Alisa Koyrakh, author of the essay “Tomorrow We Travel,” talks to nonfiction editor Elizabeth Kadetsky about history, reverie, and the role of research in lyric nonfiction.
Elizabeth Kadetsky: “Tomorrow We Travel” brings readers on a desultory, emotional journey through physical spaces scarred by the traumatic history of the Holocaust. There is a nonlinear, intuitive quality to the structure, creating an almost dreamlike, dissociated landscape for the reader. We move through the traumatized lands of Eastern Europe, Russia, Austria, and Germany alongside you and experience the almost surreal juxtaposition of the everyday with that of living history. Often, the transitions from the past to the present are jarring: “I go shopping,” you write, after visiting a former synagogue that is now a museum for Jewish history. You so effectively create a structure that mimics the effects of trauma for the reader. Was this conscious on your part, or did you arrive at the form intuitively?
Alisa Koyrakh: To be honest, I didn’t know I was writing about trauma. I certainly didn’t plan to. As I mention in the essay, I was in Prague to work on my novel. I thought by going alone to a foreign country, I would retreat into my own inner world. I thought it would be safe and quiet in that world. Instead, the exact opposite happened. I felt careened into the physical world. But writing this essay wasn’t quite intuitive, it was more like a compulsion. The very early sections of the essay came from several Facebook posts—I almost never post to Facebook or social media platforms and so it was strange that I was suddenly sharing my thoughts and experiences in that way. I thought the loneliness had gotten to me. I had moments of respite, of course, when I was with Kate or my cousin or when Colin visited. But mostly I was alone. I thought I was losing my mind.
During that time, I was reading Maggie Nelson’s books about her aunt who was murdered at a young age; so my break from dealing with my own painful inheritance was to read about Maggie’s. I’d read about the horrible violence one man did to her family and then switch to researching exactly how cyanide pills worked. It was a very dark time for me, and yet I somehow reveled in it. I can’t explain. The original essay is much longer than the published version. When I came home and gained a little distance and renewed a life with Colin, I was able to reread and shape and think critically about what would give the words a proper arc. I had to ask very pointed questions and find a way to give myself and my readers a sense of closure within the essay. But yes, for most of the experience of writing this, there was no thinking involved, not in the usual sense. My “thoughts” were the ways in which I circled the synagogue in that shopping center or stared at paintings in Vienna. I suppose when you’re experiencing trauma, you don’t really know what’s going on. I did the everyday things, bought eggs and picked out nail polish colors, but I was saturated with the history of these places. I didn’t know how to ignore the history, even though at times I really wanted to.
Maybe I love to write because I can’t stop thinking most of the time. Writing is my respite from thinking and yet it’s the only way I can think straight. I don’t know how to make sense of that.
EK: You powerfully juxtapose reverie and reality throughout. At times, the reverie is so rich that it becomes almost another form of reality, for instance when you shift from a description of your pleasant apartment in Prague to an imagined scene among imagined former tenants there. “Maybe an elderly couple lived here before World War II,” you write. Later, that imagined couple becomes just “the husband and wife.” Still later, it is as if you have inhabited the consciousness of Magda Goebbels when you imagine giving cyanide to “your” six (imagined) children. This technique stretches the language of nonfiction. Imagination is real, and yet somehow, nonfiction too often sticks to hard and fast reality. How did you come to this technique?
AK: When I began my research, I worried a lot about how a sane person could come to murder their own children. I thought the only way I could understand it was to do it. So I did it. I also felt sorry for the Goebbels girls, which in turn stirred up my Jewish guilt. How dare I spare any sympathy for the families of Nazis? To work through those feelings, I had to put myself in the bunker and see if these children did deserve my attention. It is difficult for me to claim this as a technique because it’s actually the way I tend to live my life and make decisions. If I’m not sure that I want to meet friends for a drink, I’ll take turns picturing the different evenings I could have. If I’m not sure that I want some chocolate cake, I imagine myself eating it in order to decide. I’ll even mimic taking a bite. Colin laughs whenever I do it. I conjure scenarios for myself all the time. They are part of my ordinary reality, so they have to be part of any nonfiction I produce. So to say that the building I live in is somehow more real than the mind I spend my time in just doesn’t make sense to me. We all live in our fantasies and our physical world and move between them all day long. So they’re both forms of truth. Imagining how the young artist Stepan felt in Terezin admittedly reveals more about me than it does about him; as long as that distinction is clear, I think anything goes.
EK: Late in the essay you mention Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic, a YA novel published in 1988 in which a twelve-year-old Jewish girl drinks too much wine at a Passover seder, then opens the door for the Prophet Elijah and steps into an alternate world in which the Holocaust is about to happen; then, she becomes trapped there. I found your reference to be so satisfying, particularly because of the way you as the author are continually inhabiting individual experiences from the Holocaust—just as Hannah does, if more supernaturally, in The Devil’s Arithmetic. You mention that, later in your life, you were less interested in YA depictions of the Holocaust because they “removed the events from reality.” I would be curious to hear more about your sense of the range of possibilities for depicting “unspeakable” horror—your take on the notion that certain things are “indescribable.” What is the role of un-literal representation, and do you see your work as a part of a conversation about where the bounds lie, or what, even, they are?
