Edie Meidav is the author of a host of novels that span the globe and history in search of idiosyncratic characters and transcendental experiences. Her latest book, Kingdom of the Young, is a collection of shorter works–mostly fiction, with nonfiction closing it out. It shifts in tone from the realistic to the archetypal, from the intimate to the philosophical. It’s a moving and resonant work, a powerful distillation of one writer’s preferred themes and locations. I spoke with Meidav earlier this summer when she was visiting New York, with subsequent clarifications handled via email.
Your book is described as fiction, with a nonfiction coda. Did you always have a plan to blend the two? How did the book’s structure come about?
Like you, I always feel the novel is a very generous form, acting as a friend who waits for you. Between spells of waiting for people to get back to me about various novels, I would have a burst of inspiration and write one of these stories. More than any of the novels I’ve written, this book attempts to explore the otherness that I knew firsthand for a variety of reasons, beginning with having grown up as a kid in the era of busing in Berkeley where I occasionally served as minority ambassador to the majority, and it is true to say that each story in the collection speaks to one of the many varieties of otherness, which remains one of my obsessions.
Did you have that in mind as a theme as you wrote each of them, or did that come up as you began putting the book together?
Like David Shields and others, I’ve grown increasingly impatient with any false division of genres. As forms, both autofiction and the fictive essay have appealed to me. Say you are a writer interested in exploring exile or self-exile, do such divisions matter much anyway?
This particular book is structured in three parts, with the last two essays acting as if from a prospect view, looking down to make sense of the prior themes. At a certain point, the book was like an overstuffed photo album, truly huge,but I was happy to work with Kristen Radtke, once of Sarabande, to create a curatorial and slim volume.
In terms of other recent books that blend fiction and nonfiction, there’s also Wendy S. Walters’s collection Multiply/Divide, which Sarabande also released. It juxtaposed the two, but it also holds together really well. And I feel like the nonfiction parts of your book pull all that’s come before into very sharp relief.
My sense is that, in the States until very recently, genre divisions became too important, some kind of crazed function of our post-20th-century linkage of art and capitalism. Once we used to know more of a belle-lettristic tradition, one which blended all. Just consider how there has been a long-standing and greater Latin American tradition of the socially engaged writer whose op-ed will influence governmental policy. Perhaps some happy news in our time of unhappy news is that these days we don’t entertain these divisions quite so sharply. In the States we always risk letting the market rule us a little too much.
I really enjoyed the title story, and the questions of youth that it raised. When in the process did that become the title story for the book?
The story behind that particular story is that I was at a campfire in one of those beautiful writers’ colonies and got to witness a conversation between a well-known older writer and a young visual artist wearing headphones, listening to music. The older writer asked the younger writer what music he was listening to. The younger guy took a moment before saying: “No one you would know.” And I saw the older writer draw himself up a bit, take a breath and then say: “You know, one day you’ll be 30 too!”
This same writer had earlier mentioned a particular form to me in which you write a story in 20 minutes, writing as well and as much as you can and then never again touching it. The morning following the campfire, I wrote that first story, and I swear, during the entire editing process, I have tried not to touch it. It’s a little 20-minute story that has followed me around for years.
That’s why there are the times in parenthesis in the title?
You also have titles like “Modern Parables #1” and “The Golden Rule.” Are you consciously hearkening back to these older forms when you’re writing?
Probably. Someone married into our family and traced our family line back to second-century Palestine and it seems there’s a long, form-loving hermeneutic strain in my family that persisted even through all the countries the family was kicked out of, whether Spain, Italy, North Africa, France. In college I thought I was going to be a biologist or painter but ended up loving the study of British Romantic poets partly because their concerns speak across all ages and partly because, questioning as I might be about faith, I like the way any received form can speak beyond itself to a greater metaphysical frame. I really love stories in which you feel the author has an equivalent metaphysical stake yet can be playful, where we’re going to learn as much as we’re going to be entertained.
How would you define a metaphysical stake? Who are the authors who do that for you?
