Sabrina’s long-standing background as a poet, this conversation travels omnivorously between poetry, memoir, essay, fiction, fantasy, and the fantastical. Somehow it evokes a dream world as a way not to look away from but to confront the very real fears, threats, and uncertainties in our lives as individuals, communities, and as a species. Perhaps in the spirit of the feral, fantastical nature of her book, in the first third of the conversation, we experience a little technical difficulty. In total, it really only amounts to perhaps 10 minutes at most and really it is only a three-minute answer of Sabrina’s, given to the first question posed by someone from outside our conversation where it is consistently noticeable, her speech speeding up and slowing down, like Alice getting too large and too small, words being clipped or dropped as if eaten still alive by a witch in the forest. But even that answer remains meaningful if strangely so, so once you hear our first guest questioner and Sabrina’s three-minute answer to it, after that, we’re in the clear. Also, in the first third of the conversation, we talk quite a bit about the writer and visual artist Bruno Schulz, both about his work and the circumstances of his life and untimely death. He’s a big influence and inspiration for Sabrina, so it delighted me that for the bonus audio, she chose to read one of his stories entire, the story Birds. When you listen to her read this story and hear Bruno’s attention to the sonic qualities of his prose, you feel in your body the connection between him and Sabrina. The bonus audio archive is absurdly vast and deep now, step by step as guests contribute more and more to it. But thinking about this wondrous story that Sabrina reads, I think also of Daniel José Older reading from, at the time, a forthcoming book, a way of reading that will immediately transport you before the fire, wide-eyed at the foot of an elder reading you a story. And Marlon James’s craft talk on The Art of Seduction as a writer, and Richard Powers’ incredibly moving reading of a W.S. Merwin poem about trees. The bonus audio is only one potential benefit of joining the Between the Covers Community as a listener-supporter. Every supporter gets the resource-rich email with each episode, overflowing with discoveries I made while preparing for the conversation and also suggestions of places to explore after you listen. Every listener-supporter can help shape who we invite next on the show. Then there are simply too many other possible things to name that you could also choose from, from becoming an early reader for Tin House receiving 12 books over the course of the year months before they’re available to the general public to writing consultations from past guests to rare collectibles from Ursula K. Le Guin and others. You can check it all out at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Now, for today’s conversation with Sabrina Orah Mark.
These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”
David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest is poet, short story writer, and now essayist Sabrina Orah Mark. Mark has a BA from Barnard College, an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and a PhD in English from the University of Georgia. She has taught at the University of Georgia, Agnes Scott College, Rutgers University, and the University of Iowa among many other places. Her work has garnered everything from a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship to a Creative Capital award. Her 2004 debut poetry collection The Babies was winner of the Saturnalia Book Prize, is judged by Poet Jane Miller with poems described by Claudia Rankine as, “Gorgeous, intelligent, and disturbing.” She followed this up with a second poetry collection Tsim Tsum which follows two characters from her debut, Walter B. and Beatrice, which Mark Doty described as, “Like a collection of episodes from a lost, slightly sinister children’s book on the nature of love and time.” Sabrina’s third book was her first book of stories Wild Milk out with Dorothy Project and a winner of the Georgia Author of the Year Award for Short Story. Edward Carey proclaims Wild Milk as, “A Little miracle. Her imagination is one of the most jaw-dropping I’ve ever met; she looks at the world with such a new, profound, funny, alarming, exhilarating and heartbreaking way. Her writing resets the brain. There is nothing quite like it: so genuine is it in its mysteriousness that the world feels freshly cracked open. These are tales to wake you up at last.” Through the worst of the pandemic, Sabrina also wrote a monthly column for The Paris Review that was a lifesaver for many including me. Writer Alyssa Harad tweeted at the time, “Perhaps only a writer who had already thought deeply about the babies that do not exist because of the Holocaust and had had given absurdist, surreal voice to those babies could have been prepared to turn out a monthly column during an uncontrolled pandemic. And definitely only Orah Mark could write about the loss of an antique plague doctor baby and turn it into a shape that holds a feeling I didn’t know how to name—possibly didn’t even know I was feeling at all.” Long ago, when I reached out to Sabrina to discover that these essays were to become a book called Happily, that yet again she was venturing forth into a new genre both to undo it and remake it anew, I knew I wanted us to gather to talk about it. Here’s what early readers are already saying about it. Kiese Laymon says of Happily, “You will remember the day, hour and minute you finish Happily. And it might remember you. Magic does live here. Sabrina Orah Mark has actually remade our childhoods by taking so seriously the world we’ve made as adults. Easily one of the most inventive, phenomenally executed books I’ve read in decades.” Rebecca Solnit adds, “These are fairy tales that are essays on fairy tales but also incantations, confessions, news analysis, personal history, and reminders that fairy tales are dainty things capable of doing a lot of heavy lifting of the contents of our imaginations and the aches of our hearts.” Finally, Sarah Manguso says, “With milk teeth, bread crumbs, pebbles, and tears, Sabrina Orah Mark illumines the outermost expanses of motherhood’s chaos, cruelty, and love. She confidently wields the weird logic of the fairy tale; bewitched, I didn’t even try to distinguish the real from the unreal. I just wanted to follow this thrillingly distinctive book wherever it went.” Welcome to Between the Covers, Sabrina Orah Mark.
Sabrina Orah Mark: Thank you. It’s an absolute pleasure to be here.
DN: I know, we’ve been imagining this conversation together for such a long time.
SOM: Yes, yes. I’m so excited. Thank you.
DN: I don’t know if this is an easy softball question or whether this is the hardest of questions but it’s a question I think I’ll be asking you in various ways as we talk today. Over and over again, these essays one to the next are confronting joys and terrors of being alive by juxtaposing those things with fairy tales, by looking at one’s life through and alongside fairy tales, and not only is there a sense that this is a life-saving act for you, a way to continue to connect, to endure, to celebrate but also I think given the immense response to these essays while we were all hunkered down in fear, caution, and a deep sense of unknowing during the first year of the pandemic, it’s clear others found this project a raft of sorts too. I want to ask the question, why fairy tales, why juxtapose life stories with them versus some other genre? But also thinking about your own life story where fairy tales were not part of your childhood, I doubly want to ask this question. Perhaps we can start with fairy tales, how they have and haven’t intersected with your life story, and why they’ve become such a principal way to make sense of life as it comes hurtling toward us now?
SOM: I did not grow up reading fairy tales but I did grow up studying in the Torah which is its own collection of fairy tales in many ways. I think that what happened with me with the fairy tale was that Happily really began out of seeing the Bruno Schulz’s frescoes at Yad Vashem but not first seeing them at Yad Vashem, first seeing them in a documentary where you can actually see the filmmakers discovering the fairy tales, and the fairy tales emerging from the whitewash. I remember seeing that moment of the fairy tales emerging from the whitewash and thinking, “That’s what I want to do in my writing.” I want that kind of collision of the now and the ancient to happen at once in this single breath. I think using the fairy tale as a way to write about really my days, like the day as the day is, as a mother, as a writer, as a wife, as a thinker living far away from where I came from, what the fairy tale does is it always offers a hand reaching out saying like, “Okay, we have been here before, we have all been here before, we have all felt these things and the things you are feeling,” and this is not to diminish it, “but the things that you are feeling have been felt maybe much worse and much bigger by many as an imagined story and as a story that lives inside of all of us.” I think as we all had this shared global moment that was this plague, the fairy tale in many ways made a lot of sense as a story that we all can experience together, that we can all reach for together, and that reaches for each of us too whether we want it to reach for us or not.
