In deep fissures and dark alleys having to do with multigenerational trauma, anti-Semitism, racism, terrorism, torture, death and loss, Berkeley writer Elizabeth Rosner uncovers, improbably, hope and connection.
“Survivor Café” (Counterpoint Press, $26, 304 pages) marks Rosner’s nonfiction debut. The author of three novels, including the award-winning “The Speed of Light” (2001) and “Electric City” (2014), and a poetry collection, “Gravity,” Rosner grew up in Schenectady, New York. Raised by Jewish parents — a father sent during World War II to Buchenwald and a mother who hid for safety in the Polish countryside — she writes most often about the Holocaust and its impacts.
Her new book incorporates in a collagelike manner memories of three trips Rosner took with her father to Buchenwald and scientific research that illuminates the indelible, intergenerational ramifications of trauma. Chapters offering insightful analysis link Holocaust trauma to that of African-American slave descendants, survivors of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Cambodian killing fields, 9/11, the Vietnam War, Rwandan genocide, Japanese-American internment in the 1940s and other historic examples of large-scale suffering.
“It was delving into my personal experience that made me realize the universal experience of trauma,” Rosner says in an interview from her home in North Berkeley.
Rosner’s “delving” into words and their meanings within stories that are actual, fictional, metaphoric and began long ago. Raised in a multilingual household, she is fascinated by nuances of accent, use or misuse of words and the vastness and limitations of language. “I learned Hebrew, studied Spanish, eavesdropped on my parents’ secret Swedish language and forbidden German,” she says.
While working on “Survivor,” she was repeatedly struck by the insufficiency of words to describe gigantic subjects such as genocide, mass murder, torture and mutilation. The book begins even before the chapter titled “Introduction” with an aggressive “Alphabet of Inadequate Language.” Rosner says it serves as an alternative table of contents that “poured out in one day” of writing and alerts readers not to expect a conventional, linear narrative.
The book’s most unusual feature, she says, is not necessarily the alphabet, the Holocaust’s connection to other traumas or the inclusion of exhaustively researched science linking her parents’ traumatic experiences to her own physical health and mental condition. Instead, it was the lightning speed with which the book was produced. “I wrote this fast. From conception to completed revised draft was two years. My novels have taken, 10, six, eight years. I wrote this in fragments, moving back and forth between researching, composing, revising.”
Rosner writes without routine or method, negating the idea that a writer must practice discipline to complete a book. “I shock myself with completing five books by doing what seems to me a lot of staring into space,” she says. “Every time I wrapped my arms around (“Survivor Café”), it got bigger. I was constantly negotiating with myself about my expectations.”
She credits longtime editor Dan Smetanka with redirecting her original plan to produce a collection of intertwined stories to be read in or out of sequence. She keeps an open mind about how human atrocities should be addressed. “There are infinite responses to horror. I’m trying to find my way,” she notes. “I do not have an absolute sense of the approach people use.” Even so, egocentric craftsmanship that flaunts a writer’s “genius approach,” she says, is objectionable grandiosity. “Humility is imperative in certain subjects.”
Layered like stepping stones for her to “Survivor Café” are influential books: Louise Erdrich’s novels involving Native American legacies; the works of James Baldwin; Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” because it centers on lasting, embodied trauma; Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan, whose works include the family dynamics of immigrants. “I see, too, in this book the threads of all of my novels and poetry collection,” she says. “It’s inevitable that this book will impact the next.”
As for the research supporting the idea that multigenerational trauma is real, the science has eradicated Rosner’s doubts. “If you’ve ever stood at the base of a tree where you know someone was hung in a lynching, every time you look up at any tree, some part of your brain is holding that,” she says. “I no longer think those things are erasable.”
Writing the book has firmed up a personal conviction. “What’s most newly activated in me from this book is the idea of the next generation stepping up,” she says. “I’m a link in the chain. I appreciate how much I want to be part of a big conversation about how the past continues to affect the present.”
Rosner, who has made a deliberate choice not to extend her lineage by having children, expresses her desire for linkage and legacy through writing. “It’s my activism, self-hope, communication with others, inspiring. It’s what I hope to leave behind; it’s my form of service.”
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