Goldie Goldbloom's debut novel manuscript, The Paperbark Shoe, won the 2008 AWP Prize in the Novel. It was first published in 2010, as part of the prize, in a small print run with the title, Toad's Museum of Freaks and Wonders. It was recently picked up and reissued by Picador under its original name. The Paperbark Shoe is about Gin Boyle, a fantastically talented pianist whose life in the early 1920s and 30s is deeply affected by her albinism. Born in a time where her physical condition serves to marginalize even her immense talent, Gin finds herself married to a farmer named Toad and living in isolation in Northwest Australia during the Second World War. At that time, 18,000 Italian prisoners of war were sent to Australia and set to work on isolated family farms.
Against this historical backdrop, The Paperbark Shoe is an account of Gin's growing relationship with Antonio, an Italian POW. Toad, a small, squat man already derided for his effete manner and love of corsets, is taken with another POW, John. Gin must confront both the surge of her own unexpected desires and the reality of her life as seen through the eyes of outsiders.
Goldbloom, 46, was born in Western Australia, and spent her younger years on the family farm where she had what she describes as a blissful childhood in a large, extended family with numerous cousins and relatives. Later, she traveled to Europe before arriving in the U.S in 1987 for her studies at Bais Rivkah Seminary in New York. Her non-fiction piece on religion and sexuality was published in the 2010 anthology, Keep Your Wives Away from Them: Orthodox Women, Unorthodox Desires. Goldbloom, a mother of eight who lives in Chicago's West Roger's Park neighborhood, is a Chasidic Jew who also strongly identifies as queer.
Yasmin Nair: You're both queer and Chasidic. Could you tell us what the community responses to your work have been like?
Goldie Goldbloom: The Chasidic community in general tends to shy away from secular education and secular readings. As a result, most people haven't read my books, don't go into bookshops. They know I'm a writer, but they have no real idea of the kind of things that I write. There are people within the community who've read my work and those people are … are really supportive of me and they like my work.
[ This response transpired over email ] One of the challenges for me as a Chasidic Jew is that Orthodox Judaism is very unaccepting of queer Jews. My community doesn't really get all that much exposure to me as a writer, but I've had plenty of rough experiences with people in the community about being queer. I'm often asked how I can be both queer and Chassidic and I say, pointing to myself, "Like this." There has been a lot of recent discussion about queer Jews within Orthodoxy and I am cautiously optimistic that the world I live in will change for the better, but in the meantime, it can be surprisingly painful to inhabit both communities.
Yasmin Nair: Could you expand on the painful experiences?
Goldie Goldbloom: In the Orthodox community, life for queer Jews is often full of rejection. There does seem to be a bit of a change in the air — it's a positive thing and I think it's because more people are coming out to their local rabbis. As a result [ Rabbis ] are understanding a bit more, becoming more compassionate towards individuals — possibly the first time ever Rabbis are expressing curiosity about our lives. There's an upswing in interest in queer lives in the Orthodox community and room for change. That makes me optimistic.
Yasmin Nair: What else have been the negative experiences?
Goldie Goldbloom: There are people who won't speak to me, who won't allow their children to come to my home and play with their kids. I'll have been sitting in a room with somebody who jumps up and starts screaming at me and tells me what a horrible person I am. It's definitely unpleasant. I think there are unpleasant people in every group — it does not mean that the religion condones that. But people act out their own issues. I really hope that doesn't continue, but I think … even in the City of Chicago, they just passed this law that people can have handguns...I imagine when the doors are open to that, things can happen that are unpleasant. I think that these people who are unpleasant to me or to my family feel they are justified because there's a sentiment that Orthodox Jews are not supportive. But my local Rabbi is extremely supportive and his wife has been lovely to me. I think there are individual people who are just unfortunately taking things to extremes.
One of my daughters [ when she was sixteen and in a Chicago Chasidic Jewish school ] had some kind of class on current events. So she said, "I'd like to talk about gay marriage." And there was stunned silence from the teacher, who then said "We're not going to talk about it." So my daughter said, "I'd like to talk about it. Who else would like to talk about it? Raise your hands." All these students put up their hands, and she turned around and said, "We really do want to talk about it."