SOM: I’ve always felt like fairy tales are not meant for children at all. If they’re meant for children, they’re meant for very ancient children, trees, or angels. They get to the deepest part of us.
DN: Well, Kate Bernheimer, one of the great champions of the fairy tale and the founder and editor of the Fairy Tale Review, she has this great essay called Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale, which argues that fairy tales are analyzed over and over again for their meaning but almost never for their form and technique, yet she believes there’s a lot we can learn as writers from looking at the latter. The four elements that for her define fairy tales are flatness, abstraction, intuitive logic, and normalized magic. I want to bring up these elements for a couple of reasons: one because Kate and Lincoln Michel whose recent Substack titled Fairy Tale as MFA Antidote which meditates on Kate’s essay, they both know how fairy tales violate all the so-called rules of good writing, whether dimensionality of character and characterization in general, show don’t tell, specificity of language among many things yet fairy tales nevertheless endure. They both think that looking at the fairy tale structure and techniques can be illuminating for any writer of prose. In fact, Michel often starts his MFA writing classes with fairy tales so he can quickly dispel his students’ preconceived notions of what good writing is supposed to be. But what I’m curious about is this strange pairing of memoir and fairy tale that you’ve done because the real people in these essays, your husband, your children, and stepchildren, your mother, they aren’t flat, they aren’t abstract, we encounter them differently than we encounter the fairy tale figures in the same essays yet somehow mysteriously, these two forms have found harmonious coexistence in your essays. I wondered if that presented challenges or tensions to resolve in the writing or does bringing the subjectivity, dimensionality, and interiority of memoir, alongside the exteriority and flatness of fairy tale, does that happen more naturally for you like a normalized magic?
SOM: I love that question so much. I think that the reason why for me the fairy tale really worked was because it became a structure—and maybe this goes back a little bit to what I was just saying—where here was the scariest woods, here was the most evil stepmother, or here was the greatest fears of abandonment and children wandering around in the woods. What it did was it made me brave to speak up and tell my own story inside of that place because no matter what, the evil stepmother would always be much more evil than I could ever be. I think partially, the hotness of the fairy tale, the sense of it being us in our most monstrous, most realized, like most scared state which is a kind of flatness in a way, it strangely is a kind of flatness, I’ve felt like it can hold so many stories. I think Angela Carter says, and I don’t want to get this wrong but, “It’s new wine in old bottles.” That the bottle that is the fairy tale is just made out of what feels like the most indestructible glass. You can almost drink your own story from it and understand how it tastes after all. It really gave me a kind of freedom, like in the way that with my first book The Babies, the prose poem became a container inside of which I could go wild. The fairy tale gave me a very simple structure in many ways, inside of which to find the feral parts of memoir, the parts that I just really didn’t understand. I learned so much about the way I think through the fairy tale which I think for a long time I almost felt was on the edge of being boring. Like here are these strange stories and there are moments of miracle and beauty but I think I misunderstood them as being stale and predictable.
DN: Well, one thing that both Kate and Lincoln point out about fairy tales that seems really interesting to me, and also somewhat mysterious about them, is a particular effect that they create. Here is Kate saying, “Fairy tales are the skeletons of story, perhaps. Reading them often provides an uneasy sensation – a gnawing familiarity – that comforting yet supernatural awareness of living inside a story.” Lincoln calls this awareness, “Open artifice.” He says, “Fairy tales eschew the standard methods of hiding fictional artifice and instead present themselves as pure story.” Paradoxically, it feels like these skeletal stories create this effect that Kate calls comforting in the supernatural, of being aware of living inside a story. That is what I think your essays do. We have a question for you related to you and the essay form. But first, I was hoping you’d read the first page of the prologue as a demonstration of this effect.
SOM: Oh, definitely.
[Sabrina Orah Mark reads from Happily]
DN: We’ve been listening to Sabrina Orah Mark read from Happily. We not only have Kate Bernheimer’s writings about fairy tales as one lends into your book or trail of breadcrumbs between not only you and your husband’s beard but between you and her, we have a question from Kate, so here is Kate asking you a question.
Kate Bernheimer: Hi, Sabrina, this is Kate. We’ve never met but once upon a time, I invited you to write a new fairy tale for a collection where authors revisited old fairy tales and new works of fiction because the style of your fiction struck me as super ripe for the assignment, and it was. Your angular, surreal story My Brother Gary Made a Movie and This is What Happened, a variation on Giovanni Batiste Basiles’ The Young Slave is a surprising rebus of a tale within a tale about storytelling itself and here we are on David’s enchanting podcast on the occasion of Happily around 15 years later. Congratulations. It’s been such a pleasure to witness your engagement with fairy tales deepen and take center stage in your work, how they’ve offered you such a good way to think about your experience as a mother, daughter, citizen, Jewish woman, and character. An aspect of your work that I think is really special and which has truly evolved here is its fairy tale style. Yours is an associative, declarative style, and your non-fiction is a hospitable place welcoming any idea, image, or curious question that might wish to arise through a tale. These essays are not only about fairy tales but are fairy tales too because of how they are told. A sense that fairy tales not only have provided you with material, they also have unlocked your poetics. I think listeners might love to hear you speak about your non-fiction writing style and how it follows from fairy tales for you.
SOM: I love that question. Oh, wow. Thank you. Thank you, Kate. Hopefully one day we’ll meet in the woods. [laughter] I think my poems always had these little stories hidden inside of them, then my stories had poems hidden inside of them, and now my essays on fairy tales will give way to the fairy tale, like surrender to the form, what I imagine as both like a kind of surrender and kind of a defiance at once inside of form where I’m both surrendered to the form of the fairy tale but also being defiant inside of what one imagines has gotten oneself into when one enters into an essay. I think that collision of surrender and defiance is where I can start getting close to understanding something I hadn’t yet understood, maybe in a way, that’s why I live so far away from where I came from, that in a way, it’s like if you raise me in an essay, I’ll end up in a fairy tale. [laughter] It’s like I’ve learned about what I’m capable of as a writer by following the fairy tale almost like past what I understood it could offer me. At times, that scared me a lot too.
DN: I want to return to what you said about Bruno Schulz and maybe provide a little bit of background to who Bruno Schultz was and why seeing those fairy tales come through would have that impact for you. As a preface to my question for you, for people who don’t know who Bruno Schulz is, he was a Jewish-Polish writer and artist, and he wrote fantastical tales. Many writers as varied as Cynthia Ozick, China Miéville, and Roberto Bolaño reference Schulz’s work in some way or another. He was dispossessed and rounded into the ghetto where the ultimate fate for most was transport to one of the death camps. But one of the Nazi officers admired Schulz’s artwork and extended him protection in exchange for painting a mural in his child’s bedroom, so Schulz was this Nazi’s “personal Jew” or necessary Jew, something that apparently many Nazis had. It turns out that this Nazi, Felix Landau, had previously killed another Nazi’s personal Jew. One day, Schulz is returning to the ghetto and is shot by this other Nazi in revenge, one personal Jew or necessary Jew killed for another. The mural that Schulz was working on was painted over and forgotten for a half-century. This documentary you’re referencing shows the discovered and recovered murals, and you see in the documentary the fairy tales coming through the whitewash, Snow White, Cinderella, The Seven Dwarfs, and as you said, you wanted to try to capture this feeling of history coming through into the present, but also the history itself feels mythic to me. But it makes me think of your epigraph to Happily by Carlo Levi The Future has an Ancient Heart. I was hoping maybe just to pause again with the Schulz image and end this Carlo Levi quote, why this might be the opening quote to Happily, does this quote feel connected to the unfinished mural found again? How does time relate to once upon a time?