AK: Some of the people closest to me have alternately referred to the piece as both an essay and a story. I don’t really bristle at either of those classifications, mostly because I would have a hard time classifying it myself, if I ever wanted to. But that does mean that I have to ask myself if there’s any such thing as nonfiction. More interestingly, I have to ask myself if there’s any such thing as fiction. Most importantly, I have to ask myself if I think this debate matters. I’ll maybe save that for later.
At the age of twelve, I was reading fantasy novels with concentration camps and Holocaust fiction with magical cities. I was also reading many nonfiction accounts of the Holocaust like Elie Wiesel’s Night and Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Despite all this reading, nothing prepared me for standing inside the crematorium at Terezin. So I think it has nothing to do with the fact that some books were fiction and others weren’t. Given the sheer unbelievability of very real events in our immediate past, un-literal representation is often the only foot we have to stand on. Oscar Wilde almost certainly didn’t mean it when he said, “The only real people are the people who never existed,” but his point is clear. We need our minds to create realities because most often reality is too surreal. There’s some comfort that in the realm of literature all genre can quickly become part of the same structure, the same imaginative world.
Facts, data are so easy to manipulate too, right? Even with a balance sheet, you can tell any story you want. So for me, the distinction is not between fiction and nonfiction, instead it’s only the following: there are people who tell stories for personal gain and greed and there are people who tell stories to connect with others and understand human nature. I judge great literature, whether we call it fiction or nonfiction, by how well it does the latter.
EK: Your mother is a winning character throughout your essay, offering wisdom and humor. At one point, you express, with irony, frustration at your mother’s “trying to live vicariously through me.” Of course, so much of the essay is about transposing one’s own experience into the lives of others, and using that transposition as a vehicle toward empathy and achieving a deep understanding of history. I was wondering what factors led you to choose to include your mother, who figures in only a small portion of the narrative. Did you think of her as a figure who could offer dramatic irony, and did you see her role in the narrative as fulfilling other textual functions as well?
AK: I’m so glad you say she’s a winning character. I worried a lot about my portrayal of her and what she would think after reading it. My mother is the person I love and respect the most and understand the least, and unfortunately for her that means I’ll be writing about her for a long time. I imagine I’ll be able to understand her better if I get to have children. In that sense, I’m very curious how raising children could affect my writing. After reading the essay, my mother’s friend told her that it was a love letter to her. I think there’s a good argument to be made for that. It’s just amazing how technically small a mother’s current role in your life can be and yet how she can still loom over everything. Loom of course has a negative connotation, which I don’t mean to imply at all. In this essay she keeps me grounded. She puts me in my place. If she’s a device she’s there to remind the reader not to take the narrator too seriously. And you’re right to point out the irony—transposition is such a big part of this essay, and there I am accusing my mother of trying to do that. That’s another way I think my mother, as a device keeps, me in my place.
EK: I loved your use of research. At times there was a feel of an existential mystery. If only we could find out exactly what happened to the man who lived on your street in Prague and was born in 1895! Were Ottla Kafka and Stepan Pollak on the same transport to Auschwitz? In the same gas chamber? This fascination with the particular detail is juxtaposed against the flatness and misinformation that you encounter at so many of the Holocaust museums and memorials in the region. And yet the particular details, in the end, lead down vague pathways toward confounding unknowns. What thoughts do you have about the role of archival research for the lyric essayist?
AK: I am at once a lover of words, of the sounds they make when they’re put in the right order, and someone deeply concerned with the ways that words are used to lie or misinform. I like to speak clearly. In my religious days, when I attended seminary, we did an activity there: we were asked to write down our top twenty values, then winnow the list to the top ten, then the top three, then to one. The last value I had left was “Beauty.” I could not cross out that word, I just couldn’t. I remember being frightened of myself in that moment. How could I choose Beauty over Truth, over God, over Family? Was I confessing in that moment that I cared for lyricism over truth? Maybe, but I think that’s because to me beauty is more “real” than truth. In that moment, I think some part of me realized I wouldn’t be religious forever. Today it seems like no one believes truth exists anymore. Truth never really existed, not in the way that I think people wish it did.
The truth is, I miss Stepan so much even though I’ve never met him. I worry about how Franz would have handled Ottla’s death, even though he died before the war began. I worry for Karel, the man from my street, though I know next to nothing about him. I love Gonda deeply and have often imagined him holding his baby son inside the gas chamber. I worry about the husband and wife I made up, who I imagined living in my apartment, even though they never existed. Sometimes, I just choose to think that they did.
But the question was about the role of research in lyric essays. I never thought about either of those labels in direct reference to this work. I researched what I wanted to know and wrote what I needed to understand. Of course many beautiful essays have been written without any research. But I think that archival research does have the effect of grounding the lyric essay, making it somehow more immediate. Perhaps an obsession with facts combined with a love for the sound of language leads to a kaleidoscope form that is more reflective of everyday life. Our minds are both filled with our own individual music and the pressing clatter of outside information.
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ALISA KOYRAKH received her MFA in fiction from NYU and studied Comparative Literature at Barnard College. She lives in Chapel Hill where she is finishing her first novel. Her essay in NER is “Tomorrow We Travel.”
ELIZABETH KADETSKY, nonfiction editor at NER, is author of the forthcoming lyric memoir The Memory Eaters (U Mass Press, 2020), the novella On the Island at the Center of the Center of the World (Nouvella Books, 2015), the story collection The Poison that Purifies You (C&R Press, 2014), and the memoir First There Is a Mountain (Little Brown, 2004).