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Translating the Terrain of Memory - Diana Kuprel and Marek Kusiba speak with Eva Hoffman
by Diana Kuprel

Eva Hoffman emigrated to Canada from Poland with her family in 1959. They settled in Vancouver. A few years later, she made the move to the U.S. to pursue her studies. She taught literature at Harvard and then worked for The New York Review of Books. She currently resides in London.

Her critically-acclaimed first book, Lost in Translation (1989), which won an award from The American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, details her internal resistance to, struggle with, and triumph in adapting herself to living in a new world and language. Exit into History (1993), her second book, stems from her observations of the "new" Eastern Europe in its budding days following the official collapse of Communism in 1989. Her latest, Shtetl (1997), is an intelligent and sensitively balanced perspective on the pain-ridden subjects of the disappearance of the shtetl and, more broadly, of the history of Polish-Jewish relations. This past spring she was invited to Toronto to give a public lecture on the topic, "My Journey(s)". We met with Eva the following day.

On loss and living in language:

"This was the most personal urge behind my long excursion: that I wanted to see `my' Eastern Europe before it disappeared, but to see it, this time, without my childhood fantasies and projections" (Exit).

"On my last day in Bransk, Zbyszek takes me to see the memorial cemetery he has created from the gravestones he has restored.... Someone was willing...to take care of what was not his own. Nothing can bring back what was lost.... But symbolically, this is an act of synthesis and of reconciliation. It is time...to attend to each other's pasts.... It is time for Poles and Jews to recover the memory of generosity and the generosity of memory" (Shtetl).

MK: Do you remember your first English lesson?

EH: It was in 1959 on board the Stefan Batory. At my talk yesterday, someone brought me pictures from that trip. There was a group of young people on board. One of the older girls knew English and tried to teach us a bit. That was my first experience. And also my first revolt, because I didn't want to leave. I didn't want to be on that passage, on that ship. I didn't want to reach Canada. And probably my resistance to English was the result.

MK: In Lost in Translation, you write that because you had to "choose something", you chose English, that if you were "to write about the present", you had to write in the language of the present, even if it wasn't "the language of the self". Did you have to make such a choice, either Polish or English?

EH: Truly, I had to choose. For several reasons. First of all, I didn't have anyone my age who spoke Polish. If I wanted to have any kind of life in this new society, I had to carry myself over into English. Apart from my family and my family's friends who spoke some Polish but mostly Yiddish, we weren't in a Polish-language group. We came between emigrations. Besides, I did not want to live in some kind of immigrant ghetto. It's not that I wanted to forget Polish. I just thought that if I was going to inhabit English, I had to make a kind of internal shift and submerge Polish. And there was a great sense of loss about it. I felt like I lost my true internal language.

MK: It's a very dramatic decision. On the first page of Lost in Translation, you write that you felt as though your life were ending, that emigration was for you "the end of the world". If leaving Poland in 1959 was a "small death", that decision a year later to "push aside" the Polish language was an affirmation of the end of the world of your childhood, and the choice of English the next step toward...

EH: I felt then that emigration was irrevocable. In some sense it was: we lost our Polish citizenship, and my parents left feeling that they absolutely did not want to return. For me, it was an attempt to reconcile myself with what had happened, to adapt to a new situation. I felt that emigration was a violation. But because there was no going back, I had to come over to the side of a new life.

DK: You indicate that it's only when words are articulated that you can enter into a language fully. Orality is a prominent motif in your work-the physical act of accommodating a language's sonority to your own tongue or vice versa, of locating a language of sensation, of sensuousness. For Kafka, it was only by performing his stories out loud for an audience that he could affirm their value as literature. Was the oral significant for you as a mode of self-affirmation? Is it still so important to you?

EH: It's always important because language is embodied. Speaking is more self-unifying: the physical emanation of language is closer to one's self and self-expression. Its importance was in the disturbances of it.

"My voice is still a highly unreliable instrument. At the oddest moments, it betrays me, buckles, rasps, refuses to go on. It plays only in flat, shallow registers, and sometimes I literally cannot find it" (Lost).

EH: When my voice became alien to me, I realized how physicalized language is. And also the physicalized language expresses emotional gestures. You know how people feel from how they sound...

"I can hear the snags and broken rhythms of nervousness" (Lost).

On preserving:

MK: I read Lost in Translation in both English and Polish. In the chapter on childhood entitled "Paradise", the climate of the Polish language is so perfectly preserved it's as if you'd written it in Polish. Did you have any notebooks or diaries, or did the child's memory keep that period so intact?