SOM: That’s a beautiful question. There’s this moment, and I’ll just go back to this documentary for a second called Finding Pictures where you see in real-time the fairy tales being discovered in this apartment that had been Poland and is now considered the Ukraine, and this woman comes to the door, this old woman and she has these thick glasses, and she looks up at the filmmaker and she’s clearly mostly blind, and her husband is dying in the other room. She seems to be living in this kind of misery and poverty. When they open the door, it looks, in a lot of ways, like the continuation of some kind of fairy tale as if the story keeps being told, so you can rub a story out or rub a particular kind of imagination out. When we think about all the stories that Bruno Schulz didn’t get to write or maybe somehow he’s still writing them, when that woman comes to the door and she rubs her eyes and looks up, I’m like, “Oh yes, here’s Bruno Schulz still writing these stories.” I think that on one hand, when we think of lives being cut short or worlds being cut short, I think that there’s always this other part of the story that gets picked up and continues on. Of course, that goes back to the idea of the fairy tale that is retold and reimagined among many different cultures. When I think of the future having an ancient heart, the ancient probably has a future heart as well. I like to think of stories in that way because I need to be that hopeful too. It’s like when my students ask me often, especially during the worst of the pandemic, the most lockdown of lockdown, like what am I even doing here, like why am I even writing, what’s the point of telling these stories really, I keep saying and I truly believe this like, “You add your little pebble to the pile, you add your pebble to the heap, and you don’t know how that pebble is going to change the heap in one way or another. Lean it in one direction, cave it in, or whatever happens to a heap of pebbles.” But I like to think of a story as a collection of voices that are moving backwards and forwards, shattering and falling into holes, and being dug up and forgotten, then remembered. That’s really important to me.
DN: The reason I’m bringing it up now is because I’m also thinking about this intersection between these unspeakable horrors and these tales from another dimension on the walls, tails which themselves have this horrible story behind them. I feel like this is a great description of what you’re actually doing in Happily. For instance, in the opening essay Ghost People where one of your son Noah’s teachers pulls you aside to say they’re concerned about how he’s building these ghost people out of wood chips in the playground and the teacher worries that they are distracting him, and you connect this to the story of Pinocchio, then also later in the same essay to the Jewish legend of the golem, created to protect the Jewish ghetto in Prague. When the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting happens and one of your sons asks you, “What happened at the Tree of Life?” you pretend he is referring to an actual tree and you say, “Nothing happened. A branch fell,” which connects us back to the wood chip figures at the beginning. But what’s interesting is the parents organize a group to talk about how to talk to their kids about the shooting and about anti-semitism more generally, and you stand out as someone who isn’t telling your own children about it. You aren’t telling them about the shooting and you haven’t yet read them Pinocchio either. Some parents are worried you are keeping them in a bubble and a debate ensues on whether you’re keeping them in a bubble or a cocoon, then you write, “My child, I want to say at the meeting at the synagogue, carries Ghost People around so we’ll be fine. I want to say, I haven’t even read my sons Pinocchio yet. I want to say, How many minutes of all our children’s childhoods are left? Instead, I say, ‘My children ask me if their Black father was ever a slave. They ask me if they will ever be turned into slaves. They ask me if I would ever be turned into a slave for being their mother. As Black Jewish boys, my children will never be in a bubble. But if there was a bubble big enough, I’d move there in a second.’” Among the many ways you’ve characterized fairy tales as cautionary tales, and yet it is fascinating that the book you’ve written on fairy tales and on motherhood opens with their lives already being by default cautionary, so much so that maybe you won’t read them these tales, maybe the way to protect them, cocoon, bubble debate be damned is some other way. The way things are left in this essay reminds me of something you said in conversation with Vi Khi Nao, “My students tease me because I always answer their questions with more questions. I tell my students the worst thing a story can do is answer a question unless it’s a question your great-grandmother asked her mother long before you were born on the coldest day of the year in a language you barely know.” I guess I wanted to hear you talk about beginning Happily with this story, one that seems uneasy about stories, or at least cautionary ones, and one that’s also uneasy about the limits of what a mother can do and what one should or shouldn’t do, and as you intimate in this conversation with Vi Khi Nao, this is an essay with no answers.
SOM: When I started writing these essays and Nadja Spiegelman who had been at The Paris Review, the great, brilliant Nadja Spiegelman had asked me if I would write a column and to write these monthly essays, well, first she thought maybe we would do them weekly and I thought I can’t do anything weekly, then I thought I can’t write monthly, that’s impossible, so I said yes, the original impulse really behind them was that my kids would say these things to me and I knew if I didn’t write them down, I would forget them. The other impulse was that I was scared. The other impulse behind the essays was I found myself raising my kids in a place far away from where I came from and suddenly, there’s one school shooting after the next and my kids are Black, and Jewish and I thought, “How are we going to all be okay?” That was the impulse behind the essays, was to remember and to protect. That was really all there was which I guess probably is also everything. It’s fascinating what you say about the cautionary tale because yes, the idea inside of a fairy tale is that the danger comes later, so what happens when you begin in the dangerous place? Can a book protect my kids? Can I turn the essay inside out and wrap it around my kids like some kind of wool, overcoat, bubble, cocoon-type garment? I don’t know. I think part of me still thinks yes, even though that probably seems slightly naive if not idiotic. But I love this idea of the fairy tale as a cautionary tale but Happily being a kind of tale that arrives with all of the list of dangers and somehow through expression can act as a kind of armor. If we better understand the world we live in, the things that came before us, and the things that came before that, then before that, will we have better tools to navigate? I think so. Or at least, we’ll have a little bit more light when it gets really, really dark.
DN: Yeah. I’d love to hear the opening to Sorry, Peter Pan, We’re Over You.
[Sabrina Orah Mark reads from Happily]
DN: We’ve been listening to Sabrina Orah Mark read from Happily. We have a question for you from past Between the Covers guest, the Poet Alicia Jo Rabins. I was very curious what she was going to ask because there are many areas of overlap between her interests and yours. She’s a Jewish educator and Torah teacher. She’s a mother and an author of the book Even God had Bad Parenting Days: Ancient Jewish Wisdom for New Parents. Even though she isn’t a rabbi, she’s my de facto one as any semblance of marking the passing of Jewish time and community for me always seems to happen in these miraculous gatherings in her backyard where kids are running everywhere and all these adults from different spheres in her life, whether from the music world, the writing world, or from the Jewish world, they’re all there, yet even though everything feels loose, casual, open, and spilling over, she still somehow performs and attends to the rituals and the meaning of them. She’s a storyteller, both her indie-folk songs about women in the Torah Girls in Trouble and her first film A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff. Here’s a question from Alicia for you.
Alicia Jo Rabins: I loved this book so much, Sabrina. Thank you for it. I’m so moved by the way you write about the weird hybrid experience which I’ve never really seen described quite the way you do in this book of how life is part lived in the world of objects and bodies, and part in stories. I love how your book enacts this feeling by moving between rocks, hair, and physical objects and between the realm of myth, and how it reflects that we constantly negotiate these realms or layers of experience, especially when we’re interacting with other generations, whether they’re our ancestors or our children. Thank you for this book. As for my question, I’m curious specifically about how you as a writer or a person interpret the relationship between fairy tales and Jewish myths or stories. I feel like they’re both our inheritances as Jewish people raised in American culture. They have these distinctly different textures and you move so beautifully between the two of them throughout this book. I’d just love to hear you talk a bit about how you relate to fairy tales versus Jewish legends and what you think about the relationship between them.
