The Assay Interview Project: Raki Kopernik
February 15, 2021
Raki Kopernik is a queer, Jewish writer. She is the author of The Things You Left (Unsolicited Press 2020), The Memory House (The Muriel Press 2019) a 2020 Minnesota Book Award finalist, and The Other Body (Dancing Girl Press 2017). The Things You Left (Unsolicited Press 2020) is a finalist for the 2021 Minnesota Book Award. Her work has appeared in numerous publications and has been nominated for several other awards, including the Pushcart Prize for fiction and the Pen Faulkner Award in Fiction. She is a fiction editor at MAYDAY Magazine and lives in Minneapolis. You can find her website here and follow on Instagram @rakikopernik
About The Memory House: In spare-but-mighty prose that borrows poetry's emphasis on image and capacity for spaciousness, Raki Kopernik’s The Memory House weaves what Franciszka Voeltz calls "[p]art document, part multigenerational memoir,” exploring and transcending the borders of time, place, memory, and body. The narrator tells the stories of her parents' and maternal grandparents' memories of life on agricultural cooperatives in Israel between 1940 and 1969, as well as her own memories of spending summers on the kibbutz with her family while growing up. The Memory House reveals that "borders are imaginary lines made up by people," including the borders of memory, which is permeable, transferrable, and shared (11). Of both the trauma and tenderness in these communal memories, Miriam McNamara writes, “This is the history woven within Jewish families, and looped between endlessly…The organic, elusive structure of The Memory House hints at how our family’s stories, both shared and withheld, nurture unnamed hungers and connections within us all.”
Kopernik’s titular edifice is what defines and binds the family that builds it: “We are made of woven memory circles” (123).
Caylin Capra-Thomas: As the title implies, throughout The Memory House, memory is more than an individual’s mental artifact. Of the narrator and her mother’s memories, you write that they are “woven together, mine fills in for her, hers for mine,” and throughout the text, memories “tangle into a single memory house” (122, 18). Memory, here, is a shared, communal space, like the kibbutz where the narrator’s parents grew up. I’m curious about the way you were thinking about memory as you entered the writing of this book. How was your thinking changed or impacted by writing it?
Raki Kopernik: Memory is emotional and sensory. There are things I remember from my childhood that my parents either forgot or remember differently. I think we’ve all had experiences of being in the same place or in the same conversation with someone and having completely different recollections of how things happened or what was said.
Before I began writing, I interviewed my parents about their childhoods in Israel/Palestine and their experiences as immigrants in the US. They told me stories I hadn’t heard, along with stories I remembered from my own childhood and stories I had different versions of. That process was fascinating. Especially hearing about their young lives, how different their experiences of childhood were from mine. We all have interesting stories, and all of our stories are pieces of history.
I thought my parents would tell me things I didn’t know and then we’d confirm what I did know, simple and compartmentalized. What I found in writing about my family was that all of our memories are messy. I wanted to be true to myself in the book, of course, while also honoring them and giving an accurate account of the history I wanted to tell. I wasn’t trying to write their stories as biography, but rather, to write my own interpretation, from my perspective and the feelings that came up around the stories. For example, the homes where both of my parents grew up were places I also spent a lot of my childhood, so we have some pieces of shared memory even though we were children in those places at very different times. I also wanted to share this history that I think a lot of people are unfamiliar with or have a narrow understanding of, but instead of writing a dry historical account, I wanted to write through the lens of family and emotion, of my own experiences, to make the history a personal story so that readers could relate, engage, and more easily digest.
Thinking again of The Memory House’s existence as a permeable, communal threshold space, there is a distinct theme of borders and overlaps as they relate to territories, bodies, and minds. In particular, I’m thinking about the final page, which describes dreaming in Hebrew as filling a hole in the narrator’s heart that speaking English remakes, and proceeds: “Delicate sheets shield the timeline of our stories, protect our hearts, make our distance, our loops, our spirals bearable. Same different same” (123). Can you speak more to this meshing of mental, physical, and metaphysical space—generally, or as you came to write it?
I wasn’t thinking particularly of trying to mesh all that space. A lot of what happens for me when I write, especially working in a poetic style, is that thoughts and feelings start to tangle on their own. There’s a web that becomes sharper as I move through the stories or scenes. You know, the more you do something, the easier and more innate the connections. As the rhythm arrives, you move deeper into the layers away from the surface.
While I had many manifestations of this book in terms of different genres and points of view, it wasn’t a book that took me years to write, at least not the first draft start to finish. Because it’s so connected to my history and ancestry, I think it flowed out easily. I like to say it was channeled. But I don’t mean that someone else wrote it through me, just that it was a little bit effortless because I think those stories and that place are in my cellular memory. So once that starts to happen, that meshing of body, mind, and metaphysical is a natural outcome.
I also noticed that principle of “same different same,” as well as the permeable membrane between individual and collective, enacted in the text, with each page hosting a collective of individual lines that could be read as end-stopped lines of poetry or single-sentence paragraphs (9). How were you thinking about genre as you approached the writing?
