I first encountered Liana Finck’s transportive artwork on the stylized covers of New Vessel Press’s translated books. Soon thereafter, Finck, a graduate of Cooper Union and recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship and a Six Points Fellowship for Emerging Jewish Artists, released her own first book: A Bintel Brief. Her work has also been featured in The New Yorker, The Forward, Lilith, Tablet, and Slate. I caught up with the up-and-coming artist and writer via Skype, New York City-Rio de Janeiro, on the eve of her graphic novel's publication.
Rachel Morgenstern-Clarren: A Bintel Brief opens with a fictionalized version of how the book came about, where the character of Liana opens an old notebook at her grandparents’ house and the ghost of Abraham Cahan (founder of the Jewish Daily Forward) pops out and starts talking to her, but I wanted to know more of the “real” version. Where did your original idea come from, and how did the project evolve?
Liana Finck: I was on a Fulbright in Belgium and I think I was a little depressed living far away from home. I didn’t know too many people there and I was working twelve hours a day in my tiny room, wrestling with Photoshop, trying to make a comic about the guy who made Tintin and his secret longing to be a fine artist. Time was passing and I was not admitting to myself that I wasn’t going to finish, but something in me was like, you need to find a new project.
I heard about a grant called the Six Points Fellowship that was for Jewish art and I thought I might as well apply. I had complicated feelings about Judaism. I went to Jewish schools and synagogue and youth groups and summer camps. I’d always been an outsider as a kid. I was really shy and a little weird, maybe Asperger’s-ish, and I was really happy to get away from the suburbs when I moved to the city from New Jersey for art school. New York was a much more open-minded place, and the world of art seemed to like me for being unusual. I never rebelled against Judaism, though. I still thought of myself as a Jew and I think I was a real snob and I didn’t like “cultural” art—which I think has come a long way since I was in college. Even ten years ago, “ethnic art” seemed too earnest and one-sided, like the “good witch” cousin of the “wicked witch” of racism. I didn’t want to be an “ethnic” artist. So I didn’t have high hopes for my Six Points application at first. But when my grandma gave me the “Bintel Brief” book that she had—this collection of letters that was published in 1971—that’s when all the jadedness fell away. I was transported.
RMC: Tell us a little bit about your book, which was published by Ecco Press this past April.
LF: The book is a collection of short stories based on letters written to the Yiddish advice column “A Bintel Brief” that ran in the newspaper the Forward beginning in 1906. The letters were very intense—they were by new immigrants to the United States from Eastern Europe, and they deal with a lot of life-or-death issues—but they are also funny, weird, and sweet. The stories in my book are woven together with a narrative about a fictional version of myself talking to the ghost of Abraham Cahan—the Forward’s founding editor and advice columnist. In the narrative, I find the ghost inside a scrapbook of “Bintel Brief” letters that my grandmother sent me. At first, he is angry that I can’t read Yiddish and have never heard of “A Bintel Brief,” and he sets out to educate me. But very quickly, he becomes enthralled with modern New York and wants to go exploring, and I have to trick him into continuing to talk to me, and to wrench the letters out of him. It’s not a nostalgic book; it’s a book about looking forward.
RMC: Sometimes Cahan answers the letters very concisely, sometimes they’re left open-ended—he just discusses what happened and then says, you know, “good luck with that”—and other times he says, “I have to write to you privately.” I thought that was so unusual for an advice columnist to include letters without giving any advice. Did he often not respond to them, but publish the letters so that maybe somebody else would think of an answer?
LF: People comment that the letters were rabbinical, or fatherly, or godlike, even: very strong and quiet. Maybe the letters were chatty enough and he just wanted to be reassuring. I have a feeling that’s what he was doing, and I have a feeling that it worked, and they were reassuring.
RMC: He comes across as a very godlike figure in the book. People are writing to him even if they don’t think their problems are going to be solved, and he doesn’t even offer advice; they just want to be seen and to be heard by somebody. Even starting with the epigraph, that really beautiful I.L. Peretz quote: “He lived like a small gray grain of sand on the beach, surrounded by millions like him. And when the wind lifted him and transported him across the ocean to the opposite shore, no one noticed.”
LF: I think they thought of the newspaper as this very special thing. The Forward was by far the best and the most entertaining Yiddish newspaper they had. It was printed, and they really respected printed material. They’d all been Talmud scholars in the Old World, everyone studied Hebrew, and they weren’t doing that anymore, but I think they revered the printed page. And Cahan was the man behind the newspaper.
RMC: What kind of research did you do for the visual parts of the book?
LF: I looked at a bunch of Chagall paintings. I looked at the graphics of the Yiddish world. I watched a lot of Yiddish movies.
RMC: What kind of movies?
LF: There’s one actress named Molly Picon, and she’s amazing. She was always the star. Once she played a girl who dressed up as a boy to play the fiddle with this traveling band. And once she played a young woman who’s taking care of her family because her mother died and she falls in love with this dreamy fiddle player and she wants to get married but she can’t leave her family. She’s always singing. There was this one movie that was boring but incredibly dramatic called The Dybbuk about a young woman who is possessed by a ghost. I think the last story in A Bintel Brief was based on that, with the angel of death coming to torment the letter-writer, and I guess the ghost of Cahan. who is the star of the narrative between stories, was inspired by that movie, too. The Dybbuk was an old Yiddish play. I wish I could have seen Yiddish theater. I Googled it a lot. I think I loved Chagall so much during that time because I was looking at the sets he did for Yiddish theater.
