April 2013

Terry Hong

features

An Interview with Jessica Soffer

It began with a story. I know, I know, that's what they all say.

But Jessica Soffer's debut novel, Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots, really did begin with a short story she wrote in 2009 for a graduate school assignment. In sharp contrast to the novel's lyrical title, the short story was severely entitled "Pain," and encompassed a woman's life from early childhood to adulthood lived in, well, pain. The story's protagonist was a self-harmer, addicted to pain. "There was something about her voice that I found so compelling," Soffer explains, "and I wanted to make her something larger, to take her with me."

Four years later, that woman reappears as the teenager Lorca, half of Soffer's protagonist duo in Apricots. "Soon into the writing process, an image popped into my head of a young girl and an old woman cooking together in a kitchen," she recalls. And thus Victoria, the novel's octogenarian widow, came to life: "Victoria is a nod to my father's [Iraqi Jewish immigrant] culture."

In a city of millions, Lorca and Victoria are isolated, lonely Manhattanites. Separated from her country-dwelling father in New Hampshire, Lorca lives with her less-than-maternal mother in her aunt's apartment. A wise-beyond-her-years eighth-grader, Lorca is suspended when she's discovered in the bathroom harming herself (yet again), and has just one week to convince her mother not to send her away to boarding school. She's convinced that if she can duplicate her chef mother's favorite dish -- the elusive grilled fish called masgouf, redolent of memories and spices -- she will somehow escape further separation from what is left of her family.

Lorca's search leads her to Victoria, who once upon a time with her husband ran the Iraqi restaurant in which Lorca's mother last tasted that perfect masgouf. The uptown restaurant closed years ago, Victoria's husband Joseph has just passed away, and Victoria's one leftover relationship in the world is with the needy upstairs neighbor for whom only Joseph seemed to have any patience. In the week following Joseph's death, Victoria must confront their decades together, filled with too many secrets and unsaid truths that refuse to remain buried. In the maelstrom of Victoria trying to reclaim her life, Lorca appears at Victoria's door -- impossibly young, beautiful, and perhaps even hopeful enough for both lonely souls.

"I've always found that something profound exists in a relationship between an older and younger person," Soffer says. "They can illuminate corners of life for each other in such a unique and energizing way." That profundity -- and the shared humanity -- is at the core of what becomes Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots.

Reading Apricots, I admit, made me so hungry. Those sort of descriptions has to mean that you're very facile in the kitchen. So, who taught you to cook?

My father's mother was a healer in Baghdad and instilled in my father the notion of eating for one's wellbeing. There was nothing processed in our house when I was growing up. For a cold: ginger, ginger, ginger. For dessert: honey on an apple. My parents weren't big cooks or fans of elaborate eating, but they did think about consumption, about nurturing the body through food, in a way that stuck. I imagine that a childhood like that, with an emphasis placed on eating mindfully, is likely to turn out a person deeply interested in food, which I am. I learned about flavors from my father and his sister -- but I've been self-taught from there on out. I read insatiably about food, watch cooking shows, eat out, ask questions: I've absorbed a lot of cooking know-how from the world.

And you've also discovered a way with words. How did you decide to become a writer?

My mother is a voracious reader, and an editor, grammarian, and true crime writer. She put a book in my hands before I knew what to do with it and so it began. Red pens, manuscripts, books on every surface of our apartment attributed value to words above all else. Words for decoration, for work, for pleasure, forever. I can't remember a time when I didn't write and, perhaps more importantly, when I didn't organize my thoughts in sentence form. There's a constant narration stream gushing through my head always and the only way to interrupt it is through writing. So I write.

I wasn't quite sure from this part of your bio: "the daughter of an Iraqi Jewish painter and sculptor." Are both of your parents Iraqi Jewish? How did your ethnic history affect your identity formation?

