I am so excited to feature an interview with author Lee Kofman! Her new memoir, The Dangerous Bride (Melbourne University Press, 2014) is an honest, thrilling story about marriage, immigration, and identity. I hope you enjoy the interview.
I was intrigued by the path your parents took and how they live in an orthodox community in New York. How have they received your book? Do you think it helps that the book came out after you re-married and have given them a grandchild?
My poor parents have a long history of putting up with my writing that deals with themes that most parents – even if they are not as religious as mine – would not want to know about their daughters. Worse, my parents frequently feature in my work. Even in my memoir about non-monogamy my mother appears a lot, starting from the very first page – following the opening scene where I kiss a beautiful woman in a fetish club. No wonder then that whenever I tell my mother that I’m about to start writing something new, she says: ‘Oy vey, Lubochka, again you’re going to write awful things about your mother?’ But I suspect secretly she enjoys being one of my chief muses.
My luck is that we live in different countries. At this stage, my parents, who live in New York, only saw the book cover, including its blurb, on the internet. My hope is that they won’t know how to order the book online and will only read it next year when they’ll visit us in Melbourne. But you’re right, my mother’s immediate response after she read the blurb was: ‘I knew it, Lubochka, that you’d end up writing something like that… At least now you have a good Jewish husband and a wonderful son!’ So you’re right, Susan, it does help to have a new family…
In the parts where you interview people in non-monogamous relationships, the feeling of jealousy seems to be more prominent than that of guilt. Maybe it’s because America was founded by Puritans, but guilt seems so much more ingrained in our society here in the U.S. Do you think guilt doesn’t play as big a role in non-monogamy in Australia or Israel as it does in the US?
I suspect in Israel guilt would be a big issue too as the society there is also quite conservative in many ways. It is difficult for me to generalise about Australia, particularly because my sample of interviewees was diverse, and included first and second generation migrants. It is possible that it is more than a cultural difference here at play. I think those of my interviewees who did feel guilt – two women who both initiated non-monogamy in their marriages, then regretted it – were in the first place not cut for this lifestyle and resorted to non-monogamy to avoid divorce rather than to fulfil themselves. However, as you noted, Susan, most interviewees were much more concerned with jealousy than guilt and I think it’s because the majority I spoke to believed that non-monogamy was a legitimate relationship style. Yet, as any relationship style, non-monogamy contains its unique problems. While monogamous people, for example, often mention boredom as an issue, for non-monogamous people jealousy frequently takes the central stage.
I love the different settings and cultures you write about in your book. (I chuckled at your description of Israelis and how they flocked to 1960s decor because it reminded them of a calmer time.) When you move to Australia as a young adult, you find your way to the Israeli community there, including a turbulent relationship with an Israeli man. Do you think your early years in Australia would have been smoother if you had been forced to learn English right away and hadn’t had to rely so much on the Israeli community? Or was that the only option for a new arrival from Israel?
My main problem during my first years in Australia was possibly that I belonged to no community at all. Being a Russian-Israeli I spoke good Russian and at the very start found a ridiculously low paying job in a Russian video library, where I made some friendships. However, soon after I met J, the Israeli man I got involved with. J’s desire was to control and own me, so early in our relationship he convinced me that since he had money, I didn’t need to work in the video library. Thus even those tentative relationships dissipated and we lived then away from the inner suburbs where Russians and Israelis congregated. Since J was a loner by nature, and a difficult man, it was hard for us as a couple to forge friendships with the locals. That almost complete isolation we found ourselves in didn’t help, of course, our already problematic relationship. Neither did this, as you point out, help me master English. My lack of English, in turn, increased further my isolation and vulnerability to being controlled. My breakthrough came when, after more than a year of waiting, I finally received a permit to work in Australia. I then quickly found a job in environmental fundraising which involved a lot of interaction in English.
What were your biggest fears in writing this book? Your strongest reasons for writing it?
My biggest fear was one that I think plagues most memoirists. In my case, I had many reasons to worry. I was afraid to cause grief to my current husband by writing about my past partners (which unfortunately I indeed achieved). I worried, and still worry, about upsetting my former husband who is one of the main characters in the book. I feared I’d misrepresent or offend in some other ways people I interviewed. While I worked on the memoir, I was constantly trying to find balance between being honest and yet considerate of those I was writing about. I felt torn between my loyalty to the people I described, and my loyalty to the readers and my commitment to writing.
My second greatest fear was perhaps less typical of memoirists. I used to be a shy child and as an adolescent I developed bravado to toughen myself up. Then while writing then memoir I feared to show myself as vulnerable – sometimes suffering, sometimes defeated. And yet if I didn’t do this there was no point in writing the book, since writing, I believe, is all about exposing human vulnerabilities. So just I had to get over that fear.
It is difficult for me to pinpoint the exact reason why I wrote this book. What I know is – I had to write it. The story was like a pressure inside me that gradually built up and the only way to release it was to create this book. When I teach creative writing, I always urge students to write only about what is urgent to them and this book was extremely uncomfortable to write and extremely urgent. Perhaps it’s because for a long time I wanted to write about the topic of risk-taking, which is something that has always been important to me, since I believe that to live a good life people must venture out their comfort zones. But to write about risk-taking truthfully I needed a risky subject matter, which non-monogamy –still a taboo in our supposedly sexually liberated society – is, of course.
How did you go about finding a publisher for The Dangerous Bride?
I was fortunate in that a generous friend of mine, Maria Tumarkin, who is also a wonderful creative nonfiction writer, put me in touch with her former publisher, Sally Heath from Melbourne University Press, and she took my book on.
And did you have the title right away, or did that come after you had started writing the book? It’s a brilliant title!
Thank you! I wish the title came to me quickly… No, for some years I kept coming with pretty hideous titles, such as Confessions of the Romantic Newcomer until one day I recalled and wrote about Chagall’s painting that my Israeli partner bought while we were together and then gave me after we separated. The painting depicts a reclining naked woman with a bridal veil. She seems dangerous to me. And here the epiphany struck me – what non-monogamous bride is not dangerous? If not to herself, then at least to society she poses risk. And after all, this book is about risk and its personal and social costs.
Are you working on another book? If so, can you share anything about it?
I have two books I want to write. These have been on my mind for at least a decade or so. Both are supposed to be my love songs for my country of birth – Russia. Not the real country of course, but whatever Russia represents for me – my vanished childhood, the place of soul and intellect I imagine it to be, the mysterious space abundant with snow and howling wolves. I want to write a novel and a creative nonfiction book to explore my geographical, and unrequited, crush. But at the moment, every time I sit down at my desk there are million of things to do in relation to The Dangerous Bride or my other jobs which are teaching writing and mentoring writers. So maybe I should just wait a little longer.
For more information about The Dangerous Bride, check out Melbourne University Press. They ship to the US and beyond!