By Joy Ladin
EOAGH Books, March 2021
$20, 151 pp.
The Book of Anna is a fictional narrative that tells the story of Czech-German Holocaust survivor Anna Asher’s life after the war in 1950s Prague. Through poems and prose diary entries, Anna struggles to make sense of the dissonance between the horrors she experienced and Jewish thought. A tapestry woven with biblical allusions and Talmudic references, The Book of Anna stands out among the piles of Holocaust literature seeking to explain the inexplicable.
The book’s initial publication in 2006 solidified author, poet and professor Joy Ladin’s tenure position at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women, but otherwise went unnoticed. Still living as a man named Jay at the time, Ladin published Anna under the initial J. Ladin. For the recent rerelease of the book, Ladin changed J to her full name, Joy. Fifteen years, a gender transition, a pandemic and a surge of racial justice reckoning later, Ladin chatted with Moment associate editor Lilly Gelman to discuss how Anna shaped her career, trans identity and views on humanity.
Why did you decide to republish The Book of Anna? I’d never done anything like it before, and the minute I was done, I knew I’d never do anything like it again. But it didn’t receive even a single review or notice of any kind and basically disappeared after its publication. I felt regret about that and thought it was a great idea when my publisher suggested republishing Anna. Because it had a new life, it gave me a chance to reflect on it from a different perspective than I had when I first wrote it. When I started the book I thought that I was going to live my whole life as a man, although my attachment to my male identity was loosening in ways that I was not aware of. I couldn’t have understood the significance of the book to me in the way that I do now.
Did you learn anything about your past self while revisiting Anna after your transition? When I was writing The Book of Anna after completing my MFA, it was out of this profound sense of failure. I felt like I had exhausted what I understood about poetry. I had done it, I’d mastered it, but there was something empty about what I had mastered. And that opened the door to the kind of writing that I couldn’t have done if I was attached to myself as a poet or to the story of my own life. So the failure was absolutely crucial. When I started Anna, I also didn’t know that I was going to transition. And I didn’t realize that there were ways that Anna would change my life. If Sheep Meadow Press hadn’t accepted the book when they did, I wouldn’t have been able to apply for early tenure and my whole story would have been radically different. So revisiting Anna enabled me to see how this all fit together.
The process involved this personal and still mysterious entanglement of my identity as a writer and my growth as the person I really was. They’ve been tied together since I was a kid. Writing poetry was the way I was weird publicly, and being trans was the way I was weird in a hidden way. So it makes sense that Anna would play this role in my transition. The hardest part was going back to one of the nadirs of my life. But I really enjoyed comparing Anna with my current self. When I was writing the book, there was no “me” to compare her to. Now I have a self to compare to Anna.
I had one realization that made me especially sad, about the willingness of American Jews to endlessly recount the Holocaust, that one kind of horror, while there are many other kinds of pain and horror that we’re really uncomfortable with. The ongoing devastation of trans lives is something that still doesn’t really have a public language to it. And so I realized that Anna is my biggest exercise in trying to talk about the experience and the agony of being somebody who is different in a way that is seen as being worthless and dangerous, as a target for extermination and the difficulties of constructing a positive life-affirming self when you’re in a culture that sees you in these ways.
How did it feel to publish the book under your full name, Joy Ladin, instead of just J. Ladin? When I stopped working on the initial version of Anna, I assumed I’d be living as a man for the rest of my life. It took a few years before it was released, and by the time it was in the process of being published I already knew that I couldn’t keep living as a man, though I still was. I didn’t want to publish under the name Jay, and I didn’t even have the name Joy, so I chose to use a gender-ambiguous initial. The initial was heartbreaking for my now ex-wife, who had been involved in that book. By the time it was published, our marriage had really fallen apart and there were other relationships that were keeping me alive. She knew what that initial meant. So having it republished under my real name is a big deal to me.
You talk a lot about Anna as if she were real. What kind of relationship do you have with her? I am indebted to Anna. One of the biggest things that she showed me scared the crap out of me. Although while I was writing Anna, I was totally socialized as male and was a jerk in many ways that are distinctive male ways of being a jerk, I also think because I was living on the premise that I owed it to other people to hide who I was, I had internalized this more traditionally feminine idea that confuses niceness and deference and accommodation with goodness. But goodness and kindness are qualities that require courage. They require you to actually be present and take a stand and have a place in the world. But for me, I clung to niceness and had no concept of displaying the courage of being a distinct person and dealing with the consequences. I always felt like I had to yield to other people, that that was essential to my survival and also sort of a moral principle. So when it became clear that Anna wasn’t yielding to anyone, that just freaked me out. It also blew my mind. How could somebody who was a woman be this way? My idea of women and genders was very stunted and very fuzzy. Anna was just some other kind of thing. She had her own truth and she didn’t care whose feelings she hurt. That’s what really freaked me out. Part of me was just like, “Anna, how can you talk this way and think this way, because you’ll be alone?” And again, she doesn’t care.