Yasmin Nair: You were also part of a writing group for trans youth.
Goldie Goldbloom: Yes, I was working at the Center on Halsted last year as a mentor for trans and queer youth in Chicago, and it was my goal in that program to create a writer's group that gives youth skills so that they're able to compete with other writers and build their skills to the point where they're able to be part of the writing world. I think that's really important because there are so few trans voices out there and when I look through The Best American Short Stories [ anthology ] for twenty years, it's clear that there are no transgender writers, there are no stories about transgender people. It's time to up the ante here.
Yasmin Nair: You're very particular about being identified as queer. What does "queer" mean to you?
Goldie Goldbloom: it's a broader definition than "lesbian" would be, as a woman-identified woman who's attracted to other women...that definitely does not define who I am. I think queer is a broader umbrella term that can encompass a lot of different places on the spectrum and one of those places would be me [ chuckles ] .
Yasmin Nair: To turn to the novel: I imagine you grew up hearing stories about Italian POWs.
Goldie Goldbloom: My grandparents had Italian POWs [ living with them ] . And my aunts and uncles and my mom — they all grew up with these Italian POWs and used to tell me and my family these great stories about them.
Yasmin Nair: So, obviously you had family folklore and personal accounts to draw from. But you also did a great deal of research into the issue and the men. Was there anything that particularly surprised you as did you that research?
Goldie Goldbloom: For my first investigation, I contacted the Australian National Archives and asked them for the records of these Italian POWs who'd stayed on my family's farm. [ The records ] arrived...until then, they'd been really abstract to me, but the records included photographs and all kinds of details about the men, and the farmers who'd had them on their farms had written notes about them. And I started to think about them as very real people who had whole lives, and [ realized ] I only had one tiny detail about them.
I thought I'd go to Italy and meet these men, and I found out that none of them were alive. That was very disappointing to me, but one of the men — they had all been in different places — had lived in this village Sant'Anna. I thought I'd find that. When I was browsing on the internet, [ I found these ] nibbles about something that had happened there [ the village of Sant'Anna is the site of a brutal massacre by the Nazis on August 12, 1944; hundreds of residents, practically the entire village, were killed over the course of three hours ] . There was very little information. I went on to this Italian website and tried my rusty schoolgirl Italian, struggling with a dictionary. And I thought, there's got to be more stuff I could find out, and I did find out more information about what had happened there. Because there wasn't much here in the U.S, I went to investigate. And I went back three times. And in the course of my investigation, I traveled up to the village and interviewed one of the survivors and walked around the village which doesn't look like a village, but like a lot of little houses piled up against the mountain.
And I got to walk around. It hadn't really been cleaned up all that much. There was still a lot of broken, burnt tile on the ground, for example. And as I was walking, I found artifacts from people who had lived there, and that really made it very real to me.
Yasmin Nair: It seems like a desolate place, with all these shards lying around, as you describe it [ in the book ] .
Goldie Goldbloom: It's very sad there. Most Italian villages are facing the sun and are full of light. This one village is sort of in a fold in the mountain and it's completely shady all day. There's just one person living there regularly, and one or two living there seasonally.
Yasmin Nair: What else about the research fascinated you?
Goldie Goldbloom: I wrote to one of my cousins and asked her if she had any farmer's diaries from 1943-1944 that detailed what the weather was like then, the day by day weather. And she said, "Of course I do," and photocopied from that section of her family's farm diaries and sent it to me. All the weather is exactly out of that. The flora and fauna came from those diaries. That was what was there then.
Yasmin Nair: It seems like there's a certain kind of sublimated eroticism in the book, especially in the relationships between Gin and Antonio and between Toad and John. And matters are particularly complicated because Gin is disgusted by Toad's sexuality but she's also practically an "adulteress." While most novels give us more overt details, the sex and sexuality is suggested here, and is more covert.
