The Rumpus Mini-Interview Project #220: Jennifer Steil

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In Jennifer Steil’s new novel, Exile Music, a Jewish girl and her musician parents flee Nazi-occupied Austria for La Paz, Bolivia, where they must remake their lives from scratch. Based on a little-explored part of World War II, the novel follows young Orly’s journey to womanhood, a journey shaped by her family’s exile, their connection to music, and the very different ways each of them adapts. It is a fresh and unique take on both the coming-of-age novel and the WWII novel, immersing the reader not only in mid-twentieth century Bolivia, but also in the world of opera and music.

Steil, who lived in Bolivia and raised her young daughter there, clearly knows and loves the geography of La Paz. However, one of the most powerful feelings the novel evokes is Orly’s and her parents’ uncertainty; the precariousness of exile, and what it does to family relationships. When they leave Austria, Orly’s family is penniless, having spent all their money on exit visas and boat passages, and they do not know where the boat will dock. The idea of this—facing the unknown, and especially the book’s early chapters, which record an impending doom and a crisis whose scope is yet-unknown, resonate particularly strongly now, as we face the COVID-19 pandemic.

I spoke with Steil about bringing out a book in the time of pandemic, her own travels, and her new-found love of music. 

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The Rumpus: I was struck, reading this book, by how much money it takes to escape from war, and how difficult it is to make money again once you are free.

Jennifer Steil: Yes, it was interesting that the Nazis insisted they wanted Jews to leave the country while at the same time making it nearly impossible for them to do so. Very few Jewish families made it out with anything more than they could carry. And of course Bolivia, which is still the least-developed country in South America, was even less developed then. There were not enough jobs for all Bolivians, let alone for the influx of Jewish refugees. Orly’s parents are lucky in that they possess skills that are easily transferable. Music, as Orly points out, seems to have universal appeal.

Rumpus: One of the themes in Exile Music is the transformative power of music and poetry. Can you talk a little about this? Do you have a personal connection to any of the literature or music that is mentioned?

Steil: I do have a personal connection to the literature and music now! Though I did not know all of it before I began my research. I listened to all of Mahler’s symphonies on repeat during much of my writing process, as well as the music of the other composers I mention. For the Bolivian sections of the book, I listened to musicians and composers from all over Latin America as well as Bolivian composers and musicians (Ernesto Cavour Aramayo, Los Kjarkas, Los Jairas, etc.), paying special attention to charango music, of course! Many of the musical sections were inspired by a Mexican composer, Diana Syrse, who read and commented on an early draft, not only correcting my mistakes but making suggestions as to how music could be a more integral part of the text.

I think most of us, no matter how musically illiterate we are, can feel a change within us when we hear a piece of music. There are certain pieces of music that immediately fill me with hope for the world. There are songs that send me hurtling into a past relationship, a Vermont winterscape, or my house in Yemen. There are beats that force my feet to the dance floor. This is a human thing, not particular to me.

For Orly, music is a way to connect with both her father and with her new world. She chooses charango because it is something her father does not play and because it is uniquely Bolivian.

Literature and theater can have similar effects. A moving novel or poem transports us and provokes thought and emotion. Theater allows us to inhabit other people. It is theater that eventually allows Orly’s friend Rachel to emerge from her shell. It is a chance for her to be someone else, someone less damaged, less sad.

Ultimately art is about making sense of our brief lives on earth. Orly and her parents are searching for ways to cope with the enormity of their loss, and poetry, music, and theater allow them a way to both express their grief and find respite from it.

Rumpus: Your protagonist, Orly, has an endearing voice. How did you come to it, and what made you choose a young girl to narrate this story? Did this ever seem like a choice to you?

Steil: When we moved to Bolivia, my daughter Theadora was nearly three years old. It astounded me how swiftly she learned Spanish, which she’d never heard before, absorbing the language in just a few weeks. Without even realizing she was doing it! In contrast, I had to learn Spanish from books and a teacher, and it took me much longer. I never will speak it with the ease Theadora does. So when I came to decide on Orly’s age when she arrives in Bolivia, I wanted to make her young enough so that she could adapt easily—at least more easily than her parents—but old enough that she was relatively articulate.

There was another critical seed for this story. During our first year in Bolivia, Theadora came to me as I was making her porridge and asked me where we lived before Bolivia.

“London.”

“Before London.”

“Jordan.”

“And before Jordan?”

“Yemen.”

“And before Yemen?”

“Before Yemen you lived in my tummy.”

“But where did I live before I came to live in your tummy?”

“Nowhere.”

This was clearly unacceptable. “I must have lived somewhere!” she said. “I know where I was. I was in Bunnybeltz with Mama Bunny.”

Over the last few years, Bunnybeltz has evolved and acquired neighbors. Some of the (invisible) inhabitants visited us. I was so interested in this constantly shifting world that I took notes. This is how the Friedenglückhasenland of my novel was born. My characters Orly and Anneliese have essentially the same conversation I had with my small daughter. It is inconceivable to young people that there was a time they did not exist.

But my specific reason for including this in the novel, and for starting with it, is that I had been wondering how a little girl would react to the invasion of the Nazis. And I thought that it was plausible she might retreat into a fantasy world in order to escape reality and avoid thinking about what was happening on her streets.

I also made Orly a girl who likes girls because I am very tired of reading books about boys. Men have hogged literature for far too much of human history. So while I read authors of all genders and ages (and I am very fond of my character Miguel), I am mostly interested in writing girls and women. So many of women’s stories have been silenced, lost. It angers me that the male experience is still considered universal, whereas the female experience is somehow this niche interest. I can’t help but note that my daughter and her friends read books from the point of view of all genders, but the boys in the class refuse to read anything with a female central character. Society has a long way to go on this.

Rumpus: You are an American author, but you have lived most of your adult life abroad, and all three of your books are set outside the US. Could you talk a little about this?

Steil: I never understood how much growing up in the United States had shaped me—my worldview, my values, my assumptions—until I moved to Yemen, where everything I knew about the world was challenged. Since then, I feel like I have been involved in a process of detangling myself from the culture of my birth and entangling myself more broadly with humanity. If that doesn’t sound too lofty! My perspective is changing all the time, adjusting to new information and experiences.

We’re now living in Uzbekistan (when not evacuated), another country utterly different from anywhere else I have been. After years in Yemen, Jordan, and other Muslim countries, it feels strange to be in a Muslim country where women do not cover, where alcohol is an integral part of social life, and where everyone speaks Russian and Uzbek or Tajik or another local language rather than Arabic. Everywhere I go I am reminded of how little I know and how much more there is to the world than I ever dreamed. I suppose this is why I want to write about unfamiliar lands and people, to work to find my way into their perspectives. I want to see the world through other people’s eyes. I have no interest whatsoever in writing about my own placid childhood in a small Massachusetts town. Life has given me such fascinating material it would feel criminal not to explore it.

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Photograph of Jennifer Steil by Beowulf Sheehan.


Emily Robbins is the author of the novel A Word for Love, which was inspired by her time as a Fulbright Fellow in Syria. Her nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times and on the Modern Love podcast. Find her on Twitter @emilybethrobbin. More from this author →