Elizabeth Kadetsky’s rich, lyrical prose transports readers across the globe, immersing them in riveting, tightly wound plots absorbed by race, war, natural disasters, trauma, grief and obsession. Her complex, fully realized characters often find themselves abroad, engrossed in treacherous situations driven by their own yearning and estrangement.
Also a powerful essayist, Kadetsky’s world is rendered with startling beauty and raw, uncompromising truth. She is the author of a novella, On the Island at the Center of the Center of the World (Nouvella, 2015), and a story collection, The Poison that Purifies You (C&R Press, 2014), which was chosen by Vogue.com as one of the best under-the-radar picks of 2014. Her short stories have been chosen for a Pushcart Prize, Best New American Voices, and Best American Short Stories. Kadetsky has also published a memoir, First There Is a Mountain (Little Brown, 2004), and her personal essays have appeared in the New York Times, Guernica, Santa Monica Review, Antioch Review, Post Road, Agni, and elsewhere.
I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Elizabeth about her latest work and stylistic approach as an author.
The Rumpus: You began your writing career as a journalist and then as a memoirist, publishing the critically-acclaimed First There Is a Mountain, which focuses on your time in India as a yoga disciple of the great master B.K.S. Iyengar. The memoir also illuminates the harsh complexities surrounding the Iyengar empire. How did you come to fiction writing from journalism and nonfiction?
Elizabeth Kadetsky: After several years as an investigative long-form journalist, I pursued an MFA in fiction. I was immersed in my nonfiction, and in applying the techniques of fiction to nonfiction, but I believed that fiction was the true “art.” I thought that great writers wrote fiction, and that nonfiction was a stepping stone to becoming a novelist. I had other misconceptions, too. Joan Didion was my model. I thought I could keep writing in a modular, nonlinear, reflective style and call it fiction. As it turned out, I didn’t know anything about building plot, character, or arc.
I studied under Geoffrey Wolff, author of the superlative memoir The Duke of Deception, and in large part because of him learned that memoir-writing could follow the principles of the novel. This was in the mid-1990s. Memoir was being newly defined as a literary genre, one encompassing what was previously seen as autobiographical fiction. This gave nonfiction greater credibility. At a certain point, I came to the decision that it doesn’t matter what one calls one’s prose. For me, becoming an artist and an author would be tied to my success at the level of artistry. Joan Didion is certainly the more brilliant author when stacked against most published fiction writers today. She’s one of the greats. I eventually saw both my nonfiction and fiction as progressing away from craftsmanship, and on a course toward achieving greater aesthetic and emotional power.
Rumpus: Almost all of your writing absorbs the reader into a larger intercultural dialogue, where characters’ yearnings for deeper connection are played out in international settings and alienating, at times dangerous, circumstances. I sense this in Jack’s loneliness and erotic longings for Rohit, his Jihadist captor, from the title story of The Poison that Purifies You. I love the ending of this piece, with Jack still able to humanize Rohit by refusing to see him only as a terrorist, and hoping to discover his true name. Do you imagine a greater connection between the outsider’s longing for connection and transformation, with the fluid but complicated nature of culture itself?
Kadetsky: A couple of things come to mind in hearing you share that wonderful analysis of what I’m doing in my fiction. One is that I came to journalism with a kind of agenda, which was probably very immature—basically an anti-Imperialist stance shaped by the outrages of the Reagan era in the United States. As a fiction writer, my agenda is similar if hopefully more nuanced with an internationalist mindset and the idea that, while on the one hand we’re all individuals, but on the other, we live in a universal world. Foremost, the idea of nation and clan is troublesome. There is also the allure of being part of a clan. Perhaps this complicated relationship to the idea of belonging comes from my own background as being half Jewish, and never feeling accepted as “one of us” by the members of my extended family on either side. My mother’s family was quite anti-Semitic, and my father’s very clannish. I want to embrace the complexities of belonging in my work, and ask the reader to question and see the danger in staying home in their comfort zone, among their own people.
