Friday, January 27, 2023

Q&A with Omer Bartov

 


 

 

Omer Bartov is the author of the new novel The Butterfly and the Axe. His other books include Anatomy of a Genocide. He is the Samuel Pisar Professor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies in the Department of History at Brown University, and he lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

 

Q: What inspired you to write The Butterfly and the Axe, and how was the book's title chosen?


A: I was inspired to write The Butterfly and the Axe when I realized that after researching my mother's birth town and region for 20 years and reconstructing its fate in the Holocaust in my historical monograph Anatomy of a Genocide, I still knew practically nothing about how my own family was murdered there.

 

That is, my family's life and fate before and during the Holocaust is simply missing from the historical record, save for a few fragments of stories and rumors. I felt it was simply unjust that these people had vanished from history and memory, and wanted to put them back into the story by way of imagining their lives and deaths.

 

For me, the beauty and ephemeral existence of butterflies, of which there are numerous species in this region of Galicia, on the one hand, and the ubiquity and utility of axes there, a crucial worktool which was often also used for killing by the locals in periods of violence, represent the combination of natural beauty and murderous inclinations of my ancestral home.

 

It also perhaps expresses a certain kind of hope since, as someone once told me, “you cannot kill a butterfly with an axe.” Beauty, however ephemeral as a lifeform, is also everlasting. This is how I think of the little girl who contemplates her imminent liberation moments before she is murdered.


Q: You write, “This book contains autobiographical and historical elements but is ultimately a work of fiction.” What did you see as the right balance between autobiography, history, and fiction as you wrote the book?

 

A: I don't think there is  “right” balance between history and fiction. That is, in fact, the underlying assertion of this novel. As a historian, I believe in facts, and disdain works of scholarship that contain fictional, or even unreliable facts and speculations.

 

But I am also deeply aware of the limitations of historical reconstructions of the past in “rescuing” events and people who cannot be found in the historical record, or in breathing life into eras for which there is scant documentation. In this sense, I am a great believer in supplementing history through fiction.

 

But for me historical fiction ought to be rooted both in a deep knowledge of the recorded history, and in an understanding, a “feel” for the spirit of that time. And, of course, ultimately it should tell a good story, yet one that is historically plausible, that is, a story that might have actually happened.

 

Historians want to tell “what actually happened,” but must face the fact that they would never really know; writers of fiction want to tell a story that might have happened, but precisely those parts of it that elude the historian. Together, I think, in that no man's land between history and fiction, lies some truth about the past, a truth that tells us where we came from and who we are, that neither genre can retrieve on its own.

Q: The author Leona Toker said: “We do not know how it really was, and yet we know, often more than is good for us. After so many novelists have tried to write history, it is fascinating to see what happens when a historian is impelled to write a novel.” What do you think of that assessment?

 

A: I think that every historian worth her salt also wants to write a novel, at least in the sense that writing history at its best is always an act of writing and imagination. We find an old document and imagine the circumstances surrounding its creation so as to bring it and the world that produced it into life.

 

And I think that the novel as a particular genre of writing since the 18th century has always been rooted in history and society. In that sense, the separation between the two is not as rigid as some would think, at least not when we contemplate the best products of either genre.

 

And here is also the rub: we both know about the human soul and the human capacity for creativity and destruction more than we would perhaps want to know, and at the same time we are always trying to fathom them, as poets and historians have done since the beginning of humanity in all cultures known to us.

 

That quest is in a sense what unites those who tell stories about the past--historians--and those who tell stories about the human soul--poets and fiction writers.

 

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?

 

A: I hope readers will first of all grasp the inextricable links between us and the past and how we can never understand what motivates us and why we act and think and feel as we do without delving into our own making in past generations.

 

The protagonists of this book are tormented by an event that occurred before they were born, whose contours are only vaguely known to them. It is only by literally and metaphorically returning to the scene of the crime that the descendants of the killers and the victims not only find a modicum of peace but also accomplish some reconciliation, even love.

 

In this sense this book is about empathy rather than feeling sorry for oneself or the other, by listening to the other's story and telling one's own. Perhaps what I hope is that readers do not latch on to what they think is their identity, or believe they must seek it, but that they seek the human in those previously perceived as outside the boundaries of empathy.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: As a historian I am currently writing a book based on multiple interviews with Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel belonging to the first generation born after the establishment of the state (my own generation) focusing on how they understand their link to the place and how it has evolved since their childhood.

 

I just spent three months in Israel and these in-depth interviews with over 50 people have had a huge impact on my own understanding of this question and what it tells us about the seemingly intractable conflict in Israel-Palestine.

