Lee Kofman is a Russian-born, Israeli-Australian novelist, essayist and memoirist. In 2019 she released two books - Imperfect: How Our Bodies Shape the People We Become and Split: True Stories of Leaving, Loss and New Beginnings.
Lee published her memoir, The Dangerous Bride, in 2014, and co-edited Rebellious Daughters, an anthology of personal essays by prominent Australian authors, in 2016.
Lee's short works have been widely published in Australia, Canada, Israel, the United Kingdom and the United States. Lee holds a PhD in social sciences and MA in creative writing. She has also published three fiction books written in Hebrew and published in Israel.
ASTRID: Dr Lee Kofman is a Russian-born, Israeli Australian writer. Her first three novels were published in Israel in Hebrew. Her memoir, The Dangerous Bride, was published in 2014, and her short stories have been published in Australia, the US, Canada, Israel and the UK. It's now 2019, and she has published two works already this year, Imperfect: How Our Bodies Shape the People We Become, and Split, an anthology that Lee edited.
Welcome to The Garret, Lee.
LEE: Hello, and thank you for having me.
ASTRID: I'm fascinated by writers who can speak and read and write in multiple languages. It gives you access to so many different words and ways of thinking. Before we go into your most recent books that are, of course, written in English, what languages are you fluent in?
LEE: I actually often say I don't speak properly three languages, because that's the problem with being multilingual. There's a lot of benefits to this, but in my case at least, maybe other people are smarter about this than me. I really have three languages. I'm not at home properly in neither of them. I do feel that I have a lot of benefit also from being trilingual and a bilingual writer.
In fact, I just found recently there is a name for somebody like me who does not write in their mother tongue, and I think it's called, it's pronounced exophonic. E-X-O-P-H-O-N-I-C. It was nice to see that creatures like me exist, and there is even term for us. I was born in Russia and I've never written anything in Russian apart from school assignments and greeting cards. Because I left Russia when I was 12. I can read fluently in Russian, speak not so much, but the reading is good.
Then I wrote, as you were saying, three books in Hebrew and two more books in English, and edited two collections in English. I feel that in all three languages, it's not just different ideas, I'm a different person. That feels to me, and I don't want to sound presumptuous, but I think it enriches somehow my perspective when I write, or so I hope at least. Because when I speak in Russian, I'm like a child frozen forever. I find myself when I speak to people in Russian, even if they're younger than me, if they're adults I address them really deferentially. I already have quite a high-pitched voice, but my voice goes even higher than that.
Really, it's preserving the child in me, which is bizarre when I speak the language, but it's not bad when I think in it, while I still write in English. Hebrew preserves my adolescent and young adult self. I left Israel when I was 26, so my formative years really have been there partly. In Israel, I'm tougher. I've got more bravado. I'm less authentic, to be honest. There is some kind of beauty to this too, because I tend to be quite soft and appear at least soft and gentle, but in Hebrew I get that other part of me, which is nice too. My outlook on life is more, I think, wary and worried.
Whereas in English I relax more, and I can be a bit more reflective and daydreaming. Probably that's where I'll end this discussion, because I already talked too much, but I actually like my writing more in English. When I decided that I'm going to change my languages, I was about 30 when I made that decision. I was by then about four years in Australia. I at first thought it will not work, I'm just going to experiment, and it probably will be awful, and the writing will be contrived. It was for a while.
Eventually I think I sound more natural, more myself in English, because funnily enough English in some ways is a bit more similar to Russian. Which sounds really bizarre, again, because Russian is a Cyrillic language. I actually speak three languages from three different families. Hebrew comes from Aramaic, and English as you probably know, a Germanic language. Because Hebrew is so concise, the words are so short and relatively inflexible in the structure itself, there's a lot of beauty in that concise and tough beauty, but it's not my, I think, sensibility.
Whereas English in some ways resemble Russian, because it lets me write the way I talk and think, which you probably noticed in roundabout way. I always start from one point, then go into lots of clauses, and then hopefully by the end of the sentence or paragraph, come back to where I started. I've been feeling more myself in English.
