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Phantom Texts

A recommended reading list by the author of Here Is Still Here.

Book Cover Here is Still Here

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The epigraph of my debut linked collection, Here Is Still Here, is a line by poet Yosefa Raz, “Arrange your ghosts—fluff them up.”

Isabel, the protagonist of Here Is Still Here, grows up surrounded by Eastern European Jewish refugees, where the ghosts of the past symbolically loom over her living family. Previous lives co-exist with the present ones; collective memory becomes almost a character in her life and is one of the themes underpinning this book.  

In this list I offer works that could be considered my “phantom texts," books harbouring these familiar spirits, and the several generations of authors who have arranged them and given them life in diverse genres.


Book Cover In the Land of the Postscript

In the Land of the Postscript, by Chava Rosenfarb, translated by Goldie Morgentaler:

Chava Rosenfarb was a Polish Holocaust survivor who came to Montreal following WWII, and became a leading Yiddish writer in the post-war years. Her work across many genres chronicles life in the ghetto, concentration camps, and life after. Now a complete collection of her short stories has been published in English translation. Rosenfarb was masterful at conveying the inner worlds of survivors; the layered consciousnesses, the complexity of rebuilding after trauma, and of making a life in Montreal in particular—her writing has given us a meaningful record. And thanks must be paid to her daughter Goldie Morgentaler, her primary translator, for the gift of making this important oeuvre available to an English readership.


Book Cover Late Harvest

Late Harvest, by Solomon Ary, trans. Rachael Ary-de Rozza, Sacvan Bercovitch

A slender, independently-published nonfiction collection translated from Yiddish to English. As with Rosenfarb, translating Ary’s pieces into English was an intergenerational family endeavour: his daughter and her uncle took on the task.

Solomon Ary, known simply as “Ary,” grew up in Poland, but in 1929 was sent to Canada by his family, worried about the dubious company he was keeping. Arriving in Montreal at nineteen, he then got into the thick of it here, struggling and settling—and organizing and fighting for others. He worked as a housepainter, and his home with his wife, the artist Sylvia Ary, was a gathering place for cultural circles. While he formed close relationships with writers, he was never one himself, and only in his senior years was he inspired to pen his memoirs. His descriptions of life in Bialystok and his later escapades in Montreal are lively, frank, and full of humour. But also pained: many of the stories close with learning how the rest of his family perished in Europe just a few years after he left, revealing how heavily this knowledge weighed.

An added note: Ary was also a wonderful singer. In fact, I fell in love with his voice through an archive of Yiddish song recordings years before his book came out. Only halfway through reading did I realize the author of this collection, who describes so vividly the hardscrabble life of a Jewish immigrant in Quebec in the 1930s, was the same man calling for his love to come out and meet him. Listen here.


Book Cover Kiss the Red Stairs

Kiss the Red Stairs, by Marsha Lederman

In this memoir, Marsha Lederman, a long-time journalist for the Globe & Mail, explores the different facets of the emotional (and potential physical) effects of being a child of Holocaust survivors. Deeply personal, with writing that manages to be both informal and investigative, Lederman writes about tendencies children of survivors—of any mass trauma—may share: doubt, guilt, an inclination to catastrophize, and a free-floating sense of fear. How easily these inclinations are activated when faced with other troubles—in her case, a divorce—and the worry that if there is a biological aspect to it, as recent studies in epigenetics suggest, of passing down this predisposition eternally. Heavy stuff, but the book is also optimistic and funny, because while Lederman’s research is rigorous, the tone is conversational, warm and clever, and reaches out for understanding and compassion for her parents’ generation, herself, and ultimately for hope.


Book Cover Held

Held and Fugitive Pieces, by Anne Michaels

Anne Michaels just published a new book, Held, which also attends to hauntedness in various ways. I realized with this book what a romantic Michaels essentially is, how much she is concerned with the many forms that love takes, the piercing hook that love is, its mystery, and the threads of it that bind people together with one another and to the past. She is a poet; I have always been taken in by her luminous, immersive language, and her sensibilities and preoccupations continue to resonate.

But when speaking about Canadian fiction that addresses the particular haunting of Holocaust memory, in both survivors and their children, there are few books that have been as formative a read for me as Fugitive Pieces. It is deserving of its descriptions as transcendent, and as an iconic part of the canon.


Book Cover La Fiancee

La Fiancée, by Eleonore Goldberg

The Dybbuk (or, Between Two Worlds), an early 20th century classic Yiddish play by An-Ski, is an essential part of Jewish literary and theatre history—perhaps equivalent to its Romeo and Juliet. It is also a story of two young people who are kept apart while their souls seem destined, though with more magic: when the young man dies, his spirit possesses his love’s body. Based on centuries of Eastern European Jewish folklore collected by An-Ski, an ethnologist and playwright, it has been performed over the world for more than a century, and made its way into the Jewish cultural psyche and greater horror canon in innumerable ways. In Goldberg’s exquisite graphic novel, she honours the legacy of the original story, and the frame she uses is especially touching: her father hands her the book, The Dybbuk, after her heart is broken, suggesting she turn it into her next project. In the opening pages we see her sitting on the couch, at first resistant, and then finally immersed in the ill-fated tale of the star-crossed lovers, Léa and Khonen. In French (with a sprinkling of Yiddish.)


Book Cover Motherhood

Motherhood, by Sheila Heti

Motherhood is an autobiographical novel, as many of Heti’s books are, written when she was nearing forty and meditating on the question of whether she wanted to have children. While its driving theme is not intergenerational transmission vis-à-vis Holocaust background—not much space is given to it, nor does it seem to be the focus of most reviews of this now renowned book—Heti is from a Hungarian Jewish family, and her grandmother was an Auschwitz survivor. But though referenced briefly, the implications of this are an important undercurrent running through Motherhood.  Heti’s quote, “my sense of eternity is backwards through time” is a beautiful one. Instead of a child, there is something passed down through her writing: “I want my grandmother to live in everybody.” It is reminiscent of the Isaac Bashevis Singer quote about how our ancestors lie in us, that we carry themand sometimes we put them in a book to give them life.


Book Cover Study for Obedience

Study for Obedience, by Sarah Bernstein

Winner of the Giller this past year and longlisted for the Booker, Bernstein’s Study for Obedience is, among other things, an allegory of a persecuted people, touching on the inheritance of traumatic collective histories, of survival, language, belonging and otherness. The geographic area it is set in seems European but is not specified—“the country, it transpired, of our family’s ancestors” –and what peoples are involved remains vague, but the narrator’s Jewish upbringing is mentioned, and--while references are mainly oblique—so is the place’s history of mass violence. What I found compelling, aside from Bernstein’s rich and interior voice-driven writing, is that I am fascinated by how these subjects are being treated in new works—the various evolving methods being found that feel new and speak to the moment, and that are both particular and shared. Bernstein offers one way in this strange, unsettling, absorbing read.


Book Cover Here is Still Here

Learn more about Here Is Still Here:

Where can one go when Here Is Still Here?

Raised in a family of post-war Jewish refugees in Montreal, Isabel feels displaced from an early age. She's searching for love, purpose, and the true meaning of home. From Montreal to Jerusalem and back again, she navigates checkpoints and borders, home and exile, milestones and disappointment, love and loss.

Sivan Slapak's debut collection is an intimate and layered exploration of human connection and the complexities of identity. Told with compassion and wit, Here is Still Here is a poignant reminder that however far you may go, you remain yourself.

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