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Elizabeth Kadetsky


Punctuate in Conversation with Elizabeth Kadetsky

March 10, 2020

Punctuate editor, Re’Lynn Hansen, engaged in email conversation with Elizabeth Kadetsky, winner of the 2019 Juniper Prize in Creative Nonfiction. Kadetsky is the author of The Memory Eaters, a lyric memoir, published by U. Mass Press this month. Her three previous books include On the Island at the Center of the Center of the World,  a story collection The Poison that Purifies You, and a researched memoir set in India First There Is a Mountain.

As a journalist covering Latin America, immigration, and gender in the 1990s, Elizabeth published immersive journalism in Ms. magazine, SelfGlamourThe Nation, the Village Voice, and elsewhere. Her work included coverage of the underground adoption trade in Guatemala for the Village Voice and the war in Chiapas, Mexico, for The Nation.

She is the recipient of two Fulbright fellowships to India. Her short stories have been chosen for a Pushcart Prize, Best New American Voices, and Best American Short Stories notable stories, and her personal essays have appeared in the New York TimesGuernicaSanta Monica ReviewAntioch ReviewPost RoadAgni, and elsewhere. She is currently associate professor of fiction and nonfiction at Penn State and a nonfiction editor at New England Review

The Memory Eaters is told in the context of 1970s and 1980s New York City. The memoir moves from her parents’ divorce to her mother’s career as a Seventh Avenue fashion model and from her sister’s addiction and homelessness to her own experiences with therapy for post- traumatic stress disorder. The Memory Eaters is about  consciousness fractured by addiction and dementia, and a compulsion for the past salved by nostalgia. More can be found at


Punctuate: In your opening chapters of your memoir you celebrate your mother as a great watcher: “We watched people. My mother was fascinated by the common place. That what you saw in Vogue happened first on the streets of New York.”  You connect watching with a learning style, stating how you and your mother deconstructed the “why” of the look. You write so well of these moments of watching. Can you speak to the connection of watching to memoir writing?

Elizabeth Kadetsky: Coming of age in the 1970s, I was exposed, through my mother, to a lot of what you might call groovy spirituality that enshrined this idea that you would find truth if you just relaxed your brain enough to let it come to you. This was the thinking behind the versions of so many of the trendy ideologies that we adopted: I Ching, astrology, Ouija Board, palm reading. I don’t think that we believed in the magic of any of these systems in the least. The idea was that these were all tools that helped you get more in tune with your subconscious. So, my mother’s ideas about “watching” definitely came out of that, that there was a sort of divine intelligence that you could tap into through paying close attention in both dream and waking life. It’s funny because when I think about it now I see the pitfalls of this mindset, especially for the writer.

Sometimes I’m struck by a certain writer’s paradox, that there is a sweet spot between two strains of advice. The first is the advice that springs from these 1970s ideologies—for instance that if you “free write,” you will come upon something true and wise— or that you should “turn off the critical, self-editing” mind in order to write well. But this advice butts up against Flannery O’Connor’s admonition: “Just because you can write doesn’t mean you can write any damned thing.” O’Connor wrote fiction, but in some ways her warning is most apt for the memoirist. Perhaps it’s another version of “Just because it happened to you doesn’t mean it’s important.” So, there’s a danger in thinking that if you watch long enough or quietly enough you will come up with something worth saying about your subject matter. Well, and now that I’m rolling out the maxims, there’s also that idea of preparation meeting opportunity from Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. So, maybe that’s the sweet spot that I mentioned above. For the writer, preparation is developing a certain scholarly worldview or erudition, while opportunity is intuition and watching. Can you have enough learning so that you can match your subject to an idea, and can you make sure that that idea is complex, and not prosaic or cliché, and something that hasn’t been said about your subject before. In other words, sure you can watch, but can you also have some fresh new thought about what you are watching. That, more or less, is the lifelong argument that I had with my mother. She, I think, believed that intuition was enough. Well, this is to say that the job of the memoir writer is very hard, mixing intuition and smarts.


P: The chapter on MacGraw was a powerful sketch. You evoke his complexity from the many details—the overcoats, the tai chi slippers made of black canvas, and the I Ching book he brought which was wrapped in a square of silk. From a writer’s point of view, how did you assemble the sketch of MacGraw?

