Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Q&A with Rosa Lowinger




Rosa Lowinger is the author of the new memoir Dwell Time: A Memoir of Art, Exile, and Repair. Her other books include Tropicana Nights. She is also an art conservator.


Q: What inspired you to write Dwell Time, and what impact did it have on you to write it?


A: For years, I’d been wanting to write a book for the general public about art conservation as there are literally none out there.


A few decent novels portray our work within their pages, but no nonfiction discusses our profession’s odd blend of art and science, plus the mindset of perfection that you have to have to do this work. As one of the few conservators who writes longform nonfiction, I wanted to take this on.


I also knew that to be interesting, the book needed an overarching story line, like a single work of restoration that was unique, or a family story that tied it all together. The latter eventually came to me.


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


A: I always knew I’d use “Dwell Time” as a title for a book about conservation because it has so many layers of meaning.


In conservation, it measures the amount of time it takes for a chemical to work on a surface. For example, a strong solvent, like acetone, has a short dwell time, as opposed to something weaker that takes longer to work on a surface.


In the book I use the metaphor of washing our hands for 20 seconds, because it takes that much dwell time for soap to kill viruses, whereas using alcohol (as in hand sanitizers) takes only a few seconds.


But dwell time also references how long immigrants wait at the border, or how long a family resides in a particular city. This spoke to the story of my family’s double exile from Eastern Europe to Cuba and then the US, and particularly how immigrants, especially children, become imbued with the culture or their new countries.

Q: The writer Ruth Behar said of the book, “In dialogue with Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table, this brilliant, beautiful book takes the reader on a journey from LA to Miami to Rome to Cuba to Haiti to Hawaii and other destinations, as Lowinger keeps seeking ways to fix things that seem damaged beyond hope.” What do you think of that description, and what do you see as the relationship between your book and Levi’s The Periodic Table?


A: Ruth is an amazing writer and a great friend who shares my story of being born in Cuba to Jewish parents who were also born on the island. Our grandparents were the immigrants and we both write frequently about Jewish Latina-ness.


Her description of my dialogue with Primo Levi is spot on. The book owes its structure and concept to Levi’s brilliant small memoir The Periodic Table.


In it, Levi tells a Jewish Italian family story that is intertwined with stories about being a chemist. Each chapter is framed by a particular element on the periodic table. The braiding of his family life and his profession create a potent new alchemical metaphor about life.


I aimed to do the same thing with this memoir, using the materials of conservation as the unifying metaphor rather than chemical elements. In the process I learned a great deal about myself. I owe a great deal to Primo Levi.


Q: What do you think the book says about intergenerational trauma?


A: That it exists and is palpable, irrefutable, and deeply wounding to the children who are faced with its consequences.


But mostly I aim to say that repair is always possible. And like a damaged and restored work of art, the scars of healing are not ugly; they’re the face of our humanity, what humbles us, and makes us unique and beautiful. This entire book is a love song to the possibility of repair.


My mother has always adored me, but she was brutal to me when I was a child. Finding the profession of art conservation, a profession that begins with the notion that you have to understand how damage happens in order to fix it, gave me a path to mending the fraught relationships of my family’s past.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Before beginning Dwell Time, I was working on a novel about Cuba in the 1950s called Paradiso Cabaret. It takes place in a fictional Havana nightclub and it’s a love story, an intergenerational trauma story, and yes, it includes a Cuban Jewish (male) art conservator.


I’m about 120 pages in and it’s a lot of fun to weave conservation into a tale that is entirely made up.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I began this project to tell a story about my beloved profession. Through the process, I have come to see it as a springboard for talking about greater societal healing.


In one of the latter chapters I talk about the moment when the Black Lives Matter movement spearheaded the toppling of Confederate statues. Conservators are at the forefront of those actions, which demonstrate that even deliberate damage and destruction can constitute a form of healing and repair.


Our world needs some serious mending now. I believe there are lessons from conservation to inform the hard work that needs to be done.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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