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An Interview with Anne Raeff

Tony Huang: Thank you for joining us. We are thrilled to have Anne Raeff with us this morning. Anne Raeff is the author of the new book Only the River, which was published in 2020. She is also the author of the novel Winter Kept Us Warm, published in 2018. Winter Kept Us Warm received the silver medal of the California Book Award for Fiction and Historical Collection, and The Jungle Around Us won the 2015 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Additionally, Anne has a new poem published in the 12th issue of The HongKong Review, written for a mutual friend, Nancy Zafris. Thank you, Anne, for being here today.


Anne Raeff: Thank you for having me!


Tony Huang: Several years ago, I had the first interview with you before your visit to China with Lori. In our previous interview, we discussed many of the stories featured in The Jungle Around Us. One of these stories, “The Doctors’ Daughter,” is the first story in that collection and has become one of the most frequently taught stories in college classrooms. It’s exciting to see how this story has evolved into your novel, Only the River. I’m curious about which idea came to you first, the short story or the novel, and how you developed one into the other.


Anne Raeff: The story came first. It took me many years to write this story, which is based on my mother’s experiences. Although fictionalized, it is rooted in her being a young girl of 12 when her family had to flee Europe due to the Nazis and the Holocaust. I’ve been fascinated by her story since I was a child, and it took me many years to find the right approach. “The Doctor’s Daughter” was the first story.


After completing the story, I realized that it needed to continue. Often, when a story is completed, it feels satisfying, and the characters no longer demand attention. However, with “The Doctor’s Daughter,” the characters remained alive in my mind, prompting me to expand the story. For the novel, I chose to set it in Nicaragua. Although the original story was based in Bolivia, a place I hadn’t been to, I had spent a significant amount of time in Nicaragua. This shift allowed me to explore the story further.


Tony Huang: Your ability to immerse readers in the settings of your novels is truly captivating. When visiting these places, do you take notes or make a conscious effort to retain specific details?


Anne Raeff: Absolutely. I carry a small notebook when I travel and take note of details, often engaging with the people I meet on my journey to gather insights. The settings in my book are based on places I’ve visited and experienced firsthand. Whether traveling by bus or boat, I take the time to capture the essence of these locations and review my notes in the evenings.


Tony Huang: In Winter Kept Us Warm and The Jungle Around Us, wars and their devastating impacts on characters are central themes. In Only the River, these themes persist, but the depiction of wars remains somewhat indirect. What drives your approach to presenting wars and their aftermath in your work?


Anne Raeff: In Only the River, the war plays a more prominent role, particularly given the context of the revolution. I’ve never experienced war personally, but my family’s close ties to war and its aftermath has deeply influenced my writing. The aftereffects of war are where I find the most complexity and emotional depth. Having grown up in a family of Holocaust survivors and those affected by the Russian Revolution, I find the impact of war and its aftermath incredibly compelling.


Tony Huang: As a Jewish writer, does your personal connection to the collective memories of the Jewish people’s suffering during the war influence the themes and content of your fiction?


Anne Raeff: My Jewish heritage certainly influences my work on a metaphorical level. It’s a particular experience that shapes my perspective. I’m deeply interested in displacement, injustice, and the human experience. Writing about real people within specific contexts is where I find my inspiration. It’s a way for me to keep the memory of my heritage alive and offer a more universal perspective, allowing others to connect with similar experiences of displacement and injustice.


Furthermore, given the dwindling number of Holocaust survivors, it’s crucial to preserve and pass on these memories, making it a personal responsibility for the next generation.


Tony Huang: During our previous conversation, we discussed how the war and its memories influenced people’s mindsets today. You mentioned your grandmother’s experiences. Did these experiences also influence the tone and overall direction of your fiction?


Anne Raeff: The experiences of my grandmothers differ greatly. One was deeply affected by her experiences, while the other exhibited remarkable resilience. Only the River mirrors the latter, reflecting the characters’ ability to move beyond trauma. I’m particularly interested in exploring how people cope and move forward from traumatic experiences. I find it more compelling to explore the lives of those who’ve transcended their trauma, rather than those consumed by it.


