Exerting Control Over Chaos: An Interview With Karen E. Bender

WHEN MOST READERS think about the American Jewish literary tradition, they’re thinking about Saul Bellow and Philip Roth. Maybe Bernard Malamud comes up or, more recently, Joshua Cohen and Michael Chabon. But there’s another tradition: the tradition of Grace Paley and Deborah Eisenberg, of the great Jewish women short story writers.
Karen E. Bender (Like Normal People, Refund) belongs to that close-knit, fiery canon. She is as politicized as Paley, who famously split her time between parenting, writing, and protesting, and like Eisenberg she excels at sneaking in a joke when least expected. She’s always got an elbow in the reader’s side, nudging us to look closer at the world we live in.
In her new story collection, The New Order, Bender takes on our greatest fears: terrorism and mass shootings, sexual assault and sex discrimination, joblessness and hopelessness and shame. She writes secular American Judaism so well that I, a secular American Jew, feel often as if her stories are mirrors. And that’s what a story should be: a mirror, a window — or both. Bender’s stories are both.
She recently answered questions via Skype and email about the stories’ origins in current events, the refractions of Jewish identity, and our era’s damaging lack of empathy.
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LILY MEYER: The stories in The New Order are nearly all political, and nearly all contemporary, to the point that I think most readers would assume you began the book after the 2016 election. How close is that to true?
KAREN E. BENDER: It’s not true. As a writer, I’m motivated both by what is going on in the world around me and by what is happening inside my mind. The first stories were “On A Scale of One to Ten” and “Mrs. America,” which feels the most related to the campaigns, but I started writing that story early in 2015. Some stories were direct responses to the election. “The Elevator,” for example, was a response to the Access Hollywood tapes, and “The Department of Happiness and Reimbursement” began when I started to think about nondisclosure agreements.
“The Department of Happiness and Reimbursement” is such an upsetting story. It’s about government workers in a dystopian world where they offer one-time-only payments to anyone who suffers at work, and it’s horrifying. How did you get there from NDAs?
I teach creative writing at Hollins, and some of my students write speculative fiction. I was thinking about realism and surrealism and how they exist on a kind of a spectrum. Both are ways of exploring truth. I wanted to give this form a try. And it was fun, you know? This form seemed particularly right for this era and its particular form of untruthfulness.
Beyond that, the idea of silence is interesting to me. How purchasing silence is, of course, a destructive form of power. Think about all of the men who have bought women’s silence on sexual harassment and assault. It is a cruel practice and in terms of freedom of speech it seems quite absurd, even in the private sector. Bill O’Reilly, all those men asking women to sign nondisclosure agreements — it seems so strange to me that it could be legal to pay women for their silence. So I thought about how the practice is already normalized in our culture, but I wondered what it would be like if the government directed it. I wanted to push that idea as far as I could.
Let’s return to “Mrs. America,” which is about a Republican political candidate. It comes immediately after “The Good Mothers in the Parking Lot,” a story specifically about grief after Trump’s election. I know you wrote “Mrs. America” before the election, but still: How did you get yourself into the protagonist’s head? And how did you empathize with her?
As a writer, you try to get into a character’s head, not knowing if you’re doing it correctly, not knowing what you’re leaving out. With a character as destructive as Carol Forrest, the candidate, it was particularly challenging because I didn’t want to condone her behavior. But I did want to explore how a character compartmentalized terrible behavior. How did Carol rationalize the lie she told? How does her own enormous narcissism propel her to this lie? Her behavior, and the behavior of so many politicians, is monstrous, but I wanted to see if I could figure it out.
I also think there’s something vulnerable in everyone, and I was curious about what her vulnerability could be. At first, what I found in her was blindness and desire, and ambition. I wanted to identify with her as a parent, and so I thought about her on the campaign trail, away from her kids when her kids need her — what is that like?
How do you decide which characters — especially destructive ones — you are willing to write about?
For me, writing isn’t really a logical decision, it’s a way to struggle with questions I have about the world, about people. It’s a way of trying to understand all things human, including the ugly aspects of human behavior. I recently read a quote by Chekhov to students in a story seminar. He said, “What makes literature art is precisely its depiction of life as it really is. Its charge is the unconditional and honest truth.” Yes! Whether it’s through realism or surrealism or science fiction or fantasy, the clear depiction of human behavior in all of its perplexity is what, I believe, literature should do.
