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Centre for Stories

Yvonne Fein

“I believe there are fundamental questions that consume so many children of survivors... 'If the Holocaust had never happened and, consequently, my parents had never met, does that mean I owe my life to this catastrophe?’”

Between the Lines interviews a diverse selection of Australian writers to uncover the hidden processes, research, and inspiration that goes into the making of a book.

Yvonne Fein is the daughter of Holocaust survivors, an experience that drove her to write about the fallout creatively, to investigate it academically and seek answers from religion unsuccessfully. Her essays, articles, reviews and short stories (six of which appear in her latest collection, Choose Somebody Else) have been published in Australia, Israel, UK, USA in over 15 journals, newspapers and anthologies.

Choose Somebody Else – Synopsis
“Oh Lord, I know we are the Chosen People but just for once couldn’t you choose somebody else?” is an old plea, heartsick yet ironic, and with it these stories lift off on their journey around the world. An enthralling, entertaining and compelling collection of short stories tackling life’s questions, big and banal, with an evocative, humorous and thought-provoking authority. The stories are discrete but connected by their representations of various generations of the tormented.

A woman smiling next to a bookcase

Your daughter chose the title of the collection, which comes from the old Jewish plea, ‘Oh Lord, I know we are the Chosen People but just for once couldn’t you choose somebody else?’ How does the title resonate with the book’s themes of persecution and survival?

It’s an old plea, to be sure, originating from Sholem Aleichem’s story Tevye the Milkman (1894), which eventually became Fiddler on the Roof. Worth noting is that Tevye utters these words in a tone of mournful irony. Both readers and audience members unfailingly respond with the laughter of recognition. So while the title, Choose Somebody Else, clearly resonates with themes of persecution and survival, it also interrogates the role humour plays in allowing the persecuted to endure in the face of what is often unspeakable trauma.

Four stories do not deal with the Holocaust. One is set in mediaeval times and another in Israel where lines between persecutors and the persecuted become blurred. The remaining two have the most fleeting of references — it seems I can’t help myself — but do not take the Holocaust as a central motif.

I believe there are fundamental questions that consume so many children of survivors. They relate to the themes untangled in the collection but cannot yield answers: ‘could I have survived what my parents survived?’ and, ‘If the Holocaust had never happened and, consequently, my parents had never met, does that mean I owe my life to this catastrophe?’

You are the daughter of Holocaust survivors and this collection of short stories has Jewish themes running throughout. In the first story, you write of passing on a ‘deformed inheritance … so that they never forget the culture of survival and victimhood’. Can you talk about how your inheritance of survival informed the stories?

The passage cited is followed by the paragraph which completes the thought:

A culture of mercantilism was also passed on. The baggage my kin schlepped from one side of the world to another contained much more than psychosis and affliction. Two overlocker sewing machines accompanied my grandparents on their six-week boat trip across the Indian Ocean…’

So this inheritance is more than the sum of its parts. After the nightmare, the generation of survivors was not necessarily able to believe in God anymore. It was their understanding that salvation had not depended on the Divine but on that magic combination of brains and luck. Without both, life would have been forfeit but not one of them could have said which of the two was ascendant.

So the legacy may have been dark, but there was light to be found if you knew where to look. There were new families to raise, businesses to be run and money to be made in Australia’s boom-time post war economy. And there were still good times to be had even if they could be coloured with shadowy dreams. Such dreams could, without warning, invade the restless sleep of these New Australians and, crying out in the night, they would wake their children.A black book covered in flowers with the title 'Choose Somebody Else'

 In the second story, ‘Nachman’s Recipe’, you inhabit the voice of a male rabbi, Nachman. What was it like to speak from the position of Nachman in this story?

To speak/write from Nachman’s position — the standpoint of a male and perhaps, still more strangely, a rabbi — seemed somehow a natural and even an easy undertaking. I could see and hear him with remarkable clarity. Because I have always been something of an adventurous cook myself, it was not too arduous to weave that strand of the tale into his set of attributes. In fact, I remember setting down many of the recipes for the story before the plot had been fully formulated.

Part of what made the creating of Nachman so intriguing was linking him to a shadowy past with overtones of tragedy. That tragedy had to do with his treatment of women and once again I found it unproblematic to investigate his disposition and his moral fibre within that framework.

I found there was a certain freedom in swapping voices, genders and world-views. It allowed me to see the world from a heretofore alien perspective. It is not as if I had never wondered what it might be like to have been born a man, but I had never inhabited the male psyche for quite as long a period as 15,000 words.

You write in many other forms, such as theatre and the novel. What was it about the short story form that drew you to that mode to tell these particular stories?

At university I studied short stories from Australia, the UK and USA and fell in love. They became the first stop on my writing journey. Along the way I found I had a knack for dialogue which led me to theatre. Later I mapped out a novel — based on a short story — which eventually became April Fool. Still, I kept writing those stories. When I decided to gather them into a single collection, I knew there was much work to be done, even on those which had already been published. And I knew I had to create as many new ones again to complete an anthology. I realised the genre was more akin to poetry than novels or drama in that they required a distillation of language, a compression of plot and concise representations of character. There was room only for the essential narrative. To tell my tales, therefore, and because there seemed to be so many to tell, neither a single novel nor play would have served.