Tony Huang: From “The Doctor’s Daughter” to Only the River, your narratives cross time and place seamlessly, spanning different generations and locations. How did you decide on the characters to introduce in the broader world of Only the River?


Anne Raeff: The central characters, Pepa and Guillermo, were the driving force. As their children were a natural extension, I focused on select offspring to build upon. The introduction of other characters tied closely to the evolving plot. For instance, the setting during the revolution prompted the creation of El Justo and a series of characters related to the revolution. The encounters and conversations I had during my time in Nicaragua inspired and shaped the latter part of the book. For instance, meeting a man who had been sent to Bulgaria during the revolutionary era in Nicaragua led to the development of a character rooted in that historical context.


Tony Huang: Given your personal background and family history, particularly your connection to Russia and Ukraine, could you provide further insight into how those elements have influenced your writing and interests?


Anne Raeff: My mother’s experiences fleeing Europe and eventually settling in Bolivia, along with my father’s family history tied to Russia and Ukraine, have profoundly shaped my perspective. My upbringing was a tapestry of these varied influences, and I distinctly recall a formative trip to the Soviet Union in the 1970s. These experiences have informed my writing, extending beyond a personal connection to encompass a universal exploration of displacement, historical trauma, and the resilience of the human spirit.


Tony Huang: In Only the River, your descriptive language strikes a balance between simplicity and beauty, with a touch of poetry and philosophy. To what extent do you infuse yourself into the voice of the narrator?


Anne Raeff: The poetic and lyrical elements in Only the River were deliberate and reflective of my affinity for poetry. I’ve been delving more into poetry recently, and it naturally guided the language I used in this novel, creating an emotional and resonant connection. The presence of the two Germans in the novel, who brought poetry into the lives of the characters, was inspired by a story my mother recounted about two Germans in Bolivia who had a profound impact on her through their library. Poetry has always been a source of solace and inspiration for me, mirroring its significance in the lives of the characters in the story.


Tony Huang: The themes of love, loss, and enduring pain are beautifully portrayed in Only the River. Do you believe people can truly reconcile with their past?


Anne Raeff: While “reconciliation” may be open to interpretation, I believe that the past is an inextricable part of who we are. We carry our past experiences with us, intertwined with our present and future connections and aspirations. People can adapt and form new bonds, finding solace, love, and purpose that transcend past pain. Life’s unpredictability and our capacity to seek meaning in unexpected places and connections shape our journey.


Tony Huang: Thank you for sharing those thoughts, Anne. It’s a positive and meaningful perspective, especially in the current context.


Anne Raeff: Absolutely, it’s about finding strength and hope amidst adversity.


Tony Huang: Thank you once again for this enlightening and insightful conversation, Anne.


Anne Raeff: Thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure.

Anne Raeff's last novel, Only the River, was published in May 2020. Her second novel, Winter Kept Us Warm, published in 2018, won the silver medal for the California Book Award for Fiction. Her short story collection, The Jungle Around Us won the 2015 Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction. The collection was also a finalist for the California Book Award and was on The San Francisco Chronicle's 100 Best Books of 2017 list. In 2019 she was a finalist for the Simpson Literary Award. Clara Mondschein's Melancholia, also a novel, was published in 2002. Raeff's stories and essays have appeared in New England ReviewZYZZYVA, and Guernica among other places.

Tony Huang is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Hong Kong Review. He is also the founder of Metacircle Fellowship, Metacircle (Hong Kong) Culture and Education Co., Ltd. and Metaeducation. He works as a guest-editor for SmokeLong Quarterly. His poems and translations have appeared in Mad Swirl, The Hong Kong Review, The Best Small Fictions Anthology Selections 2020, Tianjin Daily, Binhai Times, SmokeLong Quarterly, Nankai Journal, Large Ocean Poetry Quarterly, Yangcheng Evening News and other places. He teaches British and American literature and literary theories at Nankai University.

Copy editor: Nancy He

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