- InterventionsAn Interview with Hilary Zaid
For Hannah Arendt, the Jewish Holocaust “stands outside of life and death.” For Theodore Adorno, any act to turn one of the darkest chapters in human history into art would be itself barbaric. Indeed, others have asked the same of art and its reconstructions of other horrifically dark moments in human history, including enslavement and genocides of Africans and indigenous peoples across the Americas.
There is some truth to this. Indeed, Toni Morrison talks about needing a certain distance on the horrors of slavery in order to find the right aesthetic tools to give it an all-powerful, everlasting, narrative shape. When creators of art are too close to the raw experience, it’s difficult to find one’s way to the aesthetic means for shaping these stories in ways that resonate with readers well beyond the experiential proximate.
The Jewish Holocaust has been turned into fiction, of course, and to powerfully lasting results. I think readily of novels and short stories by Aharon Appelfeld, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, Tadeusz Borowski, Bram Presser, Leah Kaminsky, Jonathan Safran Foer, Art Spiegelman, Tatiana de Rosnay, Max Frisch, and Primo Levi. We can add to this list Hilary Zaid and her tour de force, Paper Is White (2018). Zaid tackles the hard questions of representation of the Holocaust as well as issues of memory and survival trauma. She also deeply complicates these themes by creating as her first-person protagonist, lesbian Jewish Ellen Margolis living with her partner Francine in a late 1990s San Francisco Bay Area — a time when it was still illegal for same sex couples to marry.
Zaid creates Ellen as an assistant curator at the Foundation for the Preservation of Memory, learning firsthand about the Holocaust from Anya, a Holocaust survivor. For Zaid, re-memory and reclamation of the past is paramount. We should face the past with open eyes. We should learn from the past. We can then see clearly how large-scale human tragedies impact those forced to the edges of history, like Ellen. However, Zaid also adds to this a vital proviso: we need to learn from the past but not be paralyzed by it as LGBTQ folx living in the present. To wit: society’s stranglehold on same-sex couplings. Ultimately, Zaid asks us to deeply examine our existence and to open us once again to the great, affirming ways we can and do discover, create to transform positively our world for tomorrow’s new generations.
In Survival in Auschwitz (1947), Primo Levi powerfully writes about surviving the death camps “to tell the story, to bear witness.” And, Milan Kundera aptly reminds that the “first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory.” We stand up against wrongs to avoid repeats of histories of genocides. We document the past, tell our stories, good and bad, we write fictions in, as Kundera states, “the struggle of memory against forgetting.”
Hilary Zaid, a University of California, Berkeley PhD, works as a freelance editor and is an award-winning author of fiction. I was able to catch up with Hilary to talk about her critically acclaimed novel, Paper Is White.
Hilary, how do you see your novel, Paper Is White, intervening in the world?
Paper is White tells the story of a young woman, Ellen, who is planning a wedding to her female partner in the 1990s. This was still a time when same-sex marriage wasn’t on the radar of most people outside of the gay community. In its content and perspective, it is a story that hadn’t been told. Ellen is an oral historian of Holocaust survivors. So, her quest to get married and to define what marriage means for her intersects with her sense of identity and her relationship with elderly people.
In the context of literature that touches on the Holocaust, this is not really a story that we’ve heard before either. We tend to see a lot of historical fiction about the Holocaust. This is a novel about what it means to live in the wake of the Holocaust...