EK: “Assemble” is a great word for this question, because that is definitely what I did. This is the very earliest piece of the book. In fact, embarrassingly enough, I first wrote it as a personal essay in a class at Columbia Journalism school thirty years ago—while the events were still taking place. This version ended on the line “Look at the moon”—in the scene, still in the chapter, I’ve bumped into MacGraw on Broadway after a classmate has identified him as a “homeless man” (which he was not). It’s just starting to snow, and MacGraw is telling me to go to the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ monument when it gets dark to see the full moon in the snow. That version was written probably on the same day that it happened, but it got lost. I actually recreated the essay from memory several years later when I was getting my MFA, and submitted it for a workshop.

This got lost too! Then I started fresh again when writing the chapter for the book. The anecdote and details, probably because I’d written them down so many times, were still in my memory. But clearly the essay needed more to make it successful—it had been in the works so long. In the new version I interspersed the memories with a present-day scene with my mother when she is far along into Alzheimer’s dementia and trying to remember MacGraw—I think that added the “so what” to the story. Around this time I saw an article in Vanity Fair by Sheila Weller about Ali MacGraw, who was, as it had been hinted when I was growing up, MacGraw’s sister. Ali described her troubled brother, who, she said, had been abused by their father as a child. Sheila helped me get in touch with Ali. Our correspondence was very touching and sad, and definitely brought the details to life for me again. After communicating with Ali, I wanted to bring across a feeling that I took from my encounter with her, about wanting to see a healed version of a troubled person from the past.


P: In the final chapter, you speak of nostalgia as a longing for a sense of intimacy,  a reconciling with what is lost. How is nostalgia connected to the idea of watching?

EK: A lot of writers have associated nostalgia with a kind of atemporality. I like Andre Aciman’s version the best, that the nostalgiac (or the “temporizer”) lives in both the future and the past, trying to connect up a fantasy or desire (suggesting the future) with a time or a place from the past. Wouldn’t it be great, in other words, if we could enjoy all the wonders of childhood, but as an adult! It’s such a funny idea, since that first snow is in fact no different from that millionth snow. Perhaps we just seek that sense of wonder, and can only find it through associations with past experiences. In any case New York City is such a homeland for the nostalgiac, having gone through such dramatic change so quickly. One can easily juxtapose old and new versions of any number of landmarks—for instance Union Square Park, to take just one. Watching closely, one sees the past start to seep through, physical remnants such as a park bench that never got replaced. Also, one can see the many different New Yorks in film. I went through a period where I watched almost every major movie filmed in New York City in the 1970s, while I was living alone in the East Village. I would wander out afterwards and find the setting for the film I’d just watched and experience this wonderful otherworldly, lonely, sense of dislocation. Whatever mindstate that created felt very rich and weighty and conducive to writing, like going to a museum and being in the presence of great art.


P: What role does nostalgia play in your opening chapters regarding epigenetics?

EK: That’s such a great question. This was another essay that was written through several iterations and over time, starting when some of the experiences described take place. It started while I was getting my MFA and received a grant to research my Franco American family’s roots in New England and Quebec during the summer of 1997. It started as a sort of cataloguing type investigation into family history. I didn’t have a real question, just wanted to gather oral histories and genealogy records. The genealogy research put me on the wrong course, but was seductive, as it is to so many. It took me a long time to understand that, for my project at least, genealogy was a canard (to use a French expression). But in wrestling with the research, I had to examine why genealogy is so seductive in general, and that, I think, is because of nostalgia. Nostalgia explains why everyone’s ancestor was a noble person. Isn’t it nice to imagine a rosy past for ourselves that will somehow prognosticate for a rosy future in which we are restored to our noble roots! In fact, if you go back 12 generations in anyone’s family, there are hundreds of usual suspects. There’s not a slim chance at least one will have been noble. Epigenetics is, in a sense, the anti-genealogy narrative. It chooses one ancestor and not the hundreds, and it looks at one trauma to see how the ripple effect lives on today. Perhaps this essay, then, is questioning and trying to undercut nostalgia as a lens, since nostalgia, certainly, is not the only or correct way to see the past.


P: You speak of the “swerves” in life that you experienced when caring for your mother with Alzheimer’s and your sister with addictions. As the daughter of a mother who had Alzheimers, I experienced the “swervings”—the real-unreal moments of which you write so smartly and eloquently. Once you had to climb a mountain in Upstate New York to get cell phone reception so that you could speak to the emergency room doctor who had treated your mother. It reminded me of a time when I had to pull my car into a tractor circle in a cornfield to maintain cell reception while I talked with a doctor treating my mother. In the writing, the swerve reveals a paradox where there had been confluence. Can you talk about “swervings” in relation to the memoir form?

