Lee Kofman is a Melbourne-based award-winning author, whose works of fiction and non-fiction have been published in both English and Hebrew. She has previously written for Writers Bloc, in the Someone Who Knows series, sharing her knowledge about mentoring. Kofman is the current blogger-in-residence for Writers Victoria, and more information about her work, including her latest novel, The Dangerous Bride, can be found at http://www.leekofman.com.au/
The Dangerous Bride is a memoir which reflects on love, monogamy, isolation, sex, infidelity, and the pursuit of happiness and contentment. Kofman presents an unflinching look at her past relationships, intertwining her memories with research on historical romances and interviews with those that live and love in the present. The Dangerous Bride is published by Melbourne University Press, and can be ordered here.
Let me just start by saying, I loved this book. I loved how it was poetic and romantic, and yet also in parts very raw and sad. It’s a mix of history and research as well as memoir. I was wondering, when you were writing this book, did you find it was easier to write about historical relationships, (such as the relationship between Mayakovsky and Lilya), than your own, or was the process just as emotional?
Thank you, Amy! I am really glad my book spoke to you. You’re right, I found it easier writing about non-monogamous relationships of other, famous and already dead, people. Writing about my own misadventures in love was really difficult. It involved revisiting past hurts and defeats, worrying about the relative power of my pen and that I might misuse it and misrepresent my former lovers, and I was also constantly worrying about what my current husband will feel and think if he read the book. Besides, focusing on my story only could easily become a claustrophobic experience. I felt that by giving myself a license to weave into my book those stories of known artists that were meaningful to me was the right creative decision. By doing so I think I allowed the readers some space to breathe within my own tightly wound narrative, plus I think the book became richer and more psychologically interesting by adding others’ stories and comparing them amongst themselves and with my own. This part of the book was my play-space. But it was also an intellectually challenging project. For every story of a known bohemian that I told I read a range of biographical and autobiographical sources to try to make up my own mind about what actually happened in each love story. Writing this part was a lot like doing a detective’s work.
Do you still keep in touch with your first husband Noah and your lover from Perth?
Only with Noah, and very loosely. He knows about this book and while I think he is not that comfortable with being its subject, Noah has never tried to stop me from writing it. On my part, I promised him that I’d be much harder on myself as a character than on him, and I hope I managed to do so.
With your relationship with the lover from Perth, a lot of it struck me as being long distance, as you were based in Melbourne after your writer’s retreat. Whilst writing The Dangerous Bride, did you consider writing about other lovers in long distance relationships, both historically and in the present via interviews?
No, I haven’t considered this, mainly because my focus in this book was on non-monogamy. Besides, I don’t really have much experience with long distance relationships. Even that affair I had with the man from Perth petered out soon after I moved back to Melbourne.
The Dangerous Bride not only explores and questions monogamy, but also adultery, polyamory, sex clubs, voyeurism, and open and porous marriages. There are also references to men seeing ‘Grey Street girls’, or prostitutes. I wanted to know your thoughts on women visiting prostitutes? It wasn’t addressed in the book – and I understand you can’t cover everything! – but I find it interesting that whilst women hiring male strippers for parties or hen’s nights are ‘the norm’, there still seems to be a taboo around women seeking male escorts.
True. I thought about this too that there aren’t really any women-oriented brothels. At least, to my knowledge. It’s interesting to find out why this is so. Personally, I am too romantic to enjoy paying someone to have sex with me, but I think some women may wish for such services just as men do. In my view, female sex drive is underestimated. There is a lot of new research showing that women’s so-called low sexual appetite is most often caused by being in long-term relationships. Contrary to what many feminists and therapists claim, a real aphrodisiac for married women is not their husbands loading the dishwasher, but simply having a new lover. In this respect then they aren’t that different from men. Both sexes seem to crave variety, but somehow at the moment mostly men are prepared to admit this. Similarly, when I was telling people I was writing about non-monogamy, many (women, actually!) sneered at me, saying non-monogamy is for men’s benefit only. This made me feel abnormal, as my desire was non-monogamous too. Yet, as my book shows, today’s non-monogamy is often driven by women.
Throughout the course of the book you interviewed several people about their relationships, and described both the relationships and people in detail. At the beginning of the book, and in the acknowledgements, you state that names have been changed to protect privacy, but towards the end mention that you have lost touch with some of the interviewees. How did you gain permission to still print their interviews?
