A Q&A with Molly Antopol, author of The UnAmericans
Your stories move from McCarthy-era America to modern-day Israel to communist Europe and back again. What's your connection to these times and places?
Many of the stories in this book were inspired by my family history, notably their involvement in the Communist Party. I come from a big family of storytellers, and I grew up surrounded by tales of surveillance, tapped lines and dinnertime visits from the FBI. Those thingscombined with my very nerdy love of research and library archivesinformed my McCarthy-era stories.
In terms of the Israel stories, I've spent my entire adult life going back and forth between there and the U.S. I lived there for yearsI used to work for a Palestinian-Israeli human rights group, and at a youth village aiding new immigrants from Chechnya, Ethiopia, and the former Soviet Union. And for the past seven years, since being on Stanford's academic schedule, I've spent my summers there.
Eastern Europe is a part of the world that's always fascinated me. My family's originally from there, many of my favorite books were written in (and about) communist-era Europe, and in recent years I've been lucky enough to have received writing/research grants to a number of countries in the region, as well as a position as writer-in-residence at the Summer Literary Seminars in Lithuania. It's interestingthough my family loves to tell stories, the one place never discussed was Antopol, the Belarusian village everyone came from, which was virtually destroyed during World War II. My relatives could find humor in every other dark part of their history, but Antopol was a topic no one went near. A little more than a decade ago I was living in Israel and wound up at a holiday party in Haifa, where I met an elderly woman from Antopol who had known my family. It was one of the most extraordinary moments of my life. She led me to an oral history book of the village, written in Hebrew, Yiddish and English, that her son had put together. The moment I finished reading it (I remember just where I was, at the kitchen table in my apartment in Tel Aviv), I began writing The UnAmericans.
How did you come up with the title of your book?
As a kid, I'd always associated the word "Un-American" solely with the Red Scare, and the 50s-era stories in my book grew largely out of my attempt to understand what it might have been like for my family to grow up under the shadow of McCarthyism.
As I wrote more stories, I became fascinated by the complicated meaning the word might have to this current generation of Israelis, forced to contend every day with their country's messy and symbiotic relationship to America. In one of my stories, an Israeli soldier resents having to defend a settlement filled with Brooklyn-born religious families but still pines for a chance to discover the United States for himself; in another, a young Israeli journalist's life path is thrown into question during America's most recent economic meltdown. I also found myself exploring this idea of "Un-American-ness" in terms of privilegefor example, in the book's final story, "Retrospective," my working-class Israeli narrator never feels at home in America even after a decade of living there, whereas his wealthy American wife globetrots across the Middle East with utter confidence and ease.
Some of my other stories are about East Europeans immigrating to America. I was really interested in thinking about this notion of "Un-American-ness" for these charactersdissidents and academics, banned artists and writerswho risked their lives for their politics in their mother countries and are then forced to reinvent their identities in the United States, a country where they're treated as anything but American. I kept thinking about the complicated emotional impact the fall of communism might have had on my characters during that time. I thought about what it might have felt like to dedicate oneself to a cause that, in the course of world events, comes to an endand wondered whether some people might have had a niggling feeling of nostalgia for that bleak time, simply because they held a significant place in it. For so many of my characters, their entire sense of self is shaped by their political work, and I wanted to explore how having lived under surveillance in Eastern Europe influences their lives once they immigrate to America, where they quickly realize that not only are they no longer being watchedthey're no longer being noticed.
You write from the perspectives of men and women, young and old, American, Israeli and East European. Would you still say that your stories are autobiographical?
Grace Paley has this quote I've always loved, not to write what you know, but to write what you don't know about what you know. That's what it feels like for me. One of the main reasons I write fiction is to try to understand what life might be like for other people. I've always seen writing as a form of method actingfor the eight or twelve or fifteen months that I'm working on a story, I'm constantly thinking about how my narrator would react to whatever tangled social or familial situation I'm in, and it's the moment I begin to see the world through their eyes that I know my story's headed in an interesting direction. (That doesn't always happen, unfortunately!) I read a lot of nonfiction, and I love the feeling of trying to explore what it might have been like to live in another place or during a different time, or even to live here in the present day, but as a man, or a person much older than I amI often find that I'm able to access certain emotional truths about my own life by exploring things from different vantages. I haven't written any stories about female writers living in San Francisco, but I do feel that my stories are autobiographical in the sense that they capture what I questioned and obsessed over during the decade I was writing them. And the theme I found myself circling back to, again and again, was the complicatedand sometimes devastatingimpact one person's quest to improve the world can have on the people closest to them.