SOM: Thank you so much for that question. I actually bribed Alicia to ask me that exact question. [laughter]
DN: Sure you did.
SOM: I was a yeshiva kid, I grew up studying the Torah every day, and there wasn’t very much difference between the day and the miracle in the way I think for most kids, there are the borders between what is possible and what is impossible are blurred. I think for me they were just endlessly blurred, so even when you would write anything down on a piece of paper, you always on the upper right-hand corner had to also write the abbreviation of God’s name. From the very beginning, there was this I guess overlap or this fluidity between story and the day, and miracles and the possible, and the impossible. I love how you described Alicia’s backyard as being filled with music that seems to be both spilling over and also like held by a kind of ritual. Looking for that or searching for that is also like how we find form inside of the story itself. When I sit down to write, I have one notebook and everything goes in it. There’s the grocery list and how much the paint will cost, then what some costume I need to get together for one of my kids, then lines from Clarice Lispector and a line from Bachelard’s Poetics of Space, then also a piece of a fairy tale, then something from my son studying bar mitzvah, then there’s the question of like, “How do you contain that all in one yard, one space, one house, one essay, one poem, or one story?” The challenge for me is finding a place where everything belongs and sheds light on each other. I think in terms of the way studying the Old Testament and studying fairy tales now, to me they’re very much the same. They both act as these sorts of beautiful strange guides that are both right and wrong, violent and healing, and liars and truth tellers all at once.
DN: Well, it makes me think of, and tell me if this is a stretch, it probably isn’t the same language you might use for the Torah but it makes me think of one of the four elements for Kate Bernheimer for fairy tales is normalized magic. She describes it as, “The natural world in a fairy tale is a magical world. The day to day is collapsed with the wondrous. In a traditional fairy tale, there is no need for a portal. Enchantment is not astounding. Magic is normal.” That just reminded me of the way you were describing your relation to Jewish stories.
SOM: Yeah. I’ll tell you something I probably shouldn’t admit. But when I was in graduate school, I was taking a Biblical translation class and there was a lot of discussion about source texts and how you can tell inside of the language who wrote what. I guess I was in my late 20s and I said, “So the whole part about the Bible being written by God, that’s off the table, right?” Everyone got very quiet, very, very quiet and it was clear that it was off the table. I realized for how long into really my early adulthood that I actually did not question that. It wasn’t a question for me. It was so important for me to believe that a book was written by this divine light. Really I think I now understand so many books written by a divine light. Even if we get to meet them in body form if we’re lucky, I think my relationship to language and storytelling was as informed as it was misinformed from very early on. I carried that forward for a long, long time.
DN: We’ll, both to pick up on this notion of a book being written by divine light and also to expand upon Alicia’s question, as a first step to a question I want to ask, I was hoping maybe you could explain, for listeners who aren’t well-versed in Jewish mysticism, the notion of Tsim Tsum, what it is, why it’s meaningful to you, and how it’s related to Tikkun Olam, the task of repairing the world?
SOM: Tsim Tsum is considered in Jewish mysticism as a flawed phase in Genesis where right before the world is created, the creator of this world stuffs their light into these vessels, then departs, then here we are standing around inside of this creation where the creator has exiled themselves from it and the light is so intense that these vessels can’t contain the light, so the vessels shatter and light is scattered everywhere. Here we are in this predicament where the one who created the world that we live inside is now in a kind of exile or we’re in a kind of exile from that creator but also we’re standing among all of the scattered light. Then Tikkun Olam or repairing the world is in many ways the act of going around and gathering that light up, and trying to piece things back together somehow. According to the Kabbalists, this accounts for bewilderment in many ways of living in a world where there’s always the sense that the answer is out of reach because the answer is always out of reach but it also is within reach as a shattered form.
DN: The reason why I wanted you to talk about Tsim Tsum is because, in a very circuitous way, I want to connect Alicia’s question about Jewish stories and fairy tales to something she said before the question about the physicality and preponderance of objects in your stories. It’s something that prefaces her question. But I wonder if there’s a subterranean connection, if the goal for us is to see the divine spark hidden in anything and everything, every “dead thing,” and by doing so, by identifying the divine broken shard of the vessel liberating that shard so it can join other hidden shards back into a broken hole and that this process is one of interacting with the materiality of the world, it feels like we are all of a sudden, or at least for me, I all of a sudden see a throughline through a lot of your writing. I think of a conversation you had with the artist Christina Forrer for the Wadsworth Atheneum where you say, “Fairy tales show their seams that you can see their spare threads and undergarments,” and I also think of an essay you wrote since the finishing of Happily called The Perilous Realm after your house burned down where you say, “For the first few months after the fire, my husband and I would come back to our rental with our arms full of broken things we picked off our burnt house, like fruit off a dead tree. It was exhausting work. We were like farmers, but instead of fresh harvest we grimly reaped what we still owned: Pens, two mezuzahs, a pair of scissors, a crumpled sheet of stamps, a laundry basket. One afternoon my husband dragged in a battered glass door from my grandmother’s antique bookcase. The one that kept my fairytales. ‘I can turn this into something,’ he said. ‘What?’ I said. ‘Something.’ he said. I began to wonder, what even are things? And who are we when all our things are broken? And who are we when all our things are gone? The door now leans against the screened-in-porch of the rental house like the glass eye of a dead woman, an eye that will never close.” I was curious what your doctoral dissertation was on and when I discovered it and read the introduction which is entitled How To Make a Poem out of Tsim Tsim and in that introduction you say, “My maternal family escaped Vienna during the Holocaust, and my great-aunt was allowed to bring with her one last object. She chose a porcelain doll. Her mother wrapped it in newspaper for transport. Years later, my great-aunt unwrapped the newspaper to show me the doll. I must’ve been seven or eight. The day she unwrapped the doll was the same day it had been wrapped, according to the date on the paper. I remember it was November. The doll was broken. The eye was coming out of its socket, and I think one leg was loose. We decided to take a trip into Manhattan to bring the doll to the doll hospital to get her repaired. When we got to the hospital, though, the doll doctor was hollering at someone on the telephone, and his hollering frightened me, shook me into tears, and we left. The doll was never fixed. Over the years the doll fragmented and fell further and further apart. I believe the genesis of my quest begins with this doll,” and your recent post Happily essay about the tooth your husband finds in a donut also, it all feels like not only does any object, however mundane and ordinary, contain a shard of light waiting to be seen and liberated. But I wonder if perhaps every single thing, if we stayed with it, has a story.
SOM: One exercise I often give my students, and it’s my favorite exercise and it’s probably the exercise really of so much of my writing, is to pick one object, something small, something incredibly as small as you can go, and write into it until it starts echoing the universe. Then I will often give them Borges’ Aleph because yes, I think that if you look at something for long enough and listen to it, everything can start talking back, I came to Borges’ Aleph late and probably one of my favorite moments in all of literature is that Aleph behinds the staircase, that when you look into just that one letter, it holds the entire universe. But you have to go down the stairs and you have to be okay with being in the dark, and you have to look for a long time. I do have this really strange thing now going on in my heart and my brain because to lose all of one’s possessions, all of one’s objects in a fire feels like unimaginable in many ways yet the unimaginable happened. When we went through my house and gathered up what was left, what had survived, and what had not survived, the stories that seemed to spill out of each thing, it was so loud, too much, and strange. I had to turn the volume on it all the way down. It’s weird right now as myself to still be sorting through the debris of that. That’s something I’m writing through right now.
