Landscape of Exile, Imagination, & Memory:

An Interview with Anne Raeff

by Karin Cecile Davidson

 

Winner of the 2016 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, Anne Raeff’s “The Jungle around Us” is a collection, honest and rare, its quietude and intimacy leading to unspoken, unforgotten places where insects roar, sirens sound, and “scratchy, old 78s” play. It is clear the author cares deeply about the characters in these stories. To read this collection is to be immersed in their lives, to become caught up in their thoughts and actions, their climates and countries, their memories and dreams. Many lives here intertwine, several stories returning again and again to the Buchovskys—Simone, Juliet, their father Isaac—and to the Epsteins and Cohens—Ester, Karl, Sonya—while others cast characters in one-time appearances that are singular and bright—Pepa, Kenard, Maximiliano. All of the stories reach beyond the tangled jungles of the heart, examining what once happened, what has changed, and what carries into the here and now. Setting occupies the landscape of exile, determination, and melancholic memory, marking the past and the present in far-reaching cities and villages: Vienna, Bolivia, suburban New Jersey, Paraguay, the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Exactitude, control, and reverence come forth in spare, beautiful language and lead us to understand how war dwells in the spirit, even years and generations later.

Award-winning author, child of immigrants, and high school teacher of over two decades, Raeff is masterful at portraying the lives of those who have immigrated and those who are exiled to foreign lands. Her novel, “Clara Mondschein’s Melancholia,” her essays, and her stories provide an understanding of these lives, her own body of work part of a greater literary realm—that of Gish Jen, Michael Chabon, Paule Marshall, and many more—authors born in America and writing about their origins as they have evolved in America. This writing becomes more and more relevant as the United States declares its identity through multitudes of voices, each with its own origin.

At night … she lay in her dark room listening to the sounds of the night, to the insects, the monkeys, the rain… She lay there perfectly still, arms at her side, palms up, her heart beating slowly as if she were asleep. She would never be afraid again. That was what she learned when her parents went to where the yellow fever was. –Anne Raeff

KARIN CECILE DAVIDSON: Pepa’s story is beautiful and tragic. She is a daughter of duty. She is wise and brave, and her courage leads her through the jungle and into town. There she meets Guillermo and they dance, and eventually she leads him into the jungle. She leans into longing and desire. “Close your eyes,” she says to Guillermo. “It is better to feel the way than to try to see.” This story is exquisitely crafted. It seems quite simple, yet the spare, clean language and the honest, forthright emotional timbre create a place for enormous complications.

How do you find your way in the process of instilling characters like Pepa with such emotional integrity and in discovering the breathtaking final acts of their stories?
 

ANNE RAEFF: I don’t know whether I have a specific process for doing this, but I live with my characters for a very long time. I figure out a lot of my stories and the emotions of my characters when I’m running. It’s like a thinking form of meditation for me. When I’m running, I can shut down other thoughts about work or unimportant things like what I want to have for lunch and allow the characters I am living with to take the stage. “The Doctors’ Daughter” lived with me for years. It started with the stories my mother and grandmother told me about when they lived in Bolivia during World War II. They were refugees from Vienna, from the Holocaust, and Bolivia was the only country that gave them visas and the only place where my grandfather could practice medicine without going through a long licensing process. My mother was twelve when they left Vienna, and she lived in Bolivia for four years, during her adolescence. She had boyfriends and didn’t go to school. My grandmother suffered from depression, and my grandfather was the doctor for the workers who were laying the tracks for the railroad that connected Bolivia to Brazil, so he was mostly not there, and so my mother was the one who had to take care of the house and her younger brother, my uncle. Since these stories have been with me for pretty much all of my conscious life, they have become almost part of my own memory, so accessing that memory is what leads me to the emotional intensity that I try to bring to my stories. As for the endings, I don’t know how I figure them out, but eventually they rise up out of the story and my feelings and the memories, and there they are, standing before me. Sometimes it takes years.
 

DAVIDSON: Place—the jungles of Bolivia and Paraguay, the gray cityscapes of Vienna and Manhattan, the suburbs of New Jersey and Connecticut, the lines of those waiting in Leningrad, the “sleazy bar where all the drag queens hang out” in Coatzacoalcos, Mexico. The characters of “The Jungle around Us” inhabit their worlds, which in turn inhabit the characters. It almost seems that setting has an enormous effect in what drives the characters. Pepa (“The Doctors’ Daughter”) knows her duty to feed the chickens and care for her brother, but also follows her longing to walk through the jungle to find love. Ester (“The Boys of El Tambor”) does not question her decision to stay in Coatzacoalcos and finds solace in the town’s lack of beauty. Karl (“After the War”) “would have stayed… in Bolivia” and feels unsettled about living in New York, and his remembrances of the opium-addicted priest “at the edge of the Amazon” echo loudly into his present life.

Tell us about place in terms of people, the ways in which the surroundings of your characters create and secure their daily lives and dreams.
 

