At night, Talia and her sisters liked to sneak onto the kibbutz adjacent to their land and hang out in the date palms, climbing and balancing themselves while trying to steer clear of the thorns — they understood that whatever was said there stayed there. Everything in life seemed solvable among those trees. She also loved the walk back home in the dark, when it was impossible to distinguish between sky and hills.
Talia and the other characters that populate Molly Antopol’s outstanding debut collection of eight stories, “The UnAmericans” (Norton), struggle and sometimes stumble, as they experience some of life’s insolvable moments. Antopol captures their emotions, including the messy ones, with precision. She’s a writer with a big heart.
Historical events reverberate in the backgrounds of Antopol’s stories, set in Israel, California, New York, Prague, Ukraine and the forests of Eastern Europe, and the foregrounds are fleshed out with detail and bittersweet humor. Readers come to know about the grandparents, homes, habits and personal history of characters like the Russian-born actor who changes his name from Alexi to Alex and then back to Alexi and is imprisoned for his Communist leanings during the McCarthy era (which he had played up only to get a part in a movie); a grandmother who narrates her escape from Belarus during World War II; the families of party members who move together from crowded apartments in the Bronx to stucco duplexes painted in the optimistic pastels of Los Angeles and Talia, the young Israeli woman who moves back into her parent’s home when her job prospects in journalism narrow, and then meets a widower whose teenage daughter inspires a return to the date palms.
Some of the stories begin as though the reader is walking into an intimate conversation already underway, reminiscent of the great short story writer Grace Paley, who is a particular hero of Antopol’s. The endings are never predictable.
Antopol, 35, who teaches writing at Stanford University, was selected by the National Book Foundation as one of “5 Under 35” novelists to be honored. In an interview last week in the offices of The Jewish Week when Antopol was visiting New York City, she explains that while the stories — written over 10 years — move back and forward in time, and feature shifting voices and locales, a few questions and obsessions keep surfacing.
“For me, it’s what happens if you devote yourself to something that means everything to you, and then history changes and that loses its relevance. What do you do when the thing you’ve dedicated yourself to is over?” Her European dissidents who immigrate to the United States, Communist party members and partisan fighters experience that disconnect between their dreams and choices they’ve ultimately faced.
Antopol comes from a family of lively storytellers, and many of the stories were inspired in part by her family’s experience. She was born on the East Coast and her parents divorced when she was quite young. Her father is the historian and biographer Paul Johnson (whose book “Stalin: The Kremlin Mountaineer” is also published this month). With her mother, she spent her first few years living on a commune near New Haven, Conn. When she began school, they moved to California and she grew up in Los Angeles. Her mother’s parents, who also moved to California, were Communists, and surveillance and frequent visits by FBI agents were part of their lives. The writer’s great-grandmother Molly, who came from Antopol (in what’s now Belarus) to New York, lived in a Queens boardinghouse that was also a sweatshop. She became a union organizer.
“I’ve always been fascinated by family ancestry,” Antopol says. For each story, she did extensive research, spending time in Eastern Europe on research grants and summers in Israel with her husband Chanan Tigay, a college professor and writer.
“I love being in the archives, traveling, sitting in dusty places and looking at books with brittle pages. I love reading biographies and researching, to make myself informed about whatever political or historical time I’m writing about. From there a lot of the emotional truths about my characters emerge,” she says. Each story took no less than 10 drafts and about a year to complete.
As a college student, Antopol first traveled to Israel to spend time studying at Hebrew University. She connected with the country in such a powerful way that she moved back immediately after graduating from college and had a variety of jobs, including working and living in a state-run retirement home in Tel Aviv. There, she grew very close to the residents — she hasn’t yet figured out a way to bring that experience into her fiction.
In December 2000, she attended a party with a friend in Haifa and offered to help the older woman at the sink with the dishes. The woman asked Molly where she was from in that deep way that implied what came before the U.S., and when she replied that her family came from a small town called Antopol that had been mostly destroyed, the woman said that she too was from Antopol. The old woman shared memories of the town, and then introduced Molly to her son, who gave her a copy of the town’s yizkor book, or memorial book, with its local history. That meeting inspired Antopol to begin writing these stories.
Her approach is different from previous generations of Jewish writers who may have written of Yiddish speaking and other neighborhoods that were distinctly Jewish, that may no longer exist. She sees her book as “diasporic,” connecting to Israel and Europe. She feels a real kinship with her generation of Israeli writers as well as those coming out of Europe and the former Soviet Union.
“I can’t imagine writing something that didn’t address Jewish themes and questions. It’s such a big part of my life, a lot of the way in which I experience the world,” she says.
It’s easy to imagine the stories in “The UnAmericans” as theater pieces, with an ensemble of actors taking on Antopol’s likable crew: Israeli brothers in love with the same woman (“Minor Heroics”), a daughter not included in the public largesse of her mother’s will (“Retrospective”), a New York dry cleaner who hoped to honeymoon in Tahiti not Ukraine (“The Old World”), the young girl who watches her widower father shoved into the back of a police car and the young man always watching out for her (“Duck and Cover”). Antopol says she knows exactly how their voices would sound.