Ellen Margolis has a thing for older Jewish people, particularly bubbes, the Yiddish term of endearment for grandmothers. She trails them, in stalking fashion, down the aisles of her local Safeway in the East Bay. She observes them longingly from afar as she comes up out of the Embarcadero BART station. And she becomes flustered when finding herself in a position to talk with them.
Ellen’s interest in the senior set is not for prurient reasons. In fact, she is in a committed relationship with a nice Jewish girl whom she is planning to wed, even though same-sex marriages aren’t yet legal in 1997, the year in which Oakland writer Hilary Zaid’s debut novel, “Paper Is White,” takes place.
What makes Ellen’s heart go pitter-patter are the histories of the bubbes she follows — and the secrets they reveal, or choose to keep hidden. Luckily for her, she works in San Francisco at the (fictional) Foundation for the Preservation of Memory, an organization where she interviews and tapes the testimonies of Holocaust survivors.
In her focus on the uncovering of personal narratives — whether they be survivors summoning the courage to speak about the unspeakable, or LGBT community members discovering that “coming out” means more than saying “I’m gay (or lesbian or trans)” — Zaid said she wanted to explore the fallout of withholding information about oneself.
“I was at UC Berkeley as a graduate student studying the English Romantic period, and my grandmother died,” said Zaid, 49, recounting the genesis of the book some 20 or so years ago. “It prompted me to think of the connections to the past we are quickly losing hold of.”
Around the same time, Zaid was teaching an oral history class when she began inviting Holocaust survivors to speak to her students about their experiences.
“They were getting old,” Zaid said. There was “a sense of urgency” to hearing from them “before they vanish.”
What she learned from the survivors, during the classroom visits and while doing research for her book, was that there were “survivors who talked, and there were others who didn’t,” she said. It was a form of “coping by not talking.”
This is no different than the coping mechanisms employed at times by the book’s protagonist, who, when asked by inquisitive Holocaust survivors whether she has a boyfriend or husband, deflects through obfuscation and avoidance. The one time Ellen musters the courage to respond openly about her relationship status to a survivor, she is scorched for her honesty. The survivor, “a tiny, adorable man with a twinkling smile,” suddenly loses all semblance of friendliness.
“His face fell flat, toneless, the face of a person who has just suffered a cardiac arrest,” Zaid writes. “‘I’m sorry … I think I would feel more comfortable with someone else.’”
Rightly or wrongly, the message for Zaid’s character is clear: Honesty can, at least occasionally, have its costs.
That’s the challenge for Ellen, said Zaid. Her character is sitting “on a cultural fault line between her queer identity and her Jewish identity. As a young lesbian, Ellen is living at a moment in the life of gay and lesbian Americans in which being ‘out’ is celebrated as the necessary expression of identity. On the other hand, as a Jew, Ellen has lived in a cultural surround of assimilation, rooted in a historically grounded fear that to be seen is to be hunted. Working with Holocaust survivors, she has an appreciation for silence as a tool of survival.”
As a queer kid in the closet, putting things in writing made me vulnerable.
It’s not whether people are right or wrong for their willingness or refusal to talk about themselves, Zaid said. “But what I hope [the book] will illustrate is that legacies of silence live on through generations, and often it is the people who inherit the silence who are left to plumb it.”
Zaid, unlike Ellen, has no hesitation in speaking forthrightly about her own personal history. She grew up in the ’70s and ’80s in Westside, an area that was once home to the majority of Los Angeles’ more than 500,000 Jews. She had what she describes as a traditional “high Reform” Jewish education, at University Synagogue in Brentwood, where she became a bat mitzvah.
Zaid had wanted to be a writer since she was 7 and served as a writer and editor on the school paper at the Westlake School for Girls. But by the time she entered Harvard, where she completed her undergraduate education, she’d shifted gears.
“My parents were unequivocal in voicing disapproval of a literary path,” she said. “Also, as a queer kid in the closet, putting things in writing made me vulnerable to exposure … and a target for invasions of privacy.”
It was only after she and her spouse of 28 years, Lauren Augusta, had the second of their two sons (now 17 and 14), that she felt she could “come out” as a writer.
While revising “Paper Is White” over the past decade, Zaid was coming to the attention of the literary world for her short fiction, published in a number of prestigious journals and magazines. One story, “Even in Dreams, She Leaves Me Every Time,” in the winter 2013-14 edition of the Jewish magazine Lilith, dealt with issues similar to those in “Paper Is White” — memory, loss and intergenerational ties (specifically, a Jewish woman coming to terms with the death of her grandmother).
A two-time nominee for the Pushcart Prize, given to poets, short-fiction writers and essayists who have published in small journals, Zaid was selected last year as a Tennessee Williams scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. She will appear at a “Paper Is White” launch party March 16 in Oakland and will read from her novel on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, on April 12 in Sausalito.