 

As an author I am planning a new, large-scale novel tentatively called “The Wars of the Philistines,” which will trace the life and fate of the child born from that explosive biblical union between Samson and Delilah. More to come. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: I was born in Israel to a father born in Palestine and a mother born in Eastern Europe, and lived as a child and teenager in the US and UK, while also serving four years in the IDF (including the 1973 War) and then studying in the US and UK and living for lengthy periods in Germany and France. In that sense, I have many homes and no home, and like it that way. But I have always been curious about people's need for a homeland, however defined.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Omer Bartov.

Jan. 27

 


 

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Jan. 27, 1931: Mordecai Richler born.

Thursday, January 26, 2023

Q&A with Ellen Tarlow

 


 

 

Ellen Tarlow is the author of the new children's picture book Becoming Blue. Her other books include the picture book Looking for Smile. She lives in New York City.

 

Q: What inspired you to write Becoming Blue, and how would you describe the relationship between your characters Red and Blue?

 

A: Becoming Blue began because my agent (Rubin Pfeffer) suggested I try a book about color. I typically write about animal characters but I was intrigued. I fiddled for a while but couldn’t come up with a storyline I loved.  

 

Then one day I was reading On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. There is a sequence in which the child narrator, a recent Vietnamese immigrant, starts to copy an American boy he admires.  It ends with the American boy yelling at him from the top of a slide, “Stop following me!” It was a horrifying moment of shame and one that struck me as being very true to the inner lives of (some) children.

 

It immediately sparked the idea of showing this dynamic with colors, i.e., having one of the colors (Blue) want to BE another color (Red). I wanted the story to center on a shaming scene like the one on the slide in which Blue is told by Red to “Stop Copying Me!” This would give Blue the reason to go off to find himself. Having the story be about colors rather than children allowed for a light touch on a rather intense topic.

 

Q: What do you think Julien Chung’s illustrations add to the story?

 

A: Julien did an amazing job of navigating the challenges of this book: i.e., color characters who had to remain themselves but ALSO turn into firetrucks and stop signs and rivers. It was Julien’s idea to make the characters geometric (a circle and a square) and his modernist, graphic sensibility really elevates the look. 


The emotion and charm he squeezes out of a blue square and red circle surprised and delighted me. He also added many fun touches. One is a dog who appears in most of the episodes as a funny, happy-go-lucky counterpoint to Blue’s anxiety. It made me think of Snoopy and Charlie Brown.

 

Q: The Kirkus review of the book says, in part, “Being oneself is a great message to convey—as is joining forces with friends...” What do you think of that assessment, and what do you hope kids take away from the book?

 

A: Kids today have so many impossible idealizations coming at them from all angles. It is a problem that has always been there but seems much worse now. I hoped to get across how much better off they would be just being “themselves.” I also wanted to honor the fact that it is not always easy to KNOW who you are… And to show that journey.

 

Q: How did you first get interested in writing children's books? 

 

A: It has really been a lifelong passion. I took my first children’s literature class in college (1974!) and wrote (and illustrated) my first picture book then. Since then, I have been involved in children’s books as a teacher, writer, and an editor of early childhood classroom materials. But it’s only been in the last few years that I have had the chance to devote myself more seriously to writing.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: Becoming Blue seems to have unlocked an affinity for inanimate objects as characters. At the moment, I have another color manuscript, a manuscript about a pair of common tools and one about shapes. (My agent might be regretting suggesting colors to me!)

 

In the terms of books that are actually coming out, I have three more picture books signed up with Allyn Johnston at S&S /Beach Lane and one early reader series.  

 

The next picture book is called The Tiny Thing, about a shy Mole and the tiny thing that helps him come out of himself. That will be illustrated by Lauren Stringer (who did my earlier book, Looking for Smile).

 

Then I have a book about a tree, mortality, reforestation, and some funny animals. That is being illustrated by Daniel Miyares. Both will come out in 2025.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Alda P. Dobbs

 


 

 

Alda P. Dobbs is the author of the new middle grade novel Barefoot Dreams of Petra Luna. She also has written the middle grade novel The Other Side of the River. She lives near Houston, Texas.

 

Q: You write that family stories inspired you to write Barefoot Dreams of Petra Luna. How did you create your character Petra?

 

A: Growing up I loved listening to many family stories about my great-grandmother’s experiences during the Mexican Revolution. They all told of extraordinary events and unbelievable trials she endured as a child.

 

One story in particular intrigued me. It was of my great-grandmother and her family anxiously waiting for the US border to open along with thousands of other people so that they could cross into safety.  I decided to do some research to find out if it was true.

 

Without having an exact date, I searched through old newspapers and after many months of research (and almost giving up!), I found an article that described the event exactly as my great-grandmother had recounted it. I knew then I had to share her story, and Petra Luna was born!

