Elisa Albert, Testing Empathy

Elisa Albert is the author of The Book of Dahlia: A Novel as well as How This Night Is Different, a collection of short stories which won the Moment Magazine Emerging Writer Award for Short Fiction.  She is the Fiction editor at Nextbook.org and an editor-at-large for Jewcy.com. She spoke with us via email about The Book of Dahlia which she will be reading from and signing at the Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival on Sunday, September 21 at 4pm.

Q: Dahlia seems very much like someone I might have known growing up upper-middle class and Jewish in the burbs (actually my first reaction was that I think I dated her at some point). Were you afraid that some readers would fall into the trap of thinking of her as just a JAP (and I don’t like the term either)?

A:  The job of the novelist, as I see it,  is to show us the whole of a character we might otherwise assume we know at first glance — to uncover the layers that make humans the complex, sometimes baffling creatures we are.  Dahlia is of course a recognizable cliche (though she would probably argue vociferously against “JAP”), and she hopefully confronts and taunts the reader as such, acting as a narrative challenge.  Like all “unlikable” narrators, who force the reader to go beyond easy categorizations .  Ultimately the novel is a test of the reader’s empathy.  Not all readers are “good” readers in that they’re capable of having their empathy thusly tested, but writing to the lowest common denominator would be a giant waste of time, so screw that. 

Q: Reading your book made me think of Susan Sontag’s Illness As Metaphor, I was wondering if that book was an influence and if in some ways, Dahlia is a post-Sontag character? It seems Dahlia is constantly trying to convince everyone, and perhaps herself that her illness is not a metaphor, but an illness?

A:  Illness As Metaphor was hugely influential — the character of Dahlia pretty much coalesced via Sontag.  The notion that, culturally, there are illnesses we vault (poor thing!) and illnesses we abhor (should’ve used a condom!) is a fascinating one.  And yeah, how can we help but internalize that to some degree?  Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich was also very much at the forefront for me.  The living are generally so utterly terrified and confused by the spectre of death.  We go to great lengths to deny, distance, sanitize, and remove ourselves from the inescapable reality of it.  Which plays into Sontag’s theories, too, since how better to distance ourselves from death than to ascribe it often blatantly random ideas of cause/effect? 
And how fun, I thought, to confront all of the above with one furious, profane, flailing dying JAP?

Q: So you would call her a JAP? I ask not as a gotcha, just interested in what a trigger word that can be…

A: No, just playing with you. 

Q: Fair enough. Dahlia’s mother, Margalit, is something different from the stereotypical Jewish mother, and yet I doubt anyone will be nominating her as the redemption of Sophie Portnoy. Did it ever occur to you, that with Margalit you were simultaneously holding up for judgment two of the American Jewish community’s most sacred shrines: mothers and Israel?

A: Margalit’s a fictional character, and therefore theoretically immune to moral judgment.  In real life there are good mothers and bad mothers and everything-in-between mothers.  There are nice Israelis and not-so-nice Israelis.  There are thoughtful, sensitive clergy-people and sociopathic clergy-people.  There are Jewish people who are ethical and intelligent and Jewish people who are not so ethical and not so intelligent.  Point being, the novelist has zero responsibility to represent only the good in the world at large or in any particular demographic.   The Old Testament would be a damn short book if that were the case.  (Not to mention a snooze.)  As would the Iliad.  And The Catcher in the Rye.  And on and on.  If any reader’s ultimate understanding of mothers or Jewish mothers or Rabbis — or the State of Israel itself! — hinges on a single work of fiction, we’re in trouble.  It’s a story about particular, specific people, not a sketch of an entire demographic.

Q: Any thoughts about your own death? Have any opinions on the pros and cons of a fast vs. slow demise?

A:  That’s a difficult one to tackle in a brief email exchange with a relative stranger to be made public on the internet!  I’ll say that I try to be present in my own life with my loved ones while maintaining an awareness that I am in fact going to die.  As has everyone who’s ever lived.  As will everyone I love.  And if that awareness can help me live/love more fully and be more present and appreciate life more, excellent.  Fast death vs. slow death?  Barring suicide, we have no say.  So… onwards.

Q: Last question and then I’ll see you in DC. Would you have been friends with Dahlia if she were a real person?

A: I’ve been friends with several Dahlia-types, but they tend to be the kind of friendships that burn out, for obvious reasons.  but because she’s a character I dreamed up, it’s fairly easy for me to love her unconditionally

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