Something else that has strongly influenced me as a writer and as a person is a kind of PTSD relationship to the world. In my writing, I want to key in to the way a PTSD experience can be universal, and how anyone who has suffered even a mild form of it might be able to relate to someone who is experiencing a more extreme traumatic circumstance.
I developed this traumatic worldview over several years traveling abroad as a journalist. Many times during stressful, scary situations, I felt out of body, a weird disassociated emotion upon seeing something so frightful it seemed unreal. And yet, I found myself seeking out these situations. I felt a high. My experience with this kind of thrill-seeking, risk-seeking is more limited than among lifelong war correspondents, but I felt it intensely, particularly when I did war reporting in southern Mexico during the Chiapas war. The day after it was reported that there’d been an insurrection in southern Mexico, in January of 1994, I got the LA Weekly to send me there. I got on a plane and found myself in San Cristóbal de las Casas, a small, beautiful colonial city that ran on tourism and was now living under siege. Because of a travel advisory, outsiders had cleared out, and the hotels were filled with journalists. I teamed up with some journalist acquaintances, and we drove to little villages trying to find out what was going on. There was the mood of wartime, of dread. At one point, we found an abandoned bus by the side of the road. It’d been shot up. We didn’t know by whom, but probably the Mexican police or military. It was covered in blood with bullet holes all over it. There was a cap that had been abandoned, shot through the head. This was the most horrific thing I’d ever witnessed. I felt a sense of my own identity being very small in the larger scope of the world. All I could do was witness. Who I was and what culture I came from and what national borders I resided within became suddenly irrelevant, aside from how lucky I was to live my normal life under such protected circumstances.
This experience also triggered other memories. When I’d been reporting in Guatemala a few years before that, I documented people’s memories of the killings that had occurred during the Dirty War. Whole villages were wiped out. I felt a sense of horror and dislocation but also universality. That feeling has propelled a lot of my writing. I aim to communicate that experience of extreme otherness and connection at the same time, that metaphysical sensation. It’s the paradox of PTSD, a heightened sense of aliveness and presence during a traumatic episode or flashback. You don’t have distracting thoughts. You’re 100% in the moment. What you’re experiencing is both unreal and hyperreal. In some ways depicting this mind state is the raison d’être of my fiction. It’s a challenging place to write from because it’s not about character or plot or story. It’s just a feeling. I’m drawn to characters who may be different from me but who have that sense of the hyper-real, the sense they’re witnessing something important and want to inscribe it in their minds. The event becomes engraved in memory in a troubling traumatic, or repetitive, way.
Rumpus: That complexity often influences the relationship dynamics in your fiction. In the story “Loup Garou,” the narrator admits that after she and Morey have their car stolen by a hitchhiker and are left abandoned on the deserted highway, that “we’d wanted to know what risk was, to feel intensely something more exaggerated, something maybe better, or at least more palpable, than the usual. Maybe we could find it in power over one another, maybe we could find it in pain. We found it in that moment, in unadulterated fear.” I found this statement to be very true for many of the characters in your fiction. Individuals often cling to relationships and situations fraught with risk, be it physical or emotional. What is so compelling for these characters who knowingly engage in such tenuous relationships and circumstances? Is it a means of control?
Kadetsky: I’m glad you picked out that line about risk, because it connects to what I was saying about the desire to live intensely and in a state of dread and fear. What you mentioned about control is interesting, and also people clinging to dysfunctional relationships and situations. Those are both great interpretations, and not ones I’ve actually thought of consciously. For me, that theme in my work, of people drawn to unhealthy relationships and other kinds of dangers, is connected to my experiences with family members and friends who suffer from addiction. Seeing addiction up close, I’ve become fascinated by the idea of a compulsion that’s so powerful it’s bigger than the person. A person can make resolutions and decisions, but ultimately she gives into the craving. My characters often crave a person or a dangerous situation, but it’s the same. People say, “heroin is my wife. I love her.” You love this thing more than anything, and you’ll betray your family members or your loved ones because it’s so big. My characters crave living intensely and in the moment. They want to access an intensity of emotion that they’re not able to feel in their normal life. Instead they experience a mundane numbness on a grand scale. They’re bored and alienated by the way people are expected to go through the world with their attention on multiple focal points, by superficial conversation and the assumption that everyone can easily function and pay their bills and live a kind of normative, quasi-successful bourgeois life that’s really just more of a grind. My characters have a desire for a greater sense of connection, aliveness, presence, immediacy. This can quickly turn to masochism. I suppose this follows the same logic as for the person who doesn’t want to feel numb and therefore engages in cutting or self-harm, the seeking of any kind of emotion even if it’s pain.
