“This is the story I’ve been living with and thinking about my whole life,” said Amy Kurzweil, in a conversation with JewishBoston about her new graphic memoir, “Flying Couch.” The book is dedicated, “For the women who made me.”
The women are Kurzweil’s indomitable grandmother, Lilly, whom she calls “Bubbe,” and her equally strong mother, Sonya, a psychologist. Lilly is a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto who spent the war passing as a gentile in the Polish countryside, and Sonya was born in a displaced person’s camp. The third woman in this braided narrative is Amy herself.
Kurzweil, a Newton native who now lives in Brooklyn, originally wrote and illustrated the book for her senior thesis at Stanford University almost a decade ago. The genesis of the project was a transcript of an interview that a Holocaust historian had conducted with her grandmother. “I had this relationship with that document,” Kurzweil recalled. “Sometimes I was hungry to read it and sometimes I was freaked by it. I was struggling with deciding to read or not to read it.” Kurzweil eventually read the interview and from there wrote and illustrated Lilly’s story. “I intuitively gravitated toward the form,” said Kurzweil.
Kurzweil counts among her influences Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood,” Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic” and Art Spiegelman’s “Maus.” Kurzweil said “Maus” ultimately opened her eyes to the way a Holocaust story could be told. “There was something about ‘Maus’ and the way that whole story was evoked that was more powerful, more true for someone like me who was from a family of survivors,” she said. Kurzweil noted that the cadences of Spiegelman’s father Vladek’s speech reminded her of her grandmother. She was equally amazed she “could be looking at a cartoon mouse that was a full, nuanced character.”
After Kurzweil completed her thesis, she honed her skills as an artist. She went to New York, eventually applying to The New School’s graduate program in writing. There, she decided to revise and expand her college thesis. She spent almost three years on the project and the result was “Flying Couch.”
In addition to Spiegelman’s influence, Kurzweil’s Birthright Israel trip in college deeply affected her. Her sojourn to Israel was a confusing time for her as both a Jew and an artist. “In college, Israel was presented as something for me to embrace wholeheartedly or reject altogether,” she said. “There was this impulse to make Israel exotic to us on the trip. I write in the book about how strange it was to be a tourist in what was considered our homeland. It’s a salient metaphor for being Jewish in my generation.” She devoted an entire chapter, “Homeland,” in “Flying Couch” to the experience.
“Flying Couch” is also about the transmission of trauma from one generation to the next, but rather than think of herself as a third-generation Holocaust survivor, she prefers the term “post-memory.” For her, post-memory conveys “that you didn’t have the memories yourself, but you did inherit them in some way. When a story is repeatedly told to you, you can be equally traumatized and inspired by it. And the story becomes a part of you and some part of the apparatus of your memory.”
Kurzweil parallels the three generations of women in her family with three iconic Jewish men: Jacob, Sigmund Freud and Theodor Herzl. Jacob represents bedrock Jewish identity, something she associates with Lilly; Freud is the academic and intellectual representation of Sonya’s generation and profession; and Herzl is a stand-in for the new state of Israel and Kurzweil’s relationship to her Jewish identity. “The question of Israel is so important to what it means to be a Jew,” she explained. “Yet my Jewish identity was also made up of religious stories and intellectual and family history.”
There was also Kurzweil’s fascination with her mother’s origin story. Shortly after she went to Israel, Kurzweil and her mother took a trip to Germany to see the attic in a ballroom in Heidelberg where Sonya spent her early years. “It had been such a mythological place,” said Kurzweil. “But once we got there, there was no longer any mythology surrounding it. I had those experiences a lot in Israel too. At the end of all these travels, the mythologies were about my relationships with my grandmother and mother.”
From Kurzweil’s consideration of these family mythologies came the metaphor of a flying couch. This struck Kurzweil as a mysterious yet apt title for the book. “The couch is a symbol that resonates across the generations,” she said. “My grandmother covers her couch with towels, but, at the same time, it also represents the comfortable domestic life she earned; she doesn’t want to soil the nice things that she has. For my mother, the couch is associated with Freud and psychotherapy; it’s a place where you sit to talk to a therapist and unburden yourself of your identity. For me, the couch is a place to write and draw my way to a coherent narrative of my identity.”
Amy Kurzweil will be at Hadassah-Brandeis Institute April 4-5 and at Newton Free Library on May 1. Find more information here.