Ethics of the Off-Center

Adina Hoffman & Lisa Cohen

Adina Hoffman and Lisa Cohen are long-time friends. Throughout this past summer, the two exchanged emails between Jerusalem and New York, considering what it means to write biography in each of their most recent books and beyond. Hoffman’s Till We Have Built Jerusalem, published by FSG in April, explores the contributions of three modern architects to Jerusalem’s cityscape, and Cohen’s All We Know, published by FSG in 2012, sheds light on the lives of three largely forgotten modernist figures—Esther Murphy, Mercedes de Acosta, and Madge Garland. Their conversation flows from Hoffman’s archival instincts to Cohen’s desire to write with the dead, limning an ethics of writing that challenges received histories, upends staid forms, and finds in overlooked traces necessary truths.

Lisa Cohen: We’re both deeply involved in biographical research and writing, but have qualms about calling ourselves biographers. As you’ve observed, “To announce oneself a biographer suggests a compulsion to research and produce big, fat foursquare volumes about illustrious dead people.” We’ve written in less monumental forms about people who’ve been overlooked. Why do you think you’re drawn to this approach?

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Adina Hoffman: I don’t think I’ve ever deliberately set out to write about an overlooked figure just because she’s overlooked. I write out of some fascination, which usually sends me on one gumshoe hunt or another, looking for traces of a forgotten person or buried place. When I’m lucky, these ostensibly “minor” investigations open out onto larger questions about culture or art or politics. Microcosms move me. Their tactility. A certain impatience with received wisdom is also key.

LC: Yes, impatience—and some incredulity: Why is this person to whom I’m drawn not better known? It’s also about some instinct or desire for a conversation across decades and centuries. Maybe someone calls to me and I reply. Isn’t that what reading is? Then I’m driven by the questions I’m asking my “subjects” (a word I don’t love)—questions to which I truly don’t know the answers. How do you explain your fascinations?

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AH: Disposition? My gaze seems naturally to center on what other people consider marginal. At the same time, I’m compelled by a more conscious and even ethical need, to “despise no one, and dismiss nothing”—this is the Mishnah talking—“for there is no person without his hour and no thing without its place.” Lofty as that sounds, that need is linked to a very basic, maybe selfish, desire to keep surprising myself and my subjects—which is also ethical. To stay alert to the world, to avoid complacency. That’s what drives me when it comes to all my writing, whether it’s about a destroyed Palestinian village or a temperamental maverick of a German-Jewish modernist architect who suddenly finds himself a refugee in dusty British Mandate Jerusalem.

LC: I like that—the ethics of the off-center, or of the once central and now forgotten. It’s also, for me, an attraction to people who resisted doing what was expected of them.

AH: Absolutely. And I guess I’m not especially interested in doing what’s expected of me either, whether in terms of the specific mysteries I’m trying to solve, or formally. So that the actual writing becomes a kind of search, too. To account for what I’ve unearthed in the course of those slightly crazed excavations of mine I’ll follow my nose—or really, my prose—in any number of directions. Sometimes, that propels me down a more essayistic path, or into the realm of memoir, or portraiture, or cultural criticism. At times it sends me across more traditional biographical terrain—of the “in June of that year she confided in her older sister” sort. For better or worse I seem compelled to scramble these different approaches.

LC: I can’t separate writing about people who are thought to have “left no monument” (which one of her friends said to me about Madge Garland, and which became a kind of refrain of my portrait of her in All We Know) and the pull to find the right shape and rhythm for the work. And this impulse is related to my attempts to refigure the biographical “rescue” project as it’s often been conceived. I’m driven to make certain people visible—people who might not be seen otherwise, or who have vexed relationships to more canonical histories—but I have no special purchase on their truth and no need to make them heroic exemplars. I mean that those formal questions aren’t separate from thinking about how facts are produced and represented, or about how we assume the validity and authenticity of certain facts and not others. Maybe the people I’m writing about “left no monument,” but maybe the monuments they left—the traces of their lives—have been deliberately destroyed. Or the evidence they left is still in plain view, but not seen as valuable.

AH: Invisibility, in other words, is in the eye of the beholder?

LC: I know I see things others don’t—but my ethical imperative is also to keep challenging my own blindnesses. Speaking of what is and isn’t visible, you’ve spent a lot of time reimagining the past though the built environment. Earlier you mentioned tactility. What is it about architecture or other physical sites that fires your imagination and your archival instincts?

AH: When I was younger, I was fixated on recording what I saw—as if registering those physical details was the most important thing I could do as a writer. And I still believe deeply in the need to account in very concrete terms for what stirs me about various surfaces, trees, doorframes, faces. Over time, though, I’ve become much more conscious of what isn’t visible to the naked eye. That kind of intensive probing feels especially pressing in a place like Jerusalem—because of all the historical layers underfoot and the way the memory of many of those layers is so aggressively repressed. It also has to do with the role that individuals play in the grand narrative of the city. Or don’t. In Jerusalem, politics and religion tend to swallow an awful lot of the motley human stuff that speaks most powerfully to me. But I’ve come to see the city itself as a kind of archive. Trying to uncover its hidden aspects holds out the same pleasures that archival research does—a chance to push past the flatly generalizing way so many stories are told about this place, and instead root around in the far more startling, poignant, and messy day-to-day particulars. I wonder how you’d characterize your own archival obsessions.

