When ‘fiction is the only way to tell the truth’
Questions for Anita Diamant
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
Anita Diamant is one of a rare breed of writers who can weave back and forth between nonfiction and fiction. Well known for her books on living Jewishly, from The New Jewish Wedding in 1985 to her 1997 handbook for conversion, Choosing a Jewish Life, she found even wider success with her novels, beginning in 1997 with her breakout bestseller The Red Tent. In 2009, she published her fourth novel, Day after Night. A work of historical fiction, it tells the story of four women coping with the trauma of the Holocaust in its immediate aftermath, at the Atlit Detention Camp in Haifa. Atlit was set up by the British in Mandatory Palestine for illegal immigrants, usually Jewish refugees.
On Friday, April 8, Diamant, who spent her early years in Newark, will speak about her book at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange at a dinner following kabalat Shabbat services.
Diamant spoke with NJJN by telephone from her home in the Boston area. An edited version of the conversation follows.
NJJN: Day after Night focuses on women after the Holocaust. Do you think the world needs more Holocaust literature?
Diamant: Does the world need another love story? Does the world need another picaresque bildungsroman? This is one of the great stories of the 20th century. It is something experienced by millions of people, and not just the victims.
I did approach this material reluctantly, feeling, what could I add? I could not write a novel set during the Holocaust. I wasn’t alive then. But I do live in a post-Holocaust world, and I wanted to explore that reality.
There’s also an untold story here — the image everyone has in their minds of D-Day is the sailor kissing the nurse in Times Square, and everything is wonderful. But it was a trauma to survive and everyone had a different coping mechanism. That’s what I wanted to explore in this novel.
NJJN: Do you think it’s too soon after the Holocaust to write historical fiction when we are still discovering the stories of actual survivors?
Diamant: There’s tons of fiction about the Holocaust. Sometimes it’s the only way to tell the truth. The emotional truth of the Holocaust is not entirely tellable through nonfiction. We have the examples of [survivors] Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel, who themselves turned to fiction to write about the Holocaust and its emotional truth.
NJJN: You return to women’s voices time and again. What is unique about the women’s voices in your latest book?
Diamant: They are not unique; they are multi-form. There are four of them with different voices. They each have an untold story. Women’s stories are still a rich source of untold, and undertold, stories.
NJJN: Your books are so often about how to live, or how women lived, even how to celebrate. What attracted you to this latest subject matter, which is so grim, by comparison?
Diamant: I was at the Atlit Detention Camp in Israel on a tour, and I thought, wow, this would be a great novel. That’s often how I write books. It’s not, let me write a book about the Land of Israel in the years after the war — it’s more like it found me. I resisted. I did not want to spend three years on this subject, but it kept tapping me on the shoulder — and I didn’t want anyone else to do it before me. It’s such a good story with a rich emotional landscape.
NJJN: How did you prepare to write this book — did you engage in research?
Diamant: I did a fair amount of reading on the history of the period, but the book has a very narrow focus — this short period of time — three months right after the Holocaust. I look at British Mandate Palestine and what the political landscape was like at that moment. I wanted to delve into not just geopolitics but emotional politics. I realized again that people did not talk about their experiences until after the [Adolf] Eichmann trials [in Jerusalem in 1961].
Until those trials, people were not encouraged to speak. They were not encouraged to process their feelings, and there was shame on the part of those people who felt they could have done more to rescue people. There was a lot of silence. We’re a very confessional society — we’re very psychologically literate. That was not the case then. I learned that as well. [Israeli historian and journalist] Tom Segev was my mentor. I read a lot of his books. And I visited Atlit two more times, and the staff was enormously helpful.