Erika Dreifus is a force of incredible goodwill, generosity, intelligence and service in the literary landscape. I first encountered her through her role as editor/publisher of The Practicing Writer, a free (and popular) e-newsletter featuring advice, opportunities, and resources on the craft and business of writing for fictionists, poets, and writers of creative nonfiction. And then I had the good fortune to have her as a student in two of my Poetry for the People online classes. (She subsequently placed several of her poems in fine publications).
Quite familiar with the voice and nuance of Erika’s poetry, I was delighted to experience a new (to me) dimension of her literary prowess as I gulped down her new short-story collection Quiet Americans in just two nights. The stories pierced me clean through with intimate, seismic stories that unified generations and continents, reminding me that every story told well by a narrator I trust becomes my own. (I highly encourage you to get your own copy of Quiet Americans.)
I invited Erika to join us today to consider how inspiration translates to the expression of prose and poetry in the literary life. I’ll let Erika Dreifus take it from here, in her own words.
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As the author of a recently released short-story collection (Quiet Americans), I have been appearing before audiences and reading brief excerpts from my book. One of the excerpts I’m most fond of presenting is a section from a story titled “Homecomings.”
Like much of the book, this story draws inspiration from the experiences of my paternal grandparents, German Jews who immigrated to the United States in the late 1930s. In “Homecomings,” a couple with a similar background—Nelly and Josef—return to Germany for the first time in September 1972. At one point in the story, the cousins who are hosting them drive them back to Nelly’s home city: Mannheim.
In fact, Mannheim was my grandmother’s home city, and my grandmother did return there for the first time in 1972. I was too young to be aware of the occasion at the time, but Grandma spoke about it in later years, and I often thought about what she said, and imagined how she must have felt. I thought about all of this even more in 1990, when my father and I traveled to Mannheim ourselves for the first time, and on two later trips.
Some of those commingled thoughts, observations, and imaginings appear in “Homecomings”:
Mannheim’s water tower still stood, surrounded by well-tended lawn. The florist shop she and her father had visited each week, so that he could buy a bouquet for her mother—still there, too. The office where her father had run his business, until the Reich outlawed that. Only the shoe store had changed; now it was a café. The shoe store, where she had found a job at the age of eighteen, because even with her Abitur she couldn’t attend university. Not then. Not in 1933. But her father had said: “You’re not just sitting around here, my dear girl. Waiting to emigrate. You shall do something useful.”
Her cousin Daniel turned the Citröen off the city’s main ring, onto Ifflenstrasse, and Nelly thought she’d stopped breathing. The building, where she and her parents had lived in an apartment that occupied the entire second floor, was the same! The same purplish stone. The same flowerboxes. The same big windows.
No. The windows. Those were not the same.
“Those men came in,” her mother had said, once they could speak freely about that night back in November 1938. “They smashed the windows. The china. The paintings.”
In “Homecomings,” Nelly cannot bring herself to leave the safety of her cousin’s car, even when the cousin offers to see if her apartment’s current owners are home and might allow her inside. That, too, is based on “what really happened” when my grandmother returned to Mannheim.
I wrote my first draft of what became “Homecomings” in 2002. Many details I included in the story—the street name, the apartment, what happened during the Kristallnacht of November 1938, the idea that the native daughter cannot bring herself to reenter the building even decades later—reappeared in a poem I wrote about five years later.
Here is how “Mannheim” begins:
I did not cry the first time I went to Mannheim,
when my father and I studied the nameplates
listing the residents of the building on Ifflenstrasse
where his mother had been born, and grown up.
The building she left one April day in 1938, just in time,
and had never re-entered.
I did not cry even when the current second-floor residents
invited us to visit,
and I stood in the high-ceilinged rooms where my great-grandparents had
withstood the Kristallnacht.
In fact, in the photos my father snapped
to show my grandmother, back in Brooklyn,
I am smiling.
The most obvious difference between the poetry and prose is that the poetry more transparently reflects my perceptions and experience. To be sure, the prose, too, draws in part from my own observations: The photographs from my first trip to Mannheim include snapshots of “the florist shop she and her father had visited each week,” “the office where her father had run his business,” and “the building, where she and her parents had lived….” I am certain that having had the opportunity to see those places myself, and possessing the photographs to revisit, fixed those images in my mind and memory, and enhanced the fictional references.
The stories my grandmother transmitted and the perceptions that I attached to them, then, manifest themselves— differently—in the two forms. This, to me, is part of the “path of possibility,” the always-unpredictable and kaleidoscopic way in which, as writers, we may return to a single source of inspiration, again and again.
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About Erika Dreifus
Erika Dreifus is the author of Quiet Americans, a short-story collection that is largely inspired by the histories and experiences of her paternal grandparents, German Jews who escaped Nazi persecution and immigrated to the United States in the late 1930s. Erika earned undergraduate and graduate degrees from Harvard University, where she taught history, literature, and writing for several years. Currently, she lives in New York City, where she works for The City University of New York.