Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Q&A with Susan Rubin Suleiman


Photo by Allen Reiner



Susan Rubin Suleiman is the author of the new memoir Daughter of History: Traces of an Immigrant Girlhood. Her many other books include Budapest Diary. She is the C. Douglas Dillon Professor of the Civilization of France and Professor of Comparative Literature, Emerita, at Harvard University. She lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland.


Q: What inspired you to write Daughter of History, and how was the book's title chosen?


A: Two good questions! Around the spring of 2020, like most other people under the Covid lockdown, I had nowhere to go. Before that, I was constantly traveling, and here I was, sitting in my apartment in Chevy Chase, Maryland. I began to write a coronavirus journal, recording every day what I was reading, hearing and worrying about, including the upcoming elections.


Sometimes, I would write about an old photo I found. First it was about snapshots of my kids when they were little, and then eventually about old photos of myself as a child—back in Budapest after World War II, or in Vienna or Haiti, where my parents and I spent time on our way to the United States. I also found photos from later on, when I was living in Paris for a year after college.


I had been thinking for a long time about writing a sequel to my earlier memoir, Budapest Diary, which was about returning to Budapest many years after I had left Hungary with my parents, fleeing Communism.


Budapest Diary appeared in 1996 and it was an important book for me; it opened doors to my past that I had long shut down. Most of that book is about what I was experiencing and learning when I lived in Budapest for six months in 1993—the people I met, what Hungary was like in the years right after Communism, and so on.


I realized afterwards that I would like to fill in pieces of the past that I had so resolutely locked the door on—to write a book about my childhood in Budapest after the war, and about my first years in America as an immigrant. But it took me a long time to get around to it.


Two wars influenced my life. One was World War II. I was a very young child in 1944 when Hungarian Jews began to feel the horrors of the Holocaust. Hungary was the last country with a large Jewish population still intact at that time, and the Nazis managed to deport close to half a million people from the provinces in record time, between April and early July 1944.


The Jews in Budapest were luckier, never suffering systematic deportation, though many were killed in other ways. My family had the good fortune to survive, thanks to false papers—I was pretending to be a 5-year old Catholic girl named Mary, but when it was all over and we returned to our old apartment, for a moment I couldn’t remember my real name!  


The other war was the Cold War. For a few years after 1945, those who had been lucky enough to survive could lead a very pleasant life in Budapest, but then the Iron Curtain came down in 1949. My family escaped from Hungary in August of that year by walking across the border into Czechoslovakia--later, that became impossible because the border was mined.


So in 2020 I began to think about my childhood, about our long journey to the United States, and how it was that for so many years I had closed the door on Budapest. There was the process of assimilation, the desire to be American at all costs—I arrived in the U.S. when I was 11.


The high point of my Americanness was when I became an avid reader of Seventeen magazine as a high school student in Chicago—all I wanted was to look like the other girls, not different!


So how did I end up, after those very conformist high school years, as a globetrotting professor of French literature at Harvard? How did I become who I am? That was the question I tried to answer in the book. It’s a kind of bildungsroman, divided into three parts: Budapest, In Transit, America.


Now about your second question, concerning the title. A good friend of mine, Sonya Michel, was reading Budapest Diary as I was writing the new book, and one day she said to me: “In Budapest Diary you write that one is not only the child of one’s parents, but that history too nourishes us or deprives us of nourishment. Why not call this book Daughter of History?”


So I did! Daughter of History with a capital “H”—the kind of history that can transform an ordinary life from one day to the next. You’re living a peaceful life, and then suddenly, everything is upended—think of what happened to families living in Kiev back in February 2022.


I was one of the very lucky ones—History didn’t cut me too deeply.


Q: You’ve mentioned Budapest Diary, which came out in 1996. Can you say more about the relationship between the two books?


A: The form of the two books is very different, and the stories they tell are different too—there are a few overlaps, for example how we left Hungary by walking across the border. But Budapest Diary is mainly about the months I spent in Budapest in 1993, at an Institute for Advanced Study that was founded after the fall of Communism.

One chapter describes an earlier trip I took there with my two sons in 1984, a brief return after 35 years of absence. But the bulk of the book consists of an actual diary I kept over a six-month period in 1993, day by day—heavily edited, of course.


The new book I had in mind was not going to be a diary, nor a continuous narrative, though it does tell a chronological story: from Budapest to America.