Don DeLillo. J.M. Coetze. Alice Munro. James Baldwin. Barthelme. Morrison. R.K. Narayan. Nabokov. A writer people don’t pay great attention to, who is a real story unto herself, Gina Berriault. She wrote Women in Their Beds, which won the National Book Award some years ago.
The title story of your collection exists in a more surreal, stylized realm, while some of the other stories are much more realistic, both in terms of their style and in terms of the attention paid to things like class. When you were editing this, how did you find the right balance between the two?
There were many beloved little babies we had to abandon since both Kristen and I thought they would detract from the congruence of the voice of the book. When I wrote the title story, I was pregnant with my daughter, now 14, so the book marks a 15-year span of changing interests, and, that said, I do find most interesting those story collections where you feel the pieces acting as cousins to one another. You could say the linking obsession in each story has to do with belonging, how we mark otherness, and the hope or agony involved in reaching another — or not.
You talked about having roots in California, but you also have a couple of stories in this book set in Latin America. Are you drawing on your own experiences there, or was that something you needed to research?
There is a novel hovering somewhere in a building in Manhattan which I wrote about boxing in Cuba. A few years ago my family and I lived in Cuba, in a very different moment, and knew some interesting moments: we were spied on and then considered CIA spies or unscrupulous sports agents come to steal talent, we were almost deported, we were almost not allowed to leave the country.
In the story “The Christian Girl,” you make interesting use of names–sometimes proper names, and sometimes using descriptions of people as their names. What was the appeal of doing this in this particular story?
Any time you name a character, you limit the projecting screen your reader can have. Some authors like to omit names to create greater freedom for the reader. That’s always the question for the writer, isn’t it? How much detail do you wish to grant your reader so together you can enjoy the fiction’s shared dream? How much do you withhold to allow for the lure of mystery? In “The Christian Girl”, I wanted the reader to have an intimate experience of a world of prejudice and otherness, in this case, about the Christian girl. That particular story functions, at least in my mind, as both memoir and fiction.
In writing these stories, did your own relationship to the concept of otherness shift at all?
We are living through a very strange time for many reasons. In South Africa, during the post-apartheid period of truth and reconciliation, Nadine Gordimer and other writers were rightly told, look, you had your turn, now be quiet, there are others who have been silenced who now should speak. Maybe a successful bit of advice regarding negotiating our current divides has to do with something recently said by Anna Deavere Smith, who’s been a hero to me ever since Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. Last spring, she came to my school, the UMass Amherst MFA. After her presentation, a white male student raised his hand and said: “Anna Deavere Smith! It is so wrong the way you portrayed the Korean shop owner! You’re conveying a stereotype!” From her greatness and from that stage, so easily she could have slapped that boy down but instead she told a wonderful story: about how, after the riots in L.A. when she had come to do field research and gather oral histories, two Korean grad students tracked her down in her hotel room and said, look, Ms. Smith, you’ll get everything wrong, let us instead take you to Koreatown, we want you to meet this older lady, hear it directly from her. And once she met this woman, she felt great beauty in how this woman, who really should have been suspicious of Anna Deavere Smith, an outsider to her particular community, tried so hard to convey her side of the story. Though using a borrowed language, with great effort she offered such an eloquent experience of the riot and Smith felt her eyes open. Coming to the moral of that story, Anna Deavere Smith said to this boy: “Look, I hope in your life, you’ll be so lucky to seek out and find people from other communities who will share with you their experience of the world, of otherness. My wish for you is that, in your one life, you will do all you can to leap across the chasm of otherness.”
What she said articulates also my wish while it also happens to be where my attention rests. I do think that, for most writers, point of view is the most political choice we get to make. I also think writers have a responsibility to try to reach across the chasm of difference, and that the hope of empathy has got to be more than a colonialist enterprise. My hope always is that the minority and majority in any setting might get to dream toward a common language, as Adrienne Rich called it.
Are you working on anything new right now?
A bunch of things. I’m going to need to paint a scoreboard, I think: right now I have many projects in varying stages of completion. And yes, there’s another novel, one I’m feeling some excitement about.