ASTRID: Your books are published overseas, including in Israel. Does that mean they're translated into Hebrew?
LEE: No. The first three books that I wrote, which is two novels and a collection of short stories I wrote in Hebrew, but the last of these three books was written when I was already living in Australia. This is when I made the decision to be a writer here, and to write for another country, for readership somewhere totally on the other side of the globe just was not what I wanted. Because I'm a literary writer, which means I don't sell books, which means ...
ASTRID: So honest.
LEE: It is my pleasure. I can sell a bit, but it's not something I make money from, make a living off, and so my pleasure really is in the contact with readers and literary community, so I had to change to English. Then I did have offer to translate one of my novels, the last one that I wrote in Hebrew into English, and I decided not to. Because I just, as I was saying before, once I changed my language, and also now that I'm a bit older, I cringe at my earlier books. I just thought I don't feel like I belong there anymore.
ASTRID: That's extraordinary. I want to talk to you most about Imperfect and Split, your two works of 2019. Slightly before we get there, you write about the body and the body's surface in Imperfect. Of course, it's not the first time that you have written about your body. You wrote a previous book called Scars. Can you just briefly talk to us about that before we move into Imperfect?
LEE: Yeah. Of course. Scars is a novel, was my very first novel that I wrote at 20. It is very bad. It's a really bad book.
ASTRID: It was still published.
LEE: I know, but even my publisher said to me, ‘Lee, this reads like a diary’. It was a very small publisher. It was not self-published, but it wasn't a major publication. It sold 300 copies. The thing about that book was I really did fiction. I was 20 and I just fictionalised my life story, framing it with my body, with my scars. I didn't have much self-insight at that time at what my body actually meant to me.
ASTRID: In Imperfect, if I can quote Imperfect to you, you actually described this work, Scars, as cathartic, youthfully simplistic, and a work that the writing of it brought you zero understanding. That gels with what you were just saying. You look back on your writing, and don't see yourself or the person that you are in it.
ASTRID: What made you think that now, 2019, is the right time for you to release a work about the body, yours and other people's?
LEE: I have had this sort of pressure I was feeling to write about my scars for a long time, and, of course, that book was the first release of it, which was not successful. One of the main reasons I've always wanted to write about it, and also the reason why I did not write about it was the strong shame I've always felt around my body. I have a lot of scars, not just a few, from different what I call my childhood misfortunes. I've never seen around me as I was growing up, and still I don't really, I've never seen around me people who looked like me, not on a beach, not on a summer street, nowhere really. Even though when you look at statistics, scars are very common. Maybe not as many scars as I have, but still scars are common.
Also, in popular culture, in everywhere, in newspapers you just don't see or hear about people with scars much. If you do, then they will be like some serial killers or Nazis with scars on their face, or something like that. Usually not women. If they're women, they will be often sex workers who were disfigured by their clients, so women who just don't know how to choose their men, and then, again, that some violent men inflicted it on them. I grew up feeling really not human almost. I felt always this really strong dissonance between how I appeared outwardly, because I can conceal my scars with clothes, and for most of my life I've done that hermetically. I only started uncovering in the last few years, last, I don't know, eight, ten years. I felt with my scars, partly because of that shame, not just, but a lot because of that shame they really shaped my life, the choices I've made, how I felt about myself, and even my personality in some ways.
For example, because I hid my scars for such a long time, I became generally a secretive person. I wanted to write about all that, because I felt that there is room in our narratives to talk about this sort of stuff, and I just couldn't find anything for myself to read as a younger woman. Of course, on the other hand, I was too ashamed. I didn't want to, I said in inverted commas, ‘spoil’ my image of a non-scarred woman that I presented to the world.
I kept skirting around it, and then I did a PhD about women who've facial scars, have interviewed other women kind of like me, but then what is like me. Everybody had very different scars in different circumstances. Then three and a half years ago was giving birth to my second child, and I was doing it by C-section. When you do that you actually don't see, you have a curtain so you don't see the baby when the baby comes out. I felt him coming out, and then I heard everybody in the room laughing. I thought, ‘Oh, what's going on?’ I was totally groggy. When they showed me the baby, I understood. As you may know, usually when babies are born they either have very little hair or they have a lot of dark hair. My child had a lot of white hair. At the time I just thought it was very cute, but what I didn't know it was a precursor of his later diagnosis of albinism, which is a rare genetic condition which results in reduced vision, but also in appearance which deviates from the norm, again, from the so-called norm currently.
