Closing the Distance Between Past and Present


Shira Nayman’s debut fiction collection, Awake in the Dark, is not for the faint-hearted. The book’s four stories—tales of Holocaust survivors and perpetrators and, significantly, their children—seize you from the start. Even at the book’s end, they won’t let go. From “The House on Kronenstrasse,” which opens the book and appeared in the 2005 Atlantic Monthly fiction issue, to “Dark Urgings of the Blood,” in which a psychiatric patient (a survivor’s daughter), is convinced she shares a family history with her doctor, the stories blend the “what happened” of the past with the “what’s happening” of the present. And yet, each story takes you somewhere—introduces you to characters—utterly distinct, and unforgettable.

Born in South Africa, Nayman grew up in Australia. She has a master’s degree in comparative literature and a doctorate in clinical psychology, and has worked as a psychologist and a marketing consultant. Currently she lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children. As she prepared for the book’s release, and two book tours, Nayman took some time out to answer some questions.

Tell us a little about yourself—you grew up in Australia but you live in Brooklyn now. When did you come to the United States, and when did you begin writing?

I’ve been writing since I was a teenager, though I didn’t start seriously writing fiction until I was in my late 20s [Nayman is now 46], after I’d qualified as a clinical psychologist.

While studying at Hebrew University in Jerusalem for a year after high school, I met some American students and began hatching my plan of eventually coming to study in the U.S.  After completing my undergraduate studies in Australia, I came to New Jersey to attend Rutgers University, which has a wonderful doctoral program in psychology. I then did a two-year post-doctoral fellowship at New York Hospital-Cornell University Medical Center.

I had always wanted to study literature formally, so after my psychology training, I did a Masters in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, while working full-time. It was a marvelous experience. It was then that I began publishing book reviews and review essays, while also working more seriously on short stories.

In the book's Acknowledgments, you mention that these stories “were inspired by Amos Elon’s brilliant book, The Pity of It All: A History of the Jews in Germany, 1743-1933.” Can you elaborate on that influence on your work?

Reading Amos Elon’s book was a life-changing experience. I felt like I was discovering a lost Atlantis—an entire universe of people with whom I deeply connected, whose concerns and conflicts and passions felt familiar. It was as if I had been shadowed much of my life by a feeling of historical homelessness, and that here, in this book, I had found my landsman among the extraordinary array of personalities Elon brings to such vivid and compelling life.

Many of the figures Elon focuses on are inwardly torn; they are not people for whom traditional Judaism provided a comfortable and ready home. Rather, they considered themselves citizens of the world—though they were often denied rights or status of equal citizens because they were Jews. The result was a complex psychology and intellectual makeup that I found not only intrinsically interesting and moving, but also saw as somehow emblematic of aspects of the modern condition. It seemed to me that the questions of Jewish identity the book addressed, along with the tensions that arise from being an outsider in one’s own country (either through external forces that say, You are an outsider, or from the turning towards insular self-enclosure, either in reaction to being shunned or from an intrinsic desire), resonated profoundly with wider questions of alienation and the search for meaning.

In any case, I was gripped from the first page to the last, and often found myself in tears as I read. I was living in Mexico at the time. Perhaps this condition of a kind of multiple displacement—Jewish woman, born in South Africa, raised in Australia, having spent a year in Israel and then twenty years in New York, and now transplanted for a year to Mexico, a colonial culture in which displacement and disenfranchisement cuts very deeply—cracked something open. I wanted to try to express some of the feelings I had about how personal identity is so deeply connected with one’s cultural historical circumstances. I found myself particularly fascinated with the question of how the legacy of historical traumas, and the pain and secrets they typically engender, can be a force in the formation of one’s own identity and sense of self.

The transmission (whether overt or unspoken) of secrets (and trauma) from the generation that experienced and remembers the Holocaust most directly to the generation that follows certainly plays a significant role in these stories. Tell us more about this, and about the role History plays in shaping identity.

In my training as a psychologist, I was struck by how strong a focus there was on family of origin in the development of self and also of psychopathology, and how little discussion there was of cultural historical circumstances (I’m certain this focus has changed somewhat in the past 20 years).

