Arts and Culture

Committing to memory with author Nathan Englander

Nathan Englander (Juliana Sohn)

NEW YORK (JTA) — Author Nathan Englander recently received the 2012 Frank O’Conner International Short Story Award for his latest collection, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.” He spoke with JTA about the impact of his Jewish education, the challenges of translation and why he’s simply an American writer — no qualification needed.

JTA: Have you read “The Diary of Anne Frank?”  

Nathan Englander: I’m a yeshiva boy, and when I grew up there was so much about the Holocaust. It’s something I think about a lot because people will say, “You’re writing about the Holocaust.” I’m not writing about the Holocaust, I’m writing about, in a sense, the historical case of it. There’s a thing that happens in a certain place in a certain time, and then there’s how we remember it, how we live with it. That is more the point that I would want to be making. How do we educate it? How do we remember it? Here I am — it depends how you count it, a fourth- or fifth-generation American. This idea that I was raised as a child of the Holocaust — you know, you can say your connection is that you’re a Jew, but the idea is that this was educated into me.

What I wanted to tell you was that while my whole life is so deeply steeped in this Holocaust education, the long answer to a short question is simply that I have never read “The Diary of Anne Frank.”

I was curious because I remember feeling guilty when I read the diary as a girl. I just wanted to get to the parts where Anne kisses Peter again. 

Well, your answer is exactly, exactly the point. This is a young girl keeping a diary. It’s not, ‘I’m going be a historical figure keeping a diary,’ or ‘the role I’m going to play in the space of Holocaust memory.’ What I love is that your experience of the diary sounds like the experience of a certain text. The guilt is something else. That’s somebody saying to you this is the Holocaust. That’s what interests me: that there were all these attachments to it that were put on top of it for you.

One of my favorite stories in the collection is “Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother’s Side,” which incorporate bits and pieces of various stories. How do you know which stories are yours to write?

When I was dreaming of being a writer from suburbia, I thought, what am I going to do, write novels about going to the mall? It took me a long time to think it through and I should’ve rethought the advice of write what you know. That doesn’t mean write what you experience. It’s about emotional knowledge. Like have you ever known sadness? Have you ever known longing? Have you ever wanted for something? Have you ever felt loved? You know, I don’t think there are any stories that you can’t write.

Do you find it challenging to get to that place where you’re tapping into your emotional knowledge?

When people say writing is hard, I really don’t think they really mean writing when they say the writing is hard. The writing is joyous. I feel like when you talk about the hard work or the suffering, 99 percent of that is psychological; it’s the emotional commitment. It’s hard sometimes to be willing to sit in that chair and engage.

Your characters identify with Judaism in myriad ways. Do you feel most comfortable expressing your Judaism through your writing? 

People will be like, you’re a Jewish-American writer. Why can’t I be an American writer? Who gets to say? I don’t get to be an American writer because I’m a Jew? My people have been here a long time. I pay my taxes, I hold a passport, I pay a much larger portion of my income to support my country than Mitt Romney does. I’m not a qualified form of American. I’m Jewish, yes, but this idea that from inside my own head and body I’m supposed to say that I’m other?

The vast majority of people I write about are Jewish and the themes are very Jewish, but my point is that every writer builds their own world. If it’s functioning, it’s a complete world and it’s not an alternative world. It’s not like people say, ‘Are you into Christian literature, or are you into gentile literature?’ It’s not didactic. That’s what makes genre fiction, if it’s about the idea of it rather than the obligation. Why isn’t Kafka genre? Yes, the guy turns into a beetle, but it’s about the humanity. Guess what? I’m a huge lover of John Cheever, and that to me is exotic fiction. Nobody ever in my family has mixed a pitcher of martinis and then walked in the dune grass in Nantucket.

You’ve done quite a bit of English-Hebrew translation, including the liturgical text for “The New Haggadah” edited by Jonathan Safran Foer, and also as a co-translator of Israeli writer Etgar Keret’s “Suddenly A Knock at the Door.” How do you capture a story in translation? 

With the Haggadah project, that was very much a crash course. What larger challenge to start with than the kiddush of the Haggadah? There you are, translating Creation from Genesis. To me, there were just endless ramifications of what it means to take on this responsibility — what it means to interact with a sacred text, what it means to have someone praying from the words you choose for that sacred text.

What’s the difference when you translate fiction? 

[With Keret’s work,] I really hear him in my head, and I really want to try to put it into English for somebody to experience how I think Etgar sounds. The example I always use is if I asked you now to translate the word water. When I read “mayim” in Hebrew, in English I can say water, but there are many words. How would you give me another word that has the meaning and the force of water, and how long you’ve known it in your life and that feeling of wetness that goes with water? You can’t say liquid; that doesn’t do it. There’s so much that goes into choosing a word it’s almost overwhelming, and that’s why you have to own the material. You have to commit to it.