Each chapter is based around an object—sometimes it’s an object I still have in my possession, like the silver pin my mother wore in Hungary or the miniature chess set my father bought before we left, with which we played during our travels —some of the pieces are missing now, so you can’t play with it, but I still keep it in a desk drawer.


Others are objects that exist only in my memory, like the bicycle I got for my 10th birthday. It was my dream, a really beautiful bike, cherry red, with shiny chrome fenders. But a few weeks after I got it, we left the country and I had to leave it behind. We left everything behind, except some old photographs and a few pieces of my mother’s jewelry.


Another memory object is the fraternity pin I wore from a boy I was in love with during my first year at Barnard.  He was a very nice Jewish American boy, and his fraternity pin represented my dream of assimilation, but I only wore it for a few months. I did not marry that boy!


Q: How did you choose the photographs you include in the book?


A: The photographs, all originals, are among the most precious objects I have--my inheritance from my mother. After she died, my sister and I found them in a drawer, all in a jumble, and divided them between us. While I was writing the book I borrowed hers and tried to organize the lot, lining up the photos more or less in order.


Some of them really struck me. There’s one of me and my parents in Budapest in 1949, before we escaped—it’s the first photo that appears in the book. We were a well-dressed, prosperous family, about to leave everything and start a new life.


I used the photographs as jumping-off points to tell the story—I describe quite a few of them but don’t reproduce all of them. The photos work like an accompaniment to the text, not illustrations exactly but rather like a parallel narrative.


Q: The scholar Sherry Turkle has said of the book, “A memoir of heart and soul, of ideas and intimations. On page after page, it reminds us that we think with the objects we love and we love the objects we think with.” What do you think of that assessment?


A: Sherry Turkle is a friend and a well-known theorist of objects, among other things. She edited a book I contributed to, titled Evocative Objects. The first version of what I wrote about my mother’s silver pin appeared in that book.


In the quote you read, Sherry emphasizes that objects help you to think. For me, objects are related not so much to thought as to emotion, an inspiration to remember, to try and feel again how I felt at that time. Of course there’s thinking involved too, but it’s more than just thinking, it’s recreating or reimagining.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: During the Covid lockdown, I interrupted a book I was working on because I couldn’t bring myself to write anything other than the coronavirus journal and the memoir. Then when I finished Daughter of History, while it was being read and edited, I went back to the other book.


It’s about the Hungarian director István Szabó, who made the English-language film Sunshine, among other great films. He’s still alive and I know him. He’s just a year and a half older than I am, born in February 1938. He and his mother (his father died right at the end of the war) could have emigrated around the time my family did, but they decided to stay. He still lives in Budapest.


Szabó was recognized as part of the Hungarian New Wave and won some important international prizes in the 1960s, when he was still in his twenties. He has made films in Hungarian, German, and English.


His most famous film, Mephisto, a German-language film about an actor in Nazi Germany, was released in 1981 and went on to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. He was the first Hungarian director to win that award, and to date there has been just one other (László Nemes, for Son of Saul).


Szabó is obsessed with the history of Central Europe, the way individual lives are transformed by history. You can see why he would interest me!  My book about him, titled István Szabó: Filmmaker of Existential Choices, is coming out next year in a series with Bloomsbury called Philosophical Filmmakers.


Q: Anything else we should know about Daughter of History?


A: A very wise friend said to me recently, “You should try to tell people what you wanted to convey in the book--what the takeaway is, which is not the same thing as what it’s about.”


I can say what it’s about pretty easily: It’s about what happened during the war and afterward, when my family left Hungary and found refuge in the U.S. It’s about my desire as a teenager to be “100 American,” and then about how I gradually found a way back to my European roots. But the takeaway is less easy to define—maybe there’s more than one!


At least one takeaway concerns resilience, the way children can overcome trauma and become successful adults. Psychologists these days are very high on resilience, and indeed it is a good thing.


I was a resilient child and I became successful, Harvard professor and all that, but in writing this book I also became aware of the costs of resilience—because like all good things in life, it has a price.


Among its costs is that you may become wary of intimacy. It’s an issue of trust, since you can’t always be sure that people won’t hurt you.


Another cost is that you sometimes begin to forget who you are, who you were, where you came from. A resilient person’s goal is to move forward, without looking back too much; but along the way, you are forced to close the door on many things, to forget many things, not really deal with many subjects, especially painful ones. Later, they can come back to haunt you.


Writing Daughter of History helped me to understand the double face of resilience, and to reckon with its costs.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

No comments:

Post a Comment