I thought, well, I've got a child now who is going to look differently as well, but he won't be able to cover if he chooses to like I can. Because even though his skin and hair now when he's three and a half have more colour, because he does have some pigment, which is missing for a lot of people with albinism, he still has a related condition called nystagmus where your eyes swing from side to side. I just thought it's time I wrote the book. By now, was also interested in stories of other people, not just my own.
ASTRID: There is a paragraph in Imperfect that seems to foreshadow the Split, the anthology that you've edited. Split is about loss and leaving and moving away, but many of those works also involve the body and people really looking at themself, looking inwards at themselves. Both in relation to the stories that you tell in Imperfect and also those that you're responsible for in Split, how do you take on that responsibility of being the writer giving voice to other people's stories, or being the editor in charge of getting those stories out?
LEE: It's a hard one, isn't it? It's still quite different, but, as you say, related things. In Imperfect, I interviewed a lot of people for over ten years, including for my PhD as well. Most of the stories did not make it into the book, but they informed how I've thought about things. Those which made were stories that particularly left a certain impression on me for all sorts of reasons. The difficulty was always how do you represent a person, honour their story, give them the voice, but without becoming a mouthpiece as well, preserving some degree of objectivity.
A writer who writes creative nonfiction that involves stories of other people, have dual responsibility to the people they interview and to the readers. Otherwise, there's no point to write a book. Because of that I wrote and rewrote and thought through almost every word, particularly where it concerns others. My decision how to tackle it was to use as many direct quotes as I could without it sounding as a journalistic interview.
Also, to probe myself, my responses to the story, and what they actually can say. Often what I did, I used the person's story as a springboard to discuss bigger issues. For example, when I was writing, I was interviewing Mia who has dwarfism and has a child with dwarfism. She was talking about, she was expressing her doubts, as some other people with dwarfism I know have expressed in writing, about people with dwarfism who appear in entertainment industry and do things that compromise their image.
I felt, well, it's totally not up to me in any way to pass my own views on this, because I don't belong to this community. What I did instead, so I looked at this phenomenon generally how it happened. Mia had very strong feelings about it. I had strong feelings about it. There's other side to the story of people who say, ‘Well, I am allowed to do whatever I want with my body’, and how do you accommodate this in the story? I just thought I'll just go and present both sides, and the readers will think about, will make their own conclusions as well.
Sorry, I actually didn't answer your question about the essays. The essay was in Split, it was different. I did have my brief to contribute too, which luckily for me they accepted. I wanted them to write about experiences that were deeply meaningful to them. Not just anecdotes, but actually something that really reshaped them somehow. I was lucky with the people who really took the call, but then, of course, when you write about something like this and make yourself vulnerable, it's really hard.
I did do the structural editing for this book. There were quite a few essays, I think actually to be honest most of the essays in the book probably where I had to work with writers quite deeply, and just keep being a pain in the ass, and saying, ‘What does it mean to you? How did you feel here? How did it felt here?’ It was a privilege to work with these writers, because writers of the calibre in Split, they really were interested in this deep work together.
Then when I wrote my essay for the book, I gave it to an external editor, because I didn't want to be self-publishing. He asked me the same questions. He said, ‘Well, what do you feel here? Can you go deeper here?’ It was really interesting to see. It's much easier to do it to others than to yourself.
ASTRID: I did want to talk to you about your contribution in Split, the piece called ‘Bruised’. In it you write it took you 20 years to tell that story. Can you tell us about it?
LEE: It's a story which I still find, myself, difficult to grapple with, but basically in a nutshell, I mean when I said to grapple with, I mean I still find difficult to grapple what actually happened to me, funnily enough. It's a story what talks about a relationship I had, which was basically bordering on domestic abuse. It's a partner I had in my last four months when I lived in Israel.
