Today we welcome Sonia Taitz to The Displaced Nation’s interview chair. Sonia is an author, playwright, and essayist; her writing has been featured in publications such as The New York Times, The New York Observer, and O: The Oprah Magazine. She is also a regular guest on NBC’s TODAY show, CNN, and National Public Radio.
The Watchmaker’s Daughter is Sonia’s third book, published today. A memoir of growing up as the child of European holocaust survivors, The Watchmaker’s Daughter has already received glowing reviews, such as this from New Yorker and Vanity Fair cultural critic James Wolcott:
A heartbreaking memoir of healing power and redeeming devotion, Sonia Taitz’s The Watchmaker’s Daughter has the dovish beauty and levitating spirit of a psalm…A past is here reborn and tenderly restored with the love and absorption of a daughter with a final duty to perform, a last act of fidelity.
Intrigued? So were we. You’ll be happy to hear that Sonia has agreed to participate in this month’s prize draw, and has let us have a copy of The Watchmaker’s Daughter for October’s giveaway. See the end of this interview for details of how to enter the draw!
But now, over to Sonia.
Sonia, welcome to TDN. Could you tell us a little about your early life?
I was born in New York City. My parents had emigrated here from Germany, where they lived as displaced people after World War II.
And what was your parents’ reaction when they first arrived in America? How did the country make them feel?
They felt they had found refuge and harbor at last. When they saw the Statue of Liberty, they understood, for the first time in their adult lives, that they could be safe in the world.
Growing up in America must have been full of cultural contradictions for you. As a TCK and child of Holocaust survivors, did you feel at home in or removed from American culture?
Both. I felt American in contrast to my parents, to whom I had to translate things big and small (various cultural revolutions; why you don’t wear socks with sandals). At the same time, I felt different from American children whose parents were not from somewhere else. There was a deep rift between the “light” attitude shown on television (my strongest link to the culture) and the serious and weighted way my parents tended to see the world. I lived on both sides of that rift. Sometimes it was tiring; sometimes it was exciting.
You helped your parents get over their trauma of being in the concentration camp through travel. Where did you go, and how did you react to the other cultures?
I left my safe milieu in NY (we lived in a cozy Jewish immigrant neighborhood) and crossed the Atlantic to the Old World, Europe. My parents had experienced deep and savage hatred in Lithuania, under the Nazi regime, and both had survived ghettos and concentration camps. They had seen neighbors turn their backs on them, or even turn against them. To my parents, America was free of these horrors. Here, everyone had a chance. Here, no one could ever round you up and kill you. Europe, they felt deeply, was a checkerboard of blood-hatreds, and they had rejected it as much as it had rejected them. So that’s where I went at 21, sure that the world was no longer as bad as they had thought – that it was, in a sense – safe to trust again.
Although I traveled to Germany (and later, to Lithuania), my journey centered on Oxford, England, where I studied for two years. And while I made many close friendships there, I did feel displaced. I was frightened by the depths of snobbery, prejudice, and even hatred that I sometimes felt – not only directed toward Jews like myself but toward blacks, “Asians” (as they indiscriminately called anyone from Pakistan to Polynesia), and even Southern Europeans. I particularly remember the phrase “the wogs start at Calais.” And the student I fell deeply in love with had parents who rejected me as a “Jewess.”
You might be wondering how all this was helpful to my parents. The story is told in my memoir, The Watchmaker’s Daughter, but the upshot is, I married the Englishman, and everyone ended up happy ever after.
You say your journey centered on Oxford, England — in fact, you did a degree at Oxford University. How did you find living in the UK, and what were the biggest adjustments you had to make?
