Carol Isaacs: The Wolf of Baghdad and Longing for a Lost Homeland

An image of Carol Isaacs appearing at Persephone Books
Musician, cartoonist and graphic memoirist Carol Isaacs keeps us spellbound during her event at Persephone Books.

by Catherine Temma Davidson

On Wednesday February 12, 2020, Upper Wimpole Street returned to Persephone Books to hear Carol Isaacs discuss—and perform—parts of her new graphic memoir, The Wolf of Baghdad.

Sarah Lightman, whose graphic memoir The Book of Sarah was launched the previous February at another Upper Wimpole Street, led the talk with an insightful interview. She and Carol explored the way families both invite and resist our attempts to narrate them, and how we can make peace with the ghosts of the past.

Carol is a multi-talented artist – a musician, visual innovator and writer. A highly accomplished professional keyboard player, Caroline is also the founder of the London Klezmer Quartet, an ensemble specialising in traditional Iraqi songs of the Judeo-Arabic community.

Carol accompanied her animated slideshow presentation with her own soundtrack of traditional accordion music. The effect was transporting. We watched and listened as the ghost of the present haunted scenes of a vanished world – the multi-layered history of Carol’s extended family in Baghdad, whose roots go back hundreds of years. The “wolf” is a benign guide, a protector, leading her to a world she has never known but can only imagine.

Carol’s many talents came together in a moving meditation on exile and return, and the way the second generation of refugee families is often gifted—or burdened—with a desire to rediscover a homeland that has vanished forever.

This longing for a world you have never known is more than nostalgia, Carol explained in the discussion afterwards. There is even a word for it in Finnish, kaukukaipuu. As we went around the room, we discovered it exists in many other languages, too: farsickness, fernweh, hiraeth…

We are grateful to Persephone Book for providing our venue for this very special event. Its ghosts are always friendly and feel like colleagues. It means a great deal to launch new work and new ways of narrating stories in such a beautiful setting, surrounded by curious, interesting, intelligent writing women – in person and on the page.

The Wold of Baghdad is now available from Myriad Editions.

Alba Arika & Marta Dziurosz: Trauma, history and the power of life stories

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 writers met in Lucasta’s Miller’s hospitable sitting room to interview one another about their recent works, Alba’s novel Where to Find Me and Marta’s translation, Renia’s Diary.

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.

Contagious History
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 .

Elif Shafak: 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World

by Jamilah Ahmed

27 October, 2019: The Upper Wimpole Street Literary Salon was delighted to welcome Elif Shafak to a packed event and wonderful conversation between Catherine Davidson and Elif, one that was full of laughter, hope and solidarity.

It began with a sombre reminder, however, that when Elif was last at the Salon in 2015, she voiced her fears about the erosion of democracy. Catherine remembered that many thought at that time “it couldn’t happen here.” How wrong we were!

Nevertheless, Elif had our full attention now. She said how pleased she was to be with us in “a community of people who believe in the Arts, with women who inspire and give to each other.” She suggested we “talk together, take the opportunity to discuss everything, and share anxieties.”

The idea for Elif’s latest book, 10 Hours 38 Minutes in This Strange World, shortlisted for the Booker Prize, was partly inspired by a piece of scientific research that revealed the part of the brain in charge of longterm memory is the last part to die. This prompted the question for her, “What do we remember, the good or the bad?”

Around the same time, she read a news article about a transgender sex-worker being murdered, who would likely have a nameless grave, and be marked instead by a number. Elif wanted to write a story that reversed that process, to take a number and conjure the person. Her book aims to give voice to the outcasts, the forgotten and unwanted and to explore those unlikely people buried together in the Cemetery of the Companionless.

This is heavy material but the novel tells an ultimately uplifting story. Elif also spoke about how important humour is when overcoming obstacles and difficult times: “In undemocratic societies, humour disappears from public spaces,” she said, urging us to celebrate humour—the kind that has compassion in it—so that laughing together can be another kind of oxygen to inhale.

