An Interview With Courtney Sender

By Associate Editor Heather Gutekunst


Courtney Sender’s fiction has appeared in the Kenyon Review, Agni, American Short Fiction, Glimmer Train, Prairie Schooner, and many others. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times’s Modern Love and The Atlantic. A Yaddo and MacDowell fellow, she holds an MFA in fiction from the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars and an MTS from Harvard Divinity School. Sender’s story “Prayer for Being Kissed” takes place in a pit of a Nazi killing field during World War II. Associate editor Heather Gutekunst conducted a virtual interview with Courtney to discuss her story, recently published in the Spring 2022 issue of Colorado Review.

Heather Gutekunst: Since “Prayer for Being Kissed” is forthcoming in our spring issue, we’ll try not to spoil too much. But this story is visceral, embodied, and deals with traumatic subject matter. I’m very interested in what inspired this story for you.

Courtney Sender: My fiction holds interest in the Holocaust, and my grandparents were Holocaust survivors. While I’m often writing about third-generation Holocaust survivors and our modern-day inheritance of the Holocaust, “Prayer for Being Kissed” is really the first story I wrote that is set in the camps, or in this case during World War II at a killing field. I was at Harvard Divinity School at the time, and I was taking a class on Holocaust history with Professor Kevin Madigan, and a classmate of mine, Danny Kraft, who’s a great scholar of Jewish history, mentioned to me that there’s a Yiddish folktale about a man who survived in these killing fields and got out of the pit. He found a way to survive by knocking on doors, and when someone opened their door, he would say, “I’m Jesus Christ.” It’s a fact that people survived the killing fields by playing dead in these pits, but I made the major change that J is mistaken for Jesus. To me, this story is really about transformation and uses Jewish oral storytelling tradition to carry on this folktale.

HG: In my own research I’ve been thinking about trauma and the unnarratable, and this story uses humor and absurdity to narrate the unfathomable. Was this a key piece of your writing process?

CS: Thank you for picking up on that humor! The first time I read this story aloud, I was at a conference called (Un)Witnessable at UPenn, put on by Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach. And there, it was a room full of Holocaust scholars and writers, and they laughed. I’ve read this story aloud to secular audiences who were dead somber in response and don’t necessarily see the humor or feel they are allowed to see the humor. But that humor is meant to be there. This story calls upon that gallows humor in a literal way as well as the self-deprecating humor, which is very much a part of Jewish oral and literary tradition. I think of Bernard Malamud, Grace Paley, and more contemporary authors like Nathan Englander, Nicole Krauss, Jonathan Safran Foer, Etgar Keret. These are all authors who have always engaged with comedy in the face of tragedy.

You mention the unspeakable trauma. When we use literature to discuss history you only have words to do it. So how can you face the impossible? One way to do it is to mitigate that horror with humor. I’m not aiming for unrelenting horror in my fiction. I think we have nonfiction, first-person testimony, historical documents—that’s where I want the real horror to live. I recognize that I am working in fiction, and what I can contribute is another perspective, as I’m not trying to educate. I think the documents are enough if you want to learn about the facts; fiction is offering something else; it’s doing something transformative.

Very often the subjugating powers or Fascism do not laugh. Another way to fight subjugation and fascism is humor; to laugh at it is to take their power.

HG: Throughout the story there is a lot of being in the body and bodily intelligence. In a lot of ways, being in the body is all J has left. What is the significance to writing this type of visceral embodied experience?

CS: I am a writer of the body, and a lot of my work deals with the embodied physical experience of personhood. While most of my work is about romance and sex and love (and this story has some of that quasi-romance in it), this story deals with the extremis at which characters have only their bodies. J’s living breathing body is surrounded by dead bodies, and this forced me to play a lot with language and think about how you can express an experience when there is no one to speak to.

HG: I would argue that you have to embody this experience alongside J, that we have to live in his body with him to understand this story.

CS: Yes, and when you are so deeply embodied in this way, the story does become absurd. In terms of inciting incidents, it is the realities of the body that cause plot. Bodily questions of vacating, of sex drive—they move the story forward based on what the body needs and what the body can do.

HG: Finally, I’m wondering if you wouldn’t mind previewing your forthcoming story collection, coming out next year.

CS: I’d love to. My collection has a long title. It’s In Other Lifetimes All I’ve Lost Comes Back to Me. The title contains the book in a lot of ways. It’s a meditation on longing, a desire for a different life, looking back and wanting something else. It does a lot of what “Prayer for Being Kissed” does as well. The collection will come out in March 2023.

To see more from Courtney Sender, visit her website here.

Heather Gutekunst is an MA literature candidate at Colorado State University and an associate editor for Colorado Review. She has worked with a small subsidiary of Black Rose Writing (La Casita Grande Editores) to publish . . . And Other Stories, by Hugo Estaban Rodríguez Castañeda (2018). Her current research considers Black Horror read through the lens of Afro-pessimist theory.