I haven't checked the weather, but I know it is a perfect day to chat about adult Jewish literature. I'm Sheryl Stahl. Thanks for joining me here at nice Jewish Books.
today I'm excited to welcome J Chakrabarti honor book winner of the Association of Jewish libraries Jewish fiction award and winner of the Jewish Book Council's debut fiction Goldberg prize. Congratulations, Jai and welcome.
Thank you. So good to be here with you today Sheryl.
So your book is called a Play for the end of the world. Would you please set up the story for us?
Of course, a pPay for the end of the world explores a play that was written by Rabindranath Tagore in 1911 in a village in India, which was later performed in 1942, in Warsaw, at an orphanage that was run by the Polish Jewish educator, Janusz Korczak. And so this was a play that was about children and performed by children. And in my novel, I explore how a survivor of that orphanage goes on to later re encounter this play 30 years later, in a village in India fighting political oppression. So it connects the experience of India experience on his time in Poland in 1942, as well as the life he's living in New York in the early 1970s.
How did you learn about Tagore's play and what drew you to it?
So I originally learned about Tagore's play when I was a child going to elementary school in India. So I was born in Kolkata, India, and at our elementary school, we were exposed to the work of Rabindranath Tagore fairly early. He's a Nobel Laureate and a pretty big titan of letters in Bengali literature. And, more specifically, we were actually involved in a production of this play, which is called the Post Office in English when I was in elementary school. And it was many years later, when I was living with my partner in Jerusalem, that I really encountered this play again. And that was at Yad Vashem, where I learned about the story of how Janusz Korczak had decided to stage the Post office in his orphanage in Warsaw. And because I had this personal connection to this play, and because I come from this background as I had is a Bengali man at the time living in Jerusalem, I was really curious to learn more and understand why Korczak had chosen to stage this particular play and what it meant to his children.
One sentence that really jumped off the page at me is that Misha, who is Jarik's kind of adopted brother, says in his journal, "we had that play to make believe death was something honorable and exotic like vacation to somewhere with cliffs and gentle currents". Can you talk more about that?
Sure. So Janusz Korczak wrote about the significance of this play in his diary. And so we do have some ideas of what he was going after. And one of the most important aspects about this play is the role of imagination. So in the play the post office, we have a child by the name of Amal, who is quite young, and he is quarantined in his house because of some mysterious illness. And so all of the interactions that he has is through his window. And he really has to use his imagination to have a full experience of the world. And I think this would have been really resonant for Janusz Korczak and where things were at in 1942, with his children largely stuck in the orphanage and in the increasingly shrinking ghetto walls. So for them to be able to cultivate their imagination, and to enter this land of make believe where they could start. You have a little bit more autonomy over their experience by shaping it through through this play through the imaginings imagining that they were characters in India in this faraway place, you know, where there were elephants and snakes and all of that. And, and so bringing in that sort of like joyous imagination was one way in which Korczak, I think, helped to protect his children during that difficult time.
And did you write this during the pandemic, because obviously, that theme has a lot of resonance right now.
I didn't write it during the pandemic, but I certainly felt a different relationship to the book, living through the pandemic, you know, but I think, I think that we probably all have now a different relationship to what it means to be quarantined, and what it means to see comfort in our imagination having gone through the last two years.
Absolutely. For the most of this book, Jarik is about 39. But it seems to me that this is a delayed coming of age story for him. He's an adult, he's working, he's supporting himself. But he lives in a very small world. He goes to work, he hangs out with this adoptive brother. And that's about it. Until Misha tells him, you know, you need to get married. And then he very timidly starts dating, and very, very slowly, kind of opening himself up. What was that an intention for you to have it be sort of a coming of age story? I don't think I've ever heard
I don't think I've ever heard anyone describe it in that way. But I can certainly see why that makes sense that it's a coming of age story, because, of course, yeah, he's a bit older than the typical coming of age novel character would be. But I think you're right, I think that he has held himself back from a lot of the potential joys of life. And this novel is, I think, at its core, it's a love story. And so he's held himself back from the possibility of love, which is what he starts to discover in New York in the 1970s. So I think that is an apt description.