 

Q: Can you say more about how you researched the book? What did you see as the right balance between history and fiction as you wrote the story?

 

A: Attempting to find out if the old family story was true, I began my research journey by reading over 40 books, both in English and Spanish, on the Mexican Revolution. It wasn’t until I read three years’ worth of newspapers printed in that era that I was able to confirm the accuracy of my family’s story.

 

I read books written by journalists and anthropologists who interviewed people living during the conflict. I also researched mundane things such as desert plants, curanderismo, Aztec mythology, Náhuatl, music from that era, etc., and even though some things never made it into the book (about 92 percent!), they allowed me to know the characters and settings more intimately.

 

I also printed out segments of Sanborn maps and assembled them together like puzzle pieces to let me know what streets Petra Luna had walked on. When I cross-referenced the map with old photographs, I could see buildings she came across and even walked into. Also, I kept a timeline handy that followed actual dates chronicled in newspapers to help weave in the fiction. 

  

Q: The Kirkus review of the novel says, in part, “The parallels between past and present government corruption and violence make this historical fiction that is as relevant as ever. Though the author drew inspiration from her own family stories from a century ago, the bones of the story could easily apply today.” What do you think of that description?

 

A: I couldn’t agree more given the current events. The themes in the book include the vast economic gaps and the social prejudices that prevailed in Mexico and led to the country to a revolution. These are very similar to the disparities and injustices currently present here in America and around the world.

 

The topic of people escaping violence in their homeland and coming to the U.S. for safety is as prevalent today as it was back in 1913 when Petra and her family escape her village. It’s important that we, and especially young readers, realize the importance of family stories, and how through them we can see how history repeats itself. 

 

Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

 

A: I chose my book’s title, "Barefoot Dreams of Petra Luna," long before it was submitted for publication. In many of my family stories everyone from my great-grandmother all the way to my mother was always barefooted. This paralleled the many pictures I came across in my research of poor children living during that era and led me to envision the word “barefoot” as part of the title.

 

The word “dream” came to me knowing how bad my grandmother wanted to learn to read and write one day, just like Petra Luna. Now, the phrase “Barefoot Dreams” has a deeper meaning that is revealed in the story.

 

As far as the character’s name, I wanted a strong name and “Petra” came to me, which means “rock.” Given the recurring themes of rock in the story I thought it worked out great, not to mention that “Petra” is a very Mexican name. I also wanted to complement Petra’s name with a gentle last name that would resemble her soft-natured spirit towards her siblings, and Luna came to me. 

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I’m currently working on another historical middle grade book with a different setting and cast of characters. This one, though, has a mystery to it. Stay tuned!

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: Thank you for your time, Deborah. If you’d like to learn more about me or my books, please visit www.aldapdobbs.com. You can also find me on Instagram @aldapdobbs. I also offer a quarterly newsletter where I do giveaways, make announcements, give writing tips, book recommendations, and offer behind-the-scenes snippets of my writing life.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 26

 


 

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Jan. 26, 1905: Maria von Trapp born.

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Q&A with Sharon Tubbs

 


 

Sharon Tubbs is the author of They Got Daddy: One Family’s Reckoning with Racism and Faith. She lives in Indiana.

 

Q: How did you first learn about the white supremacist attack on your grandfather in 1959, and why did you decide to write this book?

 

A: I was in elementary school when my mother mentioned that my grandfather, Israel Page, had been kidnapped by the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama. We were watching the news and a story flashed on screen about the Klan and a permit to march somewhere in Indiana.

 

This was the 1980s. I had white friends in class at school and nice white teachers, too, so I was shocked that the evil people in costumes from historical documentaries still existed. But my mother verified that they most certainly did. As a matter of fact, she said, “They got Daddy,” referring to my grandfather.

 

She didn’t recall details of how the tragedy unfolded, nor did several relatives I would interview in the years to come. They just knew that it happened, but I could read the sadness in them for what their father had gone through.

 

This knowledge stuck with me, and I would mention the ordeal in essays during middle school and college where I pursued a degree in journalism. At some point, one of my uncles revealed that it all began with a white sheriff’s deputy ramming my grandfather’s car in an accident. My grandfather lost the use of his arm and the ability to continue working as a well driller to support the family. He sued the deputy, which eventually led to his kidnapping the day before trial.

 

In my first career as a newspaper journalist, I learned the elements of a good story, such as the characters, plot, and conflict or tension. This slice of my grandfather’s life held those elements, and I knew I had to be the one to tell the story.

 

Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

 

A: My mother’s words during the news broadcast, “They got Daddy,” stuck with me through the years, coaxing me to discover what happened to my grandfather and who was involved. Still, those words weren’t the first title I chose. For some time, I called the manuscript “Preacher” since my grandfather was a church pastor and many people, including my grandmother, actually called him “Preacher.”