My father is an Iraqi Jew. My mother is not. Her grandparents came from Russia, but her parents were born in Brooklyn, and she was born in Florida. Her parents were the only grandparents I knew and big fans of pickled herring, matzo brei, gefilte fish. They ate Chinese food on Sundays and went to the movies on Christmas and lived in Boca Raton and played Barbra Streisand in their Cadillacs. I like matzo brei but I can't say that my grandparents' "experience" informed mine. My parents built their own bubble of culture around art and books and New York City and that is the particular background I owe most to.

Are details from your father's Iraqi immigrant roots sprinkled throughout your novel? How much of Apricots is taken from experience, how much of it emerged from your imagination?

Apricots is not autobiographical. I wanted to write a novel that felt personal to the reader but wasn't beholden to fact. I didn't want to feel cramped in that way. For example, Lorca's mother is absolutely nothing like mine. They are opposites, which was a great exercise in imagination: excising my own experience entirely for the sake of building something brand new. Too, I always thought that my father would inform the Iraqi Jewish parts -- life in Baghdad, the immigrant experience -- but he grew very sick during my writing process and couldn't contribute in the ways that I'd hoped. So, I dove into the research. There are shadows of him throughout the book, but very little I can point to specifically.

I can't think of another Iraqi Jewish writer whose works I've read before. I'm sure they must exist in serious numbers; I've just never been exposed to any. Do you know of any others? If so, were you inspired by them?

They do exist, though many of them have died: Eli Amir; Murad Mikha'il; Shalom Darwish; and Anwar Sha'ul, who established a literary journal in the late 1920s and published women writers, including his wife. But I can't say that they've influenced my work explicitly. The story I hoped to build from had everything to do with my father who took the road less traveled: Baghdad to Iran to the United States in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Most Jews who fled (giving up their belongings and identities, or through the Zionist Underground, or during the short period when well over 100,000 Jews were airlifted) went directly to Israel. I don't feel a part of a larger Iraqi Jewish literary community, perhaps because of my father, who wasn't much a part of an Iraqi Jewish community either, but also because Apricots is so character-driven, and truly fictional. The characters' histories and cultural identities are important, but what I hope prevails is their enduring senses of loneliness and memory and nostalgia and loss. Shedding light on a particular culture -- and on a culture that I feel to be significant and in certain ways diminishing -- is absolutely an upshot.

Let's talk a bit more about your "truly fictional" characters. I have to start with Lorca, of course. Cutting, burning, self-mutilation seem to be on the rise in the current generation -- at least we seem to have more awareness of what is happening to too many of our young people. How did you make Lorca's pain addictions so real?

I'm not sure if self-harm is on the rise or if there are just different, more apparent ways of discussing it. What I think that what it speaks to -- what both scenarios speak to -- is a desperate, endemic need to engage. Facebook, iPhones, and headphones all skimp on the realness of human connection. And though those specific things are not to blame in Lorca's case, they can manifest the very same feelings of isolation in teenagers, in anyone. I was never a self-harmer, and so I had to be careful writing Lorca's scenes, making them accurate, appropriate. I did a lot of research (read literature, spoke to psychiatrists, attended meetings) and then relied on the more universal, and my own understandings loneliness, of feeling misunderstood. And for me, feeling understood is at the heart of what it means to be alive -- and so I tried to imagine how self-inflicting pain might actually be the very thing to affirm life.

I'm awful with containing my curiosity, and since I now know that Lorca is the teenaged version of the woman from your short story "Pain," which chronicles the protagonist into womanhood, I must ask: what happens to Lorca?

I think the reason why that story probably didn't work was that it was dark. That was the point of it, but its downfall, too. I knew that the character was permanently scarred, but I didn't work out where the light came in, if it did. Writing a novel gave me the opportunity to explore Lorca's attempt to find joy. Still, what remains -- what always remains for self-harmers -- are the scars, the irrevocable physical damage. At some point, hair that's been pulled out doesn't ever grow back, skin can't heal itself, burns don't lighten. In one of the last sections of "Pain," the woman is giving birth and her attending doctor notices the marks all over her legs and tells her that she's not fit to be a mother. She's grown out of the physical practice of self-harm, but can't grow out of its damage. If there's a message in Apricots, that's not it. In the end, Lorca is okay. We leave her feeling hopeful. She feels hopeful, and we do, too, for her. I don't want to imagine that she's the woman in the hospital. It's too much. It's not Lorca's story.