In that moment you raise from “Loup Garou,” Cecile has a realization that she is this kind of self-harming individual. It’s the paradigm shift moment of the story. She understands the problem and outgrows it at the same time. She suddenly knows that she’s going to get to New York and move on to the next thing, leaving Morey behind. He can go on in his sadomasochistic, control-seeking manner. But she saw it, the problem, and she’s going to do something different. For me this moment probably describes my relationship with my sister, who suffers from addiction. I get what she is seeking, something so great she would betray everything and everyone for it. For her, to get high for a week is worth losing a month. I see those tradeoffs as being out of synch. I understand the overpowering draw of desire, I’ve felt it, but what I don’t identify with is losing that month. I don’t want to lose sight of the practical side of my life.
Rumpus: You remarked in an interview with Tobias Carroll for Vol. 1 Brooklyn that in the story “It Was Only Clay,” Joseph’s failure “to distinguish fear from reality is what drives the plot toward its conclusion… I wanted to communicate that feeling in this story, how unstable this world was. Joseph is completely unmoored in every respect when he encounters it.” Many of the stories in your collection contain characters whose perception of reality is made questionable by loss, trauma, mental illness, severe insomnia and obsession. How might the use of unreliable narration connect readers to a more complex understanding of a character?
Kadetsky: I love unreliable narration. “The Poison that Purifies You” is similar. Both stories have male narrators, they’re third person and based on true stories, and both characters are based on nothing about me. In both cases, I tried to construct the stories as a kind of bait and switch, meaning that the character’s mind perceives one thing but the reality is quite different. The reader figures it out before the character does. In “The Poison that Purifies You,” Jack is pursuing a gay romance. He doesn’t realize that he’s throwing himself into a Jihadist trap. The story is really about a kidnapping but Jack thinks it’s about romance. Similarly, in “It Was Only Clay,” Joseph thinks that this is about looting and archeology, and that he’s doing something a little bit questionable. He can’t get outside his own point of view. He’s so paranoid about what he’s doing, he feels so guilty about stealing archeological treasures from the ground, that he can’t see the reality right in front of his face, which is that this is a country in the midst of a civil war where the government is committing genocide against its people. He only realizes it later. In that moment of realization, he experiences a paradigm shift. When I was editing the collection, I found that I’d written the same sentence three different times in three different stories in slightly different ways, “It was as if a reality had been staring her in the face and she hadn’t been able to see it and suddenly she did.” That’s what I want to get through in my fiction. The world looks one way and then it just shifts.
Rumpus: Some characters suffer breaks from reality. For instance, in “What We Saw,” one of my favorite stories in the collection, the main character, Natalie, has these paranoid moments trying to connect meaning where there’s possible none, such as the presence of the discarded curbside mattresses with potential bedbugs. I thought that this was very rich because I was able to more intimately feel the vulnerability and humanity of such characters.
Kadetsky: Thank you for seeing that. The Natalie and Melody relationship is probably the most autobiographical among the stories. I wanted to ask a question that I wrote about in my recent essay about my sister, which is, “What does it mean to be the so-called functional one?” In any other context the functional one is not the functional one, but in a family where nobody else can get through the day, someone who is perfectly normal, meaning that she might have that day where she forgets an appointment or loses her keys, takes on the role of someone who never loses control. In fact, she has her foibles. The role deprives her of her humanity. Natalie is struggling to get a grip on reality, but she’s not allowed to be that person in her family. The story is about breaking down the dichotomy between the sisters. Families assign roles, and they’re never fair. Each person taken individually is not that person. And when that person grows up, and goes back to the family, she’s thrust back into this story that is so fixed and hard to overcome, one that she’s been told by the family and that she’s told herself her whole life. These characters have to break through these earlier versions of themselves. The external world creates transformation for the characters because something happens in the world that causes them to go through a shift, and then they have to rethink who they are and what they thought about themselves.