I’m also interested in ways in which literatures create empathy. How do you wake people up? How do you show them a point of view? What’s happening in our culture now is a great failure of empathy, of reading. There’s a kind of willful blindness that’s prevalent in the culture. Empathy forces you to see other people in a full, complete way.
I want the stories in this collection to make people see, but I want them to lead to action as well. Reading should help you see a different point of view or express your own outrage. But later, after reading, I hope readers can express frustration at the failings of this country through action. Look at Grace Paley! She wrote such great stories, but she always translated her passion into political activism.
To me, the collection’s angriest story — angry in a good way! — is “Where to Hide in a Synagogue,” which is about two women discussing an escape plan for their synagogue in the event of a mass shooting. Was that story a form of activism for you?
That story had been in my mind for a long time. It started when I heard a child talk about where to hide during a shooting in a movie theater: Should you play dead? Should you run out? There were children debating this in the back seat of my car. I was horrified, but then I wanted to write about it. I started it as a more general story about hiding. After Charlottesville, I began writing that conversation as a Jewish story. I wanted to write about the new phase of violence toward Jews in this country. But of course, this story relates to fear at any other public place. It’s about the terrible strategies we create in our minds when faced with the frequency of mass shootings and violence.
This collection has a very white, very Jewish viewpoint. It’s highly focused on Jewish identity and on white American self-examination. Where do you situate yourself as a writer on the spectrum of Judaism in America, of whiteness in America? What communities do you most want to write toward?
In this book, it felt interesting and relevant to write, in particular, about being Jewish, which hasn’t always been the case for me. One thing that recently spoke to me about Jewishness is Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, in which a Jewish cop infiltrates the Klan, acting as a front for Ron Stallworth, the black cop who, in the true story, initiates the investigation. The Jewish character is able to go to Klan meetings because he can pass as white. But at the same time, he’s a Jew surrounded by Klansmen, so he’s vulnerable.
That double identity is always the question. Who are we, as Jews? We have privilege, but privilege with permission, and permission can be revoked. I think about that when I think about the rise, or rising visibility, of anger toward Jews. But I also remember that most Jews can pass. We can pretend not to be Jews.
I think that Carol Forrest’s white-supremacist outlook in “Mrs. America” is also a form of narcissism. The character in that story clings to her white Christianity as a way to prop herself up in a world that feels out of control for many reasons. Because she feels small or unimportant within her own family, because she somehow feels power will heal her, she decides to degrade the candidate Mr. Massoud.
I don’t have a particular community in mind when I write. What I love really the most about writing is the way it can connect across experience, culture, time. While a reader who is white, Jewish, and female may have an insider view of some of the issues raised, the book is not written “toward” that group. What I love about literature is when a writer from a background that is superficially different from mine connects deeply with a character. It can be a way to transport me as a reader, briefly, into another person’s thoughts and feelings in a way that is, of course, different from any other sort of art. It’s a transcendent form of connection.
“This Is Who You Are” speaks to Jewish safety in a very different way. Its protagonist, who’s a teenager, laughs at the idea that her Hebrew school could be the target of an attack. Where did that come from?
I’ve always wanted to write about growing up Jewish in a safe environment — in that story, and for me, it was West Los Angeles in the 1970s. I was told about danger, and I knew the danger of antisemitism was there, but it felt surreal. Not like a threat but a generalized anxiety.
What about “On A Scale of One to Ten”? That feels like a story springing from the question of what Jews are, or what makes a non-religious Jew a Jew — am I right?
Very much so. It’s the most Jewish story in the collection, I think. It’s also about skepticism, though, and the contrast between Judaism and the evangelical Christianity of the story’s missionary school, which is all faith and the promise of love. To a Jew like me, that promise seems intriguing, but it also seems completely false. It’s puzzling to be a Reform Jew as I am — both interested in certain values in Judaism and skeptical of the concept of faith — and interact with that evangelicalism. I wanted to understand it better.
Do you always have something you want to understand when you begin a story? Or do you have a point you want to get to?
Yes, for me a story is a way to try to figure out some kind of unrest. Generally, I start with something I want to grapple with. I look at some problem I want to understand in myself or in the world. In a way, writing a story is a way to exert control over chaos — stories, novels, anything. I wake up, move through the world’s chaos large and small, and then I try to shape a narrative to contain it.
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Lily Meyer is a writer and translator living in Washington, DC.
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