Here’s the latest from the crossroads of faith, media & culture: 08/08/22

Benefit Street: A Novel

Fearful flights. At a Passover Seder years ago, an elderly woman approached author Adria Bernardi about her own exodus as a child from Armenia during its tragic genocide.  Since then, more people than Bernardi can count have pulled her aside and entrusted her with their stories of escape from tyrannical regimes bent on ethnic and cultural annihilation. Their voices were grafted onto the voices of the characters in her new novel – and winner of the prestigious Fiction Collective Two (FC2) Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction PrizeBenefit Street.

JWK: Tell me about Benefit Street.

Adria Bernardi: Benefit Street is story of exile, of the refugee and the emigrant, and humans who are displaced and must reconstruct lost place and new place. It’s the story of five friends—all teachers—who have met after work every Tuesday for years at a teahouse called the Kafiye, where they joked, complained, drank too much tea, ate too many sweets. And as they met each week, they talk about their days: a son’s ninth birthday; the bruise on the arm of an aging mother; soldiers stationed outside the school; the funeral of an opposition political leader who dies in car accident. They talked about living engaged lives inside and outside the home.

Benefit Street tells the story of dispersal from an unnamed provincial capital of an unnamed country; it’s the story of mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, colleagues, neighbors, and a wide circle of friends, as war to the East threatens and as constitutional rights are daily eroded by an increasingly authoritarian regime. The idealism they’ve carried with them from youth—commitment to freedom, democracy, and co-existence—is severely tested with the revelation that a friend who has been the leader of their group of friends since youth has sexually abused women under his care. The limits of reconciliation are tested as Şiva, the narrator of Benefit Street, makes an arduous journey into the mountains to meet her estranged mother, a woman with a genius for weaving complex rugs.

JWK: What inspired you to write it?

AB: Benefit Street came out of hearing the experiences of friends and acquaintances, of families and communities known to me, whose lives were changed forever after a geographic displacement caused traumatic upheaval of their lives. Each disrupted life was its own but there was among these individuals a commonality in the underlying causes of these traumatic displacements, which was violence and the threats of violence against groups of people singled out for erasure by another group of people. These displacements were set in motion by systems of power in which humans had set into motion the systematic removing of people from place or the systematic eliminating of certain groups of people. In all of these encounters, I had been asked to witness what someone had shared with me of their lives which had been ruptured by violence.

One of these moments occurred at a Passover Seder when one woman began speaking to me from across table, telling me of about her exodus as a child from Armenia, with only her mother and her brother and herself having survived the Armenian genocide. I had no further conversations with her; yet I carried her story with me. The mother of my son’s classmate began, unexpectedly, to speak about her life in Tehran and about the precipitous and dangerous departure from it. For reasons I don’t entirely understand, they asked me to be a listener. When someone asks you to be a listener, I think it is a sacred moment. And I think that my aspiration as a human being is to listen carefully, with empathy, taking my self ego out of the equation, and to honor as best I can what that moment or that relationship has been asked of me.

As a writer, this required of me that I sat for a long period with these experiences of friends and neighbors that shared at least one commonality, which was traumatic displacement from home, culture and language precipitated by some form of violent repression. I tried to commit to understanding something about experiences I had not understood before. To listen further. To question my ignorance and to educate myself. It was after sitting with these stories to which I had been a witness in some way that a voice emerged. That voice was the voice of Şiva, who became the narrator of this novel. I can’t explain how it is that such a voice emerges; the processes of imagining remain largely inexplicable, something it shares with the zone of mystery. I only know that one day I realized I was hearing Şiva’s voice clearly, and that it was undeniable.

Once I understood all that was required of me as the writer of this story, as its conduit, was to listen, to inquire, to seek, to remain open, and to navigate the space between self and other, I began to understand the story of her life— and the quick unraveling of a beautiful, full, and dedicated life in a beloved city—and her remaking of a new one.

JWK: Why is it important to hear from those who have escaped genocide?

AB: Survivors of genocide are everywhere among us. Whether we know it or not. Whether we choose to hear it or not. A close friend, for example, whom I have known for years, begins to talk about a parent who is a survivor of Shoah. You’re asked, usually unexpectedly, to listen to someone’s pain. What led to the writing of this book was having listened to and heard the experiences of people who had survived systematic violence and terror. To have listened to and heard people experienced the traumas that persists following the upheaval of forced displacement. If someone has asked you to listen, and to hear, it’s important to accept that you’ve been asked to bear witness. In order to do this, it’s essential to remain open, to be receptive to hearing, and to engaging in conversations with strangers from all walks of life. Those with whom you might not think you’ll have a shared experience, a commonality. The challenge is to find it within ourselves to live with the uncertainties of not understanding in order to understand what our response might be. Perhaps there are words that can be said. Perhaps there is a response that involves an action that might alleviate pain and suffering. Perhaps it’s only to be still and to continue to carry the experience of another with us. It’s excruciatingly painful to sit with another’s pain, but isn’t this what’s asked of us if we are going to be fully human in this world?

JWK: What are your thoughts about the current situation in Ukraine?

