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Belief in every small
experience: Carmit Delman

C armit 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.

You 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 for anything?

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.

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