I loved it and I hated it. There was no place more seductive, in the sense of misty fog, the flowing river Isis on which proud swans drifted, dreamy willow trees and – on the inside – fireplaces, hot mulled wine, the tinkling sounds of poetry and a golden sense of age. But it was all very foreign to me. My culture (not only Jewish but American) was louder, franker, more ambitious, less resentful. Where I came from, you openly tried to succeed, and could crow about how and what you did to “make it.” In fact, we cheered the rags-to-riches hero. England liked to dampen this enthusiasm. I got in over my head sometimes, and I remember feeling lost and bereft. My currency wasn’t worth the same in this place. But learning to adapt to another culture was intriguing. Travel can make you feel rootless and alone – but it can also make you soar. Best of all is when you come to feel at home in somewhere you once thought so strange. I did, eventually, come to that place.
I think everyone at this site knows what you mean by that. So — do you still like “soaring”? Do you still like to travel?
I love to travel, and still feel that it is the best way to understand the world – and the world inside you. Wherever I go, I try to be porous, to float, to leave my safety zone and almost pretend I live somewhere new. I eat the food, listen to the music, even try to speak the language. Being comfortable is not my main goal in life – it is to experience and learn. So I feel exhilarated as a traveler, even with the physical or emotional discomforts that come with it.
Where is your home now — and where do you feel most “at home”?
I feel most at home in my hometown, Manhattan, where all cultures are enthusiastically represented (it’s a world tour in itself). I also love to go to a small lakeside cabin, less than an hour from the city. You don’t need to be in Switzerland or Kenya to feel the overall majesty of the world.
You married a non-Jewish man, an Englishman. How did you both adjust to the religious differences, as well as the cultural ones?
When we met each other, it felt less like a culture “gap” than opposites attracting. The man in question had always been interested in the Jewish Bible, which he knew better than most. He confessed that he had always had “envious aspirations” towards the Jewish people. But in a real sense, even after more than 25 years of marriage, he is still very English (in attitude and accent), and his sense of being Jewish feels different to him than my own. He doesn’t have the weight of being “of immigrant stock,” or of being the child of refugees, castaways. After all, Americans tend to be intimidated by English people, and not the other way around. My husband has been embraced by this culture.
After your own experience, what do you now see as the biggest challenge facing someone who is marrying into a different culture?
The problem usually manifests in the broader family sense. Between the man and woman, there may be only perfect love, but you do have to add parents and, later, children to the mix. My parents were as horrified as his by our romantic “exogamy.” Although they came to love my husband, he was not the “nice Jewish boy” they had dreamed of. And then, when there are children, new questions arise — how do you raise them? That seemed easier in my case; my husband was now Jewish and wanted, as I did, to raise them in that tradition. But even so, his parents had to deal with the fact that we did not celebrate Christmas. Our children have to deal with the paradox that while they are Jewish, their English family is not.
Our October theme is based around the tales of regret by those who travel. Do you have any regrets about traveling or studying abroad? What would you do differently — if anything?
Unlike Edith Piaf, I regret so much. While my parents grew to love my husband, and – most movingly – his parents and mine grew to love each other, my going away caused immediate hurt. I still can feel guilty about my taking that step away. My parents were immigrants with a tiny remnant of a family. Yet, I had sailed off to explore the world, leaving them far behind. On the other hand, that is what children do. Mine are beginning to do the same, and I try not to hold them back.
I also wish I had been more sensitive to my husband’s parents. They didn’t want me for their son, and I thought that made them prejudiced and “bad.” I mixed them up with those who had hurt my parents and millions of other Jews. Now that I have raised children, worried about whom they dated and how it would impact our family, I understand both sets of parents better. Youth makes us callous and cocky, and now, I hope, I am neither.
Could you tell us about your memoir being published today, The Watchmaker’s Daughter? Is this always something you’ve wanted to write?
The memoir is something I had wanted to write since my parents died. For many years after they were gone, I couldn’t put pen to paper about anything. Still, thoughts about our odd and interesting lives began to form. Death gives a shape to existence – a beginning, middle, and a punctuated end – and I began to see a story coming through. A circle away and back home. The classic Ulysses story, but seen from the eyes of a little girl in a Jewish ghetto in New York City, and the larger world she longs to understand. After the voyage, the return.
