Eva Hoffman Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Between Memory and History: A Writer's Voice: Conversation with Eva Hoffman, author, 10/5/00 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

Page 5 of 5

Finding a Voice: History and Memory

It is clear from your book that others, both Polish and Jewish, have found it important to get the story right. On the one hand, you quote from a book of Jewish memories, a Yizkor book, that the Jewish community had created in this shtetl telling their story. And then you encounter a Polish historian ...


... who has worked conscientiously to tell the story, get the facts. Eva Hoffman with Zbigniew Romaniuk, the young historian who guided her through Bransk in 1996. What is it about memory and history that leads individuals to take on this burden of getting the story right?

I think that for this young man who grew up after the war in a town which had no more Jews, but the Jewish population had been a large part of his town, there was simply a sense of a very poignant absence. And also a sense that this was a part of his history. That in order to understand himself, in order to understand Polishness, he needed to understand the Jewish part of that history. I think there is simply a great impulse in us to know the truth and to know the truth of the past.

What is striking about the book Shtetl is that in this beautifully written text, you're finding a voice as a writer, but at the same time dealing with personal feelings about the memory of Poland and of Jews in your family's consciousness. Tell us about the struggles of navigating that terrain: ultimately it leads to a kind of reconciliation and fulfillment in your own psyche, doesn't it?

It does. It was very important for me to integrate these two parts of the psyche which were equally formative, equally important in my growing up. In my writing, especially in Lost in Translation, there was an attempt to integrate, in a sense, the Polish and the American parts of the self; in Shtetl, the Polish and Jewish parts of the self. Because for me, for my generation, for many people, it is the division and the distillation of one part of identity which is artificial and the synthesis and reconciliation which is not.

Were there particular challenges in doing this kind of writing? Was it a particularly intense struggle that required control of your own emotions? As I look at these works, I'm reminded of what you had to say about music, that your education as a musician was about mastering your own emotions, understanding your inner life, to find expression. That seems to be what's going on in this entirely different medium. Is that fair?

Well, it's very interesting. I suppose, yes, that music is an inclusive medium. Music is a medium in which many things can be held together in the full picture and in the full pattern. And I suppose that subliminally, as I write, there's a very important notion to me not to be artificially eliminative. To try to somehow talk about the whole. It is something that music can do wonderfully, and that is a kind of subliminal criterion and standard for me as I write. I think that's right.

How do you write? Is it hard for you to write? What is the craft of writing for you?

It very much differs from piece to piece. In a way, shorter pieces are more labor-intensive, oddly enough, because they're like the short story as opposed to a novel. Everything is very exposed. In the longer books it is a question of finding a voice and finding a form. And once that happens -- of course, you can take a long time to arrive at that and it's difficult to say exactly how one does arrive at it -- but once I arrive at that, the writing tends to flow a bit more easily. When I was writing Lost in Translation, the crucial moment for me was deciding, finding, the present tense. Until then I was sort of writing things out in the more conventional narrative form, in the past tense. And then all of a sudden the present tense came to me. I arrived at it. And it very much liberated me to start writing.

What would be your advice to students who look at your works, are inspired, and want to become writers? How should they prepare and what should they know about what it involves?

It involves a lot of hard labor and discipline. It really does. Sometimes I think about the metaphor of marathon runners and hitting the wall and going on beyond it, and I think one has to make great efforts in order to find that point at which the writing begins to flow. It's a great deal of discipline. But I think, also, writing emerges from thinking and feeling. And one has to think hard and feel truthfully before one begins to write. I think every piece of writing demands its own form. And I think finding a form depends very much on figuring out what you feel about the subject, and what it is really that you want to say from yourself.

What is involved also is courage, because for you in particular, telling these stories about, for example, these two peoples who are both very important to you, in a way you had to distance yourself even from your parents in interviews on some of these matters. Tell us about that. Where did you get the courage?

Well, actually I got the courage from my parents. That is very much their legacy. My father had a kind of physical courage which allowed him and both of them to survive physically, and a kind of courage and the ability to see the situation, which allowed them to survive. But they very much had the courage of their integrity. They were not people who camouflaged things or who tried to accommodate themselves to the world in their opinions. They had a great deal of integrity. So I think I owe it to them a lot. If I enter into a dialogue in my actual opinions with them, that is, in fact, what happens across the generations.

When we complete the circle in this trilogy of nonfiction that you've written, in retrospect, being an immigrant was something of a blessing in the work of finding your voice as a writer. Is that correct?

I think that's very much true, yes. I don't know whether I would have started writing had I not emigrated. Yes. First of all, the fact that it was an experience which in a sense shook me to my foundations and led me to examine a lot of things. And secondly, that emigration and exile is something that forces you to examine and think about many things, but also gives you a very strong vantage point, a kind of oblique angle, both on the world that you come into and the world that you have left behind. And I think especially for a writer that can be a great bonus, yes.

You write "To some extent one has to rewrite the past in order to understand it. I have to see Cracow" -- where you came from -- "in the dimensions it has to my adult eye in order to perceive that my story has been only a story. That none of its events has been so big or so scary. It is the price of immigration, as of any radical discontinuity, that it makes such reviews in re-reading difficult. Being cut off from part of one's story is apt to veil it in the haze of nostalgia, which is an ineffectual relationship to the past, and the haze of alienation, which is an ineffectual relationship to the present." So, in the end the story comes full circle, but it has to be told in its entirety.

It has to be told in its entirety, yes. I think that's very true. And I think that was very integrative and synthesizing, yes, indeed.

Eva, thank you very much for joining us in for this Conversation with History.

Thank you.

And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with Eva Hoffman.

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