Last Word Column

My uncle in England, whom I interviewed six years ago with nebulous ideas for a book, keeps calling my mother to inquire about the progress of my research. My mother, the eponymous heroine of Shoshanna’s Story: A Mother, a Daughter, and the Shadows of History, yells loudly into the receiver (she’s 84, he’s 88, both of them deaf) that the book has been delayed. She’s lying. It’s out and neither of us wants it to fall into my uncle’s hands.

My mother loves her brother and so do I. A positive figure, he plays a cameo role in my memoir. I’ve gone out of my way to shield his privacy by changing his name in the story and I’m pretty sure he would approve of 99 per cent of what I’ve written. But he will never forgive me for including an incident in which, nearly 50 years ago, his devoted English wife, in the heat of one of those verbal slugfests from which even good marriages aren’t immune, called him “a miserly Jew.” He will not forgive my mother, either, since clearly she was the source for this item of “research.”

Ah, the pitfalls of writing about your family. Why include such a gratuitous and hurtful anecdote? What useful purpose does it serve?

Context is all and families are complex organisms. Believe me, I’d have been happy to leave it out; happiest of all if I’d never been subjected to this piece of family lore. I heard it first when I began to date the boy whom I call in the book the Boyfriend. (In time, he became the Fiancé, the Husband, and then, after many years, the Ex.) I was Jewish, he wasn’t. To warn me of the disaster she believed I was heading into, my mother invoked the story of my non-Jewish aunt and Jewish uncle.

If writing about my uncle was fraught, writing about the Boyfriend was devilishly so. At the time that I was describing my erstwhile passionate romance, I was in the process of messily divorcing him. How much to reveal, how to reveal it, how to be honest, how to be true—uncontaminated by rancour--to what once was? Above all, how not to disgrace and further pain our two wonderful daughters?

I think it was Philip Roth who famously said that once there’s a writer in the family, that’s the end of the family. Still, when you read Roth’s autobiographical writings, he comes across as a good and caring son to his parents.

It’s almost axiomatic that a writer doesn’t just expose herself, she exposes the people closest to her. Many writers hide behind the mask of fiction, and if I’d been able to do it convincingly, that would have suited me just fine. My first memoir, Journey to Vaja: Reconstructing the World of a Hungarian-Jewish Family took a historic approach to my father’s family. Yet I knew when I began to doodle around my mother’s life that it called for a very different treatment. My father’s family had left historic footprints and their background—orthodox, educated, rooted in rural Hungary—lent itself to a measured, scholarly approach. My mother came from much more ordinary stock—small town merchants—but the stuff of her life, and those of her six siblings, really seemed the essence of fiction. Crimes of passion, triangular love stories, harrowing events from the Holocaust punctuated the tale. Besides which, despite her many outstanding qualities, she wasn’t an easy woman to have as a mother. My first instinct—both from the point of view of the material and my emotional ambivalence to her--was to write a novel. I tried it two different ways, wrote more than a hundred pages. Not only was it no good, it made me ill. All my life I had heard from my mother her version of an unfolding universe; in my guise of first-person narrator of her life, I felt as if I’d suddenly crawled right beneath her skin. A very tight and uncomfortable place for the two of us. On top of it all, it sounded like melodrama, shlock even.

Had I come across at that time what the great American literary journalist John McPhee has written on the subject of creative non-fiction, it might have helped. "Things that are cheap and tawdry in fiction work beautifully in non-fiction because they are true. That's why you should be careful not to abridge it; it's the fundamental power you're dealing with. You arrange and present it. There's lots of artistry, but you don't make it up."

Unfortunately I didn’t encounter McPhee until much later. But in a hit and miss kind of way, I inched my way towards the voice I needed. It was a child’s voice, but a knowing one. And this child had the nerve to call her mother by her first name.

Once, long ago, my mother had told me about orphans she had looked after when she was young. Right after World War II ended, a few years before I was born, she had returned from Auschwitz to Budapest and had found work looking after displaced children with whom she planned to emigrate to Palestine. She was called Anna, but the children gave her a Hebrew nickname, Shoshanna. Somehow that little nuance, calling her by another name, yet one that wasn’t made up but was on some level true, became the key guiding me back to non-fiction.

Other writers have taken different routes to solve similar problems. A couple of years ago, I interviewed Margaret Drabble on the occasion of the publication of The Peppered Moth, a novel inspired by her mother’s life. The fictional Bessie Bawtree was in all important respects modeled on Kathleen Marie Bloor Drabble, “a highly intelligent, angry, deeply disappointeed and manipulative woman.” Yet Drabble said she rejected the idea of autobiography or memoir. She wanted the liberty of shaping the book freely and of inventing subsidiary characters. She wished also to avoid interviewing other family members (one of her sisters is the novelist A.S. Byatt) who had different takes on her mother’s life from her own.

I, too, have a literary sister, Judith Kalman. The fact that she had staked out a career in fiction and written a beautiful collection of linked stories, The County of Birches, out of our shared background undoubtedly influenced me to cast my work as non-fiction.

The boundaries between the two genres aren’t always cut and dry, though. Five years ago, I attended the McLean-Hunter Arts Journalism/Creative Non-Fiction program at the Banff Centre for the Arts, under the tutelage of Michael Ignatieff. I was working on an early chapter of Shoshanna’s Story about our family’s experiences during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. It contained a long flashback scene to World War II for which the source had been my late father. I had conducted an interview about this with him years earlier, way before I had the slightest inkling I was going to write books. A crucial moment in the story has a group of Jewish labour servicement crossing a bridge to safety, under the eyes of German military police.

A couple of the participants in the Banff program were primarily fiction writers and, when my piece was workshopped, they asked me to add more details about the bridge. Was it wood or stone? What was its span? Had it been mined? I said I didn’t know, I hadn’t thought to ask my father, and now it was too late. I could think of no way of finding out.

“Make it up,” they urged. ”We need to know more about the bridge.”

“I can’t,” I said, starting to feel both stubborn and stupid. “I don’t know more.”

Ignatieff entered the fray. "Don’t forget you’re all writing non-fiction here! There are constraints in non-fiction but they can be used as opportunities. You've got one hand tied behind you. The art is to make that work for you."

And so I tried to make it work for me by being as truthful as I could be about the life of my family. I didn’t know whether the bridge was built of brick or metal, but I could remember and evoke other details: the colour of emotions, sources of friction, the taboos and codes we lived by, when and why we sometimes lied about who we were. And I hoped that readers as well as my kith and kin would understand I was lifting the veil of family privacy not from a desire to spice things up or point fingers, but from the conviction that the power of this story lay in equal measures of honesty and compassion.

"Lifting the Veil: The Pitfalls of Writing about Family"

This essay was published in

January 2004

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