DN: Well, to bring this into language more, in the intro to your thesis How To Make a Poem out of Tsim Tsim, you talk about how exile or galut in Jewish mysticism is not just the state of Jews but a condition of the universe that as you’ve explained already today, a being cannot come into existence unless its creator withdraws. You wanted to find a way to enact this departure and this exile in your poetry, and you say some things that I love that I want to hear more about. For instance, “What Tsim Tsum does ontologically, metaphor does linguistically. Both depend on galut. On exile, metaphor makes language lack a certain presence where language happens to be,” then later, “To adequately mimic a Tsim Tsum the poem cannot only use metaphor to house what departed from the shell, but it must also account for the wounded shell,” and also, “If metaphor can initially be understood as sacrifice (the departure of one for the entrance of another), a sacrifice that ends in shatter, fragment, displacement – then the gather and harvest of this shatter, the stringing the shards together, is what makes allegory.” That last statement perhaps brings us back again closer to fairy tale. But could you talk a little bit more about how and why metaphor for you enacts exile, how it relates to houses, homes, and shells?
SOM: Yes. Angela Carter talks about reimagining the fairy tale as new wine in old bottles and metaphor itself is a way of finding these new containers, maybe it’s new bottles for old wine. In Greece, on moving vans it says Metaphorai on it because you’re literally like carrying the contents of one house, storing them, and bringing them to another house or another shell. I remember when I first read Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, I was so completely blown away because what Gertrude Stein does is she keeps the shell of the words, then seems to create this landscape almost of all of these broken shells in a form that looks like a glossary. You’re climbing over all of them and experiencing language as something so incredibly physical. When you read Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, you can feel the words themselves, the physicality of them because what had been inside of it has spilled out. Everything you just said so beautifully is so much of what I’m thinking about right now because here I was spending all of this time at my desk in my old office surrounded by all of these fairy tales and using maybe like the shell of the fairy tale to write all these new stories or take these journeys but always having the container, the shell of the fairy tale, then my house burns down and what was left though of my house was actually just the shell, and three beams that we were able to keep that are like at the center of the house, I mean it seems ridiculous that this has happened. But here I am where I think for so long in my writing, I had always felt like everything was a metaphor, then even the metaphors were metaphors and those metaphors were metaphors too, and you can just go on and on, then one of the most physical things that could happen happened and here I am inside of the shell but the shell with three beams. That’s how I’ve always imagined how language functions, so I don’t want to say it’s surreal but what’s one step beyond surreal?
DN: Yeah, I don’t know.
SOM: Yeah, I don’t know.
DN: I’m glad you brought up Gertrude Stein and also this question around the function of language because I feel like another thing that runs through your work other than this question of Tsim Tsum and metaphor is something around the limits of language, the imprecision of language, or a mystery about language that I want to hear more about. In Shara Lessley’s review of your first book in Diagram, The Babies, she says, “Throughout The Babies, language falls, stumbles, and crosses wires. Lovers reply with utter certainty to both articulated and unarticulated questions. The poems, in fact, gain power by seeming miscommunication and misunderstanding. Although invested in the ability both to reveal and conceal meaning, Orah Mark’s poems call into question the setting down of detail as an act of preservation, whether the subject is public or private. Weirdly daring, The Babies underscores the degree to which communication happens almost in spite of our best (or worst) intentions.” If we open your first book of fiction Wild Milk to the opening story, that book opens with this very same thing, something that continues throughout the story and the book, mishearings, misinterpretations yet weirdly some connection is made almost, despite language and continuing with this notion of accounting for the wounded shell of metaphor, you say of Gertrude Stein, “Stein cracks open the shell that has kept the word impoverished of its other discourse. She makes language stop speaking the same language as its language, not as an act of annihilation but as an act of restoration. Celan’s poetry maintains that a poem’s ‘speaking’ remain contingent on an unspeakability. In Celan, every limb alludes to a limbless body. Every finger points to a fingerless hand. Again, this is not an annihilation, a gathering up of a wounded language that is not ‘lost,’ as he reminds us in his Bremen Speech, but a language saturated in the shards of exile, that must ‘go through its own lack of answers, through terrifying silence, through the thousand darknesses of murderous speech…went through and could resurface ‘enriched’ be it all.’” In another interview you say, thinking of Stein’s writing, that writing in a space of language that barely knows itself fascinates you. I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about this. It seems like language is a failure in a certain way in the language.
SOM: I began as a poet and my understanding of language was, “Okay, here I am as a poet and my job is to articulate the silences.” But you don’t articulate the silences by not recognizing that this silence will always live at its center. I just carried that around with me as a mode of thinking and a mode of writing. When I think about how to start telling a story, I think about what Walter Benjamin talks about with the poet as a collector and the poet as a ragpicker where you go around and you collect what has been forgotten or feels like it no longer needs to be of use, and you gather up those things and a lot of those things have inside of them a kind of inability to speak or an inability to form an easily accessible narrative, and you gather those things up, I mean I know this is going to sound like maybe spells, alchemy, or something but that’s how I approach language where it feels like a kind of digging, it feels like a kind of searching and collecting. I remember the first time I saw a Joseph Cornell box, I remember just bursting into tears because here were these discarded things that had been reimagined as a silent story.
DN: Well, I want to ask you something about repetition.
DN: Not just because we’re talking about Gertrude Stein who has said things like, “There is no such thing as repetition,” and also that repetition is the lesson that history teaches us and also that repeating is the whole of living, and by repeating comes understanding and understanding is to sum the most important part of living, but also because in your conversation with Christina Forrer, you link your dual interest in the Torah and fairy tales to the way fairy tales are told and retold and how repetition of the stories in the Torah is important as well. I think it’s worth noting that the Torah is circular, a scroll that is unscrolled and re-scrolled over the course of a year so that you’re reading the stories each year in relation to the unfolding of the seasons. Regarding the Torah, this scroll aspect feels like at least to me, it gives it a certain sense of wholeness and unity but also the fact that the Torah is only consonants, that it requires the vowels of our breath and song in engagement with it to bring it alive in each generation, and with each generation bringing it alive differently makes it seem incomplete without us in some way. Yet the notion of an us is such a giant collective which I think is true with fairy tales too. Like when Angela Carter says in one of the epigraphs to Kate Bernheimer’s essay, “Ours is a highly individualised culture, with a great faith in the work of art as a unique one-off, and the artist as an original, godlike and inspired creator of unique one-offs’. But fairy tales are not like that, nor are their makers. Who first invented meatballs? In what country? Is there a definitive recipe for potato soup? Think in terms of the domestic arts. ‘This is how I make potato soup.’” Does this bring up any thoughts about repetition for you in relation to your work?
