Imagine yourself in a foreign country—and not even the city where you’re living in that country, but a different one fifty miles away, where a friend has invited you to a party. Now imagine that the old lady you’ve been idly chatting with suddenly reveals she knows all about your family’s history, all the secret details of the past that no one ever told you because no one ever talked about them.
That’s what happened to Molly Antopol in Haifa, Israel, where, purely by chance, she ran into a woman from Antopol, the Jewish village in Belarus where Molly’s family originated, which was “virtually destroyed during World War II.” She recounted the experience recently for the New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog:
The woman had been young when [my great-grandmother] left, and barely remembered her, but she had other stories. She told me about Rabbi Binyamin and Yossl the tailor, about the businesses along Pinsker Street, the butcher and the pub and the bakery….Her tales of village raids, of famines, of a neighbor’s newborn given as a “gift” to a barren Gentile woman were recounted with the same animation as anecdotes about languid summers swimming in the Karolevski Canal….
The woman ended up giving Molly a sort of book titled Antopol, full of first-person accounts from the people who had lived there, “with passages written in Yiddish, Hebrew, and English.” Molly sat down and began to write her own book “the moment I finished reading it.”
Thirteen years and a Stegner Fellowship later, the result is Molly’s debut short story collection The UnAmericans, which jumps from McCarthy-era California, to modern-day Israel, to a Belarusian village not unlike Antopol. I talked to Molly, who was recently named by the National Book Foundation as one of 2013’s 5 Under 35, about the book in her San Francisco home.
The Rumpus: The book is called The UnAmericans, so I was not surprised from the title to find there were a lot of people from other countries or who were in the Communist Party. But what I was not expecting from the title was that all the characters would be Jewish. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what the title means to you in that regard.
Molly Antopol: I figured out the title after I was more than halfway done with the book. I’d been writing the McCarthy-era stories first, and the word “un-American” I had always just associated with the Red Scare and the witch hunts. It was also such a complicated and derogatory term to my family, to those who were in the party.
For so many of my characters, they were political in their own countries and they risked their lives for certain political beliefs that they had, only to be brought to America where they’re not treated like Americans—they’re just not really treated like anything. It was this feeling for a lot of my characters, who are dissidents or banned artists and writers, that they had had to fight living under so much surveillance, and then suddenly they come to America and they’re like, I’m not being surveilled—I’m not even being noticed at all.
With the Israel stories, it was for me the most surprising way the title would fit in. I kept thinking about, for a lot of my Israeli characters, what it was like to inherit such a complicated and symbiotic relationship to America and to feel how tangled that is, and it’s nothing that they chose to do themselves. Like in the second story, “Minor Heroics,” there’s the Israeli soldier who totally resents defending this Brooklyn-born settlement but still really pines for a chance to discover America for himself. Or the journalist, Talia, whose entire career is upended because of America’s economic crisis. I was thinking about all the different ways the U.S. would affect this current generation of Israelis.
Rumpus: It’s the case with a lot of these characters that their first language isn’t English, but you’re writing in English. I was wondering how you approached that—if you tried to translate any idioms from Hebrew or Czech or other languages that the characters speak, or if you just wrote in English.
Antopol: I thought about that a lot, especially because there were certain slang terms in Hebrew that wouldn’t necessarily translate, but I knew that I was writing for an American audience and that if I sold foreign rights, they would retranslate the book to make it make sense to that language. But one thing that was really important to me was not to italicize any of the words in the languages that were in the stories, because I feel like those foreign words felt just as important and integral to the story as everything else, so I wanted it all to just exist as its own thing.
Rumpus: In the author’s note, you mention that some of the stories draw on actual stories from your family’s history. What was it like rendering those as fiction? Did you feel pressure to keep certain details factual? Were you worried about how your family would see the finished product?
Antopol: I thought about all those things. I think a lot of the situations or some of the historical details would come from my family, but there was nothing emotional or psychological that felt like my family. So I had heard stories about my grandfather being in the Communist Party growing up, and that was really interesting to me, but then I just kind of worked with my own set of characters, and my own psychological and character questions, and brought them into that.
But it did feel really important for me to get all of those details right, and I think that’s one of the reasons why these stories took me such a long time. I just felt like I needed to be an expert on all these times and places if I’m going to write about them. I both need to be an expert and then hopefully try not to show any of my research to the reader. So it was doing all this research or going to the archives or doing all these interviews or traveling, and then trying as much as I can to delete all of that research in a later draft so that all the reader cares about is the characters.
With the partisan story, “My Grandmother Tells Me This Story,” that was one of the hardest ones to research, just because a lot of the accounts of World War II were so disparate and different. [This is the story about Jewish resistance fighters from a Belarusian village similar to Antopol.]