It's actually, I should say first, it's a double story of Split. It's my split from Tel Aviv and consequently from Israel, so me leaving to Australia, and a split from a man who was not good for me at all. It's a violent story, so basically it's a story of near-death experience. The funny thing about it was, while I was in that relationship I was actually a social worker, a student social worker who worked in a suburb of Tel Aviv called Jaffa, where there is a lot of domestic violence. A lot of my clients were in these situations.
The man I got involved with was my colleague. He was working in the same welfare office where I was a student. He was not my supervisor, but was informally mentoring me there. I felt very safe with him, of course, I felt I am a writer. I'm a social work student. I'm not a weak woman, or whatever it is, how you're thinking this language when you're 26, which is what I was then. This only can happen to other people. I wrote very good essays for my university about my case studies, domestic violence. Then through all the time I was getting more and more involved in this relationship, where the man basically was trying to isolate me from my friends, and doing all the things that my clients were experiencing with their partners. Although he hasn't been violent to me, towards me while we were together, it sort of seemed like it could head that way. Then when I eventually left him, then he tried to kidnap me. It was a near-death experience, which I must say I still found, like I was rereading this essay before I came here, just because I thought you'd probably talk to me about it. I still found it quite emotional to read the last part, where I talk about him trying to kidnap me and me basically eventually escaping him and running for my life.
ASTRID: Writers who do share their own personal experience in the way that you have done in Bruised, now it is out, and you have people like me asking you about it. How do you prepare yourself to do that? What advice would you give to other writers who are thinking about publishing something so personal?
LEE: I probably have already a track record of publishing really personal stuff, and then talking about it. My very first book in Australia, The Dangerous Bride, was about my failures in being non-monogamous, and then my essay in another anthology I co-edited with Maria Katsonis, Rebellious Daughters, was about basically the development of my sexuality. I'm still though learning to develop thick skin. What advice would I give? Don't be like me. Develop a thick skin.
ASTRID: That's not good advice.
LEE: Develop thick skin quicker. It does. It's hard. I think when I speak about this in public, I sometimes just imagine that I speak to one person, and it's my friend, and I just have a conversation with them, as opposed to a big public discourse. Sometimes it helps, sometimes it doesn't. It's also not a bad idea to ask yourself some questions before, and try to answer, or even have a friend to help you, I think.
ASTRID: I'm not asking you to give specifics here, but sometimes when I try to write something very personal I still self-edit, and I still leave some stuff out. Even though I think it feels quite honest to the people who read it, I know I've left out a lot. It's really a sanitised version. Without you giving us any details, does that happen to you? Even as an experienced writer who does have a record of sharing very personal things in public in English, do you still find that there are places that you won't go, or that there are things that people won't want to read from you?
LEE: I won't go at the moment into writing about my children with a lot of detail. I do mention only my youngest in Imperfect, because I wrote the book partly for him. When I was writing it, he was really little. There wasn't much meaty stuff to write about anyway. I don't know how it will be in a few years time. I definitely have left stuff out from both The Dangerous Bride and Imperfect, not about myself. Because when I write a story about myself, if I feel I can't say everything I need to say about myself, I may as well just not write it.
It's a little bit like what we discussed before with writing about other people. If I feel that I can only do it by being somebody's mouthpiece and basically just reciting whatever the other person said, then I just won't do it, because then there's no point. It's not art.
ASTRID: In Split, you were editing some very well-known and very popular authors, Graeme Simsion five million books sold. What's it like for you as an editor to edit someone's work when they do have such a large profile, compared to someone who maybe doesn't have such a large profile? Is there a difference?
LEE: Gosh. It was terrifying for me. It was seriously terrifying. Having Graeme Simsion, and Romana Koval, Alice Pung, I can go on and on, Kate Holden, Fiona Wright, all those people. Actually, what I find, and this is not a reflection on the other contributors in the collection, I'm just talking now for the known names, I actually find honestly the more people are famous, the more they're often easy to work with. I start with a sense of terror, but for somebody like Graeme, Graeme was amazing. I think people who are so well-known and have such a big oeuvre. Oeuvre, do you pronounce?