SOM: I think there’s a line in Lucie Brock-Broido’s the Master Letters where she writes, “Obsession helps me up the stairs at night,” which is a line that goes through my head very often. But the beautiful thing about the story is that it is like a changing, growing body, there is something always very alive inside of it and we know this because each time we go back to the same story, the story has changed somehow, so you can feel it weathered, unweathering, or there’s a piece that had been forgotten. For me, repetition is maybe a way to make sure that we gather as many shards as we possibly can gather if we keep returning to the edge of the river. I do see that act of repetition as connected to the idea of the writer, the poet as a collector, and as a rescuer. We need to return back to make sure we gathered everybody. That’s one of the things that’s so incredibly beautiful about the fairy tale and how it stretches itself across time and space and feels the weather of so many different cultures and is told and retold inside of so many different languages. Maybe this goes back to the idea of garments, shields, overcoats, or something that stretches across great expenses of time and space, when we all somehow get to feel the fabric of it. I think through repetition in the way that you can hear a story that had been spoken by the dead, it feels like a kind of tikkun olam, like a mode of healing.
DN: Well, in the aura of repetition or how nothing is perhaps truly repetition, we have one more question from another and it’s a question that revisits some things we’ve touched upon, and questions that have been asked. But I suspect, after all we’ve discussed, that these questions will sound different and also because of course, they’re asked differently and this question is an epic question, more like a series of nested questions like I tend to do, so what we have touched upon that we return to in this question also sits alongside things raised by this questioner that we haven’t yet talked about new things. And because this is from poet and host of Commonplace Podcast Rachel Zucker who also writes deeply about motherhood and Jewishness, even though she said that I can edit this to whatever is most useful, I wanted to leave this epic question in the aura and force field it creates in its wholeness so that it can influence what we talk about going forward. Here’s Rachel with a question for you.
Rachel Zucker: Beloved David, beloved Sabrina, I’m recording this on a bright, sunny, very cold Saturday morning in Scarborough, Maine. From my warm house, the world outside my big window looks warmly inviting but the bitter wind blows even while the sun shines. People we love are sick, dying, and suffering. I wish I was with you both right now, that I could make a cave of stuffed animals and pillows as I did as a kid, climb inside, and listen to the two of you talk or listen to Sabrina read me her new book from beginning to end. I’ve learned that there are stories that can save your life and books that are more precious than yeast or flour even in a pandemic, even when you’re hungry. Happily is such a book. What do I want you to talk about, what do I want to know? I want to know what happens when the crying room burns down. Is it like the first temple rebuilt or like the second temple? Does it leave a real or figurative Wailing Wall that is a marker of diaspora? I want to hear you talk about the violence in fairy tales. It used to be that I would gift copies of my mom’s book, The Magic Orange Tree in audio or the book itself to everyone I knew who had children. But over the years, parents complained that the stories were too dark and too scary for their kids. It seemed that the Disneyfication of folk and fairy tales had somehow made children unable to tolerate the violence of these stories that have, for thousands of years, been told to children as a way of preparing them for the scary complex feelings in themselves and in others that they will inevitably need to face. Of course, the urge to protect children is normal. You had a book of fairy tales you were afraid to open because the cover alone was too frightening. But what is lost in not telling these stories to our children? What is lost by protecting them from made-up monsters, demons, dragons, and evil stepmothers, then to tell them one day that indeed there are monsters, there are people who will try to hurt them, and the rivers, oceans, and soil are filled with poison? It seems to me that we have an entire generation of young adults who were overprotected as children and now, when confronted with the story of the world as it is, immobilized with terror. Lastly, on this Sabbath morning, I want to know from you, two Jews, about the stories of the flood, the angel of death killing the firstborn, Jacob struggling with the angel, the Red Sea parting ways, are stories of a vengeful God. How are these like and not like the folk and fairy tales? But mostly, I just want to hear you talk and talk and talk and keep making midrash. I love you both.
SOM: That is so beautiful. Thank you, Rachel. I love how Rachel’s question actually felt like the gigantic garment that stretched over time and space. We could all live under or be wrapped up in so many beautiful questions inside of that question which is really a prayer or a spell. That question Rachel asked in the beginning, what happens when the crying room burns down, sent chills through my whole body. I taught out of my house and the classes were in-person classes, and the room that I taught inside had been a renovated garage which ended up being called the crying room because at one point in every workshop, there would always be crying and if you didn’t cry at least once, you failed my class, but not really. [laughter] There was inside of my house this incredible room where so many people came and told their stories, and shared their stories and yes, “What happens when the space that held all of that energy burns down?” is a question I keep asking myself. Before the fire, my sons and I were reading that book by Kate DiCamillo Flora and Ulysses about a squirrel who becomes a poet. I highly recommend it. We had been reading that book and we must have been reading the book together, maybe the week before the fire, we had gotten halfway through, then our house burned down and we forgot about it. About a month ago, I said to my son Eli, “Oh my God, remember we were reading Flora and Ulysses? We need to get another copy of that book. The fire interrupted that book,” then I think I said, “Isn’t it strange to think about how many things had been interrupted and what would have been different, and what would have been the same?” Eli said, “We could always get another copy of the book.” But what’s more important he said is that things are interrupted and even if we start reading the book again, another thing will be interrupted and that thing will be interrupted too, then the thing after that will be interrupted. It’s just everything is always interrupted. It gave me so much, I don’t know, it just gave me so much joy to think about the way time can work and how maybe the story that we think we’re telling ourselves or being told will stop and start again or be picked up by another, be forgotten, then remembered. I don’t really know what happens when the crying room is interrupted, I don’t know what happens when the day is interrupted by yet another shooting, another earthquake, another flood, a birthday party, or some singing. But I think again, it’s like you keep gathering pieces of those moments and try to use those places as some kind of guide. I love the question that Rachel asked so much and I’m swimming in it right now.
DN: Yeah. When she mentions the first temple, is it like the first temple or is it like the second temple built on the destruction of the first temple? Or is it like the Wailing Wall, the weather literally or metaphysically the last standing wall? You mentioned in one of the essays how the broken tablets from Mount Sinai, so the first time Moses goes up, then comes down and smashes the tablets before he goes up again for another revelation, that the broken tablets are put alongside the whole tablets in the Ark of the Covenant as they wander through the wilderness. It makes me realize this relation to brokenness predates the temples which is really interesting. I’m not going anywhere with that. I’m going to say another, perhaps non-sequitur. But the other thing that made me think of listening to Rachel, it’s always felt weird to me that the word Jew, even though it should just be simply a descriptor, feels aggressive. Like if you say to somebody, “He is a Jew,” that sounds to me like it could be hostile versus, “He’s Jewish.” I don’t know if that’s true for other people but it seems strange to me that it has this strange valence. But when Rachel says, “You two Jews,” she says, “I want to hear from you two, two Jews,” that sounds like the warmest, most inviting thing to me. [Laughter] Two Jews, I love that, I don’t know why but sonically or something, that feels so like a home.
SOM: It does. I love that. I feel that. What about three Jews or four Jews? [Laughter]
DN: Well, that’s fine. But something about, “You two Jews,” there was something very warm about it to me.
SOM: I’m on a text thread, two of my friends and we’re all Jewish, and we will often get very specific questions. My friend Amy will always say, “Here come the Jews. We’re coming to answer all of your questions with more questions.”
