Excerpting Senior Writers: Isabel Kaplan '12
Kaplan reflects on her fiction thesis.
I was never under the illusion that the second time would be easier. But I had no idea how much more challenging writing this novel would be. It has been (and continues to be) a very exciting journey, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to work on this novel for my creative thesis and to develop my writing under the expert guidance of Bret Johnston—I could not have dreamed of a more fantastic advisor.
I realized that I wanted to be a writer when I was eight years old. On a recent visit home, while looking through a box of childhood items, I discovered that, while (thank goodness) my writing style has changed quite a bit, I have more in common with my eight-year-old self than I realized.
When I was eight, I undertook my most ambitious writing project yet: a short story about a young Jewish girl who immigrates to America to escape the pogroms in her shtetl in the Old Country. It was fourteen pages long, and it featured some very skilled marker illustrations of people whose eyelashes extended halfway up their foreheads and several large drawings of something that looked like a sailboat on steroids. I called it “A Different Life,” and I decorated the title page with brown and grey suitcases.
During my archaeological dig through childhood mementos, I also found and read through a journal full of entries written when I was eight years old. On January 12, 1999 at 8:40am, I wrote:
My body fills with joy when I think of the perfect way to begin a story, but I am much happier when I think of the bad person in the story, the setting, and the problem. Then I’m over excited.
When it comes right down to it, I feel the same way today. This is why I write, and why I want to spend my life writing: for those unparalleled moments of, as my younger self described it, “over-excitement.”
EXCERPT FROM “RESERVED FOR AMERICA”
Meredith hadn’t realized that there were any Jews left in Ukraine. She grew up imagining Ukraine as a faraway place frozen in the 1930s. It was the Old Country. That was what Nana called it. Not Ukraine, not the Ukraine, not Russia. She realized that the country of Ukraine still existed, but it felt abstract. The Ukraine she imagined was a country full of shtetls with lively marketplaces and peddlers proffering fruits and vegetables and fish and pickled goods; babushkas in kerchiefs; goats and chickens in front yards; people whose last names referred to their family profession— shoemakers were named Schusterman; mothers kvetching in Yiddish and baking challah with their daughters; and families sitting warmly around the table for Shabbat dinner in a modest home, the room illuminated by the glow of the two tall Sabbath candles.
And then the deafening sound of hoof beats, pounding down the quiet shtetl lanes. The pogroms. The vicious Cossacks riding their white horses (were they actually white? Had Nana told her this, or had she looked it up, or was this her own contribution to the story?). Meredith couldn’t quite remember where or how she had been when she obtained some of the threads that had made their way into the image she had developed of the Old Country. She imagined the Cossacks invading the shtetls during the winter, the sky dark and the woods blanketed with snow. There was fire (why fire? were there rifles, too?) outside, in the distance, and there was Nana as a young girl huddling in a cold corner of a dark room with her mother and brothers, plotting their escape. And Nana’s father shivering in the snowy woods, trying to hide from the Cossacks— he was a kulak, and a prime target during the pogroms.
Meredith collected all of the fragments Nana Esther told her over the years and tried to put things together the best she could. Nana and her family could not secure passage on a boat to America, so they went to Argentina first and lived there for several years while they struggled to scrape together enough money to immigrate (illegally) to America via third-class tickets on a cruise ship. The ship stopped for one day in New York City, and Nana’s family got off and never returned. There were several holes in the story, multiple pieces that didn’t add up. There were rumors of an illegitimate half-brother conceived during the boat trip to Argentina. (Who was the father? Meredith’s mother said that her Uncle Mo, Nana’s brother, said it was an Argentine, but there couldn’t have been any Argentines on the boat from Russia). The family tree was a mess. Everyone was related to each other in more ways than one, which was apparently how things were done in the shtetls, in the Old Country. Nana’s first husband, Meredith’s grandfather, was also her first cousin once removed. (Her subsequent three husbands were not blood relatives, however.) And then the question of how old Nana had been when she emigrated. Meredith had narrowed it down to between eleven and fourteen, give or take. Nana frequently changed her mind about her date of birth, which made it difficult to construct a chronology. Usually, she was born in 1916, but occasionally she was born as late as 1919. The day of her birth was July 30th or December 1st, depending on the year. Meredith’s mother never knew which day was the “right” one ahead of time, so she gave Nana birthday gifts on both days. In past years, before Meredith was born, she only celebrated Nana’s birthday once a year. Nana sometimes hinted that she had an upcoming birthday; this was how her mother determined the date for that year. But other times, she wouldn’t mention anything, and after the fact would take to bed, devastated and lamenting that nobody loved her, which was an activity Nana frequently indulged in when she was not occupied by a man.
In February of her senior year in college, while she was busy trying not to fall apart, Meredith received an e-mail from the American Jewish Community Council, calling for applications for a two-month long summer trip to teach English to Jewish elementary school students and help reinvigorate the Jewish community in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine. Meredith had never heard of Dnepropetrovsk, and she had never traveled out of the country by herself before. She knew no Russian or Ukrainian. She had never taught English as a second language.
She decided to apply.
Her mother thought that she was out of her mind. “You want to go to the fucking Ukraine?”