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BOOKS Place and partnership: The stories of Anne Raeff
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Liz Baudler

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Anne Raeff's stories are an accumulation of experience, and they find a home in her first short story collection, The Jungle Around Us, which won the 2016 Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction.

"These stories are kind of all the publishable stories that I've ever written," laughed Raeff. "Some of the stories in there I wrote 25 years ago, and some other stories were quite recent. So I think they kind of show my obsessions and my interests throughout my adult life."

Raeff's characters are spread across the globe, from Paraguay to Mexico to Russia to Bolivia to suburban New Jersey. Raeff has traveled to all those places except Bolivia, but the New Jersey material comes from her childhood. Simone and Juliet Buchovsky, two little girls raised by a academic single father, are among the collection's most entrancing figures, starring in the four of the stories. Raeff said those stories, more recent and excerpted from a longer novel about the Buchovsky family, were inspired by her relationship with her sister and her father.

"My home life was complex," Raeff explained. "My mother had some serious emotional issues and was really hard to be around, and my father was really kind of the mainstay, the more nurturing parent. The one who actually took care of us. He cooked dinner, he went shopping, we went places with him. So I created this world where there was no mother. It's not idyllic. So much of my work deals with terrible violence and the consequences of that, and the inheritance of that."

As a child, Raeff hated living in New Jersey, but later she realized why her Holocaust survivor parents had chosen to live there instead of New York City. "They were sick of having to confront things," she said. "They wanted just to have peace and quiet, and that stability. They both grew up their whole childhoods spent fleeing. They just wanted a good school, you know, the whole immigrant thing. I understood it, but it didn't mean I liked it. But that also shaped me."

Disconnection lingers between Raeff's characters. A woman writes her ex-girlfriend from her self-imposed exile in Mexican gay bars, a wife in New York feels uninspired by her husband and takes solace in brunch with her gay best friend. Even the Buchovsky sisters lose their intimacy as adults. Raeff sees this remove as a consequence of the violence that is present in so many of her characters' backstories—and that of her parents.

"Violence is kind of the opposite of love," Raeff said. "And so when violence is so present, people retreat. People protect themselves and they don't feel that trust towards other people. And I think I grew up with that, that need to go on. We've survived, now we go on, we continue, but we don't invest as much of ourselves. It's more the outward stuff that you work on, like profession and establishing yourself, getting a nice house, that sort of thing."

Raeff finds short stories a precise art more akin to poetry that novel-writing, although she writes both short and long fiction. "Novels are really sloppy and messy and you can live them for a really really long time," she said. "It's nice. When you sit down, you know, oh, you're still in the same story. But stories are a chance to just get it exactly right, every paragraph right, every sentence right, or try at least. There's no such thing as anything being perfect, but there's more of a chance. There's parts of novels that aren't as strong as other parts. It's just the nature of it. Whereas I think a story can't be like that. Everything has got to be up there, everything has got to be working towards. I like that challenge."

Raeff will appear at Women and Children First along with her wife, writer Lori Ostlund and local author Christine Sneed. Ostlund's collection, The Bigness of the World, previously received the O'Connor Award, making Raeff and Ostlund the only married couple to garner the prize. Raeff calls their partnership "amazing".

"We both had this passion," she remembered. "We kind of developed as writers with each other. For years, we were each other's only readers, and we were able to organize our lives—sometimes we were able to do that better than others—making a living and still trying to figure out how we could carve out that writing space. We both wanted that. That was good in the sense that we both had similar goals, but harder, like it would have been easier if Lori were a doctor or something. The advantage is this common pursuit that we did. We were each other's editors and critics, and it still is that way. "

Ostlund is the more well-known writer, and Raeff says sometimes she wishes they could back to to the days of just writing without thoughts of publication. "Two writers never can be in the same position of happiness at the same time in writing, either about what they're working on or what's out there," she lamented. "It's usually like opposite. So we have to kind of bolster each other up and at the same time try not to bring each other down."

Another writer couple, Paul and Jane Bowles, is a touchstone for Raeff, and she counts both Paul's The Sheltering Sky and Jane's Two Serious Ladies as influences. Raeff and Ostlund spent time in Morocco, and when they lived in Albuquerque, named their Asian furniture store after Jane's novel.

"I really like Morocco for its intensity and its strangeness," Raeff said. "It's scary sometimes, and overwhelmingly hospitable at other times. It's a place of extremes." She sees Morocco's mark in Paul Bowles' work. "How he deals with these themes of underlying violence and this unknown, that you never can really know people," said Raeff.

Jane Bowles, who died at 40 and only completed the one novel, fascinates Raeff too. "I think she would have developed into an amazing writer," said Raeff. "She had this illiterate women lover in Tangiers and there's pretty much evidence that that woman poisoned her. My life has not been that crazy, but I'm fascinated by it, and also the way that people navigated being gay in the past. How that worked, this relationship between two gay people. They were really close, and how that saved them, and how that destroyed them."

Anne Raeff will appear with Lori Ostlund and Christine Sneed at Women and Children First Bookstore, 5233 N. Clark St., on Thursday, Nov. 3 at 7:30 p.m.

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