 

“They Got Daddy” came about only as the story took its final shape, just before I sent it to prospective publishers. By then, I’d realized the story was not just about my grandfather, but about the trauma of his kidnapping and injustice that filtered through our family line.

 

The more I learned of our history, the more I reflected on my own experiences with injustice and discrimination. I recall driving to Indiana University for the first time since graduating 25 years earlier. From Fort Wayne, I had to drive south through the city of Martinsville, which had a reputation for racism during my college years.

 

Back then, myself and other Black students timed our travel to avoid driving through Martinsville after dark. Now, decades later, I’d forgotten to take such precautions. Darkness fell just as I passed a sign announcing my entry to “City of Martinsville.” Fear came over me. I was hungry, but couldn’t stop for a bite to eat, not here.

 

In that moment, I didn’t feel safe. I realized that years of microaggressions and racist acts had left me culturally traumatized, that I had this fear of getting “got” by evil white people who no longer wore costumed sheets.


Such reflections made the title “They Got Daddy” easier to relate to and more personal. It signifies the fear or dread within many people of color that someday we might get “got” by the “theys” of our society—the white supremacists, the closeted racists, the unjust systems of oppression.

 

We don’t know the identities of my grandfather’s kidnappers, but that doesn’t matter so much now. “They” seem to be ingrained in the system, then and now, and parts of our lives as African Americans is shaped around not allowing them to get us.

 

Q: The NPR critic Eric Deggans said of the book, “Lots of writers have tackled America's historic abuses of Black people and Black families. But few handle the subject as deftly as Sharon Tubbs, whose They Got Daddy connects the trauma which reverberated through her own family history when her grandfather was abused by powerful white people, to the larger history of Black America's attempts to survive similar oppression.” What do you think of that description, particularly about the reverberations through your family?

 

A: I’m grateful for Eric’s description, because he is dead-on in capturing the traumatic reverberations through our family. The pain and anger of what my grandfather endured lingered with my uncles and aunts when I interviewed them 50 years later.

 

They had rarely spoken about the matter, nor did they recall specific details, but they remembered that their father had been kidnapped, beaten, and humiliated. They knew that justice had not prevailed in his case.

 

One uncle said the ordeal compelled him to move to Indiana, in hopes of escaping the maltreatment of the Jim Crow South. Most of his siblings followed him there, during the 1960s, moving from Alabama to the Midwest. Yet, the experience of that accident, the kidnapping, and all that they entailed stayed with them, permeating their worldviews of life in America.

 

There is growing evidence that trauma is passed through family DNA. In other words, our bodies literally adjust to deal with the tragedies we suffer, and we pass along that adjusted makeup to our children biologically and culturally. While writing the book, I reflected on how the ordeal affected my mother and her siblings.

 

Also, several of my own traumatic experiences surfaced. I wondered if my responses resulted from the trauma passed down through the family. I included those reflections in the book, which is what Eric referred to in his description.

 

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?

 

A: I hope the book evokes an awakening among readers. That awakening could take different forms, based on their own experiences with racism or privilege or injustice.

 

For instance, an African American reader says the book unearthed memories of an injustice she endured. She realized bitterness simmered within her and she then took steps to forgive and find her own sense of freedom.

 

A white reader who reached out to me said the book evoked memories of growing up in a racist family. She recalled behaviors she engaged in to fit in with relatives. Ultimately, she walked away from their perspective of Black inferiority. The book seemed to validate her decision to shun the closeted racism those around her practiced. It also answered questions, she said, about Black people and the strength of faith, drawing her closer to understanding.

 

Many people don’t like to talk about the uncomfortable topic of race, but I believe this book will compel those of different ethnicities to be courageous enough to face my family’s truth and to look within. If they do, the stories and various angles presented in They Got Daddy will, hopefully, awaken them to something positive that they can do to make society a little bit better where they are.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: Currently, most of my time is dedicated to being the director of a nonprofit that provides health education to underserved residents in Fort Wayne, Indiana. But I’m always writing on the side.

 

My books have been faith-based fiction and self-help in the past, but They Got Daddy took me back to my journalism roots of research and storytelling. I want to continue researching people’s stories and telling their truth. I have an idea about my next subject, but it would be premature to discuss it publicly.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: Anytime I talk about this story, I want people to know that the Black experience and the book, itself, are about more than the struggle to overcome racism. The strength of our story lies in our faith, pride in who we are, familial bonds, humor, and love for one another. I don’t want anyone to think that They Got Daddy doesn’t convey those foundational strengths of African American culture, because those are the experiences foremost in my mind and heart.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 25

 


 

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Jan. 25, 1950: Gloria Naylor born.