Rumpus: And her story was so particular to her. As a Jew, she was marginalized, and within her own community, she was marginalized. I think that was my favorite story in the book, the way that she reacted to it so differently from the other characters.
Antopol: I’m so glad to hear that. I had read all of these memoirs and biographies of partisans in this area outside of Antopol, where my family was from, but I had read very few about what it was like for young girls. They’d kind of mention that girls were going to the forest and doing these things, and I’m like, What is it like to be a girl, thirteen, coming of age, and suddenly you’re in this moment, and you’re forced to fight but you’re also treated as lesser than the rest of the group?
Then I do this thing called the Writer in Residence in Lithuania in the summer, the SLS [Summer Literary Seminars]. So I was in Lithuania two years ago when I finished the story, and I ended up meeting a woman who was a partisan expert on the psychology of teenage girls, so we talked a lot about that, and it was really fascinating. It was good that I met her after I was done with the story, because hopefully it was character-based and not so research-based.
Rumpus: You mentioned that this took a while to write. How long, precisely?
Antopol: Ten years, but in that time, I was also just learning how to write, so, I mean, one of the stories in the book I wrote ten years ago—“Duck and Cover.” I worked on that story for so long, I think because I was learning the basics by doing it.
Rumpus: I’m interested in how long it took, because all the characters definitely have their own perspectives and their own idiosyncratic ways of thinking, but I feel like there’s a real unity of voice throughout all the pieces. How did you do that over the course of ten years? Did you go back and edit?
Antopol: Yeah, it was actually really tricky. It’s funny—for a long time, I didn’t know I was writing a book. I was writing stories. For me, each story took so long and took so much out of me, that when I finished it, I was like, Oh my gosh, I feel like I’ve poured everything from myself into this, and then I’d get depressed for a week. And then once I was ready to write a new story, I would want to write about something that was completely different, so I would search for a totally different character with a different set of circumstances.
And I remember working on these, and thinking, I don’t know how they’re going to come together. I hope that they come together as a collection. Maybe until I had five stories, I wasn’t sure how it would all work. But what I realized when I was looking back at them was that no matter how different they are, they’re still coming from me, and they’re still coming from my brain and my set of obsessions. I think that no matter how different I tried to make them, there were just these certain questions that I just kept circling back to as I was writing. I think they were the ones I was really swept up in in that decade.
Rumpus: It’s funny how your obsessions come out and you don’t realize until the story is written. And then you’re like, Oh, it’s about this again.
Antopol: Elizabeth Tallent was the one who told me! I was in her office and she’d read a lot of the stories—it was when I was a Stegner—and we were talking about how disparate they are and how they’re not all matched by voice or place, and she said, “Yeah, but think about how they’re all about politics.” And it’s so obvious they’re all about politics, but until Elizabeth said that that day in her office, I had never even thought that my stories were addressing politics. And to her, it was just like, of course!
Rumpus: I actually had a question about the politics, because there are so many stories that take place in Israel, even including members of the IDF, but Palestine is never mentioned. And that’s not at all to imply that any story about Israel has to grapple with this, but I was wondering if that was a conscious decision. The Holocaust, too. There’s people affected by World War II in the book, but it’s never brought up as such.
Antopol: With the Holocaust—I wonder if a lot of Jewish writers of my generation have felt this way—it feels really intimidating to approach it. I feel like so many writers who have either lived through it firsthand or were part of that generation where they were closer to the people who were in it have written so beautifully about it, so there’s no lack of great books about it. It really made me nervous to write about it and to approach it, because I was nervous about how to do it respectfully, and I was also thinking about how I could add something new to something that had already been so explored.
For a long time, I was really, really nervous to write that story about the partisans, because it just felt easier for me to ignore that entire part of history in general and think about the aftermath of it. But it also felt really wimpy to me. That’s what it was. I was like, I’m being a wimp if I don’t write the story, because if I’m trying to write a story about Jewish politics and history over the past century, I can’t ignore World War II. I just kind of have to go into it. I just have to embrace it and write the story. I think that’s why that was the hardest story for me to write: because it had so much emotion, and it was researching a lot of family history, and it just felt so personal.
The Israel stories were really hard for me to write, because I think that my book is very much about politics, but it isn’t political. It really was important for me to not have a political agenda at all, because I have a hard time stomaching any political fiction that feels message-y. But it was tricky, because everyone has an opinion about the Arab–Israeli conflict, and when I first started writing these stories, I was working for an Arab–Israeli human rights group. It was during the Second Intifada. It was this totally violent and intense time, and I think there’s a part of me where I don’t know how to write about that situation without getting my politics out of my messages, and that’s something that was important for me not to do in this book.
Rumpus: Can you tell me a little more about working with this human rights group? How long were you living in Israel?