DN: Yeah. Well, thinking both of you and Rachel’s long-standing, deep explorations of motherhood and also Rachel’s saying she wished she could gather her stuffed animals, and listen to you read Happily, beginning to end, I did want to spend a moment with why fairy tales aren’t taken seriously or as a serious source of study. Kate Bernheimer suggests that part of the reason they are only looked to for their meaning and not for their technique is because they are denigrated through their association with children and with women. I also think back to Noah and his wood chip Ghost People, how making these figures making representations seems so deeply innate and fundamental to who we are as humans from very early on, yet something we’re also pressured to disown and distance ourselves from as part of becoming an adult. Perhaps it’s even a legacy that we could extend all the way to you arriving at the Iowa Writers Workshop and being told that surrealism is dead. This strange contradictory relationship we have to this and to our own childhood intelligence, I talk about this with Will Alexander, Karen Joy Fowler, and Neil Gaiman during their respective appearances on Crafting with Ursula, the series that I ran last year, and I wanted to read a quote from Le Guin, then hear your thoughts about fairy tales as a denigrated genre. This is Le Guin having just finished talking about the anxiety of influence that some writers have, “That the accepted (male) notion of literary influence is appallingly simplistic is shown (first—not last, but first) by the fact that it overlooks, ignores, disdains the effect of ‘preliterature’—oral stories, folktales, fairy tales, picture books—on the tender mind of the prewriter. Such deep imprints are, of course, harder to trace than the effect of reading a novel or a poem in one’s teens or twenties. The person affected may not be conscious of such early influences, overlaid and obscured by everything learned since. A tale we heard at four years old may have a deep and abiding effect on our mind and spirit, but we aren’t likely to be clearly aware of it as adults—unless asked to think about it seriously. And the person affected may be deeply unwilling to achieve consciousness of such influences. If ‘seriousness’ is limited to discourse of canonical Literature, we may well be embarrassed to mention something that some female relative read aloud to us after we’d got into bed in our jammies with our stuffed animals. Yet it may have formed our imagination more decisively than anything we ever read.”
SOM: I love that. I think the fairy tale and the oral tradition of storytelling, the stories that we’re told as children in the dark have a fluidity, are bodiless in certain ways or at least the borders of their bodies are a little bit more blurred than let’s say the novel or whatever the most basic idea of the novel. And because of that blurring, it does make the story itself, the mode of storytelling, or the way that it enters into our body that much more powerful, then also that much more dangerous because you can’t contain it. It’s a kind of wind, it’s a kind of air that we breathe, that we share. Once it can’t be contained or stored into a single body, it can’t be controlled or it can’t be commodified. It can’t be bought and sold. For that reason, I think the fairy tale is just powerful, dangerous, and feared. Probably one of my favorite fairy tales but don’t tell the other fairy tales is Collodi’s Pinocchio because Geppetto carves what begins as a story out of wood, then the story itself, the boy Pinocchio who wants to be a real boy runs away from him, steals from him, and lies to him and is uncontainable in the way that the fairy tale is. Geppetto risks everything to try to find him and ultimately, it’s Pinocchio, it’s Geppetto’s act of his own imagination that betrayed him, the very thing that betrayed him, it’s Pinocchio who ends up saving Geppetto at the end and swims him out of the belly of the shark on his back. But I often think of Geppetto as the mother of all mothers inside of the fairy tale, I mean he’ll do anything to save Pinocchio but it’s Pinocchio who saves him.
DN: Well, I wanted to think for a minute about Rachel’s new book The Poetics of Wrongness in relationship to your project and her engagement with the Jewish taboo of lashon hara or evil speech or bad-mouthing someone, a taboo except when it is meant to save a life and Rachel’s attraction toward transgression, toward saying anything but also tempering that with how that anything affects not necessarily the given individual in question but the community at large. I wanted to ask you about the question of ethics around what you say or who you portray. You’ve said in past interviews that Tsim Tsum had no I in it and in many ways is more fictional than your subsequent book of fiction where your fictional stories have the eye peeking through. But this new book is very much about you and your family, your children are repeatedly characters in it, your husband is, and one thing that really adds a fairytaleness to this book about fairy tales is that you are your husband’s third wife, and you are thus a stepmother and have stepdaughters, and a stepdaughter is variably staying with you at different times. You express your feelings in various ways to us about having a partner with these alternate pasts and about your complicated feelings about being a stepmom. I wondered what your relationship to taboo is with regards to writing into these more autobiographical things and/or portraying your loved ones intimately and happily.
SOM: It’s a very tricky question and it’s something that I talked to my students about also in terms of what we are allowed to say, what we are not allowed to say, and what happens when we say the thing that should never be spoken. I think again, it helps me say the thing that I had felt that I should forbid myself from saying by keeping the fairy tale close as I was saying it as a way to not hide but to say this thing that has been felt before is being felt now and will be felt again, and there’s no shame in saying that. The other part of this is that as my sons are getting older right now, it’s becoming more and more clear just for me, I think for each writer, for each artist, it’s so specific but because as my kids are getting older, I’m very aware of the things that they say to me that do not belong to me, that are not part of a story that I should be telling, that is part of the story that they should somehow be telling one day however they wish or now to tell it. I can actually point to the places where I can say, “That’s my story, that’s not my story. That’s my story. That is my story. That’s not my story.” Often, what happens is if I try to write about something that is not my story to tell, that does not belong to me, the writing is terrible. It doesn’t work. It feels fake, overwrought, or the language refuses to give in. Answering that question about lashon hara and like, “What’s okay?” and the idea of airing the dirty laundry of clothes that don’t belong to me, I answer those questions in the act of writing. Recently, I’ve been trying to write a story that my brother has told me and I had even asked his permission, I said, “Is it okay if I write about this?” He said, “Yes, but it is a second-hand story in a lot of ways.” Each time I go to the story, the language refuses to give in, it won’t bend. I’ve been trying to write the story for 15 years. I do think that inside of the act of writing, I find the answers to what is okay and not okay. There are times where there were some very dangerous places in Happily, I will admit that and I’m not going to say I didn’t get in trouble because I did get in trouble, but it was trouble I was willing to get myself into and I was willing to deal with the fallout and the consequences of that because the bigger consequence would have been me growing teeth where my cheeks are and I knew I was willing to say my piece. [laughter]
DN: Yeah. Well, this is not really a question but an aside but I just have to say that your mother as a character is my absolute favorite character in this book. She reoccurs throughout and they’re always these most incredible and incredibly funny moments because it’s as if she’s living in and operating in a different cosmos under a different set of metaphysical rules than the essay itself, and she punctures the spell of the essay comes in, almost from something from Curb Your Enthusiasm for instance, with this blast of no-nonsense worldly opinion and it feels like it changes the way the electrons are spinning in the room of the essay. It’s so great.
SOM: Thank you. She’s my poetic foil.
DN: She is? [Laughter] But it’s so wonderful, this countervailing energy that comes into these essays. I anticipate it when I’m reading them now because your portrayal of her as a character does something to your essays. But staying with The Poetics of Wrongness in the broadest sense of the term, when Rachel says, “I am wrong and you are wrong, and I’m willing to say it, therefore I am a poet,” there were two things I wondered if I would encounter when I read Happily, two things which in the end I didn’t encounter but I’m still curious to hear your thoughts on. Most of the book is about raising your two Black Jewish Boys in this world, the challenges of being a mother, a partner, a daughter, an artist in this world and most of the forces you have to protect your family from are from the outside, whether racism or anti-semitism, disease, mortality, any number of things. But I had two questions for you about when the wrongness is coming from within and the first is about anti-Blackness within the Jewish community which at least in my experience isn’t a small thing. Even simply the number of accounts of Jews of color entering a synagogue or other Jewish spaces and immediately being presumed to not be Jewish, I think it’s between 10% and 15% of Jews in the US aren’t White. I wondered if this is something you simply haven’t experienced, something you have but you haven’t found a way into it, or something that’s too fraught to write into.