The open conversation explored many topics, including politics and countries and ended with a discussion of activism and the accompanying dangers and emotions it gives rise to. For Elif, anger need not be part of activism, as that often becomes a further obstacle in itself. Compassion, connectivity and kindness can be central tenets of activism, as indeed can be writing and novels.

She commented that she had noticed a “Brexit fatigue” in the UK and warned that if public engagement decreases, we allow our civic space to become dominated by hardliners. Perhaps this time, we’ll take better note of her words: “If democracy is under threat,” she cautioned, “we don’t have the luxury of ignoring politics.”

Women of the Resistance: With Katherine McMahon and Sonia Purnell

By Marta Maretich

Themes of resistance and history were in the air as authors Katherine McMahon and Sonia Purnell brought distinct takes on female resistance fighters of the First and Second World Wars to the Upper Wimpole Street Salon.

McMahon’s novel, The Hour of Separation, tells the story of two generations of women working in the resistance movement in Belgium during two World Wars. Purnell’s nonfiction book, A Woman of No Importance, recounts the exploits of Virginia Hall, the one-legged woman spy who established vital resistance networks across France during the Second World War.

Host Catherine Temma kicked off the conversation between the two writers by asking: What draws you both to historical topics?

For McMahon, the author of ten novels including The Rose of Sebastapol, history provides a lens to examine ourselves and our society. Historical novels are relevant, she said, when they echo the themes we face at the moment and help us learn from the past. “If we don’t treasure their stories, we learn nothing.”

For Purnell, the choice of Virginia Hall as a subject grew out of a desire to write about a woman she could admire and to show her sons that women play important roles in history, though their stories are often buried. She went looking for female subjects to inspire her, she said, after writing a biography of Boris Johnson. The “remarkable” Clementine Churchill was the first of her admirable women subjects, followed by Hall.

Like McMahon, Purnell stressed the parallels between issues we’re seeing today—threats to democracy, fake news, the rise of right-wing nationalism—and the events leading up to both world wars. “If you lose truth, you lose everything,” Purnell warned.

Research, that tool for truth-telling, is a passion these writers share. Both extolled their love of—and obsession with—the process of discovering facts about their subjects. McMahon spends a year reading for each novel, she says, allowing the kernel of the story to emerge. Once it does, she lets it take over and drive further research, allowing it to “transform” the fiction.

Purnell admitted to researching Hall “obsessively” over two and a half years. She was driven by the desire to do her subject justice and to silence the (mostly male) critics that might be inclined to pick holes in her account—or dismiss it altogether.

Katherine McMahon and Sonia Purnell: The authors share a passion for research, a love of truth, and a firm belief in the value of reclaiming the stories of remarkable women in history.

Did writing about these remarkable women change you? Temma asked the authors.

“I always want to learn something from the books I write,” Purnell answered. From Virginia Hall and the almost unbelievable barriers she overcame as a female spy with a serious disability, she learned a simple lesson: Don’t complain.

For McMahon, writing the book made her appreciate how women are different from men in wartime roles—for example, in their attention to detail and their ability to organize. “We should value our differences and nurture them. We should be different and we need to be bold.”

This salon took place on 26th June, 2019. Follow these links for more information about the Katherine McMahon and Sonia Purnell. Their books are available at local bookstores and from major online retailers.

Sarah Lightman Review

cover image of the book of Sarah by Sarah Lightman
‘This is not a normal comic book. I draw like an artist. It is transgressive of comics.’ Sarah Lightman

Julia Weiner

(Part of this Review appears in The Jewish Chronicle)

Sarah Lightman has built up quite a reputation as an expert on Jewish women graphic artists, writing a PhD on the subject, curating exhibitions and lecturing around the world.  Now, after many years in preparation, her own graphic novel The Book of Sarah has been published and at a packed Salon hosted by Nicola Beaumont at Persephone Books, Sarah came to speak about her work with celebrated playwright Julia Pascal.   

