by Marta Maretich
November 27, 2019: With winter tightening its grip and the days drawing in, the UWSL Salon took time to focus on some of the finer points of the writer’s craft in an event featuring novelist Alba Arikha in conversation with literary translator Marta Dziurosz.
The books have obvious points of convergence. Both deal with the holocaust; both have their starting point in personal stories, in Alba’s case that of a fictional character, Flora Baum; in Marta’s that of a real girl, Renia Spiegel, sometimes called the Polish Anne Frank.
But, as the two writers spoke candidly of the struggles and inspirations behind their books, deeper shared themes emerged: The effects of trauma, the power of history, the fragility and durability of human stories and the forces that shape the choices of fiction writers and translators alike.
Telling a life story
Marta began the conversation with questions for Alba about how she tackled the broad canvas of Where to Find Me. “I was bowled over by the beginning of the book,” she said. “It had love, war, filial responsibility, anti-Semitism, conflict. How did you condense such a rich story into so few pages?”
“It’s hard not to say too much or too little,” Alba admitted. The novel was structurally challenging, she said. Because of its complexity, it took six drafts to complete. “Finally, a friend suggested making the middle the beginning. That changed to whole feel if the story.”
Alba explained that she tries to release information very gradually as the story progresses. “I like secrets to drag on and so I try to create a kind of drip-drip of information. I am always deciding how much to hold back, how much to give.” Yet she has no master plan for revealing the truth. “The characters take over and I follow them. I think all books are a conversation between the writer, the reader and the characters.”
Marta and her fellow translator, Anna Blasiak, faced very different structural challenges and decisions as they approached Renia’s diary. Marta explained.
Narrative strategy wasn’t an issue for the translation team: The choices about what to reveal and when had already been made by the young author. The manuscript stretched to some 700 handwritten pages and their difficulty was to translate that volume of material in just three months while still doing justice to the original.
Dealing with trauma
Trauma, experienced and inherited, is another subject at the heart of both books.
Marta pointed out that the main character in Alba’s novel, Flora, lies all the time. “When does a life story become fiction?” she asked, revealing that some commentators on social media have challenged the authenticity of Renia’s story.
Alba explained that, in her character’s case, lies are a way to deal with trauma. “Her parents die in the camps and she creates a new identity for herself as a way to live with that history.”
Alba felt something similar happening as she read Renia’s Diary, she said. “It has humor, boyfriends, sex, poetry—some of it, to be honest, not very good! (Marta laughed, admitting that translating Renia’s youthful verses terrified her.) “We follow her just like we’d follow any other girl and meanwhile we know the war is happening all around her. There’s obviously a lot she doesn’t tell us. The traumas of war are hard to tell.”
Alba’s own father, a holocaust survivor, didn’t want to talk about his experiences either, as she recorded in her memoir Major Minor.
Marta agreed. “I love the phrase you use in your book, ‘History is contagious.’ I think both books demonstrate that it is. I’m very interested in how we inherit these stories of trauma.”
In the case of Renia’s Diary, she recounted, the diary survived thanks only to the determination of Renia’s boyfriend. He smuggled out of the ghetto after her death and gave it to Renia’s mother and sister, who survived the camps. It sat in a bank vault, unread, for decades before the family could bear to look at it.
Finally, Renia’s American niece commissioned the first translation because she wanted to know the story and couldn’t read the Polish original.
“In both our books, the families are dealing with trauma that is theirs and trauma that’s inherited.” Alba commented. “In both cases, it’s a matter of not suppressing trauma, but compressing it into art.”
Where to Find Me and Renia’s Diary are currently available through your local bookstore and at all major online retailers .