The Rumpus Mini-Interview Project #60: Leah Kaminsky
Leah Kaminsky’s debut novel, The Waiting Room, depicts one fateful day in the life of an Australian doctor and mother, Dina, living in Haifa, Israel. Dina is trying to maintain normalcy as she goes about her work as a family doctor, cares for her son, and fights to preserve her faltering relationship with her husband, with whom she’s expecting a daughter. But the day is anything but normal: the city is on high alert, living under a heightened threat of terror, and Dina is followed everywhere by the talkative and opinionated ghost of her mother, who is deceased but was a survivor of the Holocaust and whose history weighs heavily on the protagonist. As these pressures converge on her, Dina faces dramatic tests to her resilience—and even her life.
In addition to being a writer, Kaminsky is a medical doctor, living in Australia. She is an editor at the Medical Journal of Australia. Her publication history includes the anthology, conceived and edited by her, Writer, M.D.: The Best Contemporary Fiction and Nonfiction by Doctors (Knopf 2012). She holds an MFA in creative writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts.
The Rumpus: One strong aspect of this novel is how vividly you capture the setting of Haifa, Israel, conveying not only physicality but also a atmosphere. Can you tell me about the decision to set this story in Haifa, and how you managed to write about it convincingly from a great geographical distance (my understanding is that you live in Australia)? What combination of research, travel, imagination, and other things made it possible.
Leah Kaminsky: People often ask me if The Waiting Room has autobiographical elements, and as far as setting goes, it definitely has, from the smell of bourekas and donuts in the marketplace, to the stray cats lovingly fed by someone in every neighborhood. I lived and worked there as a doctor for ten years, and I guess this novel is trying to capture the vibrancy of the city in the background of the story I’m telling. Haifa is a place where disparate cultures have more or less managed to co-exist in relative harmony—amongst them, Baha’is, Druze, Christians, Muslims, Ahmadiyya, immigrants from the former Soviet Union, as well as Anglo and Ethiopian Jews. The plurality of Haifa has always interested me. The action of the novel takes place over one day—a day when there is the very real threat of a terror attack, shattering the idyllic notion of Haifa as a model of coexistence and peace in the Middle East.
My three children were born in Haifa, so it was a very busy period of my life. I only had time to write journals, which I filled with reflections and snippets about the sights, smells, sounds and people I encountered. It turned out this was a rich source to draw on when I returned to Australia in 2002. It was only then, from such a huge geographic distance, I was really able to start writing The Waiting Room, fictionalizing some of those experiences.
Rumpus: The threat of terror forms part of the backdrop of this story, and at times actual terrorism comes very much into the foreground. As a result of that and other things, the story has political implications. Yet it’s at the same time a deeply human story about individuals. Was it at all a struggle to write a novel that didn’t efface the humanity and individuality of its characters, when issues of terror and contentious Middle East politics were unavoidable?
Kaminsky: As a doctor I am reminded daily of our common humanity—when I see a patient I always try to see their personal narrative, rather than their politics or ideology. Nowadays we are constantly bombarded by images of war and terror in the media, so much so that there is always the risk of developing a certain level of compassion fatigue. I wanted to look behind these headlines at individuals who are trying to lead their day-to-day lives inside of a volatile reality. I didn’t want this book to be a political statement—that’s not what I’m trying to do—yet anything I write takes a political stance in a way. You can’t escape the political reality of the Middle East. In striving to tell my own story it was inevitable to be caught up in the political tensions of the region.
There are hundreds of other human stories that can be told in a place like Israel—but the story I wanted/needed to tell was Dina’s. At the same time, it was very important to me to portray cultural sensitivity. I set the actual waiting room in the novel inside an old building, from which the Arab owners fled in 1948 with the establishment of the State of Israel. I was conscious of not wanting to appropriate someone else’s narrative—it’s not my story to tell—but also felt a strong obligation to honor it, the broken tile representing the centrality of another culture.
Rumpus: The Waiting Room places you solidly within the distinct and fascinating tradition of writer-physicians, which as you know includes illustrious and diverse names from Anton Chekhov and William Carlos Williams to Oliver Sacks and Paul Kalanithi. What unique insights do you think doctors bring to the conversation of literature? For you personally, what is the relationship between practicing medicine and writing? What are some of your favorite books by and/or about doctors?