He meets Lucy in the library in the music archives, they're both listening to music. And I want to talk later about the role of the arts. But Lucy works at a department where she has to listen to people's troubles all day. And so it's extremely frustrating for her that Jarik kind of refuses to open himself up and talk about the past at all. And the more she pushes, the more he seems to draw back.
I know that it's not uncommon for Holocaust survivors to not be able to talk about their experience. It just seems kind of ironic that their personalities are, their communication needs are so diametrically opposed.
Yeah, yeah, I totally hear you on that. And, you know, I think New York City in particular is one of these places where people can have diametrically opposite personalities, and still somehow fall in love. You know, I've spent most of my adult life in New York City. And I would say that, you know, my partner who I met there, we are quite quite different personalities. So maybe there's something of my own life in the fact that Lucy is someone who is deeply empathetic. She's an incredible listener. She wants to connect with people very, very directly. Jarik, because of this trauma has, has some walls there. He's got a degree of guardedness. So I think that is one of the fundamental conflicts of this novel, which is how can they find a way forward if they can, despite the history of Jarik's trauma and Lucy's need to connect very closely with her partner.
And the experience seem to be very different for Jarik and for Misha, Misha was 10 years older. And not that it was a favorite topic of his but he was willing to talk about their experience. Do you think that age difference caused their different reactions? Misha was also just more open to the world had a wider circle of friends met more people was that a because of their age, or just different personalities, different people react different ways.
I think it could be partly because of their age or partly because of the specific circumstances. Jarik, I don't want to give too much away for people who haven't read the book. But Yarik and Misha have different experiences as they are escaping from the ghetto, which I think is a factor. But I think fundamentally, I think you're right, I think it is a difference in personality between the two. And when I was doing research for this book, and interviewing survivors, and even in my partner's family, for example, who are survivors of the Lodz ghetto, you know, even there, I saw differences of, of personality and how willing people are to talk about this, and how they view it and integrate that history and that trauma and the day to day. So I wanted to bring that into the book because I don't think there's a single way in which people experience and then process and, and deal with their trauma day to day and Misha and Jarik therefore have very different styles of relating.
So one of the friends that Misha made was this professor Rudra Bose.
who was teaching at Columbia and they met and became friends. And Professor Bose wanted Misha and Jarik to come to India to direct this play in this the village of Gopalur in West Bengal. Misha went, and Jarik chose not to right away, what was the purpose of the play in Bengal in the 70s? Or what was can you talk about the setting for that?
Sure. So Bengal at the time, was a hotbed of many political currents. In 1967 in a village in Bengal by the name of Naxalbari, we saw the beginning of an important movement called the Naxalite revolution, which involved villagers revolting against the ruling class. And from that movement in 1967, you start to see strains of unrest that spread to the cities, including to Calcutta, which was the seat of the Bengal government. And so when you Jarik is arriving there, not only do you have a pretty volatile political situation at home, you also have the creation of a new country, in Bangladesh, which happens in 1971. And so you have a lot of refugees who are walking across the border. And both of these things together, create a very volatile environment and set the stage for pretty strong government reaction. So the kind that we later associate with Indira Gandhi's emergency where Gandhi instituted martial law and crack down on dissenters, so this is the environment that Yarik is coming into, but he doesn't have all of this historical context. He's there for familial purpose.
Right, he eventually does decide to go during his time in India is very much helped and supported by the Pal family. At first, he just gets a ride, I think to his first hotel Well, he was asking for ride to the hotel and they ended up putting him up but then they come to his rescue a few other times to it seemed to me that they were almost mythical or kind of characters from a fable that they were there to be kind of little helping spirits that appeared.
That's an interesting description. I love I love thinking about the Pals as helpful spirits. Yeah, I mean, I you know, I think maybe When we I think about this is I ask all my question characters, what is what is your secret superpower? And for Jarik, I think it's his ability to attract protectors, that he's always found people who fall in love with him, and one to look out for him in his best interests. And I think the Pals do that, for Yarik. I think another way to think about this novel is that it does follow something of a quest narrative, in the larger tradition of books that follow that kind of pattern. And I think in those quest narratives, you do have these characters who come in almost like, as you say, these helpful spirits or angels that provide support structures, or ways in which to reflect back against the main characters of a novel.