LEE: Oeuvre. Thank you.
ASTRID: I think. It's French. Neither one of us speak French.
LEE: I know. No. Not at all. I think they're usually people who used to being edited. I personally as a writer, by the way, I'm not famous, but I love being edited. It's a great experience for me. It becomes actually real fun. I remember with Graeme he was addressing some of my comments, some accepting, and those he rejected he would often put a very nice comment saying, ‘But if you disagree with me, with me disagreeing with you, we can discuss it again’. That's actually a beautiful thing for an editor to see.
ASTRID: It really is. I've kind of asked you this a little bit before, Lee, but what responsibility do you have as an editor to the readers? Of course, in Split you are helping people tell a personal story that they have chosen. You want people to buy the anthology, borrow the anthology, read the anthology and engage with the stories and the overall concept that you are putting out into the world. How do you balance?
LEE: I guess from my point of view, pushing the writers when I'm allowed to do this, when they allow me, to be pushed a little bit. To tell the story with as most candour, and self-reflection as possible. As I was saying before, when you write about something so vulnerable, things that really have changed you in so many ways. For example, Gabrielle Lord, she tells a story of a really pretty bad betrayal by a lover in her work. Myfanwy Jones talks about her divorce, which is also not that distant in time. Peter Bishop writes about suicide of a friend. These are really tough, tough topics. It's, again, finding this balance between not causing distress to the author you're working with, but also to make sure that the story is told. In the case of Split, really because the writers are so amazing really, I mean it was such a luxury to be able to commission essays from writers I admire, it was not that hard to do that.
ASTRID: Have you had any feedback from all of the contributors in Split now that it's out in the world?
LEE: Yeah. One of the really lovely things that happened from this anthology or is starting to happen already, and it's only been out in the world two and a half weeks, is that some contributors connected over their essays, and just didn't know each other before. They were emailing each other and saying things about their essays. There will be book launches soon in Melbourne and Sydney. Some people who never met, will be meeting together in the events that we're doing. It's really nice.
It's a big like with Rebellious Daughters, the previous collection I co-edited, where we created a little bit of a community around the anthology, and some of the contributors befriended each other.
ASTRID: That is a lovely story. Now, I have to ask, I mean one is a collection that you've edited and one is a work that you wrote, and in that sense they're very different. Nevertheless, Lee, you have two books out and we're only in June this year. Were you working on them and writing them at the same time?
LEE: I was, and while also parenting two children under six. I'm not a masochist at all, no. I basically have had two years with no life.
ASTRID: Now you are publicising both of them. Now, many writers find the publicity trail difficult. Can you tell me how you are managing it, not just for one but for two works?
LEE: Well, just before I talk about one versus two, I just want to say about publicity generally. I'm so daunted by this, but recently I actually wrote a post about it, and Writers Victoria published it there, about how when I promote my books, like even just this conversation we are having, and I really enjoy talking to you and everything, but I still don't feel myself. Even though you're making me feel very comfortable.
ASTRID: Thank you.
LEE: It's like I'm really two different people, and they really don't meet together. In writing, I try to be as bold as I can. I try not to please other people. I mean when I say try not to please other people, what I mean is I try to steer away from common wisdoms and look for things that feel authentic to me, which sometimes goes against what is socially acceptable, et cetera, et cetera, and they're quite dark as well.
I think most of my writing, I think about it as tragicomedy. Because that's my worldview. That's how I live my life. When I promote the books, I smile much more than I normally do. I don't seek controversy. I think one of the main reasons I became a writer, I think, is because I don't express myself verbally as well as I can do it in writing. When I'm on stage or being interviewed, or whatever, there's a lot of discomfort going on inside. I try to be the kind of nice person that somebody would like to spend time in their company, and, by extension, buy their book and spend time…
ASTRID: Of course, buy the book.
LEE: ... in the company of their book. It feels really weird, and I constantly search for ways of reconciling the two, and I haven't found the good way yet. I try to speak as authentically as I can about my works, but still when it's promotional stage there's only so much you can do. How to promote two books? It's exhausting.