Kaminsky: Dual careers go back as far as Apollo, who pulled off the gig of being a god of both poetry and medicine. I’ve always been a writer—in fact, my English grades helped get me into medical school. For me, the two professions feed each other, and I can’t imagine having just one. I believe the humanities can help make you a more compassionate doctor; good literature fosters empathy by bringing the reader into another person’s world. That’s what I try to do as a physician too, although our cohort never received much training outside of the biological model. Empathy and compassion are such an important skill. That’s why I became so excited when I discovered the canon of doctor-writers—I suddenly had a means for giving voice to my experiences over the years. I devoured the work of Oliver Sacks, who was so supportive to me as a young writer. Other physician-authors that I love are Abraham Verghese, Danielle Ofri, Sandeep Jauhar, Atul Gawande, and Miroslav Holub. All draw stories from their patients, but use them carefully and sensitively to reflect on their own practice, or as Jerome Groopman puts it so eloquently in the anthology Writer, M.D. I edited for Knopf: “to check their own emotional temperature.” In putting together this anthology of doctor-writers, I wanted to see what these writers shared; to explore what doctor-writers bring to the page that may be unique. A good doctor doesn’t just need to examine the body—it is also important to understand a patient’s narrative. Being a physician provides an enormous palette of material to reflect on in my writing, but more importantly, I hope that being a writer has somehow made me a more empathic doctor.
Rumpus: Dina, the protagonist, is the child of Holocaust survivors. Although the novel is set in Israel in the present day, the Holocaust has a significant presence in it. Can you talk about why the Holocaust had to form part of this novel?
Kaminsky: I didn’t set out to write a novel that dealt with the Holocaust—I was probably trying to avoid it, to be honest. It evolved thematically as the character of the mother’s ghost grew and demanded to be heard. My own mother was twenty-one when she emerged a sole survivor of Bergen-Belsen at the end of World War II. She died when I was in my early twenties and I decided early on I’d write a book about her life. Sadly, spilling out everything I knew only filled three pages of a notebook. I had been a reluctant listener as a teenager and I’m ashamed to admit that I couldn’t remember many of her stories—and there was no one left to ask. I spent my adult life trying to recapture what I had run from in my youth, in an attempt to piece together the strands of my mother’s narrative. I travelled to Poland, visiting her hometown of Lodz, trawled through archives at Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, and tried somehow to trace people in a handful of black and white photos she had brought with her from the DP Camp after the war. The Waiting Room takes these scraps and weaves them into a fictional “what if?”—a guess at what my mother’s story might have been.
Rumpus: The novel takes place over a single day, and placing it in the company of novels as monumental as Mrs. Dalloway and Ulysses. Why did you decide to follow in that tradition, and what was the experience of writing in that way like? I also think one of the things that define this novel is the sense of convergence: at the time of the story, there is a heightened terror threat, Dina is pregnant, her marriage is faltering, she sees some especially challenging patients, and so forth. Why did it make sense, as a choice of craft, to have all these different things going on at once and within this span of time?
Kaminsky: Thanks for the comparison! During my MFA I was interested in exploring books that followed nonlinear narratives, for example, Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, or Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness. One of the things survivors of war and terror describe is how any sense of time is distorted or suspended, and I wanted to see how I might evoke that feeling through the structure of my own book. I also felt that the language needed to be as tight as possible, to reflect Dina’s internal state of heightened anxiety and deep sense of dread. I was deeply influenced by Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Anne Enright’s The Gathering. The Waiting Room took me ten years to write. Aside from time constraints due to a young family and demanding career, I wrestled with finding the right structure. At times I thought I might be writing two books, but intuitively it felt like it all belonged together. It was only after many drafts that I was able to see how all the loose threads were part of the same a patchwork quilt.
In parallel to the outward threat of a bomb being planted somewhere in her city, Dina’s own experiences come together in a single day. She was brought up to avoid war at all costs, so everything she has hitherto known as safe is suddenly challenged, and I have thrown everything at her simultaneously. In parallel to the real threat of an exterior explosion, she is on the verge of psychological implosion, swimming through layers of history—her mother’s as well as her own, which converge on this one moment in time. I felt there was something very powerful in the sense of the here-and-now being juxtaposed with the weight of history, and the haunting of ghosts imploring her to bear witness to the past. The trope of waiting is threaded throughout the novel to help build tension in the narrative.
Rumpus: Dina is an Australian whose vacation in Israel turned into a permanent life when she fell in love. Was it your intention to deal with themes such as dislocation and the experience of being a foreigner? Was there another reason you chose for Dina the history and identity you did?
Kaminsky: My parents were Jewish refugees who fled the shores of a blood-soaked Europe in search of the safety of distant shores. The largest number of Holocaust survivors outside of Israel came to Australia, to the southern city of Melbourne in particular. Despite my parents’ attempts to integrate into society and bring me up as a little Aussie girl, I spent my life feeling dislocated, unsure where I really belonged. As a Jewish kid in a Methodist school, I grew up with a sense of being an outsider. When I moved countries after getting married, that happened again—even though I felt a sense of home in many ways in Haifa, there was still a split between belonging and feeling somewhat marginalized. Immigration is a sort of mini-death—when you move you give up a part of yourself, as well as everything that is known, comfortable, and safe. Dina, my protagonist, has transposed herself from the seemingly safe sanctuary of a peaceful country and entered a war zone, at the same time crossing into the often fraught territory of immigration, marriage, and motherhood.