I would like to go back to the arts, on the back cover of the copy I have one of the approbations asks, "Can art save the world?" So what do you think is the place of arts of the arts in conflicts?
I had the pleasure last week of being part of the emergency World Congress of writers that was organized by Pen America. And one of the reflections that I came away with through that conversation was that storytelling matters. It matters even more today. And that what's happening in the world is that we have tyrants, who are telling stories. And those stories are leading people toward a set of destructive actions. And so what we can do as artists, or what we can do as activists is to tell a better set of stories that are more compelling, that connect deeper with with our hearts, and change people's minds. So I think that that is that is sort of like the fundamental part of how storytelling affects us as humans. And so I think that's one way in which the arts matter. I think, another way in which the arts matter and so this book involves a lot of theater, and there's a long history of theater groups who engage in direct action, like Bead and Puppet in this country are the Belarusian free Theatre in Eastern Europe. And one of the one of the influences for for this book was the playwright Safdar, Hashmi, who performed plays in the streets of Delhi, in India in the late 1960s. And 1970s. And Hashmi would put on these plays to improve workers rights and conditions and wages. So they were very much about direct action. And he was once asked this question, what do you think this work that you're doing actually makes a difference? And his response is something that has always stayed with me, which is that he said, Well, I don't think it directly matters. I don't think it's directly making a change. But I think it's creating a new language, a new vocabulary by which change is possible. And I think about that. Also, when I think about, for example, the music of apartheid, how Marion Makeba, Hugh Masekela, created a music that allowed people to March. So I think in some cases, art is what surrounds us, what gives us courage to do the things that we need to do in this world. And I think it's also the stories that we decide to tell ourselves.
Yeah, music has definitely been a part of, I think pretty much every movement, you know, certainly in black rights and civil rights, women's rights, there's a wealth of wonderful and you know, maybe not so wonderful songs and music to support it. What you said resonated with me with one of our previous honor book winners, Aiperagon by Colum McCann, who is also very much into the storytelling aspect of showing divergent points of view, you know, as a way of having people connect. Can you tell Tell me more about Pen America and the this emergency conference?
Oh, sure. So this was held at the United Nations last week. And it was a gathering of 70 writers across you who came from different parts of the world. And it was exploring this question of, how can we as writers respond to this moment? Which what can pen America, which is an organization that supports writers and social causes across the world to? And what is the role of the writer in this moment? What is the role of the writer to respond to these questions of war in Ukraine, the climate crisis, the killings of journalists, and so on and so forth, all of these issues that we're dealing with in this moment?
And did you come up with any solutions to all the problems of the world?
You know, I think that I'm not sure we came away with like, why this silver bullet, but it was it really ...
obviously I was joking by by all these solutions, but were there any strategies that really spoke to you or that you would like to put forth.
So one strategy that spoke to me is focused around oral history and listening. So this is something we had during World War Two and the WEP, programs and so forth. We had really massive oral history projects at the time. And I think something that, you know, we can do more of now, especially in this country, with the degree of division that we have, is to go out and listen to each other, and to lay those stories as they are. And I think through that listening, and then the transmission into the written word, there's possibilities of a lot of connection, and potentially, a small way to think through and work through the level of polarization that we have today.
Obviously, you've done a lot of research on the book, and it's wonderful that you have a bibliography or list of resources at the end. What in your research surprised you?
So many things. I felt talk about two things. One is more specific and the other is more broad. So one specific thing so I, you know, there's not a lot of English resources on the life of Janusz Korczak, there's a wonderful biography by Betty Jean liftin. There's a middle grade book called Think light in the darkness. There's few other few other things, there's translation of his ghetto diary and so forth, but not a ton that's really out there in English. And one of the things that is popularly believed is that this play was performed once in July 18 1942. And that's a few weeks before deportations. But in fact, it was actually performed twice. And, you know, the, the way that I got to know that is by going to Poland, and connecting with Polish scholars of Janusz Korczak, who had done research about his life that hasn't been translated into English yet. So that's one of those super specific things that you kind of only discover if you're willing to, you know, travel to Poland and talk to people who are experts in the subject.
