Thursday, June 21, 2018

Q&A with Yermiyahu Ahron Taub

Yermiyahu Ahron Taub is the author of the new story collection Prodigal Children in the House of G-d. His other books include The Education of a Daffodil and Prayers of a Heretic. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Q: Over how long a period did you write the stories in your new collection, and do you see common themes running through them?

A: The bulk of the first draft of this book was written during an artist's residency at The Writers' Colony at Dairy Hollow in Eureka Springs, Arkansas in October and November 2015.

This was a period of intense concentration and creative transformation. Having a significant block of uninterrupted writing time enabled my transition from poetry to prose.

I find that prose requires more time than poetry, not merely to write more words, but to map out the narrative arc of the stories (and the collection) as well as the journeys of the characters.

I may not know that arc beforehand, but each step requires care, consideration, and connectivity to the next. I continued to edit, rework, and wordsmith the stories for several additional years.

I do see common themes in the stories. All of them involve characters on or perilously near the margins — whether through choices made (Beyle in "Flowers for Madame"), actions taken against them (Khane Leventhal in "Night in the Solarium" and "Phoenix, With Hat"), or because of the self seen as transgressive (Efroyem in "Love in the Red"). 

All of the characters navigate, in different ways, issues of home, waywardness, parental disapproval, and exile. The book, as a whole, is concerned with liberation on a small scale —how to survive meaningfully in a world that often seems indifferent or cruel.

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

A: The online Cambridge Dictionary defines "prodigal son" as "a man or boy who has left his family in order to do something that the family disapprove of and has now returned home feeling sorry for what he has done." Prodigal is also defined as "wasteful, extravagant, spendthrift" as well as "generous, lavish, liberal, unstinting, and unsparing."

The characters in this collection move in the realm of prodigality, although none are exactly prodigal per se. Certainly, few of them have much money to spend extravagantly. On the contrary, most eke out threadbare existences. In addition, most are not particularly sorry for what they have done.

And yet there is an emotional extravagance, or expansiveness, in the protagonists' unsparing commitment to a vision, sometimes only just beginning to be glimpsed. So despite the lack of exact parallelism, "prodigal," with its echoes of moral seriousness and familial rupture as well as its broad recognizability, seemed to be an apt title word.  

"The House of G-d" is similarly purposeful. I liked the intimacy involved in the concept of house as well as the multiple uses of house in Jewish tradition (e.g. bet ha-midrash/house of study, bet ha-keneset/house of prayer, etc.).

Similarly, "G-d" rather than "God" refers to the Orthodox tradition of avoiding erasure of God's name. Put another way, we should not erase or destroy God's name and should avoid writing it.

Most rabbinic authorities agree that this applies only when God is written in Hebrew and not in other languages. But growing up in the Orthodox world, I remember seeing "G-d."

Q: The 10 stories are divided into two sections: "Daughters" and "Sons." How did you decide on the organization of the collection?

A: If the "prodigal son" mentioned above was an original inspiration, I sought to widen the narrative framework. I decided to write about female and male children, and to open with daughters.

As the themes of the collection emerged, the overall architecture became clear. Some might consider this division to be an example of "separate seating" as in a synagogue or perhaps a riff on/subversion of that division ... My goal was to explore these themes in discrete sections to see how gender plays (or does not play) a central role, rather than reinscribe gender separation.

Q: Some of the characters appear in more than one story. Did you plan the collection that way, or was it more spontaneous?

A: Yes, the collection includes two sets of interlocking stories. A story in each set begins and ends each of the two sections of the book. I wanted the stories to stand on their own as distinct narratives and link up with other stories. The aspect of connectivity allowed multiple viewings of the protagonists, albeit from different angles.

And I wanted there to be considerable "narrative space" between each of the paired stories so that the reader moves on to other characters, returning only later to a character previously encountered. I didn't plan it that way exactly at the outset; the trajectory became clear to me as the writing progressed.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am a 2018-2019 Translation Fellow at the Yiddish Book Center, where I am translating three memoirs by Rachmil Bryks (1912-1974), a poet and prose writer, a fiction writer and a memoirist.

Bryks masterfully depicts Jewish life in a shtetl in pre-Holocaust Poland as well as his experiences during the approach of war and the Holocaust. The translation program is wonderful, and the process of translation is endlessly stimulating. 

Both writing and translation require a process of radical listening. As a writer, I listen to my characters; as a translator, I try to be aware of the writer's ghostly presence, to get as close as possible to authorial intentionality and then to usher those words into another language.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I think of writing fiction as a way to spend more time with characters than I do in my poetry. But I don't think of poetry and fiction as utterly separate enterprises. My poetry has often been narrative and prose-y, and my prose is often focused on the interior lives of my characters and is complete with poetic passages.

In the end, I aim to follow the muse, to see where the character goes or wants to go, rather than be concerned about the genre in which s/he "belongs."

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Yermiyahu Ahron Taub.

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