Jennifer Rosner is the author of the novels Once We Were Home and The Yellow Bird Sings, a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award; the memoir If A Tree Falls: A Family's Quest to Hear and Be Heard, about raising her deaf daughters in a hearing, speaking world; and a children's book, The Mitten String, which is a Sydney Taylor Book Award Notable.
Fiction can allow a writer to tell a story not bound by the particularities of a true experience yet still conveying deep emotional truths.
I am so pleased to welcome author Jennifer Rosner to gilagreenwrites.
GG: Your story is set in WW2. The last four interviews I have done with authors are all about books set in WW2. Why do you think this is so popular right now? Is this a trend? Its own genre? Do you think some Jewish writers feel safer writing about WW2 than writing about the present time? Would you say the same for publishers?
Do you think it's easier in some ways to write about Jews from the past than from the present?
JR: My first novel, The Yellow Bird Sings, is set in WW2, and my newest novel, Once We Were Home, is set in the war's aftermath. Yet both works were inspired (at least partly) by people I met before I had any intention of writing in this time period. While on book tour for my memoir, If A Tree Falls: A Family's Quest to Hear and Be Heard, I spoke with a hidden child of the Holocaust who shared her experience of needing to stay silent for 24 months in a shoemaker's attic. This encounter set me on the path to writing The Yellow Bird Sings. I later met a woman who, after the war, worked retrieving Jewish orphans from the Christian settings in which they'd been harbored. Thinking about this movement of children (and their likely struggles with identity, faith, belonging, and sense of home) prompted me to write Once We Were Home.
It has struck me that WW2 is unfathomable in its scale of calculated horror and persecution, and that perhaps we write about it, over and over, in an effort to make what little sense of it we can. Many novels feature people who acted heroically, who resisted, who spied or fought; perhaps such narratives attempt to provide balance against the overwhelming evil. Additionally, exploring such stories may be a way of staying connected to a disappearing generation.
GG: Why were you motivated to write this book? Do you speak any European languages? Do you have a personal connection to your story?
JR: My personal connection to Once We Were Home lies with the thematic questioning of where (and with whom) a child is thought to belong. As a parent of two deaf daughters, I found myself in difficult conversations with some who felt our children should not be raised in a "hearing" family like ours. In such conversations, it seemed as if ideological considerations overrode factors such as our family's closeness and commitment, and I believe that the missions to move children on the basis of adult considerations of faith or nationality stuck close, psychologically.
GG: In one of your online interviews you say that "Poland was really just like one giant cemetery for Jewish people." The Polish government is actively fighting this image and trying to move closer to an image of a Polish people victimized by the Nazis (particularly in a recent controversy about bringing Israeli high schoolers to Poland). What has your research told you? Do you think authors ultimately control narratives more than journalists and governments?
JR: The existence of rampant antisemitism in Poland before, during, and after WWII can stand beside the existence of Polish victimization by the Nazis. The truth of the latter does not erase the truth of the former.
GG: How did you settle on the idea of four narratives? Was it always four? Did you initially have more or less? Authors are often cautioned not to tell their stories from more than one POV. Why not write more than one book if there are more stories to tell?
JR: In an early conception, the novel contained only the narratives of Oskar and Ana, a Jewish brother and sister stowed during the war with a Christian family for their safety, then retrieved to be transported to Palestine.As I learned of other historical cases, I decided to construct the narratives of Roger and Renata, and to weave the storylines together. While each narrative of displacement is different, and I am careful to avoid drawing equivalencies—Holocaust survivors seeking to re-populate a nearly-lost collective is entirely different from Catholic clergy trying to keep children in the church or German soldiers taking Polish children to be Germanized—the children themselves struggle in similar ways. I wanted to highlight these cases of children of war, while placing the Jewish efforts to reclaim orphans in a larger context.
GG: When there are so many real victims of WW2, how do you respond to the question of why bother making up fictional characters at all?
JR: Fiction can allow a writer to tell a story not bound by the particularities of a true experience yet still conveying deep emotional truths. As some readers don't tend toward non-fiction and memoir, novels are another vehicle for fostering empathy and understanding of the past.
GG: What are you currently working on?
JR: I am writing a novel that is in essence a love story and a deep exploration of the debates within the world of deafness. I'm just at the start…
GG: You write a lot about home. Do you think a person can have more than one true home or that the concept can exist on more than one level (spiritual? physical)?
JR: I believe that the concept of home exists on many levels and that it can shift over the course of a person's life as one changes and grows. It's highly personal. A favorite writing prompt I once received in a workshop was: "write of home and of exile."Every writer's response was unique and riveting.
GG: Please feel free to add anything you wish to say. Thank you again for visiting me today.
JR: Thank you, Gila
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