EK:  That is such a wonderful image, Re’Lynn, with the tractor moving from a swerve to a “tractor circle.” I imagine that action almost as an involution. Seeing things in terms of patterns and natural forms is such a wonderful way to break out of traditional linear structure without ceding to complete chaos. The tractor circle makes me think of a whorl, while I certainly wrote a lot about things happening in a swerve pattern.

The swerve was an idea that I borrowed from a conversation that we had about Chekhov’s short stories when I was in graduate school—his stories tend to move in a linear manner following one conflict, but then, at the end, swerve off elsewhere in such a way that the reader realizes that the real problem had been something else all along. Some of Joyce’s stories in the Dubliners do this as well. While Chekhov and Joyce are certainly “traditional” authors, I think there is something revolutionary in those nonlinear patterns that they chose.


P: You have included stunning research on survivorship and PTSD and how the category of survivorship has been viewed in terms of surviving mass catastrophe. Along with researcher/memoirist Cathy Winkler, you question how/why violence against women does not fall into the category of mass trauma. Can you talk about the space that you created for PTSD in this memoir and its influence on the writing?

EK: My interest in creating a PTSD narrative using nonlinear structure came out of an honors creative writing class about trauma narratives that I taught in 2014. This was before Bessel van der Kolk’s “The Body Keeps the Score,” about trauma, now a best seller, —this, I think, has opened up a lot of space for finding non-traditional ways to tell a traumatic narrative that mimic the workings of traumatic memory. In the course, we looked at work by Sophie Calle, Deborah Tall, D.J. Waldie, and others. These authors found intuitive ways to break up storyline and honor the insistent ways that memories and family mysteries can impose themselves when there is trauma involved. So, I appreciate your seeing this book as opening up space for PTSD narratives, as that was definitely my intention!


* * * * *

Look for a review of The Memory Eaters by Elizabeth Kadetsky in the next issue of Punctuate.


Re’Lynn Hansen is the author of To Some Women I Have Known. Her essays and memoir work have been published in Prism, New South, Florida Review, and Hypertext,  and online at Contrary, and Slag Glass City. She has been awarded the New South Prose Prize, the Prism Creative Nonfiction Prize, and The Florida Review Meek Award. Her chapbook, 25 Sightings of the Ivory Billed Woodpecker, is about the personal nature of bird sightings.   She is an editor of Punctuate. A Nonfiction Magazine. She has researched early cancer vaccines at Yale’s archives for a memoir about living with cancer and she is among the first to receive a cancer vaccine in trials. Her website is at


Punctuate in Conversation with Elizabeth Kadetsky

March 17, 2019


Elizabeth Kadetsky is not afraid of venturing into the varied ways of storytelling or to different parts of the world. She is the author of a memoir First There Is a Mountain (2004), a story collection The Poison that Purifies You (2014), and a novella On the Island at the Center of the Center of the World (2015). An associate professor of fiction and nonfiction at Penn State, Kadetsky is publishing her first graphic essay in Punctuate. In this interview, she shares her thoughts and experiences about writing in diverse genres; traveling; and yoga.


Juliana Ravelli: Your work in this month’s issue of Punctuate. is your first published comic, right? When did you start writing and designing comic and graphic essays? How and when did you start working on this form?


Elizabeth Kadetsky: A few years back, I wanted to get back into drawing, and I had a crazy idea to revisit and write about this place where I’d studied art in Greenwich Village as a teenager with my mother. Well, that idea didn’t take off because I realized that it would be much cheaper to audit a drawing class [where I teach] at my university, Penn State, instead. My teacher turned out to be a wonderful artist and graduate student from China who drew Manga. I showed her some sketches that I’d been doing from photographs, images of family members with text scrawled in the white spaces, and she suggested that I work on a comic. I had an aha! moment: I shouldn’t be writing about drawing, I should be drawing (and writing) that story about Greenwich Village and my mother. I’ve been working on that graphic memoir ever since—I had no idea the difficulty of the task I’d set for myself.

The other thing I’d recently dove into without ever accepting its difficulty was motherhood. Suddenly I had long stretches of time with my baby during which I didn’t have the presence of mind to practice my usual craft, writing. I was suffering sleep deprivation and could barely string together sentences—I think it was a fairly normal postpartum, a-verbal, semi-psychosis. It was as if language had left me. But I was able to draw and paint. I painted birds over and over, and number cards to photograph with my baby to mark the monthly anniversaries of his birth, which was four and a half years ago.