SOM: It’s something I really have very little language for because right now in Athens, we’re part of a congregation that is probably one of the most inclusive, embracing communities that I’ve ever been part of. I could pretend to know the reasons why that might be. I think everything I would say would be a little bit wrong and a little bit right about why that is. I feel like our family is incredibly embraced in that congregation now. I have gone to other congregations where I felt like my kids were stared at. In fact, I had one pretty unpleasant interaction with a father, it was just very unpleasant and clearly, I don’t have a lot of language for how to even begin talking about that. What I will say is that my son Noah wanted to be in this holiday parade in Athens. These different schools will put together floats for this holiday parade and Noah was very excited about doing this whole holiday parade and it’s always very, very Christmas centered and he decided that he was going to represent Hanukkah on the parade, and he was going to dress up as a robot Menorah. [Laughter] He designed this gigantic costume and it was beautiful. He designed it, he got the materials, and he put this whole costume together and had a gigantic Jewish star on his forehead. I’m not a big fan of children on floats and parades on the best of days, [laughter] I was like, “Okay, alright, it’s okay.” I’m really proud of him, he’s representing. Also, the float, to make matters either better or worse, the theme was holiday apocalypse or something like this. He was incredibly, incredibly excited, we were getting ready to go to the parade, and I start seeing these messages coming in on Facebook that somebody had threatened to open fire on the parade, that there was going to be some shooting at the parade, somebody had written something on Facebook, then on Instagram or something like this. We were about to go. There was about an hour and a half to make this decision whether or not he was going to be on this float as a robot Menorah, as a Black kid representing Hanukkah in the town and there was this threat. Finally, my husband just made the executive decision, he’s like, “I’m going to pick him up.” He went to get him and Noah was so excited because he thought that his father was going to walk with him at this parade. He just was like, “This isn’t safe. We’re going home.” It was heartbreaking, it was just absolutely heartbreaking from beginning to end. I tell this story because I think that my kids now are being asked, again, for better or for worse, to represent in a particular way or not in a particular way, as a robot Menorah or as a Black boy with a gigantic Jewish star on his forehead and ultimately, it was like here is his father coming, reaching his hand out and being like, “We have to go home.” Again, that’s not the answer in terms of how specifically the Jewish community embraces Blackness or doesn’t embrace Blackness. I think that feels, as always, an ongoing conversation that needs to be had but there’s also I think ultimately as for our family, we have to go moment by moment and say like, “This is safe. This is not safe. This is a place that we feel we can thrive inside and this is a place we feel we can’t. Everybody off of the float.”
DN: Well, the other question about wrongness from within has to do with fairy tales themselves. The fairy tale seems like a way of meaning-making sometimes and sometimes not meaning-making but life-saving, a way to make the things that don’t make sense nevertheless feel connected to other things in a way that makes things cohere. Like when you say in Happily, “The reason why fairy tales exist and thrive is because our bodies recognize them like they are our own. Our same blood type. Because we recognize wolf, witch, forest, kiss, curse, spell, mother, the stories latch.” But I wondered about the anti-semitism from within fairy tales. For instance, when you brought up Rumpelstiltskin, I wondered if you would engage with the debate, whether this is a coded anti-Jewish story. It isn’t always easy to tell, I think. Like with the history of vampire stories, goblin stories for instance do have lineages in Europe that have nothing to do with Jews and others that very much do. But there are very explicit anti-Jewish fairy tales in the Grim tales, The Jew Among Thorns, the girl who was killed by Jews, the Jews Stone which perpetuates the myth of the blood libel, then there are modern Jewish responses, retellings, and reclamation like what Naomi Novik did with Rumpelstiltskin in her novel Spinning Silver. But thinking about you and our three guests, Kate, Alicia, and Rachel, all four of you Jewish women, how do you engage, if at all, with the encounter of wrongness within the fairy tale itself?
SOM: I think this goes back to repetition actually, I think this goes back to, on one hand, the telling and the retelling of a story can drive it deeper into a particular soil like, “Give this seed more time to grow into something more poisonous.” But in the telling and the retelling of a story and the repetition, it can also reimagine it and reclaim it. I think we go back to that question of like, “The future has an ancient heart, well, do we want it to have an ancient heart?” We don’t want the same stories to keep happening. We don’t want the same stereotypes and the same modes of hate to just keep being sewed inside of the story. I think that’s why the idea of the new wine in the old bottles is so powerful to me because it goes back to carrying the whole tablets and the broken tablets through the desert where you say, “This was the story that was sullied and mean, and grew a poisonous seed. Here is the new story that we are going to be telling.” You carry those things side by side. It reminds me also of how Claude Lanzmann imagines building Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Israel where when he thought about the architecture, he imagined it as a line that cuts across the horizon, that you see a place where history was ruptured. Then the museum itself was designed in a particular way where it has at times a feeling of not being able to find your way out. I think retelling the story means not that you forget the first telling of it, that you have to remember the first telling of it in order to retell it properly, and in order for there to be some new way of thinking that happens.
DN: It does feel connected also to, of course, we encounter things all the time in the Torah that we don’t like. For instance, in the midrash that happens around how to make meaning out of those things too.
SOM: May there always be like a thousand rabbis with a thousand conflicting ideas, just arguing in the margins.
DN: Well, I’d love to go out with another excerpt but before we do, I was curious about your writing life post Happily. Do you have a sense of what your next project will be?
SOM: It had been one thing, then it had been interrupted with the fire. I’m writing about fire right now but I’m writing about rebuilding. I think in a way that inside of my essays in Happily, stories would start appearing. I think now I’m writing stories where inside of them, little essays are starting to appear. But I’m not sure yet but it’s right now a little bit of a mess.
DN: Well, let’s go out with the beginning of your essay It’s Time to Pay the Piper
[Sabrina Orah Mark reads from Happily]
DN: Well, it’s been a dream to talk to you today, Sabrina.
SOM: It’s been so wonderful, David. Thank you. I hope I made sense. [Laughter]
DN: You definitely did.
SOM: But it’s just an absolute honor to be near your brilliant mind, so thank you.
DN: We’ve been talking today to Sabrina Orah Mark, the author of Happily. You’ve been listening to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.
Today’s program was recorded at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full-strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. For the bonus audio archive, Sabrina contributes the reading of the Bruno Schulz short story Birds which joins bonus material from Jai Chakrabarti reading poems by Bruno Schulz’s biographer, the Polish Poet Jerzi Ficowski, Jean Vernon reading Letters by Paul Celan, and a poem of hers written under his influence, Alice Oswald reading from The Book of Job, Jenny Offill reading Mary Ruefle, and much more. The bonus audio is only one possible benefit of joining the Between the Covers Community including collectibles from everyone from Ursula K. Le Guin to Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore to Mary-Kim Arnold, the Tin House early readership subscription getting 12 books over the course of a year months before they’re available to the general public to a bundle of books selected by me and sent to you. In addition, every supporter can join our brainstorm of future guests and every listener-supporter receives the supplementary resources with each conversation. You can find out more at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at tinhouse.com/support. I’d like to thank the Tin House team: Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Beth Steidle in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer and Jae Nichelle in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the summer and winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning for creating the outro. Their album Imre Lodbrog et sa Petite Amie can be found on iTunes and Barbara Browning’s trove of ukulele covers can be found at soundcloud.com/barbarabrowning.