The UnAmericans: Stories
“My Grandmother Tells Me This Story”
“My Grandmother Tells Me This Story” is from Molly Antopol’s debut collection, THE UNAMERICANS: STORIES (W.W. Norton). Antopol is a former Wallace Stegner Fellow and a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree. Her writing has appeared in One Story, Ecotone, Glimmer Train, American Short Fiction, and elsewhere.
Antopol said this about his story: I come from a big family of storytellers, and some of the stories in my book–notably the ones set during the McCarthy Era–were inspired my family history. But the one place I never heard about was Antopol, the Belarusian village where everyone came from, which was virtually destroyed during World War II. For so many years I had tried to imagine the lives of the relatives my great-grandmother Molly had left behind when she came over to the States alone–and what had become of them, and their children, before and during the war.
A little more that a decade ago I was living in Israel and wound up at a holiday party in Haifa, where I met an elderly woman from Antopol. We sat in the kitchen all night and she told me stories about the village–it was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. At the end of the evening, she led me to an oral history book of the village, written in Hebrew, Yiddish and English, that her son had–and that book planted the seeds for “My Grandmother Tells Me This Story.”
After finishing that book, I read and watched every memoir and documentary I could find on the village, notably everything I could get my hands on about teenagers who had escaped the Nazis and joined partisan camps of guerilla fighters in the woods outside Antopol. I also did archival research, interviewed a number of partisans, and traveled to Eastern Europe. My time in Lithuania was particularly helpful–I researched in museums and libraries, and, once I was pretty far along on the story, sat down with a scholar in Vilnius whose focus was on the lives of partisan girls.
What’s tricky–and fascinating–about researching such a traumatic moment in history is that everyone remembers it differently. I read more than a dozen memoirs on partisan life, and many of the writers remembered the exact same places and events in completely different ways–even details as basic as weather conditions, the kinds of weapons they had access to, and the types of food they scavenged while living in the forest. And many of those details contradicted the more journalistic texts I read. That brought up an interesting question for me: what’s the “truth” that fiction writers are ultimately searching for when researching? I’d always told myself that my job as a writer is to think about character first and foremost–but so many of the emotional truths in my characters’ lives are informed by the history and politics that surround them. And obviously another task for me is to do every bit of research I can so that all of the historical details in my stories are right–only, in subsequent drafts, to delete half of those details so that the research feels invisible and all the reader cares about are the characters. But when so much of the research doesn’t add up, it brings forth an important question on how to write accurately about moments in history remembered in so many different ways–and which accounts are ultimately the most truthful.
I wrestled with that story for close to a year. It was only when I made the narrator a reticent older woman frustrated by her granddaughter’s incessant questions about dark periods of history she’d never lived through, that the story really cracked open for me.