Barbara Artson is the author of the novel Odessa, Odessa. A retired psychoanalyst, she lives in San Francisco.
Q: Odessa, Odessa was loosely based on your own family history. How much of that history did you know growing up, and did you need to do much research to write the novel?
A: Growing up I knew nothing of my mother’s history, other than her birth in Odessa. As with most immigrants, my mother refused to speak of the time prior to coming to America that I now know was the result of trauma. Hence, much of what I wrote was fictional.
Essentially, my mother had four brothers and two sisters and worked in a sweatshop sewing elastic to the waistbands of bloomers, and in 1939 my father moved his family of four to a conservative, working-class New York suburb. And sadly, it is true that my aunt was born with a severe hearing disability.
I decided not to replicate the actual lives of family members, rather to infuse them with what I remember as their character traits.
Many characters in my novel, however, are pure fancies of my imagination that occurred to me unexpectedly and serendipitously.
Bessie, for example, the young woman who befriends Henya on the voyage to America on the Lusitania and the vanished great-uncle Shimshon and his family in Israel, although palpable and dear to me, are solely invented.
More make-believe: I never visited a Palestinian refugee camp; never visited Israel with my sister, nor do I even have family in Israel.
But, were you to ask who among my characters are my favorites -- fantasy or factual --I would, without hesitation, avow that Shimshon holds place of honor. I shed many a tear writing his journal.
By and large, I believe that each character includes parts of me--the good and the bad. Don’t we all, in one way or another, unconsciously write about ourselves?
Turning to the question you posed concerning research: In addition to reading about Russian history including the revolution and the exploitation and violence toward the Jewish people, as well as the history of Palestine, I read (and re-read) some of the awe-inspiring historical fiction revealed in Odessa, Odessa’s epoch.
Mary Antin’s The Promised Land, for one, and Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky, Michael Gold’s Jews Without Money, Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep, The Bread Givers by Anzia Yezierska, to name but a few.
Q: In the book's dedication, you write, "We are all immigrants." What resonance do you think that theme has in today's climate?
A: I began to write Odessa, Odessa at a time when we had not confronted the current immigrant situation. At that time, I had been aware that Jews seeking asylum in the ‘30s and ‘40s were furtively turned away by most nations, including the United States under the direction of Franklin Roosevelt.
Reprehensible as that event remains, it is unrivaled by what is currently occurring in plain sight at our southern borders, and with our government’s authorization.
Young children, even toddlers, separated from their parents; sick and dying kids deprived of medical care that keeps them alive -- forced to return to their country of origin; human beings housed in cages without adequate nourishment and hygiene, women and children beaten and sexually abused.
Little did I know when writing the imagined passage portraying the ship’s guards forcefully separating Henya from her 14-year-old son that we would witness a similar situation on our television screens daily.
Q: The novel stretches over four generations of one family's history. What do you think the book says about family legacies?
A: The current preoccupation with individuals doing genealogical searches to discover unknown ancestors attests to the significance of family legacies.
For me, it has always been a burning question, most likely growing out of my early fantasy of having been adopted.
As the only platinum-haired, blue-eyed member of my immediate and extended family, and the focus of conversations among my aunts and uncles, and because neighbors baited my mother about “the milkman’s secret visit,” who I was and where I came from was of major concern to me.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?
A: I would hope my readers would come away with a more profound sense of what it feels like to be the object of discrimination--not only religious discrimination, as portrayed in Odessa, Odessa, but prejudice against any group of people persecuted because of race, religion, color of skin, sexual identity, or disability--and that my readers will associate my characters’ predicament to the plight of today’s immigrants who are similarly suffering from injustice, bigotry, and oppression.
Yes, we are all immigrants!
Q: What are you working on now?
A: It has been a year (Sept. 11, 2018) since the publication of Odessa, Odessa. The year, as I’m certain you know only too well, has been crammed with a book launch, several radio and on-line interviews, bookstore and book club events, the writing of blogs, and whatever PR opportunities came my way.
It’s time to replenish my soul and so I’m spending my time reading fiction and nonfiction, studying philosophy and French, catching up with family and friends, participating in political events and, should I be so fortunate, waiting for creative inspiration.
Some of my readers have suggested that I write a sequel to Odessa, Odessa with a focus on Roberta and Hannah and their families.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: When, after retiring from my psychoanalytic clinical practice of 35 years, I sat down to fulfill the promise to write a novel after leaving the study of English literature, I had no notion of what I would write until I sat at my computer and wrote: Henya Chanah is a woman who no longer bleeds, so she puzzles over how this could have happened. Try as she might, she can’t remember the last time she and Mendel were together.
Not until then did I know the subject matter of my novel. And this process continued as I wrote each chapter. The novel, it felt to me, was writing itself.
I feel so privileged that, after a meaningful 40-year career as a psychoanalyst, I can add “author” to my résumé.
In my public talks and readings, I discovered that I loved dramatizing my character’s dialogue, especially Dora’s when I revert to my New Jersey accent. Often, I was asked if I had an acting background.
Perhaps, just perhaps, I might add “actress” to my CV following “psychoanalyst and author.” Even at my age.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb