Episode 53: Sabrina Orah Mark Writes Into Brokenness (Transcript)
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Nahanni Rouss: Hi, it’s Nahanni Rous. Welcome back to Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive, where gender, history, and Jewish culture meet.
Sabrina Orah Mark: Because I’ve been writing inside of what feels like a rapidly changing world there are times where I’ll look back at something I’ve written and be like, I don’t remember having written that down at all. But it does act like a kind of life raft. So, it’s like, you forget the life raft completely when you get to the shore.
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Nahanni: Writer and poet Sabrina Orah Mark likes to describe her stories as having little poems folded up inside of them. She publishes monthly essays loosely based on motherhood and fairy tales in the literary journal The Paris Review. Here’s the opening of her latest essay, "You Break It, We Fix It."
Sabrina: I am inside You Break It, We Fix It. Holding my son’s shattered iPad. "Hello," I call out. No one answers. The counter glows white and the walls are empty. "Hello? Hello!" I wait a few minutes before calling out again. One minute, says a raspy voice from the back of the store. Hope swells in my chest. Here We comes. We will fix it. A man in rumpled clothes emerges. I put the shattered iPad on the counter. "Don't put it there," We says. I quickly lift it off the counter. We sprays sanitizer on the spot I touched and wipes it dry with a paper towel. I hold up the broken screen so We can see it and a little shard of glass drops to the floor with a plink. "Yeah, no," We says. "'Yeah, no' what?" I ask. We says the soldering work required would cost more than a new iPad. We says it would take weeks, possibly months.
Nahanni: Sabrina began writing this essay in the weeks leading up to the presidential election. She published it after the election, when the sitting president and a large percentage of his allies still refused to accept the decisive results.
Sabrina: The next week I return to You Break It, We Fix It with a whole entire country. It's heavy, but I manage to carry it through the parking lot, leaving behind a trail of seeds and the crisp scent of democracy and something that smells like blood or dirt. Across it is a growing crack. A child too young to be alone is out in front holding a broken country, too. Store’s gone out of business, says the child. I shift the country to one arm and try to peer in, but it’s shuttered and dark. Told you, says the child. Out of business, I text my husband. You Break It, We Fix It is closed. I've come here for nothing. Again.
Nahanni: The texture of Sabrina’s essays is a rich weave of fairy tales, politics, the past, and her children’s voices. Sabrina joins us for the fourth in our four part series on creativity in pandemic times. We started off talking about how she is managing to find the time to write with two young kids at home. She drew parallels between the ways motherhood and quarantine have shaped her creative process.
Sabrina: I mean, right now we're homeschooling. And so there's this, I mean, it's a packed house, like 24/7, and there is like the endlessness of like, Of things everywhere and snacks, and then trying to write, and then, you know, um, um, I do feel like I've been working harder than I've ever worked in my entire life, like, you know, since March, because you just have to grab the pieces of time where you can find it. It was funny because I was homeschooling, you know, all day long. It was like all day. And at one point I just. It was like from four to five, I just, I climbed into my bed and just like sat there staring at a wall. At five o'clock my sons come into my room and they're like, "Y"ou forgot about us." And I'm like, What do you mean? I forgot about you," like how could I forget? Like, it was like a whole hour went by, you know, like where I wasn't… you know… [laughter]
Nahanni: You write about your kids a lot, and their voices creep into your writing sometimes in unexpected ways, which is one of the things I love about your writing... And you have said that after you had children, the form your writing took changed.
Sabrina: Um, after I had kids, I felt, I think in many ways, like I became more porous. Like I allowed, I had to allow more of the world in, um, and. I really, and it was right around that time where, um, in many ways my prose poems started sort of growing and growing and growing. Part of it was just time because I couldn't like live inside of a single poem. I used to write these prose poems in these sorts of like hermetically sealed, like boxes and spaces of time. And I couldn't do that anymore after I had kids. And so I would sort of just keep returning and returning and returning to my writing and then it would kind of get bigger and longer and stranger and more porous. And there were more interruptions. And then in many ways my poems started turning into stories. And then with these essays, even more of the world started coming in. And I really believe in sort of crossing genres and having things blur because I do think that, you know, fiction will leak into reality and reality leaks into fiction and I don't really believe in like, you know, the strict border is between, between genres, for myself, um, creatively, like I need to sort of move back and forth in that fluid way.
Nahanni: It's really interesting that you connect that with having children.
Sabrina: Yeah. I used to be able to like, um, um, work in these, these sorts of yeah. Uninterrupted, um, um, spaces. And then the interruptions like actually ended up really feeling like, like a gift, you know, And that’s sort of something, I've been thinking a lot lately, just, you know, inside of, you know, uh, you know, these last seven, eight months of, um, that, that in certain ways, like a lot, what we lose, who's often, you know, um, we gain in these other places.
Sabrina: Like, I'm trying really hard. Um, to find those places where like the thing that feels like a loss is not really a loss. And I'll give you an example, like I'm teaching um, a class in Poland on, on zoom and one of my students, um, is disabled and she was talking about how, you know, normally these students are all, um, brought, um, onto a university campus in the States. And in a million years, she never would have been able to like participate in this program. And she said, you know, um, your captivity, like when the world closed for you, the world opened up for the first time for me. And I would never have been able to meet her otherwise I would never have been able to know her and know her writing and hear her voice and like see her, you know? And when I moved all of my classes that I teach, um, online, I thought like, Oh God, you know, I don't want to teach these workshops online. And I love sort of the intimacy of the classroom that I've created. And I do, but I, I think that, like I held onto this idea of how things are supposed to be all of the time, like so intensely that had I not been kind of forced into this, like other space, I would never have known this, you know, what I wasn't seeing? Um, like why hadn't I ever offered classes online, you know, before thinking about like, you know, people who for a million different reasons, like wouldn't be able to get to a classroom. It was like the perfect moment of like, what we lose is what we gain.
Nahanni: You’ve talked about this idea of the past sort of being pulled into the present, and an aspect of your writing that’s haunted by the past. What's your perspective on that now that we're living in this moment that people are going to look back on, and you are kind of tasked with memorializing it.
Sabrina: I mean to think that we don't carry like all our, our, all our history with us everywhere we go is just like to not, I think, fully exist. I mean, I think, you know, which is not to say like move through the world, you know, like hunched over forever. But, you know, we carry our past with us everywhere we go. We carry like our mother's voice. Right. Like we carry, like, um, and since we carry our mother's voice, we carry, you know, her mother's voice too, and her mother's voice and her mother's voice. And so, and, and, um, you know. And I also, I also think that, um, There is this sense of like right now that, um, and this was the essay before my, my, the last essay where, I think there's always a point where, you know, we have to kind of pay up, you know, um, like you can kind of get away. Um, with like, not recognizing where you've come from or what your history is or the history of a country. Um, and you can kind of like move around in a kind of like ignorance and bliss, maybe for a little while, but ultimately like, You know, you have to pay up.
Nahanni: So let’s hear an excerpt of your October essay from The Paris Review, "It’s Time to Pay the Piper."
Sabrina: It's time to pay the Piper. We gather around the old wooden table. No one wants to pay, but it's time. It's 1,000 o'clock. Everyone is here. The living and the dead, my grandparents, my mother, my father, my sons, my husband, the rabbis, even the president. You are here to your teachers, your neighbors, your long lost friends. Everyone, you know, is here. We put what we can on the table. Everyone must add to the pot. My sons leave wildflower seeds. My husband leaves a Rose colored pendulum, the president mutters and leaves ash, the rabbis leave ink marks scattered like sewing needles. My father leaves his stethoscope. I leave this essay. I leave my favorite broom. My grandfather leaves a small black key. My grandmother leaves her radiance. My sister leaves her hair. "I'm not paying," says my mother, "I've paid enough."
Sabrina: But the Piper is missing. In a large stark SAC. We drag our payment through the streets, calling the Piper's name, our heavy debt. Our hands are blistered and hot, but we must pay the Piper.
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Sabrina: We should've paid him before the sea levels Rose and the polar bears thinned. We should have paid him before the first man was shot for the color of his skin, before the first wire barbed. But we didn't pay the Piper. So the Piper made a new song for the children that promised a joyous land where waters, gushed, and fruit trees grew. We didn't pay the Piper. And so the children merrily followed him into a mountain and a disappearing door shut fast when the last child was inside. Now there are no more children.
Nahanni: There’s this sense in that essay and also in your next one of having burdened our children with our own failures. Let’s go back to part of your recent essay, "You Break It, We Fix It."
Sabrina: The children hold their countries closer, like a doll or an animal. I want to drive them all home, but they're all holding countries and there are far too many of them. I'm sorry, I say too quietly for any of their children to hear. I don't ask them where their mothers are or how they got here or how they will get home. Instead, I walk quickly back to my car, a little shard of glass falls out of my country with a plink. I pick the shard up and hold it to the sunlight, a rainbow just for a second falls over the children. Plink. Plink, plink. Shards of glass are falling out of the children's countries, too. It sounds like an ice storm, but the sky is blue and the children are dry as bones. I don't want to stay to see what happens next. I drive away. I leave the children, cradling their broken countries. I have no idea where any of them live or how to fix anything or what to do with the shard of glass. At a red light I put the shard in the glove compartment and forget about it for days.
Nahanni: So it's so painful and it expresses so much the anxiety and the brokenness of this moment in time.
Sabrina: Yeah. I, you know, there was this moment. Um, or many moments, you know, and we were talking earlier just about like everybody being at home all of the time and sort of like, I think, like I looked around my house and I really was like, everything is a tiny bit broken. Like I think everything. Um, but you know, and there is this like inside, outside feeling of just like, you know, everything is broken inside here and everything is broken outside and yeah.
Nahanni: Right. Like you say later in that same piece that you hear a thousand times a day, mama, can you fix this? Like the, the superheroes head has fallen off the pants or the bike chain snapped.
Sabrina: Yeah. Yeah. Um, yes.
Nahanni: And our democracy is shattering.
Sabrina: And the democracy is shattered. I mean, I've been like really for, for a very long time, obsessed with this idea of TzimTzum...
Nahanni: TzimTzum is a Jewish kabbalistic concept.
Sabrina: You know, where, um, In order for God to affect creation, God needs to, you know, depart from God's creation. And, um, but like right before God departs from God's creation, God takes like all of God's light and stuffs it into these, um, vessels. Um, but the vessels can’t contain the light. So the vessels explode and shatter and light is scattered everywhere. Like, and those are those are those, the broken pieces that were like always, you know, I think we're there. We're, we're always in certain ways, like just, you know, trying to find a kind of coherence, like trying to find a kind of healing, you know? Um, and, um, There's no end to it. Like, I think the frustration is, maybe like something will finally be fixed and like all will be restored, but like there's no end to it. Um, we're always sort of in that, in that process.
Nahanni: Do you think of your writing as part of that process as a healing process?
Sabrina: Yes, I do. Um, I do. In many ways, like I've been, I've been holding onto these essays to writing these essays. Um, I've been holding onto them for dear life. I hope that they offer like some kind of, um, I don't know peace, but for me, um, I would have no idea how to navigate this time, I think, unless I just wrote about it, um, and wrote about it in this way, where like, I really am, I'm kind of like wading through a kind of like, um, Uh, kind of unknowing like a, kind of like a, a field of, of questions. Um, and I'm teaching a journaling workshop right now. And it's been, I think, a really wonderful experience, just sort of like. That sense of, of putting things down, like in this very raw way onto the page. I think for a lot of my students, just having that space to do that during a time of so much uncertainty, without saying like, what is this polished, perfect story? Like instead of that, just grabbing all of this like raw material and putting it down and letting it live there without really knowing what the goal is.
Nahanni: Umhm. you may have just answered my question, but I was going to ask you if you have, if you're feeling about your own role as a writer, writer has changed in the last eight months, you know, your role in the world as a writer?
Sabrina: I think that, um, throughout this time, and I say this to my students a lot, and I say this to myself a lot. Like if you just go like one, one, one, one, one where you just like each. Each thing we say to each other, each little tiny piece of voice, you know, each line, each word that you like put out into the world, you're just like, you're adding it to this, you know, to this collective voice. And like, I do believe like that is part of a kind of, you know, um, I mean, that's, that's why that's what makes us human, you know, but I think, and that, that is not only what makes us human, but I think that that also will keep us human. Um, and, and just, even if it's like the smallest word that you, you just like add to the pile, um, It's necessary for the pile to exist. You know, it, it, it, it, um, the pile needs that little tiny word too. Um, and I think that's, that's what I think of my role, you know, like I'm just adding just a tiny word to the pile.
Sabrina: We are knee-deep in broken things. I wade through the kitchen and the news and our yard. The dryer is making a sound. The country is divided. Tree limbs are everywhere. How did the switch break off the lamp? I asked Eli, my seven year old. He shrugs. it's like a miracle. He says.
Nahanni: You can find Sabrina Orah Mark’s essays on motherhood and fairytales in her monthly column called Happily at theparisreview.org.
Nahanni: Thank you for joining us for Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. Our team includes Ariella Markowitz, Judith Rosenbaum and Becky Long. Our theme music is by Girls in Trouble. You also heard music in this episode by Kevin MacLeod. Find us online at jwa.org/canwetalk, and anywhere you get your podcasts. Thanks for joining us. I’m Nahanni Rous. Until next time.
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Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 53: Sabrina Orah Mark Writes Into Brokenness (Transcript)." (Viewed on June 18, 2021) <https://jwa.org/podcasts/canwetalk/episode-53-sabrina-orah-mark-writes-brokenness/transcript>.