Anyone expecting cartoon like characters, speech bubbles and lots of images on every page, will get a surprise from this graphic novel.  As Lightman told us ‘This is not a normal comic book.  I draw like an artist. It is transgressive of comics.’ For each page of the The Book of Sarah contains reproductions of her beautiful art works, mostly intricately realised pencil drawings as she explores her life in a highly original manner with captions underneath in a font based on her handwriting.

Early in the book, Lightman writes ‘Every year during my first three years at the Slade School of Art, I would read from that week’s portion of the Torah…I would mark down my questions and comments in the margins. And then I would travel on the tube to the Slade and show my drawings of my own life story.’   With siblings named Daniel and Esther, she questioned why both of their Biblical namesakes had books named after them, but her namesake, the matriarch Sarah did not. She was told ‘You have a whole section of the Torah named after you, and the Torah is holier than the Writings of the Prophets.  But still she demanded a Book of Sarah.’  And this publication is the result.  Most of the chapters reflect those in the Bible.  Genesis tells of her family background and childhood, Exodus of her leaving London for New York, Bamidbar, the Hebrew title for the Book of Numbers which translates as ‘In the desert’ deals with her return from New York after a failed relationship. 

Sarah shared some of the themes of the book with the Salon.  She feels that she is following the example of some other great Jewish graphic novelists including Art Spiegelman who wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning Maus and above all Charlotte Salomon, the German-Jewish artist who wrote of her life in Germany in the years leading up to the Second World War. Sarah identifies closely with Salomon as they were both Jewish, middle class, with professional parents and had a problematic relationship with a difficult man.

Judaism may be a matrilineal religion but it is still very patriarchal and in Jewish orthodoxy, women’s voices are forbidden and figurative images are prohibited by the second commandment.  As a result Sarah wanted to share both her voice and her images.  Since she had her son Harry, she also wanted to explore maternity in art – ‘I was art school trained so I knew a great deal of the predominance of the Madonna and Child and wanted to explore contemporary art about motherhood’ she explained. The book contains just a fraction of the drawings she has made.  Over the years she has produced thousands of drawings and hundreds of sketchbooks.  Her drawings take on average a day.  

The book is an absolute joy to read.  Lightman goes into surprisingly personal details about her life including her failed relationships and some truly terrible dates.  As she writes ‘My drawing enables my catharsis but it is also a stick to beat myself with.’ Several pages are filled with drawings of plastic cups of water, filled to different levels which represent her meetings with her therapist.  Under each glass are snippets of what she discussed in therapy.  When she meets her husband Charlie, she confides in her anxieties about both her wedding and her fertility.  When Harry is born, she alternates between recounting her love of her new son and the drawbacks of motherhood, including a very graphic image of her Caesarean scar.  The drawings that accompany her musings include family portraits in a range of styles from realist to expressionist, the homes she has lived in and other key buildings in her life, covers of books that have inspired her and objects of importance to her, for example a particularly beautiful drawing of lace doilies inherited from her great-great-aunt accompanied by the reflection ‘I am just a stitch in time in my family’s intricately woven history.’ I found the more banal drawings perhaps the most moving, such as a succession of pages showing the foods she eats in moments of stress or the packet of Osem chocolate covered wafers that she bought for her dying grandmother to enjoy. The Book of Sarah ends on a positive note with a chapter called Revelations in which Lightman finds some sort of closure and prepares to give up her autobiographical drawings for painting. As Sarah shared with us ‘Now I am ready to paint’.

After the talk, most of those present snapped up a signed copy or two of The Book of Sarah.  Thanks to Sarah, to her publisher Corinne Pearlman, herself a talented and very funny graphic novelist, to Julia Pascal for her insightful questions and to Nicola for hosting.  We hope to bring another graphic novelist to the Salon in 2020.

Sarah Lightman with Julia Pascal at Persephone Books