Rumpus: Earthquakes, heat waves, natural disasters, and the violence of social and political tensions serve as an ongoing presence in shaping your plots and influencing characters, particularly regarding their individual loss of control. What compels you to keep returning to the threat of external forces?
Kadetsky: Similar experiences have been the defining moments of my own life, situations of tumult and external chaos, when the normal order of things breaks down: September 11th in NYC, my experience in Chiapas, and the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. In each case, the world around me changed in an instant. In Santa Cruz, during the quake of ‘89, there was a sense of unreality about the place already. Many people there were on drugs, along with a lot of mentally ill people out on the streets because the Republican state government had axed all of the public services. The earthquake caused the downtown to collapse. I was right there. The street was littered with debris and caved in in places. You couldn’t traverse it. That store you used to go to now was rubble. The girlfriend of an acquaintance was trapped under a building, and after several days digging was discovered dead. In the aftermath of the disaster, everyone was even more crazy than they’d been already.
After Sept. 11th, it was similar. I was living in the East Village then, and the neighborhood was quartered off. It reminded me of descriptions of Paris during wartime by Marguerite Duras and Simone de Beauvoir. The cafés were open. You could go have a glass of wine. But they were deserted and the quality of light was different. There was no illumination outside except from the floodlights at Ground Zero. There was no traffic. I felt very moved by this kind of reckoning, these reminders that what you think you know could prove to be wrong suddenly, that the structures of your life could instantly cease to exist. Your earthly constructs can fall away without warning as they did for the Jews of Warsaw. Do you become a different person when forced to pay attention like that? How does it feel to be newly aware, newly present?
Rumpus: Such an awareness must certainly change the subconscious landscape that we pull from as fiction writers. Your travels in Malta deeply informed your latest book, On the Island at the Center of the Center of the World. Working so closely with the short story form, how did you approach writing a novella?
Kadetsky: My stories don’t really function as stories in the sense of the box made from Japanese joinery in the style of Tobias Wolff or the Gordon Lish–edited Raymond Carver stories. I write more like Carver without Lish, in a sprawling and exploratory fashion. Each of my stories starts at novella length, with several storylines, and open-ended themes. I rarely write with a point or endpoint in mind. Then I have to cut and condense and figure out what the story is essentially about. It’s been said that Annie Proulx writes so tightly that every story is really a novel, where every sentence, every word is marshaled into the ultimate force of a singular purpose. I aspire to that. Though in this case, the novella became a story and then I expanded it out again. It was fun.
Rumpus: The “unrequited discontent” that Netti, the main character of the novella, discovers in her baby’s cry is one echoed throughout the novella, such as the relentless barking dog, Sofia’s alienation from her husband, and the injustice of a forgotten crime that Netti struggles to resolve. What drew you to this theme?
Kadetsky: I’m interested in addiction, and depression in some cases, as a state of never being able to feel at peace, a feeling that there is always some niggling problem, the proverbial pea under the mattress. Of course, in life there will always be a pea under the mattress. The addict or the depressed person is idealistic and attaches to the problem rather than accepting the world and life in its beautiful imperfection. I am a little bit of both of those people, the idealist and the person who, after many years studying yoga, can practice acceptance. I love the line, “it was all a brume in the mind,” by the exterminator Joseph Hershkowitz in “What We Saw,” but borrowed from Camus’s The Plague. That problem that so consumed you, well it turns out it wasn’t real, it was never a problem to begin with. One can make a choice whether to believe this version of reality, that the problem never existed and therefore one can now go on with life and get happy. It’s an interesting existential dilemma, does one choose to see problems or not, and if the former, does one then need to escape those problems through nefarious distractions such as cravings and give into them?
Rumpus: Netti’s lover, Jos Borg remarks that of the Maltese, “we are a colonized people… a collection of identities all jig-sawed inside a single body whose only true identity is its interior struggle.” How does this perceived state of complicated national identity parallel Netti’s own confusion and desperation as she fails to remake her life on the island with her son?