EH: I had no diaries. My memory truly "kept" it-that is a true word-in a deep corner. It was very important for me to preserve it, because I had no one else who knew that period, so as not to disperse it. Besides, when one emigrates, that part of one's life is closed, and later, it isn't modified, filled out with new impressions, experiences. It is preserved in a crystalline state.

"I emigrated in early adolescence; but for a long time afterward, Poland-and by extension, Eastern Europe-remained for me an idealized landscape of the mind. Because I had loved and lost it, because I had been cut off from it summarily...it stayed arrested in my imagination as a land of childhood sensuality, lyricism, vividness, and human warmth" (Exit).

On loss turning into gain:

MK: You considered your new life in Vancouver as a necessary evil. It was only after some time that you began to draw from it, and even to fully accept the values flowing from the fact of emigration. At a certain point, you experienced an epiphany when reading Eliot's "Prufrock", you felt like you were back in the "music of language" as in childhood, but the experience was richer because words had a more complex web of meaning.

EH: That was later, at Harvard, after ten years of being completely absorbed in the language. And "lost in translation" has connotations of being absorbed, entranced, engaged in translation. It is such a passionately absorbed process.

On horizons:

DK: What concretely does a writer gain in this process of translating herself into a new world?

EH: A writer gains perspective. And an oblique angle on the past and present and on various cultures. She gains the consciousness that there are structures, constructions, ways of thinking other than her own.

DK: And also a certain critical self-consciousness-a distance from herself and others which allows the writer to recognize what has gone into the make-up of the self.

EH: Absolutely. Yes. The things you would take as an absolute reality have become relativized. So it's a great instrument of self-investigation and of sharpened perception. And of course, as I point out in Exit such a self-reflexive encounter between self and other has broader implications.

"...the temptation to continue seeing Eastern Europe as a screen for our projections...remains powerful. The Iron Curtain has lifted, but imaginative curtains take longer to remove.... I think that Eastern Europe should be an occasion not for projection, but for its reverse-for self-reflection. Insofar as it is trying to become more like us, Eastern Europe is partly a test of what we stand for" (Exit).

DK: Roman Sabo, a Vancouver-based poet, has said that emigrants, losing everything, can, theoretically at least, become free people. In practice, they are paralysed with fear and lie to themselves...

MK: And in Lost in Translation, you express a desire to be rid of the stigma of foreigner. Did that struggle give you a new consciousness of yourself? Was achieving the status of American intellectual viz. so many renunciations and sacrifices necessary?

EH: It was inevitable. If my fate had been played out otherwise, I might have been more at peace. Would I have been happier? Yes, probably. But that painful process was inevitable in my life.

On the self as translation:

DK: Throughout your books, you deal with the issue of identity in a very specific way. For instance, in Lost in Translation, you represent yourself as the archetypal multicultural being, but interestingly, you use the language of performance...

EH: Yes, I wanted to find a language to express that one is always shifting, and being remade by others-the process of how one ingests and tries on or discards the voices of others. Because I think we're always and profoundly redefined by our interactions and dialogue with others.

DK: And at the same time, you continually position yourself as other in relation to the given cultural milieu, an otherness which you inflect with a privileged perspective. And in Exit-what is your role there?

EH: There, I think of my role as a bridge between the new Eastern Europe and the West. I felt I could understand what was happening there from both sides. I felt it might be useful to try to convey something about Eastern Europe to America.

DK: So it is a form of geographical mediation.

EH: Yes, but one with a symbolic dimension because Eastern Europe, since it has been so cut off and oddly unknown to us here, has served, and necessarily so, as the West's mythic other, as a stand-in for the exotic.

DK: In Shtetl, you again take the role of mediator, but this time between then and now, with the goal of recovering the past that is distintegrating into forgetfulness, even into a willed forgetfulness. But even more critically, you position your book as a mediator in the emotion-fraught arena of Polish-Jewish relations, which, you state, is a microcosm for our own multicultural world.

"But the patterns of suspicion and grievance not only prevent us from looking at the actual object of inquiry; they also perpetuate damaging patterns of thinking about multicultural relationships.... If cross-cultural discussions of difficult histories are to be at all fruitful, they need to start with acknowledgment of complexity..." (Shtetl).

DK: The question then is this. Do you have an identity outside the act of translation between others, past and present, there and here? Why is this type of role so vital to your self-definition?

