“What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank”
By Cindy Mindell
Bestselling author Nathan Englander has been speaking all over the world about his latest book of short stories. The first striking thing about the new collection is the title – a reference to Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” – and seeing “Anne Frank” printed in Day-Glo pink and orange. (“I love the cover,” Englander says.)
“I never had a more literal title in my life,” he says. “People ask why Anne Frank’s name is in the title. I’m not a survivor; I’m a kid from Long Island, and my focus on the Holocaust or memories or experience of it are all taught to me. The question behind the title story and ‘Sister Hills’ is, who owns the Holocaust, who owns history, who has the right to use it? Six million Jews were murdered. Why do we focus on one survivor? What does that name mean? She’s a person, a concept, an idea. I gave a talk in San Francisco at a school where they teach use Anne Frank’s diary in the curriculum, and some of the kids think she’s a character in a book. What happens when we use one book to try to convey the history of the Holocaust? How is it being taught? Why use one person? In my book, I’m talking about the concept of Anne Frank, not the person. She’s not in the book; her name is used as a vehicle to explore how we observe memory. Phillip Roth actually uses Anne Frank in ‘The Ghost Writer.’ How racy it was for a writer to do that so close to the end of the war. I think it is a wonderful exploration of the same idea of memory.”
Englander takes issue with those who go so far as to compare social phenomena with the Holocaust. “When someone says that intermarriage is the second Holocaust – and this may be someone who greatly respects the memory of the dead, has the greatest respect for the Jewish people and Jewish continuity and community – but the idea of comparing someone falling in love with a person you don’t approve of to millions of Jews being murdered…?”
It is Englander’s readers who help shed light on the meaning of his stories. “I write the stories and have no distance from them and then talk about them for months,” he says. “I come up with my own theories about where my stories come from, but my readers have more insight and right to say what the stories are about.”
Englander is the author of the internationally best-selling short-story collection, “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges” and the novel, “The Ministry of Special Cases.” His short fiction and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, and The Washington Post, as well as The O. Henry Prize Stories and numerous editions of The Best American Short Stories. He is also translator of “The New American Haggadah” by Jonathan Safran Foer, and author of a play based on “The Twenty-Seventh Man,” a story included in “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges.”
Englander was raised in a modern Orthodox community on Long Island in the ‘80s. His mother grew up in West Hartford, Conn. The family would visit monthly when Englander was young. “I have many happy childhood memories from West Hartford,” he says. I really love that town.”
His Jewish background did and didn’t form him as a writer. “My upbringing didn’t affect the decision to be a writer; there is no such job description in my community,” he says. “I can think of religious writers, but it’s a very rare concept, a person who writes fiction for others as a modern Orthodox Jew. It wasn’t an idea I or my community held. There was a framed set of aspirations based on our education and set of beliefs, which were more about making a Jewish family and raising your kids a certain way. So it was not an impetus toward writing in any way.”
Englander earned a degree in Judaic studies from Binghamton University and spent his junior year in Jerusalem. He would return to that city in 1996, living as an Israeli for five years before relocating to Brooklyn mere days ahead of the 9/11 attacks.
In his writing, Englander straddles many Jewish worlds, and he likes chewing over how much his Jewish experience and identity influences his writing.
“On the outside you can say I’ve lived many different angles of Jewish experience – Orthodox, Israeli, radically secular; urban, and suburban and ex-pat.” he says. “My experience has many angles and it’s ever-changing. Where the answer gets metaphysical is that, growing up in a closed world, I also grew up in a complete world, though I knew there were other worlds out there. My writing is not about growing up as a specific kind of Jew but about my experience of being alive. So the answer is that I end up being a more complex writer than a ‘Jewish writer.’ My characters and subject matter are Jewish but that’s not lesser or other, and it’s not a conscious choice of subject matter. My whole world is a complete Jewish universe in so many ways. When I write about characters and situations, I’m not writing about the other; I’m talking about my own experience. Nobody asks an Italian writer why they write about Italians or an American Christian writer how their upbringing affects their characters or plot.”
Englander’s tone and content have been compared by critics and other authors to the likes of Isaac Bashevis Singer. But it is the Philip Roth generation of writers who Englander most identifies with.
“Singer’s stories had a huge effect on me, especially the ‘Manor’ novels,” he says. “I love Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, and those authors are experiencing and expressing a different set of generational concerns: they write about coming to America or the first-generation experience, and becoming American. So I’m interested in one or two generations of American Jewish writers before me, writing about things American Jews now take for granted. My mom talks about the time when not everyone used to hire Jews or let them live in certain places – that fight to be fully part of American culture. But what’s interesting is that my parents and their generation, who went to public schools, were the ones who became religious and sent their kids to Jewish day schools. A lot of the modern Orthodox world came out of the generation who gave up religion to become ‘American,’ whatever that meant. My parents’ generation had the idea that they would work together to set up a community, a suburban shtetl. The only way for a community like that to be able to form was inside a democracy. One year, I was on 72nd Street in New York during Sukkot, and I saw a bunch of guys davening mincha and blocking traffic. Where in history has a bunch of Jews felt that comfortable davening openly in the street? This is a special place.”
Englander references Singer’s book, “In My Father’s Court” as a potent reference to this peculiarly Jewish phenomenon. “You grow up religious and find yourself out in a broader world, to eat new things and see new things. It’s a world cracked open. It’s never not exciting to be out in the world, and that’s the sentiment behind my writing. The emotion expressed by my characters is mine – you’re only limited by your emotional experience and being willing to imagine it.”
While known mostly for his short stories, Englander has been exploring other genres via his work on “The New American Haggadah” and his play, now being shaped in production meetings.
“I’m falling in love with these new forms and investing in them, and I don’t necessarily have to identify my work as Jewish,” he says. “I am a fiction writer and these projects reminded me again, recalibrated my brain, that I don’t just tell stories, and it brought me back to what I loved about being a writer in the first place – being fully absorbed in something without being defined by it.”
As translator on the Haggadah project, Englander got to really examine the words and concepts behind the text. “I got to sit with primal sentences, with a line from the bible about the Creation, and think about its meaning, its rhythm, how we perceive the words, how we perceive the actual and true meaning, the literal meaning, the literal meaning with intention,” he says. “Just to spend an afternoon with a word or sentence, it was a whole education about language again.”
The new projects have done no less than to bring Englander back to the pure form of craft. “It’s not, ‘If I’m translating, I must be a translator; if I write a play, I must be a playwright,’” he says. “What does it mean to be writing a play and not call yourself a playwright? I’ve been relearning form, and rethinking what it means to be a writer.”
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