I secured permissions to publish both before and immediately after the interviews with the understanding that the book might be published only years later (as indeed it happened). So there was no need to re-confirm this. Interestingly, though, after the book was already printed I did manage to get in touch with everyone whose story appears in the book. All interviewees received their copies and so far I had only positive responses from them. I was particularly pleased to hear from the polyamorous interviewees who said they felt I represented them, and their community, fairly. Several people I interviewed also attended the book launch.
Although The Dangerous Bride has consistent themes – fidelity, love, sex, romance, economic and social uncertainty – to me, the book is divided into two sections. One describes your marriage with Noah, the other your relationship with J. In particular with your relationship with J, I was struck by how much it was also a story about immigration, and how someone can feel trapped by a lack of finances and a language barrier. And yet your relationship with J is told as being something that had its ups as well as downs. Do you think that popular narratives around finding love in another country are too distinct, in that either they’re wild romances or tales of caution, and rarely there’s a narrative that describes both?
Unfortunately I haven’t read enough stories about finding love in another country to know how they are usually told. However, as you point out Amy, this is exactly what I tried not to do – I didn’t want to tell a sweeping tale of either wild love or complete tragedy.
Generally, research shows that people sojourning in foreign countries are more prone to reckless infatuations. This is true in my experience. When I first came to Australia, alone, I felt quite fragile and at the same time had a great appetite for new experiences. Of course such a psychological state predisposes you to fall for a wrong person. And yet, J wasn’t wrong for me in every respect. Although our relationship was really difficult, there were things that I needed at the time that J gave me - his adoration, his striking story of migration and loss, the initial security that I so needed in my first months in Australia, his unusual for Israeli men open-mindedness in matters of love. In particular, though, I must have needed to experience that affair with the ultimate ‘bad boy’ to get this out of my system so that in the future I’d know to fall for much better men. And, as I eventually admit in my book, even though J did some harm to me he was actually a splendid muse and I am grateful to him for that. Difficult people make compelling characters. So if not for J, I don’t think I’d have written this book.
On the subjects of language, it must be said, that your career has been nothing short of incredible. I remember reading in the chapter An Asymmetrical Tale: ‘I began dreaming of doing what everyone told me I couldn’t – writing in English’. And yet now you’ve earned a PhD from RMIT, and your short works have been published in The Griffith Review, Kill Your Darlings, Cordite, Best Australian Essays, Best Australian Stories, and many other publications. The Dangerous Bride, your first book in English, is just so beautifully written. Do you often stop and reflect on how far you’ve come?
Thank you, Amy! Yes, language is everything to me when I write. I believe that the writer’s voice - the mood and flavor of the prose - is not just the aesthetics but also the ethics of writing. This is why in writing my biggest focus is on finding the right language to express the emotional truth of the experience I describe. For example, when I write about sexual desire, I am not that interested in naming particular body parts, but more in expressing the texture of what this yearning feels like in the body. For that of course you have to be steeped in the language you write in. Twelve years ago, when I made a conscious decision to start reading and writing only in English, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to really engage with English on such visceral level. But as years went by, I realized that English appeals to me more than Hebrew does. It’s something about the longer words in English and the serpentine nature of its syntax that works for me. As soon as I stopped translating my writing from Hebrew to English and instead developed an internal monologue in English, writing in this language became easier. I now came to like my writing voice in English more than the one I had in Hebrew.
In The Dangerous Bride, much of the narrative revolves around the emotions and memories you feel in relation to art: for example, the book engages with such diverse works as the film Henry and June, a painting by Chagall, and the song Relax by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. In writing critically about the connections you have to these works of art, how has that changed the ways in which you experience them?
This is a great question that I never considered before. Thank you for asking me about this. I think writing critically about art changes my experience on two levels. On one hand, it is a satisfying process to try and unpick that mystery that surrounds my responses to artworks. It is really interesting to consider why a particular painting or piece of music can affect me so powerfully. On the other hand, the more I analyse this impact the fainter it grows. I seem to gain insight only on the account of diminishing pleasure. But when I feel that doing such analysis will contribute to conveying more precisely the experiences I describe in my writing, I’m prepared to sacrifice my enjoyment of artworks.
Memoir writing, to me at least, seems like something which is intricate and daunting. Drawing upon old emotions and memories, and deciding what to keep and what to discard. What advice would you have for writers who wish to explore the memoir genre?
I agree, memoir writing is not for the fainthearted… but this what makes memoirs, when they’re done well, feel so exciting and urgent – because they’re always products of much risk-taking.
Here are my best pieces of advice, the ones that over the years became my own writing mantra:
- Write only about what feels urgent
- What makes you blush and feel ashamed is going to be your best material
- It is more important how you describe what happened than the precise details of what happened - reflection and analysis are usually more interesting than even the most colourful action.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.