Antopol: I’ve been there a lot with Chanan [Tigay, her husband]. We’re there most summers and winter break also, now that we’re on an academic schedule. So we’re there a lot, and it’s been that way for the past seven or eight years. Before that, I had worked for a year at that group. It was my first year after college. And then I just started going back and forth ever since.
It was funny because I was totally unqualified. I had studied abroad in Jerusalem in college, and basically the day that I graduated college, I had a flight back. I just wanted to be there, and I thought I wanted to live there. I had started to work for this group, and I was totally unqualified for everything that they had me do, but the Intifada had broken out, and I spoke English, and I had writing skills, so I could write grants.
Rumpus: This question is broad, but how did living in Israel inform the stories that take place there?
Antopol: I think at this point, I feel more comfortable and more familiar with the country than I do most places in the U.S. I know it better, I know which restaurants I want to go to, and the cafés, and the bus system. All these things that I wouldn’t be able to tell you about Boston or something.
But I think that because I’m not Israeli and because I’m not a citizen, it doesn’t matter how often I go there—I’m still not Israeli. There’s this way I feel so close to so many people there, but I always feel like I’m staring through the glass. And in a way, having this really thin piece of glass between me and this place is incredibly useful for me as a writer, because I’m just so hyper-aware of it. I could take a walk in San Francisco and probably notice a third of the things that I would notice in Israel, because I’m just attuned to everything when I’m there.
Rumpus: What Israeli literature do you read? I feel like in America, there’s Etgar Keret, there’s Amos Oz, and then the conversation ends there.
Antopol: I’m actually writing an essay about that right now. I’m trying to figure it out because I have all these smart friends who love books and love international fiction, and whenever we talk about Israeli literature, it’s Etgar Keret, Amos Oz, and David Grossman—I feel like it’s those three. And it’s all men. It’s fascinating to me, because in Israel there are so many incredible, really important female writers that just are not in the conversation here in the States. Zeruya Shalev is really amazing. Yael Hedaya is totally incredible, and I think her stuff is just as big and just as important as someone like David Grossman.
So I’ve been trying to figure it out, because say what we will about politics in Israel or about a lot of other things that are happening in Israel, one thing that I will say is that with the exception of the religious community, I feel like it’s a lot more progressive in terms of gender than it is here. Like, women serve in the military.
Rumpus: Yeah, that’s a big one.
Antopol: Yeah, it’s a huge one, and some of them are officers. And you have women in really high positions in the government, which obviously, in America, is still not happening.
Rumpus: The literary scene in Israel—does it give more time to female writers?
Antopol: Mm-hmm. That’s what’s so interesting to me. So those are some writers I love. I love a writer named Devorah Baron. She’s an incredible story writer, she’s wonderful. I love A.B. Yehoshua. Aharon Appelfeld, he has a new book coming out soon; he’s one of my favorite writers.
Rumpus: I think something a lot of your characters have in common is that they’re very self-aware and they can pinpoint what they’re feeling in a moment and why they’re feeling it, but they often want to want something else. Like Tomás wishes he were a better father in “The Quietest Man,” or Talia really just wishes that she wanted this relationship with Tomer. Would you agree with that assessment?
Antopol: I would. I think that that was something that was really important to me in writing these stories: feeling like my characters knew everything that I knew about them. So if there was a way that I knew something about my character’s desires or the things that they were resisting because I was saving it for some grand epiphany moment for my readers, I just feel like that’s when you can feel the machine at work in a story. That’s when you can feel the writer pulling the strings of the puppet.
So in the drafting process, whenever I would discover something about what my character wanted or didn’t want, I immediately just wanted my character to admit to that so I could get to the next, more interesting level in the story. I felt like if I could get the epiphany out of the way in my drafting process, through my eighth or tenth draft, then that can just be part of how I’ve assembled the character, and then we can move on and move forward with it. In general, I don’t ever want to feel smarter than my characters, because I just feel like that’s not a great way to write a story.
Rumpus: This is your first book—what was it like getting a first book that’s a collection of short stories published? Was it difficult to sell that?
Antopol: No. It’s funny because it took so long. I remember when I was first writing stories when I was in graduate school, a lot of people were selling story collections, and it felt like it wasn’t a very difficult thing. And then there were some years in the drafting of my book when the economy tanked, and suddenly it was hard to sell any books. I think that during that process, it made me nervous, because I thought, Okay, I’m devoting myself to this thing that may never happen. Writing a good story is hard enough that I wanted to tune out all the anxiety of the publishing world, so I basically did. I basically put blinders on, and for many years, I didn’t send any stories out. I didn’t sign with an agent. I didn’t do anything, because I felt like, what I want to do is just work on this book and make it the book that I want to write, regardless of whether anyone’s going to be interested in publishing it. At least I can own that part of it. At least I can be proud of that part of it. And then I’ll see what happens.
Featured image of Molly Antopol © by Debbi Cooper.
All other photos courtesy of Molly Antopol.