I started writing this as an historical fiction novel. I thought it would feel too personal to write as a memoir, and also the idea of writing my own memoir seemed self-indulgent. But the fiction felt forced and removed in a way that didn’t convey the stories well. And while the fiction I do write is often tangled with my memories, it didn’t work here.
As I shifted to first person and to my own voice as narrator, I realized that I wanted there to be a lot of space and breath around the stories, between mine, my mother’s, and my father’s. I wanted this to be so clear because my intention in creating this book in the first place came from repeatedly telling many of these stories after the 2016 presidential election. With a new sense of permission for all kinds of hate, I felt more anti-Semitism that I ever had. I found that even people in my immediate community, people who have more cultural awareness, didn’t know much about the Israeli immigrant experience. (That said, of course this is just one story, not the story).
I started playing with line breaks and form as a way to give space to certain pieces of history and personal stories. I love the often sparseness of poetry, but I also find narrative story arcs to be accessible and bonding for a reader. Personally, I don’t love wordy books. I think most books can be much shorter. Not for lack of attention span, but I’m just a very efficient person. Almost everything can be said with fewer words. I don’t think I’m necessarily right about this. It’s just my very opinionated opinion.
The idea of “nothing wasted, nothing extra” comes up a few times throughout the memoir, and I was really impressed with the way this came to life in the prose. The book is rather slim, and each page has a good deal of negative space, but every line is packed with image and meaning—nothing wasted, nothing extra, and the only thing I still want at the end is some delicious cucumber tomato salad. How did you achieve this?
Yes! Food is so defining of culture, circumstance, relationships.
This goes back to the previous question in terms of sparseness. My process is to write out what I want to say, then go back and take out words that don’t do anything for the text or story, and change words that don’t hold themselves up. I’m working on a novel right now and a lot the work I’m doing is plumping the scenes so that I have enough words to make it novel length, while still trying to keep the language clean and sparse. It is difficult. And it will be a short novel. But, I think if you connect to the senses, like with all the food, stories tell themselves because we all live through our sensory experiences.
I also wasn’t going for any particular length when I was writing The Memory House, so this gave me freedom to write only what I felt needed to be there. I let myself hit enter as much as visually stimulated my clean aesthetic. When you don’t fluff words with more words, the ones that are there stand out. More space invites more attention and more impact.
The Memory House frequently uses food as one of its many ways of connecting to a geographical place, as well to bring the interior space of memory to life. Can you speak more to the role of food in your concept of place, or its larger role in your life and work?
Food is defining and central to many cultures, including all the Jewish sects, (Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Mizrahi, Hasidim, etc.) I grew up on the north side of Chicago going to large, culturally diverse schools. Food was the thing that defined people in the cafeteria. It told us where someone’s family was from, what they believed, what holidays they were observing. It’s also a way to stay connected to our ancestry, especially when we’re far away from family or our home country. Like all of the senses, eating invokes memory and comfort. We eat everyday, we think about food, how it looks, smells, tastes, feels, how it affects our bodies and our moods. It’s so central. I don’t necessarily write about food any more intentionally than I write about anything else, but food is an intersecting point, a place everyone connects to in some way.
Who or what are your unexpected influences? I’m thinking outside of literary figures—what other art forms, experiences, or practices inform your writing?
Music is a deep part of my lineage. My grandmother started a music academy in Jerusalem, my father played violin, and my brother is a professional musician. I played piano as a child and I love singing and playing guitar. Music helps me move creativity in a different way. I also love listening to cassette tapes from my youth. We have an old boom box in the kitchen. My recent tape playlist has been REM, Iron Maiden, Stevie Nicks, Dee-Lite. My partner and I like to have mini dance parties in the kitchen.
I do yoga and sitting meditation as well. It’s surprising how much clarity comes to my writing when I’m sitting still, just breathing without trying to do anything. I’ve been utilizing meditation more to inform my writing, in particular in moments when I feel stuck or uninspired. There’s a delicate balance between pushing through and forcing. When things feel too hard, that’s a moment to stop trying. Yoga and meditation help me lean in and soften instead of pushing against and resisting.
If The Memory House were a dinner party, who's at the table, and what's on the menu?
My parents, grandparents, their parents, as far back as we can go— all the ancestors. The menu is full of falafel with tomato cucumber salad, warm pita, baba ghanoush, creamy hummus, roasted beets, Israeli brine pickles and olives, fresh pressed olive oil, my mom’s honey cake, my safta’s soft chocolate wafers, dried figs and dates, fresh walnuts from my uncles tree, nana (mint) tea with mint from my safta’s garden, and gin and tonics with a ton of lime.
Caylin Capra-Thomas is a poet and nonfiction writer. Her second poetry chapbook, Inside My Electric City, is available through YesYes Books. The 2018-2020 poet-in-residence at Idyllwild Arts Academy, she is the recipient of fellowships and residencies from the Vermont Studio Center and the Studios of Key West. She is a student in the PhD program in English and creative writing at the University of Missouri in Columbia
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