When was the second performance. It was
It was during Passover of the same year. Yeah. So the the broader, the broader thing that, I would say, surprised me, had to do with this question of the role of art. And so I was at the time I was studying Holocaust literature in a graduate seminar at Brooklyn College. And what I found reading through texts is how important poetry was despite the circumstances, despite the people being in hiding, and going through the most challenging of times how important it was to write poems to come to visual art. And so, I had this existential question for myself, which is, you know, why am I a writer, and should I be doing something else with my life's energy, and to see how writing was this place of solace for folks like either think, or Abraham Sutzkever, who were writing during this time and producing works that are monumental. And so important to the human spirit gave me courage to go on with this book and really to rethink my who I am as a writer.
All right, are there any interesting tidbits that you found that did not make it into the book?
Oh, my gosh, so many things, you know, I. So I believe in this maxim of historical fiction, which is that you present only a little bit of the history to the reader, and you keep the rest of it, sort of in your notes and in the backlog. And, you know, Penelope Lively talks about this as exposing 1/8 of the iceberg. And the writer keeps seven eighths to themselves. So there are many facts and figures, that that absolutely, you know, didn't make it into the book. For me, I am most interested in characters and character development. And so at a certain point, if there are too many facts, and historical references, I think it starts to inhibit the readers experience of getting close to a character. So, you know, there's a lot of details, both from Poland, as well as from the political turmoil of India that just didn't make it into the book.
Yeah, as a reader, I appreciate that. And I know there's a fine line between giving enough facts to give the context but not have it read like, you're just dumping your notes, your research notes on to the page. Yeah. So do you have any projects in the works that you would like to mention?
Sure. I have a collection of short stories coming out next year in the winter of 2023. And I'm at work on a new novel as well.
Wonderful. I look forward to that. Is there anything you would like to answer that I haven't thought to ask?
No, this was a wonderful, wide ranging conversation. Thank you so much.
Oh, you're very welcome. If someone were to use your book as a call to action for tikun olam for repairing the world, what would it be? What would you like to see?
Yeah, I'm gonna go with something that is, I think, very actionable. So I grew up falling in love with reading at libraries. And I know, talking with our organization of libraries right now. And the public library system was absolutely essential for me, because I couldn't, you know, go out and buy all the books I wanted to read. So, you know, my call to action is very humble and simple, which is, let's see what we can do to collectively support public libraries in this country or wherever you're listening to this. And whether it's volunteering or donating or supporting in any way that you can.
That's wonderful. I certainly was similarly impacted in my childhood and definitely made an effort to indoctrinate my children in the wonders of the library also. And it really got me through the pandemic. If I couldn't download cozy mysteries at two in the morning. I don't know what I would have done, I couldn't sleep and already read all the stuff on my shelves.
So thank you very much. I really appreciate the time and congratulations on the awards for your debut novel.
Thank you so much. This was a pleasure and great to meet you Cheryl.
If you are interested in any of the books we discussed today, you can find them at your favorite board and brick or online bookstore, or at your local library. Thanks to Die Yan Kee for use of their Fraleigh which definitely makes me happy. This podcast is a project of the Association of Jewish libraries. And you can find more about it at WWW dot Jewish libraries.org/nice Jewish books. I would like to thank ajl and my podcast mentor Heidi Rabinowitz. Keep listening for the promo for her latest episode
Hi, this is Deborah cobblestone director of the American Library Association's office for intellectual freedom. I'll be joining you soon on the Book of Life podcast. And I'd like to dedicate my episode to the brave Librarians of Texas who are fighting book banning and censorship every day and persevering in the face of really impossible odds.
The Book of Life is the sister podcast of Nice Jewish books. I'm your host, Heidi Rabinowitz and I podcast about Jewish kidlit mostly join me in June 2022. To hear my conversation with Deborah Caldwell Stone about book banning at Book of Life podcast.com