LC: I recently wrote this sentence: “Grief, epistemology, history, poetry. Which is what biography as a practice means to me.” Certainly it is true of this new book. There’s no denying that biographical writing is a way to spend time with people who are gone—with their vulnerable words and stuff, and with the people who cared about or were infuriated by them. I’m interested in reading and writing with the dead (and the living) and their language—not about a human or textual object or subject—and in continually looking into how I know what I know about them. All We Know is a book of portraits that asks how such portraiture has been and can be written. But I’m intrigued by what you said earlier about surprising your subjects. What did you mean?

AH: 1948, for instance. Maybe it’s inevitable if your subject is the modern Middle East, but in every book I’ve written I’ve been forced at some point to wrangle with the year Palestine stopped and Israel started. Now, it seems to me incredibly tedious to keep trotting out the same battles and bombings that everyone does. I can’t bear to do it, actually—I mean physically. And anyway I’d sound ridiculous imitating that PBS documentary–styled voice-over, intoning what happened That Fateful Year. I’m much more interested in trying to picture how the world looked to each of my characters when the clock struck midnight on January 1, 1948. No one knew then that the year ahead would be so momentous, and even if they sensed it, they didn’t know exactly how the next 365 days would unfold. Approaching it this way you realize that there were as many 1948s as there were people who lived through that year. At some point, of course, you can and probably should also step back and say something about a larger pattern or mood. But that comes later. You talked earlier about challenging your own blindnesses. I want to jar myself out of what I see, or know. Or what I think I know.

Which brings us back to where we started this conversation—that urge we each have to write “in less monumental forms about people who’ve been overlooked.” We’ve both written triptychs, and I know the book you’re working on now has several separate but related sections as well. To me the impulse to make a narrative somehow multiple or prismatic in its focus is also about the hunger to get past a single, monolithic way of viewing the world. My particular experience obviously anchors my books in a distinct sensibility and tone. That doesn’t mean, though, that I can’t stretch myself to try and see past the circumstances of my own autobiography: in a way, that’s the imaginative challenge I set for myself with each new project. How do you understand the role of the imagination—and, while we’re at it, the multiple—in your work? These categories seem connected to me.

LC: I’m actually including my own circumstances in this new book in ways that I was careful to avoid in All We Know—writing about people I knew and a history I lived through. And while loss and mourning were submerged themes in that book, they’re central now. For me the impulse toward the multiple or numerous has to do with what’s generative about juxtaposition, and is connected to your question about the imagination. All kinds of imagining are involved in being curious about how someone else lived and thought about her life—and in making it possible for a reader to inhabit moments of another’s being. It’s also involved in making connections among apparently disparate materials, while making room for a reader to move around imaginatively in the interstices of those juxtapositions and absences. Then I’m as interested in the stories and lies people tell about themselves as I am in what happened. Our fantasies are facts of life. Most lives only look inevitable in retrospect, they seldom feel that way from the inside, so being tuned in to how someone imagined him or herself is key. You’re so right about the flatly generalizing way many stories are told. I think we’re both tilting at the world of received ideas, armed with the exciting, strange, often tragic particularity of the facts we find. In the end, it’s about writing sentences that try to account imaginatively for the twists, contradictions, and incompleteness of the material I gather—and fail to gather. Shall we end by saying that in the summer of that year they had a (written) conversation about their work?

AH: Yes! And that neither of them was completely sure what the best note was on which to close. They were friends off the record, in private, after all, while this occasion was public, destined to be posted on their publisher’s website. But they’d been talking about this stuff for years—sometimes on the phone, sometimes in person, and now it was going on over e-mail, across an ocean, and for various strangers to read . . . Etc. And that “etc.” holds a whole world of meaning, too. Where to start? Where to end?

Adina Hoffman is the author of House of Windows: Portraits from a Jerusalem Neighborhood and My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century, named one of the best twenty books of 2009 by the Barnes & Noble Review. She is also the author, with Peter Cole, of Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza, which received the American Library Association’s award for the Jewish book of the year. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, she was awarded one of the inaugural Windham Campbell prizes in 2013. She divides her time between Jerusalem and New Haven.

Lisa Cohen’s All We Know: Three Lives was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award and the PEN/Bograd Weld prize, and a New York Times Notable Book and Editor’s Choice for 2012. Her writing has appeared in BOMB, The New York Times, Vogue, The Paris Review, The New Yorker, Women in Clothes, and many other journals and anthologies. She teaches at Wesleyan University.


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