RMC: In terms of the way that the book is organized, most of it is the letters interspersed with the narrative, but then there’s a comparatively large section devoted to “The Gallery of Missing Husbands.” Whenever you have one rhythm in a book and then all of a sudden it shifts gears, it’s kind of jolting. Both the subject and the difference in style was very moving. Why did you give that section so much space?
LF: I had a grant that gave me money to put into my art and I thought I might as well learn etching. I started trying to make the comic as an etching, which shows what a clueless person I was. That’s so hard! “The Gallery of Missing Husbands” had been a spin-off of “A Bintel Brief.” There were so many letters written by women whose husbands had disappeared that it became its own feature in the newspaper. Each woman would write in with pleading words and a photograph. At that point I didn’t even know if the book was going to be a comic book or a graphic novel or more fine art because I was still a kid…I didn’t know who I was yet. I was just feeling my way in the dark. But when I did find my way to comics, I didn’t want to let go of those etchings. I was really planning to let them go but I stuck them in the middle of the book towards the end. I think they inspired the theme of the narrative between the stories: the character of Liana not being able to hold on to Cahan.
RMC: When you were picking the letters to illustrate for the book, were there any that you really wanted to include, but that didn’t work in a graphic form?
LF: There was one that made it pretty close to the end, about a woman who’s sad because her husband is not a mensch. I think it’s similar to the story of the woman who married the guy with tuberculosis. It’s just this horrible guilt and sadness, and she’s not explaining the real reason for the letter, and you know there’s something she’s not saying. She’s describing all these ridiculous things her husband does, like he has terrible table manners, and he’ll walk around with poison in his pocket, sighing dramatically. I wanted to draw out what actually made this guy so horrible to her, and I wasn’t being brave enough, I wasn’t taking enough liberties, I wasn’t letting myself interpret the letter, so my comic was as vague as her letter was, and that was unforgiveable. So I got rid of it. I had made her a cat, and him a dog. I wish I’d been able to figure it out.
RMC: In the book—most of it is in English—but there are a couple phrases or words that you keep in Yiddish, transliterated, with the explanation right underneath it. How did you choose which words to keep in the Yiddish?
LF: I guess I chose words that were iconic Yiddish words, like Bintel Brief, or words where the English translation just wouldn’t sound right. Like schav instead of sorrel soup; no one would know what sorrel soup was, anyway.
RMC: You said that you took a Yiddish class and knew thismuch Yiddish while writing the book. Did you take the class specifically for the book, or did you have a different motivation? Was that the first time that you had learned any Yiddish?
LF: I did take the Yiddish class specifically for the book, but it wasn't the first Yiddish class I took. I studied a little German in college—I think in order to understand Kafka better (I was into languages when I was younger because I loved books so much)—and signed up for a Yiddish class at the Workmen's Circle because I figured I might as well; German and Yiddish are so close. The class was special but I didn't show up too often. Busyness and nerves.
RMC: How did you go about finding someone to translate the letters from Yiddish into English? Did you have any back-and-forth with the translator while he/she was working on them? Did you play around with the text at all after the translations came back to you?
LF: I asked a Yiddish scholar friend, Eddy Portnoy, if he knew any Yiddish translators. He introduced me to Jordan Kutzik, who was one of his students. I think I had a little bit of back and forth conversation with Jordan while he was translating. He was a pro. I did change the wording of the letters after the text came back—to smooth out some references that people wouldn't understand, and to make the writing flow better as a comic.
RMC: Do you know of anyone in your family who wrote a letter to the Forward?
LF: I don’t think my great grandparents would have written letters to the Forward. They were too religious to read it.
RMC: Were there rivals of the Forward?
LF: Yes, many. There was a funny newspaper called Der Groiser Kundes, “The Big Stick.” Cahan had started the Forward with a man named Louis Miller. First Cahan left the Forward in a huff. Then he came back, and Miller left and founded a newspaper called Di Wahrheit, “The Truth.” Miller started a letters to the editor column a little before Cahan launched “A Bintel Brief.” That’s where Cahan got the idea.
RMC: Do you ever read modern advice columns?
LF: I love them! I was reading Miss Manners for a while (that was Judith Martin). I watch The Steve Harvey Show sometimes, and I love Judge Judy. I watch Kathy Lee and Hoda (this is only at the gym, so it’s only in the winter, when I’m running on a treadmill!). Since I wrote this book I’ve been really into talk radio and podcasts in which people have mundane conversations. I just want to hear people talking about their lives.
RMC: What are you working on now?
LF: A graphic novel. At first it was going to be an adaptation of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight by Vladimir Nabokov. He wrote it as he was transitioning from being a Russian writer to an English-language writer. It was his first book in English and it’s kind of a eulogy for this old-fashioned Russian writer, the narrator’s brother. It’s so moving. I wrote to Nabokov’s estate to see if I could adapt The Real Life of Sebastian Knight and they said no and I’m so glad they did, because I don’t think adapting is what I should be doing with my life. I think I thought it was a safer thing to do, that maybe I’d get a book deal more easily, and not fall into a fit of writer’s block. But I think what I need to be doing is telling my own story, and it’s been fun. It’s told from the point of view of my shadow: the shadow left me when I was teenager and now she has finally come back, and we get to know each other again. The shadow represents my strangeness and my creativity—my soul, which I used to run from in hopes of learning how to fit in.
This interview has been condensed and edited.