Living with a young child makes your world more visual. Language becomes more elemental—you see the world through the eyes of someone glimpsing it for the first time. As my son grew older, I encountered the rich text/image world of children’s literature and wonderful artist-writers such as Oliver Jeffers and Molly Bang. Now my son and I are reading Tintin and the original Batman’s.

I love existing in the space and flow of visual art. The mind attuned to visual art is so different from the one that writes—it is less linear; it requires long pauses; it doesn’t require one to formulate a literal idea and keep it in the head over a long stretch. I’d always loved the idea of a non-verbal mind space, and over the years, I had used drawing and drawing classes as a kind of meditation and escape from regular life. As a teen, drawing had been my first love, but I’d shied from art school. Today it’s back in style thanks to comics.


JR: Could you tell us about how you came up with the idea for your piece in Punctuate.?


EK: I was participating in a panel on text/image memoir at the NonFictioNOW conference, and I started “graphic note-taking” at the other panels and talks. I’d seen people doing this earlier in the year when I attended the Comics and Medicine Conference at the Comics Studies Society in White River Junction, Vermont. There, the organizers set aside seats at each panel for “graphic note-takers,” and there was a hashtag for their uploads. The conference also had an official graphic note-taker. When I looked over my notes from NonFictioNOW, I realized I should publish some, especially since it would give me a break from my longer project–not to mention feel good to finish something.


JR: What are the challenges of a comic/graphic essay? How, for instance, do you play with conciseness, drawings, text, and the arrangement of these elements on the page?


EK: It’s its own form, that’s for sure. There’s always so much less room for text than I expect there to be; the prose writer has to condense beyond comfort. Of course, if I don’t want to condense, I can always add another page and spread out. The give-and-take between writing and drawing is fun and dynamic. Adding another page because there’s not enough room for the text must be the craft equivalent of writing oneself into a corner and then drawing oneself out of it. Shifting brain-modes from writing to drawing and then back again provides a healthy mental calisthenics.


JR: You worked as a journalist, and you write fiction, personal essays, and comic/graphic essays. What motivates you to venture into all these different genres?


EK: It’s been intuitive, but I do really admire other artists who constantly shift modes, and are open to the modes that are getting the most attention at whatever moment. If you have a story to tell, the goal is to find an audience for that story. The mainstream publishing industry has gone bankrupt a dozen times and in a dozen different ways since I started publishing my writing. It’s terrible to feel trapped in the idea that there is only one outlet for one’s creativity. Writers have historically been at the mercy of publishing and production trends.

So, I admire writer friends who have gone into film or even TV. If TV is experiencing a renaissance, why not apply your craft in that field, where you’ll encounter other inspiring artists and gain support for your most creative output? Not that I’m going into TV. But in a weird way comics feel very vital right now—I have no qualms about trying to hop on that train.


JR: How do the different experiences that you have in writing influence one another?


EK: Journalism teaches pragmatism—the clear sentence, the chronological storyline, economy of prose, writing on deadline, overcoming perfectionism, developing a thick skin for feedback. It’s a great training for any writer.

Working visually teaches metaphor. In a comic, when you want to depict your character as birdlike, you draw her as a bird. It’s kind of obvious, but getting your writer brain to think of metaphor as real pushes your imagination. Even in nonfiction, one can probably take greater creative liberties than one thinks. The blank canvas is unencumbered—one has to think in several dimensions, and directions, at once—not just left to right, up and down, and within a palette of just 26 letters. If I think of my character as a bird, and I mean in text, why shouldn’t I get her squawking on the page?


JR: Traveling is a huge part of your life, right? In which moment did you find out that you wanted to know the world? And what are your memories about your first trip abroad? When did it happen?


EK: That is such a great question! It happened when I was nineteen and I was majoring in Latin American Studies. I got it in my head that I wanted to go to Cuba because of some of the films and writing in my classes. I found a program to send me there for free—it was sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization—and I was chosen as one of a team of two Canadians and two US citizens to act as mediators between Marxists and Christians out in the fields, planting yucca trees.

Someday I will go back and rewrite (or draw) the diary I kept from that one-month trip. It was a life-altering, coming-of-age journey, in part because Communism had so completely shaped the culture of that place that there was hardly any common ground between my hosts and me. At the time, the US embargo on Cuba was total and included a news blackout going both ways. As it turned out, I knew nothing about the lives of the people there, and they knew nothing about mine—there had been a misinformation campaign on both ends. And yet, there was music, dancing, and singing bringing us together, things that transcended politics.

I remember coming home and having to break up with my boyfriend at the time because I’d changed so much as a person. Then, for several months, I was very depressed, wanting to get back to that feeling of living life so fully moment to moment, having heated discussions about every little thing, questioning and debating everything down to one’s most minute daily habits.