And although some stories were quite long, — the final one a novella — the above rules still applied, giving me the means and opportunity to write what I knew had to be written in the only form it could possibly take.

Some of the stories have magical, surrealist elements, like the spontaneous splintering or smashing of a woman, and a suit that has magical properties. Can you comment of your use of magic in stories that otherwise have a very real, sobering effect?

I heard an interview with Etgar Keret once, the Israeli short-story author well-known for his intertwining of the prosaic with the surrealistic. He explained how the surrealistic, the magical, can come unexpectedly, just from turning the mundane into the extraordinary as one walks down the street. He gave some arcane examples and I went home and wrote the first draft of Superjewel. Not surprisingly, it was set in Israel and it examined the eternal conflict there; but the only way I could bring a separate peace — one of my own making — was to use Keret’s formula. I introduced the magic suit, although its propensity for engendering miracles was finite.

In Nachman’s recipe, I wrote it as a straight story in its first draft. There was a rabbi, there was a kitchen where he cooked toothsome dishes, there was a student and they fell in love. What a bore. And then I remembered that extraordinary Bernard Malamud story, The Magic Barrel containing a rabbi, a fallen woman and mysterious cosmic aberrations. Magic realism was only implicit but I saw how I could transform my own story if I took the magical route one step further.

In ‘Brothers in Law’, you playfully interject throughout the story to suggest that an ending could come at different stages. Can you talk about the significance of where you end a story, particularly in the short fiction form?

Self-evidently, all stories have beginnings but endings are quite a different matter. For any number of reasons with which writers will be all too familiar — sometimes distressingly so — they simply do not happen. The story is left in narrative limbo with the writer unable to bring it to any sort of resolution. In my experience conclusions are the most difficult and possibly the most important piece of the storytelling puzzle. The interjections in Brothers in Law seem light-hearted but they portend tragedy and prove Orson Welles maxim: ‘If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.’

I find endings highly problematic. Nachman’s Recipe had a tragic ending in its earlier incarnations and I thought that finding how Both Sides should end was impossibly complicated and vexed.

I believe that if a conclusion does not encapsulate the tale, if it does not leave the reader satisfied yet somehow still wanting more and does not, by some means, initiate a restlessness of the spirit that provokes further reflection, the entire story has failed. 

The final story is a novella, and references the whimsical glamour of Gatsby, as well as its less than glamorous ending. The novella also references the poetry of Heinrich Heine and Sylvia Plath, among other writers. How do these intertextual links add to the world you are creating in your fiction?

Intertextual links are a charmed phenomenon. They seem to rise organically from the text I am creating, infusing it with an internal intelligence. They cannot be sought out; they cannot be deliberate insertions. If they do not arise of their own volition — something beyond my conscious intention — they risk appearing contrived and affected.

The Gatsby references in the novella felt like a singular gift. Once I inserted the line beneath the title, Each time I read Gatsby I hoped for a different ending, I knew that a Gatsby ambience, with its transience, effervescence and tragedy, would suffuse the narrative. Intertextuality in that and other stories, added consequence to them. It was particularly rewarding when the possibility of using fragments of Talmudic, Kabbalistic and biblical texts arose. A momentary idea of what I needed would flicker around my writing brain and compel me to delve into those texts more deeply. It produced a richness for which I was eternally grateful to my subconscious mind.

You have edited literary journals, lectured at the Jewish Museum of Australia, and performed stand-up comedy to raise awareness of mental health. Can you talk about what you are working on at the moment, particularly in relation to your work with ‘Choose Somebody Else’?

I’ve gone back to lecturing at the museum after quite a long break. Naturally I’m teaching a course on short stories, focusing on Jewish American writers of the twentieth century. They are truly a phenomenon: Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners; National Book Awards; National Medals of Arts; PEN Awards; Guggenheim Fellowships. They influenced my own writing from my very first encounters with them, so getting back in touch with them through teaching still manages to fire my imagination.

I’m making notes for a new stand-up routine (we’re supposed to call them ‘sets’). I love performing and I love the writing involved but my mentor often says ‘You’re such a writer!’ by which she means I create my first drafts in these huge blocks of prose. She shows me how to pare them down, cut them back and make them mean enough for delivery.

Finally, I’ve found a new passion which arose out of the short story writing — micro- or flash fiction: from 90 words per piece to nothing over 800. Putting the short stories together to create Choose Somebody Else was exhausting. Well before submission, the collection required even more redrafting than any of my previous works. Somehow it seemed cathartic to go even shorter still. Right now, this brevity is a challenge that strangely both calms and exhilarates me and I hope to put together enough pieces for a collection

You can purchase Choose Somebody Else from Wild Dingo Press.

Amy Lin is a Perth writer who has recently completed her PhD on mental illness in Australian poetry. She has published poems, essays, interviews and reviews in Westerly, Cordite, Social Alternatives, Verity La and Axon. Amy has performed her poetry at Perth Writers Festival, Voicebox, Perth Poetry Club, Sturmfrei Poetry Night, and Spoken Word Perth.  

This interview was originally published on 10 April 2019. 

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