Today I was back at the Writer's Center to hear the 2009 winners of the Washington Writers' Publishing House Prizes: Calvin by William Littlejohn and From the Fever-World by Jehanne Dubrow. I love the concept behind From the Fever-World, which is being published as Jehanne's second full-length collection. The conceit is that the book is actually a translation from Yiddish of the life's work of Ida Lewin, who lived and died in a pre-WWII Polish town of "AlwaysWinter." All a fiction, of course.
Here's a brief excerpt from a longer Q&A in which Jehanne reflects on the creation of AlwaysWinter and Ida:
Q: You’ve lived so many different places across the world. Is the town of AlwaysWinter based on any of the places you’ve lived or is it a product of your imagination?
JD: Poland is one of the central landscapes of my imagination. But the Poland that lives in my head is a mythologized version, not only of my childhood but also of my studies and scholarship in Jewish and Holocaust literature. From the Fever-World is set in AlwaysWinter (or Zawsze-Zima in Polish), a fictional town in the region of Galicia, which we would now call southern Poland. AlwaysWinter is modeled on the many small towns that existed in interwar Poland, places of incredible cultural, political, and religious diversity. When I was inventing AlwaysWinter, I relied both on recollections of the seven years I spent in Poland as a little girl and on my research of yizkor books, witness testimony, historiography, and Yiddish literature.
Q: How did you come up with the character of Ida Lewin. Was there any real life inspiration for her?
JD: In my “translator’s note,” at the end of From the Fever-World, I write that “Ida Lewin (or someone like her)” must have existed. I believe that to be true. Cynthia Ozick’s wonderful short story, “Envy; Or Yiddish in America,” describes the great sadness of being a Yiddish poet who writes in an exterminated mothertongue and is unable to find a translator. There are so many real Yiddish poets who have disappeared or been forgotten, simply because no one has been able to bring their work into a living language like English. I don’t know Yiddish but, through Ida Lewin, I found my poet and my job as a translator.
This is a daring premise for a book, and it allows Jehanne to do some bold things--things we don't always give ourselves permission to do with our own voice. She writes as a mother mourning a lost child, though she is not a mother. She articulates observations of prewar Polish culture drawn from her fellowship at the Holocaust Museum that might seem dry and academic if shoehorned into her own poems. Perhaps most enviable, she includes two or even three poems that echo an earlier poem--a retread, a re-approach to a metaphor or theme already used. As a poet and implied self-editor, we'd call this cheating; as a "translator" and curator of Ida's work, it's called respecting the organic attentions of Ida Lewin. This is a rangy, sensual, surreal book, and I can't wait to spend more time with it.
Want the chance to judge for yourself? Go hear Jehanne read at Politics & Prose, next Sunday at 1 PM. I'd be there if I could--but I'll be on the road, returning from Scottsville, Virginia, by way of Richmond. I decided to spend my Halloween on a Haunted Trail Walk. It'll be quite a change of pace from the usual glory of angels in assless chaps, trick-or-treating through Dupont Circle....