And that is why it even taught me more when Anna finally realizes that she was loved. She gets through her rage of being designated as a survivor and realizes that those women who died for her loved her. It’s a huge thing for her, and it was a huge thing for me also, because that meant, for both of us, that you could be yourself, be somebody who didn’t feel you deserved love and still be loved. And that was something that I just didn’t believe in.
Has republishing the work uncovered any additional life-affirming realizations? Because I didn’t have this experience of reading Anna and sharing it and talking about her after the initial publication, I didn’t have a sense of how other people responded. So it’s pretty amazing to see people being interested in Anna. I was obsessed with her but clearly other people find her interesting too, and that’s cool. But it’s also cool to see other Jews who, when I talk about the ways Anna reflects problems I had with the American Jewish identity that I inherited, recognize and resonate with those descriptions. That feels transformative. I felt alone with Anna, and now I’m finally getting to have a sense of community.
Anna spends a lot of time grappling with and subverting and repurposing biblical texts and ideas. What purpose does that serve for Anna? For others? For Anna, there is this junkyard of Jewish tradition, and it’s all mangled from what she’s experienced in the Holocaust. And she’s taking bits and pieces and doing whatever she wants with those ideas. But her motive for subverting these Jewish texts, the personal motive and in a way the vindictive motive, is that she’s mad. She feels like she is forcing Jewish tradition, forcing these texts, to stand up to this acid test of the Holocaust. She does it for nihilistic reasons, although it pushes back against her and takes her places she doesn’t intend to go. But the basic idea behind what Anna is doing is a deeply traditional and religious idea, which is that the Torah includes all of our lives. The Torah was given to each of us simultaneously. Each of us should see the Torah as the tree of life, which means it needs to be the tree of each of our lives.
Why did you decide to create a fictional Holocaust survivor instead of exploring a real person through this form of poetry and prose? I remember the night I started writing. I was not thinking about the Holocaust. I’d pretty much decided that the Holocaust had become too predictable as a literary subject. I didn’t engage with the Holocaust in my writing until I wrote The Book of Anna. I wasn’t thinking, “I want to do this, should I do it with a fictional character or a real person?” Anna just presented herself to me. I’m also not a researcher. One of the things that always appealed to me about poetry was that I could just make stuff up. But even Anna had felt like it was something I was discovering rather than making up.
I didn’t check if anything in Anna’s story was true. Every now and then I’d get uncomfortable. And I had several panic reactions to that. One was the defensive literary reaction: Don’t bother me with this, this is a work of high imagination. though that didn’t feel quite right. But because I’d been hearing about the Holocaust for decades, stories of various kinds of horrors had indeed come my way, and it felt like everything Anna was saying was either something that I’d heard or was plausible.
So while this is a work of fiction and imagination, I am counting on people to take this as a plausible reference to actual historical events. This makes for a more complicated contract between the writer and the real world. And even though I do defend the autonomy of the writer, when I present Anna in public I hold my breath, because someone could be there and say no, this is not the way that it was. So you always need to be asking yourself, are you creating an individual as opposed to a type? The more you’re creating a type, the more you are trading on conversations that may or may not relate to something that’s real. And the ultimate defense of Anna is, does she sound like somebody who is a person who is talking about her life?
Does The Book of Anna have anything to say about our time as we emerge from the pandemic and continue addressing deep-seated issues of racial injustice? The book wasn’t written in response to any of this. But I hope the language in the book proves useful to people who are thinking about different sides of these issues. Though fortunately I’ve gone through the pandemic and haven’t lost anybody, Anna has lost everybody. Anna is language that is created in the aftermath of so much death that we begin to question what meaning the structures of life really have. That is Anna’s question and it’s likely that there are people now who have some of those same questions.
When people are anxious and under stress, they fall into binary thinking, which has happened in this time of social injustice. One of the problems is that we simplify into victim and villain narratives. The oppressor and the oppressed, the good people and the bad people. And Anna is acid that burns through those binaries. They’re very reassuring, and we would really like them to be true: If your community suffers so much, at least couldn’t we become better people for it? Isn’t that the least you should get out of this? But Anna is a reminder that it’s hard work for any culture and any individual not to be the worst of our kind. That is always accessible to us. Nothing that we’ve gone through will ever keep us from it. Anna is saying, look at what it really means to be human, and if you want to do something better than the lowest version, don’t count on your history or your heritage or your peoplehood or your innate goodness or the philosophy you espouse or your religion or anything else. You’re going to have to make that kind of humanity. You’re going to have to invent it.
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