JR: Many of your trips are connected to your work, your writing. What is the difference between traveling for writing and traveling as a tourist? Is there a place that you have been to but haven’t used in your writing?


EK: I love this question, too, because it forces me to take stock. As a writer, one must always be working, but, in life, sometimes the imagination and the urge to document shuts down—from exhaustion, or overload. I can’t remember ever taking a trip and not feeling that I had to come away with something to say and write from it, but in reality, many of my work and vacation trips have yielded nothing aside from greater wisdom (one hopes).

I can’t even say I gained relaxation because it’s so stressful to feel one should be writing or interviewing instead of sitting on that beach. I think back on trips I took to Egypt, Morocco, Israel, and Spain as not having been particularly fruitful even though they were meant to be.

The work of the writer who travels, really, is to shake things up in one’s mind. Obviously, the outsider is not going to be the last word on any place she or he encounters. I remember reading Thomas Pynchon’s V, set in Malta, one time when I was feeling very stuck while spending the summer in Nicaragua working and presumably writing my senior thesis for college.

Later, I published a novella set in Malta, so perhaps it wasn’t a waste. Recently I recovered an old photo of myself reading The Brothers Karamazov in a hotel in Spain during a trip where I felt completely aimless, but Dostoyevsky taught me so much as a writer, and when else would I have had time to read him? I read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest in France, and that book was life changing for me.


JR: Aside from the stories themselves (characters, settings, etc.), in what other ways does traveling influence your craft?


EK: Traveling ratchets up the desperation impulse, at least for me. The finances of it all can be terrifying. Most of my international trips have been seat-of-the-pants—funding the plane fare by subletting my apartment, living on the largesse of a boyfriend’s language-study grant, stringing together freelance magazine assignments and arts residency fellowships. Even when I had the Fulbright grant to India to study and write about yoga, I had no home, job, or bank account to soften the landing when I came home.

That feeling of living on the edge can either make things feel exaggerated with meaning and importance, or simply crushing. Luckily the former describes most of my trips. I would say that each piece of successful writing that I’ve come away with from abroad bestows upon its protagonist either that desperation (in fiction), or an all-consuming and worry-obliterating single-mindedness and focus on a topic (in nonfiction).


JR: You lived a year in India working with Yogi BKS Iyengar and from this experience you wrote First There is a Mountain. In which ways do you apply yoga to your craft?


EK: Studying and researching yoga in India taught me to think of yoga as a kind of hygiene, a practical approach to living. A man I met at the Krishnamurthi Foundation in Chennai put it this way: “Yoga is like brushing your teeth. You do it every day. If you don’t do it one day, then you don’t eat that day.” Lately I do the yoga poses less than before because of injuries, but I exercise and meditate pretty much daily.

What I learned about focus and concentration from yoga applies to writing. And let’s face it, yoga, as we know it, even the Indian version, is an amalgam of dozens of Eastern and Western philosophies and ancient and modern practices, including psychotherapy and Jack Lalanne fitness. It’s all really a mash-up. So, yoga, mindfulness, techniques from cognitive behavioral therapy—call them what you like, on a good day, they completely shape how I live and write and work. Concretely, they help me attain the cognitive sharpness and flexibility to be creative—to make mental leaps, to silence the self-editor within, to take risks.


JR: What are your next literary and travel adventures?


EK: Funny you should ask! I recently found out that I was awarded my second Fulbright research grant to India for the 2019–2020 school year. The award is to research a novel dealing with the politics of cultural patrimony surrounding antiquities ownership and preservation. I don’t think anyone would mind if I came away with comics reporting on the topic. Whoops! Don’t tell anyone I said that. I’m definitely bringing my drawing pads, pencils, erasers, India ink, and brushes—and Photoshop. I hope I can find a scanner.




Juliana Ravelli is the Assistant Managing Editor for Punctuate. A Nonfiction Magazine.





Elizabeth Kadetsky is the author of a memoir (First There Is a Mountain, Little Brown), a story collection (The Poison that Purifies You, C&R Press) and a novella (On the Island at the Center of the Center of the World, Nouvella). Her fiction has been included in the Pushcart Prize, Best New American Voices, and in Love Stories For Turbulent Times — a best of the previous 25 years of the Pushcart Prize, and her personal essays have appeared in the New York Times, Antioch Review, and many other venues. She is nonfiction editor at New England Review and associate professor of creative writing at Penn State University. This is her first published comic.