In your stories, older generations look forward and not back, while younger generations look back in order to understand the present. Do you think these two outlooks can be reconciled?
That's something I think about a lot. The older members of my family are very confused (albeit lovingly) by my fascination with the past. I love to travel and do it every opportunity I get, and they can't understand why I always end up in these freezing, post-communist towns or crowded Middle Eastern cities rather than, say, Hawaii. It was the same way they reacted when I was still living in New York and left Manhattan for Brooklynthey couldn't stop laughing that I'd moved to the very borough they'd worked so hard to leave.
I'm still trying to reconcile this question in my own life. The closest I got was in writing the third story in my book, "My Grandmother Tells Me This Story." I'd been struggling with that one for months, and it was only when I made the narrator a reticent older woman frustrated by her granddaughter's incessant questions about dark periods of history she'd never lived through, that the story really cracked open for me.
You spent your earliest years on a commune, followed by years in collective housing. How did this experience inform you both as a reader and a writer?
To be honest, the decision to live communally was more financial than idealistic for my mothershe was raising me on her own, and sharing rent and childcare made it easier. But those early experiences certainly shaped me. I remember reading Grace Paley for the first time in college and wondering how I'd gone so long without her books. At that point in my life, I'd never before read stories that so acutely described the dynamics of the living room politics I'd grown up withand how those politics spun out so naturally into the bedroom, the neighborhood, the world. And then there's the humanity with which she depicts the role of women in these supposedly enlightened movements I could go on and on. It isn't an exaggeration to say that reading her changed my life. I've never been able to stomach "political" fiction that's in any way didactic, and the other writers I love most (James Baldwin, Natalia Ginzburg, Sergei Dovlatov, Francine Prose and Deborah Eisenberg, to name a few) write such beautifully character- and voice-driven books while still giving us a grand sense of the larger events happening around themthe politics of their fiction extend so seamlessly from their characters that I never feel they're forcing any opinions down my throat. Whenever I'm sitting at my desk, whining and worrying over a story, I think of those writers and tell myself to stop being such a drama queenall I need to do is try to write as passionately and honestly about what matters most to me, rather than trying to wow the reader with my cleverness.
Many of your stories deal with the Jewish Diaspora. How do you see the relationship between current Jewish fiction and Jewish historical identity?
Over the years, I've heard a number of people say that Jews have become so assimilated that "Jewish fiction" should no longer exist as a separate category. Or that Jewish fiction is so mainstream as to render that term meaningless. That's fascinating to me. In some ways I agree with itthe neighborhoods of Malamud's Brooklyn, Ozick's Manhattan and Bellow's Chicago are certainly no longer filled with Yiddish-speaking immigrants. And the work of Philip Roth, for example, is undeniably as American as it is Jewish. But what to make, then, of all the incredible fiction by young Russian-American Jews that seems so bent on understanding their relatives' lives under the Soviet State, in addition to their own here in America? Or all of the Israeli fiction that, more and more each year, is being translated into English? And so many of my favorite contemporary Jewish writersEdith Pearlman, David Bezmozgis, David Grossman, to list a fewseem as interested in the past as they are in the present. To me, the past feels inescapable.
Some of your characters rely on an organized support system, such as the Communist Party or Orthodox Judaism. However in your stories, these systems are both redeeming and harmful. What's your personal perspective?
There have been many times in my life when I've faced something painful and have deeply wished I were religious, because maybe then I'd be able to make sense of the loss, and would have a safety net of people to fall back on. But (blame my communist family!) I just can't get myself to believe.
When I was young, it was just my mother and me. Maybe because of that, I've always had a lot of very close individual friendships but felt lost and crowded whenever I was part of a big, organized groupit's as if one side of me craves community and the other bucks against it. This chasm grew even wider when I let writing become more central to my life. Of course I want to be there for my friends and family during their worst times and to celebrate with them during the best. But the truth is that when something hard is happening with me, as much comfort as I get from them, I find equal solace being alone in a room, finding ways to make sense ofand sometimes even controlthe scariest parts of life through writing.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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