What made this book almost impossible to write was the duty I felt to be fair to everyone in the story, while doing justice to the story itself. This wasn’t my personal journal either – I wrote it as a coherent work that would resonate with others, regardless of their background. I needed to transmit what I had experienced and learned. I wanted to give the reader a tale of suffering, love, redemption, and renewal.
You have also published a novel, In the King’s Arms, about an American Jewish woman who goes to England and marries into the aristocracy. How much of this was based on your own life? Did you find it easier to write the memoir or the novel, and why?
The novel takes my real trip to Oxford and enhances it with far more dramatic plotlines. Many characters are invented, others are conflated from different people. Much of the drama that happens in that book never happened to me (although funnily, many people assume it did).
I found both the novel and memoir enjoyable to write. Novels are fun; you can play with your characters and make them say or do anything you want. I love this freedom to create a new world. Memoirs are deeply rewarding in that emotional chaos is translated, ideally, into art. It’s a darker assignment, but a deeply satisfying one. Notice that I didn’t respond to the question of which was “easier.” I guess I enjoy intense engagement, which may be why I like travel, or the difficult task of writing.
What audience did you have in mind for In the King’s Arms? Did you end up attracting those sorts of readers, and to which part of the story had the audience responded the most ?
I felt the novel had a universal theme — young love, Romeo and Juliet, the sorrows of the broken heart. All sorts of people have responded to it in all kinds of ways. Some find it very English, comparing it to Evelyn Waugh. Some find it as Jewish as Philip Roth. Some treat it as a satisfying read, and others as a moral fable.
Were you surprised at the book’s reception?
The biggest surprise was that people responded to it at all. The book had almost been published 25 years ago, but the contract had fallen through, and I had thought it would never see the light of day. To see it come back to life, be read, and even garner critical praise, was the biggest and happiest surprise.
Do you hope to attract another kind of audience with The Watchmaker’s Daughter?
I hope to attract a bigger and more diverse audience than a small literary novel tends to. I am now decades older than the author of the novel, and I hope this book reflects that.
You’re a very diverse writer, and have had some theatrical works produced at the Oxford Playhouse and at the National Theatre in Washington, DC. Could you tell us a little about them?
The Oxford experience was one of the greatest ones of my life; I was given license to write a play that would be seen not only by the sophisticated body, but also by the London press. My husband-to-be acted in it (he was part of the Oxford University Dramatic Society), and it was an incomparable experience to watch him onstage giving life to my work. It was my first full-length play, my first public experience as an artist.
The play at the National Theatre was part of a series that took place on Monday nights, when theatres are typically dark. Our troupe – author, actors, director — took the train down from New York, rehearsing all the way. The audience was great — the play was a farce about jealousy, kind of madcap and packed with complicated jokes and stage business – and they responded well to all of it. People who go to see new plays are adventurous, and people who’d go on a Monday night to see one they’d never read about are even more so.
And finally: what next? Are you working on another book or play, and if so, can you tell us anything about it?
My next book is a tragicomic novel based on a real public figure (a very famous actor), but the story is largely invented. Starting with his childhood, I create the background that made this man become an unbalanced anti-Semite. His father abuses him mentally and physically, and is a nightmarish tyrant. As a teenager, the boy falls in love with a Jewish girl from a good family, but something happens that affects both their lives. The novel is called DOWN UNDER, and it’s been a real treat to bring this story to life.
We’re already looking forward to it! Thank you, Sonia, for being so honest and giving us such an insight into your life and your writing. We wish you and The Watchmaker’s Daughter every success.
To win a copy of The Watchmaker’s Daughter, you can:
We will announce all the winners in a couple of weeks!
STAY TUNED for Monday’s post, Anthony Windram’s musings on films, horror and the displaced life!
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Images: Sonia Taitz author photo; The Watchmaker’s Daughter book cover.