Belief in every small
experience: Carmit Delman
Delman grew up in Ohio, New York and Israel. She studied
literature and anthropology from Brandeis University and
later did MFA in creative writing from Emerson College.
She now lives and teaches in Boston.
Burnt Bread and Chutney: Memoirs of an Indian Jewish
Girl is her first book. Burnt Bread and Chutney:
Memoir of an Indian Jewish Girl , is the story of a
brown girl looking for her identity in an otherwise white
world. Born and brought up in America, the author recalls
the mish mash of cultures that she grew in. Carmit Delman's
father is a Jew with East European descent, while her mother
traces her roots back to Bene Israel, an ancient community
living in western India.
grew up in a mish-mash of culture and tried to find the
ground under your feet in entirely different places - Ohio,
Israel and New York? Did the act of writing, creating, help
you in that endeavor? Was there some kind of catharsis?
The process of writing a memoir is traditionally reserved
for people who have lived long, extraordinary lives. After
living only about a quarter century in diverse but still
rather normal circumstances, I sat down to find the art
in it, the anecdotes and climaxes and patterns. Writing
this book allowed me - even forced me - to step back from
my life and look at the greater scheme of things and the
fluctuations of the world in a way that I would probably
not have otherwise for many, many years. The realizations
that came and come from this perhaps pre-mature process
even now continue to ground me.
In the Foreword you say "For so long
I quietly resented my family, the mix of cultures, the awkwardness
that arose. The un-American sense of fashion. The way strangers
looked at my father and I walking together, assuming that
because I was brown and he was white, I must be his young
girlfriend, not his daughter". If you had a magic wand,
how much of all this would you change? Or does all this
gives your life a tint that you would not want to trade-off
There are some moments of my life I would not want to relive
again now, which I'm sure is the case with most people.
But really, I wouldn't change anything. All the oddities
and awkwardness throughout are tied to memories and people
I love, too. These things can't be separated. Even with
a magic wand - to transform one part of the equation would
transform the other. I think love was fierce, sad was sweet,
funny was bonding in just the way it was because
it was off-set by these precise details. And to change anything,
would change it all. I do believe that every small experience
and coincidence and decision came together for good or bad
to make me who I am and to give me the perspective I have
on the world now. And I've grown to know and love and even
own that perspective, so I wouldn't give that up for anything.
There are interesting insights into
your growing up years in the book - the scene of the birthday
party, the taste of the first hot dog, the first kiss in
the closet. How much about you in the book is true to life,
how much fictionalized?
When I write about Nana-bai's life, obviously, I was not
there myself, so I have pulled together pieces of her stories
with imagination and mythology and details about the culture,
creating something composite from all that.
In terms of my own life and growing up, however, there is
a more subtle blend of fact and fiction. It's hard to fully
and precisely remember everything that has happened in your
life. Some sections are exactly as I remember them, or exactly
as they happened, or both. That's why this is not a history.
But also, there is something critical that take place in
this kind of writing. When you look at a lifetime of experiences
and thoughts and relationships and feeling - days, weeks,
months, years - you want to apply a sense and logic and
story to it so that others will understand some of it. There
is crafting and paring involved. Choices are made, highs
and lows are emphasized; it becomes impressionistic. My
goal was to remain true to the symbols and sentiments and,
as I state in the book, the essence of our lives. I think
I have done this.
The book is as much your story as the story of Nana Bai,
to whom you dedicate the book. Was the book purported to
give back Nana Bai the place, the respect she deserved?
Was it meant as her salvation?
If this book does give anything back to Nana-bai, I would
be very pleased. Maybe a part of me wanted that to be the
case from the start. But salvation is pretty complex. And
that is a lot to expect from a bit of creative writing,
not only that it speak to a life that is not even my own,
but that it transform it somehow, too. Her story here is
merely one interpretation, written and imagined with the
utmost love and respect. What actually comes from it after
that and how it is read, lies beyond my reach.
Do you ever have the urge to go to
India and see how the Bene Israel community lives there?
Or, in your generation, there isn't really much connection,
except the stories and the legends that trickled from there?
Connection to the past and the desire for that does move
in cycles universally throughout the generations. Parents
are attached; their children in rebellion are not, their
grandchildren, feeling anchorless, want to return to their
roots - or some variation on that.
I absolutely do want to go to India for myself, to see India
in general, but also to see specifically what is left of
the Bene Israel. Everything changes when you have your own
memories of walking and eating and sleeping and interacting
in a given land. Especially while writing this book, I was
keenly aware of the fact that my understanding of the Bene
Israel world in India is limited to stories and foods and
random personal details. For me so much of it has been abstract,
and in the long run that alone is not satisfying. I am certain
there are others from my generation here who are more concretely
rooted in that community. And I would like to establish
some of the tangible bond myself.
Towards the end of the Foreword you
write about your "need to discover all these stories. Because
somewhere, I felt sure, I would find myself in there, too."
Did you find yourself?
Writing this book has spanned some very formative years
and relationships, so on many levels I am more "found" that
I was before I started. But individuals are constantly evolving
and I know this book would have been written very differently
in twenty, thirty, forty years. I suppose I found myself
as I am today at this age in this particular time and land
and climate. Who knows where I will find myself next?
What are you working on now?
I have stepped away from nonfiction for now and currently,
I am working on a contemporary novel.