On "the insertion of the self into the space of borderless possibility" (Lost):

EH: My circumstances have given me this mode of perception of shuttling back-and-forth, and counterpoising various things. With Shtetl, I felt a sense of obligation. I'm positioned in such a way as to say a few things about this very vexed problem of Polish-Jewish relations as well as Jewish history. I felt it had to be done. And I feel about writing that it should have some kind of use. So since my life has given me this perceptual apparatus, I have used it. At the same time, I feel I am coming to the end of that whole bifocal position, it is losing its usefulness in this world and perhaps for me, and I need another kind of self-investigation.

DK: Yes, you mentioned at yesterday's talk that, along with the blurring of the bi-polarity of East-West which underpins Exit, your own internal contrasts can't be maintained. You defined yourself as more of a "hybrid" formed by the "accumulations" of all your experiences than a fragmented entity. You seem to be moving away from that static I-you, self-other type of identity. What are you moving towards?

On recovering a sense of home:

EH: What is becoming important to me is the notion of creating commitments, of knowledge which happens through familiarization, rather than defamiliarization, of writing which comes from having a more settled perception, rather than from distance.

"At this point, the task is not only to remember but to remember strenuously-to explore, decode, and deepen the terrain of memory..." (Shtetl).

DK: What you're referring to then is a return home...

EH: Not a return home, but finding a new home. What happened to me in my emigration is that a sense of home became very important. It's not that I want to return home, to revert, but I do value some things that can be clustered around the term of familiarity.

MK: You said yesterday that London is "half-way". Did you return to Europe for good or temporarily?

EH: Probably for good. At this moment I feel more at home in Europe. It's a half-way point in many respects.

MK: For you, the transition to feeling at home in the new world was a function of gaining a certain "linguistic concentrate". You describe how you became "obsessed with words", how you "gather them" up "like a squirrel saving nuts for the winter". The writer Eva Hoffman wants to feel grounded in the English language as if it were her home.

EH: That's how I feel.

DK: What disappears then is the problem of place: being in New York or in Cracow or in London no longer has any meaning.

EH: It has less meaning, that's true. What has the most meaning is that the writer creates his own world. I say a bit in jest that my home is between the Upper West Side and W3 in London.

On writing the self...or nothing:

DK: Henry Dasko, who moderated yesterday's talk, said something to the effect that this subject was waiting for you, no one had taken it on before. Why do you think this was the case?

MK: Perhaps they weren't so lost?...

EH: [Laughter] That's probably the correct answer. Simply put, I experienced dislocation very intensely. Besides, I had the horrible feeling that perhaps I'm writing about nothing, that maybe this is not even a subject...

DK: ...because it's such a difficult theme to grapple with. Because everyone knows everything about the topic...

EH: Of course there are an awful lot of books about emigration, but there weren't any about the inner process of "translating oneself" into another culture, into another language.

MK: It seems to me that there were no such books because often writers do not have the courage to describe this process. Bogdan Czaykowski, a Polish poet living in Vancouver, wrote in the London-based journal, "Wiadomosci", in 1968: "Ever since I disappeared/like a chameleon/I walk the paths/of the cat and fox". The process you describe is essentially this slipping on of another's skin. For the writer, this may be painful, but there are advantages.

EH: I fought against such an automatic slipping on of another's skin. Because I didn't want to say: "Now I'm an American, stop, period." Because I had to go through the process of self-translation. And it really was a translation, not a chameleonism. I always wanted to preserve some thread of myself in this process while trying at the same time to understand this new world and crossing over into it somehow.

DK: And hence the choice of the first person narrative?

EH: It was a necessary form. At first, I thought about writing essays about Eastern European writers in the West, but I realized this wasn't the point. The point was what happens in subjectivity. And I had to write in subjectivity.

On reconciliation within the self:

DK: What are you doing in London now?

EH: I was teaching a little, I do a little radio, but mainly it's writing.

MK: After thirty years and three books written in English, do you have the feeling of fulfilment? Did you stop feeling like you were living in a cultural "Sahara"? Or do you still feel a cultural foreignness?

EH: I certainly don't feel an emptiness. The emptiness has been filled out. And foreignness? Maybe I don't feel what I would have felt if I had been in one place, rooted unequivocally, but I don't feel foreign either. Otherness has stopped being a problem.

DK: The underlying paradigm of your work is the journey, which is the inverse of wandering with its implications of aimless and potentially infinite searching.

EH: I have no desire to live in a condition of wandering. This was at the heart of Lost in Translation. I want to feel like I have a psychological base, I want to establish myself in myself. To have a place that I can finally call home. 

Marek Kusiba is a journalist and poet. He lives in Toronto.


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