I've been very negative up until now, but I also say part of me, which I do not necessarily love in me, really enjoys the promotion. This is partly why I changed languages, because it is really getting out there, after all the usual isolation, and meeting readers and talking to people. One of the things that make me feel better about doing the promotion and do help me a little bit to reconcile the gap between the two selves is that I often try to get other people to tell me their responses to my book, or if they haven't read it to tell me their story, especially with Imperfect.
Imperfect explores how really our appearance can shape our lives and what we can do about this when we don't like the shaping. I always really like when I have the opportunity, when I speak in public, to get people in the audience as well to tell their stories. I often invite it, myself. That helps me a bit to tackle this. It's a lot of legwork.
ASTRID: I bet it is. Now, two books this year, I hope that you have a little bit of a break. What writing projects do you have planned next?
LEE: I've always had years in my life when I'm writing and when I'm not writing. Since I started writing The Dangerous Bride, which was about 11 years ago or 12 years ago, I just haven't stopped. I'm at the moment not writing anything, because I thought, as you were saying before, two books to promote in one year, it's a lot. It's been really, really consuming and I've been writing things, but they were a lot more to do with promotional material.
I do have this novel in me, which I have had in me for 15 years now. It's a thriller. I tried twice already to write it, and I failed gloriously, because I didn't know then what the narrative would be like. I just had those ideas and themes. I didn't even think that it can take a form of thriller, which I'm now trying to come to terms with, because I have never written a thriller. It's a very new territory for me. I want to give it a go again for the third time.
I have a writing residency coming up later this year, where I'm hoping to make a start. I just want to say that one of the wonderful, wonderful things about not writing a book in the last six months has been that actually I could read again. I always read, and I always read a lot, but when I write I go like on a, what I call, reading diet, where I really careful what I read. I know that there are a lot of writers like myself who need to watch what they read when they write.
It's always for different reasons. That's what's so interesting about the writing process, the diversity. For me, I find it really difficult to read books that have a very different voice and weather or mood to my own. For example, I really, really love writers like Jeffrey Eugenides. I can never pronounce his surname.
ASTRID: Eugenides. I'm not sure either.
LEE: Eugenides. Thank you, and Jonathan Franzen, easier to pronounce. I really, really, really love their works. When I write, I can't read them, because they have a lot of dialogue, and they're hyper-realistic, and my work is dreamier, and I have less dialogue. When I read them, I just feel like I can never write. Also, with Imperfect, I had to research so much. I've been reading so much about memoirs of people whose appearance deviate from what we consider to be normal, and books of psychology and history and philosophy, which was all very interesting. It was always this directed reading. The last six months, I've just been bingeing because I've got at home hundreds of unread books, and I really think that, speaking of writing and starting a book, I really think as Brian Castro once said when he came to teach us in the Master of Creative Writing I was doing at Melbourne Uni some many years ago, I'm quite old now.
ASTRID: You're not old yet.
LEE: Mid 40s. When Brian Castro came to us, he said to us some really interesting things, and one of the things he said, he said, ‘Writing is reading’. Now, that sounds so obvious, because as writers we always read. Also, I want to believe, although I have a lot of writing students, I teach writing who don't read and think that's okay, they can still write a book. I think what Brian Castro meant at that time and what I took from this is that writers read much, much, much more intensely. It's like love affair really – immerse themselves in reading.
He was telling us a story about how he at some point took just one year of his life just to read books, which is something I've always…
ASTRID: What a luxury.
LEE: I know. I know. I can't imagine to be able to find the space for that with my small children, especially. I do feel that I'm a little bit like that at the moment, in that I finally just read whimsically. I just go to my bookshelves, pick any book I like. Read really long books. I'll end by saying that at the moment I'm reading an amazing book called, surprise, surprise, The End. It's the last instalment in Karl Ove Knausgård's opus magnus, My Struggle.
It is 1,153 pages long, and if I was writing a book now, especially a novel, I would not be able to read this particular book. I'm very, very fortunate.
ASTRID: You are very fortunate. Lee, thank you so much for your time today.
LEE: Thank you very much for having me.