Goldie Goldbloom: I think part of it was that the issue was approaching it from Gin's sensibility. She's a woman who grew up in the Twenties and Thirties, and she's now out in this remote West Australian farm area. The topic of sex or romance were absolutely verboten; they were not discussed ever. As such every little hint of it would have been really alarming for her. It wouldn't have been, "I went off in this corner and did this thing," and even if it had been, it really wouldn't have been discussed. So I really wanted to bring that out in the way that she describes things and, also, I'm of the belief that there's something to be said for not revealing everything. To rely on the power of the imagination; your own imagination reveals much better details than I can ever provide. The things that turn you on might not necessarily be the things that I'm turned on by. Whereas if I leave it open for you to imagine into the story yourself a ) the story's far more erotic and b ) after the book, you're still thinking about it because it's in your mind. You're appropriating this thing.
Yasmin Nair: I'd like to talk about the creative impulse, for lack of a better term, which runs as a theme throughout the novel. Gin is an extremely talented if unrecognized pianist. Toad, the rough and tumble farmer, creates a surprisingly beautiful work of art in an equally unexpected setting, Antonio is a master shoemaker, and even Mudsy [ Gin's almost feral daughter ] creates elaborate narratives even as she destroys things.
Goldie Goldbloom: I think that part of what I was doing was approaching the idea that there can be great beauty in great ugliness, in the same way that some people will say that pain can be erotic, that two seemingly dissimilar things can co-exist. That was a very important part of the novel to me, and a part where there's a lot of energy. So when you talk of the creative impulse, there's a lot of destructive impulse as well, a lot of entropy. In some ways, that has to be offset by the attempt of the characters to be
creative to say, "No, we don't want our world to fall apart, we can take things which other people will discard and be creative with them." An important part of the novel was the tension between the people who are involved with the head part of life, the knowledge, and the belief that if you have knowledge then you have power or are superior to others. And then the hands people, the people who work with their hadns who also have knowledge, a different kind of knowledge. People [ point to these as differences between ] academic people and tradespeople. Who says one is superior to the other? Tradespeople have tremendous knowledge in their bodies. There are a several people, like Antonio and Toad, even John, who have these incredible skills. And yet Gin, who has this head knowledge, looks down on them, as if to say, "I have head knowledge, I have this power." Whereas they're far more powerful than she is.
Yasmin Nair: There's also a great deal of dissimulation in the novel. We see that when Gin finds out the meaning of her nickname, or in the relationship between Toad and John. But there's also a great deal of longing in all that, and there seems to be a direct connection between dissimulation and longing. A more conventional narrative might attest that "true love" can only happen if and when you find out everything about the other person. Whereas you seem to be holding out the possibility that you can actually really experience a really intense emotional attraction which is productive even if it turns out to be a big lie.
Goldie Goldbloom: How much can we really know about one person? A human being during the waking hours, fifty percent of the time you are awake you're often in your fantasy world. So even if you know a ton about whoever you're with, you just don't have access to at least half of the person's life. There's no way you can ever fully know a person. And actually, would you want to really know them? The best kind of life lies in the mysterious [ laughs ] .
Yasmin Nair: What are your future plans, your next work?
Goldie Goldbloom: I'm writing a novel about a Jewish hippie commune in the far Northwest of Australia, a story about what happens after the matriarch of that community passes away and it all comes undone. It's set against an important historical event going on in Australia — the fringing reefs in the world in this very isolated part of Australia isolated [ that haven't been ] been damaged by tourists. That place is in this push and pull struggle between fairly ordinary Australians who say, "We just want to leave it untouched," and the government says, "No, we have a tourist opportunity, and we should bring people there to see how great it is. So that's the story and my imaginary hippie commune. [ It's set in ] the 70s and on through the present time.
Yasmin Nair: Was there ever anything like it at any time?
Goldie Goldbloom: No, but there was an historical movement in Australia which called for the establishment of a Jewish state in the Northwest of Australia; it was very popular through the war years. Very important and famous people in Australia were very supportive of this program and they had a groundswell of support. And then in the last years of the war, it sort of fell apart. Despite my research I can't find out why. And obviously there's no Jewish homeland in the Northwest of Australia [ laughs ] . I'm very curious about that.
Goldie Goldbloom will be speaking at the Book Cellar on May 18; her website is at www.goldiegoldbloom.com/ Goldbloom is working on creating a writing group for trans youth and will also be beginning a Ph.d in Creative Writing at the University of Illinois at Chicago in the fall. Yasmin Nair can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; her website is at www.yasminnair.net