AB: My thoughts about Ukraine read like a list of the daily and hourly news coming out of Ukraine: An estimated 6,162,309 individual refugees from Ukraine in Europe; an estimated 6,275,000 people internally displaced within Ukraine; an estimated 5,547,000 people have returned to the place of habitual residence after leaving due to hostilities; nearly two-thirds of the children in Ukraine have been displaced. Civilians have been systematically targeted and bombed—schools, hospitals, apartment buildings, a theater where people were sheltering. Systematic slaughter and crimes against humanity in towns like Bucha. And why? Because one country says, because one despot will do anything, foment any level of cruelty, abuse, torture, in an attempt to dehumanize a culture and people—others—who they deem to be inferior.

It is, as it was, in the Hitlerian spring, with its dream of re-establishing the fantasy of a former empire, an attempt to erase all others. Very early after the Russian fascist invasion of Ukraine, when those of us from afar were seeing the images of families separating, of children and women leaving on trains for zones away from the war, I felt, viscerally, a rip, and I said to myself, “Their lives are broken; it will never be the same. They will never go back, and even for those who do go back, the lives they had will not be there.” Children who had a favorite teacher now find themselves in schools in Poland, learning a new language in order to continue their learning. Sisters leaving behind parents who find themselves living in an apartment in Latin America. I found myself thinking, what a tremendous, tremendous waste of all that is good. Waste.

And because I am the daughter and granddaughter of emigrants, I found myself thinking about the lives of those who do survive, whether in Ukraine or in other countries, and I thought about their lives in a year, in five years, in ten or twenty years, and that even if they have had the good fortune to remake lives, to reunite with family members and friends, their trauma remains with them. Always. My mother left Italy at seven years old, with her mother, in 1939. She was a grammar school student. She was learning to read and to write. In all these years, she has never talked about her days as a grammar school student or, really, of her childhood at all. Until recently. And one of the things she has recently said is that when she had a chance in the 1950s to go back to Italy to visit the aunt who had helped raise her, she could not do it because she did not want to inflict the pain of another separation upon her aunt.

The break may heal but it doesn’t go away. Life is very precious and precarious; it should be honored. This is what I think about Ukraine. And about Afghanistan. And about Syria. It is such an ancient story. It is always a new version of the same ancient story. No two stories are the same. I ask myself, Can I be a witness? Can I leave one person in a bit less pain for one moment? Can I not cause more pain? That’s what I think about. And I look for what is hopeful.

There are always some rays of hope. Here is one: a recent study that suggests I’m not alone in responding to the trauma of these kinds of displacement in this way; if found that in twenty-eight different countries, 78 percent of people approved of support for refugees and believe those fleeting conflict or persecution should be able to take refuge in another country.

JWK: What do you hope readers take from Benefit Street?

AB: As a writer I keep reminding myself that the writer doesn’t have control over how a reader will experience a particular work because that experience belongs to the reader alone. And so, my hope is that, as a work of fiction, a reader will be able to enter this imagined world, believe that it exists, and once inside of it, through its characters, its places and its voices, pass through it, and that the work offers a way to experience the world anew by finding in it experiences that are universal and experiences that particular to the individual reader.

Why do we care about a tall, skinny old man on a worn-out horse going here and there? Isn’t it that by the time we get to Chapter IV and read, “It must have been dawn when Don Quixote left the inn so contented, so high-spirited, so jubilant, at having been dubbed a knight that his joy almost burst the cinches of his horse” we are positioned there with him, embarked along with him on his journeys, exploring the most complex and difficult, the horrific, and also the most wonderous experiences we as humans can experience? And that we have another way to return to the world reimagined? This I think is one of the highest forms of experiences that we as human beings can hope for.

At the core of this aspiration is an understanding of love, love which is called by many names in many spiritual traditions, which requires the arduous work of remaining committed and ongoing navigating of the space between the self and the other, you and me. This is why I write. What literature can do is to give us one more way, a way I would argue which is unique to the written word and to imagination, to experience what is terrifying, horrific and complex of this world, and to re-discover our humanity by looking bravely at both the large world and our small, intimate worlds.

JWK: What’s next for you?

AB:  Thanks so much for asking. Right now, I’m looking forward to helping to bring Benefit Street into the world and to helping it find its readers, and so, I’ll be participating in some readings, author discussions, and teaching a few writing workshops.

I’ll soon be finishing a new novel—a work of historical fiction about a physician and man of science in the 18th century. It’s about the centuries-old tensions between mind and spirit, and the tensions between a life dedicated to the rational world of science and scientific investigation and the realm of the spirit. The novel, which like Benefit Street is in both poetry and prose, is told not from the expert’s perspective, but his non-physician wife, who considers the heavy costs of healing and the single-minded dedication that healing requires. It investigates how single-mindedness and dedication to vocation places limits upon perspective, constraining experience and personal relationships. It’s also a book that examines a life that quietly and steadfastly celebrates the endurance and vigilance required to prevent the damage and destruction caused by the forces of ignorance.

John W. Kennedy is a writer, producer and media development consultant specializing in television and movie projects that uphold positive timeless values, including trust in God.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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