RAEFF: Place and setting are essential to my writing and to my life. My goal is for the setting to be not just a backdrop but its own character that interacts with the other characters, forms them. I grew up in the bland suburbs of New Jersey, just across the bridge from New York. When I was growing up, I always felt of the lack of vibrancy, the lack of “thereness” as Gertrude Stein would say, of my environs. Now I have come to realize that the suburbs have their own power and richness that reside in this very lack of obvious conflict, the lack of both ugliness and beauty. But when I was young I longed for color, for noise, for smells, stink, even, and I found that first in New York, then in Madrid where I lived for four years after finishing college. All these places—New York, New Jersey, Madrid—formed me and helped me grow up and see the complexity that lies beneath the surface as well as on the surface. The other places that formed me were places that I knew in a different yet still intimate way. These were the places where my parents grew up, the places from which my parents were expelled or the ones that gave them refuge: Vienna, Berlin, the Soviet Union, Bolivia. Although we lived in Vienna for a year when I was sixteen and travelled to the Soviet Union when I was thirteen, these places are for me more part of my imagination than my memories, for my first encounters with them were through stories.

He would have been a stranger even if he could have written down every word in the Spanish dictionary and known them all, even known their etymologies, written them all down in his leather-bound notebook that he had bought just before leaving Vienna because it was beautiful and he thought that maybe he would keep a diary of their flight, of his exile, his own personal account of the war years. –Anne Raeff

DAVIDSON: Within the realm of your writing, in your novel, “Clara Mondschein’s Melancholia,” and your collection, “The Jungle around Us,” the world of the exile is thoughtfully examined. Ruth Mondschein shares her story of Holocaust survival with a man dying of AIDS in 1990s Manhattan, while Dr. Karl Epstein considers, from the quiet constrains of his Manhattan practice, the conversations he once had with an addicted priest in Bolivia.

What would you tell us about the recurring presence of the exile in literature—in your own work and in the broader sense, and here one might consider authors exiled as well—Milosz, Lessing, Wilde, for example?
 

RAEFF: To answer the first part of your question, I think that the primary function and goal of serious writers, of all artists, is to ask the difficult questions, first to themselves and then to help others to face those questions. Doing this gets writers in trouble, which is why writers are often forced to go into exile and then write about it. I write about exile, not because I have experienced it firsthand or have ever lived with the threat of being expelled from my country or having to flee, but because my family history compels me to do so. There have been times in my life when I have not been able to stomach living in the United States, which led me to live and work in Spain and Malaysia, but it was always my choice to leave, and I have always returned. Now is another such time when I am disgusted with my country, but I feel an obligation to stay, to do something, not to flee, but I have that luxury because, though I often feel angry and despondent, I know that I am safe. That is a luxury that I have always had, that my parents and grandparents didn’t have and that millions of people today do not have, so I write about it, about losing everything, about fear and violence and how these dangers linger and lurk even when the immediate threats are no longer there.
 

DAVIDSON: Careful, thoughtful consideration is given to language in “The Jungle around Us.” There is the language of the collection—exacting and unguarded—and the language particular to each story—intimate and deep. Other than Ester’s story, given in the form of a letter to a former lover and, hence, in a first-person viewpoint, the stories are all presented in a close third-person perspective with precise attention to the language within that lens. Karl’s lens is that of the exile: language and the need to belong are paired with the understanding that returning to the homeland and the native tongue lie outside all possibility. Simone, as a child, has a keen sense of language, as well as empathy and compassion, and these sensibilities carry forward to her adult vision of the world. Sonya embraces the experience of sadness and listens to 78s of Bolivian songs as if their language might deliver her from present despair into past happiness.

Would you reflect on how the distillation of language can create opportunities for characters and their stories, as well as for the collection as a whole, with respect to a larger message? And how would you compare the use of language in writing a story collection to that of a novel?
 

RAEFF: I grew up in a polyglot household, so being around many languages including languages I didn’t understand was the norm. At home we spoke German until I was about twelve and it became increasingly unnatural for my sister and me and my parents, who spoke excellent English, to talk about complex things in German. Still, my parents tried to keep up our German and did a pretty good job. We read books in German, and they sent me to Germany for a summer when I was fifteen. When I was sixteen, we spent a year in Vienna and my sister and I went to an Austrian public school there. My father also gave me French lessons, which I hated but for which I am now grateful, largely because French gave me a way to communicate with people in Morocco, a country that has greatly influenced my work. I also grew up with Russian, though I did not learn to speak it. My Russian father decided without consulting me that French was a more useful language, and my grandmother never tried to teach me Russian either. I regret that I did not show more interest in it then. Still, not knowing Russian has influenced my writing and my stories. There is something magical about being surrounded by a language that you do not understand yet is, at the same time, familiar and evocative on an emotional, not intellectual, level. My mother spoke Spanish, which I did not learn until I was in my twenties. Part of the reason I moved to Spain was to learn Spanish, which held a mystique for me. It was part of my mother’s life before I existed during a dark yet also rich time. Now my linguistic life consists of English and Spanish. I am a high school teacher and teach English and history (in Spanish) to recent immigrants from Mexico and Central America, so much of my day takes place in Spanish. English, of course, is the language of my writing. As far as the actual language or style I use in the stories, I don’t think consciously about what kind of language to use or how to use it. I let the voices of the characters and the settings speak for themselves, or at least that is what I try to do. I think that for me there is no difference between how I write when I am working on a long or short piece. It’s all about the stories, the characters, and the setting, and how to best bring them to life.
 

