Read It Forward: Your novel, I Am Forbidden, is set in a Jewish fundamentalist community: the Satmar. The Satmar are famously insular. How were you able to write about their world in such detail?
Anouk Markovitz: I grew up in a Satmar family. I was ostracized for decades after I left, but in the last years of my mother’s life, I did have access to Williamsburg and other ultra-orthodox enclaves. Once I decided to write about that world, I did a lot of research because there were episodes about which I had no personal knowledge – for example, we were told that the Rebbe, the leader of the community, was rescued from the Holocaust by a miraculous dream. I had never heard of the Kasztner train. Also, girls in ultra-orthodox communities do not study the Talmud, so I needed to do quite a bit of research to write about male characters whose lives revolve around the Talmud. Since I left home before marriage, I didn’t know the laws of “family purity,” which are taught before one’s wedding.
RIF: You left that world behind as a teenager. Why return to it now as a writer?
AM: I didn’t expect to return to it; it was a world I was happy to have escaped. But years later, during the Bush/Gore presidential campaign, I became troubled by the extent to which religious rhetoric was inflecting mainstream U.S. political discourse. Then came 9/11 when every one of the suicide bombers believed he was behaving according to his religion. Our response took on the ancient rhetoric of righteous superiority. Marginal theocracies suddenly became our primary adversaries, and our response took on the ancient rhetoric of righteous superiority. I realized that the corner of fundamentalism that I knew from experience could be a foil for urgent issues.
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RIF: Did you consider writing a memoir instead of a novel?
AM: I get asked that question a lot. The first agent I contacted said she would be interested in a memoir only. But a memoir would have meant speaking mainly about myself, and I could see that the scream of the one who leaves doesn’t say much about those who stay. I wanted to try to write about those who stay. A novel would permit me to imagine the inner lives of people who made choices that differed from mine; a novel would permit me to write about this unfashionable, but urgent, theme of belief.
RIF: You portray I Am Forbidden‘s fundamentalist characters in a sympathetic light. Why?
AM: When I viewed fundamentalists through the barriers they set for themselves, they remained stick figures – as dimensionless as the idea they have of people outside. But when I honored the medium of the novel, which requires that characters be considered in different lights and unexpected angles, they became real people, with desires and longings and despairs – they joined the human family. This openness to others is exactly what so many rabbinic laws try to prevent. So it wasn’t that I extended a special sympathy; I just transgressed the laws of separation.
RIF: As someone raised in a world that encourages conformity, was it a challenge to find your voice?
AM: Voice is a challenge for everyone, not just artists. It may have been especially challenging for me as one raised in an environment where women are prohibited from speaking in public. It was also difficult because voice is tied to identity. After leaving and losing family, friends, community, even country – finding a voice was the alternative to surrendering. But it required reconstructing an identity. I found trailblazers. Very young, I had developed a passion for Beckett, who left home and Ireland and constructed, however tenuous, some sort of voice.
RIF: What are you hoping readers will take away from I Am Forbidden?
AM: I am a bit cautious about particular certainties readers take away from books. Some of the books I like best simply widen for me the realm of uncertainty. When the writing is good, the aesthetic high combined with the deepened awareness that I know very little indeed, suffices. Other books give me insight into complicated issues and allow me to interact with people I might never meet otherwise. Perhaps the hope is that one’s work will deliver on a few of these gifts of literature.