Kadetsky: I played with identity quite a bit in this story, making Netti and Ian both mutts in their way. Netti is half French, her son, Ian, half Jewish, and Netti is a chameleon: Italian looking, speaker of multiple languages, someone who can pass neutrally almost anywhere. When I was in Malta, I was fascinated by the nature of people’s sense of belonging. That it was an island was palpable, the way no one ever invited me to the party even though I was an invited guest and an artist-in-residence at a prominent arts center, the way everyone’s social life seemed to involve no one who wasn’t a cousin, the fiercely strong identification with national values such as the strength associated with Malta’s ally role in World War II against Italy, its anglophilic tendencies, its much talked about medieval history with its many ahistoric embellishments. But ironically, the Maltese gene pool and language were very mixed because Malta was a historical crossroads. While people put such stock in their national identity, in the end, their culture was also endlessly diverse. I’m drawn to these kinds of contradictions and paradoxes and hypocrisies.
Netti is a different animal, a loner who can pass but never fits in, even at home. That she has a son softens the effect of her solitary lifestyle, but that inherent mettle also makes her a problematic mother. She has trouble differentiating herself and her son, and affording him his individuality. She is drawn to men out of passion, not partnership. Jos, her lover, has an ironic distance about the Maltese national character, so he functions as a translator of the culture for Netti. He’s also the one person who can see the inherent diversity versus singularity of the culture, so Netti is drawn to and identifies with him, because he gives her a respite from the terrible claustrophobia and alienation she feels as an outsider in this insular place. That all came about after the fact, though, in the construction of the novella. The characters seemed to come to life and build in complexity very much on their own.
Rumpus: You also write very powerful essays about your family, specifically coping with your mother’s Alzheimer’s, in addition to your sister’s ongoing battle with drug addiction and homelessness. Shifting from fiction to personal essay, how do you approach such different modes of storytelling so effectively?
Kadetsky: Thank you. They do come from very different places for me. They inform each other in that the same techniques come to bear in both genres, such as arc, character or persona, storyline, but actually where my mind is when I’m writing one or the other is different. It’s like being an oncologist and neonatologist at the same time. If I tried to articulate how they’re different, I’d say it has to do with the way that fiction for me is an escape, whether I’m reading or writing it. I love going off with these characters whom I don’t know. I work on fiction when I’m stuck in my nonfiction, whereas the converse isn’t the case.
You know how if you learn a language before you’re twelve it gets into the structure of your brain? It becomes innate. Well I think nonfiction has some of that for me. I began studying it earnestly on my own at about age twenty. It’s what I came to first. I don’t think as much when I’m constructing nonfiction. There is some instinct I’m able to follow when it comes to pacing, tempo, dynamics, something almost musical.
Fiction is fun for me because I’ve spent more time studying it as a craft alongside other students and with mentors. I have a greater vocabulary for discussing its craft. Deconstructing a Flannery O’Connor story or a Raymond Carver story is very satisfying for me because I feel I can understand how these stories work and discuss the clock’s parts, as it were. With a Joan Didion essay, on the other hand, there is a magic to it that I understand deeply but often can’t find the words to express.
Rumpus: Are you focused now on any new literary projects?
Kadetsky: I’m trying to rethink some of my personal essays as a book, which is actually something I’ve been working on for a long time. I find myself coming back over and over to the same material with my family, an itch I keep scratching. I seem to keep writing the same stories in different ways. Right now I’m interested in looking at some of them from the less obvious or accepted point of view, such as reinterpreting some of the established truths in my family and turning them on their head. Is there a different interpretation that I’ve been missing all along? Can I get outside the dominant mindset of my family, meaning the threesome of me, my mother, and my sister? What does it mean to be a bad mother? What does it mean to be an abandoning father? Is there another way to interpret the actions that led to those labels? It’s an extension of my life’s work, I suppose, since I’ve been working with the material since I was twenty. I’m also working on a novel set abroad. I don’t want to say too much about it except that a lot of the setting is based on research rather than travel, which is a first for me.