DAVIDSON: “The Jungle around Us” includes numerous stories which are connected by characters. Ester, Karl, and Sonya present a trio of linked pieces, while the Buchovskys first appear in “Keeping an Eye on Jakobson” and return in “The Buchovskys on Their Own,” “Maximiliano,” and “Chinese Opera.” “The Buchovskys on Their Own” employs a structural element of shifting viewpoints, from a collective family perpsective to that of Isaac and then to those of the girls, Juliet and Simone. This shift is lovely and seamless and reveals how much one can do with linked stories when perspectives are linked as well.

Tell us about your discovery of these characters and what prompted you to revisit them. Was there surprise in learning more about the girls and their father as the writing continued and their stories multiplied? I’m thinking especially of the final scene in “The Buchovskys on Their Own,” in which a photograph reveals a truth within a lie.
 

RAEFF: The first Buchovsky story I wrote was “The Buchovskys on Their Own.” It was while working on that story and creating Isaac, the father, that I conceived of my second novel, “Winter Kept Us Warm,” which, by the way, has still not found a home. Once I had a sense of who the Buchovskys were as a family, I began work on the novel. The other stories that feature them in the collection were originally part of the novel but didn’t quite fit in with the flow of the narrative, so I turned them into stories.

The Buchovskys that began in that short story also come from the stories and conflicts of my own childhood. Growing up, my father was the stable and nurturing parent, and I clashed terribly with my mother. Although it is difficult to admit this, as an adolescent I often wondered what life would be like for me and my sister if my parents got divorced and we went to live with my father. I suppose on some level the Buchovskys are my ideal family—a single father with two daughters. My family and childhood also share a lot of details with the Buchovkys. My father was Russian and a professor of Russian history, as is Isaac Buchovsky. We lived in the New Jersey suburbs, as do the Buchovksys. My father loved to cook, and our neighbors did have seven sons, one of whom, our favorite, was murdered, though this did not happen until I was in college. I even have a connection to the name Buchovsky. It was my paternal grandmother’s maiden name.

“The Doctors’ Daughter” and its protagonists have a life beyond the story as well in the novel I am working on now. The book begins with the events in the short story and continues into the next generation, which was not yet born when I wrote the story. I changed the setting to Nicaragua because I have never been to Bolivia and needed a place I knew well, but the mood and the conflicts that began in “The Doctors’ Daughter” are still very much alive.

Finally, ever since reading Salinger’s “Nine Stories” and his other work that includes the various members of the Glass family, I have wanted to create characters whose lives spill into other books. My characters are very much a part of my life, and I like to stay in touch with them as I do with close friends who no longer live in the same city as I do, but, when we get together, it is as if there were no time or distance between us.

They heard a shrill cackle and a flapping of leaves coming down from the tree. ‘Maximiliano,’ Juliet called, but he did not answer. There was more scurrying, and they saw Maximiliano about ten feet above them, scooting out onto a branch. Squatting on the same branch, leaning jauntily against the trunk of the tree and watching Maxilmiliano was a monkey. –Anne Raeff

DAVIDSON: There are so many stories in this collection that ask for questions, because of their precise, grounding details, their deft brushstrokes in developing major and minor characters, and their decisive pacing and direction. One story begins in this way, sharing the tone of the collective, but by the ending has been directed to another dimension. Mesmerizing and mysterious, this story belongs to the Buchovsky cycle. “Maximiliano” is beautifully, profoundly realized through Simone’s perspective. Paraguay, the jungle, midnight barbeques, downpours, the boy Maximiliano’s loyal obsession with birds, Iguazú Falls and the “colorful, dusty bodies” of thousands of butterfiles. There is violence and beauty here, a bare breath of violence that creates a ragged, uneven, disquieting edge to the descriptions and narrative, in the final moment especially, but also in other scenes throughout this story.

In realizing “Maximiliano” did you find yourself in new emotional territory, the sort that startles, that you have to work through, that brings writer and reader to a new understanding of “story”?
 

RAEFF: I don’t know whether I would say that I found myself in new territory or whether I was trying to find a new understanding of what a story is, but I am happy if that was the effect, that there is something unusual about the story or its execution. In the case of “Maximiliano,” the ending comes from a painting that my wife Lori and I loved and purchased and which hangs over our bed. It is of a young boy of about twelve watching his father sleeping. When I write I do not begin with a concept or a plot. I begin and continue with the characters and the setting. I never really know when I begin where they will lead me, so I let them guide me and let them mingle with what is going on in my life at the time. In this way, aspects of my current life—details, observations, conflicts—seep into my writing.

 

Karin_Cecile_Davidson
Karin Cecile Davidson, Interviews Editor