The Whole Megillah (TWM): What inspired this work, its structure, and its scope? What made the narrative begin with the postwar period?
Yermiyahu Ahron Taub (YAT): Much of my literary project has explored human relationships within the framework of organized religion, specifically Judaism, and the ways in which individuals navigate their own desires, longing, and dreams through and around religious strictures and cultural obligations. The synagogue, with its inherent blend of the spiritual, institutional, social, and quotidian, struck me as an apt vehicle to explore these and other concerns. Having the book’s action unfold over a century enabled me to illuminate changes over time and the long-lasting effects of decisions made many years before. I specifically omitted a plethora of precise markers or demarcations of the time — not to promote a kind of literary ahistoricism— but rather because I wanted the focus to be on the stories and the characters. That said, the book spans much of the twentieth and the early part of the twenty-first centuries. The first part is set before World War II. Several stories are partially set in the eastern European realm. One story (“Dolls, in Limbo”) flashes back to a pogrom. The book includes references to early- and mid-twentieth-century performing artists. The Angel of History is present, and yet I did not want Beloved Comrades to feel quite like a historical novel per se, with an accretion of period-specific details.
TWM: It seems you had a strategy of differentiating characters through dialogue and interior monologue. For example, Yehudah Ariel thinks in parenthetical statements. Please comment on this.
YAT: Both in my poetry and prose, the interior monologue has proved to be a vital tool to express the vibrancy of the life of the mind and spirit of those who may outwardly appear to live not fully realized, or even seemingly “drab,” existences. I find that contrast — between the interior and exterior lives — to be particularly rich ground for investigation. Interior monologue also allows for a register quite different from dialogue, not necessarily more “exalted,” but more contemplative. That said, I am fond of pointed, colloquial dialogue. Ideally, there is a symbiotic relationship between the two.
TWM: How did your knowledge and role as a Yiddish translator correlate to this collection?
YAT: Yiddish has long played a pivotal role in my work. All of my poetry books have some Yiddish in them. The second book is entirely bi-lingual; the sixth is entirely in Yiddish. In my fiction, Yiddish words and expressions appear throughout the books. In Beloved Comrades, Yiddish plays a critical role through the generations. Two of the characters, Zisl and Yehoshua, have formally studied Yiddish. Yiddish naming and Yiddish forms of names and monikers (Mindl/Mandy, Mame/Mama) constitute crucial plot elements. In the original manuscript of Beloved Comrades that I submitted for publication, the story “Face à la Façade” also had a Yiddish version. That version entitled “Antkegn dem fasad” was originally published in the Forverts/Yiddish Forward and in Penshaft: New Yiddish Writing. For a variety of reasons, the Yiddish version of the story did not make it into the final version of the book.
TWM: What is the overall message you wanted readers to get?
YAT: One of my goals in Beloved Comrades was to create a multi-generational saga defined by intimacy, closeness, and emotional intensity. I sought to place the people who are often seen at the peripheries of organizational life into the limelight and at the center of the authorial gaze. Along those lines, I aimed to focus on a gathering place for working people, not on the nearby yeshiva famed for its learning and scholarship. I also wanted to “queer” the seemingly conventional space of a communal narrative centered around an Orthodox synagogue. The novel features a character clearly identified as gay at the outset of their story as well as characters who are later revealed to be gay. The straight characters grapple with the decisions, actions, and selves of the queer ones. In this way, queerness reverberates even in stories whose principal protagonists are straight. Additionally, there are ostensibly “straight” characters and relationships whose interactions and actions could be interpreted by the reader as queer. I wanted the line between the homosocial and homosexual to be decidely blurry.
TWM: What brought you to Anaphora Literary?
YAT: I first learned about the press when the poet Susana H. Case invited me to write a blurb for her wonderful collection Earth and Below, which was published by Anaphora Literary Press in 2013. All of these years later, I decided to submit my work to the press for consideration.
TWM: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this collection?
YAT: Because the novel covers so much time, I had to make sure that each generation was well represented, that the novel had an overall balance. Because it’s a hybrid genre — a novel in stories — I wanted to make sure that each story stood on its own as a discrete entity and yet was connected to others around it to form a cohesive whole. That balancing act took some work to maintain.
TWM: Who inspires you?
YAT: I am inspired by and grateful to the editors of literary journals who provide an early home for unconventional work and to small literary publishers who consider manuscripts without an agent and who create a framework for works on the margins to make their way into the world. Similarly, I am inspired by artists who remain committed to their art over the long haul and continue to make work with little to no mainstream recognition. I am inspired by artists, activists, and many others who are committed to making this world a better place, who insist on forging concrete, creative change for the good.
TWM: How long did this project take you from start to acceptance?
YAT: I wrote the first draft of Beloved Comrades during a residency at the now-shuttered Rivendell Writers’ Colony (Sewanee, Tennessee) at the end of 2016. Rivendell was a place of spectacular beauty, and I feel very fortunate that I got to work there before it closed. Hopefully, the largesse of the setting and its wonderful director Carmen Toussaint and the warm fellowship of the other writers in residence at the time infuse the book. I then revised the manuscript extensively. I wrote numerous drafts and submitted selected stories for publication in literary journals. Anaphora Literary Press accepted the book in the fall of 2019.
Thank you for this opportunity to speak about my book, Barbara!