It was in literature that I found such strong evidence that who one is is very much related to where one became who one is, and the historical circumstances around this. I’ve published an essay about Yukio Mishima, the Japanese writer whose preoccupation with the loss of the militarist Samurai culture in the face of the forces of modernization culminated in his dramatic, public suicide by ritual disembowelment. Here was a man whose psychological preoccupations could not meaningfully be disentangled from his cultural historical moment in time. This is of course equally true of the characters in the stories found in Awake in the Dark. They are who they are, ineluctably, against the backdrop of the horrors of mid-twentieth century Europe.

Coming of age in the post-Vietnam, pre-9/11 age of peace and prosperity in Australia and the U.S., I think I was gripped by the astonishing fact that only 30 or 40 years earlier, people like me were being murdered by the state in a country that had achieved the highest level of culture and civilization. It seemed so arbitrary that here I was, thriving, and taking it all for granted in a way, when only yesterday, or so it seemed, my life would have been so different. I think that some of this wonder is what fueled the writing of these stories, along with an aching desire to express some of the voices that have haunted me all my life [including those of family members who perished in Europe], in a way that would feel visceral and immediate to the reader. Being of Jewish descent myself, I was “writing about what I knew,” but I was of course fully aware that most, if not all, peoples in the world have experienced, or are experiencing still, enormous collective traumas, which have and will continue to have profound consequences on future generations.

The reader often seems to know more about what’s happening (or about to happen) in these stories than some of the characters do. I wonder if this effect also guided your choices to employ both shifting narrators (“The House on Kronenstrasse” and “The Lamp,” for example, both feature two narrators, a daughter/mother pair) and shifts in the narrators’ temporal vantage points; in those same two stories, we seem to shift between the 1980s and the 1940s. In “The Porcelain Monkey,” told by just one narrator, there’s a similar use of time shifts.

I have long been intrigued by the shimmering and paradoxical nature of time (my doctoral dissertation, written years ago, was entitled “Temporality and the Self”).  The shifting narrators and temporal vantage points seemed to work well, allowing me the kind of fractured narrative I wanted but at the same time providing a visceral immediacy as far as the characters’ experience was concerned. I wanted to close the distance between the present and the past, and between the protagonists and the reader; I wanted to slam the reality of what I was writing about directly into the reader’s consciousness and emotions, to engender the feeling—“This is happening to me, and it is happening now.” At the same time, I also wanted to evoke the wider horizon of history, and to bring into sharp focus the terrible legacies that history can bestow.

The strategy of shifting narrators and temporal periods allowed me to play around with these different dimensions. It also allowed me to manage questions of secrets: to reveal to the reader things unknown and hidden in the worlds of the characters, so that the reader could then draw her/his own conclusions about the effects of the hidden history on the character in question.

Although many of the characters in these stories have clearly suffered because of the Holocaust, their suffering is not necessarily related to their having been born Jewish. Why was it important to you to tell their stories?

Again, I think my subject has to do with complexities of identity, and how identity is formed and maintained within the familial and wider socio-cultural-historical contexts. The aches and yearnings of the self, and the passionate, fraught nature of attachment—between child and parent and also between partners—is what intrigues me. And I suppose that through the writing of this book, and of some other books currently in various stages of completion, I’ve come to realize that for me, it is not easy to separate questions of personal identity from the contexts in which one’s identity comes into being.

I’ve come to believe that there are no hard or fast solutions or palliatives to the pain and agitation that seems so often to be part of selfhood (the human condition?), but that there is some deep satisfaction, and, I hope, value, in exploring the quandaries and difficulties and transcendence and joy that go along with selfhood—with being human.

At another, more conscious, level, it felt important for me to tell the stories in this book because I live with a strong awareness of the suffering that most of the world endures, in one way or another. Nazi Germany for me encapsulates, as it does for many others, the worst of what people are capable of, the worst of our most recent century. Highly successful and effective state-sponsored mass murder, in a country that had supposedly reached the highest level of civilization and culture, with the tacit or not so tacit acquiescence, or else active participation of the vast majority of citizens, surely tells us something terrifying about the human race. And, of course, we see this terrifying capacity at work in many places today, just as we can leaf through history and find it.

But I would stress that while the darkest reaches of the human soul fascinate (and terrify) me, I am equally driven by an awareness of, and desire to explore, the sources of light: the capacity for generosity, kindness, selflessness, and the extraordinary ability people have to rise above impossible circumstances—that might be soul-destroying, but through heroic effort are not—and stake their claim in the realms of heaven.