Once upon a time, the Iraqi Jewish community flourished in Baghdad and then was scattered throughout the world. Did you grow up in an Iraqi Jewish community or have access to such?

My father's immigrant experience was unique. He didn't spend time in Israel, which is where most of the Jews who fled Baghdad ended up. A fiercely political community grew there that he had nothing to do with. He came to the United States to study art and fell headfirst into that world. In many ways, art became his religion, his culture. For that reason, I always felt a bit like a fraud at high holy days at my aunt's house on Long Island where everyone spoke Arabic and Hebrew. We didn't go to temple or observe. I could tell you about the performance artist at the Whitney, but I couldn't say why we crawled around on hands and knees, searching for the afikoman.

And that Long Island aunt... Might the YouTube chef Violet in Apricots be your own Aunt Violet?

She is not, but the reference is a little homage to her. There is an actual YouTube chef named Rachel who is an Iraqi Jew and whose videos are informative and adorable, both.

Being both Iraqi and Jewish, do you consider yourself political? Do you find that you're ever pushed to be political because of your background?

I consider myself political less because of my Iraqi Jewish roots and more because I grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with parents who read The New Yorker and listened, constantly, to NPR. People are often confused when I use "Iraqi" and "Jewish" in the same sentence. It requires some explanation. For that reason, it feels like the political history I associate with has more to do with storytelling, with memory, than it does with current affairs. After World War I, one out of three Baghdadis were Jewish. Now, they say there are five Jews left in Baghdad. The number might be arbitrary but the significance of it is not lost on me.

Have you been to Iraq?

I've never been to Iraq -- and my father could never go back after he left. I'd love to travel to the Middle East, but to Iran, which my father remembered perhaps even more fondly than Baghdad. He was in hiding for some time in Iran and eventually ended up at a country club, singing for diplomats who loved his voice so much that they gave him fake papers, which said he was from Bahrain. That allowed him to leave the Middle East and make his way to Ellis Island.

When you write, do you find you also need to cook?

Cooking is a great counterpart to writing. It's finite and methodical and involves moving away from the computer screen, if only for a little while. I've found that I can't write on a full stomach so I'll often get up from my desk in a fit of frustration, make something that involves lots of stirring and chopping, and then put it in the fridge for someone else to come upon. Sometimes it's good, sometimes it's awful. But cooking is one of the few experiences for which I can honestly say that it's the process that matters, at least when I'm not the one eating.

Have you perfected a contemporary version of masgouf? As fish from the Tigris and Euphrates aren't edible anymore, I'm assuming you've had to make some Americanized twenty-first-century substitutions?

We use red snapper, but any flaky white fish will do. I can't say that I've perfected masgouf because what it really requires is a raucous fire and that isn't the easiest to work with in a New York City apartment. But the grilled lemons, the pickled mango, the eating with fingers: pretty well perfected.

What's your ideal meal?

My ideal meal is vegetarian, but it's not billed as such because it's not the point. It has lots of mint and citrus and something deep and smoky underneath. It's eaten outside -- on a beach, on a dock, under big, lopping trees -- with friends and very cold vodka. Or a heaping pile of sambusak on the couch. That's ideal too.

What's your ideal book?

My ideal book means as much while I'm reading it as it does after I've turned the last page. It gets me right between the ribs as I make my way, line by line, and then it lingers, stays with me. It changes the way I think about writing as much as it changes my understanding of the world. It sounds lofty but so many books have done just that for me. Anything Virginia Woolf has written is always the first to come to mind.

What's next in your writing plans?

I'm working on lots of short pieces for the moment. Most are nonfiction, and for a while that was okay, but now I'm starting to feel cramped by the constraints of fact. I'm eager to lose myself in a novel again. I realize how much I love the process: how it adapts, how it stretches to accommodate, day after day after day until it feels more like real life than real life itself.

Terry Hong writes BookDragon, a book review blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.