Jo-Anne Berelowitz discusses family, speculation, memory as a moral imperative, and art history with associate editor Amy Gordon.
Jo-Anne Berelowitz, art historian, has published creative nonfiction in Accent, The Hong Kong Review, Assay, and the Sycamore Review. In 2018 she was awarded the Wabash Prize in creative nonfiction. She is currently working on a long-form memoir about growing up in South Africa. She lives in Austin, Texas.
Amy Gordon: When reading “Looking for Joseph,” I was curious about the entire process, from the genesis of the idea to the research to the writing, if it even happened in that order. Did the idea or writing about your grandfather spur the research or did the research eventually lead to the essay?
Jo-Anne Berelowitz: A driving factor for many memoirists is the desire to know where you’re from and what made you who and what you are. Joseph was the only grandparent I never knew. As I state in the essay, because I’m named for him, I always felt an identification with him and a longing to know more. My father was unable to satisfy that longing and that was tremendously frustrating to me. The essay is, I think, as much about my frustrations with my father as about my longing to know more of Joseph. I should add that I’ve also written about my maternal grandfather, Sydney. I knew Sydney very well because he and my grandmother lived a short walk from the house I grew up in and I saw my maternal grandparents at least twice per week. Sydney was very different from Joseph. He was a successful entrepreneur who collected art and antiques. One painting from his collection is a chapter in my memoir.
I think more than anything else, it was the discovery of Joseph’s certificate of naturalization that really pushed me to write about him. I couldn’t understand how my father could be so cavalier about the certificate and how incurious he’d been about his father. He respected him, and maybe feared him, but they weren’t close. I don’t think Joseph knew how to be.
AG: Can you talk more about the research process—how long it took, how you approached it, how difficult it was?
JAB: I love research. I did tons more than is evident in the essay. Lots of reading about Lithuania and Kovno and the pogroms and Lithuanian and Nazi atrocities to the Jews. Also research about transatlantic travel to South Africa. And about Jews in South Africa. I really dug into South African history, which I’d resisted because growing up I didn’t want to be South African. It was such a problematic place.
I completed what I thought was the final version about six years ago. My advisor in my MFA program thought it was “good to go” and I should send it out to journals. I received a very nice personal letter from the editor of one of the leading nonfiction journals telling me that their editorial team had given it considerable consideration but, in the end, felt it wasn’t universal enough. I put it away for a few years and then returned to it and rethought it into the version I submitted to Colorado Review. For me, the research is always the easy part.
AG: How did you come up with the idea of using midrash as a frame for the essay? You are a nonfiction writer, and I’m wondering if it was difficult to write the speculative sections?
JAB: My first mentor in my first year in my MFA program, Marjorie Sandor, gave a morning lecture on the concept of midrash as a way of dropping into narrative and expanding it. When I was reworking the Joseph story, her lecture jumped into my thinking. I’d had speculative sections in the earlier draft, but midrash allowed me to make those speculations more Jewish, which I wanted as my manuscript has been moving into being informed by my growing embrace of my own Jewish heritage. I should add that one can think of fiction as a form of speculation, and I adore fiction.
AG: You talk in “Looking for Joseph” about the ancient Jewish creed that memory is a moral imperative. Does this imperative impact your writing, maybe in terms of what you chose to write about? Do you think that writing helps fulfil this imperative?
JAB: I think all memoirists are driven by an imperative of remembering. It’s also true that remembering is a central obligation in Jewish teaching. About ten years ago I came across a very famous book in the modern Jewish canon: Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi’s ZAKHOR: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, with an introduction by Harold Bloom, whose writing you have probably encountered. It’s a brilliant book, and I cannot recommend it enough. From the get-go, Yerushalmi mentions memory as an “anxious search for that which has been lost.” He tells that the Hebrew word “Zakhar”/remember, appears in the Hebrew Bible “no less than 169 times” usually with either God or Israel as the subject, for memory is incumbent upon both.
Because I’m an historian and the wife of a classically trained psychiatrist, remembering and forgetting are major concerns for me. I wanted to know how I could make Joseph’s name a blessing when I’d never known him.
AG: How, if at all, does your background as an art historian influence how you think about writing or how you write?
JAB: When I started writing CNF, I thought I was done with art history. I was wrong. Art historical images pop up all the time in my writing. After decades of teaching art history and doing my own research, my brain has become a data bank of images. Sometimes I think through images from the history of art. I never search for them. They just pop into consciousness, and so I then work with them and try to see what I can learn from them, how they might illuminate my memoir.
Being an art historian has also inclined me to research, to a kind of writing that wants to put in a lot of backstory. I find I have to work hard not to do that. I never don’t think as an art historian. I’ll mention another book that has been hugely helpful to me: The Melancholy Art by Michael Ann Holly. Holly describes art history as a “melancholic” pursuit because the art historian is dealing with fragments and trying to create/recreate a world from the bits and pieces that have survived. My undertaking of the Joseph story was a melancholic undertaking.
AG: Will you tell me a little bit more about the book-length memoir you’re currently working on about your life in South Africa?
JAB: I’m in my approximately seventh—and what I hope is my last—edit of my long-form memoir. As I began to think about retiring from active teaching as an art historian, I felt a sense of loss that I would no longer be required to write and publish. I realized that I was ok with not writing art history, but I wasn’t ok with not writing. At around that time I also became very close to a South African who’d just immigrated to the US. Talking with her about South Africa made me realize how little I’d processed my life and experiences there and how much, although I fought it, I really was South African. I decided to write about it. It has been a steep learning curve because academic writing is so different from personal essay writing, but I’ve loved it. The memoir does draw on writing I’ve published. The Joseph essay that you published will be part of it. In 2018 I was awarded the Wabash Prize in CNF for an essay, “Epiphany,” published in the Sycamore Review. That will also be included in the memoir. My work has become increasingly Jewish in how I understand my world and my relationship to all kinds of issues. At this point, I feel close to querying agents for publication.
Amy Gordon is an associate editor at Colorado Review and a second-year MFA candidate in creative nonfiction. She is the Morgan Library Writer in Residence for the 2023-24 academic year.