A Conversation with Myriam Chapman
Q: How did you discover your grandmother's journals?
A: Several years ago, when I was on a visit to my sister in California, she handed me a manila envelope with the words papiers maman, mother's papers, written in my motehr's handwriting. Inside the envelope were three notebooks, the kind French school children use, in which my grandmother, writing in French in her spiky Russian handwriting, had written about her early life in pre-Revolutionary Russia and in Paris at the beginning of the 20th Century. I had not known these notebooks existed. I sat down on the sofa to read and did not get up until I had finished them all.
My grandmother was born in the Ukraine to a cultured, middle class Jewish family of tailors. She and her family had left Russia in 1905 fleeing pogroms and a turbulent political climate. Nina was 15 when she arrived in Paris. She wrote these memories of her childhood when she was about sixty years old, sometime in the late 50's or early 60's. I don't know who long it took her, perhaps the entire month she was confined to bed recovering from an unspecified accident. The journals seem to have been written under the press of emotion and recollection. There are crossed-out passages and torn pages. There are stories about her parents's lives before she was born, remembered descriptions of her home town, Yekaterinoslav, even recipes that she felt should be passed on to her descendants. Politics is another strand that runs through the journals. A better world for Jews through Socialism was a powerful promise for Nina. Although her involvement in politics was marginal, it is what brought her out of Russia and what brought her together with my grandfather. Reading this remarkable document, I felt it was important to make it accessible to everyone in Nina's family. I translated it from the original French into English for my own children and for all of Nina's English speaking descendants.
Q: What was your reaction upon reading these journals? Have they made you reassess your own conceptions of your past and your family's past?
A: I was born in Paris just before the Second World War to parents who were also born in France, but whose own parents were born in the Pale of Settlement, the area in the Russian Empire allotted to Jewish settlement by Catherine the Great in the 18th century. My grandmother came from the Ukraine and my grandfather from Lithuania. My grandmother and her family left the Ukraine after a series of devastating pogroms in 1905. My grandfather, was exiled to prison in the north of Russia for activities against the Tsar. It was there he developed the sciatica that bedeviled him all his life. As a small child, I was always told the story of my grandfather's valor and how my grandparents had met in Paris at a lecture given by a famous Russian revolutionary. This became a part of the family legend. Reading my grandmother's journals, I began to fill in the background to this encounter, to understand the enormous impact of historical forces on private decisions.
My parents' decision to leave France in 1940 was also the result of a convergence of history and private desires. My father was a cameraman who had worked on several feature films in France. When France fell to the Germans in 1940, he found that his dream of coming to America merged with his fears of being caught in a country racked by war and anti-Semitism. We left France in the summer of 1940, crossed the border into Spain as the Germans were patrolling the checkpoints, spent six weeks in Spain, three in Portugal and finally nine months in Cuba awaiting a visa to come to the United States. In reading the journals, I was aware of the continual westward expansion of my family and I could, I believe, deeply sympathize with the combination of excitement and apprehension that Nina must have felt as she left Yekaterinoslav.
It may be interesting to note that my own children have moved westward as well. But not under the press of historical forces. One son and his family has recently moved from Los Angeles to Seattle and the other, with his family, from New York to Minneapolis.
I sometimes wonder where my grandchildren will end up? The Pacific rim? Or having circumnavigated the globe, back in Europe?
Q: When did you decide that you would turn the journals into a novel?
A: I had been writing fiction for many years before I came across my grandmother's journals. As I translated the story from French to English, it seemed to me Nina's story was enthralling, yet I was intrigued by what she had left unsaid. Between the lines about pogroms and politics, hardships and triumphs, there was hints of love affairs and family conflicts. I felt there was a story I wanted to explore about a young woman at the crossroads of her life, struggling among conflicting pressures, her Russion past and her French present to find her own way in a new world. Who this young woman was and what compelled her to make the decisions she eventually made would become the stuff of my novel.
Q: What sort of process did you use in adapting the journals to fiction?
A: As always there is a process of transmutation when one writes. Characters take off, they change, they acquire a logic of their own. Incidents alluded to become major events. In deciding which parts of the journals to fictionalize, I chose events that I thought were singular and revealing. Sometimes, it was just a line that struck my imagination. For example, Nina says she and her family spent three days in the cellar of the Director of the School of Mines during the pogrom of 1905. From that, I imagined what it would have been like for a sensitive, fastidious 15 year-old to be imprisoned in a dark and dirty celler for three days; I gave her a friend she could become attached to and disappointed in. I imagined what it must have been like for Abraham to see Nina for the first time at the lecture hall in Paris, what attracted her to him. She mentions her affection for a young anarchist; I developed a character I thought she could fall in love with. I did a great deal of research on Yekaterinoslav, Nina's hometown, and the political climate there around 1900-1905. I wandered through Paris visiting the sites and the buildings, many still standing, that Nina mentions. Doing research was part of the joy of writing this book.
My grandmother died in 1978 at the age of 86. My grandfather had died a few years earlier at 92. They had survived the First World War in Paris and the Second World War hidden by French farmers in a village in South Eastern France. This, of course, is another story, and one I would like to write at another time.
Would my grandmother have recognized herself in this book? Yes and no. Nina's life never happened quite as I describe it, but the novel has, I hope, a truth of its own. My wish today would be for my grandmother to enjoy the book and accept it for what it is, a work of fiction, a novel.
1. Why She Married Him examines the life of a young woman caught between her aspirations and the constraints imposed on her by her society. Is this still a contemporary issue? How does the position of young women today differ from young women in the 1900s? What constraints, if any, operate in the life of young women today?
2. Nina marries Abraham in part to resolve the tensions in her life. What do you think of her solution?
3. Nina and her family are refugees in Paris. What is the impact, if any, of their position on Nina's decision to marry Abraham?
4. What does Nina want most for herself? In the context of her society, can her decision to marry Abraham be considered a step toward liberation or an abdication of her dreams? Or both?
5. What advantages will marriage offer Nina? Are these advantages still applicable in 21st century society?
6. Sasha abandons Nina for America. What does this decision say about him? Would he have made a good husband for Nina?
7. Abraham takes his socialism with him everywhere. How does that affect his relationship with Nina? Should a person abandon his/her principles if they clash with a relationship?
8. Nina admires Abraham for qualities she also finds objectionable. How does she resolve her ambivalence?
9. Revolutionary ardor and pogroms figure prominently in Nina's childhood. How did affect Nina's sense of herself as a Jew in Russia and in France?
10. The Jewish exodus from lands in the Pale of Settlement at the turn of the last century is well documented. Is the trajectory of Nina's family different from or similar to your own family's experiences or to stories you have heard?
11. Finally, given what you know of Abraham and Nina, do you expect this marriage to be successful? What factors could hold this couple together? What factors could split them apart?